Biology in a Christian University
Christianity and the Disciplines. The Transformation of the University, ch. 4
Humanity has been intrigued by the natural world since the dawn of civilization. How are we to make sense of the world of living creatures, and their patterns of behaviour? How are we to account for its complexity? Anticipations of many modern scientific disciplines - such as biology and zoology - can be seen in the classical era, especially in the writings of Aristotle. There can be no doubt that the study of plants and animals should be integral to the work of a university. But what of a Christian university? How does this discipline find its place in a broader vision of the Christian mind?
I. The Origins of the Academic Discipline of Biology
The serious scientific study of the biological world is generally regarded as having begun in the seventeenth century, and was unquestionably catalyzed by religious motives and concerns. The invention of the microscope allowed the fine details of the structure of biological organisms to be investigated more closely, and opened up new ways of thinking about nature - and its divine creator. In his Principles and Duties of Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1675), John Wilkins (1614-72) emphasized the beauty and complexity of both the physical and biological realms, and praises technological advances - such as the telescope and microscope - which allowed these to be more fully appreciated.
Yet the aesthetic appreciation of nature was only one aspect of the Christian engagement with nature in the later seventeenth century. The biological world, it was realized, was charged with apologetic potential, in an age when atheism and scepticism started becoming culturally significant. An awareness of the beauty of the biological world gradually gave way to a growing belief that the complexity of both plant and animal life could be interpreted persuasively as evidence of divine design. Although this idea is hinted at in earlier works, it started becoming increasingly significant through works such as John Ray’s Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691). Here we see the emergence of a theme which resonates throughout the natural sciences, seen from a Christian perspective – that the beauty of nature is a tangible if imperfect witness to the greater beauty of God.
One of the most significant developments that shaped the emergence of biology as an academic discipline was due to the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (1707-8), more generally know by the Latinized form of his name, Linnaeus. Linnaeus lectured in botany at the University of Uppsala from 1730, and introduced the scientific classification of biological species. Linnaeus' detailed classification of species conveyed the impression to many of his readers that nature was fixed from the moment of its origination. This fitted in well with a traditional and popular reading of the Genesis creation accounts, and suggested that the botanical world of today more or less corresponded to that established in creation. Each species could be regarded as having been created separately and distinctly by God, and endowed with its fixed characteristics.
In the late eighteenth century, such assumptions led to a growing interest in “natural history” for religious reasons. Following the lead of John Ray, many believed that the wisdom and glory of God could be discerned, albeit indirectly, through the study of the biological world. Where Newton and others had encouraged the study of astronomy as a means of reinforcing Christian faith in the seventeenth century, the later eighteenth century came to see the study of plants and animals as more effective means of reinforcing belief in a creator God, and defending Christianity against its sceptical critics.
The high water mark of this trend is widely seen as lying in William Paley's Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802), which documented and emphasized the complexity and beauty of the plant and animal world, and interpreted this as evidence of “contrivance” - that is to say design and construction. Paley (1743-1805) was not an academic scientist. At the time of writing, Paley was Archdeacon of Carlisle, a senior ecclesiastical position, rather than an academic scientist. The category of the “gentleman naturalist” was well-established at this time, and is perhaps best known through Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789). Like Paley, White was a clergyman with a deep interest in the natural world, which led him to make close observations of plants and animals in their natural habitats. His diary for the period 1783-4 remains one of the best historical sources for the dramatic climatic impacts of the extended volcanic eruptions in Iceland which are thought to have killed six million people across Europe.
Paley compared God to one of the mechanical geniuses of the Industrial Revolution. God had directly created the world in all its intricacy and complexity, just as a skilled engineer might design and construct a watch or a telescope. Paley accepted the viewpoint of his age – namely that God had constructed (or “contrived”) the world in its finished form, as we know it. Paley argued that the present organization of the world, both physical and biological, could be seen as a compelling witness to the wisdom of a creator god.
Paley's Natural Theology had a profound influence on popular English religious thought in the first half of the nineteenth century, and impacted significantly on the academic culture of the early nineteenth century. For example, Oxford University established a large natural history collection, which was assembled in the Museum of Natural History in 1836, arranged along lines suggested by the chapters of Paley's Natural Theology. The idea was to lay out examples of the natural world, particularly its plants and animals, in such a way as to exhibit the “wisdom of God”.
Paley was deeply impressed by Newton's discovery of the regularity of nature, which allowed the universe to be thought of as a complex mechanism, operating according to regular and understandable principles. Nature consists of a series of biological structures which are to be thought of as being “contrived” - that is constructed with a clear purpose in mind. Paley used his famous analogy of the watch on a heath to emphasize that contrivance necessarily presupposed a designer and constructor. “Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature”. Indeed, Paley argues, the difference is that nature shows an even greater degree of contrivance than the watch. Paley is at his best when he deals with the description of mechanical systems within nature, such as the immensely complex structure of the human eye and heart. Yet Paley's argument depended on a static worldview, and simply could not cope with the dynamic understanding of the natural world underlying Darwinism – to which we now turn.
II. The Advent of Darwinism
Biology was still not fully integrated into the academic world of the mid-nineteenth century. Although some of its aspects were covered in the curriculum, of medical schools, the emergence of schools or faculties of biology was still – with a few local exceptions – some distance away. It should therefore not be the cause for great surprise that one of the most significant biological discoveries of the Victoria age should be due to a “gentleman scientist”, outside the British academic establishment.
The publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) is rightly regarded as a landmark in nineteenth-century science. On 27 December 1831, HMS Beagle set out from the southern English port of Plymouth on a voyage that lasted almost 5 years. Its mission was to complete a survey of the southern coasts of South America, and afterwards to circumnavigate the globe. The small ship’s naturalist was Charles Darwin (1809-1882). During the voyage, Darwin noted some aspects of the plant and animal life of South America, particularly the Galapagos Islands and Tierra del Fuego, that seemed to him to require explanation, yet which were not satisfactorily accounted for by existing theories.
One popular account of the origin of species, widely supported by the religious and academic establishment of the early nineteenth century, held that God had somehow created everything more or less as we now see it. Darwin knew of Paley's views, and initially found them persuasive. However, his observations on the Beagle raised some questions. On his return, Darwin set out to develop a more satisfying explanation based on his own observations and those of others. Although Darwin appears to have hit on the basic idea of evolution through natural selection by 1842, he was not ready to publish. Such a radical theory would require massive observational evidence to be marshalled in its support.
Four features of the natural world seemed to Darwin to require particularly close attention, in the light of problems and shortcomings with existing explanations.
- The forms of certain living creatures seemed to be adapted to their specific needs. Paley's theory proposed that these creatures were individually designed by God with those needs in mind . Darwin increasingly regarded this as a clumsy explanation.
- Some species were known to have died out altogether - to have become extinct. This fact had been known before Darwin, and was often explained on the basis of “catastrophe” theories, such as a “universal flood”, as suggested by the biblical account of Noah.
- Darwin's research voyage on the Beagle had persuaded him of the uneven geographical distribution of life forms throughout the world. In particular, Darwin was impressed by the peculiarities of island populations.
- Many creatures possess “rudimentary structures”, which have no apparent or predictable function - such as the nipples of male mammals, the rudiments of a pelvis and hind limbs in snakes and wings on many flightless birds. How might these be explained on the basis of Paley's theory, which stressed the importance of the individual design of species? Why should God design redundancies?
These aspects of the natural order could all be explained on the basis of Paley 's theory. Yet the explanations offered seemed more than a little cumbersome and strained . What was originally a relatively neat and elegant theory began to crumble under the weight of accumulated difficulties and tensions. There had to be a better explanation. Darwin offered a wealth of evidence in support of the idea of biological evolution, and proposed a mechanism by which it might work – natural selection.
The Origin of Species sets out with great care why the idea of natural selection is the best mechanism to explain how the evolution of species took place, and how it is to be understood. The key point is that natural selection is proposed as nature’s analogue to the process of artificial selection in stockbreeding. Darwin was familiar with the issue, especially as they related to the breeding of pigeons. The first chapter of the Origin of Species therefore considers “variation under domestication” – that is the way in which domestic plants and animals are bred by agriculturists. Darwin notes how selective breeding allows farmers to create animals or plants with particularly desirable traits. Variations develop in successive generations through this process of breeding, and these can be exploited to bring about inherited characteristics which are regarded as being of particular value by the breeder. In the second chapter, Darwin introduces the key notions of the “struggle for survival” and natural selection to account for what may be observed in both the fossil records and the present natural world.
Darwin then argues that this process of domestic selection or artificial selection offers a model for a mechanism for what happens in nature. “Variation under domestication” is presented as an analogue of “variation under nature”. A process of natural selection is argued to occur within the natural order which is analogous o a well-known process, familiar to English stockbreeders and horticulturalists: “As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect?”
In the end, Darwin’s theory had many weaknesses and loose ends. For example, it required that speciation should take place; yet the evidence for this was conspicuously absent. Darwin himself devoted a large section of The Origin of Species to detailing difficulties with his theory, noting in particular the “imperfection of the geological record”, which gave a little indication of the existence of intermediate species, and the “extreme perfection and complication” of certain individual organs, such as the eye. Nevertheless, he was convinced that these were difficulties which could be tolerated on account of the clear explanatory superiority of his approach. Yet even though Darwin did not believe that he had adequately dealt with all the problems which required resolution, he was confident that his explanation was nevertheless the best available. He merely needed to persuade everyone else that this was the case.
Popular accounts of the reception of Darwin’s ideas in England often focus on the meeting of the British Association at the Museum of Natural History at Oxford on 30 June 1860. The British Association had always seen one of its most significant objectives as being to popularize science, drawing on both university professors and “gentlemen scientists” to advance its agendas. As Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published the previous year, it was natural that it should be a subject of discussion at the 1860 meeting. Darwin himself had been invited to speak, but was in ill health and was unable to attend the meeting in person. According to the popular legend, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, attempted to pour scorn on the theory of evolution by suggesting that it implied that humans were recently descended from monkeys. He was then duly rebuked by T. H. Huxley, who turned the tables on him, showing him up to be an ignorant and arrogant cleric.
The truth of the matter was that Wilberforce had written an extensive review of the Origin of Species, pointing out some serious weaknesses. Darwin regarded this review as significant, and modified his discussion at several points in response to Wilberforce’s criticism. The review shows no trace of “ecclesiastical obscurantism”. Nevertheless, by 1900 the legend was firmly established, and went some way towards reinforcing the conflict or warfare model of the interaction of science and religion.
Since Darwin’s time, there have been many developments which have led to modification and development of his ideas. These include the clarification of the mechanism of inheritance of acquired traits by Georg Mendel (1822-1884), the discovery of the gene by Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1926 and the clarification of the critical role of DNA in the transmission of genetic data, particularly trough the establishment of its double helix structure by James Watson and Francis Crick. On the basis of their research, Crick proposed what he called the “Central Dogma” of a neo-Darwinian view of evolution – namely that DNA replicates, acting as a template for RNA, which in turn acts as a template for proteins. The long and complex DNA molecule contains the genetic information necessary for transmission encoded using the four nucleotide bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T) and cytosine (C) arranged in sequences of base pairs.
Today, the term “Darwinism” is generally used to mean the general approach to biological evolution set out in Darwin’s canonical works, as developed and extended through clarification of the molecular basis of inheritance. It forms the basis of all modern discussion of the relation of biology and religious belief, and frames academic debates about the mutual relation of science and religion. This leads us to consider the role of Christian universities in shaping and influencing such discussion.
III. Christian Universities and Debates about Biology
Debate about the mutual interaction of Darwinism and Christian thought have proceeded since the 1870s, at both popular and academic levels. One of the most significant responses to Darwin, mingling scientific appreciation and religious evaluation, was due to Asa Gray (1810-88), Professor of Natural History at Harvard University. In recent years, however, academic discussion of Darwinism has tended to focus on a number of issues, all of which are clearly relevant to the vision of a Christian university. The following are of particular importance and will be considered in the remainder of this chapter. Each delineates an area of discussion which is entirely appropriate to a Christian scholarly community, particularly when the interaction of theology with other disciplines is encouraged and affirmed.
- Is Darwinism to be considered as a provisional scientific theory, or a normative vision of reality?
- What Christian theological framework is best adapted to engage contemporary understandings of biological evolution?
- Does Darwinism entail normative judgements about the origins of ethical or religious beliefs?
- Does Darwinism eliminate any notion of design or purpose within nature, whether this is understood religiously or otherwise?
These are clearly debates in which a (real or theoretical) Christian university can offer an important interdisciplinary context, informed by a Christian intellectual framework, for the exploration and development of such questions.
IV. Darwinism: Scientific Theory or Ideology?
One of the most remarkable developments of the last few years has been the appearance of a number of high-profile populist books offering a critique of religion based on a presumed intellectual link between developments in biology, especially evolutionary biology, and atheism . Two of these, both published in 2006, are of particular interest: Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Both these works reflect a conviction that Darwin's theory of evolution - as developed in the light of Mendelian genetics and our understanding of the place of DNA in the transmission of inherited information - is more than just a scientific theory, on the same epistemological level as other such theories. It is a worldview, a total account of reality. Darwinism, Dawkins suggests, is a “universal and timeless” principle, capable of being applied throughout the universe. In comparison, rival worldviews such as Marxism are to be seen as “parochial and ephemeral”.
Where most evolutionary biologists would argue that Darwinism offers a description of reality, Dawkins presents it as an explanation of things. Darwinism is a worldview, a grand récit, a meta-narrative - a totalizing framework, by which the great questions of life are to be evaluated and answered. For this reason, we should not be surprised to learn that Dawkins' account of things has provoked a response from postmodern writers, for whom any meta-narrative – whether Marxist, Freudian or Darwinian – is to be resisted as a matter of principle. Similarly, Daniel Dennett's Darwin' s Dangerous Idea sets out to show “why Darwin's idea is so powerful, and why it promises - not threatens - to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation”. Darwinism, for Dennett, is a “universal acid” that erodes outdated, superfluous metaphysical notions, from the idea of God downwards. Darwinism, he asserts, achieves a correlation of “the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law”. The Darwinian world is devoid of purpose and transcendence, in that all can and should be explained by the “standard scientific epistemology and metaphysics”. The Darwinian worldview demystifies and unifies our experience of the world, and places it on more secure foundations.
This transition from Darwinism, considered as a provisional scientific theory applying to one aspect of reality, to Darwinism, considered as a universal worldview – “reductionism incarnate” (Dennett) - encounters some serious difficulties. One is the obvious point that all scientific theories are to be regarded as provisional, open to correction - and possibly even requiring to be abandoned - in the light of accumulating observational evidence and advancing theoretical understanding. Dawkins is aware of this problem, and is quite explicit about its consequences.
Darwin may be triumphant at the end of the twentieth century, but we must acknowledge the possibility that new facts may come to light which will force our successors of the twenty-first century to abandon Darwinism or modify it beyond recognition. (Dawkins 2003, A Devil's Chaplain [New York: Houghton Mifflin])
The religious and metaphysical implications of this will be obvious. Yet Dawkins seems reluctant to incorporate this appropriate note of caution in his bold statements about the triumph of Darwinism as a worldview. This is clearly an issue which requires further discussion, not least because of its interdisciplinary implications. The Christian University is clearly a suitable context for such explorations and reflections.
V. Theological Frameworks and Evolutionary Theory
The debate over how evolution is to be accommodated theologically has become intensely polarized, with two theories gaining at least some degree of support. In the first place, there is a form of metaphysical naturalism - often linked to the notion of Darwinism as a worldview - which holds that evolutionary theory eliminates any conceptual space for God. This approach, found in the writings of both Dawkins and Dennett, affirms the intrinsically atheist implications of evolutionary theory.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, “creationism” and “Intelligent Design” hold that a specifically Christian approach to the biological world entails either the explicit rejection of the notion of biological evolution, or its severe restriction.
Young Earth Creationism holds that the earth was created in its basic form between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago; Old Earth Creationism, however, has no particular difficulty with the vast age of the world, and argues that the young earth approach requires modification in certain respects. For example, the Hebrew word yom (day) may need to be interpreted as an “indefinite time participle” (not unlike the English word while), signifying an indeterminate period of time which is given specificity by its context. In other words, the word day in the Genesis creation accounts is to be interpreted as a long period of time, not a specific period of 24 hours. Intelligent Design, a movement which ha s gained considerable influence in the United States in recent years, argues that standard Darwinism runs into significant explanatory difficulties, which can only be adequately resolved through the intentional divine creation of individual species.
Interestingly, what unites both ends of this spectrum of possibilities is the belief that the acceptance of the notion of biological evolution entails atheism. Yet such approaches ignore the rich and extensive Christian engagement with the interpretation of Scripture, particularly the book of Genesis, dating from the patristic age. One of the major contributions that a Christian university might make to the debate over the relation of evolution and creation is to advert to this. To illustrate this point, we may consider the views of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) on the question of creation, drawing on his Literal Meaning of Genesis, written between 401 and 415.
One of the most important ideas developed in this work is that God's instantaneous action of creation ex nihilo is not to be understood as being limited to the primordial act of origination, but extends to include both the origination of the world and its subsequent development. Augustine understands this process of development in terms of the unfolding of “seminal reasons” (rationes seminales or rationes causales) embedded within the created order in God’s act of creation. God created the world complete with a series of dormant multiple potencies, which were to be actualized in the future through divine providence.
Where some might think of creation in terms of God's insertion of new kinds of plants and animals readymade, as it were, into an already existing world, Augustine rejects this as inconsistent with the overall witness of Scripture. Rather, God must be thought of as creating in that very first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things that would come later, including humanity.
Certain principles of order were embedded within the creation, which developed as appropriate at later stages. The idea was not original to Augustine, in that earlier Christian writers had noted how the first Genesis creation narrative spoke of the earth and the waters “bringing forth” living creatures, and had drawn the conclusion that this pointed to God endowing the natural order with a capacity to generate living things. There are thus two “moments” in creation, corresponding to a primary act of origination, and a continuing process of providential guidance. While conceding that there is a natural tendency to think of creation as a past event, he insists that God must be recognized to be working even now, in the present, sustaining and directing the unfolding of the “generations that he laid up in creation when it was first established”.
Augustine argues that this does not mean that God created the world incomplete or imperfect, in that “what God originally established in causes, he subsequently fulfilled in effects”. The world was created with an inbuilt potentiality to become what God intended it to be over time, which was bestowed in the primordial act of origination. It is not difficult to see how Augustine's theological framework can be correlated with some recent approaches to systems biology - such as Stuart Kauffman's argument that sufficiently complex networks of chemical reactions will necessarily self-organize into autocatalytic cycles, which can be regarded as the precursors of life. The types of self-organization exhibited by such networks can therefore be seen as an essential factor in evolution, complementing the Darwinian process of natural selection.
It can be seen that this theological framework offers an important way of accommodating and framing biological theories of evolution. There are defensible and viable theological alternatives to evolutionary naturalism on the one hand, and to various forms of creationism on the other. The rich historical resources of Christian theology can thus be brought to bear on this important biological and cultural question. The theologically rich notion of creation does not actually entail either Creationism or Intelligent Design. A Christian university offers an intellectual environment which allows a creative and potentially very productive dialogue between theology and biology, allowing for their mutual enrichment.
VI. Darwinism, Values and Beliefs
A final debate of importance concerns the implications of evolutionary theory for significant human ideas, including ethical values and religious beliefs. Darwin himself suggested that ethics resulted from essentially biological pressures, although he did not develop these ideas. Herbert Spencer (1820 - 1903) developed Darwin’s ideas into what is often known as “social Darwinism”. Spencer elevated observations about the biological world (such as the struggle for existence, natural selection and the alleged “survival of the fittest”) into prescriptions for human moral conduct. Spencer suggested, for example, that the weak ought not to be helped to survive, in that “to aid the bad in multiplying, is, in effect, the same as maliciously providing for our descendants a multitude of enemies”. Spencer’s philosophy gained a significant popular following, particularly in North America in the nineteenth century, but declined significantly in the twentieth century. Julian Huxley (1887-1975) tied to breathe a new life into evolutionary ethics, but faced widespread criticism for failing to acknowledge that he was simply projecting his own moral values onto the history of humanity. His moral naturalism, it was argued, assumed precisely the moral vision he pretended to discover.
More recently, writers such as E. O. Wilson have argued that ethics arises from biological necessity, and can be explained on the basis of humanity’s biological and social evolution. In his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), Wilson defined sociobiology as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour”. Ethics, following this understanding, evolved under the pressure of natural selection. Sociability, altruism, cooperation, mutual aid and so on are all explicable in terms of the biological roots of human social behaviour. Moral conduct aided the long-term survival of the morally inclined species of humans. According to Wilson, the prevalence of egoistic individuals will make a community vulnerable and ultimately lead to the extinction of the whole group. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology frequently make an appeal to human evolutionary history in accounting for the physiological and behavioural traits of an organism - such as altruism - as evolutionary adaptations. Sociobiologists tend to see cultural evolution as being very closely controlled by biological evolution, and cultural traits as being selected on account primarily of their biological functionality.
These ideas have provoked fierce debates, which remain unsolved. For example, is it not reasonable to suggest that human beings have moved beyond their original biological roots and transcended their evolutionary origins? If so, surely they would be able to formulate goals in the pursuit of goodness, beauty and truth that have nothing to do directly with personal survival, and which may at times even militate against it? And how can one move from “is” to “ought”? In other words, how can the observation of biological behaviour act as the basis for ethics?
The debates over whether evolution explains human morally remain significant, and have been extended to the question of whether an evolutionary explanation can be offered for religious belief. The main biological question here is whether belief in God can be explained persuasively in purely naturalist terms as an evolutionary outcome. It is important to appreciate that a functional atheism is as much the presupposition as the conclusion of such approaches, which have a tendency to logical circularity. Four possible lines of argument might be considered.
- Religious beliefs have no adaptive functions, so that their presence and success in human population is to be explained by other means.
- Religious beliefs can be considered as byproducts of more fundamental and essentially adaptive features of human cognition.
- Religious beliefs are to be considered as adaptations which play a positive role in enabling humanity to deal with environmental complexity.
- Religious beliefs are essentially cultural adaptations that co-evolve and interact with natural adaptations.
The difficulty faced by all these theories is that it is still unclear whether religious belief is to be regarded as adaptive or not. While some writers have assumed that there is no obvious adaptive function to religious belief, the evidence for this i s far from secure. While a case can be made for religion being interpreted in adaptations terms, any such conclusion must be regarded as insecure, resting on less than reliable evidential foundations.
VII. Does Evolution Have a Purpose?
Finally, we must consider whether a Darwinian universe is devoid of goal and purpose. This is a complex question, in that “purpose” is not strictly an empirical notion, it is something that is inferred, not something that is observed. Dawkins holds that an arbitrary and purposeless biosphere is an intrinsic aspect of evolutionary theory: the universe is characterized by an absence of purpose and goals. One may speaks of “apparent design”, but this is merely an imaginative construction of the human mind. Any purpose, design or goal we attribute to nature is invented, not discerned.
Yet this is not how Darwin’s early leading interpreters saw things. T. H. Huxley ridiculed those who interpreted Darwin in this manner. Huxley was quite clear that traditional approaches to teleology - such as that adopted by William Paley - faced a formidable challenge from Darwin’s account of evolution. Yet the theory of evolution, he argues, bears witness to a “wider teleology”, rooted in the deeper structure of the universe. Certain approaches to teleology had been discredited by Darwin, Huxley argued. And in their place, a new understanding of the notion arose, grounded in the capacity of the universe to produce life. The strong resonance with contemporary reflections on a “finetuned” universe can hardly be overlooked.
No less significantly, the core dogma of the absence of goals in evolutionary biology has been challenged. For example, the biologist Francisco J. Ayala has defended the use of teleological language in biological explanation. The adaptations of organisms can be considered to be explained teleologically when their existence can be accounted for in terms of their contribution to the reproductive fitness of the population. Such adaptations - such as organs, homeostatic mechanisms or patterns of behaviour - are observed to have had a beneficial impact on the survival or reproductive capacities of organisms, which can be considered as the phenomenological goal towards which they tend.
Others have pointed to the significance of the phenomenon of evolutionary convergence for the question of purpose and goals in nature. The Cambridge biologist Simon Conway Morris, for example, argues that the evolutionary process seems to navigate its way to a small number of apparently predetermined solutions. For Conway Morris, “convergent evolution” - which he defines as “the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same solution to a particular need” - points to the tendency of the evolutionary process to converge on a relatively small number of possible outcomes. “The evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited”.
For Conway Morris, “life has a peculiar propensity to "navigate" to rather precise solutions in response to adaptive challenges”. “Islands of stability” exist in the midst of an essentially inhospitable ocean of maladaptivity; the evolutionary search engine finds its way to these islands, not on account of its purposeful questing, but because of the inevitability of the points of termination. One could speak of “Darwin's compass”, in that evolution appears to find its way to a relatively small number of outcomes.
This is clearly an important debate, with obvious metaphysical implications, which still has some considerable way to go.
The complexity and importance of discussions about biological evolution, human identity and human beliefs is of such importance that it is essential to establish an informed forum within which they can be discussed and explored. Modern biology is beginning to rediscover the notion of teleology, and explore its possible implications. Might evolution be much more directed as a process than might hitherto have been realized? Might we begin to speak of islands of stability (Conway Morris) in biological space? This important discussion requires a community which is both biologically and theologically informed - a relative rarity in today's world. Yet the vision is worth pursuing, not least on account of the intellectual enrichment that it offers. If such an intellectual community does not presently exist, then it must most certainly be invented .
A. McGrath, Biology in a Christian University, in O. D. Crisp et al. (edd.), Chrstianity and Disciplines. The Transformation of the University, (London - New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), pp. 56-70