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Denis Alexander, Is there Purpose in Biology? The Cost of Existence and the God of Love, 2018

Dr Denis Alexander is a career biochemist and evangelical Christian. After an initially-standard research career, he devoted himself for some 15 commendable years to helping in them establishment of biological science in universities in less developed countries, before concluding his scientific career as Chair of the Molecular Immunology Programme at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge. In 2006 he switched roles, to become the first Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He edited the journal Science and Christian Belief for a number of years, and has been a Gifford Lecturer. A key theme of his is that there is no inconsistency in being both a passionate evolutionist and a Christian – a contention which regular readers of ESSSAT News and Reviews will recognise as one to which I, too, am totally committed. Nevertheless, I am less enthused about this book than I expected to be.

The title itself is odd. Biology is an academic discipline. It unquestionably has a purpose – to understand more and more about the world of living matter. What Denis Alexander is actually asking is whether that world, not the study of it, has purpose? However, all too often titles are decided not by authors but by publishers, so I will press this point no further.

In his Introduction, Alexander distinguishes between small-scale purposes, with which the biological world is replete, and the grand, overall Purpose which is his subject. The first sort are exemplified by the mate-attracting role of the male peacock’s tail, and the nutrient-storing function of the camel’s hump; as a physiologist, I could add a thousand more such “purposes”, and also cite a number of angry challenges from violently atheist colleagues who strive to resist the concept, whether under the title “purpose”, “role” or “function”, because they imagine these words are all implicitly spelled with the capital P, R or F which would import a metaphysical claim. Alexander is explicit: “It is this metaphysical inference [of Purposelessness] from the biological account that this book wishes to challenge” (p. 15).

Chapter 1 surveys The Historical Roots of Purpose in Biology. Denis Alexander spells out the difference between Aristotelian telos, underlying any individual entity, and the overall grand design in Nature, which early Muslim scholars perceived as clearly as their medieval Christian successors, and from which emerged the discipline of Natural Theology. This was unequivocally a search for Purpose in nature as a whole. But, post Renaissance, many scientists developed the “mechanical philosophy”: thus Kepler, “My aim is to show that the heavenly machine is not a kind of divine, live being, but a kind of clockwork” (41). In the next 100 years or so, Deism, and thence Atheism, would emerge from this stance among Continental thinkers, though in Britain Newton’s reverence for the natural world’s Designer remained a major influence. From John Ray to both Linnaeus and Paley, the same spirit informed most thinking in what we now call Biology. Even Darwin, whose religious journey has been infinitely scrutinised, insisted that his use of the word “chance” in the context of Natural Selection, simply expresses “our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation” (53).

Chapters 2 and 3 survey modern biology in much more detail. Starting with the arrival of oxygen in the atmosphere, and its energising of the massive increase in complexity since the Cambrian era, Alexander then sketches some of the allometric (scaling) laws, such as the ¾ power relationships between body mass and metabolic rate in both animals and plants. Convergence in evolution, stressed not only by the theist Simon Conway-Morris (c.f. ESSSAT News & Reviews, 25.3, p.18) but also the atheist Richard Dawkins, vividly demonstrates more pattern in biology: the striking number of times that eyes have evolved, either on the camera or the compound model, is a particularly powerful case in point. Alexander does not leap, as Paley would have done, to the conclusion that a divine Purpose underlies all life, but does insist that “the claim that it is necessarily Purposeless becomes increasingly implausible. We cannot escape the obvious arrow of evolutionary time – from ultrasimplicity to incredible complexity. We cannot avoid the constrained features of the evolutionary process, dependent ultimately upon the laws of chemistry and physics. .... A barren hot planet bombarded by meteorites that ends up by being the home of mammals having fun, and humans who have some fun too, but also ponder the question of existence, does seem to cast doubt upon the claim that the whole process must, of necessity, be without Purpose” (102- 3).

That was Chapter 2. In Chapter 3 the treatment is molecular .... the field of biochemical genetics. For a mere physiologist this is the most difficult chapter in the book, and I suspect that most non-biologists will skip a good deal of it. However, the take-home messages should be clear. The sweeping assertions of meaningless randomness, made by Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity (1970), were about as wrong as it is possible to be. By contrast, Alexander concludes this chapter by saying that “the sophisticated structure of the universal genetic code, from which only a limited selection of protein structures actually emerge, repeatedly, out of a possible field of trillions, so that the material ‘presented’ to Natural Selection is heavily preselected and far from merely random; the way in which genomic systems are set up to facilitate evolvability; and the ubiquity of convergence at the molecular level [as well as that of the whole body] – all these facets of the molecules that make life possible point to high degree of organisation and constraint in which molecular mechanisms are ‘steered’ along certain channels defined by the needs and challenges of being alive (and reproducing) on planet Earth. All this does render somewhat implausible the claim that the molecular systems involved, taken in their entirety, are necessarily Purposeless” (139).

Chapter 4 is more philosophical. It examines the different usages of ‘random’ and ‘chance’ in biological and other thought: compares, for example, mutations with radioactivity, and chaos theory with everyday uses of the word. Then it returns to molecular biology, with several examples of non-randomness in genomic variation. Monod was utterly wrong, but neither extreme is permissible: “Biology is simply not up to the Herculean task of providing some overall Purpose and meaning in life that everyone can agree on” (177). Requiring universal agreement sets the bar very high, but Alexander has a deeper commitment to challenge us with: it is not biology but theology which can lay this challenge before us.

He presents this in Chapter 5, The Christian Matrix in which Biology flourishes. Summarising this subtle presentation is a challenge of a different sort from those which have come before. Let me begin with a quote from theologian W.E. Carroll, recalling the thinking of Aquinas: “Creation is not ... some distant event; rather, it is the ongoing complete causing of all that is” (184). 19th Cy Darwinians, from Harvard botanist Asa Gray to Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore, saw the key point of this – of Divine Immanence, not opposed but in counterpoint to Transcendence: opposed, however, to both 18th-19th Cy Deism and the Occasionalism propounded by apologists from 11th Cy al Ghazali to 18th Cy Malebranche.  “The view being presented here ... represents a seamless cloth of God’s authorship in which the cloth has its own functional and causal integrity. God causes creatures to be ... ‘true causes’. That’s what functional integrity entails” (191). So far, so very, very good: Alexander is almost positively affirming Purpose in the biological world!  But he draws back, in a revealing way: “In the discussion sections of our scientific papers, we scientists often make the claim that new data presented .... are ‘consistent with’ our favourite model or theory, whatever that might be at the time.” (206). Recall his reticence at the ends of both Chapters 2 and 3! He now says: “Evolutionary theory is consistent with a creator God who has intentions and purposes for the world.”

I have to respect and admire all that has been said so far. But in the remainder of Chapter 5 Alexander makes claims, originating no longer in science but in theology, which go too far for me, and which I find radically inconsistent with the reticence he has previously displayed. After a lovely peaen to biological diversity, drawn from verses in Proverbs, Isaiah and Psalms, he claims “Diversity reflects creativity and that in turn is rooted in God’s own Trinitarian being” (210). Why Trinitarian? Why not just God’s Creatorly being, whether designated metaphorically as Father or as Mother? One must suspect that something is afoot. And, some pages on, continuing to take Isaiah literally, Alexander claims to see the final Purpose of God for biology as being the establishment of “‘new heavens and a new earth’ following on from this one” (214). And, “For those who believe in God as the source of the present created order, believing in God as the source of a further created order to which we are heading is really not such a stretch” (216)! I’m sorry, Dr Alexander, but it’s an immense and radically unacceptable stretch for me and, sadly, one which weakens my regard for all that you have said before.

Far from being the master of restrained, bio-theological thinking that I was prepared to believe you were, I find that you’re ploughing an unbelievably literalist, ultra-Evangelical furrow! It is your right to do so, but do I still need to pay attention to your final chapter? Yet yes, I do, because it’s called Death, Pain, Suffering and the Love of God topics which I’ve addressed in my own writings too. Alexander and I share the view of Henry Ward Beecher, that “Design by wholesale is grander than ... design by retail” (224).  And this design by wholesale implies a world “in which death,  pain and predation are part  and parcel  ... [I]t is coherent existence itself which is the overriding good ... including the existence of creatures like ourselves with the capacity to respond freely to God’s love. The existence of anything of interest is only feasible within the framework of nomic [law-following] regularity ... [Otherwise there could be] no science ... no moral decision-making, because the outcome of the decision would be random. There would be no relationships and certainly no coherent worship of the living God” (232). This line of thinking is all good. Why then, oh why, does our Author have finally to return to his apocalyptic line, about a second phase of creation, entered only after one has served one’s time on planet Earth: “Now that really does provide a Purpose for biology” (243). No! The Purpose is here and now! So much more to be admired was the scientific restraint which sustained the first 90% of this book.


Neil Spurway
University of Glasgow


Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 29:4 (December 2019), pp. 21-25.