Is There Purpose in Biology? Denis Alexander book Review

The question of purpose in nature has been hotly debated for a very long time. In his new book Is There Purpose in Biology?: The Cost of Existence and the God of Love, Denis Alexander explores the very long history with a fine toothed comb, then brings us up to date with recent biochemistry.

Dr. Denis Alexander is the Director Emeritus of the Faraday Institute

Richard Dawkins famously said, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” This comfortably fits the narrative of many people, especially atheists, but Dr. Alexander employs a kaleidoscope of information and sources to show us that the opposite is much more likely to be true.

His coverage of the topic is almost encyclopedic. He’s even sensitive to how fashions in Biblical interpretation and trends in philosophy and authority in antiquity shaped the way ancient people viewed science. He makes a case for the reformation changing the way people thought about science and knowledge.

For about 100 years now it’s been quite unfashionable for biologists to claim there is purpose in nature but this is clearly starting to change. JBS Haldane said, “Teleology is like a mistress to a biologist: he cannot live without her but he’s unwilling to be seen with her in public.” This statement is a smoking gun, because after all, is not a heart’s purpose to pump blood, that lungs are to breathe, noses are to smell?

The standard secular account of evolution is that natural selection causes the *appearance* of purpose to emerge when in fact there is none. But there is far more to the story than that.

Alexander goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks and explores this idea very thoroughly. He begins with history, then shifts to science, then considers theological implications. He proves a huge range of sources. He canvases ancient literature, evolutionary biology, non-random patterns in gene mutations, the optimality of the genetic code, convergence (re-appearance of similar or identical structures in far-flung parts of the tree of life), chance and statistics, biochemistry, the regularity of the laws of nature, and the capacity of nature to “take care of itself” – to self-regulate and self create.

He doesn’t try to force the reader to a conclusion and he’s not preachy. He allows you to think for yourself.

But he does make a pretty firm case that the indications fall far more in favor of “yes there is purpose in nature” vs. “no there is not.”

If I have a gripe about the book it’s exemplified in the following statement:

“The most commonly used meaning [of the word “random”] simply refers to the fact that genetic variation comes into the genome without the good or the ill of the organism in view. When you think about it, this is a rather banal and obvious definition. How could it be otherwise?”

I believe it is otherwise. We have mounting evidence that evolutionary changes, while by no means optimal 100% of the time, that organism re-engineer their own DNA in ways that are appropriate to the specific problems they are facing. Barbara McClintock discovered this in the 1940s and her findings were roundly rejected by her peers. But then she won the Nobel Prize in 1983. Her corn plants repaired specific areas of damage in order to reproduce.

Her Nobel Prize paper was called “The significance of responses of the genome to challenge.” She explored novel responses cells would make to completely novel situations, and compared them to routine situations in which cells produced something resembling error codes and predictable responses.

Much work along this line has been done since. For example at the university of Redding, scientists deleted the genes for the flagellum and when they came back after the weekend they found that an organism had repaired said genes and grown a flagellum.

So while making an outstanding case for purpose in biology, Alexander could have gone a bit farther. He gives too much credit to Neo-Darwinian ideas about evolution, and not enough to what is commonly called “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” which tends to acknowledge purposeful adaptations much more readily.

But this is just a minor criticism. It’s definitely a five-star book. It joins a chorus of related books like “Purpose And Desire” by J. Scott Turner.

Turning his attention to theodicy and theology, he says “the Bible contains no concept of “nature” as referring to the natural world – the word is nowhere to be found.”

Nor does the original Hebrew have a word for “Supernatural.” And while in English such terms are helpful, they potentially dissect and segment in a detrimental way.

A topic that he leaves alone is the subject of miracles. I would have appreciated an acknowledgement of a separation between natural phenomena and miraculous healings. But this would have made the book quite a bit longer and it’s understandable that he didn’t take it on. He would only tackle a subject like this if he could it thoroughly.

I liked this quote, which he pulled from his extensive reading:

“If single acts would evince design, how much more a vast universe, that by inherent laws gradually builded itself and then created its own plants and animals, a universe so adjusted that it left by the way the poorest things, and steadily wrought toward more complex, ingenious, and beautiful results! Who designed this mighty machine, created matter, gave it its laws, and impressed upon it that tendency which has brought forth almost infinite results on the globe, and wrought them into a perfect system? Design by wholesale is grander than design by retail.” (Mathisen, 2006, p. 386)

And finally:

“When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.”

I strongly recommend this book – I highlighted many sections.

Keep an eye peeled because Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show and podcast will soon feature a conversation between me and Dr. Alexander.

3 Responses

  1. Mark Chenoweth says:


    Other than evo-devo, which helps to explain a little bit of convergence, do you have any particular ideas of why there are so many convergent lineages in evolution?

    Cells making the same decisions over and over again?

    • Mark,

      A huge part of the answer, I believe, is symbiogenesis which is far more prevalent than commonly assumed.

      I suggest the book “Acquiring Genomes” by Margulis and Sagan. It’s replete with examples which go a long way in explaining these patterns.

      Also – take a good hard look at “larval transfer theory” which is the brainchild of Donald I Williamson, and has many merits and has not been investigated nearly enough thus far.

      Williams also published a couple of books on this.

      Convergence is an outcome, not an explanation.

      Natural selection is an outcome, not an explanation.

      Biology is fractal. You see the same patterns over and over again, even on different scales. You see the same sequences and genes being re-used many different ways.

      Biology is also a lot like human technology. Why re-invent the wheel when you can steal one from somewhere else?

      I say ALL evolution (music / politics / technology / literature / biology) is fundamentally the same, driven by the same kinds of causes and considerations and follows the same patterns. It’s a competition of linguistic structures driven by conscious desire.

      Remember that viruses and horizontal gene transfer and symbiogenesis are all means by which a pattern can transfer far across different phyla. If you study larval transfer, you’ll see animals of different KINGDOMS forming hybrids.

  2. Mark Chenoweth says:

    Looks like a fellow Orthodox Christian has beaten me to the chase. He cites you A LOT. Looks like there’s also mention of Shapiro, etc. He says he is a proponent of evolution by natural law. Now I’m not sure if writing an article on this is worth it. Haha. But I’m probably gonna buy the book!

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