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Is There Purpose in Biology? The cost of existence and the God of love, by Denis Alexander

05 October 2018

Andrew Bigg follows an up-to-date argument

THE underlying argument in this book is very simple: namely, that it is unreasonable to claim that biology is inherently and necessarily purposeless. If that sounds like a double negative, however, then the reader can rest assured that the argument is more than complemented by a clear, positive, theological scheme.

The rebuttal of claims towards inherent purposelessness is worked out through various detailed appeals to aspects of evolutionary biology uncovered by recent developments, touching on crucial and topical themes such as convergence: the observation that life has found very similar solutions to common environmental challenges quite independently on a number of occasions, being therefore embodied according to some form of goal.

The sticky concept of “design” is treated holistically, considering the dynamic effect of a process over time. While Alexander notes the many theists who eagerly embraced Darwin’s original insight, he seeks to focus on subsequent insights into what is truly involved in the evolutionary journey of life, considering how they enable us better to appreciate biology within a purposeful framework. He considers that more recent developments advertise the suitability of the evolutionary framework for being embedded within the broader, purpose-oriented framework of a Trinitarian theology of creation.

Alexander suggests that we should look towards a theology of nature which appreciates how the Kingdom of heaven may pervade the biological dynamic and point towards the totality and completion of a new creation, for which this creation is a necessary first phase. He does not shy away from big questions concerning so-called natural evil, but takes a head-on approach, appealing to the inescapable fact that almost every aspect of biology, or component of physical life, necessarily comes with potentially positive and negative (costly) consequences.

Furthermore, the lawful consistency behind created order is emphasised as being necessary for those meaningful forms of relationship which allow both for an appreciation of divine gift in creation and for a process of reconciliation.

Overall, the argument is cool-headed and sensitive, appealing to a pleasing and responsible variety of sources, and combining more familiar analogies and metaphors with many refreshing facts and illustrations that may well be entirely new to many readers.

Whether one agrees with every opinion expressed is probably less important than what can be gleaned from the accessible manner in which relatively complex information is presented. I wholeheartedly recommend making the effort to engage with this thought-provoking work.

The Revd Dr Andrew Bigg is Chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.


Is There Purpose in Biology? The cost of existence and the God of love
Denis Alexander
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