“As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose.”
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: a brief history of humankind (Harari 2014).
This quote from a book which has now sold more than 20 million copies, represents probably the standard view on evolution’s relationship to “purpose” - one of conflict. But rather than bald scientific fact, the claim that evolutionary processes are purposeless is thick with philosophical assumptions and ought to be controversial. I am a researcher in evolutionary genomics and a Christian, and here I lay out a contrary and controversial view: there are good reasons to think that evolution is not purposeless.
The central question
It is not just the historian Prof. Harari who thinks that evolution is completely blind or purposeless - similar quotes from previous decades can be accumulated from well-known writers of popular science as well as distinguished atheistic biologists such as Jacques Monod, Stephen Jay Gould, Edward Wilson, Francis Crick, and Jerry Coyne.
But, if God - creator of the cosmos - exists, then evolution is not purposeless; or at least the claim would surely be up for debate. As such, in order to confidently make the claim that evolution is purposeless, it seems we would need to be confident that God does not exist. This claim is not simply the default position (Garvey 2010) and goes against a lot of evidence (Swinburne 2010).
We should recognise that the claim that evolution is purposeless is metaphysical rather than merely empirical. Claims like this are “meta”-physical as they go beyond descriptions of physical processes into larger questions about the context of such processes - the kinds of things which philosophers research. This doesn’t mean that they are false or unanswerable, just that care must be taken. Empirical science doesn’t normally deal with questions of purpose, but rather of mechanism - but this doesn’t mean that science disproves purpose or shows that we live in a purposeless world, any more than the operation of a machine, fully explicable in mechanical terms of physics, shows that the machine has no purpose or intended function; or the biomechanical study of my arm and hands as I type shows that I don’t intend to write this essay.
However, it is widely believed, by both atheists (who deny that God exists (Draper 2022)) and theists (who believe that God exists), that something about evolutionary mechanisms makes them conflict with claims of purpose. The main reason typically offered is that Darwinian evolution is based on random mutations as the first step, and such mutations are by definition unguided. But whether scientifically ‘random’ really means that God is not in any way involved is contentious. The leading philosopher of biology Elliott Sober, who is an agnostic, has “argue[d] that what biologists mean, or ought to mean, when they say that mutations are unguided [random] says nothing about whether God ever causes a mutation to occur” (Sober 2014), because the biological claims are probabilistic and do not rule out the possibility of hidden variables such as divine intervention. Similar points are made by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (Plantinga 2011), among others (van Inwagen 2003; Van Woudenberg and Rothuizen‐van der Steen 2015). The assumption of the ‘randomness’ of mutation, which has always been debated and is difficult to define in a way which aligns with the evidence, has also been contentious recently (Monroe et al. 2022); this should perhaps increase the appropriate degree of caution before making bold assertions about mutations being random in any strong sense. Aside from all of this, mutation is just one element in the evolutionary process, and there are no in principle reasons that other elements such as natural selection could not be under the governance of God. The mere possibility doesn’t mean that they are - but other factors could tip the balance in what we should conclude about it.
The cosmic level
Are there positive reasons, beyond compatibility, to believe that there is a purpose for evolution or that it is not directionless? If evolution is compatible with God guiding it, and God is conceived of as creator of everything, then any evidence for God would indirectly be evidence for purpose in evolution. And there are diverse kinds of evidence that God exists, including the existence of the universe, the existence of laws of nature, the applicability of mathematics, the phenomenon of consciousness, moral knowledge, and historical events around Jesus.
More specifically regarding purpose however, it has been discovered that the fundamental laws of physics are “fine tuned” for life. It has been found, to the surprise of many, that only a tiny change in the values of various fundamental constants or initial conditions would result in a universe where life could not exist. For example, the expansion rate of the early universe must be within a tiny range in order to form stars and planets (Lewis and Barnes 2016). This was surprising because given a naturalistic worldview, it was expected that there is nothing special about our cosmos and the place of life in it. Sceptics may have a pre-prepared response to this (such as the multiverse or the puddle analogy from Douglas Adams), but should be aware that such responses have in turn been responded to, and the overall case remains at least intriguing (Waller 2019; Barnes 2020; Lewis and Barnes 2021).
Signs of purpose?
Now for the most controversial part of this essay. My main argument stands without it, but it is worth exploring. Could biology, or evolution itself, still show signs of purpose? For many biologists this is philosophically either distasteful or off-limits. However, rather than a dearth of evidence there is an embarrassment of riches regarding areas of biology to explore for signs of purpose. Here I briefly touch on just a few.
The Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris has highlighted a few of these areas in various books, particularly focussing on the phenomenon of “convergence” in evolution, where evolution repeatedly arrives at similar functional forms from disparate ancestors. His book “Life’s Solution” is noteworthy for exploring a range of related concepts such as “evolutionary inherency” - the use of structures formed very early in evolution for new purposes later on (Morris 2003). It has even received praise from an unlikely source (Dawkins 2021).
Theologian Sarah Coakley (Cambridge) and leading mathematical evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak (Harvard) have together investigated the central role of co-operation in evolution, and how this fits with a theologically-shaped view of the world (Nowak and Coakley 2013). Many people have focused on the role of competition in evolution, but reality is richer, and it turns out that co-operation is also critical. Prof. Coakley summarises the consequences this way: “And that is a very remarkable discovery indeed. If there is a God, even, ex hypothesi, a Trinitarian God of compassion, providential involvement, and sacrificial love, this is the sort of evolutionary process he might well have made. Evolution delivers to us humans, made in his image, the greatest possible inheritance of responsibility: to crown those regular intimations of evolutionary cooperation, long-established and refined, with acts of intentional sacrificial altruism that now alone can save the planet itself.” (Coakley 2020).
The biophysics group led by Ard Louis (Oxford) has been at the forefront of research showing remarkable underlying biases which seem to facilitate evolution (e.g. (Dingle et al. 2022)). This work doesn’t prove that there is intentionality or purpose behind the grand scheme of evolution, and indeed it raises many questions, but at least to me it seems like it might fit better with an underlying purpose than the classical view did, where chance plus natural selection achieves everything.
Somewhat similarly, the evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner (Zurich) who unlike the others mentioned has no public Christian or theistic commitment, has argued that evolution works because of underlying principles which facilitate it (Wagner 2014). There is no explicit mention of ‘purpose’ here, but his talk of the strong need for such principles, which he expresses as “biological platonism” is at least suggestive.
Still other areas of evolutionary biology are open for exploration. Some of my own research has been on the remarkable structure of the standard genetic code and its contribution to evolution. Highly contingent major evolutionary events such as the origin of life or eukaryogenesis seem on current models to rely on a large input of “chance” - perhaps a complementary explanation in terms of purpose is possible? Although discussing such possibilities is heretical in the quasi-official worldview of evolutionary biology, such philosophical investigation I believe has the potential to broaden interest in the field and to lead to new research directions.
Evolutionists in the church
Through the years since Darwin, many evolutionary biologists have come to believe in God as creator of everything, and Jesus of Nazareth as the creative logos behind the remarkable cosmic rationality which science is grounded in. Here are just a few prominent examples, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned:
During Charles Darwin’s life, his main supporter in the USA was the distinguished Harvard botanist Asa Gray. This friend of Darwin was an evangelical Christian who saw evolution as supporting rather than undermining belief in God’s design of the natural world - a line of thought which has been picked up again recently (Kojonen 2021). Darwin’s primary young protege was Georges Romanes, a pioneer in applying evolution to psychology. He became a critic of Christianity as a student and wrote books rejecting religious belief, but reconverted near the end of his life. As he was dying in his mid 40s he gave up his scientific projects and worked on a book of Christian apologetics (McGrew 2011).
The ornithologist David Lack made important contributions to evolutionary theory, and popularised the term “Darwin’s Finches”. Lack became a Christian in his late 30s as a researcher at Oxford. At Oxford today, based in the institute previously directed by Lack, is the ornithologist and evolutionary ecologist Andy Gosler. Prof. Gosler likewise became a Christian as an adult and established researcher - coming from a secular Jewish background, he was provoked to investigate God by lectures and books of a noted Oxford atheist, and is now an Anglican priest as well as professor of ornithology - this story and similar ones are told in the forthcoming book with the working title “Coming to Faith Through Dawkins” edited by Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath.
One of the main founders of the modern evolutionary synthesis (and much of modern statistics as well) was Ronald Fisher. While many of his views were problematic, and his relationship to faith was complex, he was a devout Anglican throughout his life - yes, perhaps the main founder of the very strictest school of “neo-Darwinism” was a Christian. A more recent figure in population genetics is Dan Dykhuizen. At the inaugural American Society for Microbiology conference on experimental evolution in 2014, as a founder of the field Dan gave one of the plenary talks, in which he casually mentioned that he is a Christian - to what I remember as pin drop silence.
Prominent modern palaeontologists who trust in Jesus and have done important research in evolution include Mary Schweitzer, who is a founder of molecular paleontology (BioLogos 2014) and Robert Bakker, who even got a reference in Jurassic Park for his famous work on warm blooded dinosaurs. This could continue with more examples and more details on each of these fascinating people, but the point should be clear enough - excellence in the field of evolutionary biology is not constrained by belief in God as our purposive creator.
So, what can we say in summary about purpose in evolution? Firstly, if God exists, then evolution is probably not purposeless - and there are in fact good reasons to think God exists. Even the strictest forms of Darwinian evolution are logically compatible with guidance by God. Further, there is evidence for purpose in the universe at the cosmic level and even perhaps in biology. Finally, while we have been a minority, a perhaps surprising number of evolutionary biologists have been or are followers of Jesus.
Recommended additional resources
I have written other essays on this topic here: https://capturingchristianity.com/can-biological-evolution-be-a-guided-process/
And my website will be updated with further resources:
Seth Hart, a PhD student in Science and Religion at Durham has also written on teleology in biology - https://capturingchristianity.com/author/seth-hart/
Alister McGrath (2011) - Darwinism and the Divine
Denis Alexander (2018) - Is there Purpose in Biology?
Michael L. Peterson and Michael Ruse (2016) - Science, Evolution, and Religion: A Debate About Atheism and Theism
Enjoyed this article? You might like these other resources on a similar topic:
Barnes, Luke A. 2020. “A Reasonable Little Question: A Formulation of the Fine-Tuning Argument.” Ergonomics, 1220–57.
BioLogos. 2014. “Not So Dry Bones: An Interview with Mary Schweitzer.” BioLogos. July 21, 2014. https://biologos.org/articles/not-so-dry-bones-an-interview-with-mary-schweitzer/.
Coakley, Sarah. 2020. “Evolution, Cooperation, and God.” Church Life Journal. 2020. https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/evolution-cooperation-and-god/.
Dawkins, Richard. 2021. “Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris Is a Work of Prodigious Scholarship, Pleasantly Written with Spikes of Humour. Massive Documentation of Convergent Evolution. I Agree with His Advocacy of the Predictability of Evolution, Contra the Fashionable Belief in ‘contingency.’” Twitter. April 20, 2021. https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/1384426422920531971.
Dingle, Kamaludin, Fatme Ghaddar, Petr Šulc, and Ard A. Louis. 2022. “Phenotype Bias Determines How Natural RNA Structures Occupy the Morphospace of All Possible Shapes.” Molecular Biology and Evolution 39 (1). https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msab280.
Draper, Paul. 2022. “Atheism and Agnosticism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2022/entries/atheism-agnosticism/.
Garvey, Brian. 2010. “Absence of Evidence, Evidence of Absence, and the Atheist’s Teapot.” Ars Disputandi 10 (1): 9–22.
Harari, Yuval Noah. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Random House.
Inwagen, Peter van. 2003. “The Compatibility of Darwinism and Design.” In God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science, edited by Neil A. Manson. Routledge.
Kojonen, E. V. R. 2021. The Compatibility of Evolution and Design. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Lewis, Geraint F., and Luke A. Barnes. 2016. A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos. Cambridge University Press.
———. 2021. “The Trouble with ‘Puddle Thinking’: A User’s Guide to the Anthropic Principle.” arXiv [physics.hist-Ph]. arXiv. http://arxiv.org/abs/2104.03381.
McGrew, Timothy. 2011. “A Pilgrim’s Regress: George John Romanes and the Search for Rational Faith.” The Library of Historical Apologetics. February 1, 2011. https://historicalapologetics.org/a-pilgrims-regress-george-john-romanes-and-the-search-for-rational-faith/.
Monroe, J. Grey, Thanvi Srikant, Pablo Carbonell-Bejerano, Claude Becker, Mariele Lensink, Moises Exposito-Alonso, Marie Klein, et al. 2022. “Mutation Bias Reflects Natural Selection in Arabidopsis Thaliana.” Nature 602 (7895): 101–5.
Morris, Simon Conway. 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge University Press.
Nowak, Martin A., and Sarah Coakley, eds. 2013. Evolution, Games, and God. Harvard University Press.
Plantinga, Alvin. 2011. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Oxford University Press, USA.
Sober, Elliott. 2014. “Evolutionary Theory, Causal Completeness, and Theism.” In Evolutionary Biology: Conceptual, Ethical, and Religious Issues, edited by D. Walsh And Thompson. Cambridge University Press.
Swinburne, Richard. 2010. Is There a God? Oxford University Press.
Van Woudenberg, R., and J. Rothuizen‐van der Steen. 2015. “Both Random and Guided.” Ratio. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/rati.12073?casa_token=iQ0oXKuhppkAAAAA:6L1Zyga08Z1qbvdJOOtF26y3KzLg2Fb9W9QfqZOZvrEny3jzUDu7GBTDuwAATsT4AdM_KxyJh-r31jMO.
Wagner, Andreas. 2014. Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution’s Greatest Puzzle. Penguin.
Waller, Jason. 2019. Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments: What (if Anything) Should We Infer from the Fine-Tuning of Our Universe for Life? Routledge.