A Question of Purpose

2020 May 27

Life either has meaningful purpose or it does not. That does not mean that there cannot be levels of purpose in something. It does mean that you cannot be intellectually honest and claim that something does not have purpose and later that it does have purpose. Unfortunately the evolutionary biology literature does claim both.


Evolution by mutation and natural selection is a naturalistic process. It carries no meaning beyond the mindless running of the machines of natural law. This was the point of Darwin’s long argument in On the Origin of Species. Dawkins reinforces this in his book The Blind Watchmaker. So do all other prominent evolutionists in their writings.

Darwin did not invent the idea of mutation (“variation”), nor was he the only one to discover natural selection. However his unique contribution was the idea that speciation was purely a naturalistic process. Naturalistic biology then has no more meaning than a rock happening to fall down a mountain, or a flood pushing over trees. The only intellectually honest way, therefore, to explain naturalistic biology is to use the language of mechanistic happenstance only.

The Language of Purpose

However, in published scientific literature, stories of evolutionary sequences often are told using explanations for things in terms of the purpose that they serve instead of a cause that makes them. This is the literal dictionary definition of teleology. Usually this is concealed in the infinitive form of verbs (using “for” or “to”), or by using words like recruit and deploy. note

Thank you to Cornelius Hunter's Darwin's God blog for this point and for extensive writing on it.

The infinitive form of verbs is used to communicate goal-oriented purpose. “She did action to achieve her goal.” Any time writing about evolution uses this form of language, it is acknowledging or assuming a goal, and the explanation is in terms of a goal. This is in direct contradiction to the central thesis of Darwinian evolution that the process is exclusively without purpose.

This type of speech would be the equivalent of saying: to reach the base of the mountain, the rock recruited gravity to move it downslope; or, a flood deployed its mass to push over trees. No rational person uses language of independent actors for purely naturalistic processes.

However, in published evolutionary examples:

"The brain evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for deeply processing a few select signals..." note

"A small number of lineage-specific tandem gene duplications have occurred, and these raise questions concerning how evolutionarily young homeobox genes are recruited to new regulatory roles. For example, divergent tandem duplicates of the Hox3 gene have been recruited for extra-embryonic membrane specification and patterning in dipteran and lepidopteran insects, a large expansion of the Rhox homeobox gene family is deployed in reproductive tissues of mouse, and duplicates of TALE class genes are expressed in early development of mollusks." note

"the human brain evolved the way it did... to expedite the transfer of information from one brain region to another" note

"We show that many-body responses arising from water’s electronic structure are essential mechanisms harnessed by the [water] molecule to encode for the distinguishing features of its condensed states." note

This example is incredulously ridiculous because this language claims that water molecules have agency for action.

Saying things like this about claimed natural processes is foolishness because none of these would have agency to do what is being described.

Dishonesty and Confusion

Why this intellectual dishonesty? I don’t think it comes out of a specific malicious intent to deceive. I think it may come from an attempt to make the story be more plausible. It might therefore be laziness of speech. This is a big problem however because it actually reveals widespread laziness regarding production of scientifically accurate descriptions.

I also think it is a “god of the gaps” form of explanation. The writers genuinely do not understand how it was that the thing they are studying came into existence. Random coincidence is too implausible an explanation for the phenomenon so they don't use the language of coincidence. Instead, they are metaphorically ascribing it to the only known process that has demonstrated the ability to do what they are talking about - that of intelligent agency.

They might be speaking this way because evolutionary theory so mis-matches to the data that it is very difficult to only use language of coincidence. However, they should either only use language consistent with naturalistic theory, or they should re-examine the theory to question why their discoveries call for the language of agency. If agency is the explanation, then they should attribute the act to an agent in a position to accomplish what is described.

However, the persistence of language like this in the literature also reveals that the basis of evolutionary thought is a belief system. In essence they believe the natural processes themselves have agency even though they say that they are mindless. They believe their theory must be capable to make whatever they find in nature regardless of plausibility. Darwin's followers adhere to his theory for metaphysical reasons, similar to how at the beginning he argued extensively for his theory with theological arguments. note

Is there Purpose?

The question of purpose matters significantly to people. Through most of recorded history humans have believed in purposeful supernatural causes. The evolutionary explanation for this is that it consistently gave them a selective advantage. However then, if our existence is explained by evolution then modern evolutionary biologists that claim to reject all things supernatural are choosing a path of reduced fitness according to their own theory. This should eliminate or restrict their way of thinking. And so then to the degree that evolution can reveal underlying truth systems, it indicates by this that an exclusively naturalistic explanation by evolution is not true.

If naturalistic explanations of life are not true with their associated lack of purpose, then non-naturalistic explanations should be investigated. Life more likely then does have purpose.

2020-05-27 updated 2021-11-20   © 2021 Larry Grove