By Ronnie Hawkins

Book Symposium
Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? (Harvard UP, 2003)

Purposiveness is not Paradoxical: All Living Organisms are Teleological, and That’s the Origin of All “Value,” from Amoebas to Humans

Ronnie Hawkins, University of Central Florida

I’ll start off by saying that I am certainly not one of the logical positivists, and I agree with Ruse that many people in philosophy are coming from that point of view. My background is in biology and zoology, with a degree in medicine. I came to philosophy later in life, primarily motivated by my deep concern over what we are doing to the natural world. The environment is being radically disrupted by what I’m starting to call a massive failure of taking responsibility on the part of our present leaders, and interestingly enough Holmes Rolston was one of my guiding lights in searching for answers to the particular concern that brought me to philosophy: I think it is deeply immoral that our species is driving other species into extinction. Biologically speaking, this is a much larger, egregious wrong worse than genocide—which we all think is a much larger than homicide—in terms of destroying not just whole groups of humans, but entire taxonomic groups of organisms. And we really have to take responsibility for our role in that process and turn it around.

This leads me to my central critique. I heartily agree with the last few paragraphs of this book. I have never been an adherent of a formal religion, and I thank my parents for not filling my head with a lot of nonsense from which I could not later escape—many people spend their lives trying to escape from that. But they did allow me to fill myself with a deep reverence for the natural world. So I fully agree with the last few pages of Darwin and Design that discuss a return to an appreciation of “the complex, adaptive glory of the living world,” rejoicing and trembling before it. We need that. We need to bring religion and biology, and all of science, together. I also agree with the idea of teleology in nature—we have to deal with it, it is very real, and we are all living proof of that. We are biological organisms who have our own goals and purposes; we are teleological, and our fundamental goals as biological organisms are to maintain ourselves—to prevent ourselves from dying—and to reproduce. Those are fundamental to all biological organisms; and beyond that, as humans, we have lots of other purposes that we further elaborate. But I’m trying to stay at the level of what we share, and to me the most basic theme coming from Charles Darwin is not even natural selection, which I agree is important, but the evolutionary continuity of all living things, the incredibly deep connectedness that we all share.

I just came back from a sabbatical, and spent much of my time last year reconnecting with what I studied during my science education. There are some marvelous books out now on cell biology, genetics, and embryological development. We are now at the stage where our technology lets us visualize the actual, organized movements of molecules—take the motor proteins, for example, that all living things basically share. There are only a handful of them—myosin, kinesin, dynein—they move along actin filaments or walk along microtubules, one kind going one way and one going another. We can see this happen; we have electron micrographs of the power stroke of dynein, for instance, the energy-expending change of shape that makes it take a “step.” This is very exciting to me. And when you read further about the motor proteins, when you read about the highly conserved nature of most genes and proteins, you learn that not only are they shared by all vertebrates, they are shared by invertebrate animals life and by plants and fungi as well—they are shared by all eukaryotic organisms, all organisms that have DNA enclosed by a nuclear membrane. This is evolutionary continuity writ large, for all to see.

And I think that if we stick with the idea of evolutionary continuity, there is no problem with teleology. We are fully aware as humans that we share in teleology, we have “purposes.” The problem that some people have with extending teleology to the rest of life—the problem that I see, coming from environmental philosophy—is a result of anthropocentrism. Somehow, you want to allow for human choice and human purpose but you want to exclude most of the rest of the living world—maybe allowing for the other primates, or at least the great apes, to have purpose and choice, but only for them—while there is really continuity all the way down. You look at an amoeba reaching out a pseudopod toward a food particle, trying to maintain its life, and that is an example of it valuing something that helps support its life, that is a rudimentary form of choice—maybe not “conscious” choice in our human sense, but the early beginnings of that kind of choice. You have value and choice and teleology all the way from the amoeba to the human, and once you recognize that, you have no problem with teleology or purposiveness in biology being paradoxical—it’s not. It is really there, in all living things.

Of course, talking about teleology for organisms is not the same as talking about teleology for the entire universe. And I’m not going to try to make that case. Although I will say there are people who are working on that—people at the Santa Fe Institute, Stuart Kauffman, Steven Strogatz, and others—and I’m beginning to believe there are larger patterns in the universe. There is, as Kauffman says, “order for free.” Read the books on cell biology—it used to be, when I was going through school, that we knew the primary structure of proteins, what amino acids went together in linear order, but we didn’t know much about the secondary and tertiary structure. We do now, and we can look at it now, and talk about things like how the active site of an enzyme is turned on and off by a few configurational changes, what genes turn it on and off, what transcription factors control these genes, and so on. There is a lot of “order for free” out there—it comes from the way molecules assemble themselves, for one thing, and so we’re already way beyond the “billiard ball” model of physics where what happens is reducible to isolated, atomistic particles bouncing off one another. There is much more going on than that, lots of very complex interactions that produce larger patterns, eventually resulting in life as an anentropic, self-maintaining phenomenon.

My final point has to do with metaphor. We don’t have to think of the purposiveness of biological organisms as just a metaphor—it’s real. But I do think we have to recognize that human beings think largely metaphorically. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for example, have been putting out a lot of recent material arguing that even what we think of as abstract logic may very well relate to bodily metaphors, to our human embodiment. You know, perhaps I learned my syllogistic thinking when I was 4 or 5 years old—that I could put a pea in a cup, and I put the cup in a Tupperware container, that I could see that the pea was also in the container—OK, that’s the kind of bodily, real-world understanding, that gets translated into logic, using the “container” metaphor. We are biological beings, we are not little point-minds like Descartes thought, but unfortunately I see a lot of analytic philosophy, as well as logical positivism, still coming from that kind of disembodied position. You folks who think this way may need to go back and take a course in biology, in order to put us back in the picture as embodied, biological beings. But acknowledging our use of metaphor helps us to make sense, anthropologically, of some still-pervasive religious views. Two thousand years ago we humans, or the people who wrote the books in patriarchal societies, male human beings, thought that, oh, there is all of this order in the universe—it is there to be seen—and so there must be some big male human being in the sky that’s as powerful as we male human beings are on earth, to have put this all together. As a metaphor, it was a way that people then could understand how all this happened, how all this order came to be. I am urging that we now update ourselves. We have had two thousand years of science since that time, we understand how life has evolved, and we can hold onto “design” insofar as this indicates order and the teleology of organisms, and just get rid of what I’m calling anthropocentrism, assuming that “value” and “purpose” can only be associated with human beings. And then we can go back to having reverence for the natural world—which includes us and all other teleological, purposive, living organisms— and stop destroying it.


Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books. 1999.

Kauffman, Stuart A. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. New York: Oxford UP. 1993.

Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1991.
Pollard, Thomas D., and William C. Earnshaw. Cell Biology. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company. 2002.

Rolston, Holmes, III. Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple UP. 1988.

Ruse, Michael. Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Cambridge: Harvard UP. 2003.

Soule, Michael. “Conservation Biology in the Twenty-first Century: Summary and Outlook.” Eds. David Western and Mary Pearl. Conservation for the Twenty-first Century. New York: Oxford UP. 1989.

Strogatz, Steven H. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous order. New York: Theia. 2003.

Wilson, David Sloan. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 2002.

Wolpert, Lewis. Principles ofDevelopment. New York: Oxford UP. 2002.




Ronnie Hawkins

Ronnie Hawkins has a degree in medicine (M.D.) as well as a doctorate in philosophy (Ph.D.) from the University of Florida in Gainesville, and completed a residency in anatomic pathology at Yale. Some of the courses she teaches include Environmental Ethics, Ethics and Biological Science, Philosophy of Science, Existentialism, Philosophy, Religion, and the Environment, and Ethics in Science and Technology. Dr. Hawkins is interested in bringing an understanding of humans scientifically, as biological beings, in evolutionary and ecological context, together with the view that considers humans philosophically but that has often failed to make contact with the physical and biological dimensions of reality. She believes that as a species, we face a number of difficult challenges in the years ahead that necessitate our attaining a broader and more realistic understanding of ourselves in order to survive beyond the twenty-first century.