The Purpose Problem

Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. Evidently the question of purpose had snuck up on me unawares. These days, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

Before I get to that, I’ll summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, often taken to be God himself. Today we certainly think in terms of goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand cosmic plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

For the last century or more, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. For example, a woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money in order to help her family. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of helping the family. But her friends today would probably tell you  that while her goal of helping the family may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her personal history, her individual personality, and her current problems.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as purposeful. (

Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do, from our cells on up, is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

Notice that we’re not talking about the purpose of the heart, for example, in terms of its final goal or evolution. That’s the traditional perspective and it is easy to slip into. The human heart did not come into being because it was a goal of the evolution of early animal hearts. It’s not even true that hearts in earlier animals needed improvement in particular ways. Our hearts evolved over millions of years because certain variations in the muscles boosted circulation slightly and gave the bodies they were in slightly better odds for more offspring.  

In other words, organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose a little differently than their predecessors. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of function. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (

So, the big question is this: are the purpose-serving activities that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we seek to articulate about our life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of  what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?

I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. I think that while we each may answer questions about human purpose in  different ways, what drives that question in the first place is that we are packed tight with purposeful parts, from our bones to our brains, and we know it. We are indeed purpose-driven.



Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.

Stem Cells and Creativity

Stem cells are creative in the most fundamental ways. Until recently, I didn’t know much about them except that they produced other kinds of cells and that the medical research on stem cells taken from left-over in-vitro embryos was controversial.

The importance of stem cells lies in the fact that life depends on cells that divide. It took more than a billion years for the first cell with a nucleus to come together. Since then, the only reliable source for a new cell has been another cell. Every cell is an offspring. True for plants as well as animals.

An embryonic stem cell (Wikipedia)

An embryonic stem cell

But cells, while they are specialized for one task or another, are not necessarily very good at dividing and reproducing. Muscle cells, blood cells, and nerve cells, for example, don’t reproduce at all. Other cells in the body divide under some circumstances or for a limited number of divisions.

The cell that specializes in reproduction is the stem cell. It can divide and produce two offspring that include another stem cell and a cell that is a muscle cell or blood cell or nerve cell or a cell of another organ. It even looks the part of such shape-shifting—blob-like, unstructured, ready to divide into any cell type necessary.

Stem cells are stationed throughout the body, small groups of them in each organ, on call to generate new cells when existing ones are damaged. (Thus their potential medical use.) It’s a profound piece of bodily engineering, a design for the long-term, like a car that carries a set of little 3-D printers throughout the engine and chassis to create new parts and replace the old parts automatically.

The stem cells in human embryos, in contrast to adults, play an even more fundamental role. When an embryo is only a few days old, its stem cells begin to form all the specialized cells needed for a body, some 200 of them.

In this root tip, the number 1 marks the relatively unstructured stem cells in the meristem. (Wikipedia)

In this root tip, the number 1 marks the relatively unstructured stem cells in the meristem.

Plants have stem cells too. Located near the tips of the roots and stems in a layer called the meristem, plant stem cells divide into both specialized cells for the plant and additional stem cells. Stem cells, simply put, are the place where a plant grows.

One of the wonders of any living thing is the sheer variety of all its parts, the inventory of its tubes, organs, fluids, surfaces, protrusions, electric circuits and rigid pieces. As we pause to appreciate this profusion, sing the praises of the smudgy cell that creates and repairs them all.

“Your Inner Fish”

Most people accept the idea that we are descended from earlier primates. But descended from fish? That might seem to be a stretch. In Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (2008), Neil Shubin makes a vivid case. He traces our body parts back to fish and beyond. And he comments passionately on the beauty and unity of life’s development over billions of years.


Tiktaalik, ready for push-ups–and land

Along the way, Shubin narrates the painstaking detective work of the paleontologist. He weaves the opening chapters around his own years in the barren Arctic as he helped to discover, in 2004, the 375-million-year-old fossil of a missing link between fish and amphibians.

The discovery  of Tiktaalik, Inuit for “large freshwater fish,” was exciting for several reasons:

All fish prior to Tiktaalik have a set of bones that attach the skull to the shoulder, so that every time the animal bends its body, it also bent its head. Tiktaalik is different. The head is completely free of the shoulder. This whole arrangement is shared with amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including us. The entire shift can be traced to the loss of a few small bones in a fish like Tiktaalik. (p. 26 in the Vintage paperback edition).

Say hello to our neck.


In the middle, Tiktaalik’s new neck.

There was another surprise about Tiktaalik. Earlier fish had fins with bones that were the ancestors of our arms and fingers. To these early forearms and fingers Tiktaalik added small bones that were, in fact, the earliest wrists. These crude wrists mean that Tiktaalik, as Shubin puts it, “was capable of doing push-ups….The wrist was able to bend to make the fish’s ‘palm’ lie flat against the ground….Tiktaalik was likely built to navigate the bottom and shallows of streams or ponds, and even to flop around on the mudflats along the banks” (39-40).

So Tiktaalik had fins capable of supporting the body—these were the first limbs for moving on land. Since then, the same structure has appeared in not only the arms, legs, and hands of humans and other mammals but also in the wings and flippers of bats, penguins, birds, and whales. In all these, one bone is attached to the torso (in us, the upper arm bone and the upper leg bone), followed by two bones, followed by little bones (wrists and ankles), followed by smaller fingers and toes.

limb bones

Limb bones from fish to humans

Shubin’s other chapters trace the development of teeth, heads, noses, eyes, ears, and even bodies themselves, which emerged 3.5 billion years ago. In each chapter at some point, Shubin pauses to explain his appreciation of the patterns he is describing. “Beauty” and “beautiful” are common words in the book. The anatomy of the head “is deeply mesmerizing, in fact, beautiful. One of the joys of science is that, on occasion, we see a pattern that reveals the order in what initially seems chaotic. A jumble becomes part of a simple plan, and you feel you are seeing right through something to find its essence” (82). Echoing Carl Sagan’s thought that “looking at the stars is like looking back in time,” Shubin says the same about the human body. “If you know how to look, our body becomes a time capsule that, when opened, tells of critical moments in the history of our planet and of a distant past in ancient oceans, streams, and forests” (184).

I would guess that many scientists feel the same way about looking into the essences behind the apparent chaos. But not many write about it so well. That’s unfortunate, because I think that if they did, more non-scientists would value what our biological history can tell us about who we are and what our lives mean.