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. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

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

Over the last century, 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. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (heartprintsofgod.com)

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—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

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

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in 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. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. 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 http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2011/bourne.pdf. Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.

Walk, Run, Eat: The Evolution of Our Body

It can be difficult to visualize the stages that led from our chimp ancestors to the body that we see in the mirror. But Daniel E. Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease is a fine time machine. It took me back six million years to changes in feet, legs, arms and torso, all molded as our ancestors searched for food.

Reconstruction of sahelanthropus tchadens, who lived six to seven million years ago. (smithsonianscience.org)

Reconstruction of sahelanthropus tchadens, who lived six to seven million years ago. Not your average chimp. (smithsonianscience.org)

Human evolution can be said to have begun when one of our ancestors developed a feature that has been unique to us: We walk on two legs. That ability separated us from our cousin chimps between six and seven million years ago. We remain the only two-footed walking animal that doesn’t carry the feathers of a bird or the tail of a kangaroo.

Why walk? We began walking when the fruit that we ate became sparser; the African continent was cooling and the forests were shrinking. (I’ve conflated the species that Lieberman names to “us.”) Those who could stand upright and walk distances on two feet found not only more fruit but also edible stems and leaves. We were chimp-size, but as bi-pedal walkers our arms and hands became free for new uses.

intermediate human

A reconstruction of australopithicus bosei, “Nutcracker Man,” who lived two million years ago, discovered by Mary and Louis Leakey in 1959. Our intermediate stage. (Wikipedia)

The transition continued. By four million years ago, our anatomy had changed again. Foraging over distances fostered “more habitual and efficient long-distance walking.” Our feet acquired an arch that put a spring in our step and pushed the body forward. For stronger chewing, molars and jaws became much larger than ours today. These ancestors are nicknamed “Nutcracker Man.” We were still small but more upright, and still with relatively long arms and short legs.

The next stage was the Ice Age, two and a half million years ago. Foraging over larger areas required more calories, calories that meat could provide. Our ability to throw accurately brought down animals. Sharp stone tools cut up their flesh and made it chewable and digestible. We became taller, with arms and legs close to today’s proportions. We developed external noses to humidify the air that we inhaled during long walks. We began to run—far—with Achilles tendons for more spring and unique sweat glands and finer fur to stay cool.  As teeth and snouts shrank and brains grew, heads became rounder. Organized hunting and gathering became necessities. Generally, females gathered while males hunted. Unlike chimps, we shared food readily with extended families. Cooperation, coordination, and communication were means of survival. We—Homo erectus—became “significantly human.” 

homo erectus

Homo erectus reconstructed.
“Significantly human,” writes Lieberman. (Wikipedia)

Lieberman continues the story of our evolution into the present and discusses its relevance to disease. After millions of years of seeking food and storing its energy in our bodies whenever we could find it, today we eat more calories than we need while we burn off fewer calories than ever before. As a result, we suffer from “mismatch diseases” such as diabetes and other conditions like hardening of the arteries that our ancestors had no need to adapt to. We may treat the symptoms successfully, but we ignore the reality that, given evolution’s slow clock, we won’t be adapting to resist them any time soon.

march of progress

The original version of the “March of Progress,” from Time magazine in 1965. The details are out of date now and the notion of linear, progressive development has been criticized. But the image remains indelible.
(Wikipedia)

Most of Your Cells Aren’t Yours

“All told, the [tiny] microbes in your body outnumber your own [much larger] cells by ten to one and can weigh as much as or more than your brain—about three pounds in an average adult. Each of us is thus both an organism and a densely populated ecosystem, with habitats harboring species as different from one another as the animals in a jungle and a desert.” Thus writes Stanford University microbiologist Nathan Wolfe in the 1/2013 issue of National Geographic. The more we find out about our bacteria, the more we might want to rethink who, biologically, we are.

Bacteria under a toenail. (allergiesandyourgut.com)

Bacteria under a toenail. (allergiesandyourgut.com)

The “habitats” that house these communities of bacteria and other microbes include our gums, guts,  genitals, underarms, inner elbows, tongue and throat, and the backs of our ears. Only a few species of bacteria make us sick. Others digest our food, make our vitamins, train our immune systems, moisturize and protect out skin. The bacteria that helps us digest milk crowd into the vaginal canal when a baby is passing through to help prepare it for breast milk.

There is an eerieness to me about all this. In many cultures people believe that their ancestors are always nearby, watching over them, helping or interfering with their lives. And devout Christians invoke deities, angels, and saints for assistance. So here for us secularists are our own ancient ancestors, the bacteria, every bit as with us and in us and influential as any holy spirit is thought to be.

What’s also eerie is that bacteria have a long history of becoming a part of other organisms, literally. Billions of years ago bacteria that could process light and excrete oxygen were absorbed into other cells and turned into the photosynthesizing chloroplasts of green plants. Other bacteria that boosted cellular energy were so useful to other cells that they became incorporated as the energizer mitochondria found in nearly all cells. In humans, bacteria don’t seem to have settled in as part of the furniture—yet—but they have been called “the forgotten organ.” Bacteria can be very good at making themselves indispensable.

We think of ourselves as a relatively new species, set off from the rest of nature by our brains. And indeed we are both new and different in some ways. But surely the way that bacteria have become integral parts of us, repeating a pattern billions of years old, reminds us what ancient creatures we really are.