Does Nature Suggest Transcendence?

That the living world might, in some deep mysterious way, be expressive of a transcendent dimension is largely rejected by contemporary secular thinkers. Most will argue that modern science has demonstrated, at least in principle, that life in all its evolving complexity and sophistication is the inevitable product of entirely natural, unplanned processes. Biological materialism, or naturalism, is an all-embracing material explanation of how molecules evolved into complex living organisms including us humans. In this view all of life is accounted for in terms of the outworking of scientifically describable chemical and physical processes guided entirely by rules and constraints resident within a wholly material universe. And so it asks - Why insist on a role for a Creator when science has shown there is nothing left for a Creator to do?


The God vs no-God polarization is one of the big tensions troubling contemporary Western culture. The intensity of the debate is fuelled in part by the recent widespread publicity given to religious fundamentalism and its frequent, and I believe, misplaced insistence that all scientific truth must be made subservient to a particular literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis. There is an added tension for many Christians genuinely engaged in science within the context of our secular scientific culture: there can be the threat of banishment to an academic gulag if one dares to express religious and specifically theistic sympathies or raise doubts about the explanatory power of a wholly material science.

In this paper I do not wish to explore the fundamental God versus no-God issue—that I shall leave to the theologians and philosophers. Rather, I want to linger briefly within the scientific ‘camp’ and ask whether the particulars that science reveals, and science has done this task with remarkable thoroughness, do in fact point to a purposeful, transcendent dimension.

The priority of natural selection

To begin our exploration it is important to note that naturalism’s recipe for the unfolding of life is intimately bound up with the concept of Darwinian natural selection (NS). Although Darwin proposed his theory before the gene had been discovered, and we must not forget Alfred Russel Wallace’s co-proposing of the same theory, our modern understanding of this concept is based on Darwin’s unique insights into the interplay between biological variability, fitness with the local environment and reproductive success.

Natural selection, now deeply informed by modern molecular biology, is really a description of biological transformation arising from the differential and adaptive survival of genes. Largely random alterations in an organism’s genetic make-up result in variations in its phenotype. If these genetically sourced variations enable the organism to adapt more successfully to its environment it will reproduce faster, resulting in a lineage that is better able to survive than those variants less favourably endowed. This, in brief, is naturalism’s primary explanation for life’s evolutionary unfolding.

Again, we need to remind ourselves that naturalism is about a natural as opposed to a transcendent cause. It is committed to placing natural selection entirely within the material basket. For the materialist the responsibility to deliver the richness of biological innovation rests squarely on the shoulders of natural selection. And it must bear this burden alone. There is no supporting cast. Single-handed, natural selection is charged with the monumental task of conquering the ‘Everest’ of biological innovation. So, in Richard Dawkins words1:-

Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparent purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker. (p. 5)

Biologist John Avise2presses home this almost sacral duty:  

Only natural selection comes close to omnipotence, but even here no intelligence, foresight, ultimate purpose or morality is involved. Natural selection is merely an amoral force, as inevitable and uncaring as gravity.

A particularly eloquent piece of prose in the same materialist vein comes from the distinguished French biologist Jacques Monod3:

Even today a good many distinguished minds seem unable to accept or even to understand that from a source of noise, natural selection could quite unaided have drawn all the music of the biosphere. Indeed natural selection operates upon the products of chance and knows no other nourishment.

How natural is natural selection?

But we need to ask - can natural selection be so easily dismissed as a wholly material, unconscious, purposeless process? I think it is fair to say that at one popular level the expression natural selection serves as a kind of mantra, an almost magical utterance that quickly allays any doubts a skeptic might entertain. It is uttered with power and authority when any kind of biological achievement required to be explained, and in the currency of a wholly material world. My argument is that the claim that natural selection explains the extraordinary (read life processes) while drawing only on the ordinary (read material processes), is not only bad science, it is also contradicted by the very narrative the materialist seems compelled to employ to present his or her story of life.

So let me first give you several recent examples from the popular science literature to illustrate just how reliant on the use of this mantra biological materialism has become.
London University geneticist Steve Jones4 in his book Almost like a Whale has a chapter on natural selection and explains its working in the following way. He describes his experience of working as a fitter’s mate in a Liverpool soap powder factory. A soapy liquid is blown out through a nozzle and the pressure drop creates a cloud of soap particles. But the process originally utilised a simple nozzle that narrowed at one end. This design led to several quality control issues. Jones describes the problem of finding an improved nozzle design as simply too difficult for scientists to solve so the company resorted to evolution - "design without a designer". Here are Jones’ words:

The engineers used the idea that moulds life itself: descent with modification. Take a nozzle that works quite well and make copies, each changed at random. Test them for how well they make powder. Then, impose a struggle for existence by insisting that not all can survive. Many of the altered devices are no better (or worse) than the parental form. They are discarded, but the few able to do a superior job are allowed to reproduce and are copied - but again not perfectly. As generations pass there emerges, as if by magic, a new and efficient pipe of complex and unexpected shape. (p. 91)

Now Steve Jones should, of all people, know better than to use such a misleading illustration. The trial and error or hit and miss type of process which he claims is analogous to natural selection is actually loaded with intentionality, or to be exact, intelligent scrutiny. Firstly, a better nozzle is being sought. So, a nozzle, said to have been modified at random, is tried and found to do a better or worse job than another. And who decides whether it is an improvement or not? A rather discerning “nozzle operator,” one skilled in the art of recognising whether the change is for better or for worse, one who is able to detect subtle degrees of improvement or deterioration.

Even the expression “trial and error” presupposes an expectation against which an altered performance can be judged. “Hit and miss” is all about a target that is being aimed for. The men on the Liverpool soap factory shop floor knew precisely what end result they wanted (a better performing nozzle) and this surely robs Steve Jones of his convenient metaphor for natural selection. The words “design without a designer” are little more than misleading sloganeering and what he presents to his readers is more a piece of materialistic fiction. Natural selection, even if simplistically illustrated with the soap powder analogy, is a truly intentional process.

Interestingly, Darwin5 had, some 150 years earlier, resorted to the same language of intentionality in order to convey to his readers the discerning power of natural selection:

It may metaphorically be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.

Darwin's picture of natural selection “scrutinising”, “rejecting” the bad, “preserving” the good, carries the same idea of there being a profoundly important element of intentionality that operates in the living world - the very world he was attempting to explain in naturalistic terms.

But where does this quality of purpose or intention come from? Few would suggest that it could come from atoms or molecules themselves, unless of course we attribute to them qualities akin to mind or personality. Natural selection is certainly a biological reality but it is intimately linked with a dimension that would appear to be much more than material. Its persistence in the evolutionary literature as a wholly material process is, in my view, unfortunate. For while it serves rather well the particular ideological assertion that reality is ultimately unthinking matter, I do not think that it is consistent with the facts of science and especially biology.

The achievement of biological complexity

A fundamental issue for biology is how organs of great complexity might have evolved. The answer is generally framed in terms of gradualism and the creative power of cumulative small changes. Scientifically there seems nothing wrong with such an approach. Certainly, in modern animals there are enormous differences in the degrees of sophistication, for example, of the organs of sight (figure 1). The eye of the microscopic aquatic animal Euglena consists of a tiny light-sensitive spot. Further up the complexity ladder, the two eyes of the little Tubellarian flatworm Planaria are each formed from an arrangement of cup-shaped cells that are heavily pigmented. The interior of each cup is filled with special nerve cells which feed sensory signals back to the brain. Then there is the compound eye found in the vast family of arthropods with its built-in ability to adjust optically to varying levels of lighting, and especially ‘tuned’ for detecting rapid movements. Finally, the vertebrate eye provides us with a truly staggering leap in optical sophistication.


The eye is of course just one of many impressive examples of a single physiological function that is supported by an enormous range of complex biological technologies. And it is this that suggests to Dawkins a gradual upgrading or evolving of a primitive eye into a more sophisticated eye, and on this point he may well be correct.

Dawkins6 draws on a computer model devised by two Swedish biologists Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger7 and which ‘evolves’ a virtual eye object from a flat layer of virtual cells sandwiched between virtual pigmented and transparent layers (figure 2). The model works by producing at random small percentage changes in the degree of curvature of the sandwich, in the size of a light-restricting aperture, and in the local value of its refractive index (light-bending ability). The computer is programmed to perform a simple calculation of the focusing or resolving power of the sandwich each time a small random change (read virtual mutation) occurs in any of the three variables.


In a relatively small number of generations the computer model is shown to transform the flat sandwich layer through continuous minor improvements into a configuration representing a virtual, focused, lens-shaped object. Dawkins argues that this transformation is exactly analogous to climbing the mountain of biological complexity and in his own words:

Going upwards means mutating, one small step at a time, and only accepting mutations that improve optical performance. So, where do we get to? Pleasingly, through a smooth upward pathway, starting from no proper eye at all, we reach a familiar fish eye, complete with lens. (p. 151)

But one can immediately see that Dawkins' supposedly wholly material explanation is anything but material. He is required to impose a non-material constraint on the behaviour of the eye model - he inserts the crucial condition of “only accepting mutations that improve optical performance.” Or, in terms of his mountain-climbing analogy, one must aim for the summit. Thus again, in order for his model to transform into a symbolic eye object, he is required to impose a profoundly purposeful constraint on the model’s function.

Just for the record, neither the originators of the computer program, Dan Nilsson and Suzanne Pelger nor Richard Dawkins, appear to have contributed much that is conceptually new in presenting their evolving eye model. Some 135 years earlier Charles Darwin8 proposed a near identical schema with his own ‘thought’ experiment. Here is what he wrote:

. . . we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with spaces filled with fluid, and with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power, represented by natural selection or the survival of the fittest, always intently watching each slight alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully preserving each which, under varied circumstances, in any way or in any degree, tends to produce a distincter image. . . . variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of Man?

Note too how Darwin constructs for his readers a scenario that aims for a “distincter image”, one that will “pick out with unerring skill each improvement”. It is this principle of aiming for enhanced function that is absolutely crucial to the materialist’s theory of life but one which defies any purely impersonal or material explanation.

Object versus system

There is another layer of misrepresentation made by the biological materialist that needs to be discussed. And it concerns the confusing of material objects, however ordered they might be, and living systems. Richard Dawkins9 uses the example of such objects in an attempt to show his readers that evolution proceeds by virtue of the power of cumulative selection acting on small random changes. He describes his invention of a computer program which begins to draw from a simple predetermined form and which ‘evolves’ an array of intriguing shapes he calls biomorphs (figure 3). These arise from small random changes occurring in the instructional ‘genes’ contained in his program. Dawkins describes his own utter surprise and delight when he first ran his computer program:

When I wrote the program, I never thought that it would evolve anything more than a variety of tree-like shapes. I had hoped for weeping willows, cedars of Lebanon, Lombardy poplars, seaweeds, perhaps deer antlers. Nothing in my biologist's intuition, nothing in my 20 years’ experience of programming computers, and nothing in my wildest dreams, prepared me for what actually emerged on the screen. I can’t remember exactly when in the sequence it first began to dawn on me that an evolved resemblance to something like an insect was possible. With a wild surmise, I began to breed, generation after generation, from whichever child looked most like an insect. My incredulity grew in parallel with the evolving resemblance . . . Admittedly they have eight legs like a spider, instead of six like an insect, but even so! I still cannot conceal from you my feeling of exultation as I first watched these exquisite creatures emerging before my eyes. (p. 59)


Dawkins' main point is that as the generations pass, the total amount of genetic difference between a particular ‘offspring’ and its original ‘ancestor’ can become extremely large. And while the offspring in any one generation are different from their parents in random directions, the choice of which progeny goes forward into the next generation is determined by a non-random selection process - the human eye.

He does admit that the model is deficient in that it uses an artificial method to do the selecting, and goes on to suggest that a really clever programmer might be able to devise a form of natural selection that in some way modeled a mechanism of survival or death based on his so-called ‘biomorphs’ interacting with a simulated hostile environment.
But there are glaring conceptual flaws in Dawkins’ whole analogy. Firstly, he has committed a fatal error by mixing his metaphors. In effect he confuses systems that achieve with objects that simply are. What he produces is a series of computer-generated objects, in essence, digital doodles that certainly go through an interesting sequence of transformations resulting from the accumulation of small random alterations in the values of his shape-determining instructional ‘genes’. But they are nothing more than objects and can never be used to explain, in even the simplest analogous sense, how any living system might have arisen.

Dawkins appears to be exploiting the fact that his computer model generates shapes that crudely resemble all manner of objects, both living and non-living, and he even calls them by a name designed, I suspect, to evoke in the reader’s mind a living connotation - biomorphs. An unsuspecting reader might then imagine a plausible connection between these computer-generated pictures and the real thing. But in reality Dawkins' program produces pictorial representations of anything and everything, living and non-living - a great variety of recognisable shapes or ‘digital doodles’, Lego-like biosymbolic fantasy objects, crude and simplistic symbols of reality, but little more.

His computer program is a fantasy-generating machine - of a digital kind! His biomorphs offer nothing in the way of explanation as to how any functioning system, living or non-living, might have come into existence. They provide no more satisfactory explanation than does a child’s crayon drawing of an elephant or a mouse account for the existence of the real animal.

But Dawkins' biomorph analogy contains yet other glaring misconception. Here is a human being deliberately programming a computer which itself has been built with an immense amount of human creativity. This computer is then instructed to generate an intriguing array of images by sequential, random changes (mutations) in the values of the program’s various shaping ‘genes’. In other words Dawkins requires a carefully structured, non-random, highly sophisticated and intelligently structured environment in which to produce his biomorphs. This is a far cry from what one would expect from a wholly impersonal set of material processes.

For Dawkins' model to carry any real conviction, even as a mechanism for ‘evolving’ an endless variety of geometric forms, he must be able to produce his biomorphs beginning only with the impersonal, and enriched only by the chaotic action of brute chance. All meaningful influences must be excluded. There must be no intelligence available to design, build, and program the computer. There must be no mechanism whereby one ‘morphic’ trend is preferred or selected over another for that would then amount to cheating by invoking a non-material agency. He must be able to demonstrate that such grimly primitive and impersonal conditions can produce a ‘system’ whose interacting parts combine to achieve in a truly creative sense. Merely producing an object, however symbolic of living ‘things’ its shape might be, simply will not do.

Dawkins could, of course, draw a much more modest conclusion from his biomorph model. And it might go something like this. Given the necessary resources of human intelligence, computer hardware and software, the ‘random-walk’ biomorph analogy demonstrates how random changes in the input instructions can be used to generate an endless variety of shapes that bear some purely superficial resemblance to the shape of both non-living and living things.

While Dawkins’ biomorph model tells us virtually nothing about how living systems might have evolved, nor what they are, it does illustrates rather nicely the distinctive appearance of many material or non-living objects. For example, when liquids freeze solid, structures called dendrites will often be produced. The snowflake takes on an almost endless array of repeatedly branched dendritic shapes of considerable geometric beauty. When molten iron freezes from a high temperature ‘fir tree’-shaped dendrites of solid iron crystals form first in the melt (figure 4a).

The famous 17th century mathematician and natural philosopher, Robert Hooke, constructed the first compound microscope consisting of two lenses, rather than one. With the much greater magnification provided by this instrument, Hooke proceeded to examine the minutia of his surroundings including the crystalline symmetry of frozen urine (figure 4b). His book10 provides some of the most beautiful hand-drawn microscopic images from nature ever made.


Few might relish the prospect of freezing and then examining their own waste-water. However, here is a comparable experiment almost anyone with access to some basic chemicals can perform. Take small amounts of the two common chemicals sodium chloride (salt) and sodium acetate and dissolve them in a small amount of water. Leave the solution to slowly evaporate on a glass slide in a warm airing cupboard until all that remains is a thin spread of solid particles. Rather quickly the dried out salt crystals will reabsorb moisture from the atmosphere leaving microscopic little puddles. But within these puddles a myriad morphic delights await to be viewed under a low-powered microscope (figure 5).

On one of my slides I found the tail of a sounding whale. There were short and long-tailed dinosaurs enjoying a moment of intimacy, an out-of-balance propeller and a giant cactus plant. These morphic wonders were all generated entirely by natural processes. As the water in my salt solution evaporated, the chemical species within began to aggregate, atom to atom, into crystalline arrays. This process, in accordance with the rules of chemical bonding, produced solid crystals growing in directions defined by their three cubic axes in space. Subtle and local variations in conditions within the evaporating solution meant that any given growth direction was in or out of favour at any one place and time – hence the never-ending variety of these crystalline shapes or morphs.

Importantly, no computer with a fancy instruction program was required to produce these crystalline delights though I think they compete rather favourably with those generated by Richard Dawkins on his computer. But equally I would never want to suggest that these chemical morphs offer even the slightest hint of how living things might have come into existence. Crude symbolism certainly, but helpful insight into biological realities—I think not!


What my morphs do demonstrate is the servile role played by the unthinking laws of chemistry. They operate with untiring faithfulness, and always under higher influences. And in my case these influences were the unthinking fluctuations within the solution itself. The end product is a series of objects whose shapes conform entirely to the known rules of chemistry and possess some vague resemblance to the shapes of living things.

Returning briefly to Dawkins’ biomorph model, what it does illustrate is a principle that goes against the very grain of his own materialistic philosophy. And it is this: in order to achieve (note my deliberate choice of this purposeful word) even a series of objects that are interconnected by a progression of small alterations in shape (i.e. intermediates), and where those alterations are triggered by small random changes in the shape-altering instructions, a creatively designed and constructed system is required. In brief, Dawkins needs a computer. This is certainly not analogous to the workings of raw, material forces alone; rather it is an example of a sophisticated system deliberately built to achieve a certain end—the production of objects he calls biomorphs.

The confusing of objects with purposeful systems is in many ways at the very heart of the debate between the materialist and the transcendentalist. However, there is no question that quite complex objects can arise entirely from the mindless action of the brute forces of nature.

The image in figure 6 shows, with a little stretch of the imagination, a ‘human face’ sculptured in a soft sandstone coastal cliff near my home. No artist had dreamed up and shaped this face. Over time the erosive action of wind, sand, sun, rain and tide had done its unthinking thing on the variable strata of soft sandstone and produced by chance an object which possessed some symbolic resemblance to a human face.


While sufficiently pleased with my find to record it on camera, I was unable to experience anything like the “feeling of exultation” that Dawkins admits to in seeing his biomorphs appear on his computer screen. And yet my sandstone face is in many respects much more of a material achievement than Richard Dawkins’ computer generated images. His biomorph objects depended on an intelligent computer programmer and operator. My sandstone sculpture was crafted by the raw forces of nature. What we both have in our possession are crude, naive symbols of reality and nothing more. But there is a single important difference. His biomorph was one of a continuum of objects produced because he employed a richly structured system to create them. My rocky face was completely and utterly original, it was a genuine collector’s piece. There were no others even vaguely like it on the beach. There was no carefully thought-out scheme that had harnessed the material forces of nature in order to produce a sequence of sandstone shapes that led finally to my symbolic profile. This was mindless, undirected artistry at its best.

What we can see then is that objects, many of them of considerable symbolic interest, can be produced by the brute forces of an unthinking material world. By contrast, purposeful systems will always be the result of carefully contrived arrangements that only some influence, akin to mind, can provide.

Life transcends order

There is a related problem and it concerns the frequent assertion that because biological systems, like nonliving systems, exhibit order that can be explained in wholly material terms. The evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma makes exactly this point arguing that the generation of order that we see for example in a crystal or in the sorting of beach pebbles into a gradation of sizes by wave action is clear evidence that order in nature is no evidence for design and, importantly, that this same class of impersonal/unthinking natural forces can equally explain the living organism. I quote from his book Science on Trial11:

Biological systems, like nonliving systems, are ordered - and like nonliving systems, they can be explained in terms of detailed physical mechanisms. Physiologists may be daunted at times in attempting to understand how a cell carries out the intricacies of metabolism; but as physiology has grown, it has shown these intricacies to be the consequence of fairly simple laws of chemistry, not of a mysterious “life force.” (p. 115)

Compare now the above statement of Futuyma with that of the systems scientist Leon Brillouin12 who takes a completely contrasting and, I believe, more candid view of the living organism and its behaviour:

The living organism heals its own wounds, cures its sicknesses, and may rebuild large portions of its structure when they have been destroyed by some accident. This is the most striking and unexpected behaviour. Think of your own car, the day you had a flat tire, and imagine having simply to wait and smoke a cigar while the hole patched itself and the tire pumped itself to the proper pressure, and you could go on. This sounds incredible. It is, however, the way nature works when you “chip off'” while shaving in the morning. There is no inert matter possessing a similar property of repair.

The contrast between these two positions is glaring: the crudely ordered strata of pebbles that we see on the beach are engulfed by the external forces imposed on them. They have no choice but to ‘go with the flow’. The granules of salt that I sprinkle on my boiled egg at breakfast consist of sodium and chlorine ions that have aggregated with boring regularity into a particular crystalline order. Compress one of these salt crystals and you will get an utterly predictable response – it will crush! It cannot anticipate this assault on its shape or make up for any loss of cohesive strength. It cannot, of itself, embark on a program of self-repair or reproduction to ensure the continuity of the sodium chloride species in that particular form.

The grain of salt certainly possesses order, and it is the kind of order that materialists like Douglas Futuyma misleadingly imply can account for the living organism. But the idea that the order observed in the non-living world provides a key to our understanding of how living organisms might have developed seems little more than a naive materialistic fantasy.

Purpose denied, purpose required

Oxford chemist Peter Atkins is a prominent scientist who promotes with considerable vigour the idea of a mindless, purposeless set of material processes that have transformed ‘Molecules into Men’. Here is a brief extract from his book Creation Revisited 13 illustrating this grand materialistic unfolding of life:

The whole course of evolution can be regarded as a geared and cooperative dissipation of energy. Every stage of evolution, including the steps that gave rise to complex molecules out of simpler ones, to people out of slime, and the processes involved when species are confronted with competition, proceeds by dissipation.  

Molecules did not aim at reproduction: they stumbled upon it. Accretion of complexity reached the point where one molecule was so structured that the sequence of reactions it could undergo, under the casual pressure of dispersal, led by chance to the formation of a replica. . . . At every stage of replication there was opportunity for modification because slightly different smaller molecules were in the vicinity and could be incorporated. Many of these daughters may have been unviable, or less successful at replication than their ancestors and sisters; but some were more successful, and flourished into elephants. (p. 31)

Atkins sketches for his readers a series of ancient, aimless molecular happenings: a local pocket of molecules, driven by a tendency for everything in the universe to gravitate towards a more uniform or more spread-out and lower energy state, are continually bumping into each other (in chemical terms, reacting). In their haphazard meanderings, these molecules “stumble” into some different configuration which just happens to possess some new qualities. For example, copies of this new arrangement might somehow be made more easily. Remember, in Atkins’ molecular world, nothing is aimed at. There can be no actual purpose or intended outcome in this wholly material world.

This new tendency of the molecules to stumble upon a mechanism of copying or replication, also embodied failure—a failure to copy faithfully. A kind of molecular variety concert is launched on the primordial stage of the ancient, still lifeless, earth. Act after aimless act is performed, each a subtle twist on the previous as other molecules straying in the vicinity are conveniently co-opted. A “yes, we got through that act”, or “no, that was a disaster” kind of primordial culling pressure (read - natural selection) acts on this molecular concert, resulting in more replication, more variety, more cancelled acts, more complexification and producing, eventually, elephants and humans!

Now the above is, I believe, a fair summary of how Peter Atkins’ imagines life to have unfolded. But what is he really asking his readers to believe? Keeping in mind Atkins’ reigning dictum that complex life came from simple molecular interactions via entirely inanimate processes, it stands to reason that if a living cell could have been created in the fullness of time by such starkly material happenings, the origin of much less complex non-living things should be even more easily explained by equally material processes.
So let me try and explain Atkins’ primordial drama by way of an analogous scenario, one that is, indeed, incomparably simpler than any primitive life form, but comparably material and thus much more plausible given the conditions he espouses. My scenario might read something along the following lines:

Imagine some hot little spot on the surface of the ancient earth, maybe a crevice near an active volcano (technically termed a fumarole). Some iron oxide molecules just happen to meet up with some unlikely carbon atoms which, at the prevailing temperature, just happen to bring about the reduction of some of the iron oxide to its metallic state (equivalent to Atkins’ “random, motiveless jostling” of his “crowd of atoms” p. 23). It just so happens that this iron, now further heated by the reduction reaction (equivalent perhaps to Atkins’ “geared and cooperative dissipation of energy” p. 31), begins to flow as a liquid and find its way, quite by chance, into a collection spot where it gradually cools. The form it assumes on solidifying is of course a nothing-in-particular shape.  

But, the lottery of primordial events grinds relentlessly onwards and upwards. More molten iron is produced, shape is added to shape, a corner is knocked off here, a bit added there and soon that nothing-in-particular shape is modified into something that, quite by chance, begins to take on a more cylindrical form. Volcanic explosions generate scoria ‘bombs’ and cause movement in the rocky environment which pummels and distorts our piece of iron. A distinct bend is produced, the form of a crude ‘crank’ shape is hinted at. The relentless heaving, tumbling and grinding movements eventually produces, quite by chance, a smooth, polished bearing surface on the ‘crank’ object (equivalent to Atkins’ “Complex molecules can acquire even greater complexity in stages instead of attempting a single grand passion. One molecule may be able to discard a few atoms to a congenial partner, pick up a few others elsewhere, and in due course chance upon a destination.” (p. 29)

Nearby, equally material processes lead to the formation of another metallic ‘thing’ that just happens to attach itself to the above ‘crank’ as a crude connecting rod. This, together with several other metallic shapes - all produced by the same mindless, unguided physical processes - results in the accidental formation of a crank connected to a piston inside a cylinder. A mix of gases, quite by chance, happens to seep into the cylinder above the piston and gets accidentally compressed when the ‘crank’ is struck at the right angle by another scoria bomb (equivalent to Atkins’ “reaction by multiple misadventure”, p. 31). This gaseous mixture turns out to be combustible. A spark from the volcanic vent triggers an explosion and thus the primordial earth, utilizing only unthinking material processes, yields the very first firing stroke of the internal combustion engine.

Of course, this first ‘stroke’ of luck did not connect with an appropriate second stroke. However, because we have both megatime and mega amounts of material and energy this same kind of process is repeated endlessly and, after a mega-number of in-between models, leads eventually to an improved pre-engine (equivalent to Atkins’ “complexity may be the outcome of chains of simplicity” p. 7). This last model now incorporates a first and second exhaust stroke which had an obvious functional advantage in that it was closer in form to an engine that could function (yes, we have here a suggestion of natural selection but not without a strong hint of a purposeful goal!). Although mega-failures abound, the four-cycle internal combustion engine eventually appears on the primordial stage complete with inlet and exhaust valving, electronic ignition, water cooling, extractors, intercooler and turbo-chargers!

Now our functioning fantasy engine is incomparably simpler than any minimally functioning biological cell. But we are forever assured by Atkins’ own writing that entirely material processes acting on endless amounts of matter bathed in endless flows of dissipative energy, are able to deliver in megatime whatever level of complexity we care to find in the living world. Mere extrapolation of simple unthinking processes is supposedly sufficient to explain how life entered onto the primordial stage. And so for Atkins, “if there are atoms there will in due course be molecules; and if there are molecules on warm, wet platforms, there will in due course be elephants” (p. 5). Using the same logic, one might equally assert that “if there is iron oxide and carbon on very hot platforms there will in due course be iron and steel, and in due course there will be internal combustion engines.”

It soon becomes apparent that any attempt to discuss the issue of life’s origin within a purposeless material framework very quickly turns messy, in fact decidedly ridiculous! However, materialists all too often attempt to skirt round the mess by inserting purposeful elements into their narratives describing the action of natural selection, albeit in a not so subtly disguised form. In this regard it should be sufficient to remind readers of two examples already referred to in this paper—Steve Jones’ soap powder factory analogy in which the workers are in pursuit of an improved nozzle; or the evolving eye model of Nilsson and Pelger (also exploited by Richard Dawkins) which requires that increased spatial resolution be aimed for.

Mindless mechanicity or mindful purpose

Evolutionary philosopher Daniel Dennett14 is similarly imbued with the need to covertly insert purpose but deny its need. His recurring theme is the “mindless mechanicity” of the evolutionary process. He sees Darwin’s concept of natural selection as the “universal acid” that dissolves away all but the “purposeless, mindless, pointless regularity of physics”. And in Dennett’s brutally unthinking, unfeeling universe this same physics leads eventually to “products that exhibit . . . purposive design”(p. 65).

But Dennett all too frequently betrays his need for the extra-material. Take for example his description of natural selection as an algorithmic process, a “set of individually mindless steps succeeding each other without the help of any intelligent supervision” (p. 59). To assist his reader grasp the concept of an algorithmic process, and one that makes use of chance or randomness as occurs in Darwinian natural selection, Dennett uses the example of long division. He rightly argues that when wanting to divide a large number by another, one can simply choose a digit at random, try it and then check out the result. If the initial guess is too large or too small, simply adjust and retry. The point he correctly makes is that one eventually get the process to work even if the first guess was stupidly far out—it just takes a bit longer to do the job.

But can Dennett’s long division example be described as just mindless mechanicity? Certainly not! Despite the guessing element, a solution is being sought. We actually want to solve an arithmetic problem using long division. It is powerfully goal-driven. Dennett claims you “don’t need to have any wit or discernment” but this is patently untrue. The process has been set up in such a way that there is a constant testing of the rightness or wrongness of a particular guess against a correct outcome. In an entirely mindless, purposeless world surely nothing is being sought, nothing is being judged right or wrong, correct or incorrect. Things just are and this is precisely what Dennett’s long division analogy fails to illustrate.

Telltale signs from living and non-living systems

Any commonsense comparison of the living and non-living world points powerfully to properties and characteristics of life that remain inexplicable in terms of the material laws and processes revealed by science. David Holbrook15 notes that the living organism strives to realize its full potential. Michael Polanyi16 sees the organism as goal-centered; it might succeed or failure to achieve this goal and the science of pathology is rightly applied to account for such failure. By contrast, when a candle flame ‘dies’ one does not immediately consult a pathology text book. Whereas the candle flame can be adequately accounted for in terms of the material laws of chemistry, the living organism, although dependent on such laws, plays to a higher tune. It embodies purposeful orchestration of these material laws.

Philosopher Eric Tomlin17 likens the behaviour of the living organism to a musical melody consisting of cycles of unified ‘movements’ in which the first notes are as important as the last. The organic themes are played out phase by phase and in anticipation of those that follow. The material laws can perhaps be viewed as the individual notes that are played but they do not, of themselves, define the musical theme. Rather they are exploited in the service of a higher purpose, one reflecting the creative genius of the composer.

Natural selection certainly relies on an oddly non-material principle, namely the prolife drive that all living organisms express, the tendency to want to flourish, what Darwin called the fecundity principle. This ‘flourishing’ surely contradicts materialism’s assertion that life is merely a special arrangement of matter. Each living organism, however simple or complex, possesses this truly remarkable quality—it wants to live and to this end it performs intensely purposeful, anticipatory tasks. It is ‘possessed’ of a drive to go on surviving in the midst of what are often enormous external pressures bearing down on its organic well-being.

This ceaseless striving to live and keep on living, and to self-repair when damaged, is quite alien to any non-living system. A plant will build up reserves of food for those anticipated periods of leanness. A tree or a bone will actively remodel and self-strengthen certain parts of its structure in response to forces repeatedly imposed by the wind or heavy exercise. There is a constant turn-over of components in the living organism in response to damage and decay.

The fundamental quality that seems to stand out in the living organism, whether simple or sophisticated, is its awareness of both its ‘organic responsibility and destiny’. It knows what it should be in a functional sense. And when this function is disrupted by trauma or disease the organism orchestrates a sequence of restorative acts aimed at enabling it to fulfill this destiny.

A comparison of the performance of a living organism with that of a complex material system such as, for example, a motor car engine is instructive. It highlights the fundamental difference between innate, creative, anticipatory behaviour and imposed, programmed activity. The motor car engine is certainly made to perform, but only because a certain combination of external forces and constraints (devised by a human mind) extracts from it a particular activity—the generation of motive power. The engine is entirely at the mercy of these forces: remove them and it reverts to a ‘lifeless’ metallic corpse. The engine is a subject without rights. It is subject to the choice of materials used in its component parts and to their exact shape and arrangement, to the quality of lubrication and cooling supplied, to the preciseness of the ignition timing etc. These are all external factors imposed on the engine by a creative mind.

By contrast, the living organism is a monarch within its own ecological niche. It is able to creatively challenge and adapt to a significant degree the forces that are imposed on it from the external world. Of course there are limits to any organism’s adaptability. It can be so easily overwhelmed. But the mere fact that it has even limited adaptive potential sets it fundamentally apart from any non-living system or object.

An engine, left by the careless driver to overheat, soon results in its lubricating oil thinning dangerously. Unchecked, the resultant frictional heating soon ends in a total systems collapse—engine seizure. Now compare this with a lettuce plant. Every home gardener knows just how important it is to supply the plant with plenty of water. But if its thirst is not met, and especially in hot weather, the lettuce will ‘bolt’ or go-to-seed thus attempting to ensure its continuity as a species. The lettuce responds to the harsh heat of high summer in a profoundly creative manner. Not so with the motor car engine. It can only wallow in the victim role.

It is frequently argued that because living systems behave in a mechanical manner they are therefore reducible to wholly material laws. For example, the American evolutionary biologist George Williams18 has this to say of the evolution and operation of biological mechanisms:

When I use the term protein-based machinery, I implied that the workings of the body can be understood in ways closely similar to our understanding of metal and plastic machinery. I assumed that we can, metaphorically at least, take the body apart and see what makes it tick. This understanding can make use of any and all known physical principles, but no modern physiologists would invoke anything immaterial[sic] or supernatural. . . . Biologists never conclude that physics and chemistry are not a sufficient basis for understanding how a biological mechanism works. (p. 65)

A recurring assertion in Williams’ book is the adequacy of mechanism (read wholly material processes) in explaining the operation of organisms. Here is a familiar illustration he uses in support of this assertion:

A finger does not curl up or straighten out because its wants to, but because it is forced to by the pulling of tendons. These tendons pull only because they are pulled by muscles. Why do the muscles pull? Their pulling is an active shortening of the muscles as a whole, and this shortening in the realm of the readily visible reflects a shortening process in the realm of the ultramicroscopic. Muscles are densely loaded with parallel protein fibers running from one end to the other. These fibers actively shorten, and provide the muscle with its forceful contraction, . . . . Their normal relaxed state is stretched out. Their contraction requires a supply of energy from a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The energy taken from the metabolism of this substance comes ultimately from the food we eat and the oxygen we breath. Understanding all this requires an impressive array of technical knowledge of the molecular machinery of the cell, but this knowledge is entirely of physics and chemistry. No subtle immaterial[sic] processes are employed. (p. 68-9)

Now it is certainly correct to say that biological systems are machines which rely on well established physical and chemical principles. The heart is a muscle-driven, beautifully synchronised multi-valve pump delivering a flow of blood into the circulatory system in accordance with well-known laws of fluid mechanics. The articulating joint works as a hinge exploiting properties of stiffness and low friction. The eye is an auto-focusing camera harnessing well-established principles of optics. The inner workings of the cell operate as an incredibly sophisticated biochemical processing factory. Living systems are indeed mechanical. And George Williams’ curling finger is equally mechanical in respect to each of the various levels he describes. But can he really claim that the processes involved are “entirely of physics and chemistry”?


One way of critiquing Williams’ claim is to apply his same line of reasoning to any human-engineered system. Consider, for example, the workings of an internal combustion engine. We might ask “Why does the crankshaft rotate and deliver power to the transmission system”? Following almost exactly his line of argument, we can say that the crank receives a push from the piston via the connecting rod and rotates. This push is in turn produced by a high pressure explosion at the top of the piston, this explosion resulting from the ignition of an appropriate mix of compressed air and petrol. Finally, the explosion is triggered by a spark generated from an electrical circuit. Put simply, what we have in reverse order is a sequence of events—a rotation, a force, a pressure, a violent chemical reaction, a pulse of ‘lightning’—all processes that can be described in purely material or physico-chemical terms and clearly parallel George Williams’ curling finger.

We should note too that Williams emphasizes that his finger does not curl up “because it wants to”. In the same way our petrol engine doesn’t ‘roar into life’ because it wants to. It starts running because an appropriately sequenced chain of physical events has been externally triggered.

Michael Polanyi’s critique of machines

It might therefore seem at first glance that both our living finger and our inanimate engine can be explained in wholly material terms. But such a conclusion does not stand up to closer scrutiny, and to press home this point I would like to draw on the commonsense insights of one of Michael Polanyi who was one of the great integrative thinkers of the last century.

Conscious that the biological sciences have bought liberally into mechanism as an over-arching explanatory philosophy, Polanyi seeks to dispel the idea that because living systems are demonstrably mechanical in their various functions they can therefore be explained in purely physico-chemical or material categories. Whilst acknowledging the validity of the mechanical model in understanding biological systems, Polanyi19 insists that it points to something beyond and above purely material entities. Here is what he says:

There is a great deal of truth in the mechanical explanation of life. The organs of the body work like machines, as they are subject to a hierarchy of mechanical principles. Biologists pursuing the aim of explaining living functions in terms of machines have achieved outstanding success. But this must not obscure the fact that these advances only add to the features of life which cannot be represented in terms of laws manifested in the realm of inanimate nature. (p. 42.)

Polanyi argues that just as the material properties and laws of nature are harnessed within the boundaries defined by the design of any man-made machine, so material laws operate within the boundaries defined by the organism’s structure. But this living structure is no more determined by these laws than the material properties of steel determine the shape of a crankshaft in our engine. In the case of non-biological machines, Polanyi states quite categorically where the material laws of nature lie in relation to the emergence of such machines20:

If all men were exterminated, this would not affect the laws of inanimate nature. But the production of machines would stop, and not until men arose again would machines be formed once more. Some animals can produce tools, but only men can construct machines; machines or human artifacts, made of inanimate material. . . . The structure of machines and the working of their structure are thus shaped by man, even while their material and the forces that operate them obey the laws of inanimate nature. In constructing a machine and supplying it with power, we harness the laws of nature at work in its material and in its driving force and make them serve our purpose.  

This harness is not unbreakable; the structure of the machine, and thus its working, can break down. But this will not affect the forces of inanimate nature on which the operation of the machine relied; it merely releases them from the restriction the machine imposed on them before it broke down.

When we pass on to living organisms, we are similarly faced with machinelike systems, whether these be whole organs such as the heart, an individual cell, one of the many molecular machines contained within the cell such as the sodium-potassium membrane pump. Each of these living mechanical systems involves an enormously complex sequence of interactions among their component parts.

In the same way in which the material properties and inanimate laws of nature are harnessed within the boundaries defined by the design of our man-made machine, so the inanimate molecular and chemical laws operate within the boundaries defined by the organism’s structure. But this living structure is no more determined by these laws than the material properties of steel determine the shape of a crankshaft in an internal combustion engine. Paul Weiss21 expresses rather succinctly the same concept:

There is no phenomenon in a living system that is not molecular, but there is none that is only molecular either.

The reductionist assertions of biological materialists like George Williams rests on the presumption that because living systems are “mechanical” they are therefore explicable in terms of the impersonal laws of physics and chemistry. The hierarchical structure of both inanimate and living machines is surely incompatible with this view. The very moment one claims that life is mechanical and is therefore reducible to a complex set of inanimate biochemical mechanisms, one tumbles into a logic trap. For to admit to “mechanism” in the living world is to admit, as Michael Polanyi so clearly shows, to the need for boundary conditions that cannot be accounted for by these inanimate processes. By their very “mechanical” nature, biological systems ‘cry out’ for a higher level of explanation.


Naturalism asserts that because living systems are ‘mechanical’ they are therefore explicable in terms of the impersonal laws of physics and chemistry. However, the moment one claims that life is mechanical and it is therefore reducible to a complex set of inanimate biochemical mechanisms, one tumbles into a logic trap. For, as Polanyi so clearly shows, to admit to mechanism in the living world is to admit to the need for boundary conditions that cannot be accounted for by these inanimate laws. By their very ‘mechanical’ nature, biological systems call for a higher level of explanation. Biological materialism appears fixated on a one-line causal economy of wholly material influences. In acknowledging only the unfeeling laws of a mindless purposeless material world, it offers an absurdly truncated theory of life that fails to account for the ‘aliveness’ of the biological world.

If unthinking material laws are unable to produce biological innovation, what is it that draws atoms and molecules together into systems that exude a sense of purpose and destiny? I would argue for a model of an evolving creation that doesn’t shrink from placing the essential activity of God right at the very core of the organic process. In other words, right down the evolutionary line to primordial ‘ground zero’ we are confronted with a dimension that relates to something akin to the activity of a transcendent Mind. It would seem from examining the facts revealed by science alone that nature does indeed suggest a transcendent dimension.



1Quoted in E. J. Larson and L. Witham, Scientists and Religion in America, Scientific American, September 1999, pp. 78-83.

2Quoted in E. J. Larson and L. Witham, Scientists and Religion in America, Scientific American, September 1999, pp. 78-83.

3Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, London, Collins, 1972, p. 114.

4Steve Jones, Almost like a Whale, Transworld Publishers, London, 2000, p. 91.

5Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 6th edition, p. 84.

6Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, Harmondsworth, U.K. Viking, 1996, chap. 5.

7Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, A pessimistic estimate of the time required for an eye to evolve, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 256B, 1994, pp. 53-58.

8Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, p. 170.

9Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, London, Penguin, 1988.

10Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665)

11Douglas Futuyma, Science on Trial: The case for Evolution. New York, Pantheon, 1982.

12Leon Brillouin, `Life, Thermodynamics, and Cybernetics', in Modern Systems Research for the Behavioural Scientist. Ed. W. Buckley, Aldine, Chicago, 1968, p. 154.

13Peter Atkins, Creation Revisited, W.H. Freeman, 1992.

14Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Penguin, 1995.

15David Holbrook, Evolution and the Humanities (NY, St. Martin’s, 1987)

16 Michael Polanyi, Meaning, (University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 161-181.

17E. W. F. Tomlin (1977) The concept of life.  Heythrop Journal, 18 (3) 289-304.

18George Williams, Plan and Purpose in Nature, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1996.

19Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966.

20Michael Polanyi, Life’s irreducible structure. Science, 160, 1304-1312, 1968.

21Paul Weiss, Within the Gates of Science and Beyond, New York: Hafner, 1971, p. 270.


Join Metanexus Today

Metanexus fosters a growing international network of individuals and groups exploring the dynamic interface between cosmos, nature and culture. Membership is open to all. Join Now!