The Purposeful Squirrel: Can organisms act with intention?

crop-eastern_grey_squirrel_in_st_jamess_park_london_-_nov_2006_edit
Cropped Eastern Grey Squirrel  By Diliff (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
My desk at the Faraday Institute has a view of the garden, where a squirrel buries its nuts in the autumn. Running to and from the trees in the hedge, it digs into the carefully tended college lawn, building up its stock for the winter. Work must stop every now and then when Continue reading

What is the world for? Creation, purpose, and hope in difficult times

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Why should we explore the world? According to Jonathan Moo, a Biblical scholar who is currently based at the Faraday Institute, creation is not just valuable for what we get from it. In today’s podcast (transcript below) he explains why he believes the living world is valuable in itself. He also shares why he does not lose hope in the face of environmental problems – including yesterday’s US election result. Continue reading

Wonders of the Living World

© Ruth Bancewicz
© Ruth Bancewicz

God in the Lab has been well and truly launched, and I am now turning my attention to some new topics. One of the questions I will be asking over the next few months is, what are the best metaphors we could use to describe the development of living things?

We are used to hearing about ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘the fruit of chance and necessity’ and ‘the blind watchmaker’. Continue reading

Progress?

Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007, wikipedia.org
© Lichen, Barbara Page, 2007, wikipedia.org

The process of evolution has produced a world of great beauty, diversity and complexity. Ants form structured societies, trees reach for the skies, and whole ecosystems thrive in inhospitable-sounding places like underwater caves, deserts or deep-sea trenches. Where the air is clean, rocks and anything else that doesn’t move is covered with a crust of lichen – a partnership between fungus and algae (or bacteria) that survives even the harshest of weather. The constant adaptation of living things to their environment through the accumulation of tried and tested genetic changes produces the most incredible solutions to living in different environments.

Oddly (to me), the concept of progress in evolution is debated among biologists. Change happens, but is it directional in any way? Denis Alexander spoke on this subject at the Faith and Thought conference in October last year. I was fascinated to hear about the changes in ideology among scientists over time, and I wonder how their views will develop in future years? Continue reading

New Approaches to the Origin of Life

Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net
Mike Melrose, flickrcc.bluemountains.net

Studying the origin of life is an intractable problem, a little like navigating the misty trackless waste that is central Dartmoor. For an event that happened so long ago, we are unlikely to find a ‘smoking gun’. If life originated on another planet and then somehow seeded life on Earth – a possibility that is being taken seriously at the moment – we have even less hope of finding a solution. This was Christopher Southgate’s impression of the field of origins research until a few years ago. Chris is a theologian and former biochemist based at Exeter University, and in his Faraday seminar on New Approaches to the Origin of life: Scientific and Theological last week, he explained why he is now a little a more hopeful. He also described a very unique research programme that combines both science and theology.

Life is generally easier to describe than define. Any description that tries to be all-inclusive will inevitably leave something out. Southgate’s own definition includes three properties: Continue reading

Is Teleology a Useful Concept in Biology?

Cells, by Dora Pete. www.sxc.hu
Cells. © Dora Pete. http://www.sxc.hu

Everyone uses teleological language – the language of purpose – even when it doesn’t seem to make rational sense. We ascribe motives to everyday processes, so the car won’t start because I don’t want to go to the dentist, your little brother fell down the hole because he was bad yesterday, and the ball keeps rolling away because the dog wants to play with it. We also tend to ascribe purpose to biological processes, so flowers grow because we enjoy them, and the DNA code came into existence in order that life can develop on earth – you might check yourself after saying or thinking such things, but we all think them. A recently study* showed that scientists are naturally ‘promiscuously teleological’, but  the current thinking in science is that we shouldn’t use teleological language. The world is the way it is by chance and not by design.

Last month, biologist Harvey McMahon spoke at the Faraday Institute on ‘Teleology and Biology: Friends, Foes, Mutually Exclusive or Complementary?’ McMahon and the members of his research group investigate the curvature of membranes, looking at how the physical shape of cells and their membrane bound ‘organelles’ is suited to function. In his seminar he argued, in a humorous but direct way, that biological language is not pure: it uses language from many fields in the attempt to understand itself. Stripping teleology from our language dehumanises biology, and science suffers for it. Continue reading

Ecological Hope

© Ruth Bancewicz

Human activity on our planet continues to cause wide scale ecological havoc at such a rate that it can be tempting to give up hope, sit back, and let things unfold however they will. When Richard Bauckham spoke at the Faraday Institute a couple of weeks ago his message was far more positive. Yes, massive environmental damage has been done and some of the consequences are unstoppable, but from his perspective as a theologian there is real hope. I was inspired by Bauckham’s talk because he has taken a realistic look at the science of climate change and other ecological disasters in the light of his faith, and has come away with a plan of action that is not the least bit miserable.

Anyone promising hope needs to know the context they’re speaking into. Bauckham described how the New Testament book of Revelation was written in the first instance for Christians living under intense persecution in Rome (hence its coded ‘apocalyptic’ language), and it inspired them to keep going. Our context is a faded utopia of economic and technological growth. It was once thought that the potential for improvement was pretty much limitless. Our hope was to stop environmental damage through economic and technological fixes, but climate change is now underway and further change is inevitable – with both foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. We can only try to stop things getting much worse. How can we go on hoping? Continue reading