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

Science, Faith and Creativity

Flavio Takemoto, http://www.sxc.hu
© Flavio Takemoto, http://www.sxc.hu

Scientists are creative people. When I began to work on this project I spoke to a number of Christians working in science about what they thought were the most positive parts of the science-faith dialogue. I had not considered creativity as an important factor in the discussion until I visited the University of Madison-Wisconsin and was introduced to some chemists. Chemistry doesn’t throw up any burning issues for science and faith as other subjects do: no great ethical debates, no creation-evolution battles, no arguments about the ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe. I find that scientists who have been drawn into these battles often have ideas about things they would rather talk about. Most speak about beauty, awe and wonder, and that is why I have written so much about these topics. When I spoke to a couple of people in the Chemistry department at Madison, however, they both mentioned that they enjoyed the creative process of trying to make sense of things, or solve a problem.

It might be a surprise for some to read that scientists exercise creativity in their work, but when you think about it – why not? 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