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Evolution and the Purposes of Life 

Stephen L. Talbott

When your dog takes a stick in its mouth, drops it at your feet, and then looks expectantly at you while signaling eagerness to run and retrieve the thrown plaything, you have no difficulty recognizing its intentions. Your dog’s behavior is blatantly purposive, even if its “state of mind” — whatever that might mean — is very different from yours and mine.

Similarly, if your cat is “telling” you it wants to go outdoors (cats, unfortunately, are always on the wrong side of the door), or if you have watched a bird building a nest, or an amoeba engulfing a particle of food, or the fish in a still pool darting toward the shelter of an overhanging bank upon your approach, you accept what you see without great puzzlement. While we do not expect such behaviors from rocks, clouds, or volcanoes, they seem normal for living things.

And so they are. Even the “growth behaviors” of plants and the “chemical behaviors” of the individual cells in our bodies are in some sense intelligent and purposive, wisely directed toward need-fulfilling ends. Purposive — or teleological (end-directed) — activity is no merely adventitious feature of living creatures. Being “endowed with a purpose or project,” wrote biochemist Jacques Monod, is “essential to the very definition of living beings.” And according to Theodosius Dobzhansky, a geneticist and leading architect of the past century’s dominant evolutionary theory, “It would make no sense to talk of the purpose of adaptation of stars, mountains, or the laws of physics,” but “adaptedness of living beings is too obvious to be overlooked.... Living beings have an internal, or natural, teleology.”

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Stephen L. Talbott, a New Atlantis contributing editor, is a senior researcher at the Nature Institute and creator of the website BiologyWorthyofLife.org.

Stephen Talbott, "Evolution and the Purposes of Life," The New Atlantis, Number 51, Winter 2017, pp. 63–91.