My big sister, Barbara [Dr. Barbara Searle, retired from the World Bank after a distinguihsed career], teaches in the Washington, D. C. version of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, in the Duke University branch of which I also teach. [It was she who put me onto OLLI as a thing to do in retirement.] For some years now, she has been teaching a sequence of courses on evolutionary biology and related subjects [her doctorate is in Biology]. At her suggestion, I have been reading a new book by a prolific and very gifted author, Nick Lane, called LIFE ASCENDING: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution. Having worked my way through the very difficult and fact-crammed chapters on The Origin of Life, DNA, Photosynthesis, The Complex Cell, and Sex, I am now deep in the chapter on Movement.
The dominant message of the book is the astonishing explosion that has taken place in recent decades in our detailed knowledge about the operations of living things, right down to the molecular and atomic level. But buried in Lane's exposition are some tantalizing observations of great philosophical significance. Here is one that I just came across at the very bottom of page 146.
Lane is talking about the evolution in cellular creatures [eukaryotes is the technical term] of the ability to move about in pursuit of food. He writes, "There were always good reasons to move, but the new lifestyles that came with motility gave animals a particular reason to be in a particular place at a particular time, and indeed a different place at a different time. That is to say, it gave them purpose -- deliberate, goal-directed behaviour." [He is English]
I stopped dead when I read those sentences. Purposiveness has long be viewed by philosophers as the distinctive mark of what they call practical reason. With purposiveness, goal orientation replaces the mere push and pull of efficient causation. It does not take much imagination to see the thread that connects a paramecium propelled by its flagella with a chimp using a twig to snag ants from an anthill, and ultimately with Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.
This is exciting stuff, and a very welcome escape from the idiocies, anxieties, compromises, and disasters of the political world [to which I shall return in this blog shortly]. The book is slow going if you are not a biologist [and maybe even if you are], but this is where it is happening in the scientific world, and I recommend it to you.