In search of purpose in a purposeless world

While attending the European Neurofly meeting last month and visiting my good friend Gogo at the University of Herakleion, my eyes fell on the following title printed in a poster

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The title of this book captivated me. It could also read “in search of meaning in a meaningless world”.

I also feel some peripheral connections to the author. Although I do not recall to having ever met with him in person, I have come across (and been impressed from) his students: a mirror, a social relationship (a purpose?) possibly asking for an additional short essay in his book, which consists of well prosed, concise and accessible arguments on human ethics through the lense of scientific culture in its modern sociobiological (and/or neodarwinian synthesis) paradigm. No coincidence that Lefteris was himself a student of Costas Krimbas who studied with Theodosius Dobzhansky (nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution) and brought his teachings to Greece. Lefteris has also connections to Richard Lewontin and was part of the faculty at Dalhousie University prior to taking up his academic post in Crete.

Besides knowing his students and knowing of his mentors, two of my collaborators have made direct references to the academic work of Prof Zouros.

John Allen has a fascinating idea of what might have been an evolutionary pressure to separate the two sexes, namely that the oocyte has silenced mitochondria in order to maintain their genome integrity, whereas sperm requires mitochondrial energy to swim towards its target (is there not purpose here? if you want to understand “no” as an answer, look for the argument put forward by Zouros). As a consequence, females are the sex tasked with healthy mitochondria transmission (to both sexes); males produce the motile gamete (and should ensure that the two sexes meet!). This rule is broken by some species of Mytilus, as Zouros showed in 1994.

Chronis Rempoulakis has spent his formative years working with the “true” fruit flies – the Tephritidae, true in the sense that they actually insert their eggs in unripe fruit, whereas the famous Drosophila only goes for those that are starting to rot (they like to feed on the yeast…). Chronis’ dad makes a living from collecting olives and one problem he faced, along with all humans in the Mediterranean cultivating olive trees, is that the true fruit fly Bactrocera oleae likes to eat up the olive fruit prior to its collection by a human being… (there is an alternative cultural view ). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the genetics of the (alternatively known as) Dacus oleae formed Zouros’ introduction into science through his first PhD with Krimbas as a mentor.

My week in Crete was wonderful, full of science during the day (flies do have a complex nervous system, and some are looking for neuronal correlates of value systems, emergence of a sense of purpose even here), a strong cultural input into the Minoan civilisation from the afternoon we spent in the palace of Knossos, but most important to me was reconnecting with Chronis (who was visiting his father and brother from Israel where he now works), Gogo (with whom we spent our post-doctoral years together at the NIH in Bethesda) and other friends (including the conference’s organiser, Makis, and many other colleagues). I stayed with Gogo and we spent a couple of evenings with her graduate students. Being a parent with young daughters such gatherings (another type of symposium) were a welcome change. We also walked with Gogo through Herakleion’s market and when I saw a bookstore, I expressed my interest in buying the book. Gogo gave it to me as a present. Thank you!

This post is not intended as a careful critique or review or an endorsement of the views expressed by Zouros, although I would readily recommend the book to anyone who might share a similar attraction to its title (it lives up to the expectation). One of the most topical essays is entitled: “Purpose, another darwinian illusion” and starts as follows: “The progress of knowledge is a story of human liberation from the existence, everywhere, of a purpose.” Then, a central argument is built that in understanding how natural selection works (at various levels of selection) one eliminates most of what is normally included in the usage of the word “purpose” (in language, our means of communication…) one can largely explain the world without invoking intentions (and Zouros argues that many intentions are illusions of the individuals carrying them).

However, I think Zouros also provides with an excellent diagram the material basis for “purpose” to emerge as an objective property (and not as a subjective experience or a programmed behaviour that we sometimes interpret teleologically, in error.) Once biological systems reach a state of organisation where they can anticipate future events and can contemplate the probable consequences of alternative modes of action and choose among such different alternatives, then teleology becomes a rational (legitimate) interpretative tool; with limited use, yet required to explain aspects of biology, society, ethics etc. In other words, purpose (as in intent of the individual being, elusive or knowledge-based or innate) is there to be discovered (built?) from each and every one of us. Zouros offers a wealth of cautionary tales of common mistakes in thinking purpose where there isn’t any and in doing so, I think, helps anyone who cares to make better informed (deeper?) decisions.

To conclude, I agree with Zouros that learning science is helpful, equally helpful to learning culture, for anyone who asks: what is the meaning of life? and what is the meaning (purpose) of your (my) life? That is what Universities are for.

8 thoughts on “In search of purpose in a purposeless world

  1. Thank you. Your summary is full of insight.

    The concept of purpose in biology seems to imply intention. We face this problem whenever we speak of function. Function is just a shorthand. Darwin and Wallace proposed a theory that does not require intention. I think Dawkins’s “The Blind Watchmaker” was a clear and vivid account of the solution.

    The celebrity physicist Brian Cox had a recent BBC 2 TV series recently “The Human Universe”. So far, I have seen only parts of it. I think Cox presents a similar view to that of Zouros, while coming to a similar conclusion from quite a different point of departure.

    There are different ethical systems, and they are certainly not all compatible with each other. The relation between science and ethics has been much discussed. I think neither depends on the other. However it would be foolish and dangerous to adopt an ethical system that is based on something that we know to be untrue – that is inconsistent with evidence.

    Jacques Monod in “Chance and Necessity” proposed an ethic of knowledge. There is a prior assumption in the decision to do science. It is that truth must always take precedence over falsehood. As I recall, Monod’s proposition was that, if we were to apply this assumption consistently, the result would be a just and inclusive society. I find I return to Monod’s idea frequently to try to understand intentions and objectives of those acting, apparently, unethically.

    I agree that learning science is helpful, but it is more than that. Science is knowledge. The greater our knowledge of the World, including ourselves, the more we are alert to that which is ethical, and unethical. It would be wonderful if one could see any view of this sort as a motive behind recent changes to governance and management of universities. I fear many are tending to move in the opposite direction, at least in the UK. Universities are clearly changing their own view of their role in society. This was once generally agreed to be the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. It is not clear what their new role is supposed to be. The question “what are universities for?” is not merely rhetorical. I’d love for us to be able to consider what modern university managers believe they are trying to achieve.

    1. Having now viewed it, in this context I seriously recommend a TV programme. “What is our future?” – the fifth and last episode of “the Human Universe” by Brian Cox, first broadcast recently on the UK channel BBC 2.

  2. John – thank you so much for sharing these views. It took me some time to respond, I was looking for time to watch Brian Cox’s documentary. Alas, today that I have the time I realise that I don’t have access from Mexico – at least I received an indication that the link is functional within the UK.

    I have books editor Karen Shook to thank for including “in search of purporse in a purposeless world” in Times Higher Education’s Books of 2014.

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