The alternative to emergence as an explanation for life, if you exclude more than astronomically-remote mere chance, is teleology. I always remember my introduction to the word “teleology”, which was in an evolutionary context. Well it wasn’t, really, but it was in the mouth of the only one of my medical teachers who took evolution at all seriously.
Pat Crome taught me haematology, which together with immunology was one of the few parts of the medical syllabus with significant conceptual difficulties. The bewilderingly complicated function of the immune system’s white cells needed to be explained. As did the incredibly complex blood clotting cascade. Characteristically, Dr Crome would carefully explain the purpose of each part, and then hastily backtrack with the words, “Of course, one shouldn’t speak teleologically.” I can’t remember if I had to look the word up, or whether she explained that, of course, all these wonderful systems had evolved, and now operated, without any actual purpose. Natural selection had simply allowed their survival, and here we are learning about them.
For all that, it didn’t stop her proceeding immediately to employ more teleological language throughout the course, as did every other teacher I ever had (only without the evolutionary hand-wringing). And the reason for this is that it is, in fact, absolutely impossible to discuss living creatures, or their evolution, without thoroughly immersing oneself in the language of intention, purpose and design. I would even put out a challenge to anyone to find a single paper in the history of the life sciences without at least one teleological statement.
“Function” is a teleologically loaded word. So what evolutionary wording should one use to talk about the function of a gene or protein? “Selection” is a choice-word, so it must always be replaced with “survival of the fittest” – though I’m not sure about the propriety of “fit”. “Advantageous”, “neutral” and “deleterious” all suggest some goal against which one is measuring – and evolution has no goals. And so it goes on.
As I reflect on Pat Crome’s words, I realise that ateleological thinking even subverts the whole aim of medicine. Broadly, doctors consider their role to be the restoration of normal function to the body. But “normal” is a teleological value-word. And “function”, as I’ve said, is a teleological description of meaningful activity. So what proper, scientific doctors should be attempting to do (I won’t go into materialist claims on the meaninglessness of saying that humans can “attempt” as if their genuinely had free-will) – what they should be attempting is to impose a function on the body when it happens to have acquired adaptations less compatible with long life or contented feelings than that most frequently observed. So much more accurate than that teleologically contaminated “healing the sick” malarky.
Once again we are talking about evolution’s propensity to render things illusory. Teleology is an illusion, and all the words that go with it. Our teleological language is merely an analogy – but so powerful an analogy that it’s actually impossible to describe what we’re talking about in more correct terms.
Now things like quantum physics and relativity are so far outside daily experience that, aside from mathematical descriptions, we are doomed to using analogies. Curved space, flat Universes, collapsing wave functions … these terms may not cast a very clear light to lay people, but it’s the best we have. But life, ostensibly, is quite a comprehensible process. It’s large-scale polymer chemistry at the detailed level, and natural livestock breeding at the gross level. It ought to be easy enough to describe in its own scientific terms. But if in fact, it is impossible to avoid using teleological language as soon as you open your mouth – and it is – then you have to suspect strongly that the reason is that the reality itself is teleological.