Intelligent Design Icon Intelligent Design
Life Sciences Icon Life Sciences

On the BBC, a New Openness to Teleology in Biology?

Photo: Plant cells, by Hermann Schachner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Richard Buggs is a plant biologist and professor of evolutionary genomics at Queen Mary University of London. Writing for Ecology & Evolution, he reviews an episode on BBC Two of a science series, Earth, singling out the host, Chris Packham. It’s a great review on a very surprising new openness in nature documentaries like this to non-Darwinian processes and teleology in the history of life. 

As Buggs writes:

[Packham’s] view of evolution is non-Darwinian. He does not speak of evolution as a purposeless natural process with no end in mind. He speaks of it as a process that is intended and has direction. 

Packham consistently anthropomorphises plants, speaking of them as if they have agency and intention. “Plants aren’t the type to give up easily,” they “developed a new trick,” “they were ready to start conquering the world”. The first trees were “the epitome of everything that plants had learned.” They “even communicate with one another” through fungal networks. 

Initially I thought Packham’s anthropomorphising was just a figure of speech, but by the end of the episode it seemed more than this. I concluded that he must have a teleological, non-Darwinian, view of evolution, as no doubt many of his viewers also do. He does not view the greening of the planet as a purposeless, unintended process, but one that was striven for and aimed at. Though he ascribes the agency behind this to the plants, what he says could be consistent with a broader, more cosmic view of purpose in the universe.

Indeed, Packham goes further than ascribing purpose to plants. He describes the world around us as “This bountiful, blooming miracle.” Early photosynthesisers are described as “something miraculous”. A “wonder material led to the creation of biological machines”.  Asteroid bombardment of earth is “a celestial intervention”. Plant-fungal interactions are “a match made in heaven”.  

The blurb for the episode on the BBC iPlayer website reads “Chris Packham tells the miraculous story of how plant life turned Earth from a barren rock into a vibrant green world”.

It is hard to tell if these references to miracles are just figures of speech, or deliberately suggestive of divine activity. At the very least, the BBC is leaving room for those viewers who do believe in God to see a divine hand in the events described. Packham is not imposing theism upon viewers, but neither is he advocating atheism. 

Read the rest here. I very much hope (but remain skeptical) that this will not remain a rare exception to the rule but will become a new trend that would feel like a breath of fresh air amidst all the materialist and atheist propaganda in popular science media.