The concept of purpose is abstract, and it could very well be perceived as being at odds with science and its relentless pursuit of causal relationships. Indeed, in biology and genetics (my original field of study), purpose usually refers to some feature that has evolved under evolutionary pressure. The purpose of opposable thumbs is to grip objects and increase dexterity for complex tasks; the purpose of a tree’s long roots is to access water from moist soil deep underground. It is not surprising, then, that googling “the biology of purpose” yields sparse results. One of the top hits I found during my search was a piece from 1938 titled “The Concept of Purpose in Biology,” published in The Quarterly Review of Biology. While the article is old, I actually found its argument to be surprisingly relevant and thought-provoking.
The author, W.E. Agar, makes the case that, while a biologist may seek to understand macroscopic behavior by magnifying a sample closer and closer, there are limits to the knowledge that they can gain. Agar goes so far as to say that “no amount of knowledge of the chemistry and physics” of an amoeba’s behavior would allow one to understand that behavior as one does the behavior of a fellow human, or even that of a dog. While the rapidly evolving science in fields like genomics and metabolomics is chipping away at Agar’s argument, his thesis holds true – particularly in the context of purpose. While we can be sure that electrons are buzzing around atoms in purposeful creatures, we have yet to find how they link to and explain the distinct behaviors and actions that we consider to be purposeful. After all, we are still working to identify the microorganisms and genes that cause many diseases; we have not yet begun to explore those that dictate our career and life aspirations.
As I continued to ponder Agar’s arguments – which, despite being nearly 80 years old, I still find interesting – I found myself reframing the world through multiple scientific fields.
Physical science – which, for the purpose of this article, can be limited to chemistry, physics, and other similar disciplines – governs the natural “not alive” world. The forces in this world are characterized by their lack of agency in their actions – they are seemingly random in origin. The randomness of the environments breeds uncertainty and forces reactions to unforeseen circumstances. The ever-increasing entropy of the universe sets the stage for life: a puzzle on the grandest scale.
Biology, physiology, and the rest of the life sciences all study, at their core, how organisms react to circumstances and meet their objectives in this uncertain world. In some instances, the reaction is immediate – a predator emerges from behind a tree and adrenaline takes over, initiating the classic fight or flight reaction that supports the goal of survival. Other times, the species reacts over many generations, evolving to mitigate or exploit a particular environmental factor. For example, birds gain colorful plumes of feathers and perform elaborate dances as they pursue procreation. The objectives thrust upon organisms by the physical world, including survival and procreation, are not what I would consider purpose, however; they are necessities born from each organism’s unique niche – a path used to navigate the hostile world.
Life’s necessities, paired with the randomness of the physical world, unite to form the context for the outermost layer of the sciences: social science. As higher-order thinking emerges, so does purpose: a set of objectives born not just from the utilitarian restrictions of the physical and the adjustments of the biological, but also from a desire for something more. At the social level, sensory systems interact with the environment in a deliberate way – and they may sometimes even work to the organism’s disadvantage. Lions have complex social structures of dominance, and many primates learn to use tools or even language. Humans are the prime example of both the good and bad side of this; we accomplish unimaginable feats while simultaneously wreaking irreparable damage to our home and species daily.
Putting It Together
In spite of all the progress we’ve made in science, I find myself thinking Agar was right. I’m stumped when I try to conceptualize a way in which physical or social sciences could ever fully explain one another. Trying to solve this complex riddle also challenges me to reassess the ways in which we consider health and business.
Consider the experience of the cancer patient. The medical sciences have come a long way in understanding the chemistry and biology of cancer, but the thing that continues to stymie researchers, drug developers, physicians, and patients is the sheer randomness of each tumor’s behavior. Though we know several of the mutations involved with the growth of tumors, sudden shifts in aggressiveness and random metastases to unexpected regions of the body are common. While chemists and geneticists work furiously to understand individual mutations and how they occur and manifest, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and many other social scientists work to understand the patients. Why do they so often believe that more painful treatments must be more effective, as if the cancer cares about how tough they are? Why do some patients refuse treatment, even when their physicians recommend it for their survival? Why does thinking “mind over matter” actually help some patients conquer terminal illnesses?
These questions and more leave me to wonder: How could an in-depth understanding of chemistry, or anthropology, or any other discipline possibly answer these questions when years of history and experience govern our actions as much – or more – than the mysterious neurons and impulses from which they originate? While we know physical science forms the scaffolding for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, can we ever aspire to understand hope, love, or sadness at a chemical level?
In a business context, this gap in understanding is akin to the gap between metrics and vision. For example, if an organization knows that its website’s page views are up 35%, does this mean it achieving its vision of being the world’s leading technology company? Even if the number of page views was the metric on which the business was measuring success, reifying the data into an accomplishment in this way would be a fatal error. Or, to use a more serious example, if a drug company makes an earnest promise to put patients first, will treatment outcomes – or even revenues – improve? The obvious answer is that there is no way to tell without first understanding the context in between metrics and vision, namely the tactics and strategy that create this connection. Businesses make empty promises all the time, often with little more intent than to pacify an audience or to help their leaders sleep a bit easier at night thinking they’ve done the right thing. But consumers are more savvy than we give them credit for – they will determine whether the business is delivering on any of its promises, or whether those promises were even relevant in the first place.
No business can hope to survive by relying on a visionary or by simply reverting to the buzzwordy claim of being “data driven.” Instead, the breadth of understanding required to tackle the world’s biggest problems requires a multidisciplinary approach. Food companies must deliver experiences that range from promoting health to discouraging excess, and they must understand the emotions and underlying science behind these concepts to deliver such experiences. Financial services organizations must consider the uncertainties of the world and predict how these possibilities could cripple their business and the businesses of their clients. And as healthcare companies are increasingly charged with delivering outcomes instead of merely pills and devices, they must look beyond clinical trial data in order to consider the daily lives of physicians and patients, whose purposes in life cannot be simply boiled down to conquering or treating a disease.
To create connections between their aspirations and their results, and to transform social goals into a physical reality, businesses must unite disciplines and skills to create a multidisciplinary approach that acts as the cornerstone of their strategy.