Nathan Richardson

apple slice
Which is more important, the seed of the apple or the fleshy meat part of the apple? Well, it kind of depends on who you ask.

I came across a fun little discussion in an online forum.1 Perhaps I liked it because I have had similar discussions in my head. The question at hand was, “What is the most important part of an apple tree?2 Readers gave a variety of answers: the roots (because they stabilize and provide water), the leaves (because they produce the food), the xylem (because a plant cannot sustain injury to them), the chloroplasts (because photosynthesis is what makes something a plant), etc. Every commenter had a reason why their answer made the most sense.

One way to resolve this disagreement is to dismiss the use of superlative questions. Since a plant that lacked either roots, leaves, or xylem couldn’t survive, all are equally important, so the question of “most” doesn’t really apply. But it’s also hard to answer the question without asking, “Most important for what? If you mean most important for a plant’s survival, then roots, leaves, and xylem are good candidates. If you mean most important for a plant’s identity, then choloroplasts are a good candidate. If you mean most important for a plant’s reproduction, then the seeds are a good candidate. So the answer is going to depend in part on what purpose you have in mind.

This may seem like a rather inane, useless question to be asking, but I bring it up to make an important point. This is ultimately a question of purpose. The answer of which part is most important depends on what purpose you have in mind. So the answer is completely relative, depending on what perspective you are asking the question from. Unless. Unless apples have an ultimate purpose that overrides all its other purposes. Then there really would be a “most” important part of the apple tree, no matter how many perspectives or purposes you could ask the question from.

In philosophy, the study of purpose or meaning is called teleology. Teleology asks the question, “What is this for? For what purpose does this exist?” When you think about it, those are really the most important questions we can ever ask about life. We are accustomed to asking these questions about people, about our own personal experiences. However, we can gain important insight about the purpose of life by asking what is the purpose of anything. If our answers to questions of purpose (like the one about apples) depend on which perspective we’re taking, does that mean it’s all relative and nothing has an inherent purpose? So therefore the purpose of life is whatever we want it to be? I believe not. I believe there are some purposes that are eternal, that do not depend on a certain point of view. Let me explain this conclusion.

Why Taste?

In my high school AP biology class, my teacher explained that biology was the study of life, and that life was, for most purposes, defined as the ability to reproduce or replicate oneself (I know there are more subtleties to this definition, since we don’t want to leave mules out!). During that year we learned to interpret all biological phenomenon through that lens, usually by asking the question, “How does this feature, structure, or behavior help this organism pass on its genes?” As with other fields of science, I think this is a useful premise within this field of study. It helps us understand many oddities of nature, and gives us focus when sorting through biological questions.

If the ultimate purpose of taste is to deter use from consuming poisonous material, does that mean we won’t have a sense of taste once we’re immortal and don’t need to worry about disease?

For example, consider the question, “What is the purpose of the sense of taste?” One psychology textbook answers this from an evolutionary perspective:

The purpose of taste is to motivate us to eat some substances and avoid eating others. Generally speaking, salty, sweet, and umami are pleasant tastes, which, in the course of evolution, became attached to substances that are good for us. [E.g., salt regulates fluids in the body, sugar is a source of energy] … Still speaking generally, sour and bitter are unpleasant experiences, which natural selection has attached to certain substances that are bad for us. Bacterial decay produces acidic compounds. Since decaying substances can cause disease when eaten, natural selection produced a taste system that experiences most acids as unpleasant (sour).3

Thus, taste helps us to survive (and implicitly, to pass on our chromosomes). This made wonderful sense to me, and I am still impressed that Heavenly Father is so efficient in accomplishing multiple tasks with each bodily function.

This assumption (that living things are designed to pass on their genes) can be a useful paradigm for answering biological questions, such as why certain plants flourish while others don’t. But can it really be that pleasant tastes are really only an incidental by-product of the more important need to continue breathing and reproducing?

The Answer from Biology: “The Seeds”

We could use the biological perspective to answer the question posited in that forum discussion: “What is the most important part of an apple tree?” From the biological perspective, it seems to me the answer would be the seeds—since they allow the plant to reproduce. From this perspective, all the other parts of a plant only exist to promote the development and success of the seeds. While each part of the plant may have its own unique function and purpose, those sub-purposes all serve the ultimate purpose of the seeds. This includes the fleshy meat portion of an apple. As another biology article explains,

Seed dispersal is important because … if plants are too close together they compete for light, water and minerals. … Some animals, such as birds, eat the whole fruit, including the seeds. The seeds pass straight through the digestive system of these animals unharmed. They are then eliminated with the rest of the waste. By this time the animal has moved a long way from the parent plant and the seed is surrounded by a supply of manure which will help in its development.4

So if a plant has more delicious flesh, more animals will eat it, and more of its seeds will be dispersed and nourished. Thus, while my favorite part of the apple tree is the flesh of the apple (because it’s yummy), from a biological perspective, the purpose of the apple flesh is to aid the seed. The only reason fruits have pleasant tastes is to encourage animals to help them spread their seeds and fertilize them.

In other words, the only purpose of an apple tree is to make more apple trees. The seed matters most because it reproduces, and the apple’s flesh only serves to promote more seeds. The seed is greater than the flesh.

From the moment I first began to learn these basic premises of biology, however, I hesitated to pull this lens out of its biological context and use it to interpret all aspects of life. I was uncomfortable with the implications that the only purpose of my life on earth was to pass on my genes. It also made the natural world a little less romantic and wondrous to me, since by this view, everything was really just about transmitting chromosomes. I wondered if there was anything in the gospel that might give a different perspective on the purposes of the natural world around us.

The Answer from the Lord: “The Flesh”

The Lord has addressed this particular question about fruits, and he seems to give us a very different way of looking at the natural world. He lists several purposes of fruits like apples:

apple slice
The Lord did not create plants just so that they would produce more plants.

The herb, … yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. (D&C 59:17–19)

The Lord does not list reproducing as the primary purpose of herbs and plants. In fact, he doesn’t include reproducing on the list of purposes at all! Instead, he says the purposes of plants are to gladden us, please our eyes, and to give us vibrant tastes and smells to enjoy. The Creator says that is why he created fruits.

In other words, the purpose of apples is to promote joy. The apple flesh matters most because it brings joy, and the seed only serves to produce more apple flesh. The flesh is greater than the seeds.

From the biology perspective, plants have tasty flesh in order to promote the seeds. From the Lord’s perspective, plants have seeds in order to produce more tasty-fleshed fruit. Biology assumes that reproduction is an end in itself, and there is no other purpose. The Lord tells us that joy is the final end, and all other purposes point toward that end.

Conclusion

I’m not saying biology is the devil. 🙂 Many fields of study uses certain base assumptions in order to help us draw useful conclusions or make informed decisions.5 (Of course, maybe some fields of science would be better served if they were open to using other possible assumptions, but that’s another topic.) However, we shouldn’t confuse those assumptions with eternal principles. If biology defines life as “things that reproduce,” then we shouldn’t be surprised when the only consistent pattern it finds leads to the conclusion that “the purpose of life is to reproduce.”6 We would also be very foolish to adopt a premise of biology (a premise written by humans) as a foundation of public morality, acting as though we had somehow scientifically “discovered” this “eternal principle.”

What I am trying to do is introduce the topic of teleology, the question of ultimate purposes, and show how Heavenly Father has given us many answers in the restored gospel. To me, there is a subtle but vastly important message from the Lord in section 59. The gospel helps us see the ultimate purpose of things, or at least more purposes than we might otherwise see if we only approached things from a scientific perspective. I accept conclusions like “Apple trees are designed to reproduce themselves,” and, “Taste is intended to help us avoid toxins.” But I believe those are incidental purposes, useful side-functions.

The primary purpose of those phenomena is something more—call it joy, the Good, or fulfilling the measure of your creation. It seems to me that the Lord is encouraging us to see his creation in a different way—to understand that some purposes are intrinsic; they do not just depend on what perspective you’re looking from. We were made to experience happiness, and the rest of creation is designed to promote that happiness, if we can learn to see it properly.



Notes

1. Actually, I didn’t just come across it; I specifically went out and looked for one as a springboard into the topic of this post. It would have been more honest had I written, “I have often posited the following question in my own head,” but that would seem really personal and irrelevant, and wouldn’t seem nearly as applicable to other people as it does when I show an online forum in which several people are discussing it. But all that would take too long to explain, so aren’t you glad I put it in this footnote instead?

2. Actually, it was “What is the most important part of a plant?” Dang, I’m still in the first paragraph of this post and I’ve already lied twice. You really shouldn’t believe anything I say.

3. Peter O. Gray, Psychology, 5th ed., p. 237.

4. The Open Door Website, “Fruits and Seeds,” saburchill.com.

5. Jeff told me a humorous example. When a physicist was asked to project the rate and landing time of a falling cow, the first thing he said was, “Let’s begin by assuming that the cow is a sphere.” He knows the cow is not a sphere, but it’s a useful assumption when calculating velocity. He’s not being irrational, he’s being scientific.

6. This reminds me of times that I’ve heard people say, “Science has never found any evidence for God.” Well, that’s because science currently begins with the premise that it only considers “natural” explanations. If you only admit natural evidence, then of course there will be no evidence for the supernatural. That’s a result of the premise we start with, not of the absence of God. If you have a science called purplology that limits itself to the study of purple things, don’t be surprised if the experts conclude that there is no evidence of green things.