Discerning Purpose in Evolution

Evolution—the universe's gradual process of becoming—is perhaps the greatest truth ever discovered. It serves as our creation story, shaping our views of what we are. The story of evolution influences not just our thoughts, but our feelings and actions too.

Darwin's discovery of biological evolution by natural selection revealed how life evolves through the blind process of random mutation and environmental pruning, without any outside purpose or design. And for the last 150 years, this naturalistic account of our origins has been effectively used to overcome a wide variety of superstitions and mythic beliefs, as science has "fought the good fight" to evolve beyond prescientific religious worldviews.Yet, as the facts of evolution have increasingly come to light, these very facts are beginning to create problems for a purely materialist account of the evolutionary process. These problems are not caused by unscientific theories such as "intelligent design"; rather, they are arising from science's own discovery that everything in the universe is evolving: matter, life, human culture, and even consciousness itself.

The "spiritual message" that is being gradually revealed by science's growing understanding of evolution is found in evolution's unmistakable progress. Although some scientists try to deny evolutionary progress, we must ask ourselves: Has there really been no progress in cosmological evolution from the hydrogen debris of the big bang to the blue jewel of planet earth? Has there been no progress in cultural evolution from Stone Age survival bands to our global civilization? And even in biological evolution, has there been no progress from seaweed to Ingrid Bergman? Even though creative destruction and occasional regression are part of the process, and even though important gains have been lost along the way, evolution has nevertheless shown itself to be a prolific generator of value.

Although an exclusively physical understanding of evolution has no way to fully account for this progress, the stark facts of the ubiquitous evolution of everything point nonetheless to a universe with a purpose. In fact, it is uncontroversially evident that purpose emerges from within the evolutionary process. All forms of life exhibit the purpose to survive and reproduce, and without such intentionality the evolution of life would be impossible. We share these biological purposes with other animals, but we also exhibit deeper forms of purpose. We humans have purposes for our purposes, and relative freedom of choice regarding the urges or impetuses we want to act on and the appetites we want to resist. Moreover, humans can have purposes that require a lifetime or more to fulfill—we can have highly creative purposes, compassionate and loving purposes, and world-changing purposes that improve conditions for everyone.

Just as the emergence of purpose in life forms represents a new aspect of reality that results in a new form of evolution, the emergence of self-conscious free will in humans likewise represents a new level of reality that results in a new form of evolution—the psychosocial domain of development in which the evolution of consciousness and culture transcends our biological origins.

As I carefully argue in my new book, Evolution's Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, the evolution of human consciousness and culture is real evolution. Although it cannot be conflated with biological evolution, it is nevertheless the latest phase of the unfolding epic of evolution that can be traced all the way back to the original emergence of time and space 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang. When we view evolution from this macro perspective, we can begin to recognize it as an incontrovertibly purposeful phenomenon.

Recognizing the foundational role of purpose in the unfolding of evolution helps us see that the purpose of evolution is increasingly up to us. From the very beginning, humans have worked to improve their relative conditions. And over the course of history, humans have improved their conditions most dramatically by improving their definition of what counts as improvement—by evolving their values and their worldviews into more inclusive frames of reference. For example, through cultural evolution, in at least some places, the scope of those worthy of moral consideration has expanded from the family or tribe to those of the same religion, then to those with the same nationality, and now to all sentient beings. And just as our sense of goodness has evolved by stages into increasingly worldcentric conceptions, our sense of truth has likewise evolved from magical to mythical to scientific, and now to increasingly holistic levels of understanding.

Explaining this universal process as purposeless or otherwise accidental ignores the evolutionary evidence and ultimately defies reason. So in response to the relative exhaustion of a purely physical explanation of the phenomenon of evolution, Evolution's Purpose provides an updated philosophy of evolution that better accounts for what science has now revealed. Without relying on any spiritual authorities, the book demonstrates evolution's purposeful progression and shows how the scientific story of our origins is actually a profound and sacred teaching compatible with many forms of contemporary spirituality.

The truth of evolution's purpose can be directly felt and known through the realization that we can actually feel the impulse of evolution within us. As biologist Terence Deacon observes, "To be human is to know what it feels like to be evolution happening." That is, evolution is not outside of us or beyond us; we experience the impulse of evolution directly and regularly whenever we are motivated to improve our lives, live up to our potential, and help others. Because we can feel this urge to evolve within our own hearts and minds, we know accordingly from our own experience that evolution is inherently teleological and purposive. Therefore, if we want to discover evolution's purpose, we need only look within ourselves. Our purposes are its purposes.

Although it is not always obvious, every presentation of the science of evolution, including cosmological, biological, and cultural evolution, is always accompanied by some form of philosophy or reality-framing metaphysics. And the philosophy of scientific materialism, which has been closely associated with evolution since the time of Darwin, is now being discredited by science itself. For example, the original emergence of the big bang cannot be explained mechanistically, and neither can the emergence of the first life forms or the emergence of self-conscious freedom in humans. In each case, these major evolutionary emergences demonstrate indisputable creativity. In fact, evolution exhibits a rising flow of creativity that consistently overcomes entropy, ingeniously solves difficult problems by navigating through immense hyperspaces of possibility, produces astonishing diversity and originality, and continually transcends itself through the emergence of radically novel forms and new levels of organization.

Scientific examination of the physical features of cosmological evolution reveals compelling evidence that the universe is organized for life. Yet, this apparent "fine-tuning" of the prebiotic physical universe only reveals a purpose for evolution. If we want to find direct evidence of purpose in evolution, we must look to the presence of life and its inherent agency. And if we want to discover the comprehensive purpose of evolution as a universal process, our investigation must be broadened beyond matter and life so as to include the psychosocial evolution of humanity. That is, at its best, humanity's quest to evolve is ultimately the quest for ever-deeper realizations of beauty, truth, and goodness. These intrinsic values are actually the directions of evolution, properly understood.

A philosophy that recognizes the influence of beauty, truth, and goodness in the unfolding of evolution does not require the idea of God to make these influences plausible. But neither does it require that a theistic conception of Deity be rejected or ruled out. The source and destiny of the universe’s motion toward the beautiful, the true, and the good can be explained differently by the various forms of spirituality that will find a welcome home within an authentic evolutionary worldview. And even though humanity's very conception of beauty, truth, and goodness has evolved through the dialectical process of cultural evolution, these basic value categories continue to recur within every stage of development. In other words, although exactly what is beautiful, true, or good can be defined differently, and even conflictingly, by each successive stage of cultural evolution, some version of these values can always be found. Regardless of a person’s worldview, we can find something that is true, something that is good, and something that is beautiful for them.

Practically everyone wants to make things better, and the intrinsic values of beauty, truth, and goodness define what "better" actually means. Our own evolutionary impulses to improve the human condition and make the world a better place can thus help us discover the overall purpose of evolution as a whole. Recognizing this, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead actually defined evolution as "an increase in the capacity to experience what is intrinsically valuable." And it is through this insight that we may come to appreciate evolution's spiritual message of progressive growth through the ongoing evolution of consciousness.

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Reader Comments

"Darwin's discovery of biological evolution by natural selection revealed how life evolves through the blind process of random mutation and environmental pruning, without any outside purpose or design. "

Natural selection is design. It is an uninteligent process that produces design; an algorithm to produce design. Natural selection also has a short term goal: find a working design for the population for the current environment. Natural selection cannot have a long term goal because it can't forsee future environments. Thus the steady background of extinctions: natural selection cannot adapt the populations fast enough to meet a different environment.

"they are arising from science's own discovery that everything in the universe is evolving: matter, life, human culture, and even consciousness itself."

This is a completely different definition of "evolution" from "biological evolution". Biological evolution is "descent with modification" and refers to POPULATIONS. Evolution as used for matter, human culture, and our individual consciousness is the definition of evolution as "change over time" and can refer to individuals. Stars are said to "evolve" during their lifetime, but this is NOT Darwinian evolution.

This confusion of definitions undermines the author's entire thesis. Biological evolution has no "progress". There is no absolute "good" or "bad" traits. There are only traits that work IN A PARTICULAR ENVIRONMENt or ones that perform badly in a particular environment. "Progress" is a value judgement that lies beyond science and has no place in evolution. Human intelligence is often viewed as "progress", but if that intelligence leads to nuclear war or global warming that destroys H. sapiens, then the intelligence was NOT "progress".

"Has there been no progress in cultural evolution from Stone Age survival bands to our global civilization?"

Not necessarily. For instance, our global civilization provides an opportunity for the spread of infectious diseases not possible to Stone Age survival bands. So an airborne Ebola virus could wipe out our global civilization and the Stone Age bands in the remote mountains of New Guinea or the Phillipines could survive as a culture. The same applies to our dependence on fossil fuels and their exhaustion.

"For example, the original emergence of the big bang cannot be explained mechanistically, and neither can the emergence of the first life forms or the emergence of self-conscious freedom in humans."

Here the author is relying on the old god-of-the-gaps argument, and 2 of those gaps: the emergence of life and the emergence of self-conscious freedom don't really exist. They are the products of the Argument from Ignorance. Chemistry will produce life from non-living chemicals; I can tell the author how to do this in his backyard or kitchen. There are hundreds of studies looking at the evolution of self-consciousness. I would suggest the author read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.

"Scientific examination of the physical features of cosmological evolution reveals compelling evidence that the universe is organized for life. Yet, this apparent "fine-tuning" of the prebiotic physical universe only reveals a purpose for evolution."

This is an elementary error of logic. If the universe did not have the properties necessary for life to evolve, then we simply would not be here to comment. The universe is not compelled to have this "fine-tuning"

"These problems are not caused by unscientific theories such as "intelligent design"; "

And yet the essay repeats most of the arguments of Intelligent Design! In essence, the essay clothes the refuted and unscientific theories of Intelligent Design as "science's own discovery that everything in the universe is evolving" With, of course, the conflation of different definitions of the word "evolution".

"Our own evolutionary impulses to improve the human condition and make the world a better place "

I for one would like to see some evidence for this claim. In the present political campaign in the USA and the civil war in Syria, as just 2 examples, I see people not trying to improve the human condition but trying to improve THEIR condition.

"evolution's spiritual message of progressive growth "

Biological evolution does not have a spiritual message. Evolution as change over time is not a spiritual message. There may be a purpose to the universe, but such a purpose must come from outside the discoveries of science. Why is it that many people feel a necessity of having science validate their spirituality?

The author says:
the original emergence of the big bang cannot be explained mechanistically, and neither can the emergence of the first life forms or the emergence of self-conscious freedom in humans.
We know about the big bang and the origin of life from our sense observations. We know about consciousness because we can make ourselves the subject of our own knowledge. We can comprehend the conscious knowledge of humans as opposed to the sense knowledge of animals, but we can’t define this consciousness. We can hope that science will eventually explain the big bang and the origin of life, but there is no evidence that we will ever understand what a human being is other than an embodied spirit.
Furthermore, evolution should be on the list of phenomena we don’t yet understand. Natural selection only explains the adaptation of species to the environment. Evolutionary biologists always speak of “adaptive evolution.” There is no theory supported by the evidence that explains how bacteria evolved into mammals in only 3.5 billion years.
The author says:
;we experience the impulse of evolution directly and regularly whenever we are motivated to improve our lives, live up to our potential, and help others.
We can fulfill our potential in many ways. The problem of life consists precisely in deciding how to fulfill our potential. The bright idea that our purpose in life is to fulfill our potential has no value and no evidence supporting it. Humans who make their own happiness a goal in life tend to be unhappy and humans who devote themselves to the happiness of others tend to be happy. This is the great mystery of life. It is a mystery, not the basis of a principle to be followed.
It is revealed to us through the Western prophets and Eastern mystics that a transcendent reality exists and perfect fulfillment comes after we die and are united with this transcendent reality. In the West we call the transcendent reality God.

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