Discerning Purpose in Evolution

Discerning Purpose in Evolution

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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.