Evolutionary Biology & the Meaning of Life

Evolutionary Biology & the Meaning of Life

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Metanexus: Views 2001.11.30 6334 words

At this time of year, many Christians around the world are beginning or havebegun their preparations for celebrating the coming of Jesus of Nazareth ina stable somewhere in Bethlehem sometime at the turn of the eras. Variouslycalled the Little Lent, the Nativity Lent, or Advent, it nurtures theexpectation that the world will be turned upside down somehow. That what wasaccidental will be revealed as essential, and the apparently essential asaccidental. Today’s author, Mikael Stenmark, asks us to do something quitesimilar as regards how we view purpose and creation in an evolutionarycontext.

Stenmark observes that “Christians who take evolutionary theory seriously(…) [have] to accept that God did not have the human species in mind whenGod created the world and that therefore our existence is without purpose inthe sense that it is not part of anyone’s plan.(…) [C]onsider thefollowing analogy. Jacob is my firstborn child. However, my wife and I didnot plan to have Jacob, our plan was simply to have a child. But as thingsturned out Jacob happens to be born.[15] Jacob’s existence would then bedue to chance because when we decided to have a child he was not part of ourplan. I suggest that Christians and other religious believers canunderstand their relationship to God in a similar way, and just as my wifeand I love our son, God could love people in the way Christians believe thatGod loves them, even though the human species was not intended to exist.(Here is in fact an opportunity to get away from the strong form ofanthropocentrism that, I think, has been too closely associated withtraditional Christianity.)”

Furthermore, he adds that what “Christians (and of course Jews and Muslimsas well) seem to be committed to is rather the belief that central to God’spurpose is, as Keith Ward puts it, the ‘generation of communities of free,self-aware, self-directing sentient beings’.[16] On such an account thepurpose of genes is to build bodies, the purpose of bodies is to buildbrains, and the purpose of brains is to generate consciousness and evenself-consciousness, and with it there appears for the first time in naturalhistory, reflective and critical thinking, experiences of meaning, love andforgiveness and a capacity to choose between good and evil. Thisdevelopment is something that was part of God’s plan with creation, althoughno part of that plan was the specific development of human beings.”

So, what does it mean or import to be human? Is it our biological bodies?Our thinking consciousnesses? Or is it something else, something that we,perchance, create? And is that something accidental or essential? In otherwords, what’s it all about, Alfie? Or, perhaps, the point is that we do notactually perceive the real points? Thus, could it be the case thatevolutionary biology as understood by Mikael Stenmark is actually pointingto something akin to a precept attributed to the abovementioned Nazarene:namely that the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Read on toexplore the issue further.

Mikael Stenmark is associate professor in philosophy of religion at theDepartment of Theology, Uppsala University, Sweden. He is the author of”Rationality in Science, Religion and Everyday Life” (Notre Dame, Ind: TheUniversity of Notre Dame Press, 1995), for which he was awarded The JohnTempleton Foundation Prize for Outstanding Books in Theology and the NaturalSciences in 1996. His new book “Scientism: Science, Ethics and Religion” hasjust been released (Hardcover, 256pp. ISBN: 0754604454 Aldershort: Ashgate,November 2001), and a short review of the book was sent out today(2001.11.30) on Metanexus: News.

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: Evolutionary Biology, Religion, and the Meaning of Life.From: Mikael StenmarkE-mail: Mikael.Stenmark@teol.uu.se


A number of biologists maintain that recent developments in evolutionarybiology have profound implications for religion, morality and ourself-understanding in general. Richard D. Alexander, for instance,maintains that these recent developments have such an impact that ‘we willhave to start all over again to describe and understand ourselves, in termsalien to our intuitions.'[1] These developments are going to change everyconcept of relevance for our self-view, concepts such as rationality,consciousness, guilt, meaning, unselfishness and egoism. In this paper Ifocus on one of these issues, namely, the impact of evolutionary biology ona religious understanding of the meaning of life. If we take the recentdevelopments in evolutionary biology seriously how is it likely to affectour religious beliefs about the meaning of life?

The challenge posed by science is that evolutionary theory seems toundermine the religious belief that there is a purpose or meaning to theexistence of the universe and to human life in particular, and thattherefore people should reject such a belief or perhaps even abandon theirreligion as a whole.

Let me give some examples of biologists or scientists holding this view.Stephen Jay Gould tells us that ‘Darwin argues that evolution has nopurpose. Individuals struggle to increase the representation of their genesin future generations, and that is all’.[2] William Provine asserts,’Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning forhumans’.[3] Richard Dawkins maintains, ‘The universe we observe hasprecisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design,no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference…. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music’.[4]Edward O. Wilson writes, ‘no species, ours included, possesses a purposebeyond the imperatives created by its genetic history’.[5] Lastly, GeorgeGaylord Simpson claims, ‘Man is the result of a purposeless and naturalprocess that did not have him in mind. He was not planned’.[6]

But many Christians, Jews, and Muslims, for instance, believe that theuniverse is created by God and that God intended to bring into beingcreatures made in God’s image, and that therefore the universe and alsohuman life have a purpose. So there seems to be a serious clash betweenscience and religion on this point. The theologian John F. Haught thinksthat if these evolutionary biologists are right then the conflict is soserious that ‘although theology can accommodate many different scientificideas, it cannot get along with the notion of an inherently purposelesscosmos’ because such an idea is so central to a theological and religiousconcern.[7] He does not think this is true about merely the major theisticreligions but of most religions of the world. Haught writes,

“Since for many scientists today evolution clearly implies a meaninglessuniverse, all religions must be concerned about it. Evolutionists raisequestions not only about the Christian God but also about notions ofultimate reality or cosmic meaning as these are understood by many of theworld’s other religious traditions. … Almost all religions, and not justChristianity, have envisaged the cosmos as the expression of a transcending’order,’ ‘wisdom,’ or ‘rightness,’ rather than as an irreversibly evolvingprocess. Most religions have held that there is some unfathomable ‘point’to the universe, and that the cosmos is enshrouded by a meaning over whichwe can have no intellectual control, and to which we must in the endsurrender humbly.”[8]

So there are good reasons why many religious believers ought to takeseriously these claims made by scientists and in particular by evolutionarybiologists. The key claim seems to be that evolutionary theory implies thatthere is no purpose or meaning to be found behind the emergence of humanbeings in natural history. In other words, we are not here for a reasonand, in particular, we are not planned by God or anything like God to behere. (I think there are more claims involved but I will not consider themin this context.)

1. The Scientific and the Scientistic No-Purpose Argument

Even if the key claim is not difficult to identify it is not so easy todetermine what exactly the argument is that these biologists appeal to, tojustify it. The conclusion is more often stated than the premises thatwarrant such conclusion. But it seems to have something to do with the factthat evolutionary biologists have discovered that central to the developmentof life is chance or randomness. Dawkins writes that ‘natural selection,the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and whichwe now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposefulform of all life, has no purpose in mind’.[9] But, of course, Christians,Jews, and Muslims (in short, theists) are not committed to believe thatnatural selection had any purpose in mind simply because natural selectionis not an agent and as far as we know only agents can have purposes in mind.What they seem to be committed to believe is rather that God had a purposein mind in using natural selection as a means to create human beings andthat we, therefore, exist for a reason. The question is then whetherscience undermines such a religious belief. To be able to argue that thatis the case, it seems as if one must show that natural selection (or anyother relevant biological process) and the belief ‘God bringing usintentionally into existence’ are or probably are incompatible, i.e., theycannot both be true at the same time.

What Gould writes may prove to be a good starting-point for such a’no-purpose argument’ because he maintains that evolutionary biology hasshown that ‘we are the accidental result of an unplanned process … thefragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not thepredictable product of any definite process’.[10] In other words,evolutionary biologists cannot find any propensities in the organic materialthey investigate, which make the development of human beings likely.Therefore, human life lacks a meaning in the sense that we were planned byGod or anything like God to appear in natural history. Gould writes, ‘Homosapiens … ranks as a “thing so small” in a vast universe, a wildlyimprobable evolutionary event, and [therefore] not the nub of universalpurpose’.[11] The argument then seems to be that all biological eventstaking place in evolutionary history, including the emergence of ourspecies, are random with respect to what evolutionary theory can predict orretrospectively explain. Therefore, there is no ultimate meaning to humanlife. Humans are not planned by God or anything like God to be here.

Before assessing this argument let me try to clarify in what sense weare talking about purpose or meaning in this particular context. First, weneed to distinguish between the meaning or purpose of (a) the universe, of(b) human life in general and of (c) a particular individual’s life. Such adistinction is of importance because it seems possible that an individuallife, for instance, can have meaning even if the universe as a whole were tolack meaning. What we primarily focus on is the second issue, the one aboutthe meaning or purpose of the existence of the human species. Second, wealso need to distinguish between whether something (e) exists for a reason,(f) serves some particular end or (g) chooses to achieve some particularend. For instance, there is a purpose to my children’s lives in the sensethat they exist for a reason because my wife and I intended that they shouldcome into existence (sense e). But we did not intend that they should servesome particular end, at least not in the way that our new car is intended tomake it easier for us to travel between different places (sense f).However, we hope that they in their lives would strive toward someparticular end or to realize some particular values (sense g), so that theirlives will have a positive meaning. So it is possible that we can exist fora reason without ourselves serving a particular purpose, and othercombinations of these different senses might as well be possible.

The question ‘What is the meaning or purpose of life?’ is, in otherwords, ambiguous in a twofold way. In asking it we can either mean ‘Whydoes the universe exist?’ or ‘Why do humans, that is our species, exist?’ or’Why do I exist?’ Moreover, in asking ‘What is the meaning or purpose oflife?’ we can also mean ‘Do humans in general or I in particular exist forsome purpose?’ or ‘What values or interests should we (or I) structure ourlives (or my life) around to give them (or it) meaning?’ Our focus, however,is merely on the question whether the human species exists for some purpose,that is (b) and (e) combined (not denying of course that the answer we giveon this issue may have implications for the others).

So what about the ‘scientific’ no-purpose argument, is it a valid andsound argument? The argument appears to be:

(1) The human species came into existence through the process of evolution.(2) But all individual species that come into existence through the processof evolution are random (i.e., have a low probability) with respect to whatevolutionary theory (or more broadly, the sciences) can predict orretrospectively explain. —————
Therefore, the existence of human beings is an accidental event, that is,their existence as a species is not a result of God’s purposes, intentionsor plans, given that such a being exist.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that it is true that the existenceof human beings is a wildly improbable event given the information that isaccessible to scientists through the use of biological methods, but how canwe from this information alone conclude that we are not intended by God orsomething like God to be here? This does not seem possible and consequentlythere is a logical gap between the premises and the conclusion. Thescientific no-purpose argument is an incomplete argument. We need anextra-premise to make the argument valid because it is quite possible thatthings could exist for a purpose, even if evolutionary biologists wereunable to discover it.

Does perhaps the argument presuppose the all-sufficiency of biology orthat the scientific account at least is exhaustive? What science cannotdiscover does not exist or at least we cannot know anything about it. If sowe would, it seems, have the extra premise needed for the argument to bevalid: If evolutionary theory implies that our existence is a widelyimprobable event and the only source of knowledge we have is science (ormore specifically evolutionary biology in this case) then it follows that weought to believe that our existence is the result of pure chance, that is,it is not a part of anyone’s plan and it serves no one’s end. (Thus a’chance event’ is in this context taken to be something that is not a partof anyone’s plan and serves no one’s end.)

Let us call this version of the argument the ‘scientistic’ no-purposeargument:

(1) The human species came into existence through the process of evolution.(2) But all individual species that come into existence through the processof evolution are random (that is, have a low probability) with respect towhat evolutionary theory (or more broadly, the sciences) can predict orretrospectively explain.(3) The only things we can know anything about or rationally believeanything about are the ones science can discover.[12] —————
Therefore, the existence of human beings is an accidental event, that is,their existence as a species is not a result of God’s purposes, intentionsor plans, given that such a being exist.

But the problem with such an argument is that the extra premise appears tocontain a non-scientific claim. For how can one set up a scientificexperiment to demonstrate the truth of (3)? What methods in, for instance,biology or physics are suitable for such a task? Well, hardly those methodsthat make it possible for scientists to discover and explain electrons,protons, genes, survival mechanisms and natural selection. Furthermore itis not because the content of this belief is too small, too distant or toofar in the past for science to determine its truth-value. Rather it is thatbeliefs f this sort are not subject to scientific inquiry. We cannot cometo know (3) by appeal to science alone. Premise (3) is rather a view in thetheory of knowledge and is, therefore, a piece of philosophy and not a pieceof science. But if it is a piece of philosophy then we cannot know it to betrue because we would then have non-scientific knowledge, which the premisedenies the possibility of. Thus, the more profound problem with the premiseis that it seems to undermine itself. If it is true, then it is false. Sowhat we have here is a version of the no-purpose argument, which contains acontroversial non-scientific premise (scientism) and moreover appears to beself-refuting.[13]

2. The ‘Not Purely Scientific’ No-Purpose Argument

Is there any other, more promising way in which the no-purpose argumentcould be developed so that those of us who take evolutionary theoryseriously may after all have to reconsider at least some of our religiousbeliefs? I think so. These biologists could instead of maintaining (3),add a premise about the conditions that must be satisfied for something toexist for a reason or to be something which is intended or planned bysomeone. Thus they could claim that it is this premise together withpremises (1) and (2) that entail the conclusion.

Remember that the religious belief under consideration is that we-as aspecies-are here in accordance with God’s plan, that there is in this sensea meaning or purpose to our existence. We are not merely accidental becauseGod intended to create us and did so, we have discovered, not by a directact of creation but by the process of evolution. It seems, however, as if arequirement for a plan, purpose, foresight or intention to be involved in anobject coming into being is that this object is not the result of merechance, but has a certain likelihood of obtaining. That is to say, wecannot attribute purpose to a thing without implying that someone didsomething intentionally, that is had a purpose in mind in bringing about thething. But that is not sufficient. I might have the intention to bringabout a state of affair, say to plant some red roses in my garden, and I dothis by taking away the grass and in its place put some topsoil from a bagthat I have bought. Three weeks later, even though I have not planted someseeds in the flowerbed, red roses start to grow. Under these circumstanceswe would not say that there is a purpose why these red roses grow in mygarden merely because I had such a general intention. The reason is thateven though I had the intention to bring about this state of affair this isnot in itself sufficient, because the likelihood that my action, given whatI actually did, would have this outcome was too low.

If the advocates of the no-purpose argument from evolutionary biologyapply these observations about purposive actions of human agents to God,they would, it seems, have a complete argument, and one that would notpresuppose the acceptance of scientism. The argument would then be:

(4) The human species came into existence through the process of evolution.(5) The existence of the human species is planned by God (or something likeGod) only if the species’ existence is (a) intended by God and (b) it isprobable that its emergence by means of evolution will take place for thatreason.(6) But all individual species that come into existence through the processof evolution are random (that is, have a low probability) with respect towhat evolutionary theory (or more broadly, the sciences) can predict orretrospectively explain. —————
Therefore, the existence of human beings is an accidental event, that is,their existence as a species is not a result of God’s purposes, intentionsor plans, given that such a being exist.

Is this a good argument? Perhaps, but notice that it is not a scientificargument because premise (5) contains an extra-scientific or philosophicalclaim. So this argument could not be used to support William Provine’sclaim that ‘Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimatemeaning for humans’.[14] Evolutionary biology alone cannot establish thatthe universe and humans are not here for a reason. What seems true is thatscientific theories such as evolutionary theory can in conjunction with anextra-scientific or a philosophical claim like (5) undermine such areligious belief.

Let us assume that the argument in this version is valid and sound.What would then follow for, for instance, Christians who take evolutionarytheory seriously? It would imply that they had to accept that God did nothave the human species in mind when God created the world and that thereforeour existence is without purpose in the sense that it is not part ofanyone’s plan. Our existence would then be due to chance because it was nota part of God’s plan for the creation. Is this a modification thatChristianity can undergo without losing its unique identity?

I think, perhaps surprisingly, that the answer is ‘yes’, and to see whyconsider the following analogy. Jacob is my firstborn child. However, mywife and I did not plan to have Jacob, our plan was simply to have a child.But as things turned out Jacob happens to be born.[15] Jacob’s existencewould then be due to chance because when we decided to have a child he wasnot part of our plan. I suggest that Christians and other religiousbelievers can understand their relationship to God in a similar way, andjust as my wife and I love our son, God could love people in the wayChristians believe that God loves them, even though the human species wasnot intended to exist. (Here is in fact an opportunity to get away from thestrong form of anthropocentrism that, I think, has been too closelyassociated with traditional Christianity.)

What Christians (and of course Jews and Muslims as well) seem to becommitted to is rather the belief that central to God’s purpose is, as KeithWard puts it, the ‘generation of communities of free, self-aware,self-directing sentient beings’.[16] On such an account the purpose ofgenes is to build bodies, the purpose of bodies is to build brains, and thepurpose of brains is to generate consciousness and even self-consciousness,and with it there appears for the first time in natural history, reflectiveand critical thinking, experiences of meaning, love and forgiveness and acapacity to choose between good and evil. This development is somethingthat was part of God’s plan with creation, although no part of that plan wasthe specific development of human beings.

But does perhaps evolutionary biology also undermine this belief, thebelief that God brought the universe into being in order to realize a set ofvalues or worthwhile states, including, in particular, the emergence of acomplex self-conscious life form, a life form that due to chance happens tobecome Homo sapiens? However, it is more difficult, I think, forevolutionary biologists to argue successfully for such a conclusion becausein their profession they typically focus on the evolution of a particularlineage of animals-which they have shown could have developed in a number ofquite different ways from the way it actually developed-and not on the typesof life forms and functions served. Holmes Rolston has provided at leastsome reasons to doubt the credibility of such a version of the no-purposeargument. He writes,

“Assuming more or less the same Earth-bound environments, if evolutionaryhistory were to occur all over again, things would be different. Still,there would likely again be organisms reproducing, genotypes and phenotypes,natural selection over variants, multicelluar organisms with specializedcells, membranes, organs; there would likely be plants and animals:photosynthesis or some similar means of solar energy capture in primaryproducers such as plants, and secondary consumers with sight, and othersentience such as smell and hearing; mobility with fins, limbs, and wings,such as in animals. There would be predators and prey, parasites and hosts,autotrophs and heterotrophs, ecosystemic communities; there would beconvergence and parallelism. Coactions and cooperations would emerge. Lifewould probably evolve in the sea, spread to the land and the air. Play thetape of history again; the first time we replayed it the differences wouldstrike us. Leigh Van Valen continues: ‘Play the tape a few more times,though. We see similar melodic elements appearing in each, and the overallstructure may be quite similar. . . . When we take a broader view, the roleof contingency diminishes. Look at the tape as a whole. It resembles insome ways a symphony, although its orchestration is internal and causedlargely by the interactions of many melodic strands.'”[17]

The biochemist, Christian de Duve, agrees with Rolston and Van Valen on thispoint. He writes: ‘Life was bound to arise under the prevailing conditions,and it will arise similarly wherever and whenever the same conditionsobtain. There is hardly any room for “lucky accidents” in the gradual,multistep process whereby life originated. … I view this universe [as] …made in such a way as to generate life and mind, bound to give birth tothinking beings’.[18] So perhaps it is true that the development of thehuman species is not likely given the scientific theories we have, but thedevelopment of some form of intelligent life might still be. If we play thetape again and again, it seems likely that something like us will reappear.

I have suggested that Christians and other theists may as a response towhat we have come to know through evolutionary biology about the developmentof life on earth, modify their religious faith in such a way that they admitthat the existence of the human race was probably not planned by God.Instead of believing that God had a particular species in mind, they should(or at least could) believe that what God had in mind was the emergence of ageneration of communities of free, self-aware, self-directing sentientbeings. The benefit of thus revising our beliefs is that the likelihoodthat such a life form would appear in evolutionary history is much higherthan that a particular instance of this type of life, Homo sapiens, wouldemerge.

But why think even that this development had to take place on Earth?Why believe that part of God’s plan or intention was to create on aparticular planet a complex self-conscious life form by means of evolution?I see no reason why Christians (or Jews and Muslims for that matter) shouldthink that they are committed to believe that the creation of the Earth wasessential for God’s plans. However, if we accept this line of thought thensurely the likelihood that free, self-aware and self-directing sentientbeings would appear somewhere in the Universe is higher then the likelihoodthat this form of life would emerge on the planet that we call ‘Earth’. Soit seems to be compatible with theism not merely that we exist due tochance, but also that due to chance the evolution of a complexself-conscious life form did take place on this particular planet.

3. The Complete No-Purpose Argument

But suppose that evolutionary biologists like Dawkins, Gould and Wilsonsucceeded in developing an argument that could show that even the emergenceof communities of free, self-aware, self-directing sentient beings innatural history is not probable on earth or anywhere else in the Universe,given what evolutionary theory (or more broadly, the sciences) can predictor retrospectively explain. Does it really follow then, as we have assumedso far, that the existence of a complex self-conscious life form (which hasby chance been actualized in the form of the human species) is not, or isprobably not, a result of God’s purposes, intentions or plans? I do notthink so for the following reason.

It seem to me that the relevant issue is not, strictly speaking, what islikely given the scientific information or theories we possess (premise 6),but what is probable given what we could assume that God’s knowledge wouldbe about the outcome of the evolutionary process that science investigates,if certain initial conditions are initiated at the beginning of theuniverse. Theists agree that such a being’s cognitive capacity would faroutrun our capacity. They disagree, however, whether God’s knowledgeincludes merely what has occurred and is occurring, or if it also includesall that will occur. Some theists even think that God possesses ‘middleknowledge.’ In other words, God also knows what would in fact happen inevery possible situation or possible world.[19]

Moreover, where theists stand on this issue depends at least partiallyon whether they think God is best understood as a temporal or as anatemporal being. Ernan McMullin, like St. Augustine and Thomas of Aquinas,believes that the most appropriate way to describe God’s relationship totime is to say that God is an atemporal being or exist ‘outside’ of time.This means that God knows the world in the act of creating it, and thusknows the cosmic past, present, and future in a single unmediated grasp.But if this is so, McMullin points out, it does not seem as if it matterswhether the emergence of the human species or any other complexself-conscious life form is an inevitable product of the evolutionaryprocess or whether it is a widely improbable event given what evolutionarybiologists can predict or retrospectively explain.[20] This is so becauseGod would then not anticipate the future by extrapolating from knowledge ofthe present, as we do, but knows the outcome of evolution in the direct waythat we know the present. For God to plan means on such an account that theoutcome occurs; there is no gap between decision and completion.

But even if God is understood to be a temporal being and God’s knowledgeis limited to everything that is or has been and what followsdeterministically from it, it seems as though God’s ability to predict withgreat accuracy the outcome of future natural causes and events is enormous.We cannot, therefore, automatically assume that what is probable, given suchdivine knowledge, is the same as what is probable given the scientificknowledge that we happen to have.

Thus if God planned to create us or more specifically a complexself-conscious life form and if it is likely that we or such a life formactually come into existence, given what God can know about the future ofthe evolving natural processes, then one could reasonably claim that we arehere for a reason, although the human species was perhaps not an explicitpart of God’s plans, purposes or intentions, just as I could maintain thatmy daughter Beatrice exists for a reason, although she was not an explicitpart of our plan when my wife and I decided to have a second child.

To establish the opposite conclusion seems to require more than basingone’s calculation of probable outcomes on current scientific theories. Theargument would have to show that the evolution of human beings or anycomplex self-conscious life form is unlikely given (a) what we know throughbiology or any other science about evolution and (b) what we could assumeabout what God (if such a being exists) would know about the outcome of theprocess

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