The Purpose of Evolution

A better understanding of the purpose of evolution will lead directly to a more evolved world.

| November 2012

  • Evolution's Purpose
    "Evolution's Purpose," by Steve McIntosh, reveals the purpose of evolution — to grow toward ever-widening realizations of beauty, truth and goodness.
    Cover Courtesy Select Books

  • Evolution's Purpose

Does the science of evolution really prove that life, humanity, and the universe as a whole are meaningless accidents? In Evolution's Purpose (Select Books, 2012), author Steve McIntosh argues that the purpose of evolution is not "intelligently designed" or otherwise externally controlled; rather, its purpose is being creatively and originally discerned through the choices of the evolutionary creatures themselves. The book's preface, which is excerpted below, details McIntosh's ideas on cultural evolution and  the role of philosophy within the broader context of the theory of evolution.    

Even though I became a “grown-up” many years ago, I have not stopped growing. While my physical body is no longer growing, my mind and character have continued to develop. And as a result of my ongoing personal evolution I have become increasingly sensitive to the problems of the world. Indeed, many of us who have received the educational and economic benefits of living in the developed world now feel a sense of personal responsibility to help improve the human condition and combat the global problems that increasingly threaten us. Although humanity will most likely adapt to our changing world, as our large-scale problems continue to mount the potential regression of our civilization in the decades ahead is becoming a real possibility. It appears that the challenges of the twenty-first century will test humanity like never before; and the only way we will be able to deal with these challenges comprehensively is through  cultural evolution .  

Cultural evolution, however, is a difficult and problematic subject. A significant number of influential scholars, policymakers, and journalists feel that the very idea that some cultures are “more evolved” than others is misguided and potentially racist. Yet those who deny that human culture evolves are often the same ones who are demanding social change. Although there is widespread agreement about the need to address certain social problems, many of those who define themselves as “progressives” are nevertheless ambivalent about humanity’s potential to achieve lasting historical progress. And given the previous failures of progressive ideologies such as Marxism, there are many good reasons why we should remain cautious, or even skeptical, about theories of cultural evolution.   

Still, our growing global problems are resulting from the unintended consequences of previous historical developments, and it is only through further positive development that we can overcome these threats. As environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, the exhaustion of natural resources, overpopulation in the developing world, and hunger and poverty become increasingly dire, we must find a way to outgrow the problems we have created for ourselves. As I will argue in the pages ahead, permanent solutions to the problems we are facing in this new century can only be achieved through the further evolution of consciousness and culture. Therefore, understanding what cultural evolution actually is, how it occurs, and how it can be more effectively brought about is crucial for this undertaking.  

In order to achieve a breakthrough in our ability to understand and facilitate cultural evolution, we need to achieve a breakthrough in our understanding of the overall process of evolution as a whole. And as we will see, this breakthrough is beginning to take shape: leading theorists are coming to realize that the cosmological evolution of stars and planets, the biological evolution of organisms, and the cultural evolution of human history are all part of a universal process of becoming that has been continuously unfolding since the beginning of our universe with the big bang. The advance of evolution encompasses much more than the development of biological species. Indeed, evolution is not just something that is occurring within the universe; evolution itself is what the universe actually is—a grand panoply of micro and macro development that affects everything, and ultimately connects everything.  

However, the mainstream scientific and philosophical community has not digested or even appropriately acknowledged the staggering fact that evolution is universal. Yet once we accept that all forms of evolution—cosmological, biological, and cultural—are part of the same overarching process, despite their significant differences and discontinuities, this leads to a deeper recognition of evolution’s meaning and value. And as we begin to discover the underlying meaning and value of evolution, this reveals evolution’s purpose. A scientifically informed philosophical recognition of the underlying purpose of evolution can be very powerful because, as my arguments will show, a better understanding of evolution’s purpose can lead directly to a more evolved world.   

The purpose of evolution, however, cannot be discovered through science alone. In fact, scientists have not even been able to “discover purpose” in humans—neurologists have yet to pinpoint a specific mechanism or network in the brain that is responsible for will power or decision-making. Moreover, many scientific materialists argue that free will is an illusion and that all human choices are predetermined by social and environmental factors. Purpose is thus a subject that remains elusive to science. And this is because purpose is primarily a function of values, and values must be understood through philosophy rather than science.   

The Role of Philosophy 

Although professional philosophy had only a marginal social impact in the last half of the twentieth century, there have been times in history when philosophy served as a powerful lever for social progress. For example, the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were a significant factor in the flowering of ancient Greek civilization during its golden age. In ancient Greece the contemplation of philosophical questions occupied the minds of all the best citizens and the work of professional philosophers was indispensible to the social fabric of the community. Then again during the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries philosophy provided a new way to think about the world. It supplied a framework for the rise of science, and it described new ideals of freedom and morality that contributed to the overthrow of feudalism and the inauguration of democratic forms of government.   

Now in our time in history a new form of philosophy is emerging—an expanded perspective that promises to help us solve our world’s problems through an enlarged understanding of evolution. Just as Enlightenment philosophy helped give birth to science, which led to a significant improvement of the human condition through scientific medicine and other technological innovations, this new philosophy of evolution has the potential to produce similarly dramatic improvements. These advances will be achieved as we increasingly recognize how fundamental values such as beauty, truth, and goodness influence evolution at every level of its unfolding. As I will argue, by coming to understand the “gravitational pull” of values on the process of evolution we can more clearly see why and how cultural evolution has been achieved in some places and why it has stagnated or regressed in other places. Once grasped, this enlarged appreciation of the evolutionary process can be used to produce sustainable cultural evolution on every front of its development. This new understanding of evolution reveals how both our personal progress as individuals and our collective progress as a society are directly connected to the creative unfolding of the universe as a whole—a process that has progressed by emergent steps from matter, to life, to mind, to spirit. This new philosophy of evolution links the individual sense of purpose that courses within our own minds and hearts to the larger cosmic purpose of evolution overall. And when we work to feel and cultivate this universal evolutionary impulse within ourselves, this kindles our motivation and improves our ability to give our gifts to the world.  

Most people think of evolution as a scientific subject. Indeed, one could argue that the discovery of evolution is the most useful and important scientific insight of all time. Not only is it central to biology, it has become a cornerstone of many other scientific fields as well. In fact, there are now very few branches of science that do not make explicit use of the discoveries of evolution in one way or another. Every year thousands of books and scholarly articles are published on the subject, and it remains an ongoing focus of intense interest in the media and popular culture in general. Yet despite its enormous impact on science this powerful and overarching theory has had an even greater impact on our society’s understanding of itself. As philosopher Mary Midgley observes: “The theory of evolution is not just an inert piece of theoretical science. It is, and cannot help being, also a powerful folk-tale about human origins. . . . Evolution is the creation myth of our age. By telling us our origin, it shapes our views of what we are. It influences not just our thought, but our feelings and actions too.”  

Part of the appeal of the subject of evolution comes from the tremendous controversy it provokes. Controversy about evolution is found not only in the well-publicized battles over public school curriculum but within science itself, where heated debates on a wide variety of details have characterized the development of the idea from its beginning. The great passion the subject of evolution evokes adds to the intensity with which the concepts have been both championed and critiqued. But beyond its abundant scientific utility, and beyond its evident power as a lightning rod for passionate debate, the subject of evolution also appeals to us because it seems that there is something very meaningful and profound about it that has yet to be fully realized or discovered. In fact, many sensitive thinkers are beginning to feel a tantalizing intuition that what science is increasingly revealing about our evolving universe represents a monumental truth that transcends the boundaries of scientific inquiry.  

As I will argue in the pages ahead, the scientific facts of evolution cannot stand alone. These powerful facts can only exist within a reality-defining frame of reference or worldview that situates these truths within our understanding of the universe as a whole. Even those who deny that there is any greater meaning or value to evolution beyond its physical facts are nevertheless situating these facts within such a framework. As the scientific discoveries accumulate we are coming to see that evolution is not just a characteristic of life, but is an overarching process that encompasses every aspect of the cosmos. And once we acknowledge that evolution is influencing everything we can begin to see the spiritual implications of this recently discovered truth. In other words, there is no getting around the metaphysical connotations of evolution as a ubiquitous cosmic process.   

Those who reject evolution on religious grounds do so because they can find no room for these discoveries within their pre-existing, reality-defining framework. But even those who hold that evolution is simply the result of chance and necessity within a universe devoid of larger meaning must nevertheless admit that such a pessimistic assessment is also inescapably metaphysical—that such conclusions extend beyond what can be observed in the physical world. Alternatively, if we accept the facts of evolution but feel that no one can really know the ultimate origin or destiny of this process, this is likewise a metaphysical framework. Or if we maintain that evolution is a technique of creation used by spirit to bring forth the manifest world, this too is a metaphysical framework. Once we recognize that the universe is, somehow, in the process of becoming, this existential truth cannot help but connect to some kind of metaphysical explanation. Even anti-metaphysical explanations, which argue that the only reality is physical reality, are nevertheless inescapably metaphysical; the all-encompassing facts of evolution create a container of one sort or another no matter what you do. So at this point the question is not whether evolution has metaphysical implications, but rather what metaphysical framework most adequately accounts for what science has now disclosed.   

The philosophy of materialism (also known as physicalism or naturalism) that has served as a container for evolutionary science for most of its history has fulfilled a valuable purpose. Strict methodological naturalism (an investigative approach that rules out any metaphysical interpretations) has been a useful incubator for our emerging understanding of the natural process of evolution. And this approach remains an important tool of scientific inquiry. But we have recently come to the point where the scientific facts themselves increasingly demonstrate that a purely physical explanation of the phenomenon of evolution, one that can only include empirical data gathered from sensory observation, is now relatively exhausted. Such an explanation can no longer adequately contain the discoveries of science. Thus, because the science of evolution, whether scientists admit it or not, always has a philosophy of evolution attached to it, it is time to work toward an enlarged philosophy that can better account for what we now know.  

The current climate within the academic study of evolution can be compared to the branch of psychology known as behaviorism that was influential in academic psychology up until the 1970s. The behaviorists maintained that humans could be studied and understood in their fullness by simply observing their external behaviors; there was no need to postulate a mental life or hypothetical internal states—all could be explained by behavior alone. Of course, we now look back at psychological behaviorism as woefully inadequate to the task of explaining human psychology. The apparent absurdity of trying to understand the mysteries of consciousness by running rats in a maze borders on the humorous. Yet the academic professionals who are recognized as our official experts on evolution are currently using an essentially behaviorist approach to our understanding of the cosmos. These scientists and philosophers have concluded that evolution can be completely understood by simply observing its external phenomenon.   

However, the accumulating facts of cosmological, biological, and cultural evolution are now giving rise to a deeper philosophical understanding of evolution that recognizes how interiors—agency, sentience, subjectivity, consciousness, and mind—play a central role in the universe’s unfolding development. This new integral philosophy is not yet fully recognized by the academic mainstream, but it is nevertheless grounded in science and its arguments are intellectually rigorous. The emerging perspective of integral philosophy provides fresh insights into how consciousness itself actually evolves and why this form of evolutionary development is a primary feature of the process of evolution overall. Consciousness can evolve in a wide variety of ways. It can be raised or evolved by increasing empathy and compassion, by cultivating knowledge, understanding and forgiveness, and by building political will and the determination to achieve social and environmental justice. Consciousness can also be raised by enlarging people’s estimates of their own self-interest, by expanding their notions of what constitutes “the good life,” and by persuading them to appreciate new forms of beauty and truth. The developed world’s relatively recent acceptance of women as the social equals of men provides a good example of how the human condition can be improved through the evolution of consciousness.  

Examining what science has revealed about our evolving universe from the perspective of integral philosophy shows us how evolution is not random, accidental, or otherwise meaningless. On the contrary, its progressive advance reveals the presence of purpose—not an entirely preplanned or externally controlled type of purpose, but rather a creative generation of value that has been continually building upon itself for billions of years.   

When we come to understand the grand panoply of evolution as a unified, overarching process of development that has been unfolding since the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago—when we see how the seemingly distinct evolutionary domains of matter-energy, life, and mind are actually just different aspects of a larger, universal process of becoming—we begin to sense the spiritual implications of this momentous truth. And despite its vigorous use as a weapon against spirituality, as our understanding of evolution deepens I believe the subject of evolution will increasingly come to be seen as a profound and sacred teaching in its own right. By illuminating the spiritual implications of evolution and by describing how we can use this understanding to solve problems by raising consciousness, I hope to bring the insights of integral philosophy to the attention of the educated mainstream.   

Where I Stand on the Purpose of Evolution

Practically all writers on evolution have a philosophical reality frame in which they situate evolution. And this can result in a hidden agenda. Therefore it is important to state my position up front. Although I am not an academic, my arguments and conclusions are being made within a framework that strives for academic respectability. I have a high regard for the tremendous accomplishments of the sciences of biology, geology, physics, and cosmology (among others), through which the facts of evolution have been brought to light. My aim is thus to be as faithful as possible to the scientific facts and argue only with some of the philosophical interpretations that have become closely associated with these facts. Although I maintain that purpose can be detected in the unfolding of evolution, I reject the assertions of creationists and “intelligent design” proponents. Distinguished philosopher of evolution Henri Bergson clearly understood that “nature is more and better than a plan in the course of realization.” The philosophical discussion that follows seeks to appeal to the scientific community as well as to the larger audience of those who are intrigued by the subject of evolution. The contemporary evolutionary scientists who have influenced my thinking include Stuart Kauffman, Paul Davies, Lynn Margulis, Simon Conway Morris, Ervin Laszlo, and Eric Jantsch. From the field of philosophy, my influences include Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Ken Wilber, Holmes Rolston III, Philip Clayton, and John Haught. And of course, no credible philosophy of evolution can avoid giving credit to the father of evolutionary philosophy, Georg Hegel.   

Although I hold that evolution has unmistakable spiritual implications, I do not subscribe to any organized religion. Nor do I intend to argue philosophically for any particular form of spiritual belief. If I must have a label for my spiritual position, then I will accept the tag of “panentheist,” which means that I recognize spirit as both immanent and transcendent. However, I also believe that science, philosophy, and religion must be afforded a degree of separation. So it is my sincere intention to keep our discussion at the level of philosophy, and to thus make use of the most minimal metaphysics possible to account for the facts. Moreover, recognizing the kind of purpose that I argue can be found within evolution does not necessarily require that one believe in God. This philosophical interpretation of evolution is thus compatible with a wide variety of spiritual paths and belief systems. While I will avoid a tedious dialogue with atheistic philosophies, I will not presume any particular beliefs on the part of the reader. When it comes to the meaning and value of evolution no one can be completely objective, but I do hope to make my beliefs transparent and to strive for an inclusive philosophical agreement that can accommodate multiple worldviews.  

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from   Evolution's Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins , published by Select Books, 2012.

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