The Purpose of Evolution

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

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
whetherevolution has
metaphysical implications, but rather
whatmetaphysical
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
behaviorismthat 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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