Review of Stewart-Williams’, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life

Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales. His book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew, applies evolutionary insights directly to questions of ethics, religion, and meaning.

Stewart-Williams argues that evolution bears significantly on the issue of the meaning of life. Humans have a perennial interest in the question of life’s meaning, advancing religious and secular answers to the question but, as Stewart-Williams notes, there are difficulties with all the proposed solutions even before we take evolutionary theory into account. This causes him to look more closely at the implications of evolution for the question of the meaning of life.

Why are we here? We are here because we evolved. But the purpose of our existence is not to survive, reproduce, or propagate genes; the fact that we evolved to do these things does not tell us what our purpose is. In this sense evolution is not relevant to questions of meaning, but it is relevant to questions of meaning in another way. To see how we must understand that evolutionary theory offers historical explanations, not teleological ones. Teleological explanations explain apparent design, like the giraffe’s long neck, in terms of purposes—they have long necks to feed on tall trees. (Aristotle’s explanation of water running downhill to reach its natural resting place is another example of a teleological explanation.) Modern biology tells us instead that giraffes have long necks because in the past the genes that caused long necks helped them survive, reproduce and transmit their genes. In modern biology adaptations have historical, not teleological explanations.

But explanations for why we’re here—get to heaven, be happy, help others, reproduce—are all teleological explanations. In evolutionary theory these are the wrong kinds of answers because in biology, there are no teleological answers only historical ones. From evolutionary theory it follows that we are here because we evolved, we aren’t here for a purpose. Note that this does not preclude us choosing goals and purposes for ourselves from which we derive emotional or psychological meaning. “However, if we’re interested in the question of whether life is ultimately meaningful, as opposed to whether it’s potentially emotionally meaningful, well, after Darwin, there is no reason to suppose that it is.”[i]

Yet Stewart-Williams doesn’t find this conclusion gloomy. Just because life has no ultimate purpose, it doesn’t follow that life isn’t worth living—life can be good even if it is ultimately meaningless. (Many subjectivists make the same point.) Like the existentialists we might even find this idea liberating, inasmuch as it allows us the freedom to give life our own meaning, rather than having it imposed on us externally. For some, subjective meaning may not be enough, but for Stewart-Williams we can appreciate beauty, kindness, love and the other good things in life even if they don’t have an ultimate purpose.

Surprisingly though, Stewart-Williams is not saying that we have purposes but the universe does not.  For the minds from which purposes emerge are a part of the universe, and this means that if you have purposes then part of the universe does too. The universe does not have a single purpose, but the many purposes of the beings that are part of it:

… it is false to say that the universe is purposeless. It was purposeless before the first life forms with purposes and drives evolved, and it will be devoid of purpose once more when the last life form takes its final gasp of breath. However, as long as we’re here to contemplate such matters, to struggle and strive, the universe is not without purpose.[ii]

Moreover, that our minds are part of the universe has an interesting implication—the universe is partly conscious. When we contemplate the universe, part the universe is conscious; when we know something of the universe, part of the universe is self-conscious. From an evolutionary perspective this means that after eons of unconsciousness, the universe is gradually becoming self-aware. And yet, regarding the destiny of consciousness, Stewart-Williams is not optimistic. Given the shadow cast over us by universal death he expects the universe will lapse back into unconsciousness.

I would summarize Stewart-Williams argument in its briefest form as follows: 1)evolution reveals that the universe has no teleological purpose; 2) we are part of the universe and we have purposes; 3) the universe has as many purposes as we give it.; and 4) he is not optimistic that the universe will remain conscious. Let us discuss each of these briefly in turn.

The first  agree follows from the non-teleological nature of modern biology. Darwin did for biology what Newton did for physics. There is the weaker notion of teleonomy, which is the idea that while there is no end state that is external to the process which guides or steers evolution, we can say that the process has goal-directedness as part of its program or algorithm. Needless to say this is a difficult topic about which philosophers of biology disagree. The second claim is self-evidently true and the third claim follows from the first, with the caveat that we can move from purposes of the part to purposes of the whole. The fourth claim is reasonable, although reasonable persons could disagree with it.

I have written extensively about evolution and purposes, especially in my work on Jean Piaget’s evolutionary theory and in my recent book and on this blog where I’ve discussed E.O. Wilson, Jacques Monod, Teilhard de Chardin. But in the end I just don’t know where cosmic evolution is heading. The most likely scenario is cosmic death yet I always hold out hope that Kurzweil was right–our post-human, intelligence-augmented ancestors will decide its fate. But in the end I just don’t know. And I can live like that.

[i] Steve Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 194.

[ii] Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew, 197.

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