Evolution and the Meaning of Life

John Stewart is a member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group at The Free University of Brussels, and the author of: Evolution’s Arrow: the direction of evolution and the future of humanity. In his essay “The Meaning of Life In A Developing Universe,” he argues that evolution and meaning should be understood together.

Evolution and Meaning

Evolution has produced an organism that has begun to model the history of cosmic evolution as well as the possible future evolution of life. The models reveal that there is a trajectory to evolution, specifically the increasing scales over which living processes evolve into organized cooperatives. For example, molecular processes were organized into cells; cells into organisms; and human organisms into families, bands, tribes, cities, and nations. Evolution favors cooperation because of the advantages bestowed upon organized cooperatives—larger cooperatives have a greater ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Uninterrupted, this should lead to global and interstellar cooperatives, with a concomitant increase in intelligence that would eventually lead to a nearly omnipotent command of matter and energy.

While the trajectory of evolution has moved largely of its own accord, at some point it will probably continue only if we direct or steer it—an act Stewart calls intentional evolution. Intelligent beings such as ourselves must be committed to intentionally directing evolution, driving the development of life and intelligence even though our ultimate destination is unknown. This transition, from passive recipient to active participator must be taken in order to further evolve. “If humanity goes on to complete this great evolutionary transition, we will have embraced a role that provides meaning and purpose for our existence.”[i]

Stewart follows in a line of great thinkers from Julian Huxley to E.O. Wilson who find meaning in human life by accepting our role as protagonists of the evolutionary epic–thereby directing it to new heights. I am sympathetic with this claim. Tomorrow I will investigate Stewart’s thought more closely by discussing his “evolutionary manifesto.” Then I plan to delve into some of the most profound thinking I have yet encountered on issues of science and meaning. They are found in Clement Vidal’s forthcoming book: The Beginning And The End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective.

[i] John Stewart, “The Meaning of Life In A Developing Universe,” 14.

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