Evolution and the Meaning of Life

Diagram of evolution of the (observable part) of the universe
from the Big Bang (left), the CMB-reference afterglow, to the present.


In previous blog posts (“Death Is Bad,” and “Can Science Give Us Immortality”) we have given two reasons to believe that life is meaningful: 1)it is beneficial to be optimistic about the question; and 2) there is a possibility of technological immortality.

We now ask if the idea of evolution supports the claim that life is meaningful, or is becoming meaningful, or is becoming increasingly meaningful. Does evolution add to the case for meaning? Is there anything about evolution in general—as opposed to technological evolution specifically—which sheds light on meaning? Is there anything about evolution as a whole—cosmic, biological, and cultural—which implies that life is meaningful, or that meaning emerges, or that, given enough time, complete meaning will be attained, actualized, or approached as a limit? Does an a posteriori analysis of past evolution allow us to draw positive conclusions about the meaning of life? Perhaps there is a progressive directionality to evolution, perhaps the meaningful eschatology of the universe will gradually unfold as we evolve, and perhaps we can articulate a cosmic vision to describe this unfolding—or perhaps not.


Cosmic evolution evokes the idea of evolutionary progress, as we saw earlier in thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, while progressivism imbues the work of most biologists, a trend the philosopher and historian of biology Michael Ruse thinks will continue.When we turn to culture, a compelling argument can be made for the reality of progressive evolution. (A case bolstered by the theory of memetics.) Will Durant argued for cultural progress, a conclusion that follows straightforwardly from elements of human history, while Jean Piaget made the case for cognitive progress, based on his studies of cognitive development in children and his analysis of the history of science.2 3 Robert Wright believes in a generally progressive evolution based on the structure of non-zero sum interactions, whereas Steven Pinker counters that complexity and cooperation are sub-goals of evolution, not its natural destiny.4 5 While the overall strength of the arguments for evolutionary progress is unclear, we cannot gainsay that such arguments have philosophical merit. Clearly there have been some progressive trends in evolution, which intimates that life as a whole may become increasingly meaningful.

A number of thinkers argue for the relevance of evolution to meaning. Daniel Dennett extends the heuristic reach of evolution, showing how it acts as a universal solvent that eats through philosophical problems, while Michael Shermer says that we create provisional meanings in our lives, even though our existence depends on a billion evolutionary happenstances.6 7 Steve Stewart-Williams argues that the universe does have purposes, since we have purposes and we are part of the universe, while John Stewart claims that the universe will be increasingly meaningful if we direct the process. 8 9 Still, other philosophers have argued that evolution is irrelevant to meaning; for example, Wittgenstein notoriously maintained that “Darwin’s theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.”10 Yet this claim was made in a philosophical milieu where the scope of philosophical inquiry was narrow, whereas today the impact of scientific theories on philosophy is enormous. Today most thinkers would say that the emergence of conscious purposes and meanings in cosmic evolution is relevant to concerns about meaning.


Turning to grand cosmic visions, the French paleontologist and Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin articulated a universal vision of the evolutionary process, with the universe moving toward a fully meaningful end point.11 The biologist Jacques Monod notably questioned Teilhard’s optimism, noting that biology reveals no meaning.12 Biologist Julian Huxley conveyed a vision—similar to Teilhard’s but without the religious connotations—in which we are encouraged to play the leading role in the cosmic drama by guiding evolution to realize its possibilities, thereby finding meaning for ourselves in the process.13 14 15 E. O. Wilson follows this line of thinking—the evolutionary epic is mythic and sweeping—and exhorts us to create a better future.16 Thus many thinkers believe that evolution is both progressive and relevant to meaning; in fact it is a key that unlocks the secret of meaning. For Teilhard, Huxley, and Wilson, life is meaningful because it evolves, and we live meaningful lives precisely because we play a central role in this evolving meaning.

We will explore each of these thinkers in greater detail in our forthcoming posts.


 1. Michael Ruse, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
2. Will Durant, “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,” The Rotarian, January 1941, 10.
3. For more see John G. Messerly, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution (Lanham Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).
4. Robert Wright, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny (New York: Vintage, 2001), 331
5. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_book_club/features/2000/nonzero/_2.html
6. Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
7. http://www.godlikeproductions.com/forum1/message563977/pg1
8. 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.
9. John Stewart, “The Meaning of Life In A Developing Universe,” http://www.evolutionarymanifesto.com/meaning.pdf., 14.
10. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1961), 25.
11. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre,  The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 1975), 219.
12. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York: Vintage, 1972), 112.
13. Julian Huxley, “The Creed of a Scientific Humanist” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 81.
14. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, (London: Max Parrish, 1959), 236.
15. Julian Huxley, New Bottles for New Wine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 13-16. Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.

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