Should We Believe in Progressive Cosmic Evolution?

Julian Huxley 1964.jpgJulian Huxley

We now ask whether we should believe grand cosmic visions like those of Teilhard, Julian Huxley, or E. O. Wilson. Should we believe that cosmic evolution is moving in a progressive direction? Should we believe in orthogenesis? Probably not. For when we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, guilt, anxiety, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness. Surely serious reflection on this misery is sobering. Turning to the future our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for good. Our wishes may never be fulfilled.

Moreover, it is not merely that we cannot know if our splendid speculations are true—which we cannot—it is that we have a strong reason to reject our flights of fancy. And that is that humans are notorious pattern-seekers, story-tellers, and meaning-makers who invariably weave narratives around these patterns and stories to give meaning to their lives. The patterns of progress we glimpse likely exist only in our minds! There is no face of a man on Mars or of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches. Finding patterns of progress in evolution, we may be victims of simple confirmation bias.

After all progress is hardly the whole story of evolution. Most species and cultures have gone extinct, a fate that may soon befall us. Furthermore, since this immense universe (or multiverse) is largely incomprehensible to us, we should hesitate to substitute an evolutionary-like religion for our frustrated metaphysical longings. We should be more reticent in advancing cosmic visions, and less credulous about believing in them. Humility should temper our grandiose metaphysical speculations. In short, if reflection on a scientific theory supposedly reveals that our deepest wishes are true, our skeptical alarm bell should go off. If our searching easily finds precisely what we are looking for, we are likely moved by our wishes, not the implications of our science. We need to be braver than that, for we want to know, not just to believe. In our job as serious seekers of the truth, the credulous need not apply.

In the end cosmic and biological evolution—and later the emergence of intelligence, science, and technology—leave us awestruck. The arrival of intelligence and the meaning it creates is important, an idea echoed by the physicist Paul Davies: “the existence of mind in some organism on some planet in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here.”[i] Similar ideas reverberate in the work of the Cambridge evolutionary palaeobiologist and evangelical Christian, Simon Conway Morris. Morris argues that if intelligence had not developed in humans, it would have done so in another species—in other words, the emergence of intelligence on our planet was inevitable. [ii]

We agree with both Davies and Morris that mind and its attendant phenomena inspire awe, but it does not follow that we are therefore meant to be here or that intelligence was inevitable. It is only because we value our life and intelligence that we succumb to such anthropocentrism. Homo sapiens might easily have never been, as countless events could have led to their downfall. This fact alone should give us pause when we imbue our existence with undue significance. We were not inevitable, we were not meant to be here—we are serendipitous. The trillions and trillions of evolutionary machinations that led to us might easily have led to different results—and ones that didn’t include us. As for the inevitability of intelligence, are we really to suppose that dinosaurs, had they not been felled by an asteroid, were on their way to human-like intelligence? Of course not, and such a view strains credulity. Dinosaurs were around for millions of years without developing greater intelligence. We want to believe evolution had us and our minds as it goal or central concern—but it did not—and we were not meant to be. We should forgo our penchant for detecting patters and accept our radical contingency. Like the dinosaurs, we too could be felled by an asteroid.[iii]

Thus we cannot confidently answer all of the questions. We can say that there has been some progress in evolution and that meaning has emerged in the process, but we cannot say these trends will continue or that they were good. And we certainly must guard against speculative metaphysical fantasies, inasmuch as there are good reasons to think we are not special. We do not know that a fully meaningful eschatology will gradually unfold as we evolve, much less that we could articulate a cosmic vision to describe it. We don’t even know if a truly meaningful reality is possible. We are moving, but we might be moving toward our own extinction, toward universal death, or toward eternal hell. And none of those offer much comfort.

We long to dream but always our skepticism awakens us from our Pollyannaish imaginings. The evolution of the cosmos, our species, and our intelligence gives us some grounds for believing that life might become more meaningful, but not enough to satisfy our longings. For we want to really believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday and today. We want to believe with Kurzweil and Moravec, with Teilhard and Huxley, that a glorious future awaits but, detached from our romanticism, we know that the Monod may be right—there may be no salvation, there may be nothing over the rainbow, there may be no comfort to be found for our harassed souls.

Confronted with such meager prospects and the anguish that accompanies them, we are lost, and the most we can do, once again, is hope. That doesn’t give us what we want or need, but it does give us something we don’t have to be ashamed of. There is nothing irrational about the kind of hope that is elicited by, and best expressed from, an evolutionary perspective. Julian Huxley, scientist and poet, best conveyed these hopes.

I turn the handle and the story starts:
Reel after reel is all astronomy,
Till life, enkindled in a niche of sky,
Leaps on the stage to play a million parts.

Life leaves the slime and through the oceans darts;
She conquers earth, and raises wings to fly;
Then spirit blooms, and learns how not to die,
Nesting beyond the grave in others’ hearts.

I turn the handle; other men like me
Have made the film; and now I sit and look
In quiet, privileged like Divinity
To read the roaring world as in a book.
If this thy past, where shall thy future climb,
O Spirit, built of Elements and Time![iv]


[i] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 232.

[ii] Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[iii] Had the course of the asteroid 2005 YU55 that passed the earth on November 8, 2011 been slightly altered, millions might have died and this book not finished.

[iv] Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’ (1922), in The Captive Shrew and Other Poems of a Biologist (London: Basil Blackwell, 1932), 55.



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One thought on “Should We Believe in Progressive Cosmic Evolution?

  1. Everything we know tells us Monod must be right. From the vantage of decades after his book (which is fabulous), he has the best track record. Admittedly because his predictions were predictions of negatives.

    I think a lot of the Kurzweils of the world sound too much like Pangloss to my ears, and would do well to dwell a little on the best writer to leverage Monod-like views of the world: Douglas Adams. Here’s a quote from him:

    “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

    ― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

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