Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales. He received his PhD from Massey University in New Zealand in psychology and philosophy and was a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University in Canada. 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 believes 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 to the question of life’s meaning even before we take evolutionary theory into account. Let us look then more closely at the implications of evolution for meaning.
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 now. So in this sense evolution is not relevant to questions of meaning. Nonetheless evolutionary theory 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.) Biology tells us instead that giraffes have long necks because in the past long necks helped them survive, reproduce, and thereby pass along their genes. In modern biology, all adaptations have historical rather than teleological explanations.
The important point is that explanations for why we are here—to get to heaven, be happy, help others, reproduce—are all teleological explanations. In evolutionary theory these are the wrong kinds of answers because again, in biology, there are no teleological answers only historical ones. From evolutionary theory it follows that we are here because we evolved, we are not here for a purpose. Notice 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 does not find this conclusion gloomy. Just because life has no ultimate purpose, it does not follow that life is not worth living—life can still be good although it is ultimately meaningless. Like the existentialists we might even find this idea liberating, inasmuch as this state of affairs allows us the freedom to give life meaning, rather than having it imposed on us externally. For many this subjective meaning may not be enough, but for Stewart-Williams we can appreciate beauty, kindness, and the other good things in life even if they don’t have an ultimate purpose.
Surprisingly, we should not draw from all this the conclusion that we have purposes but the universe does not. 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]
Finally, the fact 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. As for 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.
Summary – Evolution reveals that the universe has no objective purpose. However, we are part of the universe and we have purposes, so the universe has as many purposes as we give it. This means that the universe is partly conscious.
[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.