Can Darwin Reveal the Meaning of Life?

Evolutionary perspectives on what we're here for.

Posted Sep 05, 2014

Is evolutionary science relevant to the question of “What’s the meaning of life”? If so, is it relevant in a negative sense by undermining religious ideas about this meaning, or in a positive sense by illuminating this meaning from a scientific perspective? Here I’ll focus on the latter, positive possibility.

An evolutionary approach provides at least three distinct answers to the question of what the meaning of life might be. The first two answers relate closely to the relatively narrow perspectives of Darwinian biology and psychology. The third answer, however, takes the radically broader perspective of evolutionary cosmology. Be forewarned: this cosmological approach may seem bizarre to those who aren’t familiar with it, and may not be the kind of answer you were expecting to find here!

First and most basically, modern Darwinism tells us that the primary goal of life is genetic survival. This principle borders on the self-evident. All living things exist only because all of their ancestors passed their genes on successfully, so the inherited nature of all organisms is to strive for genetic survival. For humans, this generally means that we strive for goals that would have enhanced the survival and reproduction of ourselves and our very close kin in past evolutionary environments. So from this perspective, the meaning of life, in terms of the general ultimate purpose of the adaptations that comprise humans and all other organisms, is genetic survival.

But if genetic survival is the general goal of all living things, is it also the goal for which people should strive in order to lead a subjectively meaningful and fulfilling life? Not necessarily. This brings us to the second evolutionary answer to the meaning of life question: although genetic survival is life’s general goal, it may have little to do with life’s meaningfulness from the individual's perspective. People do tend to find fulfilment in behaviors that would have been adaptive in the past (for example raising children), but may also find just as much fulfilment from a life in which many of these behaviors are absent. Our minds were designed by and for the worlds of our evolutionary ancestors, which were in many respects radically different than those of the civilized present. Many of the adaptations which comprise our minds may not actually produce adaptive outcomes in modern societies, primarily because these societies are filled with all sorts of novel environmental and cultural features. In sum, we should not expect for fulfilment to result from acting in ways that seem “maximally adaptive” in the modern world (for example, by striving to have as many children as possible).

The third evolutionary answer to the meaning of life question zooms out from the realm of Darwinian biology and psychology to encompass the vastly broader realm of evolutionary cosmology. As noted above, this cosmological perspective may seem strange if you’re unfamiliar with it, but that’s only because our universe does indeed appear to be, in the words of J. B. S. Haldane, “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Whereas evolutionary biology addresses the issue of how adaptations function to enable the replication of genes, evolutionary cosmology can in principle address the question of whether life itself might function to enable the replication of universes. Just as biological adaptations owe their existence to highly non-random conditions (that is, the process of natural selection), life exists only because forces in our universe are precisely calibrated to be “bio-friendly” (that is, hospitable to life); if any of these forces were altered even slightly, life could never have evolved. Might some process of cosmic selection have enabled our universe’s highly improbable bio-friendly conditions to evolve, and if so, could life itself play a part in the perpetuation of such conditions? Cosmologists have suggested that life could in theory have this function if (1) our universe is one of innumerable others, together comprising a multiverse in which (2) there is a process of cosmological evolution, in which universes are selected for features that promote their own replication, such as black holes, and (3) life itself is a feature that enables universes to replicate themselves. Since life should be motivated to sustain the conditions that enable it to exist, super-intelligent life forms could play a role in actively enabling the replication of bio-friendly universes.

These ideas are highly speculative of course, but they’re based on serious, rigorously-considered scientific ideas, and they have the additional virtue of being fun to think about. If you’re intrigued by evolutionary cosmology, you can read more about these ideas in books such as Max Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe, Martin Rees’s Our Cosmic Habitat, Lee Smolin’s The Life of the Cosmos, and James Gardner’s Biocosm.

Copyright Michael E. Price 2014. All rights reserved.

More Posts