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Does Evolution Nullify Human Meaningfulness?

One of the more problematic conclusions credited to modern science is the notion that the world and everything in it has been stripped of meaning [1] because its functions and origins can be so thoroughly explained. As the Oxford-educated English author and skeptic Susan Blackmore articulated in an interview with

The scientific view—well, a scientific view, but the general gist, the way that science goes is: look, this is just a pointless universe. We’re here for no reason at all. We just evolved because things just happened this way. Everything you do is just part of an ongoing universe.

Blackmore’s reasoning follows a similar train of thought as that of many of her fellow atheistic thinkers (Dennett, Dawkins, et. al.): that we as humans lack meaning due to the meaninglessness of the evolutionary process that formed us. In premise-conclusion form, her logic goes something like this:

1. If something evolves, its evolution has no intent (i.e. Darwin’s blind ‘descent with modification’).

2. If something’s process has no intent, the thing itself has no purpose.

3. Human beings are something (as opposed to not existing at all).

4. Human beings evolve.

QED Human beings have no purpose (3, 4, 1, 2).

While I can buy into the validity of the argument easily enough, I cannot accept its bold, sweeping conclusion both because I see great purpose in the lives of humans and, perhaps more importantly, because many of its premises seem fallacious. I will argue especially that premise 2 is based on a genetic fallacy that equates an observed phenomenon with the process by which that phenomenon is formed. I will also bring forward reservations regarding the purposelessness of evolution as a process of creation (premise 1).

Christopher Southgate’s God, Humanity, and the Cosmos (2011), a textbook on science and theology, seems as good a place as any to tackle the notion of human meaninglessness predicated on evolutionary theory. Southgate defines evolution thus: “Darwin’s ‘descent with modification’ (Darwin’s preferred phrase) is based on random variations—or, more accurately, variations which are undirected with respect to any subsequent effect of fitness” (171). Here, Southgate supports Blackmore’s view that evolution lacks any purpose or teleology. Perhaps this is so. But does the apparent purposelessness of the process necessitate the purposelessness of the thing thus formed?

Consider a rock formation found in the belly of a subterranean cave—a spiraling, sparkling mass of stalagmites stretching heavenward.  Confronted with this magnificent natural formation, I would certainly be inclined to say the stalagmites (perhaps resembling a certain Holy Mother in form and glory) are beautiful, where beauty is a variety of meaning. Now, say my tour guide informs me that these stalagmites have not been sculpted by a masterful French artiste but are merely the product of thousands of years of the purposeless accretion of calcium carbonate through miniscule drippings of underground water, each drop of which lacks any meaning.

Notice how this proffered explanation is similar to evolution—a long process of minute changes without any intent to speak of. Having heard this, would I suddenly turn to my tour guide and say: “Well, since this otherwise beautiful natural wonder is just the process of thousands of years’ worth of drippings, it no longer possesses any beauty or meaning”? My intuition says, no, I would not. The process by which the stalagmites were formed does not extinguish the beauty I see in them.

Perhaps the skeptic bites the bullet—the stalagmites, without a purposeful process behind them, are meaningless lumps of rock. I can think of two reasons for thinking this. First, the process of their formation, like evolution, lacks intent. But think of all the intention-less processes to which we ascribe profound meaning: the setting and rising of the sun, symbolism of all kinds, natural disasters. Second, even if a process has intent, some skeptics would dismiss its meaning on a basis of subjectivity—the beauty of the stalagmites is merely in the eye of the beholder. However, I maintain that beauty is a real thing, not merely subjective but dependent upon both the object perceived and the perceiver. My view in this regard stems from the Socratic dialogue Theaetatus, in which Socrates explains how the interaction between perceiver and perceived entails a production of meaning co-dependent on the two: “When the eye and the appropriate object meet together and give birth to whiteness and the sensation connatural with it … then, while the sight is flowing from the eye, whiteness proceeds from the object which combines in producing color.”

Rather than depending entirely on the experiencing subject, beauty relies in part on particular properties of a perceived object. I contend that these properties, while not unanimously adumbrated, share enough similarities to suggest at the very least that beauty depends on the inherent constitution of a physical form and is not wholly subjective. If a sculpture forms in a cave and no one is there to call it beautiful, does it still possess beauty? My intuition says yes.

A deeper form of reductionism is tied up in this argument that phenomena which result from meaningless processes are themselves meaningless. While it seems patently obvious to me that a thing is more than the process that formed it (a muscle car is more than the collective functioning of an assembly line: namely, it is a sweet ride), a more difficult reductionism to refute is the argument that a whole is no more than the sum of its parts, that the beautiful stalagmites are no more than all the drippings of calcium carbonate summed up and totaled. Because the genetic fallacy and the parts-whole reductionism relate closely, one must reject this reductionism to blow premise 2 fully out of the water.

Water, incidentally, is good place to start. Chemically, water consists of two hydrogen atoms covalently bonded to one oxygen atom. The reductionist contends that water simply equals 2 “H” and 1 “O.” However, considered separately, neither oxygen nor hydrogen possesses the property of being polar, that is, having an unequal distribution of charge. This only happens when they are combined together in a molecule of H2O, as the highly electronegative O atom clings onto more of the electrons than the H atoms do, more of the time. Hence, water as a whole possesses at least one property that neither of its collective parts possesses individually [2]. Is the same true for humans? Can humans possess properties, such as meaning, that their individual parts do not?

In his 1994 book The Astonishing Hypothesis, Sir Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helical structure, posited a near-replica of the parts-whole reductionism that I am undertaking to refute:

The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys, your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and your free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules (emphasis mine).

Does this logical form make sense? That if x consists of meaningless things, when considered individually, then x is no more than a compilation of meaningless things and itself possesses no meaning?

Consider an example from language: If words consist of letters that by themselves are meaningless, then are words subsequently without meaning? Of course not. When letters are compiled together, they take on new properties and recognizable meaning. U-T-R-E. True [3].

Moreover, Crick’s analysis doesn’t even forward the parts-whole fallacy per se—he just states a tautology and then ascribes meaninglessness arbitrarily with the misleading wording “no more than.” Perhaps humans are “the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells,” but this vast assembly is not obviously meaningless [4]. Only a single neuron appears meaningless. Taken in total, the nervous system acquires the property of meaning. Could properties such as having a soul, or objective morality, also follow from the great human manifestation of complex chemistry? I don’t see why not.

Returning to Blackmore’s argument, who’s to say that evolution lacks any intent anyway? Premise 1 ignores two possible intent-driven interpretations of evolution: (1) teleological evolution, in which evolution progresses toward an actual goal, an “omega point” as French scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin postulates in The Phenomenon of Man; (2) theistic evolution, in which God creates the universe ex nihilo and designs natural processes to run their course so that creation is fully realized.

The second view finds support in St. Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics. Despite the contention that evolution leaves no room for God, evolution reaches a metaphysical dead end: it fails to explain how something came from nothing. For this, Aquinas explains, we require an uncaused cause, a self-moving steam engine that propels the boxcar-like chain of secondary causation that follows. As William E. Carrol outlines in an article on Aquinas and evolution, the natural sciences explain changes in a universe, the creation of which is owed to a separate metaphysical cause:

No explanation of evolutionary change, no matter how radically random or contingent it claims to be, challenges the metaphysical account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all things upon God as cause. (Carroll, 2000).

Though the path of evolution may lack intent or apparent purpose, the impetus of that path, i.e. God, may have an intent in mind. Consider a final example: an artist suspends bags of leaking paint above a blank canvas, ordering them ever so carefully as to allow for a beautiful product. Though the paint drips more or less at random to form the piece, the artist has planted the painting process at the start. Looking at the finished painting, one might be inclined to think, “What a load of rubbish. This is just the result of random drippings over a long period of time. It has no meaning.”

But ask yourself, where did the paint come from in the first place, why is it dripping as it does, and what properties does it come to possess? And concerning these questions answers, therein the meaning lies.

[1] My definition of meaning is twofold: On the one hand, meaning is an intrinsic value that something possesses by virtue of what it is. For example, a letter opener might have value because it can be used to cut open a letter. In this case, meaning is linked to a telos, i.e., an intended goal or purpose that is not entirely arbitrary but corresponds to the properties of a thing. Blackmore is denying humanity this mode of meaning by saying that we’re here for “no reason at all.” However, according to the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre meaning can also be a value that is discovered in something. For example, a person could lack any purpose until she realizes that she is extraordinarily good at sorting the gender of farm chicks. Sartre does not see this value as intrinsic, but it could still be viewed as such if the value is not apparent and must be uncoveredperhaps she has an inborn proclivity for sorting the gender of farm chicks and ought to have pursued that as her life’s mission.

[2] Additionally, consider isomers: molecules that consist of the exact same atoms, but arranged in different ways. By virtue of the arrangement of atoms, these molecules (though identical when broken down to atomic composition, e.g. 2 H atoms and 1 O atom for water) possess vastly different properties: e.g. allene and propyne both consist of 4 H atoms and 3 C atoms, but propyne contains a triple bond while allene does not and consequently varies in its melting and boiling points. This shows, at the very least, that arrangement is a real concept that has a real effect on a whole—a whole is not just the sum of its parts, but also, quite obviously, the arrangement thereof.

[3] It seems that letters lack semantic meaning, that is, defining and referring to objects. Letters alone may have a sonic meaning as cyphers that represent sounds, but they lack a semantic one. Even though words do precede letters ontologically (i.e. spoken language precedes written language), sounds are the basis of all language. What’s more, the sounds that letters represent are essentially arbitrarythe sounds are just vibrations in the air and need not be linked to specific semantic meanings, e.g. the sounds represented by the letter “v” in German is the “f” sound in English, and, moreover, the combination of sounds in the word “gift” in English refers to the semantic phenomenon of a thing given, whereas in German this exact same sonic meaning refers to the semantic phenomenon of a substance that is harmful when ingested, i.e. “poison.” This view is based in the distinction between the expression plane (sound) and content plane (semantic meaning) forwarded by the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev.

[4] Additionally, even if our consciousness is “no more than” neurons firing in the brain, that doesn’t negate the meaning of our experience of consciousness. Describing something and experiencing something are two very different things, as C. S. Lewis describes in his “Meditations in a Toolshed,” in which he observes that being in love cannot be dismissed as just “an affair of the young man’s genes and a recognized biological stimulus.”


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