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Evolution's Purpose

Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins by Steve McIntosh

In Steve McIntosh’s new book, Evolution’s Purpose, he seeks to bring to the surface the purpose of evolution through what he calls an ‘integral’ point of view.  Part of this model of integration is seeing that biological evolution cannot solve all the riddles of the universe and must account for constructs such as value, purpose and telos.  Therefore, in this book, Steve tries to incorporate a broader understanding of evolution from a cultural, biological, and teleological framework.  I hope in this review to outline some particularly important features of the book while also engaging with some points that were no so well done.

Materialism as the End of All Discussion on Evolution?

McIntosh carefully and demonstrably counters the notion that scientific materialism is the winning argument for evolution.  He writes, “…the scientific facts of evolution cannot stand alone.  These powerful facts can only exist within a reality defining frame of reference or worldview that situates these truths within our understanding of the universe as a whole”  (xx).  Further on, “Thus, because the science of evolution, whether scientists admit it or not, always has a philosophy of evolution attached to it, it is time to work toward an enlarged philosophy that can better account for what we now know” (xxi).  The prevailing study of evolution needs to take into account those factors that provide ‘a deeper philosophical understanding of evolution’ that give way to things such as agency, subjectivity and consciousness.  McIntosh brings into the discussion his understanding of integral evolution, a type of evolutionary thinking that takes into consideration cosmological, biological, and cultural ways of evolving while focusing in on the consciousness as key to awaking people from their slumber (xxii).  The truth is that biological evolution cannot answer all the questions that we face, partly because the discussion surrounding it has closed off discussions concerning purpose or ethical consciousness.  Steve is right to point out that ‘all writers on evolution have a philosophical reality frame in which they situation evolution’ (xxiii).  This kind of philosophical bent could be atheistic materialism, biological triumphalism, or any kind of theistic design argument.   

Progress and Pathology

McIntosh outlines a dialectic of progress and pathology in chapter 5 entitled Evolutionary Progress in Human History.  After a brief discussion about how progress can be viewed as a blessing and a curse, McIntosh advances an understanding of progress and pathology that is essentially dialectic.  He writes, “..a dialectical understanding of cultural evolution that synthesizes the thesis of objective value with the antithesis that holds that all values are merely subjective.  A dialectical, evolutionary perspective can see how both of these positions are partially right, but it can also see how privileging one perspective over the other leads to pathology” (102).  In other words, there is always a subjective and objective element to values and a synthesis of the two poles of postmodern and absolutism will result in a healthier understanding of solving global problems.  My problem here with this discussion is McIntosh’s hint that worldviews evolve over time because cultural evolution gives us greater awareness of the truth.  The application of principles drawn from a worldview framework might be different due to the culture evolving, but the worldview itself can provide a sound basis for decisions in any age (pre-modern to postmodern).  Values are not often drawn from cultural evolution but from worldviews that exist prior to being radically affected by the culture’s movement.

Spiritual Reflections on Evolution’s Purpose

McIntosh delves into the some spiritual reflections on evolution in chapter 8.  In writing about the ‘uncaused cause’ or first cause argument (cosmological), he writes, “..the concept of a first cause could turn out to be more of a principle than a personality, and is thus compatible with a variety of nontheistic notions regarding creativity in the cosmos” (171).  While it might be possible that this concept can be taken up in nontheistic traditions, the main cosmological arguments make better sense in a theistic notion because they generate discussion regarding the supremacy of the agent making the world.  Cosmological arguments make sense because they seek to account for God’s nature as being unaffected by outside forces and causing all things to find their dependence upon.  McIntosh falls into his own trap by going to the extreme postmodern end in describing that many religious traditions can have an equal footing at the table of the cosmological discussion.

Final Thoughts

In the end, this book read more like a philosophical discussion of cultural evolution.  Neither scientific nor philosophy, I’m not quite sure what to take away from this book.  I enjoyed his discussion about the failure of scientific materialism to account for evolution.  Yet, I still can’t go along with him in his descriptions of values arising from a sort of revelation that culture has evolved.  His main tenant that understanding the evolution of consciousness brings with it a global awareness to fight the problems of today is unsatisfactory.  Understanding global issues from a more robust understanding of consciousness does not provide the tools for ethical and social change, but gives a greater grasp of the problems.

Thanks to Speak Easy and Select Books, Inc for the review copy of this book in exchange for review.


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