Evolution — the universe’s gradual process of becoming — is perhaps the greatest truth ever discovered. It serves as our creation story, shaping our views of what we are. The story of evolution influences not just our thought, but our feelings and actions, too.
Evolution encompasses more than simply the origin of biological species. We now know that everything in the universe is evolving, including matter, life, human history and even consciousness itself. Understood as a whole, these distinct but related forms of evolution are beginning to reveal a deep spiritual truth. And this truth can be felt and known through the realization that we can actually feel the impulse of evolution within us. That is, evolution is not outside of us or beyond us; we experience the impulse of evolution directly and regularly whenever we are motivated to improve our lives, live up to our potential, and help others. And because we can feel this urge to evolve within our own hearts and minds, we know accordingly from our own experience that evolution is inherently teleological and purposive. Therefore, if we want to discover evolution’s purpose, we need only look within ourselves. Our purposes are its purposes.
This understanding of evolution as a purposeful phenomenon does not rely on unscientific theories such as “intelligent design.” It is uncontroversially evident that purpose emerges from within the evolutionary process. In fact, all forms of life exhibit the purpose to survive and reproduce. Without such intentionality, the evolution of life would be impossible. We share these biological purposes with other animals, but we also exhibit deeper forms of purpose. We, humans, have purposes for our purposes, and relative freedom of choice regarding the urges or impetuses we want to act on and the appetites we want to resist. Moreover, humans can have purposes that require a lifetime or more to fulfill. We can have highly creative purposes, compassionate, loving purposes and world-changing purposes that improve conditions for everyone. Just as the emergence of purpose in life forms represents a new aspect of reality that results in a new form of evolution, the emergence of self-conscious free will in humans, likewise, represents a new level of reality that results in a new form of evolution — the psychosocial domain of development in which the evolution of consciousness and culture transcends our biological origins.
Recognizing the foundational role of purpose in the unfolding of evolution helps us see that the purpose of evolution is increasingly up to us. From the very beginning, humans have worked to improve their relative conditions. And over the course of history humans have improved their conditions most dramatically by improving their definition of what counts as improvement — by evolving their values and their worldviews into more inclusive frames of reference. For example, through cultural evolution, in at least some places, the scope of those worthy of moral consideration has expanded from the family or tribe, to those of the same religion, then to those with the same nationality, and now to all sentient beings. And just as our sense of goodness has evolved by stages into increasingly worldcentric conceptions, our sense of truth has likewise evolved from magical, to mythical, to scientific, and now to increasingly holistic levels of understanding.
As I carefully argue in my new book, Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, the evolution of human consciousness and culture is real evolution. Although it cannot be conflated with biological evolution, it is nevertheless the latest phase of the unfolding epic of evolution that can be traced all the way back to the original emergence of time and space 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang. When we view evolution from this macro perspective, we can begin to recognize it as an unmistakably purposeful phenomenon.
Our own evolutionary impulses to make the world a better place can thus help us discover the overall purpose of evolution as a whole. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead actually defined evolution as “an increase in the capacity to experience what is intrinsically valuable.” And it is through this insight that we may come to appreciate evolution’s spiritual message of progressive growth through the ongoing evolution of consciousness.