Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins by Steve McIntosh is a heady brew of science and philosophy. This isn’t a quick-and-easy guide for practical spiritual growth. Rather, it’s a dense and thorough explication of an integrative understanding of evolution. For McIntosh, evolution is not a strictly scientific, materialistic subject; it touches on every aspect of reality: “there is no getting around the metaphysical connotations of evolution as a ubiquitous cosmic process.” And it is this new “philosophy of evolution” that will play a decisive role in both our individual spiritual development as well as the continued development of humanity.
McIntosh eschews reductive physicalism and metaphysical naturalism and instead argues for an inclusive and wide-reaching approach that fully embraces the cosmological, biological, cultural and philosophical aspects of reality. He examines the growing trend among scientists and philosophers to understand evolution not as a strictly biological phenomena but rather as a much more profound and deeply-rooted process. Emergence, information and values all have shown the limitations of current scientific and philosophical conceptions, and taking these into account necessarily causes us to broaden our horizons and embrace a more integrative ontology.
McIntosh argues that values themselves have actual existence and can independently influence evolutionary development. Among these values are truth, beauty and goodness — and these values play a profound role in our scientific and spiritual growth. He makes a strong case that all evolutionary progress is essentially positive and that it is not only influenced by values, it also gives rise to ever more pure expressions of those values. But such progress doesn’t mean that evolution is strictly goal-oriented; rather, evolution is guided by those who are evolving — we have the power to freely choose our destiny.
But where is this journey headed and for what purpose? McIntosh explores the instrumental and intrinsic purposes of the evolutionary process towards the good and balances that discussion with the reality of evil in the world. For McIntosh, the spiritual implications of this understanding are not limited to any single religion and are fully compatible with science. He does not argue for specific spiritual belief and characterizes himself only as a “panentheist.” But he says that it is this profound spiritual connection that pushes evolutionary development towards an experience of perfection — a perfection not represented by an arbitrary ideal, but by true experiential choice.
McIntosh realizes his views have profound implications for the standard modern and post-modern understandings of reality but challenges us to move beyond these constraints in order to better ourselves and our world. We are at the start of a long journey, and though the end is not in sight (and may never be), we will still benefit from embracing this evolutionary spiritual growth within ourselves. Indeed, for McIntosh accepting his integrative understanding of evolutionary progress is essential: “It appears that the challenges of the twenty-first century will test humanity like never before; and the only way we will be able to deal with these challenges comprehensively is through cultural evolution.”
Evolution’s Purpose is a complex book, at times fascinating and thought-provoking, at times tedious and frustrating. Is this all just a load of speculative pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo or is this a crucial understanding of our existence? I don’t know if this book will stand as a milestone on the path to a new era of human cognitive and spiritual development or if it will fade as merely a futile attempt to construe meaning and significance in an increasingly chaotic and overwhelming world. Only time will tell…time in which, one way or another, and for one reason or another, we will, like or not, continue to evolve.