John Stewart argues that despite the perception that science has stripped the meaning from life, recent developments in evolutionary theory suggest that humans have a central role to play in the future of the universe
Driving the evolution of intelligence across the universe gives meaning to life. Photograph: Corbis
It is often assumed that the science-based worldview implies that life on this planet is a meaningless accident in a universe that is indifferent to our existence. Humans struggle to find purpose within this purely naturalistic understanding of reality, and so they supplement it with beliefs in supernatural processes and entities.
However, recent advances in our understanding of evolution are revealing a bigger picture that can, by itself, give meaning to life. This new worldview locates humanity within a much larger evolutionary process that appears to offer us a meaningful role to play.
This new understanding of evolution is founded on the recognition that evolution is headed somewhere – it has a trajectory. In particular, evolution on Earth has repeatedly gathered small-scale entities into cooperative organisations on a progressively larger and larger scale. Self-replicating molecular processes were organised into the first simple cells. Communities of these simple, prokaryotic cells formed the more complex eukaryotic cell. Collections of these formed multicellular organisms, and organisms were organised into cooperative societies.
A similar sequence appears to have unfolded in human evolution: from family groups, to bands, to tribes, to agricultural communities and city states, to nations, and so on.
This trajectory has applied regardless of whether evolution proceeds by gene-based natural selection or cultural processes. It is driven by the potential at all levels of organisation for cooperative teams united by common goals to be more successful than isolated individuals.
Cooperation trumps selfishness
Mainstream biology has been slow to accept that evolution moves towards increasing cooperation. The view has been that selfishness, rather than cooperation, is favoured by evolution. But this objection has been overcome in the past two decades by a large body of research on the evolution of cooperation. In short, this research shows that complex cooperation will emerge among self-interested individuals if they are organised so that they benefit from their cooperative acts – and if free riders and other non-cooperators are restrained or punished.
Crucially, this removes any conflict between self-interest and cooperation.
(Readers interested in a more detailed discussion of why biologists have been so slow to accept that there is a direction to evolution should read my pre-press article for the journal Foundations of Science.)
Where will evolution go from here? Extrapolating the trajectory into the future is reasonably straightforward, at least initially. The next major transition on Earth would be the emergence of a sustainable and cooperative global society. As with cooperatives at all other levels, the global society would curb internal conflict and destructive competition, including war and pollution. Past transitions demonstrate how this might be organised.
Extrapolating the trajectory further would see the continued expansion of the scale of cooperative organisation out into the solar system and beyond. Wherever possible, this expansion would be likely to occur through cooperative linkage with other living processes, rather than by "empire building". The possibility of life arising elsewhere seems high, and while the details of evolution on other planets are likely to differ, the general form of the evolutionary trajectory would be universal.
If the trajectory continued in this way, the scale of cooperative organisation would expand throughout the universe, comprised of living processes and intelligence from multiple origins. As it increased in intelligence and scale, its command over matter, energy and other resources would also expand, as would its power to achieve whatever objectives it chose.
What might organised life and intelligence do with this increasing power? One possible answer was developed as an attempt to solve the "fine-tuning problem" – the enigma of why the fundamental laws and parameters of the universe seem to be fine-tuned to support the emergence of life, with even slight changes leading to a universe in which life is unlikely to emerge. Supposing the trajectory of evolution eventually produces life and intelligence with sufficient power and knowledge to reproduce the universe itself? This intelligent universe would fine-tune "offspring" universes so that they are even more conducive to the emergence and development of life and intelligence. And so on.
According to this scenario, our universe itself is embedded in larger evolutionary processes that shape universes. And life (including humanity) has a function and purpose within these larger processes in the same sense that our eyes have a purpose within the evolutionary processes that have shaped humanity.
Not all organisms that evolve to humanity's current stage will go on to participate in these large-scale evolutionary processes. Up to our stage, evolution has been driven along its trajectory by competition and selection. But these pressures weaken as a global society begins to emerge, because this society will not be in direct competition with other global societies.
From this point on, evolution will continue to advance only if the emerging global society decides to advance the evolutionary process intentionally. The society must awaken to the possibility that it is living in the midst of a directional evolutionary process, realise that the continued success of the process depends on its intentional actions, and then commit to actively move the process forward.
Organisms that complete this transition to intentional evolution will drive the further development of life and intelligence in the universe. Those that do not will be failed evolutionary experiments. They will be eggs that never hatched. Humanity is fast approaching the threshold of this critical evolutionary transition.
John Stewart is a core member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group of the Free University of Brussels, and the author of Evolution's Arrow and The Evolutionary Manifesto. This is a condensed version of his paper "The meaning of life in a developing universe" which is in press for a special issue of the journal Foundations of Science
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright (Vintage, 2001)
Evolution's Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity by John Stewart (Chapman Press, 2000)
Nature's Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind by Peter Corning (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Wilson, DS, Wilson, EO (2007) Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology; 82 (4): 327-348.
Biocosm, the New Scientific Theory of Evolution: Intelligent Life is the Architect of the Universe by James Gardner (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2003)