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Darwin, God and the Meaning of LifeReview - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life
How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew
by Steve Stewart-Williams
Cambridge University Press, 2010
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Aug 9th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 32)

If any of the following questions have puzzled and intrigued you then this book is for you.

·         Does God exist?

·         Which came first the chicken or the egg?

·         How did life begin?

·         What's the difference between theistic evolution and deistic evolution?

·         Why is there something rather than nothing?

·         If our mental powers would not have evolved, how did we come to possess them?

·         If there is a God, and God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?

·         What is the meaning and purpose of human life?

·         Does 'species' denote a real category in nature?

·         If God is dead is everything permitted?

·         What if anything is the relationship between evolution and morality?

·         Does life have purpose and meaning?

One of the primary virtues of Stewart-Williams' book is that he offers answers to these questions - and not just arbitrary answers,  but evidence based answers. He writes with confidence and forthrightness in a clear and concise manner. Not everyone will agree with the answers he provides, but everyone will know exactly what his position is on each of the above topics. He does not waffle. He argues that every question that used to be answered by appealing to God can be answered by appealing to some form of evolution.

Does God exist? No.

Which came first the chicken or the egg? The egg.

How did life begin? In a post-Darwin world it is impossible to draw with confidence a line between life and non-life -  just as it is impossible to maintain a belief in the Great Chain of Being with its hierarchical ranking of the things that are. And so on down the list of questions. The answers are clear and concise and presented in three parts comprised of fourteen chapters.

Evolution's processes make it impossible to draw distinct lines between species, and more dramatically between life and non-life. In fact many previously held distinctions are blurred or erased in a post-Darwin world:

·         Mind/matter

·         Human/non-human animal

·         Life/non-life

·         Heavens/earth

The theory of natural selection buttressed by the discovery of deep time provide explanations for the slow changes that have produced the thousands of things that are. And, of course, "I am one of the thousands of things that are". Discoveries since Darwin, particularly DNA, have added explanatory power to the theory of natural selection and provided us with an understanding of life that does not require the supernatural. Our human desire to think of ourselves as special and privileged must be reconsidered in a post-Darwin age. But with this new knowledge comes anguish for many -- if we no longer have good reasons to believe in God or gods then what of life's meaning? Life's purpose? Morality? Evolutionary theory undermines all of the God-based answers to questions of meaning and purpose. If we humans are not at the top of the evolutionary tree progressing towards the spiritual, but merely a branch of that multi-faceted tree, then does nothing matter? As Stewart-Williams writes (190), "The meaning and purpose of life is a topic of perennial interest to human beings, and there have been many attempts to solve this ancient riddle." Surveying several answers yields many non-religious suggestions, among them these six (Stewart-Williams tells us he particularly likes #4):

1.    'We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.' -- Kurt Vonnegut's son.

2.    'The purpose of our lives is to be happy.' -- the Dalai Lama.

3.    'The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.' -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

4.    'The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.' -- Nelson Henderson.

5.    'You come into the world with nothing, and the purpose of  your life is to make something out of nothing.' -- H. L. Mencken

6.    'It's nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.' -- Monty Python.

What are the consequences of evolutionary theory? Does the fact of evolution lead to eugenics, to Nazism? Does "survival of the fittest" support unbridled capitalism? What of morality? Without God or the notion of heaven and hell are there no limits to how we behave? Stewart-Williams wrestles with all of these questions in the final few chapters of this thought provoking book - a book for the intelligent reader interested in the philosophical consideration of important ideas. Steve Stewart-Williams, we are told on the fly leaf, "is a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University. Before taking this position, he completed his PhD at Massey University in New Zealand, and then did a postdoctoral fellowship at McMaster University in Canada."

The book is accessible, well written, and suitable for university courses in psychology, philosophy, and for the general reader.


© 2011 Bob Lane


Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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