Evolution Has Direction

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in What We Believe But Cannot Prove on 28 February 2006

Though I can’t prove it more than anecdotally or experientially, I believe that evolution has purpose and direction. To me it seems obvious, if absolutely unconfirmable, that matter is groping toward complexity. True enough, stresses and threats, ranging from time and friction to decomposition and predators, require objects and life-forms to achieve some measure of durability in order to sustain themselves. But this ability to surviveseems to me more a means to an end than an end in itself.

Theology goes a long way toward imbuing substance and processes with meaning - describing life as ‘matter reaching toward divinity,’ or as the process by which divinity calls matter back to itself. But theologians mistakenly ascribe this sense of purpose to history rather than to the future. This is only natural, since the narrative structures we use to understand our world tend to have beginnings, middles, and ends. In order to experience the payoff at the end of the story, we need to see it as somehow built into the original intention of events.

It’s also hard for people to contend with the likely possibility that we are simply overadvanced fungi and bacteria hurtling through a galaxy in cold, meaningless space. But just because our existence may have arisen unintentionally and without purpose doesn’t preclude meaning or purpose from emerging as a result of our interaction and collaboration. Meaning may not be a precondition for humanity as much as a by-product of it.

It’s important to recognize that evolution at its best is a team sport. As Darwin’s later, lesser known but more important works contend, survival of the fittest is a law that applies not as much to individuals as to groups. Likewise, most great leaps forward in human civilization, from the formation of clans to the building of cities, have been feats of collaborative effort. Increased survival rates are as much a happy side effect of good collaboration as its purpose.

If we could stop thinking of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ as artifacts of some divine creative act and see them instead as the yield of our own creative future, they become goals, intentions, and processes very much in reach rather than the shadows of childlike, superstitious mythology.

The proof is impossible, since this is an unfolding story. Like reaching the horizon, arrival merely necessitates more travel.