Environment Orientation

Evolution, design and confusion

Written by Louise

While I was fast asleep in bed last night, someone posted this on FaceBook:

People say that asexuality & homosexuality isn’t normal/healthy because we’re made to reproduce. But what if it’s a way to balance the world out? It’s too populated anyway.

The discussion naturally moved on to evolution, and there were some fascinating theories put out there. One that really caught my attention was:

The evolutionary purpose of homosexuality/asexuality is keep the population in check.

And this was followed by:

We may not like it, but the truth is that the meaning of every living animal’s life is to reproduce so that they’re species doesn’t go extinct. That is literally the meaning of life from a scientific perspective.

What interested me the most about all this was the realisation that so few people actually understand how evolution works. There seems to be an assumption (and I was guilty of this for a long time) that evolution has a purpose, that there’s some kind of end goal to it, when it’s actually just an automatic process.

It took me a long time to get to grips with what evolution actually is, but when it did it was like one of those cartoon moments, when a light bulb appears above the character’s head. Look at it like this:

The majority of humans (and other creatures on this planet) have a drive to survive and reproduce. This doesn’t mean that the meaning of life is to survive and reproduce. It just means that the creatures who have that drive are the ones who survive and reproduce, and pass on that tendency to their offspring. The ones that don’t have that drive mostly don’t survive very long, or don’t reproduce, so there aren’t many offspring that lack the drive. Over millions of years of that process happening, the drive to survive and reproduce becomes the most common, so we think it’s our purpose. It isn’t; it’s just a consequence of evolution.

What’s really interesting about this is that this was my third attempt to explain how evolution actually works in a way that people would understand. People have such a strong idea that there must be some kind of purpose, or end goal in mind, or – to put it even more strongly – design, that trying to explain evolution is a way that helps them to lot go of that idea is very challenging.

I have two theories that might explain the desire for purpose:

  1. All human societies were originally based on religion or spirituality of some kind, and its threads are woven tightly through our culture. Even though many of us believe we are atheists, few of us actually are, because we’re unable to let go of the notion of design and, obviously, a designer. We look for design in everything, and especially in something as important as evolution.
  2. Humans like to have purpose. We are constantly searching for the ‘meaning of life’ and this search for purpose once again requires design. It’s hard for us to accept that our existence might be a mere consequence of the natural evolutionary process.

The thing is, understanding evolution doesn’t require us to abandon our search for purpose. Evolution and spirituality can exist side by side, and even most religions can adapt themselves to evolution as long as they accept that their books are story books intended to help and guide rather than factual, historical accounts.

Even atheism doesn’t require a lack of purpose. Our purpose can be right here on Earth. We can try to make the lives of others better, to campaign for societal or environmental change, to make the world a better place for future generations. Even if the reality of evolution as a meaningless process rather than a system with a specific goal leaves an atheist’s life feeling empty of purpose, there are plenty of things to do to create a feeling of purpose in your life.

And perhaps you can make the world a little better in the process.

About the author


Animal lover, asexual, blogger, cyclist, daughter, dreamer, entrepreneur, expat, optimist, procrastinator, reader, realist, rescuer, runner, sister, writer ... Hate labels? Me too. Just read my blog.

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