Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins

by Steve McIntosh

260 pp. Selectbooks. $24.95.

More than anything else, this book reminds me that philosophy and theology are wide-open games.

As “progressive” sorts dismiss appeals to any thinkers older than Whitehead and “scientific” materialists refuse anything that smacks of “agency” or “teleology” in cosmology or biological development, Steve McIntosh proposes a picture of universal evolution that requires that evolutionary change take its shape from real volitional agents and reaches right back through Hegel on into Aristotle and Plato for its categories.  In other words, even as it swears off Intelligent Design (for political reasons, I suspect), McIntosh’s book proposes a philosophy that’s as unfashionable as mine but whose central insistence on historical progress I cannot endorse.  While I do not find myself agreeing with the core of McIntosh’s project, I cannot deny that, if folks start taking his and other emergence theorists’ proposals seriously, it stands to open up space for traditionalists like myself, and I suppose the proper Christian response to that is gratitude.

Bringing Back the Oldies

I thought I had caught McIntosh importing unfashionable ideas into his very-progressive picture of things when he wrote, “…the concept of goodness best describes the ‘magnetic center’ towards which values move” (58, italics original).  But in the very next paragraph, he goes ahead and cites Plato as the philosopher most responsible for positing the good as an erotic rather than an efficient cause of things.  And that’s not even the most blatant appropriation of medieval and Classical thought.  In MacIntosh’s list of “ten tenets” of emergence theology, the first four read thus:

  1. “Our evolving universe had a distinct and dramatic beginning.  This original emergence or emanation came from a primal cause–a primordial creative act” (169).
  2. “This cause or creative act that initiated the universe can best be conceived as an “uncaused cause,” or a first cause” (171).
  3. “The first cause is necessarily prior to and transcendent of time, space, energy, matter, and evolution itself” (172).
  4. “Because the first cause transcends the finite universe, it can be conceived as being infinite, eternal , and universal.  In other words, the first cause is changeless and perfect.  Thus, prior to the beginning of evolution, the universe as first cause was in a state of existential perfection” (172).

I’ll leave it to those who buy the book to look through the other ten and play spot-the-philosopher, but just in those four McIntosh , without much in the way of finger-crossing, uses standard English translations of phrases from St. Thomas Aquinas, Plotinus, Aristotle, and Plato.  Whatever one says about this version of Emergence theory, it’s not afraid of old books.

The basic thesis of the book is that intellectual change over history, as well as biological change over generations, as well as geological change over epochs, as well as cosmological change in the largest conceivable scales, are all parts of a universal schema of evolution.  Thus McIntosh does occasionally say that Moses and Socrates and Jesus and Augustine and such folks didn’t quite realize the fullness of their own ideas because they weren’t in the right bit of the cosmic spiral at the moment.  So be it, I say; if his book makes folks who consider themselves emergent more prone to consider the content of old books rather than dismissing them as monolithically “Hellenic,” or even worse “outdated,” then I’m all for it.

It’s Getting Better All the Time

As I noted above, though, I ultimately can’t get on board with McIntosh’s central thesis, namely that the manifold changes that occur, cosmologically and biologically as well as culturally and intellectually, all add up to progress.  McIntosh is very forthcoming to say that such a conviction is inescapably metaphysical, and he inspires me to be likewise honest with my own conviction that historical change always needs evaluation, that there’s no simple way to say that history moves from “worse” to “better” without doing violence to the complexity of history (not to mention biological development).

Translated into the life of the mind and soul, the concept of evolution results in some predictable and some troubling moves.  Those politics that folks tend to call “conservative” are simply “less evolved” than Green-Party politics (xxviii), and the simple homology of biological and social evolution (4) means that moderns and environmentalist “postmoderns” are in fact just “more evolved” than their “traditionalist” counterparts, even as both “stages” co-exist at the same moment in history (19).  McIntosh does offer comfort for those worried about such rather elitist claims, saying that one’s worry that one is being elitist is further evidence of evolution, but ultimately the ideology never does escape the Enlightenment concept of the enlightened as having a “white man’s burden” to bring along the “primitives” so that they too can enjoy the benefits of “evolution.”  To be fair, the book does advocate working within the politics of nation-state (which tend to allow all sorts of “evolutionary stages” to exist together, so long as they’re not usurping the state’s monopoly on violence) rather than establishing armies of the “evolved.”  And although the concept doesn’t get developed as well as I would like, the book also proposes a sort of pluralistic politics in which all sorts of “stages” can contribute to each other.  All the same, there is no mistaking that, for this book, there are the more-evolved and the less-evolved, and since evolution is always moving from the less-good towards the fullness of good (xii), there’s little doubt that there’s an elitism at the core of it.

To write a brief review of a universalizing theory is a fool’s errand, and so, as this fool wraps up this brief review, I’ll note once again that I really appreciate this book and the extent to which it blows open the materialism that often passes for “science” and the too-easy dismissal of old books that gets called “progressive.”  Even as I disagree with the book’s central hypothesis of universal progressive evolution, I can appreciate the potential for books like this to open up space for genuine speculative philosophy, the sort that makes Plato and Aristotle and Hegel and now, for me, the emergence crowd so interesting.


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