Aaron Thibeault's Reviews > Evolutionaries: The Visionary New Synthesis of Science, Soul, and Purpose

Evolutionaries by Carter Phipps
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's review
Jul 08, 2012

really liked it

The main argument of the book: Up until the scientific revolution, some half a century ago, religion reigned supreme in the realm of belief and understanding. Since that time, though--and especially since the introduction of the theory of evolution in 1859--science has increasingly challenged religion as the chief source of how we understand the world and our place in it. Science's increasing influence can be seen in the growing trend towards secularism in the past 200 years, and particularly in the last century, as church and state have been increasingly separated, and a growing percentage of the population has moved away from the world's religions.

Still, though, religion is not going down without a fight. What's more, even many who have turned away from religion question science's ability to provide the kinds of understandings that truly satisfy the human psyche. The problem, many believe, is that science, with its materialist explanations, fails to accommodate our deeper spiritual and moral nature. According to the author Carter Phipps, though, while science and spirituality may seem diametrically opposed, the latest developments in evolutionary theory are actually upsetting this notion.

This is the case because the theory of evolution, which was once confined to the realm of biology, has now spread to envelop every other domain of human inquiry, such that it has become the key paradigm in understanding the natural (and meta-natural) world, from biology to psychology to morality to culture to spirit to god to the unfolding of the universe. The result is that evolution can now be turned to in order to answer virtually all of our deepest and most profound existential questions, and in a unified and coherent way that does in fact satisfy our deepest spiritual longings.

More than providing just a way of understanding the world, though, Phipps argues that an evolutionary worldview provides us with a moral guide in terms of how to act, and what to strive for in life. This is the case because, to begin with, such a worldview allows us to see that human agency is possible in the truest sense of the word, and that it does indeed have an important impact. When it comes to using our agency, an evolutionary worldview prescribes working towards the good and the continued evolution of our own species, the planet, and even the entire universe. While the specifics of this enterprise remain to be worked out, Phipps hints at the idea that this project should include a system of global cooperation that features pan-governance with ecological sustainability at its heart.

At least in the near term. In the long-term, as evolution continues to proceed (perhaps at an accelerating rate), Phipps flirts with idea that the role of human agency in forwarding the evolutionary project may stretch beyond the borders of our own planet and extend even to the edges of the universe (or multiverse).

When I say that this is Phipps' argument, it is true that the author is very much a proponent of the evolutionary worldview. However, rather than focusing on his own particular views in the book, Phipps centers his attention on the theories that the leading thinkers have advanced in the field. This includes not only current theorists, but all of the major theorists that have been involved with the worldview since its inception some 200 years ago (beginning with Georg Hegel--whom Phipps identifies as the first explicitly evolutionary philosopher).

Phipps does do a very good job of outlining the theories of these major thinkers, and, through this, providing a broad overview of the evolutionary worldview. When I say broad overview, I really mean it: Phipps very much sticks to a general and theoretical exploration of the evolutionary worldview. In one sense, this is an advantage, as it allows the reader to gain a broad picture of such a worldview (to see the forest as a whole, rather than just the trees, as it were). However, the devil is in the details, as they say, and I did find that the lack of details in some cases compromised the believability of the theories (which are, in some cases, highly speculative).

Also, Phipps does well to show how evolutionary views have spilled out of science and into more meta-natural domains, such as spirituality and conceptions of god (theology). While this is no doubt interesting, it presents a problem. The approach of scientific evolutionism to spirituality and god is entirely different from an evolutionarily-informed spirituality and theology (indeed, scientific evolutionism thinks of the phenomena of 'spirit' and 'god' as products [if not bi-products] of our evolved brain, and hence ultimately illusory--or at least not 'real' in any sense like spiritual/theistically-inclined people think they are).

Given that this is the case, as evolutionary theory is pushed beyond the boundaries of science, it necessarily splits into opposing sects. This is a major problem for any supposedly whole and coherent evolutionary worldview. Phipps glosses over this issue by saying that subjective experience is every bit as important as objective reality (thus showing where he stands on the issue). While this may well be true, it is unlikely to convince any staunch scientific evolutionist that 'spirit' and 'god' are proper subjects of evolutionary theory--much less that we should be exploring and/or embracing an evolutionarily-informed spirituality and theology. As it stands, this issue is left unresolved in the book, and in fact seems completely insoluble, thus forcing us to question how viable a unified and coherent evolutionary worldview (that includes spirituality) really is.

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