One must distinguish between the fact of organic evolution and those different interpretations of this process that are offered in the world literature. The arc of interpretations ranges from materialism, through vitalism and spiritualism, to mysticism. Furthermore, perspectives vary from population dynamics to cosmic history. The interpretation may give preference to science, philosophy, or theology. Emphasis may be placed on facts, concepts, or beliefs, respectively. Essentially, an interpretation of evolution will favor materialism or spiritualism.
Each interpretation of evolution includes a view of humankind within this universe. Our species may be seen as a recent product of primate evolution that is totally within nature and therefore a complex animal that is only distinct from the great apes; that is, our species differs merely in degree (rather than in kind) from the pongids. Or our species may be seen as a special animal that is somehow separated from the natural world in terms of both its rational intellect and immortal soul.
A systematic interpretation of organic evolution is grounded in metaphysical assumptions about ontology and cosmology, whether they are implicit or explicit in the presentation. Likewise, an epistemological stance and an ethical framework are taken (or at least value judgments are made). Obviously, not all evolutionists will take the same perspective, have the same values, or agree on the same interpretation of our species and its place within organic history and this universe.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had been greatly influenced by the writings of Lyell and Malthus, and his global voyage as a naturalist aboard HMS Beagle. Particularly significant was his 5-week visit to the Galapagos Islands in 1835. Darwin became acutely aware of both the awesome multiplicity of life forms on the earth and the incredible variability existing in individuals both within and among populations. Acknowledging the mutability of species throughout organic history as clearly documented in the fossil record of the geological column, he explained biological evolution in terms of natural selection and sexual selection favoring some individuals over others in the struggle for existence. Over vast periods of time and change, in order to adapt and survive and reproduce under challenging situations or in new environments, most species evolve into new life forms, or they become extinct.
Darwin presented his facts and concepts in two pivotal books, On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). His scientific interpretation of biological evolution is strictly naturalistic, grounded in mechanism and materialism. Consequently, our human species is seen as an evolved ape with no claim to a special position in dynamic nature that separates it from the rest of the animal world. This scientific interpretation is now defended by Richard Dawkins, whose writings are a rigorous representation of neo-Darwinism.
Henri Bergson (1859-1941) accepted evolution, but he rejected Darwin’s materialism, claiming that it does not sufficiently account for the diverging novelty that emerges throughout organic history. Bergson’s philosophical orientation gives preference to time, consciousness, and intuition. It maintains that a life force causes biological evolution. Bergson presented his vitalistic interpretation of the living world in his major work, Creative Evolution (1907).
Ultimately, Bergson’s vitalism supports a dualistic view of dynamic nature that is not in step with the ongoing advances in evolutionary science and rational philosophy. Another vitalistic interpretation of organic evolution had been offered by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that a will to power pervades the history of life and will eventually bring about the emergence of the future overman (a being that will be as superior to the human animal of today as our species is now superior to the lowly worm).
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) accepted the fact of evolution while attempting to reconcile science and theology within a process view of this universe. The renowned geopaleontologist and controversial Jesuit priest focused his attention on the earth, maintaining that planetary history represents three major but distinct stages of evolution: geogenesis, biogenesis, and noogenesis. Teilhard believed that evolution is a directional, converging, and spiritual process that will result in the formation of a unified humankind in terms of global thought. Eventually, as he saw it, this developing layer of mind (the noosphere) will detach itself from the earth, transcend space-time, and become united with a personal God at the “omega point”; this future event is the final end goal of human evolution on earth.
Teilhard presented this mystical vision of involuting evolution in his major work, The Phenomenon of Man (1938-1940, 1948). Although this fascinating and provocative interpretation of cosmic evolution is essentially both geocentric and anthropocentric, it does deal with those philosophical questions and theological issues surrounding evolution that are usually ignored by traditional thinkers.
Presently, both religious creationism and biblical fundamentalism challenge science and reason. Yet for the arc of evolution, which spans from materialism to mysticism, ongoing discoveries in the special sciences favor an interpretation of evolving life (including our own species) that is grounded in naturalism rather than spiritualism.
- Bergson, H. (1998). Creative evolution. Mineola, NY: Dover. (Original work published 1907)
- Birx, H. J. (1991). Interpreting evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Darwin, C. (2000). The voyage of the Beagle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. (Original work published 1839) Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1975). The phenomenon of man (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row/Harper Colophon/Perennial Library. (Original work written 1938-1940,1948)