Philosophy and science aren’t often easy to mix. But because I study human evolution, calls for me to speculate on the subject are often unavoidable. The evolution of our species is a fairly intriguing topic for most people and tends to incite strong reactions, whether from curious people who want to know more or those who view evolution as a threat to other ideologies and want to challenge my thinking. Philosophy often enters the discourse when someone is familiar with the tenets of natural selection and asks me how I can possibly derive meaning and significance from life if I genuinely believe humans are nothing but the product of millions of years of random processes that only boil down to which individuals are fortunate enough to survive and reproduce. They ask me how anything can matter at all if life is only about getting your genes into the next generation.
These are good, interesting questions that I enjoy thinking and talking about. Every paleoanthropologist has surely thought about how we conceptualise humans’ place in evolution, how we should exist in relation to other creatures on the planet, and if there is some “meaning of life” behind it all beyond the essential survival and reproduction. However, studying human evolution and recognising that our species is a product of millions of years of development and changes and little miracles has never given me any sort of existential crisis about the meaning of life. If anything, it has given me a great deal of respect for our species, other species, and the Earth itself.
In the roughly six million years since the human lineage split from the chimp lineage, our ancestors went through some pretty incredible challenges to survive and spread across the globe. Each challenge shaped our species, such as the need for communication and language, advanced cognitive skills, and great dexterity for tool making and use. All of this led to who we are today, and there were lots of opportunities where it could have gone wrong, where the odds were against our ancestors and it’s remarkable that they managed to survive and ultimately thrive. Knowing that I’m the product of these millions of years of “random processes” and very cool ancestors gives me quite
the opposite of an existential crisis – it excites me and motivates me to learn about our evolutionary history and make discoveries about what led to our unique species. It also simply makes me glad to be alive, to experience new things, to learn and explore and have fun.
This became especially clear to me when I spent time at Olduvai Gorge, a fossil site in Tanzania often called “the cradle of humankind” due to its wealth of fossils of human ancestors. While there I found a stone tool that we estimated to be about three million years old. Someone, and not even a fully human someone, had held it millions of years ago, and now I was in the same place, holding it in my own hand. This shared experience and connection with such a distant ancestor easily highlighted evolution’s significance to me.
There’s also the argument that evolution is all about survival and reproduction, and some critics would have us believe that these are inherently meaningless things, that life simply must be about more than that. Of course, acknowledging the truth of evolution doesn’t preclude someone from finding meaning in other ideologies, such as religion. But I believe the reverse is also true, that acknowledging the significance of evolution shouldn’t cause anyone to lose meaning in their life. Survival and reproduction are important, and in scientific terms they can come across as a bit bland and mechanical. But survival essentially just means living your life and doing whatever you choose with it. People give their everyday lives meaning in a myriad of ways. As for reproduction, I’m sure one would be hard-pressed to find any parents who didn’t find the experience of creating a new life and raising a child to be incredibly meaningful.
Recognising the role of evolution and having a meaningful life are not mutually exclusive, and learning about the origins of our species should not strip modern people of our sense of meaning and significance, wherever we derive it from. At the very least, it should make us thankful that nature and evolution have instilled us with brains that let us even contemplate meaning at all.