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Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew Hardcover – 30 Sep 2010

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (30 Sept. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521762782
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521762786
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 407,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Steve Stewart-Williams is a New Zealander who moved to Canada and ended up in Wales, where he's a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University. He recently solved the riddle of the meaning of life and wrote a book to tell the tale: Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew.

Product Description


'Steve Stewart-Williams explains how evolutionary thought challenges many deep-seated assumptions about God, morality, and human superiority and raises significant questions about such things as euthanasia, suicide, and the way we treat non-human animals. While it has become commonplace for many to equate Darwin's legacy with the stripping away of the moral and the good and to replace it with unpalatable 'Darwinist' alternatives that advocate amorality, nihilism, and a world where 'might makes right', Stewart-Williams carefully and entertainingly shows that, on the contrary, the world after Darwin remains meaningful, wondrous, and intrinsically moral.' Stephen Hill, Massey University

'This is an important, accessible, and timely book for anyone wishing to understand the implications of evolutionary theory for standard views of human nature, morality and religion.' Stephen Boulter, Oxford Brookes University

Book Description

Is religion compatible with evolution? Is religious faith intellectually flawed? Steve Stewart-Williams addresses these and other fundamental questions raised by Darwin's theory of evolution. Drawing on philosophy, biology and the exciting new field of evolutionary psychology, he makes a strong case for a naturalistic, atheistic view of the universe.

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By naturalpreservation on 28 May 2013
Format: Hardcover
In 1995 Daniel Dennett wrote 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life'. This book does not illuminate the mechanisms of culture . It tries to be scientific in tone but is narrative driven and ultimately the subject matter is too big for Dennett. The same can be said about Steve Stewart-Williams.

I found a lot of work here that was very familiar from books written over the last 2-3 decades and the alarming thing here is that through all the narrative in this book we've had 10+ schools of thought since 1859 that have tried to Darwinise culture (and evolutionary psychology is one of them, borne out of another failed attempt: sociobiology)and they have all failed to generate an accepted theory of culture. That is a lasting, and inconvenient fact for evolutionary perspectives.

Stewart-Williams is dogmatically bound to the idea that humans are not exceptional and can be explained by the laws (tendencies?) of evolutionary theory just like all other life. Again, evolutionary theory hasn't managed to generate an accepted theory of culture in over 150 years, a period of time that has saw more science than in the rest of recorded history.

Culture is not nature. Any student/scholar of humans that doesn't grasp that or is dogmatically chained to the view that human exceptionalism cannot be accepted because that opens to the door to religion is only going to struggle in this area and we can add Stewart-Williams to an expanding list, Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker, Shermer, the list goes on. The central question in mid-19thC natural science (natural theology) was one of design. Evolution (with natural selection one of several rhythms) opened the door to a more sophisticated understanding of the process.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 21 Feb. 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Excellent overview of Evolutionary theory's undermining of traditional and religious viewpoints. Thorough trouncing of religions attempts to explain how the universe and life came into being; how scientific revolutions have undermined our egocentric notions of our place in the universe and animal world; and the lack of objective foundations for morality.

It has a very good overview of the book in the introduction, and working chapter section and internal links (not always found on kindle books!)

Great book for those looking at aetheism (for or against), science and philosophy.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By GD NZ on 30 Jan. 2011
Format: Hardcover
Stewart-Williams approaches his subject with logic, grace and good humour. Readers who can't quite put their finger on why religion makes no sense to them, or why justifications for religion don't convince them, will be glad they read this book. And animal-lovers will love it too.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 5 reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Its all theory, but which is right? 24 Dec. 2013
By Malcolm - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Ever since its inception, Darwin’s theory of evolution would inevitably enter a collision course with religious theory; and Steve’s book affirms this in no uncertain terms. I come from a religious background, having spent over fifty years listening to sermons whilst engaging the whole experiential journey of Christianity. I’ve also enjoyed my fair share of lay preaching, but am no longer able now to engage that privileged position with honesty and integrity.

Steve’s book pulls no punches, in his exposition of evolution and where it takes religious theory to task. His approach is not to antagonize, but to provide genuine explanations of the differences, and where they collide. The content of his book will stretch your mind, and to be honest you will have your doubts, and that’s to be expected. There is so much in this “theory” that adds up, if you can manage to get your head around it. There is no doubt that neither camp, will submit to the other, and the arguments will rage on for years.

Steve tackles religion’s insistence upon intelligent design, noting that religion works purposely to avoid its own demise, inclusively aligning itself with evolutionary theory, within the prevailing intellectual environment. According to religion’s supporters, wherever science stumbles, God fills in all the gaps. He is considered to be the mastermind behind the exclusive goldilocks zone, in which we are fortunate enough to exist. And it is suggested He would have guided evolution, thus becoming the indispensable constant within an evolved universe. But as Steve’s arguments reveal, evolution becomes a concept in which God plays no part at all.

Inevitably Steve tackles the ultimate question of whether or not there is any meaning or purpose to life at all; if as suspected, we have evolved over several millennia. It is noteworthy, that our planet appears to be totally indifferent to human life in some respects, for natural disasters occur repeatedly, wiping away human life as if we were no more than common ants. Not surprisingly, Steve concludes that life is good, but meaningless and the Universe is certainly awesome, yet pointless. Getting your head around that conclusion is difficult, when one is used to the doctrine of a Creator who has a supreme purpose and value in mind for His creation; but try and prove that.

I have to admit, that as Steve’s book unfolded, I have begun to contemplate with greater clarity and with far more respect, the behavior of all other species of animals within the natural world with which we are more closely connected than we might perhaps be comfortable with. Documentaries such as the Wild Planet and many others, affirm evidence of a natural and sequential chain of evolutionary events that are quite staggering, totally disconnected from any “controlled process” orchestrated by an intelligent designer.

Inevitably, we are left with the realization, that once God is removed from the equation, it effectively blots out any sense of holiness, sacredness, spirituality or even goodness, apart from the milk of human kindness inherently part of our deeply altruistic nature. In that sense, there would no longer be anything other than the “law” to reign in those who abuse their rights and seek to control others through greed, and a distorted sense of their own power and importance.

And it troubles me to say that life is ultimately meaningless and pointless; for “within life” there is without any doubt a great deal of meaning and purpose. One has only to think of such people as Fred Hollows and the late Nelson Mandela to appreciate the enormity of the legacy these two individuals alone have left behind. There is nothing meaningless or pointless about the value of their lives and the contribution they have made to advance the value and creature comforts of the human race.

Yet beyond all of that, the fact that billions of people do live and die without leaving as much as a ripple on the surface of the pond, is very disturbing and underlines the insignificant, meaningless and pointless lives we may inevitably lead. But the fact that we live on a small rocky planet zipping round the sun, “totally isolated” in the cold dark depths of space, is more than likely the most sobering realization of the utter pointlessness, or rather the inexplicableness of it all.

This is a book which I believe needs to be read; especially by those who are dissatisfied with religious “truth” and seek a convincing argument for evolutionary theory. As a lay person, I found the book quite a challenge to read, but well worth the effort involved. It has a sense of urgency about it and is seriously confronting and disturbing. Steve tackles the task with honesty and clarity, whilst not shying away from calling upon religion to account for the claims it has made and classifies as irrefutable religious dogma.

Religion will continue to dodge critiquing and to reject its critics; but it will also continue to bring comfort and peace to the hearts of so many who are confronted by life’s tragedies. But evolutionary theory will bring a much needed balance for those who are deeply troubled by the nagging doubts and unsatisfactory religious perspectives offered to them. Steve has addressed this task, like so many researchers, in an endeavor to unravel the truth; and this debate, sorely needs to put forward reliable, validated answers urgently.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Wonderful thoughtful book 24 April 2014
By john messerly - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
(from reasonandmeaning.com)

Stewart-Williams argues that evolution bears significantly on the issue of the meaning of life. Humans have a perennial interest in the question of life’s meaning, advancing religious and secular answers to the question but, as Stewart-Williams notes, there are difficulties with all the proposed solutions even before we take evolutionary theory into account. This causes him to look more closely at the implications of evolution for the question of the meaning of life.

Why are we here? We are here because we evolved. But the purpose of our existence is not to survive, reproduce, or propagate genes; the fact that we evolved to do these things does not tell us what our purpose is. In this sense evolution is not relevant to questions of meaning, but it is relevant to questions of meaning in another way. To see how we must understand that evolutionary theory offers historical explanations, not teleological ones. Teleological explanations explain apparent design, like the giraffe’s long neck, in terms of purposes—they have long necks to feed on tall trees. (Aristotle’s explanation of water running downhill to reach its natural resting place is another example of a teleological explanation.) Modern biology tells us instead that giraffes have long necks because in the past the genes that caused long necks helped them survive, reproduce and transmit their genes. In modern biology adaptations have historical, not teleological explanations.

But explanations for why we’re here—get to heaven, be happy, help others, reproduce—are all teleological explanations. In evolutionary theory these are the wrong kinds of answers because in biology, there are no teleological answers only historical ones. From evolutionary theory it follows that we are here because we evolved, we aren’t here for a purpose. Note that this does not preclude us choosing goals and purposes for ourselves from which we derive emotional or psychological meaning. “However, if we’re interested in the question of whether life is ultimately meaningful, as opposed to whether it’s potentially emotionally meaningful, well, after Darwin, there is no reason to suppose that it is.”[i]

Yet Stewart-Williams doesn’t find this conclusion gloomy. Just because life has no ultimate purpose, it doesn’t follow that life isn’t worth living—life can be good even if it is ultimately meaningless. (Many subjectivists make the same point.) Like the existentialists we might even find this idea liberating, inasmuch as it allows us the freedom to give life our own meaning, rather than having it imposed on us externally. For some, subjective meaning may not be enough, but for Stewart-Williams we can appreciate beauty, kindness, love and the other good things in life even if they don’t have an ultimate purpose.

Surprisingly though, Stewart-Williams is not saying that we have purposes but the universe does not. For the minds from which purposes emerge are a part of the universe, and this means that if you have purposes then part of the universe does too. The universe does not have a single purpose, but the many purposes of the beings that are part of it:

… it is false to say that the universe is purposeless. It was purposeless before the first life forms with purposes and drives evolved, and it will be devoid of purpose once more when the last life form takes its final gasp of breath. However, as long as we’re here to contemplate such matters, to struggle and strive, the universe is not without purpose.[ii]

Moreover, that our minds are part of the universe has an interesting implication—the universe is partly conscious. When we contemplate the universe, part the universe is conscious; when we know something of the universe, part of the universe is self-conscious. From an evolutionary perspective this means that after eons of unconsciousness, the universe is gradually becoming self-aware. And yet, regarding the destiny of consciousness, Stewart-Williams is not optimistic. Given the shadow cast over us by universal death he expects the universe will lapse back into unconsciousness.

I would summarize Stewart-Williams argument in its briefest form as follows: 1)evolution reveals that the universe has no teleological purpose; 2) we are part of the universe and we have purposes; 3) the universe has as many purposes as we give it.; and 4) he is not optimistic that the universe will remain conscious. Let us discuss each of these briefly in turn.

The first agree follows from the non-teleological nature of modern biology. Darwin did for biology what Newton did for physics. There is the weaker notion of teleonomy, which is the idea that while there is no end state that is external to the process which guides or steers evolution, we can say that the process has goal-directedness as part of its program or algorithm. Needless to say this is a difficult topic about which philosophers of biology disagree. The second claim is self-evidently true and the third claim follows from the first, with the caveat that we can move from purposes of the part to purposes of the whole. The fourth claim is reasonable, although reasonable persons could disagree with it.

I have written extensively about evolution and purposes, especially in my work on Jean Piaget’s evolutionary theory and in my recent book and on this blog where I’ve discussed E.O. Wilson, Jacques Monod, Teilhard de Chardin. But in the end I just don’t know where cosmic evolution is heading. The most likely scenario is cosmic death yet I always hold out hope that Kurzweil was right–our post-human, intelligence-augmented ancestors will decide its fate. But in the end I just don’t know. And I can live like that. More at reasonandmeaning.com

[i] Steve Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 194.

[ii] Stewart-Williams, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew, 197.
11 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant 7 Jan. 2011
By Hilary Tait - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a brilliant, and thorough, analysis of the implications of evolutionary theory. It shows how atheism does not imply that we are left without morality.
1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
a mediocre book 22 Sept. 2013
By Renato Baserga - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
it is a book written in support of evolution. I have been an evolutionist since I was 16 years of age, but this book made me think I had been wrong all the time, so badly written it is. Most of the evolution (not all of it) is based on fossils record and the genetic code (the same throughout), but the author just mentions them, then he goes to great length discussing....nothing. I am not quite sure why he wrote this book, perhaps trying to convince himself he should believe in evolution. I have and had no problem with evolution, it is clear, and I find Intelligent Design not intelligent at all, eyes and blood clotting did not appear all of a sudden, but slowly, one piece at a time, and some of the proteins used in eyes and blood clotting have other functions. The author is shooting a dead horse. Leave the criticisms of evolution alone in 2013, evolution has occurred, we need no reminding of truth. An old truth.
27 of 54 people found the following review helpful
Another New Atheism Tract 12 Mar. 2011
By Cebes - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
New Atheist books are a dime-a-dozen these days. Stewart's work is not the best of this type of books, but by no means the worst. To his credit, he is more widely read in philosophy than are most of the writers in the New Atheism school (though that isn't saying much); the overriding fault in general of the genre is those who think that simply being a physicist or a biologist is sufficient to allow one to finally dispose of all the great philosophical questions, such as the nature of truth, free will, morality, and the existence of God. Stewart earns a solid `B' in that regard; he at least has read some philosophical background and tries to enter into the debate at a somewhat more sophisticated level. Still, he seems to believe that you can settle the problem of evil or free will or moral objectivism in just a few pages, thanks to Darwin. But Darwin's theory does not solve philosophical problems; nor does science in general resolve metaphysical problems. Those who think that it does simply end up doing bad philosophy.

Consider his argument against moral objectivism. Stewart believes, following the predictable pattern in these books, that since ethics is the product of evolution, then morality has no objective basis, and we can do whatever we want. Let us leave aside the fact that, contra Stewart, there is no solid evidence that ethics is the product of evolution (at most there is a series of mutually inconsistent, speculative theories about how morality might have evolved). Also leave aside that even Stewart himself admits that morality is only partly a product of evolution, at best. But even if morality were a product of evolution, it is a logical non sequitur to hold that ethics cannot be objective. After all, science is a product of evolution too. Stewart makes an effort to address this argument (again, unlike most writers in this genre), but it is misguided to think that one can resolve this profound philosophical problem by reading a few books and then announcing that the problem has been solved. Further, Stewart can't fully bring himself to accept the implications of this conclusion. He can't admit outright that he is really a moral nihilist; the book is interspersed with claims of nihilism, but also frequent expressions of moral outrage, for instance at the way we treat animals (as well as a half-hearted attempt to demonstrate that utilitarianism is the best moral theory -- which doesn't even make sense, since if morality is subjective, then there is no basis to value one theory over another). But you can't have it both ways: if there is no morality, then there is nothing wrong with the Holocaust or with factory farming. As so often, the attempt to have it both ways gives you the worst of both.

Or consider one of his arguments against religion. Again, to his credit he insists that he won't commit the typical New Atheist tactic of refuting only the most crudely anthropocentric conception of a deity. However, he inexplicably proceeds to do just that, rejecting a more philosophical, non-anthropocentric conception of God because it violates the "original" meaning of the idea of God, which he claims is essentially anthropomorphic. Let's consider this argument.

1. What could "original" possibly mean in this context? Was there a date, time, and place when the idea of God was first established?

2. Even if there were (absurdly) such an "original" meaning, why should it have a claim to be the TRUE meaning? For instance, the original meaning of "atom" is "indivisible" (and in this case we really DO know the original meaning!). But that hardly entails that scientists are currently misusing the term.

3. Stewart adds (126)that the non-anthropomorphic conception of God is not "in all probability" what the "authors of the worlds' sacred texts" believed. Leaving aside what he could possibly mean by "in all probability," or his belief that the "authors" of all the world's diverse sacred texts all shared a single meaning (perhaps they were all present at the "origin" of religion??), still the claim is demonstrably false. In fact, even the most cursory knowledge of world religion reveals that many religions have an abstract, non-personal notion of God: e.g. Taoism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism. And even in Christianity, there is a long tradition of rejecting crude literalism about God (did he really "walk" in the Garden of Eden?).

As with so many New Atheism books, Stewart has not done his homework in purporting to give us a final refutation of religion, and ends up attacking a straw man (straw God?).
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