Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Soul of Evolution

Lynn's picture

 Avery Larson

The Soul of Evolution

As far as can currently be observed, two components comprise the human mind; that which is innate (the nature, in short) and that which is environmental (the nurture). People are a result of their genetics and those outside forces that act upon them. When considered alongside the ideas of evolution that has been reached in Dalke and Grobstein’s Evolution of Stories and the Story of Evolution class, this understanding of the human mind does not inspire great faith in the potential for humans to have agency. Humans desire to exert at least some degree of control over their constantly-evolving world, yet this picture of the human being as the result of genetics (chance) and environment (yet more chance) would seem to negate any concept of control. Many humans are fixated on the idea of a free-thinking self; even faced with observations that would suggest that thought is limited by the brain created by chance, humans will grasp for something to provide that concept of independence. Often, they insist that a third component – one unobservable, at least at present – must exist, and that this component is what creates something uniquely, independently human: for the purposes of this essay, that third element will be referred to as a “soul”. If there were some aspect of the human being that existed outside the influence of evolution, the argument goes, then the human being, in turn, would be able to exert some control over evolution. Thus, the ideal of “self” becomes inextricably tied with the idea of a soul; when a person thinks of himself or herself, he or she identifies most strongly with some untainted, immutable “soul” that cannot be affected by evolution, and in this way, manages to convince himself or herself that agency can and does exist. Placing all of one’s hope for agency in the belief in some mystical, unknowable “soul”, however, is unwise, because that belief, ultimately, cannot be corroborated with anything but intuition.

Two main tenants of evolution that have been taught in The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories are that evolution is algorithmic – that is, it requires no thought or direction, simply a set of processes that will eventually yield a result – and that evolution is random, moving in no particular, purposeful direction. To ascribe sentience or intent to the process, simply because the results currently seen seem impressive, would be to misunderstand the nature of evolution; evolution is a process, not a result. Another important facet of evolution to remember is that evolution is ongoing and unceasing, regardless of how difficult its effects may be to see in daily life. This ceaseless, directionless, pointless randomness can be uncomfortable to contemplate, as it rids people of the comfort of expecting progress and methodical improvement. The unstoppable randomness of evolution naturally gives rise to questions of agency and the human role in all of this change – faced with the knowledge that everything is a product of evolution, and that nothing can halt evolution or force it to follow a path to perfection (perfection being but an ideal, of course, and not something that exists in the natural world), people begin to wonder whether they are helpless products of evolution. All the evidence currently available – the body is a random descendent of other bodies, a chance mash-up of genetics, and that random body is in turn shaped by random external events – would suggest that the human role is minimal, and that any agency would be but an illusion. When understood purely in physical terms, absolute human agency cannot exist; everything masquerading as free will would be but a product of unknown chance.

Humans turn, then, to a non-physical explanation of their conviction that there must exist a self that is untainted by chance – that something resides within the human consciousness that is purely human, and perfectly capable of control. The most famous example of this tendency would, perhaps, be Rene Descartes’s assertion that “I think; therefore, I am”. With this statement, Descartes asserts that the physical trappings of a human – the body, the brain – are immaterial to the true nature of the self, which is comprised of the deeper, unadulterated consciousness, or the soul. If one could but remove all of the influences of the outside world (though he did not consider genetics in his treatise, it is safe to assume that Descartes would remove them, as well), one would be left with something unique to oneself, and this unique thing would be the self. When people insist that there must be something special and unknowable about humans that enables them to exert agency over their environment, this soul is, perhaps, what they mean. Because it resides separately from the physical world, which has been shaped by chance and is therefore uncontrolled, the soul is free from any influence but that of the person to whom it belongs, and is therefore the only aspect of a person that truly exhibits the potential for agency. Everything else about a person – everything created by something else, by chance – can be attributable to something previously in existence, and therefore only the soul can possess motivations that are solely its own. One can, of course, substitute any preferred word for “soul”, but the concept remains unchanged, and if evolution’s role in depleting agency is to be accepted, then the idea of the soul seems the only plausible way of reclaiming any sense of control – and humans are loathe to live without control. The insistence on the existence of a soul appears in the religious and non-religious alike.

How can the presence of the soul be proven, though? Put simply, it can’t. The ingeniousness of the soul argument is that the soul is non-physical, unobservable, and knowable only in an intuitive way. People surmise that they absolutely must possess agency – to lack agency isn’t unthinkable so much as unpalatable, however – and realize that there is nothing operating within evolution that can provide that agency, since all things created by evolution would have been limited by it at the same time. People construct something else – the soul – to evade these limitations in independence. The soul’s very nature halts any attempts to explore it, though, since its non-physical existence cannot be observed by our very physical techniques. Moreover, for the soul to possess true agency, it would need to be unchanging except in response to internal forces (the soul changing itself, in other words, with no outside influence); if anything other than immutable, the soul would be just as vulnerable to evolution as anything else, and fail to provide that assurance that it, at least, can somehow control its world. To recap: the soul must not only exist outside physical evolution, but must be utterly unevolving, itself, or the ideal of agency is greatly weakened – and the mere existence of the soul is hypothetical at best, since it cannot be proven with the methods we now possess. What, then, is its purpose in understanding agency and evolution? How can something exist that is truly unchanging – yet, if it changes, how can it be a soul? The soul is a useful idea only inasmuch as it soothes the desperation for some kind of control; because it cannot be proven, and because its very definition is unclear, it has no place in the study of evolution.


Descartes, Rene. “Discourse on Method”. Nanaimo, British Columbia: Vancouver Island University, May 2010.
Dennet, Daniel. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.