Meyer unifies value and evolutionary theory in book

Meyer unifies value and evolutionary theory in book

Feb. 26, 2016

As Dr. William “Bill” Meyer wrote the conclusion to his book Metaphysics and the Future of Theology in 2010, he touched on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and something gave him pause.

“I felt we aren’t quite right in how we make sense of Darwin’s insight about evolution via natural selection (how life evolves from earlier forms of life by natural means), but I couldn’t say quite what it was,” said the Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College.

With that in mind, Meyer began work on his latest book, Darwin in a New Key: Evolution and the Question of Value. He read Darwin’s autobiography and collected works and major scholarly interpretations of them, eventually teaching a class on the subject in which Zachary Gekas ’12 took extensive notes.

In the book’s preface, Meyer thanks Gekas, who recently received a master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University in New York, for helping him to capture his “emerging analysis of Darwin in comparison to the predominant views of most neo-Darwinists.”

Dr. Barbara Wells, Vice President and Dean of the College, congratulated Meyer on his new publication.

“In addition to being a productive scholar, Dr. Meyer is an excellent teacher involved deeply in the life of Maryville College. As an institution that promotes undergraduate research, we find that students are encouraged in their own research projects when they know faculty are also involved in research. For faculty like Dr. Meyer, teaching and research are intertwined and an opportunity to include students in research and pass on to them excitement for their discipline,” she said.

Darwin as a theist

The commonly-held belief that Darwin’s theories are inherently at odds with religious conviction is incorrect, according to Meyer.

“Darwin was a theist in search of a better theology. The problem was that the theology of the time had not caught up to him, and thus he became increasingly agnostic. If he had lived another 50 years, I believe, he would have found the evolutionary philosophy and theology he was looking for,” he said.

Many scientists and philosophers read Darwin from a mechanistic standpoint (nature as a deterministic machine), wherein evolutionary life exists only to survive and reproduce; but this reading, Meyer argues, eliminates the concept of value from existence.

“Modern science has tended to interpret nature not as an organism but as a machine. If a meteor were to end all evolutionary life would it have been meaningless, erased away like a cosmic etch-a-sketch? Or does life ultimately achieve lasting value? Is the evolutionary process one of grandeur, as Darwin famously remarked, or is it one of vanity and emptiness––one long train to nowhere?”

Meyer believes Darwin maintained two strands of thought that were difficult to reconcile. The mechanistic strand comes from Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton through modern science, but the humanistic strand is most commonly associated with German romanticism.

“Darwin has a humanistic sense and talked about beauty a lot. While survival and reproduction are necessary for existence they aren't the goal of life itself. We live in order to experience value,” he said.

James and Whitehead

The philosophers who came along decades later and offered a way to integrate Darwin’s evolutionary insights with his humanistic appreciation of beauty and value were William James and Alfred North Whitehead, according to Meyer.

In the versions of theism offered by James and Whitehead, God is affected by the world rather than being an unchanging constant. This interpretation allows for evolutionary change in biological organisms to be integrated as part of the divine life; organisms that have evolved maintain value in the divine life in all of their iterations.

Without God, value cannot exist “because there is nothing to receive the world,” Meyer said.

“Whitehead said: ‘God does not create the world, he saves it’ by receiving all of it into the everlasting divine life.”

“I would like to introduce people of religious faith to a different way of thinking about God in relation to the world. It seems to me these evolutionary strands of theism caught up to Darwin a half century after his death,” he added.

Published in 2016, Darwin in a New Key: Evolution and the Question of Value is available from Wipf and Stock Publishers’ Cascade Books imprint.

By Gerhard Schneibel, News and New Media Writer

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.