New stories of who we are

Evolution and the stories we tell ourselves today.

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
17 min readDec 20, 2022


Re-Assembling Reality #28c, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

We tell ourselves stories about who we are and what our place is in the world. We care deeply about these stories, and we react strongly to anyone who would tell us that our story is wrong.

When Darwin was working on his theory of evolution, it had obvious relevance to controversies surrounding who we are and what our place is in the world. And because of that, it was incredibly controversial. In Essay #28b we sought to understand the controversy and, by the end of the Essay, two things were clear:

— the disputes did not fall neatly along lines of science and religion,
— the disputes are utterly irrelevant to the concerns of anyone today.

Evolution was co-opted into disputes between polygenists and monogenists. At the time, all sorts of people — scientists, theologians, educators, politicians, entrepreneurs — held strong opinions supporting one position or the other. Today, no one cares about polygenism or monogenism. Darwin’s prediction that “the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death” [1] has come to pass. And yet evolution is still controversial.

Why is that?

In this essay we will argue that evolution has once again been drawn into a dispute over the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what our place is in the world. The arguments about evolution relate to which story we should be telling.

We will then show that some of the clashes today between religious and anti-religious groups are due to their stories’ similarities, as much as their differences. People who tell stories that are not just different, but radically different, can — paradoxically — avoid some of these clashes and still have fruitful insights for science [2].

Telling a story: We are stuff

Let us tell a story. A story about what we are made of.

We are made of stuff.

We are made of the same stuff as everything else — animals, plants, rocks: they, like us, are all made of stuff. The thing that makes us different or special cannot be traced to the stuff itself, because human stuff and animal stuff and star stuff is, in itself, all the same.

The history of the universe is the history of matter. What else is there? (Credit: Wikimedia.)

We are made of the same stuff as everything else, but our stuff is arranged differently. So, the story goes, it must be the arrangement of the stuff that makes us different. What else could it be?

Evolution is the process by which our particular arrangement of stuff came to be. Human stuff is arranged differently from animal stuff and star stuff because evolution made it so.

The most impressive arrangement is our brains. They are more complex than anything else out there. In all the universe, we are not the strongest, or the largest, or the smallest, or the most enduring, or the most luminous. But we are the smartest. That is what makes us different; that must be what makes us special.

Stuff follows rules

The stuff of the universe follows rules. Atoms do what they do because of rules. Atoms form molecules; these form genes; these make proteins; these make cells; these form complex organisms. All of this is just stuff doing what stuff does.

We have no purpose

All of this activity, this following rules, this arranging of matter is not for anything. Undergo this reaction, undergo that reaction. Eat, sleep, reproduce, kill. We do what we do, just like the atoms that comprise us do what they do. There is no purpose, no meaning, no plan. What possible reason could there be? The universe does not contain reasons. It does not contain purpose. It contains stuff.


Unless we make our own purpose

After billions of years with a universe of nothing but insensible matter, we have become sentient. We have become self-aware. We have become more than the sum of our parts: dumb material making intelligent brains. This is what makes us special, and this is where we find meaning. We can give ourselves what the universe cannot give us.

Even if there is no meaning “out there”, maybe we can make meaning “in here”. Maybe we are now complex enough, self-conscious enough, smart enough, to give ourselves meaning and purpose.

One person decides they are here to make money. Until they die. Another decides they are here to find things out. Until they die. Someone else chooses to make life better for the poor. Until they die. The universe cannot tell them that they are right or wrong. Purpose, meaning, right or wrong: these are things that only we can tell ourselves.

We are irrelevant. Or we are central
I make my own meaning for as long as I live, only for the universe to spin on as though I was never here. Billions of light years across, un-heeding, uncaring. In the grand sweep of cosmic history, nothing I do will change anything of significance. So maybe the purpose and meaning I choose for myself doesn’t matter; all of my actions and choices are irrelevant.

Billions upon billions of stars neither know nor care that you exist; they are born, burn, and die regardless of what you do. Who are you to say you matter? (Credit: NASA via rawpixel.)

But then, the universe doesn’t need to care to make my story significant: I need to care. All I see of the universe is my story. And I am central to my story. Who else could there be that really matters to my story? Humanity is at the centre of humanity’s story, and I am at the centre of my story. That makes me significant. That is why I matter.

This view tells us who we are, and what our place is in the universe:

We are matter.
We are star dust. [3]

Bertrand Russell knew this view well. He clung both to the view and to its consequences.

“Man is the product of causes which had no pre-vision of the end they were achieving. His origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms… Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” [4]

Yay for Bertrand Russell: A man who knew his place.

This story and evolution

Bertrand Russell is not alone in wanting to tell this story. It has also been told by Francis Crick, Carl Sagan, Jacques Monot, Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, Jerry Coyne, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, among many others.

And this story can readily co-opt evolution to its side. Evolution has no pre-vision of the end it is achieving. As the atoms that made the proteins that made the cells that made the animals followed their various rules, they just did what they did. They did not know that they were going to make you, because they did not know anything. There was “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” [5]

Some people genuinely object to evolution because they have problems with the number of toes on protohippus in the fossil record. But often the objections we have to the stories we tell about protohippus are proxy complaints for the real objection: an objection to the stories we tell ourselves about the universe and our place in it.

If [Premise 1]
evolution requires me to accept the story that I am nothing but a special but unplanned arrangement of matter;

And if [Premise 2]
I refuse to accept the story that I am nothing but a special but unplanned arrangement of matter;

Then [Conclusion]
I must refuse to accept evolution.

This argument is valid: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Moreover, the argument is quite independent of whatever is ultimately concluded about protohippus.

If the story of “special but unplanned arrangements of matter” was the only story with which evolution could be aligned, then refusal to accept the story would seem appropriate cause to refuse to accept evolution. But there are other stories with which evolution can be aligned. That is to say, Premise 1 is not true. And if Premise 1 is not true then, although the argument remains valid, and although I may still reject evolution on other grounds, I am not forced to do so by the argument here.

Let us, then, look at two other stories. They are very different from the materialist story here, and very different from each other.

Telling another story: We are more than stuff

In considering a different story, let us first consider a decidedly Abrahamic account of humanity and our place in the universe. Variations on this basic story will be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha'i faith. And the story is markedly different from the story above.

We are not central to the story

God is the central character of this story. The universe was made by Him and for Him. Everything that exists, exists for His glory.

But we are not irrelevant

My significance comes, not from me, but from something outside of me. If the central character of this story cares about me, then I matter. And He does care about me, so I do matter.

The God who is powerful enough to make billions upon billions of stars both knows and cares that you exist; He believes that your life is significant. Who are you to say that you don’t matter? (Credit: NASA via rawpixel.)

You bear the image of God. You have been tasked with taking care of creation. You have been tasked with bringing God delight. The world is different — and should be different — because you are here. You and your actions are significant.

We have a purpose
And it is not one that we construct for ourselves

We have a purpose because God made us with purpose. We have the purpose that we do because God wanted it so.

Our purpose exists beyond us, independent of us. If I would rather have a different purpose, I cannot make it so; because my purpose, my meaning, my reason for living is not up to me. And if I hold that I am utterly useless and that the world would be better off without me, I cannot make it so; because — for good or bad — my purpose, my meaning, and my reason for living are not up to me.

We were made for God’s pleasure. And my opinion of this does not change the fact.

There are rules

There are rules, but the rules are not rules about inanimate, unthinking, unfeeling, uncaring stuff. As in all religions, they are relational rules that exist between persons. They concern how we relate to God, and how we relate to other parts of creation; how God relates to us, and how He relates to the rest of creation.

There is more to this world than stuff.

The thing that distinguishes us from the rest of creation is not physical. We are God’s image bearers. We are different because God has called us to be different.

This view tells us who we are:

We are children of the living God.

This tells us our place in the universe:

We matter.
We are significant, we are loved, we are purposed.
We have hope and meaning beyond ourselves.

This story and evolution

It should be reasonably clear that this second story disagrees on every point with the first story: One says we may be central, but we have no ultimate significance; the other says we are not central, yet we have immense significance. One says there is no purpose unless we make it ourselves; the other says that there is purpose, but we cannot make it for ourselves.

Materialism and theism tell opposite stories. But neither story necessarily agrees or necessarily disagrees with the nuts and bolts of evolution. (Credit: Authors.)

Nonetheless, it should also be clear that this second story, like the first, does not need to disagree at any point with the nuts and bolts of evolution. Some may say that God’s purposes stand, and that evolution provides a mechanism through which He achieves them. Others may argue that God’s purposes stand, and that the process of evolution — true though it may be — is quite irrelevant to the unfolding of such purposes. Some may take still other approaches. Regardless, acceptance of evolution in no way forces us to reject the story that we are more than just stuff.

A third story: Local relationships

So far we have talked about two stories of who we are. While the two stories are directly opposed to each other, they have some things in common. Notably, they both have a single line of time in the universe that moves in one direction from a single point of origin, and in which we can see progressive change. Admittedly, the progressive change in Story 1 is the product of random effects and has no purpose, while the progressive change in Story 2 is the product of God’s divine plan. But, in some ways, the clash between the stories is so strong exactly because they are so similar: they agree that there is linear time, and this enables them to disagree on the details.

Evolutionary theory was developed in a culture steeped in the Christian notion that time advances in a single direction. In the biblical worldview, this direction is set by the plan of God: from the Garden in Genesis, to the City in Revelation. At some point, many people stopped believing in a Divine Plan, but continued to believe in the unidirectional advance of time which it had birthed. The similarities of Story 1 and Story 2 — even if one is a mirror of the other — is not co-incidental. Story 1 was developed in a context of, and as a challenge to, Story 2. Being far enough away from Story 2 to swing a punch, but close enough to it to land a blow, was a key requirement in the development of Story 1.

In other places and at other times, there were no such hang ups about needing to critique Abrahamic traditions. In many other religions and cosmologies, developing independently, the notion of a single arrow of time tends to be much weaker, or completely absent. In these traditions, many other stories could be told. Based on various Asian traditions, we could tell a third story, as follows:

Numerous deities work to keep order — or mess things up — in the universe, or in a corner of the universe. But none of them — not even the most powerful deity — is said to have a single, conscious, overarching, long-term plan for the whole universe. Marduk, Brahman, and the Jade Emperor rule the universe — each in accordance with his own personality — but they don’t have a long-term plan for it. Time is understood in terms of cycles, and after episodes of drama and disorder, things will start all over again.

In this story, life is deeply meaningful and purposeful, but the meaning and purpose isn’t part of a single plan for the whole world. It’s more localised and contextual. There is intrinsic meaning to one’s relationships with the persons — human and meta-human — who make up the world. A sense of purpose arises from awareness of the meaning of these relationships. This consciousness of meaning expands outward from oneself and one’s localised relationships, to encompass the whole universe. It reaches an awareness of how the whole universe consists of interconnected, meaningful relationships — the realization that the whole universe is One.

This is not Story 1a, in which the world, and your life within it, is utterly devoid of ultimate meaning or purpose. Nor is it Story 1b, in which you are entirely free to invent your own meaning. But neither is it Story 2, in which your meaning comes from a transcendent source entirely outside you. Rather, in this story, there is meaning; and you have a role in creating that meaning, but you do so in negotiation with a network of relationships with entities around you.

Story 3 relating to Stories 1 and 2

We noted above that part of what enables Story 1 and 2 to clash so passionately is their similarity. They share the idea of universal, linear, progressive time. They share the idea of universal laws, applying in all times and all places. They therefore have enough common ground to come into dispute: disputes over the purpose of unfolding time, and over the nature of the universal laws.

By contrast, Story 3, which developed quite independently of the other two, does not share many of the key points of reference about which to argue. A cyclical view of time, or the goal of transcending ordinary time, which is prevalent in many non-Abrahamic traditions, is incompatible with the arrow of time that underlies the worldview in which Stories 1 and 2 were developed.

When an adherent of Story 2 reads a textbook that tells Story 1, it is similar enough to feel like there could or should be agreement, but distinct enough to see that there is not.

But when an adherent of Story 3 reads a textbook that tells Story 1, it is so radically different from their basic worldview that they must engage with it poly-cosmologically, if they are to engage with it at all (see Essay #27h). And from such a poly-cosmological standpoint, there may be little reason to quibble over problems as great as the nature of humanity, when one can simply get stuck in to small technical disagreements about the implications of endogenous viral elements in genetic material, or whatever. The scale of such radical differences, and the willingness to engage in poly-cosmological thought, may provide part of the reason why there is so little active protest from such religions against Dawkins’ anti-religious evolutionary rhetoric.

Story 3 relating to evolution

Understanding how Story 3 relates to Stories 1 and 2 is entirely separate from understanding how Story 3 relates to evolution per se. To be sure, evolutionary science rightly and necessarily draws on the metaphysical stories we tell (as will be laid out in Essays #28d and #28f). But it is not uniquely tied to those stories. How Story 3 engages with evolution is therefore not the same discussion as how it engages with Stories 1 and 2.

In Story 3, the changes in external forms that interest evolutionary biologists are of little interest, since they are ephemeral phenomena at the surface of a deeper and more essential cosmic oneness. There is thus little need for religion, here, to be overly concerned with scientific disputes over evolution.

Going in the other direction, however, there may be much reason for science to show an interest in the religious framework, for there are strong consonances. “Laws” of biology are not set for all time and all places. For example, at some points in history, being big has been an advantage. But it might only take a change in oxygen levels, or a drop in the global temperature, or a shift in tectonic plates for the “big is best” law to no-longer hold. Biological laws are local, contingent, provisional, for ever warring with other laws. The Buddha and the Jade Emperor would surely understand.

Evolution can also be understood in terms of cycles. Life in the seas, then on land, then back in the seas. One survival technique is prevalent, then another, and then back to the earlier one. Crabs turn up over and over again. Life flourishes, then there is a meteor, or a volcano, or a change in ocean currents leading to a mass extinction, then life flourishes again. After episodes of drama and disorder, things will start all over again. Marduk knows the feeling.

On a linear view of evolution, all body-plans gradually increase in complexity. On a cyclical view of evolution, all body-plans eventually return to being basically crab-shaped. The observed development from single-celled creatures to multi-celled ones fits with linear thinking. But… well… crabs. (Credit: Joanna M. Wolfe)

As a final consonance to note between evolution and Story 3, purpose, in evolutionary terms, emerges from a network of relationships. A cheetah’s camouflage can be viewed as having purpose, but it is not a purpose freely chosen by the cheetah, nor a purpose imposed universally from outside the system. Rather, the camouflage evolved and serves its purpose only within a relational network: in the context of the grass through which the cheetah hunts, and the senses of the gazelles which the cheetah seeks to evade. The cheetah, the grass, and gazelle are one. It is in their oneness —and only in their oneness — that the cheetah’s camouflage finds meaning and purpose.

Three metaphysical views

We have considered three stories. Each one can be related positively and fruitfully to evolution; and none of them is, of itself, necessarily anti-scientific or against evolution. Each one suggests a particular way of thinking about evolution, and each one tells us a particular story about ourselves and our place in the world. But, given this plurality, one cannot argue from evolution to support one or other metaphysic.

Maybe you want to be able to say,

“I am master of my own destiny.
I decide my own purpose.
I take life as it comes and answer to no-one.”

If so, materialism is the one for you. Christianity and Daoism will both rub you up the wrong way, with or without evolution.

Or, you want to say,

“I am here for a reason.
I am part of a grand divine purpose.
What I do ultimately matters.”

If so, theism is the one for you. Both materialism and Daoism will leave you wanting, with or without evolution.

Or maybe you want to be able to say,

“I am here for a reason.
My purpose emerges through my relations with others.
What I do matters to them.”

If so, Daoism may hold an attraction for you. Materialism and theism will both irk you, with or without evolution.

So choose your metaphysic. Choose it freely. But do not, whatever you do, say or believe that this metaphysic was forced on you by the evidence of evolution, or that some other metaphysic is precluded by the evidence of evolution.

Evolution is consistent with purpose, and with purposelessness. Both purpose and purposelessness are consistent with evolution and with not-evolution. And with or without evolution, there are diverse types of purpose that people believe are worth having.


We started this essay by noting that, in the time of Darwin, evolution was dragged into arguments about who we are and what our place is in the universe. There was no necessary connection between the nuts and bolts of evolution and either of the two positions at stake for people at the time. And yet evolution became a hot-button topic; not because of the theory per se, but because it had been shackled to favour one story of who we are, rather than another. And, because people feel strongly about such stories, people felt strongly about evolution.

Life has moved on and we no longer care for disputes between monogenism and polygenism. But evolution is still a hot-button topic.


Because evolution has been dragged into another set of arguments about who we are and what our place is in the universe. There is still no necessary connection between the nuts and bolts of evolution and the many possible positions at stake. And yet evolution is again a hot-button topic; not because of the theory per se, but because it has been shackled to favour one story of who we are, rather than another. And, because people feel strongly about such stories, people felt strongly about evolution.

We will not resolve such disputes by talking about how many toes protohippus had. Because no one cares about protohippus. Not really. But we may get closer, if not to resolution, then at least closer to meaningful discussion, if we talk about who we think we are, and what we think our place is in the universe.


[1] Charles Darwin, Descent of Man (1871).

[2] For what it is worth, Paul Feyerabend, in Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (2010) argued that if we don’t have radically diverse stories then, for the good of science, we should make new stories up.

[3] Carl Sagan famously intoned in the 1980 TV series, Cosmos, “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reprised the idea in his 2017 book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry: Essays on the Universe and Our Place Within It, “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out.” (I am especially grateful to Tyson for adding the subtitle to his book, so that readers of my blog can be in no doubt that his quote is of relevance to our discussion of stories we tell about our place in the universe.)

[4] Bertrand Russell, “The Free Man’s Worship,” The Independent Review 1 (1903): 415–424.

[5] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (1986).



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.