A provocative new book examines life’s big questions in relation to evolution

York University’s David Stamos is the first to admit his new book is controversial; after all, it takes on the sticky subjects of sex, race and religion in the context of evolution – what he calls the big questions.

Stamos (BA Hons. ’85, MA ‘88, PhD ‘96) did not set out to write a contentious book, but neither did he shy away from tackling the difficult issues that came with discussing the relevancy of certain "big questions" to evolution. He is not arguing for evolution; instead he is taking it as a given and exploring how areas such as feminism and ethics stack up against the evidence from evolutionary biology.

The highly interdisciplinary volume addresses questions such as: Did evolution make men and women fundamentally different? Is the concept of race merely a social construction? Is morality, including universal human rights, a mass delusion? Can religion and evolution really be harmonized?

So far there’s been a hushed quiet about Evolution and the Big Questions: Sex, Race, Religion, and Other Matters (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) – the book was published about six weeks ago – but Stamos doesn’t expect the stillness to last.

"It’s not meant to offend or to argue for evolution, but it can’t help but offend; it’s the nature of the topic," says Stamos, who teaches philosophy at York and is interested in evolution, Darwin and David Hume. "I want to be biologically correct, not politically correct, but without trying to offend. It’s a difficult line to walk. It’s been a real challenge because I deal with the hot issues."

What this philosopher is trying to do is take evolution and standard evolutionary principles and explore their wider implications for questions normally examined in the humanities and social sciences, what amount to life’s biggest questions. The book provides a powerful counterbalance to the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which emphasizes culture and environment to the exclusion of biology. It is the SSSM that most students are normally exposed to.

Evolution and the Big Questions is meant to appeal to students and the general public, as well as pique the interest of scholars. "The book is a teaching tool, not just one long argument, but I do try to take on the heavyweights, so I operate on different levels," says Stamos.

Each chapter examines a different topic – such as knowledge, consciousness, language, sex, feminism, race, ethics and religion – and looks at each in relation to evolution, while discussing related ideas and arguments from various perspectives. Stamos does not always take a side in the argument. In many cases, he presents facts and arguments on both sides of the debate and leaves it to the reader to make up their own mind.

Stamos understands having chapters on race and feminism definitely makes the book more provocative, but his intention is to get people thinking and to motivate them to dig deeper into the issues. "I think if people take the time to read it, rather than pre-judge it, they will view it favourably," he says.

Left: David Stamos standing beside an image of Darwin.

Stamos even takes on the meaning of life in the final chapter and whether or not evolution renders life meaningless. He thinks American philosopher Robert Nozick got it right when he argued that meaning is relational and there are only two kinds that are deeply satisfying – interpersonal and the pursuit of knowledge. Stamos presents Nozick’s view in contrast with those of existentialists such as Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who believed people are free to create their own meaning in their lives. Stamos doesn’t agree with the existentialist approach and finds it deeply mistaken.

A discussion on the most common misconceptions about evolution, in which he addresses the idea of missing links and of having monkeys as ancestors, is left to the appendix.

"The purpose is to get readers thinking, to get them to spread their own wings and fly. That’s the ultimate purpose of the book," says Stamos. "The book is not presented as the final word."

Stamos is the author of The Species Problem (Lexington Books, 2003) and Darwin and the Nature of Species (State University of New York Press, 2007). He is also widely published in a variety of academic journals, including Philosophy of Science, Biology & Philosophy and International Studies in Philosophy.

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer