The Story of Life: Critical Insights from Evolutionary Biology

Panel Discussion December 7, 2017

Proponents of various teleological arguments point to the sheer immensity and precision of the universe, reinforced by the diversity and complexity of its abundant life forms, to support the idea of purpose behind its majestic architecture. But is there any empirical evidence of an inherent drive within the evolutionary process itself that invariably leads to greater complexity, and ultimately human consciousness? Back in the 1990s, that question sparked a lively debate between two evolutionary biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Whereas Gould maintained that human evolution was a fortuitous accident — things would turn out completely different if we re-ran the tape of evolution — Conway Morris argued that convergence drives evolution in specific directions, and inevitably leads to conscious beings. While the debate continues, the notion that humans, in all their complexity, are merely an evolutionary accident, an insignificant speck in a boundless cosmos, is deeply unsatisfying for most non-scientists and fails to resonate with their life experience. What, then, can evolutionary biology ultimately tell us about the meaning of our lives? Paleoanthropologists Melanie Chang and Ian Tattersall, and paleontologist Simon Conway Morris share their insights on these competing concepts, and explain how meaning and purpose can be gleaned from the remarkable story of life itself.


  • Steve Paulson Journalist and Executive Producer, TTBOOK
  • Melanie Chang Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, Portland State University
  • Ian Tattersall Paleoanthropologist and Curator Emeritus, American Museum of Natural History
  • Simon Conway Morris Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology, University of Cambridge


  • Thursday, December 7, 2017
  • 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
  • The New York Academy of Sciences
    7 World Trade Center, 250 Greenwich Street, 40th Floor


This volume brings together leading scientists and scholars to explore the meaning and purpose of our existence through an array of interdisciplinary perspectives.

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About This Series

This event is part of The Will to Meaning: Seeking the “Why” of Our Existence series, which brings together leading scientists and scholars to explore the question of the meaning and purpose of our existence through an array of interdisciplinary perspectives ranging from neuroscience and positive psychology to evolutionary biology and astrophysics.



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