Julian Huxley and Magnus Carlsen on the Meaning of Life

The other night, I was watching Lex Fridman interview the world’s strongest chess player, Magnus Carlsen. That same night a friend emailed me a statement by Julian Huxley on Darwinian evolution, in which Huxley treated Darwinism as a sealed deal. The words by both Huxley and Carlsen, coming from such different contexts, nonetheless seemed to me eerily reinforcing and ultimately making the same point. I share them here with brief commentary.

The quote by Huxley, Thomas Henry Huxley’s grandson, is from 1958, the year before Huxley was the star attraction at the University of Chicago’s big centennial conference in honor of Darwin’s Origin of Species (which was published in 1859).

Almost all the main theses put forward by Darwin are still valid, though modified by later discoveries. In the first place, all existing animals and plants and most extinct species have certainly been produced from one or a few simple ancestral forms. Indeed, we can now be sure that life has been produced from non-living matter by natural process. The burning evolutionary problem is no longer the mechanism of the origin of species but that of the origin of life. Darwin’s next conclusion, that biological evolution was slow and gradual and demanded very long periods of time, has been fully confirmed. The fossils unearthed by paleontologists have shown no cases of abrupt transformation but many of gradual evolution.

From the June 30, 1958 Life Magazine, one of the cover stories of which was “The Wonders of Life on Earth: Scenes of Darwin Findings Revisited.”  Part I, written by Julian Huxley, was titled “Darwin Discovers Nature’s Plan.”

Huxley here sees a suitable theory of life’s origin as for the moment lacking, but he also sees the subsequent history of life as a done deal, submitting in mass to the Darwinian account of evolution. Given Huxley’s atheism, there’s no way he would have seen God as getting a divine foot in the door at the origin of life, and he clearly saw any such purposive agency as absent in the evolution of life. So it would be safe to say that Huxley was here advocating the view that life on earth is here as an accident of natural history.

And that brings me to the second quote from the other night—the one from Magnus Carlsen. After an enlightening discussion with his interviewer Lex Fridman about Carlsen’s genius at the chessboard, Fridman drew the conversation to a close: “Last simple question. What’s the meaning of life, Magnus Carlsen?” Here’s the rest of the exchange regarding that question:

[Magnus] There is obviously no meaning to life.

[Lex] Is that obvious?

[Magnus] I think we’re here by accident. There’s no meaning, it ends at some point.

[Lex] Yeah.

[Magnus] But it’s still a great thing, so.

[Lex] You can still have fun even if there’s no meaning.

[Magnus] Yeah, you can still have fun. You can try and pursue your goals, whatever they may be. But I’m pretty sure there’s no special meaning in trying to find it. Also, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. For me, life is both meaningless and meaningful for just being here, trying to make not necessarily the most of it, but the things that make you happy, both short term and also long term.

[Lex] Yeah, it seems to be full of cool stuff to enjoy.

[Magnus] It certainly does.

Lex Fridman’s podcast on YouTube.

Lex Fridman is typically an insightful interviewer who asks the probing follow-up questions, but here he simply dropped the ball. How does Carlsen know that life is without meaning and that we’re here by accident? Norway is one of the least religious countries in the world, so isn’t it likely that his views on life’s meaninglessness derive simply from his having imbibed the culture in which he finds himself. Carlsen offers no grounds for his view. He’s smart and he knows a lot of smart people who share his views, and perhaps for him that’s enough.

Carlsen betrays no sense of empathy for how his view that life is an accident might negatively impact others. He looks fit, he is probably the strongest chess player ever to play the game, his family seems intact and healthy—in short, life for him is good. And Lex plays right into this blithe vision of life, simply ignoring the pain that so much of the world experiences as well as the nihilism that an accidentalist view of life entails. “Life seems to be full of cool stuff to enjoy.” Yes indeed, for successful podcasters and successful chess players. But what do you have to say to the rest of the world, especially those suffering great loss or pain? “Gosh, it’s just so too bad that you are unable to enjoy all the cool stuff like I can.” That sounds a bit hollow.

Now I’m not saying that a meaningful world made meaningful by a God who created it to be meaningful is true because nihilism is repugnant. If Julian Huxley is right, then Carlsen is right as well. But there are good reasons to think Huxley is not right and that biology gives compelling evidence of intelligent design. And if that’s the case, it’s no longer tenable to claim that there’s no meaning to life or that we are here as an accident.

It will be a sign of intelligent design’s progress in the culture at large to see facile invocations of life being an accident, as by Carlsen here, getting pushback rather than meek acceptance from podcasters like Fridman.