The “Meaning Of Life” As Per Ursula Goodenough In Her Book “The Sacred Depths Of Nature”

I finished reading this book this morning, having heard Dr. Goodenough speak at a conference last weekend, and having had the chance to chat with her. She is one of those rare people who project both a sense of personal power and make those in her presence feel both valued and safe. And her book will take a cherished place in my library because she has hit almost directly on the head a number of things that I have been groping toward for some time. And through her I have now connected with a community of people who see things much as I do, and have a similar sense of value and priority.

So, I highly recommend this book. Reviews that come at it from different perspectives (some more critical than others) can be found at the following links:….….

I add my comments as follows:

This book is the single shortest and most lucid review of big picture analysis of “reality” I have found. She starts with the big bang and then flips through the possible creation of life and evolutionary theory in a few short chapters. She reviews a lot of material with which I was familiar using novel examples to explain concepts I do not remember grasping before as I now do thanks to her, and breaks lots of new ground for me. The book is well worth reading for its scientific content, and it pitched at a level that is easily understandable for those without much science background, such as me.

One concept I don’t recall thinking about before is the difference between asexual and sexual life in terms of evolutionary strategy. Asexual organisms (such as bacteria) are immortal in the sense that their genetic essence does not change as they divide. As long as the ecological niche required to support them exists, they simply continue to clone themselves. Sexual life has a different evolutionary strategy that involves changing to adapt to a changing environment. The creation of the genes of each individual through the combination of the genes of its parents means that each individual is different, and hence of limited lifespan. The natural selection process is then presented with an endless array of different individuals from which to choose. Those that survive and, in general, the best adapted to survive and propagate. So, the “eternal” part of sexual life is the genome that is continually adapting and manifesting itself in different forms (and in our case, modifying its environment to suit its capacities). All other parts of each sexual individual is subservient in a sense to this – to protect the unique part of the genome housed in its sperm or eggs until they can perform their tiny function in this grand drama.

I add to Goodenough’s story the following diversion. During this evolutionary dance, small group animals at some point emerged. And from them, about 15 million years ago, emerged apes. And from them, about 5 million years ago, emerged the first “humans”. And from them, a relatively few thousand years ago, emerged humans who could communicate symbolically, and were (or shortly thereafter became) self conscious much as we are. The ability to communicate symbolically conferred enormous survival and propagation advantages on homo sapiens, and made him also conscious of his individually limited span of life. That is, the very organ (the brain) that became conscious of its own existence became conscious at the same time of its imminent demise. You don’t get one without the other unless you are asexual (like a bacteria or amoeba). Hmmm. Maybe this might explain the tendency of some religious folk to celibacy.

In any event, the paradox of being suddenly both aware of existence and death as well as the many powerful emotions connected to the evolutionary process are responsible in one way or another for much of our religious and artistic inclination. I am leaving aside for the moment the way in which religion is harnessed by those who wish to control their fellows. It is the almost universal inclinations that make this possible that I am paying attention to at the moment.

So, we have become conscious of ourselves and our instinctive drive to propagate and survive that are essential for our life form’s evolutionary strategy form to work. This drive is the whispering of our eternal genome, which we interpret as our own immortality. This faint, comforting voice contradicts the death we see all around us and which is essential to our life form. Individual death allows life to dance with our environment, and to display itself in the endless, breathtaking variety that inspires virtually universal reverence in those who become conscious of it.

At the end of each chapter Goodenough includes a section titled “Reflections” in which she outlines the feelings that the chapters contents evoke for her. In many cases I did not identify with her feelings, but those cases in which did made the part of the exercise more than worthwhile.

I particularly liked here conclusion, in which she indicated that her reason for being is tied to evolutionary theory – the grand story of existence. She accepts as a give that life is good and should be preserved. That is of course perfectly aligned with our most basic biological drivers. She notes that this impulse causes her to try to understand the nature of our environment and what we need to do within it to get along better as a human race and preserve the biodiversity required for long term existence and enjoyment of all life as to offer. She notes the connection this approach causes her to feel to all life. She makes extensive use of words like “scared”, “spiritual”, “religious” while explaining her feelings. She notes that once we are well grounded in our place in nature, we can enjoy the art, emotion etc. that all religious traditions have to offer – their essential humanness.

I particularly like Goodenough’s reference to one of her father’s favorite metaphors. He was a professor of religions studies who had a conservative religious upbringing, but as life passed became more metaphoric in his understanding of religion. He said, “Life is like a coral reef. We each leave behind the best, the strongest deposit we can so that the reef can grow. But what’s important is the reef.”

I am content with my place in on the reef; to enjoy life’s miracle while it lasts; to learn to pay more attention to the tiny part of the miracle that is before me, moment to moment; and think much less about those parts of the future that are beyond my influence.

Two of the reviews I linked above noted that Goodenough’s approach is not like to be satisfying to many theists. I agree. However, for those of us who have found our religious traditions wanting, Goodenough offers a wonderful away to reframe the big picture so as to enjoy certain aspects of our past. I had reached most of the conclusions Goodenough and her colleagues put forward (you can find her group at places like and but needed some help to bring things into focus and then begin to think critically about and refine my intuitions. I am finding the tools to do that within this group.

I also note that some people who leave Mormonism retain more of theistic leanings than do I. I don’t say that this is necessarily a bad thing, as long as we do not give ourselves over to the same kind of magical thinking that Mormonism promoted. And I still have trouble finding the brakes on the bus as long as we are prepared to accept any kind of metaphysical conclusions without a measure of testability. For those people, what Goodenough offers may have less utility. For those who minds run along paths similar to mind, this is a goldmine.

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