Dr. Samuel Wilkinson was in his first year of medical school at Johns Hopkins University when the question that was percolating in his mind came to a head: Was his belief in God compatible with the theory of evolution? This question stirred up a kind of existential debate in Wilkinson, who at the time had just graduated from Brigham Young University, gotten married and moved to Baltimore.

“The theory of evolution has been a stumbling block — more than a stumbling block — for people of faith for a long time,” said Wilkinson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “This time, it seemed to be at the core of the wrestle I had.” He became immersed in reading, studying and praying about evolution and faith, and whether the two could be reconciled, hoping for some clarity. Without a clear answer at the time, he decided to hold on to both and move forward. Months later, threads from different disciplines he’d been researching began to take shape into coherent and satisfying answers.

Wilkinson shares his intellectual and spiritual journey in the preface of his new book, “Purpose: What Evolution and Human Nature Imply about the Meaning of Our Existence,” released March 5. At the core of Wilkinson’s book is an attempt to challenge the longstanding assumption that evolution has no overarching purpose, and that, in fact, the way we have evolved holds important and applicable lessons for building a good life. “The notion of purpose in biology has been heretical,” he told me in a recent interview. As he writes in the book, “If biological life is merely the result of the blind forces of nature, then why are we — as products of a random biological process — so driven to find meaning and purpose?”

Can religion and science coexist?

“Purpose” is the latest contribution to scholarly efforts to reconcile religion and science. Catholic biologist Glenn Sauer wrote about the changing divide between science and religion in his 2020 book “Points of Contact.” Francis Collins, a Christian, physician and former director of National Human Genome Research Institute, made a case for bridging science and faith in his book “The Language of God.” And Jamie Jensen and Seth Bybee, biology professors at Brigham Young University, last year published “Let’s Talk About Science And Religion,” which in one of the chapters examines the idea of “theistic evolution,” an approach which views evolution as a mechanism designed by God to bring about creation.

Samuel Wilkinson of the Yale School of Medicine.

Americans are divided in their beliefs about how we came into existence. According to a 2019 Gallup Poll, 40% of U.S. adults believe that present-day humans did not evolve into their current form. In another national study in 2023, 24.3% of respondents said that humans evolved into their current form in a process that was directed by God.

“I need to start out by accepting the fact that for many religious believers evolution is a major monstrosity, intellectually and spiritually — and the easiest way for them to deal with it is to simply say it’s wrong,” said John Haught, a retired theology professor at Georgetown University who has written about reconciling religion and evolution. “For Christians, and Muslims as well, and even for some Jews, what’s at stake is the existence of a creator.”

And while many people doing this work of reconciliation seem to agree that science and religion are not in conflict, ideas about the specifics of that relationship vary. Wilkinson, for example, sees evolution as God’s mechanism for creation and believes that God works “in accordance with the laws of nature,” many of which we don’t understand. Drawing on philosophy, psychology, sociology and other disciplines, he lays out a hopeful framework in approaching evolution and faith: Not only is there a purpose behind the way that we have evolved, but evolution offers important answers about what that purpose could be and how it can help us craft lives filled with meaning.

How ‘Purpose’ came about

About a decade before writing the book, Wilkinson, now 41, encountered an example of the kind of intellectual harmony he aspired to embody. In January 2009, in Baltimore, Wilkinson heard a conference talk by the late Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School scholar and thinker who shared insights about missionary work. It was a formative experience for Wilkinson to watch “an academic powerhouse” like Christensen combine faith and academic insights. “I don’t remember what exactly he said, but the way that he embodied a reconciliation of these two worlds — the academic and faith-based world — was really inspiring,” he told me.

Wilkinson sent Christensen an email, sharing his renewed commitment to missionary work and asking for advice on his book idea inspired by Wilkinson’s quest to reconcile “the pursuits of the mind and the beliefs of the heart.” Christensen responded, encouraging Wilkinson to pursue the project. But he cautioned him to be patient, not to rush the book into being.

Wilkinson, who lives in the greater New Haven area, embraced that permission. He put the book idea on hold for nearly a decade while he focused on raising children with his wife (they have five) and finishing medical school. He returned to the book a few months before the pandemic and worked on it daily, in about two-hour chunks.

Wilkinson is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but in his book, he assumes a broad perspective on the divine to include any belief in a higher power, partly to appeal to believers from various backgrounds. “I primarily wrote the book for people who have some sense that life must be more than just an accident, but aren’t quite sure how that jives with evolution and biology,” Wilkinson told me, adding that he hopes young people can find it helpful.

To make his case, he draws on various disciplines: evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, philosophy and sociology. And this breadth of approach to big and complex questions is key, he says, because “human nature is complex.”

“Universities incentivize specialization. So you get this very deep, very narrow perspective of the world, but you can’t really answer some of the most important questions and issues with just that. You need to have some breadth as well.”

The idea, held by some, that human beings are intricate molecular accidents didn’t make sense to Wilkinson. And recent discoveries, he said, point to an overarching design. For instance, bats, birds and butterflies all independently developed wings even though their common ancestor didn’t have wings. “To be clear, I am not arguing that evolution didn’t happen,” he writes in the book. “But given the remarkable complexity of life, the assumption that the process was totally random must be questioned.”

Wilkinson, who earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, said it’s a bit like injection molding — the process of pouring a chaotic liquid mass into a mold to create a specific shape and product, like Legos or car parts. “If you zoom in, there are a bunch of random molecules moving around, but when you take a step back, there is a predefined mold that has guided the way that these things have moved.” Wilkinson holds that “higher-order chemical and physical laws” have guided evolution in repeatedly producing the same biological forms.

‘It seems like life is a test’

Relying on concepts from evolution, Wilkinson offers a view of human nature that is expansive and generous, but he views choice as an essential component of navigating the competing parts of our human nature. The idea behind the “survival of the fittest” term coined by philosopher Herbert Spencer in response to Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” presumes that evolution shaped us into beings who are selfish, greedy and aggressive at our core. “The picture (this term) paints of human nature, at least from a somewhat naive or novice understanding, is not good,” Wilkinson said.

But this conclusion is limiting, he told me. Numerous examples point to human beings as cooperative and altruistic members of groups, revealing the parts of human nature that are quite opposite from the bleak Darwinian narrative. These include the five survivors that worked together in the aftermath of the Grafton shipwreck in the Auckland Islands in New Zealand, and a series of experiments that showed that babies are intuitively willing to help an adult. Through group selection — natural selection on a group level — it’s groups of people working together who often have the higher chances of survival. This process shaped the more collaborative and altruistic behaviors of our human nature, according to Wilkinson.

Wilkinson is fascinated by the broad moral range of our species. On the one hand, he noted, we’re extremely cooperative creatures with a remarkable ability to innovate, while at the same time, we have a capacity to be violent and cruel toward others.

“We have this dual potential within us,” he said; we exhibit altruism and selfishness, aggression and cooperation, lust and love. And it’s up to us to determine which parts of our nature we will allow to dominate. ”And when you combine our dual potential with this notion that we have free will, it seems like life is a test, and we have to choose between these competing dispositions within us.”

‘A crisis of meaning’

In his work at Yale Medical School, Wilkinson spends most of his time on research and caring for patients to better understand depression and how to best treat it. He paints a bleak portrait of contemporary American society: Depression and suicides rates have increased by nearly 40% in the past two decades; loneliness and isolation have had devastating effects on mental health. Behind these trends, Wilkinson believes, is the decline of religious belief and also a broader “loss of faith in an absolute purpose and meaning to our existence.”

“We’re overall going through a crisis of meaning at a collective level,” he said. And evolution — and in particular “kin selection,” Wilkinson says — points us to relationships and families to regain a more purposeful orientation in life.

It’s in families, where we share genes with our children, that we’re primed to love and be kind to our kin. “My argument is because the deepest forms of altruism and cooperation have their root in the way that nature shaped our family relationships, that when we are embedded within those family relationships in a positive way, then the better aspects of our nature predominate,” he said. “The strongest forms of love, from my perspective, have been shaped by the way that we interact with our family members.”

This positive impact is especially true for men when they’re engaged in the rearing of children — they become less aggressive, more caring and empathetic and more active members of their communities. “There is nothing that will help men rework their aggressive tendencies into more prosocial forms of behavior than helping them to be involved with their children,” he said. “And that is rooted in the way we evolved.”

Plus, Wilkinson says, a substantial body of research shows that the best way to stave off depression and mental illness is to cultivate warm and uplifting relationships.

Two ways of knowing the truth

Wilkinson’s insights about the duality of human nature and how evolution led to humans to become family-oriented particularly stood out to Laura Bridgewater, dean of the College of Life and Sciences at Brigham Young University, who wrote a blurb for Wilkinson’s book.

“His book poses an interesting way of thinking about how the different forces that drive evolution — in particular, individual and kin selection — have created the potential for both the innate goodness and some of the selfishness within humans,” she said. With her own students, Bridgewater approaches faith and science as two ways of learning and knowing the truth, not opposite forces. Evolution is at the foundation of teaching biology and life sciences, she said. “The more we understand evolution, the more we understand ourselves, what drives us and what distracts us — what are our vulnerabilities and what we’re fighting against as we try to become better people.”

For Haught, the Georgetown theologian and author of most recently “God after Einstein,” God’s role in evolution centers on God “lovingly calling his creation into a new future” and the universe that’s still continuing to evolve, or to “wake up.”

“God relates to the world … by allowing it to burst forth within itself into new forms of freedom and new forms of aspiration,” Haught told me, noting that there is nothing in science that contradicts his theological views. He calls the process of evolution a “drama of awakening.”

“Each moment of the universe’s existence, something new is coming into the universe from the future, and so the fundamental virtue by which to do a theology of evolution is one of hope,” he said. We live in a story that is not finished, he said. “So it seems to me that it requires that we take seriously the biblical attitude of waiting.”

For Wilkinson, working on the book has been a faith-building endeavor. It’s a personal book about a personal struggle that’s guided his research and thinking on the topic of evolution. “It all came to me after I decided to move forward despite not having all the answers,” he said. “I still have questions, but this (process) taught me that even if I don’t understand it now, there is going to be an answer in a way that is satisfying, because I’ve been through this process.”