Courses Overview >> Short courses >> What is life? Discovering the intersection of science and spirituality

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What is life? Discovering the intersection of science and spirituality

Evolution and Spirituality
£ 2200.00
Course fees include all vegetarian meals, field trips, materials and all teaching sessions.
The programme will run from Monday of the first week to Friday afternoon the last week, and includes twenty nights private accommodation from the first lunchtime you arrive through until the lunchtime before your departure. This course is an elective on Schumacher College's MA Ecology and Spirituality postgraduate programme. It is open to external participants who would like to deeply explore this subject material and can join us for the whole three-week programme.

With Joana Formosinho, Dr Matthew T. Segall, Dr Stephan Harding and Dr Andy Letcher.

Where do science and spirituality meet? In Victorian England the impact of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was seismic, seeming to question the very foundations of Christianity and leading ultimately to atheism.   

So where does that leave us today? Is the evolution of life on Earth blind, a random process of mutation and chance selection? Or might evolution be more purposeful and directed?

In this course we consider work from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers who have tried to reconcile the realities of Darwinian natural selection with the human quest for meaning.  See Andy Letcher's vlog here.

At a glance

  • Explore cutting edge ideas from evolutionary science
  • Combine critical thinking with direct experience 
  • Opportunity of rich interaction and discussions
  • Consider work from some of the world’s greatest philosophers
  • Introduction to biosemiotics and epigenetics

About this course

From our modern technology focused 21st century viewpoint it’s hard to appreciate the significant impact of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species upon its publication in 1859.  Until that point, in much of western society, belief in God and Christianity had dominated. 

Darwin suggested that the inhabitants of the world had originated in quite a different way from the teachings of the Bible – a way which for many seemed to preclude any role for spirituality.

And yet it seems we still have questions that science alone cannot answer.  How does spirituality fit into a post-Darwinian world?   What would it mean to develop a sense of our evolutionary self? What, indeed, is life?

In this three week intensive we will examine the Darwinian paradigm to tease apart scientific theory from modern myth.   For people considering the master’s programme in Ecology and Spirituality this offers an ideal introduction.

Philosopher Mary Midgley argues that evolution has become “a powerful folk-tale about human origins”, replete with symbolic force, but a tale that is unable to answer our most searching questions.

In this course we will explore a range of alternative scientific, metaphysical and theological interpretations of evolution to see how they place the human in relation to the world.

This will be an intensive that brings together theory and practice, critical thinking and direct experience. On this master’s level course you will be joining students from Schumacher College's postgraduate programme in Ecology and Spirituality, allowing for rich interaction and discussion.

In the first week, Joana Formosinho will introduce evolution as both foundational scientific theory and dominant origin myth of our times. She will dissect its metaphors, such as 'the survival of the fittest', 'natural selection' and the 'tangled bank', as well as iconic images such as the ‘tree of life’ and the 'ascent of man’. She will ask how evolution – as theory and myth – can make our individual lived experience more meaningful.

In the second week, Matthew T. Segall will introduce several important 19th and 20th century philosophical and theological responses to evolutionary theory, looking especially at the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling and the British physicist turned philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. Can we square metaphysics with evolution and cosmology? Could such a philosophy open the way to a scientifically informed spirituality?

In the final week, Stephan Harding will explore some recent cutting edge ideas from evolutionary science, such as biosemiotics, epigenetics, and symbiosis. Together, these suggest that a richer and more fulfilling understanding of evolution requires a far deeper appreciation of the connections between organisms, their psyches and their environments than currently provided. How can this new understanding of evolution restore a sense of purpose, meaning and wholeness to our lives?

Dr Stephan Harding FLS

Stephan Harding

Stephan coordinated and lectured on the college’s MSc Holistic Science for nearly two decades, teaching on the core models of the programme, as well as on several short courses at the College.  He was born in Venezuela in 1953, and came to England at the age of six.  Since childhood Stephan has had a deep fascination with the natural world which led him to do a degree in Zoology at the University of Durham and then a doctorate on the behavioural ecology of the muntjac deer at Oxford University.  He later returned to Venezuela where he was a field assistant for the Smithsonian Institute, studying mammalian diversity in the rainforest and in the lowland plains. He also spent two years as Visiting Professor in Wildlife Management at the National University in Costa Rica.

In 1990 Stephan was one of the founding members of Schumacher College where he worked closely with James Lovelock, with whom he has maintained a long-lasting friendship and scientific collaboration.  They were jointly appointmed as founding chair holders of the Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo.  At Schumacher College Stephan has taught alongside many of the world’s leading ecological thinkers and activists, including Arne Naess, Fritjof Capra, Brian Goodwin, Vandana Shiva, David Abram, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.  He is now the Deep Ecology Fellow at Schumacher College.

Joana Formosinho

Joana is a zoologist with a passion for knowledge that is both relational and rigorous, and does not objectify living subjects. As a research student at the University of Cambridge, she spent time with baboons in the Namibian semi-desert. Tracking a troop from dawn til dusk, day after day, she aimed to understand how their behaviour evolved in relation to landscape over evolutionary time.

Joana's career has included applied animal behaviour research at the Universities of British Columbia and Bristol, as well as work as a writer for animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming.  She has also developed science training courses for the business sector. In 2013/14, Joana arrived at Schumacher College as a student on the Holistic Science MSc, specialising in Goethean Science. Joana is an associate lecturer on the forthcoming 2018 MSc Holistic Science programme and she facilitates wildfulness workshops helping people develop their personal relationship with the natural world.


Dr Andy Letcher

Dr Andy Letcher is writer, performer and scholar of religion who began life as an ecologist, completing his D.Phil in Ecology at Oxford University. After a spell as an environmental activist during the 90s, especially during the anti-roads protests, he moved across to the humanities, completing a PhD at King Alfred’s College Winchester. He is an expert on contemporary alternative spiritualities, especially modern Paganism, neo-shamanism and psychedelic spiritualities. A writer known for his critical approach, he is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom and a range of academic papers on subjects as diverse as fairies, animism, folklore, bardism and Druidry. He wrote the companion volume to The English Magic Tarot. A folk musician, he plays English bagpipes and Dark Age lyre, and for ten years fronted psych-folk band, Telling the Bees.

Matthew T. Segall

Matthew T. Segall

Matthew T. Segall is a process philosopher who teaches courses on process-relational thought and German Idealism for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. His most recent course is ‘Process and Difference in the Pluriverse’, which applies process-relational metaphysics to the present social, political, and ecological crises. He has published articles on a wide-array of topics, including philosophy, Gaia theory, religious studies, psychedelics, and architecture, and his most recent book is titled Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2016). He blogs regularly at

charles foster

Charles Foster

Writer Charles Foster has published books on a range of subjects but ultimately they are all attempts to answer the questions: ‘Who or what are we?’; ‘What on earth are we doing here?'

His work covers topics ranging from travel, evolutionary biology, natural history, anthropology and theology to archaeology, philosophy and law. His latest non-academic book is ‘Being a Beast’, made the New York Times Bestseller list, was long-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize and the Wainwright Prize and is also the subject of a forthcoming feature film made by Sovereign Films. Foster won an IgNobel Prize for Biology for the work in the book.

His current academic interests relate mainly to the relevance of identity and personhood in decision-making, and to whether the notion of dignity can do any real work at the philosophical coal-face.

Charles read veterinary medicine and law at Cambridge, and is a qualified veterinary surgeon. He holds a PhD in law/bioethics from the University of Cambridge.  He teaches Medical Law and Ethics at the University of Oxford, and is a member of the Law Faculty there.  He is a Senior Research Associate at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and a Research Associate at the Ethox Centre and the HeLEX Centre, all at the University of Oxford. He retains an active interest in veterinary medicine – particularly veterinary acupuncture and general wildlife and large animal medicine.

His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Spectator, National Geographic, BBC Wildlife magazine, Time Out, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Oldie and the Literary Review.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Linnean Society and Green Templeton College, University of Oxford.

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