Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (2009)

This was an informative, but nevertheless disappointing book in several respects. The title, The Evolution of God , together with its opening pages suggest that the book is about a "meme" --- the idea of God and its manifestation as a transmittable unit of culture --- but quite a bit of this book reads as a history of Abrahamic religions, an investigation of who wrote The Bible and The Koran and when, and the historical search for Jesus. Other writers have delved into these subjects previously and Wright does not hide his reliance on them: Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, Richard Friedman's The Bible with Sources Revealed, Karen Armstrong's A History of God, and E.P Sanders' The Historical Search for Jesus. But if Wright's thesis is about an evolving unit of culture capable of tranmission from one human mind to another, there is virtually no insight offered from the perspective of the major oriental religions, and the evolutionary story of the Abrahamic god stops with Mohammed --- there is nothing after the 9th century C.E. --- and so the meme in its deistic, pantheistic, and even atheistic manifestations that became a force in the next millenium --- the God of Spinoza, for example, that Einstein noted --- is missing from this evolutionary discussion.

Wright's account of what we know from modern science is weak. He equates the human mind's inability to physically see a god with the our inability to physically see an electron and suggests that religion and science have much in common. The existence of an unseen divine spirit is an article of faith --- Wright, sure to anger most theists when he correctly says that the divine spirit originated in the human mind as an act of self-deception, accepts as much. But the existence of an electron is not an article of faith: we can "see" an electron when we experimentally crash another electron into it. There is no self-deception in this knowledge.

Similarly, Wright's discussion of associating the "God meme" with a "higher purpose" vacillates on the border of accepting William Paley's teleological watchmaker perspective on god as an intelligent designer before backing away toward something based in Darwinian natural selection called a "designing process." But with a virtual nod to the intelligent design community, Wright says that the believer would be entitled to co-opt natural selection by answering with a question --- "where did the amazing algorithm of natural selection come from?" --- indicating that it must come from Paley's designing god. Wright cannot have it both ways. Wright misses the distinction between teleology and teleonomy.

Wright divines that in the meme we call God is a "higher purpose" that can be described in terms of moral progress. And it is "moral progress" that is evolving. The evolution of "god" is correlated with the "tendency to grow morally." I am not convinced that there is both a purpose and a tendency along these lines that conflate or move in parallel paths along an arrow of time. It is true that human society is evolving and because of technology our world is smaller and social units across the globe are more interdependent than they were previously. And with greater cultural and economic interdependence there is more opportunity for non zero-sum exchanges that might reduce conflict and promote social harmony --- arguably a form of "moral progress." But there is no reason to label social, technological, and economic evolution with a "purpose" and juxtapose "purpose" with "moral progress." Wright uses terms like "moral truth" and "moral order" as though they are or will be a historical event in human history, but nowhere are these terms defined so that we would know what they are if they were staring us in the face.

Wright's book would have benefitted from research like that covered in Marco Iacobonni's Mirroring People (see September 18, 2009 post) and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds. In these works we see evolutionary biology's and neuropsychology's explanations for non-zero sum exchanges and innate strategies for recognizing that another's gain is also our gain as well. We can understand that while the human mind is not necessarily genetically hardwired with the golden rule, the human mind and body is genetically hardwired so that the golden rule is intuitive. Wright dances around this subject, but does not develop it.

So what is informative about The Evolution of God despite these confusing distractions? Certainly the opening discussion of the birth and growth of divine spirits as human communities evolved from a hunter-gatherer community to a society dominated by shamans and chiefdoms, to the age of organized political units and states, along with the closing discussion of Pascal Boyer's multidisciplinary approach to understanding the evolutionary origin of religion based on anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and biology is informative. Wright's view that our beliefs in divine spirits are best understood by the "facts on the ground" rather than our imagination of what is in the sky is compelling: politics and economics, he says, gave us the "one true god" of the Abrahamic faiths. Separately, the history of the Abrahamic religions is informative although not new, and if one has not read anything on this subject previously Wright's story is well-told and researched.

Wright is aware of the fact that religions have a history of being social dividers with built-in mechanisms to keep outsiders (non-believers) isolated from insiders (believers). Yet this book is the work of an apparent optimist who believes it is possible for humanity to become morally unified. There are numerous examples in the history of religion where religions coexisted and cultures mutually benefitted from coexistence and tolerance. Wright optimistically believes we can identify the circumstances that are ripe for tolerance, love and coexistence, find our way to embrace them as part of a permanent social order and achieve moral progress along the way. But, according to Wright, this will require the religious to look themselves in the mirror and say, with respect to their religion and their god, "I am not special." That's a little like John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" in A Theory of Justice: an interesting thought expermiment to wipe away self-interest, social, cultural, sexual and ethnic preferences and prejudices to rationalize a "just" society. Good luck.

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