Robert Wright is an intellectually curious journalist and a fine writer whose previous books I enjoyed (these days he is also editor-in-chief of bloggingheads.tv). In 1994’s The Moral Animal, he summarized and popularized ideas from the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. In 2001’s Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny, he examined how game theory helps make sense of the development of human nature and human societies. In addition to presenting a digest of interesting research in these books, he laid out his own prism for viewing these topics: while our values can be explained entirely as natural phenomena, there is evidence of historical progress in the moral dimension of human affairs which seems to possibly point to something more transcendent. Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God, fits right into this theme: he explores the character of religion through history, and, by marshalling summaries of scholarly work, shows how religious ideas developed in response to changing social and political circumstances. The explanations make no appeal to the supernatural. But, as in his other books, Wright sees progress (however haphazard and intermittent) in the moral dimension of religion through time, which leads him to speculate that this phenomenon actually points to the existence of something worthy of being named divine.
The bulk of the book is an interesting run through research findings from anthropology, archaeology and textual analysis on the topic of historical religious ideas and practices. The tour begins with a look at hunter-gatherer style animism and the role of gods and religion in tribal cultures. Religious ideas in these milieus are seen to fit into and lubricate social organization. Then Wright examines the development of the various pantheons of gods in civilizations beginning with Mesopotamia and Egypt: the theme is how religion changed hand in hand with conquests, trade, and internal politics. In all cases there seems to be a plausible explanation of religious ideas (and the lineup of gods acknowledged) changing in concert with the “facts on the ground”.
This sets things up for the larger sections on the Abrahamic traditions. Wright, drawing on scholarly research, looks at the development of the religion of Israel from polytheistic roots, to monolatry (veneration of only one god), to the beginnings of true monotheism. The relationship of the tribe/nation of Israel to its neighbors through episodes of conquest, defeat, vassalship, and exile is seen as the prime driver of these developments. Christianity gets its turn in the barrel, as Wright sets out to show that its incorporation of the ideals of love and ethnic fellowship (and their backward projection onto the figure of Jesus) are best seen as an outgrowth of the mission to the gentiles in the context of a multi-cultural Roman empire. The expression of ideas in the Koran (including the fluctuations from tolerance to intolerance regarding infidels) is likewise tracked to the stages in the earthly career of Muhammad and his followers. (Eastern religions are left mostly undiscussed, but it is a long book as it is*).
The general theme is reinforced throughout: changes in religious ideas track earthly events. As nations make war, their gods intone contempt for non-believers. As empires digest conquests, they co-opt the gods of their new subjects. More positively, as societies enter into non-zero sum relationships with a wider circle of neighbors, their gods become more universal and more supportive of a broader moral vision.
I enjoyed these parts of the book and raced through 400 pages quickly. I found most of conclusions very plausible. I predict that one group of people who will have some problems with this material are the actual scholars who work in these fields: to them Wright’s account will surely seem superficial and far too quick to seize on conclusions which are the subject of significant debate and controversy. I think The Moral Animal could be criticized for confidently presenting plausible-sounding conclusions from evolutionary psychology that look shakier today. In any case, however, Wright has his eyes on the big picture, and the thrust of the ideas here was persuasive to me even if some of the details are in error.
In the last fifty pages of the book Wright presents his own thoughts on what it all means (some of these have of course been broached in previous chapters). Here the terrain became more difficult and I found some of his discussion to be repetitive. But watching him grapple with the ideas was nonetheless thought-provoking. First off (repeating the theme from Nonzero), Wright argues that with the passage of time, humans have expanded their circle of moral consideration, and that this constitutes an arrow of moral progress through history. I think he is on firm ground here: as we include more and more people (first extended family, then tribe, then nation, then international trading partners) in our field of empathy, we can see this properly as progress. However, I think it’s difficult to tie this to the main topic of the book: can we point to the evolution of our ideas regarding gods or God (more loving, less vengeful), and say that this adds anything to the story of moral progress? He does show that religion mirrors the state of play in the moral calculations of nations and peoples. But his analysis doesn’t provide evidence that religion drives moral progress – it seems to mainly reflect it.
In the final section (the Afterword), Wright proposes that the existence of an historical arrow of moral progress might be evidence for an objective moral order which transcends nature. He argues that even if the traditional idea of a personal God seems highly implausible given naturalism, it might nonetheless point (however imperfectly) towards truth. Maybe there is some kind of Logos of divine origin present in the temporal unfolding of human events. He draws an analogy between a traditional religion’s imperfect conception of God and a physicist’s imperfect conception of an electron (it’s not like a particle or a wave or anything else we can picture, yet we know it’s there from its manifestations).
Wright doesn’t commit to a conclusion that God exists, but he clearly wants to embrace the idea that our moral progress points to something transcendent. His arguments for this position aren’t strong, however, consisting as they do of analogies and a repeated appeal that something special must be going on to account for the moral axis of human affairs. I don’t think many traditional materialist-atheists will be convinced.
This is unfortunate because I think his intuition is sound. I think that any naturalist worldview needs to be expansive enough to account for first person experience and the meaning and values which arise from our engagement with the world. A purely third-person materialist description is incomplete. What’s missing from Wright’s argument (and it would take another book, of course) is a convincing metaphysical story of how this all fits together. Specifically, we need to account for how these first-person truths are rooted in the fundamental (pre-biological) fabric of nature -- a main goal of this blog. If we can do this, then we’ll build a foundation for Wright’s further story of how biological natural selection and cultural dynamics have shaped humanity.
Still, I admire Wright’s contribution in these books. And in particular I find his vision of moral progress to be inspiring. As he says, the forces of interconnectedness and globalization in today’s world offer the possibility that we can expand our circle of moral concern to finally cover the planet. As I’ve drafted this review over the past week, millions of people from all corners of the world have been morally identifying with protestors in Iran via the internet. A vision of progress toward a world of peace is right there before us.
* I should also mention that there is a good appendix which examines the roots of our religious impulses in evolutionary prehistory. He doubts we’ll find a “god gene” but discusses how different aspects of human and primate nature set the stage for religious impulses.