Book Bleg: The Evolution of God
Robert Wright, The Evolution of God
This is the first clip of a multi-clip interview between Bob Wright and Ross Douthat discussing Wright’s new book The Evolution of God. You can click that clip to send you over to Youtube and find the rest from there. For anyone interested, the interview serves as a very clear overview of this book.
This book is many ways a followup to BW’s previous text Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. That book caused a very interesting debate between Wright and his good buddy Steven Pinker which you can read here (recommended). Since the book flows from the argument’s of that early work, a word or two on Nonzero.
Nonzero sum situations are those in which both sides gain by supporting (or at least not attacking) each other. Wright’s argument is that over the long term, selection is tending towards greater and greater degrees of non-zero sumness.
Pinker’s main criticism of the book was that Wright introduced a teleological view of the universe–that natural selection has goals of increased co-operation, harmony, and intelligence via the mechanism of non-zero sum games. For Pinker the only thing nature selects for is reproduction, though he agrees with Wright that nonzero logic is at play it is not a matter of destiny but simply a by-product (beneficial to be sure) of another more primary process.
First, if I correctly understand your claim that “natural selection has the goal of enhancing replication, period,” then I take issue with it. To be sure, that is the fundamental goal natural selection instills in the things it “designs” (e.g., us), along with subordinate goals (eating, having sex, showing off in order to have sex, etc.). But whether natural selection, and the process of biological evolution it sponsors, are themselves in the service of a larger goal seems to me an open question. Certainly, as a matter of historical fact, biological evolution has accomplished things other than, and in a certain sense larger than, genetic transmission: It has created a whole biosphere; it has tended to raise the outer envelope of organic complexity and even of intelligence. It seems to me at least possible that these represent some larger “goal” that natural selection was “designed” to achieve. Maybe the basic goal of organisms–genetic proliferation–is subordinate to that larger goal, rather as the reproduction of cells within humans during their maturation is subordinate to the reproduction of humans upon their maturation.
The Evolution of God then follows this argument up through the lens of religion arguing how religions (in his case religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) participate in this process of nonzero-ity. Now this is a controversial argument to be sure.
It gets even a little more controversial in that Wright is an epiphenomenalist: he gives consciousness a degree of validity but sees it as a by-product “designed” by natural selection. “Designed” in quotes because of course natural selection doesn’t consciously design. Wright is also known to practice meditation and reports having had a mystical experience at an 8 day Buddhist retreat. His earlier work at Meaningoflife.tv was very much in this line (also highly recommended).
All of which makes him pretty far out by orthodox scientific standards (represented by Pinker), though nevertheless he is still as he says in this clip a materialist. His philosophy in a sense is a kind of combination of Marxism and natural selection. Not Marxism in the sense of seeking a communist future, but simply that worldviews are driven by the real force of social and technological material history. Moreover, since Wright only accords consciousness a very limited status–though again by orthodox scientific terms this makes him a little suspect–he has to hitch all development through the rather limited (in my mind) function of non-zero sum game theory.
[Sidenote: Instead of talking about design and goals–which I think are very poor metaphors in this context–I would prefer to talk about forays or experiments or lunges. Those metaphors I think open up more space (another metaphor by the way). What Whitehead called the “creative advance into novelty.” Creativity I think is a much better metaphor than design, whether conceived as natural or intelligent in nature.]
Wright as he admits later in the diavlog with Ross Douthat is a cosmopolitan. The argument throughout his book is that the Abrahamic religions invoke a good God when the material forces are primed to non-zero sumness and a vicious God when not. Hence by analogy to our contemporary world, if we create non-zero sum material-social playing fields, the religions will naturally (via selection and the evolutionary telos) lead to a more harmonious inter-relationship with one another and with science. The more positive social material playing field being, according to Wright’s reconstruction, cosmopolitan (liberal internationalist) in orientation.
So the work as we can see really is a consequence of these various scientific, political, and philosophical positions Wright holds. My sense is that his view both opens up new ways of seeing and is also quite limited. Taking his view as a final authoritative one would I think be very reductionistic. But taking it on its own terms as one narrative framework, opens up new ways of thinking. Approached in that way, I think it’s a very excellent text.
To unpack some of these various Wrightian positions for a moment. It is ultimately a liberal theological tract. What I mean by that is liberal theology tends to reduce theology, belief, and/or religion to some other process/force that is considered more ultimate. In this case the real God (or god perhaps) of the story is natural selection (Wright calls himself an agnostic). The real revelation is the evolutionary movement towards greater complexity and non-zero sum realities. Religions are instrumental or derivative to that more valued movement. Also as a (liberal) cosmopolitan he can be accused of downplaying the destructiveness of empires–from the ancient ones to today’s globalization, but that’s a whole other discussion for another day.
On the plus side, the work is a very good historical introduction to the various forms of human religious systems from the earliest through to the major monotheistic faiths. It’s a general work, so of course specialists will quibble with points here or there with his reconstruction, but generally it is excellent in this regard. He shows, I think, rather convincingly, that religions can be seen to follow this same basic pattern of complexification: though again it happens in fits and starts. It’s not like a smooth linear line of development.
His reconstruction of the Abrahamic faiths (a term by the way from Islam) is a helpful way of seeing how the religions have developed in response to material, political, and social realities. This is a recommended tonic for religious types who tend to see everything in their religion as an interior-only matter and an unchanging one-time perfectly uniform set of doctrines.
That reconstruction is both its strength and its weakness (by my lights). On the negative side, in the end it’s still a materialistic account which raises the philosophical question of how we can choose to rightly prime our social-material-technological forces to aid non zero sumness when materiality (and therefore functional selection) is the prime mover of events? Is there any free choice in such a scheme? Pushed to its (il?)logical extreme, this view becomes dehumanizing as individuals are just parts in this overall scheme, crushed under the weight of its totality.
Wright I think sits on the fence a little too much on this point. On one hand he does have an epi-phenomenalist side according consciousness something of more serious status than the Pinkers of the world, but yet he still wants to say material forces are the real drivers. So whatever choice we have it seems to me it’s of a degraded, limited value. [Which is more than technically is the case in other accounts whatever practically individuals do differently than their official version of events]. I do however appreciate that Wright still has the voice of the Pinker-esque types in the world on the hard problem of consciousness, whereas someone with my view would never be giving a hearing by self-proclaimed by rationalists.