The Evolution of God?


Robert Wright has written a new book, much in the tradition of his previous, and famous, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destinyalt : The Evolution of Godalt . His main goal is to argue that as religious creeds change though time, they tend to be increasingly inclusive in their moral scope, either that the circle of believer expands or that a greater number of people are deemed worthy of the same moral rules than that used towards other believers. In Non-Zero, Wright was already making a similar, but more general (and maybe more convincing), claim that humans have found more and more ways to interact with their neighbors in a mutually beneficial fashion (non-zero sum games), something that will play an important role in the expansion of the moral circle.
Despite his universalistic claims Wright mostly draws from the history of the Abrahamic religions. After a few chapters devoted to the religions of hunter-gatherers and chiefdoms, he focuses on the classical historical sequence: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There barely is a word, here or there, about Confucianism, Buddhism or even Hinduism. This therefore begs the question of the generalizability of any trend he might have convincingly argued for based on the religions of the Book. This might be even more problematic because he ties in (although this may not be explicit) the evolution towards greater moral inclusiveness with the evolution of monotheism. It would then be easy to draw the conclusion that religions that did not go all the way towards monotheism are somewhat less advanced morally (again, he might very well be reluctant to draw such a conclusion, I am merely pointing out that it is tempting to draw it from his mode of exposition).
Even more problematic is his argument that this religious march towards greater moral inclusiveness can be taken as evidence for the presence of an actual God, or at least some kind of higher purpose.

I have to say that I am entirely at a loss to understand this argument. As a matter of fact, it seems that the many findings exposed in the book point towards a somewhat opposite conclusion. As Wright is wont to emphasize, much in the way of religious discourse and moral imprecation is directed by the ‘facts on the ground': if there is a good non-zero sum game to be played with a bunch of unbelievers, then let the mercy of God extend to them, and here goes the nice trading. If there is nothing to be gained from them, the same unbelievers become heretics quickly enough and God will then draw a blind eye or actually rejoice in a bit of plunder and arbitrary execution. It is hard to see in this demonstration of cynical political savvy a trace of a higher purpose. The fact that we seem to have a talent for finding and developing non-zero sum games is more likely to be another endowment of evolution than the very indirect reflection of some divine presence or higher purpose.
Still, ne boudons pas notre plaisir, there is much to be learned (at least for a religious ignoramus such as myself) from this book and it makes a very pleasant, entertaining, sometimes even funny, read. Unfortunately I am in no position to evaluate the accuracy of his historical claims, but Wright draws from a wealth of scholarly sources while reinforcing the strength of some arguments through his own interpretations and examples; this makes for very convincing claims (apart from the theological bit mentioned above).
P.S. Full disclosure: I just noticed a rather high correlation between the way the book's arguments have been evaluated and my opinion on their conclusion-I would therefore advise on reading the book yourself, it's well worth it! (Or you can read Paul Bloom's review here to get a second opinion).

1 Comment

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    Hugo Mercier 13 July 2009 (03:02)

    I just discovered that Descartes (probably among others) has a similar argument for the existence of God, but based on epistemological, rather than moral, progress. I guess the epistemological argument would be harder to buy now because this very progress has undermined any argument for the existence of God. Anyways, the parallels between the two might be interesting.