My review of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright ran today in PopMatters.
The book builds off of Wright’s last work, Nonzero in which he discusses the role that non-zero-sum scenarios (that is, win-win situations) play in the evolution of higher intelligence. They are, in his perspective, favored by biological evolution. The Evolution of God applies this “non-zero-sumness” to the development of religious belief, arguing that the ability to recognize win-win situations has driven the growth of religions and can be used to foster tolerance and inter-religious cooperation if we’re motivated to capitalize on them. All-in-all, I did not find the theoretical underpinning of the book very compelling.
I did, however, really enjoy the historical narrative that Wright creates around it, which looks at the major world religions.
His book follows theological thought from its earliest forms in hunter-gatherer societies through the advent of monotheism, rise of Christianity, and birth of Islam. It’s a very insightful, very thoughtful consideration of the subject matter. His exploration of why the Abrahamic religions survived, how their cultural and political environments shaped them, and how we ended up with the metaphysical, abstract Gods of the present, is eye opening. It’s information that is crucial to understanding religion and yet so few people are willing (or comfortable) to consider it in a meaningful way.
As I mention in the review, it stands apart from the contemporary atheist literature of Dawkins and Hitchens in that it sees some value in the divine, some moral imperative that has driven civilization toward good at least as much as it has steered it toward evil. That said, Wright is clearly writing from an agnostic, secular humanist perspective, one that is grounded in reason and rational thought. Though Wright’s personal theories are shaky, his attention to detail and historical perspective is right on, and make the book well worth the read.