Why God Evolved
The most important lesson in Robert Wright’s latest book is that religion seems but an artifact of natural evolutionary processes. No conscious awareness is required or even necessary. The results aren’t predictable nor are they required for social life.
Discussion of the Evolution of God
Before criticizing The Evolution of God, H Allen Orr ( in his review in the New York Review of Books, Can Science Explain Religion? ) summarizes Wright’s argument for the development of religion: Wright presents a materialist account of religion. He shows howreligion changes over time in response to real world events such as economics, politics, and war. These responses make sense, just as an organism’s adaptations to the world through evolution.
More formally, Wright argues that religious responses to reality are generally explained by game theory and evolutionary psychology, the subjects of his previous books. Subtle aspects of the human mind, he claims, were shaped by Darwinian natural selection to allow us to recognize and take advantage of certain social situations.
His criticism then is that while
the overall trend characterizing the course of Western faith is clear enough: it has grown more tolerant and has encouraged the expansion of the moral circle. Hunter-gatherers huddled about a shaman may doubt the humanity of those not belonging to the tribe but contemporary worshipers gathered in a synagogue, church, or mosque do not. Religion may be imperfect, but it has, Wright emphasizes, taken us a considerable moral distance
We’ve been told that the “pragmatic truth about human interaction” generally accounts for the waxing and waning of religious ideas. And now we’re told that something further is needed, a sight that is deeper than pragmatic.
Evolution has no Direction or Purpose
As Wright tries to explain this deeper sight, matters get murky. But there really isn’t any need for murkiness, and the perceived problem is based on both author’s fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Orr declares that religion emerged in a way that is “reminiscent of those that characterize the evolution of life. For one thing, the history of religion has, Wright says, a discernible direction”
The problem is, there is no direction to evolution – it’s neutral. If complexity works, it survives, but ‘primitive’ lifeforms like the microorganism of the black smokers may remain essentially the same for billions of years. Similarly, nothing in Wright’s account of religion’s history requires that religion become progressively more moral. The important lesson of Wright’s book is that religion may be just the artifact of natural evolutionary processes without being predictable or required. It succeeds in providing a description of religion that does not require the assumption of anything supernatural. Occam’s Razor applauds this simpler approach but it does complicate matters for those who insist there cannot be morality without a god. In particular teleological explanations of evolution like Teohard de Chardin’s just aren’t needed.