Warning! Those offended by “Evolution” in the title, will not appreciate this book. To everyone else, I highly recommend it. I found it a wonderful experience. Just the history of the Bible and Quran, of the politics of the eras of their writing, and the textual analysis of these books, would have easily been worth the investment of time and effort. But this history is seen through the eyes of an author well versed in the sciences (Psychology, Game Theory, and Natural Selection). He speaks of the evolution of humans through genes, and of cultures through memes. While Mr. Wright is a believer in the divine, this long time atheist felt right at home with his analysis. Any disagreement I had with his views was easily dismissed by me, as one of semantics, not of concepts. I dare say his take on anthropomorphizing the “Logos” into the “Lord”, would be palatable even to Richard (“Yes Virginia, there is a Selfish Gene”) Dawkins. Of course, the author does not dismiss this human failing, to personify unknown forces, as needless; he puts it into the perspective of a necessary step in the evolution of an emergent meme. (Not once does he use the term “Emergence”, but his analysis is like that of one familiar with Systems Theory.) A very worthwhile 18 hours of listening to this history of the concepts found in the Abrahamic religions.
I’m probably more of a splitter than a lumper at heart, but even a died-in-the-wool splitter would probably find it difficult to read Robert Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God, without thinking often of his prior book, Non-Zero. In fact, it would be fair, I think, to call EoG a sequel... something like, Non-Zero Sum: Deus.
Okay, if that little play on words doesn’t get you rolling on the floor, it’s perhaps because you hadn’t taken on board that the sequel is about god -- you know, deus. Ok, that done...
This will be a short review, because there are plenty of longer ones, including those by illustrious scientists like Paul Bloom. Also, this book’s a couple years old, so probably no one really cares anymore.
But I never wrote a review of Non-Zero, and if I could persuade you to do that, I would consider it a job well-done. Then I would say, So, take the primary ideas in non-zero, imagine that religions tend to follow the growth of non-zero relationships through into greater civility, and there you have EoG.
So, there you have EoG.
He adds a bit of stuff I don’t so much like, more about which in a few paragraphs.
Non-zero is the more academic version of win-win. An exchange is a non-zero sum exchange both parties benefit. I have something you want, you have something I want. We exchange and there is a non-zero sum outcomes. Humans, being more or less rational creatures, tend to like non-zero sum outcomes and the parties who participate in them with us. So, we don’t war with or kill those folks. Wright’s famous quip is that the reason he doesn’t want to kill the Japanese is that they make his mini-van.
The upshot of non-zero summing is that the more people one does business with on a global level, the fewer people there are whom one wants or is willing to kill or even badly exploit. It’s an argument that global commerce results in fewer wars and less bad feeling among people of different nations. That’s not an idea that many in the developed intellectual West find intuitively easy to digest, but there seems to be a good deal of evidence to support the claim, and that evidence is summed up very nicely in Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
So, when we do business with another nation (in a non-zero sum way), we are not likely to go to war with them.
How transactions get to be non-zero sum transactions can vary. Often in the course of history, transactions began as zero (I win, you lose) or negative (lose-lose) sum. Think of slaverly (zero or negative), empire (zero), etc. But, over time, as oppressed people fight back, as resources dwindle, relationships may change such that the zero’s are no longer possible (oppressors can’t get away with it, it becomes to expensive to maintain empires) and non-zero relationships evolve.
So, non-zero sum transactions were a rather late development in human history, coming into grand fashion only in the last several thousand years. When they did arise, they spread rather quickly.
That’s non-zero sum. The Evolution of God is basically this: as non-zero sum relationships grew more common throughout the middle east, the homeland of the Abrahamic religions, the religions mellowed and grew more tolerant. As Jew traded with Gentile, with Christian, etc, the religions themselves become less marshall.
What I like and agree with: cultures and circumstances cause religions to adapt. Externalities alter religious morés, not vice versa.
What I don’t like: Wright spends a good deal of time mumbling about a direction of history toward more enlightened moral/ ethical relationships (more non-zero sum), which he claims supports the idea that there is some underlying moral order to the world, and that this moral order could be some fuzzy version of god.
Whatever, didn’t need that bit and it does no good. It seems a pretty heavy-handed tactic to get the religious to buy into non-zero sum and the idea of an evolving morality. But, I don’t think EoG will be read by too many people who would entertain that idea. It weakens (and lengthens by a good deal) the important argument of the book.
Also, I think you can read a two-pager on Fiske’s relational models theory (RMT) and come away with a somewhat more complete understanding of how economic models of relationships inform morality. But, together, RMT and NZS explain a lot about the directionality of morality social relationships.
This is one of my favorite books of the year. A great listen, filled with provocative and piercing analysis. It made me smarter and kept me entertained. Very, very, very well done.
This book talks about so much, and there is plenty of intellectual meat for anyone with an ravenous desire for interesting and stimulating dialogues about reconciling the irrationality of the religious worldview with the rationality of the scientific worldview. But do not not think this is just about book of philosophical pondering, it is heavily reliant on historical fact and tells the story of the modern monotheistic god's birth with clarity and attention to detail.
The author shows us the intrinsically human forces that shape our religion and define our moral truth. He shows us where religion came from, where it is now, and it where it will have to go in order to be compatible with current scientific knowledge.
I would like to see Dawkins read this book and think more deeply about his superficial arguments in "The God Delusion."
I can imagine listening to this again--there is just so much to think about. I loved that Wright offers counter arguments at every turn. If he has an agenda it seems to be religious concord leading to political concord (and a noble purpose that is!). The book is just very very well done.
I listened to this book twice and found new details with each listening that deepen my appreciation for this important work. Give it a try!
"The Evolution of God" is a convincing explanation of how "Homo Sapiens" has come to believe in gods, and then in one god. He quotes (sometimes at great length) anthropolical research and the books of the (now) mono-theistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to support his thesis, and comes to a surprising, unconventional conclusion about the validity of belief in divinity.
Even the most ardent non-believer can't help but wonder how it is that religious belief is so widespread, has so long been an important part of human culture and takes on such an astonishing variety of forms. And persists in spite of advances in science that undermine many of the early foundations of religion.
Any book that sheds light on these questions and gives us a framework to understand the evolution of religious thought would be a truly worthwhile read, but unfortunately this book isn't it. I see that many other reviewers found it fascinating, but despite being very interested in the topic, I found it very hard slogging and the reward for sticking with it to the bitter end just wasn't there for me.
The author is obviously extremely well versed in the minutiae of religious history, and the breadth of his knowledge is certainly impressive, but that is likely the problem. He is fascinated by the details but the reader easily loses sight of the forest for the trees. Again and again, after pages of story-telling with no discernible context I found myself wanting to ask the author, "And your point is...?" If he had stated a clear thesis for each chapter and then backed it up with the historical data, that might have worked.
The topic of this book would probably make a really interesting one hour lecture. And maybe the book itself would be a good text for a comparative religion course. But for the average reader, even if sympathetic and attentive, I can't recommend spending the 18+ hours it takes to hear it through.
Very good flow and the author keeps you interested.
Very good history of God and the evolution of religious belief. It is amazing what people have and do believe. It has something for everyone.