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Book Review of “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright

First off, I would like to say that I think The Evolution of God is an exceptionally written book.  Wright is able to give plausible explanations for how the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, slowly developed from more primitive religious beliefs.  He does this in a remarkably easy to read way, by breaking down his larger, more complex concepts into simple concepts everyone can relate to.

Wright is a bold thinker who is not afraid to tackle sacrosanct religious beliefs head on, debunking myths with equal aplomb in all three religions.  Amazingly, as he traces the origins of western religions he seems to have no agenda at all.  In other words, an author who was invested in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, would have had extreme difficulty achieving Wright’s level of objectivity.  And, needless to say, the book was well researched

I believe The Evolution of God is a valuable study for people of all religions, as well as those like myself who have had trouble buying into the myths upon which religions have been founded.  For those who identify themselves as Jews, Christians, or Moslems, the book will help to open their minds not only to their own religion, but how their religion relates to the other western religions.  If read with an open mind, it should help Jews, Christians and Moslems become more tolerant of their brethren Abrahamic faiths.

The Evolution of God is also enlightening to those like myself who have questioned whether religion has had a positive effect on the development of man.  By dealing with the scriptures scientifically, using up-to-date historical, archeological and religious studies, he was able to win my trust.  Using this same information, he developed a theory about the moral development of mankind and explained how as religions evolved they were the underpinnings of this moral development.

However, I do have a few quibbles with Wright: I think he did not go far enough with his theories.  My guess is that he was trying to be all inclusive, writing for the very religious as well as “atheist scientists,” and he felt that if he carried his theories to their logical conclusion he would lose the buy-in of these readers.

First of all, Wright suggests that the basic structure of the universe (its DNA if you will) contains algorithms that have promoted man’s moral development.  I think this is an interesting theory and that Wright did as good a job as anyone could proving that this is at least a possibility.  A theory that should be further explored.

Yet, in order not to lose scientific credibility, he said he believes in natural selection.  I think he should have amended this thought.  Natural selection per se states that organisms go through random changes and those changes that work best for the survival of a species are passed along.  An algorithm, however, is not random.  It is directional.  Therefore, I think he should have said that a directional form of natural selection promoted the development of humankind.

As I have said in another blog, this directionality is in conflict with the word “random.”  In other words, natural selection could have been working over the last however many billions of years, just not totally randomly.  One could not credibly argue that natural selection is absolutely directional, otherwise so many species would not have gone extinct.  One successful species would have evolved into the next successful species.  But algorithms inherently are not that specific.  They are patterns, which would only point in a direction and help lead successful species in that direction.  In other words, certain aspects of evolution could have been the result of a “design” that required experimentation to develop in the programmed direction.

Very few, if any, scientists will accept this notion without scientific proof.  Wright made a good logical case, but did not venture into scientific proofs, either because he thought he was not qualified or he did not think of ways to propose these proofs.

There are basically two scientific avenues that can be taken to prove that life algorithms are built into the universe, and neither have been tackled by scientists as far as I know.  This is either because we do not yet have the technology, or those who possess the technology are not yet interested in trying to prove or disprove that the universe has a built in design leading to the evolution of life.  (And, to take it one step further as Wright did, a design for “moral” life.)

The first proof would be mathematical.  Someone would have to model the earth as life was emerging, and calculate exactly how many accidents would have to occur for life to develop randomly, and also calculate the probabilities that those accidents might have occurred.  From everything I have read, I believe that the chances are astronomically, ridiculously small.  And if life is discovered on other planets, then the chances that it developed randomly becomes even smaller.  If the chances of life randomly developing once are astronomically small, you can do the math for twice, three times, etc.

Then there was one place in the book where I think Wright used pretzel logic.  After suggesting that if God did exist (and he seems to believe, as I do, that God exists in the design of the universe), Wright tried to explain how one can make that divine algorithm into a personal god.  Certainly if a life-giving design is embedded in the physical universe, that design would also be embedded in us, since we are made of the same stuff as the universe.  Thus, Wright’s argument that god is within us would have merit, if one were to follow his logic.

A personal god, though, I think is quite a different matter.  A personal god would be a divine being to whom people pray for support or intervention in their everyday lives.  An algorithm that was set in motion with the Big Bang, a directional force that imbues the universe with the ingredients for life (and possibly even a humanity that tends toward a moral direction) would not be a force that could be called upon to solve individual problems.

In a way Wright admits to this, but he says that if it makes people feel better to call upon a personal god, there is some basis for a belief in a personal god: i.e. god is within all of us.  In my opinion this logic is nothing more than a palliative for religious people to accept his theories.  I don’t think he should have gone there because it weakens the strength of his previous arguments, which seemed to be based on fairly firm ground.

Finally, Wright suggested that by understanding the purpose of religion as a force to move humanity in a moral direction, that understanding will make us more moral.  That is to say, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all with their concepts of a personal god, will function in a future context despite the fact that the mythologies upon which they were built will have been proven false.  I, on the other hand, believe that we are at the beginning  of the end for the usefulness of the Abrahamic religions.  This is not to say that we cannot glean wisdom from these religions, but it is my belief that Wright is laying the foundation for the religion of the future.  And perhaps he is too humble or too concerned with rejection to state this outright.

I believe that this century will be spent exploring algorithms of all types that are built into the universal design, which include the human fabric, and that these algorithms will point to a grand design.  Nobody has pursued this line of investigation thus far, because there has been no incentive for those who have the tools to do so.  Scientists studying evolution are concerned with the various steps and connections in evolutionary development.  They simply accept that evolutionary change is random and questioning that would most likely be a career-ending move.  (Especially given that this line of thinking is associated with religious people who believe in “Intelligent Design” based on reading the Bible literally, which should end any serious scientists career.)  Mathematicians are busy with other pursuits, and strictly speaking this is not an inquiry for pure math.

A more eclectic type of academic who is not afraid to be an iconoclast, and who bridges disciplines, will probably follow this line of inquiry.  Right now it seems that the questions of ontological algorithms will be explored by those involved with the studies of chaos and complexity.  Academics who are interested in fractals would fall into this category.  The universe itself and the results of its physical laws (both known and unknown) has got to be the holy grail for those studying chaos and complexity.  Yet that pursuit will most likely develop slowly, beginning perhaps with a relationship between genetics and fractals and drilling down to pattern similarities on finer and finer scales.  I predict that by the end of this century god will be seen in those patterns.  Whether god is considered to be the designer (prime mover) or simply the design itself is anyone’s guess.

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  1. Scholarship Creative Arts Day - Humanities | December 1, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    [...] David Del Bourgo : Book Review of “The Evolution of God” by Robert … [...]

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