Is God an Adaptation?
Robert Wright’s, The Evolution of God, Little Brown, 2009.
Hugo Viciana &Pierrick Bourrat
Received: 4 November 2010 /Accepted: 11 November 2010 /
Published online: 1 December 2010
#Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010
Abstract In this critical notice to Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, we focus
on the question of whether Wright’s God is one which can be said to be an
adaptation in a well defined sense. Thus we evaluate the likelihood of different
models of adaptive evolution of cultural ideas in their different levels of selection.
Our result is an emphasis on the plurality of mechanisms that may lead to adaptation.
By way of conclusion we assess epistemologically some of Wright’smore
controversial claims concerning the directionality of evolution and moral progress.
Keywords Cultural evolution .Religion .Moral progress .Group selection .
“There is religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy, and so
forth. But religious love is only man’s natural emotion of love directed to a
religious object; religious fear is only the ordinary fear of commerce, so to
speak, the common quaking of the human breast, in so far as the notion of
divine retribution may arouse it; religious awe is the same organic thrill which
we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes
over us at the thought of our supernatural relations”. (William James, The
Varieties of Religious Experience)
Robert Wright’sThe Evolution of God
acknowledges William James’assump-
tion that human cognition and emotions linked to divine attributes need not be
adaptations in the same way that our organs or other biological characteristics are.
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
Page references are to The Evolution of God unless otherwise stated. We are grateful to Gabiola Lipede,
Claude Loverdo, Daniel Darg, Hugo Mercier and an anonymous reviewer of Philosophia for their
comments and suggestions concerning many of the ideas presented in this essay.
H. Viciana (*)
Institute d’Histoire et Philosophie des sciences et des techniques, Universite de Paris-1/ENS/CNRS,
Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, Paris, France
This would appear to render the quest for the “God gene”, or the “innate module of
God”in the brain, ill-founded. This does not, however, render an evolutionary
contribution futile. Indeed, the study of the evolved characteristics of these emotions
and cognitive systems could inform us about how they work in religious contexts.
In this critical notice on Wright’s new book, we maintain that religious forms
related to the belief in God can also be considered adaptations within certain
specified limits and hence they can be fruitfully studied under the aegis of a cultural
adaptationist program. Indeed, beyond its focus on religion as a “by-product”at the
level of biological evolution The Evolution of God goes on to construe a case for the
role of natural selection in the evolution of religious forms at the level of “cultural
evolution”. Furthermore, while some scholars in the humanities fear a kind of
theoretical imperialism from the natural sciences, Wright’s approach serves to
illustrate that an evolutionary framework is not necessarily anhistorical in thrust.
Religion as a Population Phenomenon
The book mainly details the step-by-step emergence of state religions
monotheism as artefactual devices—i.e.,created by many generations of individual
shamans, prophets, believers and politicians—used to solve the problem of
cooperation for populations increasing in numbers . According to Wright’s 500
page account this occurs only ever infrequently as the consequence of pure and
unique theological innovation. Rather, the supernatural entities invoked are
variational entities that tend to be modified by countless individuals in relation to
certain human needs and aspirations. In a nutshell, these variations can be
represented as strategies in an evolving population. As in his previous book,
Nonzero, Wright focuses on the evolved rationale of enlarging the spectrum of
possibilities of non-zero-sum interactions. In current evolutionary game theory, non-
zero-sum games are defined by payoff structures in which the gain of a participant
does not necessarily correspond to the loss of another participant. The Evolution of
God is thus an attempt to understand religious forms as a population phenomenon.
Wright’s thesis is that historically religion happened to play a central role in
bringing to light opportunities for cooperation. Although religion can sometimes act
to legitimate the most horrendous crimes, as the author unfailingly describes, the
book traces the changing interpretation of religious teachings of the type “Love thy
It should be noted that attempting to account for the evolution of God and religions presupposes not only
that these entities change but also that there is a certain commonality between their distinctive and separate
manifestations, something that links, for example, the hunter-gatherer’s belief in spirits with the organized
religions of theologians , the castes of priests, or the New-Age spiritualities. Suffice it to say that this is a
controversial matter. Anthropologist Maurice Bloch once said that explaining religion as a natural property
of the human psyche amounts to something similar to explaining the British House of Lords as a natural
property of our species (Whitehouse 2010). Both religion and the House of Lords are human institutions
and both rely on distinctive elements of our evolved human psyche in different ways. The wide spectrum
of practices and beliefs that we call “religion”(or the family of beliefs and behaviours related to the
supernatural) is not a natural kind in any meaningful sense. Nor is it an entirely conventional kind either.
For even if during most of the history of our species as hunter-gatherers a word referring to religion did
not even exist, this family-resemblance or polythetic - category of beliefs and behaviours scores high as
one of the universal characteristics of known human societies.
398 Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
neighbour as yourself”, which first appeared in the Hebrew Bible but which can be
said to have analogues in other state religions appearing at approximately the same
time. Wright tries to defend the thesis according to which the history of religion and
its progression from ancient times to the present betrays evidence of an “arrow of
As human societies grew and became more interconnected, the opportunities for
increased cooperation and respect augmented and new divine attributes were
recruited in order to contribute to the motivation for those social exchanges. Wright
makes it clear that in hunter-gatherer societies and other forms of social organization
that followed, the “holy”or the supernatural was not even especially associated with
the “good”. Over time, religious commandments like “love thy neighbour”came to
mean that one should love... well, one’sneighbour, and not some unknown people
hundreds of kilometers away. According to the author, it is because of both the
nature of certain emotions that can be recruited during the act of believing as well as
the open ended nature of hermeneutics—the interpretation of the holy—that
statements regarding the supernatural have this special power of highlighting the
non-zero sumness of certain situations.
The primordial pantheons of hunter-gatherers included many different supernatural
figures but rarely “high gods”as we understand them in the monotheistic tradition.
Besides, many of the hunter-gatherer religious precepts would strike the modern eye as
being amoral. On the one hand, spirits are often concerned with the contravention of
rules. On the other hand the rules of the spirits or ancestors often appear arbitrary and
capricious. The author goes on to argue that since hunter-gatherer societies are relatively
transparent with respect to failures to keep up a reputation, punishment of social
deviants is something that can be administered in a rather direct fashion without having
recourse to supernatural reinforcement. Kin selection and reciprocity psychology seem
to be most of the story in that sort of environment. His explanation for the
complexification of religion and religious moral standards stresses the social
evolutionist trend that links social structure with the divine structure of those early
pantheons. It is, therefore, not by chance that with the specialization of labor a myriad of
so-called “departmental gods”also arise often representing the professional divisions of
the society. Over time and with the progressive hierarchisation of human societies into
agricultural states, the old departmental gods happened to be subordinated in
sophisticated narratives and in accordance with political facts on the grounds that as
these facts changed they also tended to motivate the fates of the divinities in question.
Wright presents several instances of the diverse roads to monolatry—the cult of
one god over others. This is the case for the cult of Marduk, one of the more than
twenty divinities that are cited in the code of Hammurabi and that came to
prominence as Babylonia became the main political power in Mesopotamia. Or the
case of Aten, the Egyptian god who was promoted by Amhenotep IV in the 14th
century BE. His is the story of a divine coup d’Etat to debunk the increasingly
powerful caste of priests of the god Amun. The author links this event to the
growing cosmopolitan ethos of the Egyptian empire at that time.
From this point on, the book focuses mostly on the fate of Western Monotheism
and on the rise of the Hebrew God as the story of a variational entity that evolves as
a result of the synthesis of previous divinities and the interpretative efforts of
prophets and theologians who also have an eye to the facts at hand. In this fashion,
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408 399399
The Evolution of God is an attempt to establish the phylogeny of gods such as
Yahweh, Allah or the Christian God as described in the doctrine according to Paul.
The final chapters of the book are devoted to the prospects of our evolved emotions
in dealing with the complex problems posed by the globalization of religion with
emphasis placed on the question of its further evolution. Towards the end, Wright
treats more profound epistemological questions such as whether we are entitled to
posit that evolution has a direction—as in his hypothesis of the moral arrow of
evolution—or even what God could mean from a scientific point of view. Wright’s
God is to be found in the details: the material in the volume is abundant, with
numerous and substantial notes based on up-to-date scholarship. In the end, Wright’s
own words may summarize the spirit of this the “Greatest Story Ever Told”:“This is
the way moral evolution happens—in ancient Israel, in the Rome of early
Christianity, in Muhammad’s Arabia, in the modern world: a people’s culture
adapts to salient shifts in game-theoretical dynamics by changing its evaluation of
the moral status of the people it is playing the game with. If the culture is a religious
one, this adaptation will involve changes in the way scriptures are interpreted and in
the choice of which scriptures to highlight. It happened in ancient times, and it
In Coordination We Trust
In the following pages we want to stress that the concept of adaptation has a place in
the cultural evolution of religion described by Wright and that this yields some
optimistic prospects for an evolutionary social science of religion.
Framing Wright’s book in terms of “adaptations,”is neither trivial nor equivalent
to affirming an evolutionary focus. There are ways in which an object could be
studied in an evolutionary fashion and yet not be an adaptation at all. This is true of
both the field of biology itself as well as the humanities. It must be added that, in our
opinion, even developing an “exaptationist program”—i.e., one that focuses more on
traits and behaviours as by-products or “spandrels”—obliges us to consider and
eventually test adaptationist hypotheses
(Andrews et al. 2003).
The use of “adaptation”is not trivial for one could object that despite the
extensive use of concepts imported from evolutionary biology, in the end Wright’s
impressive history of Western monotheism hardly uses any of the methods of
cultural phylogenesis or replicator dynamics that have been used in other studies of
cultural evolution. Instead, he relies mostly on philological analysis, archaeology
and economic history—good old-fashioned methods of the human sciences. This is
not, however, a matter of mere terminological imperialism. Wright aspires via
evolutionary theory to obtain some form of “causal closure”by basing his
explanations not only on cognitive systems and economic processes but also on a
more general view about the evolved human nature that sustains these very
interactions. In addition, the thesis that brings together the material in the book is
Otherwise, it may be considered exaptationist “just-so”story-telling. That is, the testing of an alternative
hypothesis to adaptationism also requires us to consider and test when possible the adaptationist
400 Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
certainly an evolutionary one: namely, that important changes in religious forms
occur over time in order to accommodate increased opportunities for non-zero-sum
The adaptation thus often takes place for increased social coordination with
neighbours, theological beliefs thus changing in accordance with the nature of
opportunities for social exchange. In that respect, Wright does not maintain that there
is an intrinsic—or for some people even biological and “innate”—causal link
between beliefs in supernatural agents and increased cooperation in social networks
or public good dilemmas—a view that is currently popular and being thoroughly
investigated by cognitive psychologists and sociologists (Norenzayan and Shariff
2008). On the contrary, Wright emphasizes the plasticity of beliefs in supernatural
agents as well as how these beliefs have been functionally accommodated in certain
contexts in order to increase both cooperation and , incidentally, mass murder.
We prefer to use the term “adaptation”instead of “social utility”(also used by
Wright) because it is less ambiguous and its use highlights patterns of evolution that
do not necessarily serve the welfare of individuals in every case. In spite of its
advantages we should nevertheless approach the term adaptation with caution.
Firstly, our use of the concept of adaptation clearly does not mean something as
precise as in the case of the “biological adaptation”of organisms, a concept backed
by a theory, that of evolution by natural selection, which is probably one of the most
tested theories in modern science. Such a general and well-tested theory in the study
of cultural change does not exist. Rather, we have to rely on piecemeal attempts at
explaining cultural phenomena. Secondly, adaptation is not a theoretical term (not
even in evolutionary biology) but an interpretation of the theory and models of
natural selection. More precisely, it is a shorthand descriptor (Michod 2000).
Therefore, in this critical notice we shall specify what this concept means in every
case and in reference to which partial models we are applying it. The question as to
whether or not God is an adaptation may thus be broken down into at least three
questions which we will briefly treat separately.
“God”as an Adaptation at the Level of the Individual
At this level, an adaptation can have a basis in biological or cultural heritability.
Adaptation at the biologically heritable level denotes the positive effects on fitness of
some genetically heritable capacity for believing in supernatural agents or God in a
given environment. This is the most direct meaning of biological adaptation. We do
not know of any such heritable capacity that would be specific to religion and
Wright follows the evolutionary psychological hypothesis according to which
religion is a biological by-product (also called “exaptation”) of naturally evolved
dispositions for other activities.
Each question will be glossed over in various ways, and for all of them “adaptation”should be
understood as referring to a given specific environment. One should notice also that when we use the term
“God”, we mean here more generally “the belief in God or holding certain beliefs in supernatural agents.”
It is also important to specify that we use the term “belief”, but by this we intend to keep things simple
only for the purpose of communication. We recognize that this term is problematic, especially with respect
to the study of religion and the idea of supernatural agents. For a more satisfying approach to the nature of
beliefs see Tamar Szabo Gendler “Alief and Belief ”,Journal of Philosophy, 2008, 105:10.
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408 401401
On the other hand, adaptation “at the cultural level”means that adopting certain
cultural beliefs can have a positive effect on individual fitness on a culturally
heritable basis—those who adopt the religious ideas in question will increase their
biological survival or reproduction in a given environment. If we look for actual
adaptation at the level of the individual human we may ask for instance the question
that appears on the website for the promotion of Wright’s book, namely: “Did
shamans have more sex?”This is an empirical question and certainly a difficult one
to test! Wright is able to cite abundant ethnographical evidence suggesting that, more
often than not, the answer may have been positive. Of course, other putative benefits
to individual fitness which are less directly related to reproduction have been
posited. For one thing, Shamans already had their means of subsistence assured for
them most of the time despite various risks incurred by them: For shamans who
made obvious mistakes would not have continued to receive free food much longer.
Another case could be the hypothesis that has been advanced by some scholars
linking features of certain religions with specific forms of physical comfort that may
also promote biological fitness. Take for example certain cures achieved by self-
suggestion—a therapeutic practice that shamanism and other forms of religion
sometimes offer (McClenon 2002). Again, this is a controversial matter in need of
further empirical testing. More generally it can be argued that it is not always clear
that religion compensates for the fears and anxieties that it generates, at the level of
the individual (see Atran 2002). In all cases, this depends on a given environment, in
so far as transmitted cultural items that are adaptive in one context may not be
adaptive in another. In this sense one can possibly observe instances of cultural lag
and mismatch (Nisbett and Cohen 1996). And in the opposite adaptive direction, we
could in principle observe the construction of cultural niches to compensate for other
relatively maladaptive cultural practices (Odling-Smee et al. 2003).
“God”as an Adaptation for its Own Cultural Spread
Today there are more than 10,000 different religions in the world, with
approximately 1000 new cults being created every year. Some of these religions
are very young, others are quite old. Cults appear and disappear. Recently, Richard
Sosis (Sosis and Bressler 2003) reviewed anthropological evidence showing that
among utopian communities founded in the United States in the 19th century,
religious communes were more likely than secular communes to survive for a longer
period of time. Sosis points to certain features of the social organization of these
communities. Anthropologist Pascal Boyer, studying the memory and cognitive
inference systems that bias the formation of religious beliefs, has written that in the
selective retention of beliefs in the supernatural, many are called but few are chosen
This allows for the study of the various mechanisms of selective retention and
transmission of this abundance of religious ideas. Theoretical models dealing with
the differential survival of cultural units in selective environments are scarce (but see
Boyd and Richerson 1985). In order for such a system of cultural transmission to
evolve in a Darwinian fashion it should score high in certain relevant dimensions,
such as the fidelity of transmission, the stability across different environments of the
property that confers fitness, and the smoothness of the fitness landscapes (see Gray
402 Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
et al. 2007). If our “God concepts”or cultural beliefs score high on these
characteristics we could then expect a population of beliefs to evolve in adaptive
ways. Methodological criteria are needed to distinguish the origin of the observed
distribution from other plausible mechanisms such as “cultural drift”(Lieberson
2000). In certain cases, something that can be equated with “selective processes”
will be an important force in its evolution (Richerson and Boyd 2005).
In Wright’s view, much as in the discipline of Human Behavioral Ecology, most
cultural features of religion are the way they are because of the perceived effects
they have on individual agents and because of what agents can do with these beliefs.
However, in Wright’s account cultural history matters the most. His case study of the
belief in a retributive heaven is an example of this phenomenon. Retributive afterlife
is a religious feature that was popular already in the Roman Empire at the time of the
rise of the cult of Jesus. Such a belief in religious retribution in the afterworld was
present through the spread of the cult of Osiris (or its Greek version, Serapis)
through much of the geographical area in which Jesus’disciples aspired to spread
their cult. In Wright’s view, the rise of such a doctrine was only made possible due to
the social and psychological environment created by larger and increasingly
moralistic post-neolithic societies. This specific set of religious features was thus
responding to the previous moralistic turn and to the fears promoted by, earlier
religious views. This is a matter of cultural “arm races”, i.e., variants of some form
of belief that continuously accommodate to the changes and competition in the pool
of other cultural beliefs. Paradoxically, only in this pre-existing population structure
could different cults, such as that of Osiris or certain post-Pauline versions of
Christianity, compete during the course of their evolution for these particular features
of the retributive afterworld. A lesson to be learned from Wright’s approach is that
history is a crucial feature of any cultural evolutionary account and must not be
Is God an Adaptation at the Level of the Group?
Claims about group-level adaptations are tricky. Much of the disagreement today
about their existence is semantic. Here, “group”can mean a given, genetically mixed
group with little migration. For the purposes of this review we need not dwell
unnecessarily on this possibility—given its controversial nature—for we have
already clarified that Wright’s analysis is not about biological adaptations for
religion. People’s minds need not have biologically coevolved with a past religious
environment (as in some of Daniel Dennet’s hypotheses concerning the domestica-
tion of the human mind by religious ideas (Dennett 2006). Such a scenario
constitutes a form of gene-culture coevolution (Bowles et al. 2003) that could have
moulded human minds and made them more receptive to religious ideas, even those
ideas that are detrimental to individual fitness. However, the evidence pointing in
that direction is rather scarce. Indeed, many religious ideas are already artefacts more
or less tinkered to fit our minds and stimulate our motivational systems. As it
appears clearly in Wrights’account, these religious ideas are also flexible enough to
accommodate the social ambitions of shamans, prophets and social reformers alike.
Another possibility is that certain beliefs in God benefit from the survival and
reproduction of cultural groups in certain contexts. The so-called cultural group is a
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408 403403
rather fuzzy entity, which makes this idea difficult to test. It could be defined as the
lineages of individuals which are relatively more connected with each other around
certain cultural conformities and certain conventions of coordination (Boyd and
Richerson 2002). Functionalists frequently rely on the benefits that a given
behaviour has for the group as a whole, and indeed some biologists and economists
have recently defended the theoretical possibility of “cultural group selection”.
There are few quantitative studies on this important subject. Yet, we know through
the case study of Soltis et al. (1995) on group formation, extinction and cultural
change in the ethnographic reports of New Guinea that, even with respect to special
conditions including frequent warfare, rates of group extinction were usually lower
than what would have been expected for cultural group selection to be an adaptive
force over the course of brief historical time periods. Nevertheless, cultural group
selection could still be a plausible mechanism for periods ranging over several
centuries or millennia. In that respect D. S. Wilson (Wilson 2003) has already argued
that several features of Judaism and the Balinese water-temple religion could be
adaptations at the level of the cultural group. Under some models, the population
mechanism by which cultural group adaptation occurs need not be one of active
competition between groups, but rather one of either differential adoption by some
individuals of ideas or cultural elements that are more influential in other groups, or
of emigrants “voting with their feet”for the most persistent cultural group (see Boyd
and Richerson 2009 concerning this last theoretical possibility).
Briefly, for a behaviour to be “group-selected”it naturally needs to be group-
beneficial. However, the relation that the behaviour has with the individual that
reproduces it can be more nuanced. In a first approximation, the behaviour could be
negative or detrimental to individual fitness while being positive for the group (−/ +).
Or it could be positive for the individual and positive for the group (+ / +). This last
category of behaviours corresponds to collaboration or coordination practices—e.g.,
deciding together that it is better if we all drive on the right (or left) side of the road.
The first category of behaviours is more difficult to identify. It could be argued that
historically if some cultural beliefs ever succeeded in convincing people to act
clearly against their genetic interests, it would be a rare case of active—and
sometimes temporary—indoctrination, coercion or a form of deception. This view
does not suppose that humans always maximize their fitness, but simply that they act
through decision systems which evolved to that end and also, possibly, to
counterbalance the effect of “dangerous memes”and exploitation. Consider for
instance the early evolution of religion according to the kleptocracy theory that Jared
Diamond has proposed for the origin of Neolithic theocracies. According to
Diamond (1997), true state religions only emerge when a central authority co-opts
pre-existing supernatural beliefs to set up a pyramid scam. Supernatural beings, in
this case, can be seen as means to reinforce the power of kleptocrats (the ruling
elite). According to this model certain people, most notably poor peasants and
slaves, are exploited and made to believe a certain system of religious ideas that
Interestingly, although much of Wright’s account can be said to be functionalist in thrust, he does not
solicit the cultural group selection explanation explicitly and indeed surprisingly he relegates David
Wilson’s cultural group-selectionist approach to a few words on note 2 of the appendix at the end of the
404 Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
mainly benefit the powerful. In this type of society it is almost guaranteed that the
elite have better health and more children (see Betzig 1986) than the lower classes.
Yet in fact they can also be said to play an asymmetric coordination game where
even though peasants play the worst role, they in fact succeed better than hunter-
gatherers and nomad societies outside their cultural group.
But if that partial coordination game is a usual pattern in the spread of religious
beliefs in human groups, does Robert Wright’s explanation mean that, in the end,
people adopt gods in the same way they adopt driving on the right or left-hand side
of the road? Sometimes the social logic depicted by Wright of increased non-zero-
sum relations suggests such arbitrary choices of coordination devices. But
arbitrariness is relative. This can be seen through Wright’s description of what he
calls “internal checks”and “external checks”in the cultural evolution of divine
attributes. He emphasizes how individuals will sometimes base their acceptance of
or consent to a given religious view in accordance with their own rationality as much
as with their psychological biases. He advances a type of coalitionary model
according to which religious beliefs can be transformed in their different historical
environments to benefit the people who provide religious services (prophets,
theologians, theocrats, etc.) at least as long as these services are well accepted in
their market of believers and coreligionists. Thus, for instance, he demonstrates how
the rise of Jewish monotheism was linked to the actions of “Yahveh-alone”
theologians who succeeded in enforcing the association between foreign gods and
the cosmopolitan ruling elites after this latter group had alienated the lay people.
Also of note is the element of group competition referred to by Wright in terms of
“external checks.”All in all, Wright’s account accommodates some of the virtues of
the cultural group selection model (external checks) as well as the coalitionary and
psychological model (internal checks).
In summary, Wright’s account is one in which the notion of adaptation is relevant
and central. It is fair to say that there is no one general theory but rather several
models under which one could affirm that a religious artefact is an “adaptation”or a
by-product (“exaptation”). It seems clear that crucial tests, including quantitative
studies, should be devised more often to advance these debates. In that respect, and
since an important part of Wright’s book is about the adaptive advantages of
monotheism, we were surprised that he did not mention some of the data that seems
to link the so-called “high gods”and “moralizing gods”with large-scale or resource-
scarce societies. Using the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (SCSS), a large database
of mostly preindustrial societies, Snarey (1996) showed that belief in “high
moralizing gods”is positively correlated with resource scarcity. And using the
SCCS and EA (Ethnographic Atlas), Roes and Raymond (2003) have shown that
larger societies are more likely to have so-called “moralizing gods.”The times seem
ripe for more studies of this kind (Atkinson and Bourrat in press).
Darwinian Higher Purpose?
To conclude, we would like to raise some points concerning two different (and in
Wright’s book interrelated) claims that are by their very nature particularly
controversial for the reader of Philosophia.
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408 405405
–Thesis 1: Biological and social evolution exhibit direction over vast periods of
time and tend towards increased cooperation for which religion has played an
–Thesis 2: This direction can be seen as evidence of a higher purpose promoting
the expansion of the moral circle.
Unfortunately, it would be impossible to treat with due attention these two far-
reaching statements in the framework of this book review; however, a few
epistemological remarks are nevertheless in order. The first thesis is mainly
developed in Wright’s previous book, Nonzero and states that human history
exhibits a direction or a pattern over time. Wright is thus a firm contemporary
exponent of social evolutionism—the scientific hypothesis which affirms that there
is a direction of change on certain given parameters in human societies. In the same
vein, the history of religion cannot be said to be “one damn thing after another.”
Rather, the author asserts that there is evidence for an analogous pattern of increased/
enhanced moral commitment towards other fellow humans. Opposed to those who
support theses of “radical contingency”in evolution, Wright seems to believe that if
one were to rewind the tape of biological and cultural evolution and replay it, the
result would be very similar with respect to a number of parameters. He points to the
tendency of evolution (both biological and cultural) to maximize non-zero-sum
interactions in the long run.
Yet Wright departs further from the social evolutionist thesis when he argues
against Steven Weinberg’s idea that modern science yields the picture of a
“pointless”universe where the moral order “is something we impose.”Wright, on
the contrary, aims to re-establish teleology in the universe and he does this basically
through a finalistic stance on biological evolution. The author affirms that “you
might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection was
the Logos at work during a particular phase of organic aggregation (p.455)”. In his
view it would be closer to the truth to say that the moral order was out there in the
form of opportunities for non-zero-sum relations and that we adapted to it through
biological and cultural evolution. To be fair, Wright does not say that a Logos,
instead of natural selection, produced the psychological equipment of humans. In
fact he acknowledges that the evolutionary explanations presented in his book need
not suppose anything other than the material objects that are part of the biological
sciences or the political facts to which he often refers in the context of the cultural
evolution of theological stances. Furthermore, the question concerning whether or
not biological evolution tends to maximize non-zero sum configurations in the long
run as a way of promoting fitness can be defended scientifically. However, the quasi-
religious astonishment Wright brings to the question, as well as the philosophical use
that he makes of this idea, reminds us rather of the tautological nature of the closely
related “anthropic principle.”Scientific evolutionary biology proceeds by showing
how organisms adapt by natural selection and certainly not by speculating on how
natural selection is adapted to a specific form of organisms (Maynard Smith and
Szathmary 1996). A similar concern could be raised about Wright’s perspective on
cultural evolution. Adopting a teleological stance can certainly lead to astonishment
in some cases , but this is scientifically superfluous. It should also be noted that in
spite of the great body of evidence in favour of convergent evolution (Morris 2003),
406 Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408
we do not presently have at our disposal the evidence required in order to draw
conclusions about the likelihood of the development of intelligent life like us. Going
beyond the tautology according to which the universe exists in such a way that it
made human and biological non-zero-sum interactions possible is clearly trespassing
on the domain of science. Assessing the improbability of life and the conditional
probability of humans once life exists is not something we can do in an
uncontroversial way. In spite of much evidence in favour of convergent cultural
evolution throughout history, we cannot argue in a convincing fashion about the
conditional probabilities of human cultures developing as they did given the initial
state of the universe . In addition, it could be argued that the very idea that a specific
point of human history constitutes the final cause of some laws of nature is
perplexing. From the point of view of causality or teleology it is difficult to see how
one position could be privileged over others.
Another similar point involves the extent to which cultural change should be
oriented toward the good in the long run thus coinciding necessarily with “the moral
arrow”as expressed by Wright. After all, love and compassion are not the only
possible, naturally evolved emotions that culture can recycle again and again for
situations of violent zero-sum relations: Anger, hate and other emotions are equally
viable candidates. Wright does not ignore the obstacles to the realization of non-
zero-sum opportunities, such as the ability to recognize these very situations, the
aforementioned emotions or the problem of trust in interactions that require it. Yet in
our opinion, it could be said that Wright diminishes the importance and generality of
such situations in which even if there is a range of non-zero-sum interactivity, there
is still room for oppression and exploitation. And more pessimistically, we are not
convinced that some evolutionary stable equilibrium cannot include domination of
one party over another. It can be argued for instance that certain implicit and explicit
attitudes of some group members towards minorities or marginalized groups are
motivated by the self-interested aim of maintaining them in a position of inferiority.
Consequently, we would be very reluctant to say that the ensuing cultural and
religious configuration would be one that shows “the arrow of moral development.”
Perhaps it would be more charitable to interpret Wright as arguing that the arrow of
moral development is a final cause of the laws of social evolution among others.
Still, we disagree with the basis and some of the connotations of the implicit idea
that there is something like moral niches out there in the universe to be filled by
populations of intelligent beings. In fact, it would be more precise to say that
populations in the process of their evolution transform their niches (Lewontin 2000),
and although some niches may be convergent with others, chance and individual
creativity still have a role to play here, an effect that is not necessarily cancelled in
the long run. Wright’s case for an “external”moral order is well argued and deserves
serious consideration. Yet we simply do not know how to reliably quantify the
importance of so called “niche effects”and “chance effects”in such an evolution,
and we would consider it premature to evacuate the importance of any of these two
By focusing on religious forms as a clue to the problem of human altruism and
cooperation, Wright makes an important contribution to placing religion in the
forefront of the priorities of scientific research. This is a well-deserved place for an
important issue. The Evolution of God also changes the general contemporary mood
Philosophia (2011) 39:397–408 407407
of the evolutionary study of religion. It should no longer be a story of mere risks
and purported dangers but also a well argued promise of what the correct
scientific understanding of religion can bring to believers and unbelievers alike.
We consider Wright’s book to be a truly important one. It reads marvellously
from the first page to the last and one feels elevated to higher spheres by his
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