July 2009

Barbara J. King

features

Dear Robert Wright (Confessions of One Who Also Writes on God)

Dear Robert Wright,

We have so much in common! You wrote a book called The Evolution of God in 2009, I wrote one called Evolving God in 2007. Your interview with Steve Paulson in Salon upped the book-buzz's voltage for you as my Salon interview with Steve did for me. And while you're no stranger to controversial publishing (The Moral Animal enjoys its fifteen years of fame), I'd wager that you're experiencing an unprecedented wave of lacerating emails and online opinions, now that you've snuggled the word evolution right up against God. (And Paulson says it straight, "There's something to offend just about everyone in this book.")

The commonalities between us have their limits, sure. For one thing, your Amazon ranking, as I write, is #15 -- in part because your Salon spike was followed by a New York Times Book Review spike. This means you've got another bestseller. My God book was not a bestseller. (Note to students of writing: the technical term for the previous sentence is massive understatement.)

For another thing, your goals are bigger and bolder than mine: You board a sweeping train of history and ride it to the destination of grand moral lessons for humanity's future. I went small-scale, with a focus not even on religion so much as on its deepest roots in the belongingness of African apes and early human ancestors, in an attempt to wrest some of the origins-of-God talk away from the hard-wired gene-and-brain crowd.

And most critically, evolutionary psychology ignites your book, and it's raked over the coals in mine. EP explains modern behavioral tendencies by recourse to past selection pressures: we humans are adapted to our hunter-gatherer past. I don't buy the notion of a singular past, and anyway we're too pliable and plastic a species, too dynamic of brain and body, for our present to be sweepingly constrained by the past. Indeed, EP is taking its lumps these days, most publicly via Sharon Begley at Newsweek and David Brooks at The New York Times .

EP antipathy aside, I admire the master work that went into The Evolution of God. Like a baleen whale sifting through ton after ton of microorganisms to derive sustenance, you have digested source after source and distilled it all into a compelling account of the world's turbulent religious history. From this dense thicket emerges a septet of key ideas:

*When people's fortunes are interdependent, that is when there's a non-zero-sum game afoot with the hope of a win-win outcome, cooperation and tolerance win out over aggression and intolerance.

*We see this in all the Abrahamic faiths. The portrayal of central figures --from Moses and Jesus and Muhammad to God himself -- changes as factors of politics and economics (and thus opportunities for cooperation) change. Monotheism is sometimes couched in vengeance, sometimes in compassion; "morally speaking, [it is] a very malleable thing" and best understood through the lens of non-zero-sum analysis.

*The more non-zero-sum situations that we modern folks can engineer, the better for the world's moral imagination and thus for the possibility of genuine inter-religious peace.

*Obstacles, unfortunately, loom in the path of this hoped-for engineering. Endemic mistrust divides groups (as in today's Middle East) that might otherwise approach the peace table. For you, though, the towering issue is one of evolutionary constraint: "The big problem is the human mind, as designed by natural selection….Our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment."

*More specifically, our moral imaginations evolved only to "read" and empathize with a friend or ally, not a rival. It's a stark binary: "Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately -- relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently -- or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances."

*Despite lots of backsliding, there's nevertheless been a net gain in moral progress over the ages. Technology has propelled forward "the arrow of moral development built into human history." Enlarging our embrace of others into love and compassion is within our evolved capacities.

*It may be right, it may be wrong, but it makes perfect sense to think of God as "the unknown thing that is the source of the moral order, the reason there is a moral dimension to life on Earth and a moral direction to time on Earth."

The force of these ideas; your refusal to call believers crazy or atheists unenlightened; and the book's stunning Afterword in which you dare to compare believers' belief in God to scientists' belief in electrons combine to elevate your EP-studded prose to required reading.

Why then can't I shake a burdening sense of irony? You convincingly argue that we humans transform, and have always transformed, sacred texts and our notions of God in them according to what's happening in the societies around us: "God's character is a product of the way Muslims, Christians, and Jews think of him," as you put it. If we transform God, and in so doing make him (and thus ourselves) more moral over the ages, how come we're so powerless in the face of the ancient selection pressures supposedly at work on our brain and our behavior? That's my big objection to your thesis.

And I cop to a certain degree of anthropological annoyance too. The careful reader discerns hints early on that you envision some kind of complexity hierarchy of modern human groups, and then, deep into the text, discovers your assertion about "the long movement from the simplicity of hunter-gatherer society to the complexity of urban civilization." Now, because of the phrase "long movement," it may seem that you mean to refer only to an ancient past when you describe "simple" hunter-gatherer societies. But what about that pesky habit of dichotomizing "modern" and "hunter-gatherer" groups even when you include hunter-gatherers observed by anthropologists?

In other passages, you write about how "Americans" feel about "Muslims." Perhaps you'd evoke your beloved concept of "rhetorical convenience" in these cases, but I think the elision of modern hunter-gatherers, and of Americans who are Muslim, was a bad move.

My admiration described above, however, survives my disagreements. And so I congratulate you, wish your book well, and tell you I am not jealous at all of your erudition and your success!

Well, but wait.

With your book being about moral truth and all, maybe I should amend that last statement. Maybe I'm just a little tiny bit jealous. You have a rare knack for corralling into a fun and instructive passage a complex thought, as you do here in discussing to what degree the Yahweh of ancient Israel is related to older gods El and Baal: "How did El, the cerebral chairman of the board, ever get mixed up with Baal, the terrifying storm god who is described by one scholar as a 'virile dim-bulb'? And how were their identities finally reconciled in one God?"

And then there's the matter of all those works you cite. I flipped to the back of beyond in your book only to discover that my book is excluded from the prodigious baleen-sifting; I don't even earn a footnote! Sadly, our cousinly titles did me no good in meriting your attention. Yet almost everyone who writes from this day forth about God and human behavior (including me) will cite your book.

However, there's lots of good news left for me. With the hierarchy-oriented self-awareness only a modern Homo sapiens could possess, I know I'm a non-alpha author! And despite that knowledge, I genuinely love writing and publishing and communicating with readers. And I enjoy immersing myself in a densely argued, provocative, and alpha-authored book such as yours.

And too, we non-alpha writers can always dream. Just wait till my next book….

Sincerely,

Barbara J. King

 

-- King wonders why some people resist admiring others' books just because they don't agree with the ideas therein. Maybe Robert Wright will explain this to her too? In the meantime, drop her a line at bjking09@gmail.com