Robert Wright and the Evolution of God

Bryan Appleyard writes an appreciative review of Robert Wright’s new book, The Evolution of God, in The Sunday Times, claiming that it constitutes “a scientifically based corrective to the absurd rhetoric of militant atheism.”

However, the logic of Appleyard’s review does little to substantiate this claim. Bryan firstly argues that “Even after 9/11, [the atheists] can’t prove [that religion is a bad thing] because, especially in the 20th century, non-religious nastiness was infinitely worse than religious.” So, the argument here is as follows: non-religious nastiness in the 20th century was worse than religious nastiness in preceding centuries, hence religion isn’t bad. That seems a rather perverse form of logic. One might conclude, instead, that religiously-inspired nastiness is a bad thing, and nastiness inspired in the 20th century by Marxism and fascism was also a bad thing.

Appleyard claims that “the persistence of religion in all human societies strongly suggests that, even in the most basic Darwinian terms, it has been good for us as a species.” This is another logical error: the persistence of a behavioural characteristic in a reproducing species does not entail that it is beneficial to survival in itself, for it may simply be a by-product of other traits which do, in combination, make a net contribution to survival.

When Appleyard then turns to the heart of Wright’s argument, we find what appears to be an attempt to equate the concept of God with some form of cosmic evolution:

What is clear, for Wright, is that there is an organising principle in the world and that this principle may well be materialistically explicable but it is, nonetheless, moral and progressive…Dawkins said Darwin [showed] how design arose through purely material means — evolution through natural selection is the ‘blind watchmaker’. Wright says this misses the point. The point is not how the watch was designed but the fact that it is designed. Some process has led to its existence and it is that process that matters because the mechanism and purpose of the watch clearly make it different in kind from, say, rocks. Equally, humans also require a different type of explanation from rocks. It may be natural selection or it may be some innate force in the universe. Either way, it is reasonable to associate this force with morality and God.

On the basis of this, Wright’s argument is simply the latest in a long line which attempt to define a pantheistic concept of God. In this case, God is equated with the physical process of cosmic evolution. Such a pantheistic concept of God is straighforwardly inconsistent with the notion of a transcendent, supernatural and personal God held by theistic religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Moreover, one also wonders how Wright manages to derive morality from the existence of evolution without committing the naturalistic fallacy, thereby deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

Even leaving aside the inconsistency with theistic religion, there are serious problems with any pantheistic proposal to equate God with cosmic evolution. The primary problem is that evolution by natural selection cannot meet the demand for irrevocable progress which such a variety of pantheism places upon it. In particular, the notion that evolution necessarily leads to ever-greater complexity is a myth. As Michel Le Page points out:

“Evolution often takes away rather than adding. For instance, cave fish lose their eyes, while parasites like tapeworms lose their guts. Such simplification might be much more widespread than realised. Some apparently primitive creatures are turning out to be the descendants of more complex creatures rather than their ancestors. For instance, it appears the ancestor of brainless starfish and sea urchins had a brain.”

But most seriously for Wright’s argument, in cosmic terms the growth of entropy will dominate, and as the universe tends towards thermodynamic equilibrium, the energy flows which presently permit the evolution of complexity and life, will subside and ultimately cease. The evolution of complexity and life is therefore, cosmically speaking, something of a transient phenomenon, and if atheists such as Dawkins have forced religious apologists to the point where God has to be equated with an ephemeral physical process, then it seems that the atheists really have won the argument convincingly.

Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 5:16 pm  Leave a Comment