Sunday, November 05, 2006

Robert Wright

Robert Wright was brought into focus for me when he invited Joel Achenbach to participate in his "diavlog" at (check him out this week: he's interviewing Arianna Huffington.) Soon after the diavlog aired, I came across a reference to Wright in one of the Why Things Are books; Joel refers to him as an "auxiliary Why staffer" and then adds that he is "one of the best science writers around." I had seen references to The Moral Animal and meant to read it years ago, but hadn't gotten around to it.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I gathered up Wright's three books and read them. I was very impressed and enjoyed learning some new ways to look at the world and putting together some old concepts in new ways.

The first book Wright wrote was called Three Scientists and Their Gods; the subtitle is Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information." Before the book starts, Wright inserts the following:


I don't want to alarm you, but this book is about--

1. the concept of information;

2. the concepts of meaning and purpose, in both their mundane and cosmic senses;

3.the function of information at various levels of organic organization (in bacteria, ant colonies, human brains, and supermarket chains, for example), with particular emphasis on its role in reconciling life with the second law of thermodynamics;

4. the meaning of the information age, viewed in light of the role information has played throughout evolution;

5. the meaning of life; and

6. a couple of other issues at the intersection of religion and science.

Now for the good news: this book is also about three living, breathing, and, I think, unusually interesting human beings. In fact, they are what the book is mainly about. So, for the most part, all you have to do is read about them--about their personal histories, their ways of living, and their very ambitious ways of thinking about the universe and our place in it--and let the above subjects emerge in the process. It will be fairly painless, as these things go.2
Wright uses the same mitigation method in The Moral Animal, to very good effect: in that book, he uses the life of Charles Darwin to illustrate the principles of evolutionary psychology. In early chapters, he uses examples of various primates and their social structures to show how genes and environment interact to influence the development of culture. Later, when he is discussing Charles Darwin's marriage, he says, "The Darwins lived, gibbon-like, on an eighteen-acre parcel, two hours by coach from London..."3

Throughout the book the details of Darwin's life are analyzed in light of the ideas that are being explored. It humanizes the concepts and illuminates Darwin's biography at the same time.

Nonzero returns to an idea that was introduced in the first book, that is "the logic of human destiny." The essential concept is that ever more sophisticated methods of communication are facilitating more and more complex social structures. One possible conclusion, which is explored in both books, is that the next step in human cultural development will be an all-encompassing network of communication that essentially becomes a super-organism in itself. A version of this certainly exists already, made up of humans interacting with the internet and phone lines and television and other mass media. But the more mystical thinkers that Wright cites envision a time when the network becomes aware of itself in a way that we would define as consciousness.

Speaking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote about this idea in a book called The Phenomenon of Man which was published in 1955, Wright emphasizes that Teilhard is not just talking about individual people having "sympathy" for each other:

If this were all Teilhard meant by universal consciousness, his mystic vision would be, if not exactly convincing, at least conceivable. Maybe middle-class Americans will come to empathize with the refugees and earthquake victims whose images they see on the evening news. Maybe millions of copies of the album We are the World will forge lasting international bonds. Maybe the Russians will be able to muster some sympathy for Americans once they've seen twenty or thirty episodes of Gilligan's Island.

But Teilhard had something more than this in mind. At times he spoke more expansively about the meaning of universal consciousness, and made it clear that he wasn't referring to the sort of sympathy conveyed by Hallmark cards. He was really talking about love, the kind of altruistic diffusion of identity tradionally reserved for kin. Indeed, he was talking about even more than that. Love was not, in Teilhard's scheme of things, a mere by-product of human evolution, an emotion programmed into the brain to ensure the survival of the DNA. Rather, it was a manifestation, the most importatnt manifestation, of the "spiritual energy" that had been growing in the "within" of ever-more-complex matter since before the creation of life, and that continued to grow not just through genetic evolution but through cultural, or noogenetic, evolution and the "complexification" of human society.4
As he notes here, Wright is skeptical about this notion, but he is obviously fascinated by it and believes it is an important idea. His approach makes me look forward to his next book, which reportedly is "about God"--I've seen enough of Wright's work to believe he won't be writing a theology text; more likely it will be, as these three books are, enlightened, open-minded science.

1. Joel Achenbach, Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 93.

2. Robert Wright, Three Scientists and Their Gods (New York: Times Books, 1988), xi.

3. Robert Wright, The Moral Animal (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), 129.

4. Robert Wright, Three Scientists and Their Gods, 270.

[*These footnotes are dedicated to The Achenblogger Known as College Parkian.]


College Parkian said...

Thank you for pointing me toward Wright.

Lovely and surprised in the best possible way to find Teilhard here.

I wrote my senior thesis in college about how Teilhard influenced openness with in the Vatican about science generally, and evolution particularly.

Citations! Why they make me so happy is a mystery. Ah, yes, the pure democracy of these formal notes: to enable the reader to explore further.

Karen said...

They are slightly more trouble, CP, but if it made you happy, it was worth it.

I tried, but failed, to find a way to fit in this phrase about Wright: "a writer who understands science and is not afraid of religion." His books are definitely worth reading.

Anonymous said...

I can't point to this as a fact, having read only part of Nonzero and no Teilhard whatsoever, but the whole evolution/cosmic consciousness/mental information net make me think of William Olaf Stapleton's "Last and First Men", and especially "Star Maker", both written during the 1930s.

Dry writing, but big interesting ideas.


yellojkt said...

I'll have to add these to my big thinker list of things to read. Right now I'm reading the history of Spy magazine, so that will turn my brain to mush enough to need some firming up.