Mankind is facing an apocalyptic moral test, says evolutionary psychologist


Evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright sounded bleak in a couple of recent columns:

"Given the growing prospect that humankind, having reached the brink of a global community, will dissolve into chaos … you could say that our species is facing an epic moral test," he wrote at

"In light of recent political and social developments in the United States and abroad," he wrote at the New York Times, "our work is cut out for us."


Bangladeshi Muslim activists of an Islamic group shout slogans as they gather in front of Baitul Muqarram National Mosque to protest against the deaths of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 18, 2016.

REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Bangladeshi Islamists protest violence against Muslims in Myanmar.

Wright has argued in several books that expanding morality played a central role in human evolution, creating the framework for ever-larger, more cohesive, and more powerful societies. Today, he says, mankind needs to take at least one more big step forward.

His 2010 book, "The Evolution of God," showed that we have at least come a long way already. In it, he described how religion has gradually moved toward respect for all people. For instance:

- As empires emerged in the ancient world, local religions began to take on universal characteristics, with moral codes that diverse groups could follow. Most notably, the tribes of Israel united in the belief in a one true god and the robust moral code embodied in the Ten Commandments.


- Christianity went a step beyond Judaism by offering salvation to anyone who converted.

- Islam could be seen as another step forward, as, at least occasionally, it claimed that people of various religions could find salvation. (Speaking on the difference between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Mohamed himself said they "are but a part of the men whom He hath created! He will pardon whom He pleaseth, and chastise whom He pleaseth.")

Perhaps even more significant than the sequence of religions is how religions themselves have evolved. Islamic scriptures, for instance, contains passages that are extremely antagonistic toward the rest of the world-e.g. "Kill the polytheists where ever you find them"-and others that are extremely tolerant-e.g. "To you be your religion; to me my religion."


Wright argues that the driving factor in these changes is the perception of non-zero sum relations: in situations where both sides can benefit, people find a way to get along. Since human civilization is, in the long run, a non-zero sum game - that is, we all gain when we work together and lose when we fight - moral and religious systems have tended to move toward greater harmony.

Muslim woman reads the Quran

Tatan Syuflana/AP

A Muslim woman reads the Quran in Indonesia.

Which brings us to today, when radical Muslims are fighting a terrorist war against the West, and radical Westerners are looking to fight fire with fire.

How do we turn things around? Wright laid out some general ideas in "Evolution."


Politically, he said, we need to establish non-zero sum relations. In many cases, as with Muslims and the west, we just need to recognize that these already exist.

"If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West," he wrote. "If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and westerners will be more secure from terrorism."

Philosophically, Wright said, we need some of the open-mindedness that let religions expand in the past. That may start with Jews, Christians, and Muslims remembering that they worship the same god.


"Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole?" he asked. "Changes this radical have already happened, again and again."

Shaping religious dogma is, of course, not something most of us can do, but we are responsible for our own thoughts and actions.

"Social salvation may or may not be at hand," Wright wrote, "depending on the extent to which individual people, in working out their own salvations, expand their moral imaginations and hence expand the circle of moral consideration."


Wright himself appears to have taken an interesting path in finding salvation. Born a Southern Baptist Christian, he now practices Buddhism. His latest book is called "Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment."

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