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Suggestions of a Larger Purpose

An interview with Robert Wright
by Elizabeth Debold


For Robert Wright, his own interest in human nature and evolution was born with the field of evolutionary psychology. "I'd always been interested in human nature and in psychology," Wright told us on the phone from his Princeton, New Jersey, home. "And I was also independently interested in evolution, just in the idea of it as the creative process. When I was in college in the late seventies, these two fields started to come together, the study of evolution and the study of psychology. It was then called sociobiology and came to be called evolutionary psychology." Perhaps because of his traditional Christian upbringing, Wright's deep interest in the meaning and purpose of life—what he calls "the cosmic question"—has led him from a successful career in journalism, writing for magazines such as The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly (and currently writing "The Earthling" column for the online magazine Slate), to a position as a visiting scholar in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in recognition of his achievement as one of the new breed of evolutionary psychologists.

Wright's passion for the big questions led us to want to speak with him about evolution after Darwin. In his first book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, he ingeniously used Darwin's own life and career to show the implications that an understanding of evolutionary psychology brings to everyday life. Looking straight at the fact that so many choices we seem to freely make are governed by the genetic imperative to reproduce, Wright took on, without flinching, the tough moral issues raised by a deeper understanding of the mechanics of human nature. Ending with a guarded optimism about the potential for humanity to choose a morality for the greater good rather than following relentless genetic self-interest, Wright did not stop there. His next book, Nonzero, widened his scope even further, looking not only at biological evolution but at the development of human culture as well. His bold thesis is that, even despite ourselves, evolution proceeds through cooperative arrangements rather than "survival-of-the-fittest" competition. From this enormous perspective on the creative logic of life, Wright recognizes that the next step in evolution demands from us an ethic of cooperation based in the true interdependence of human life.

Most impressive about Wright is his intellectual honesty and integrity. He holds a firm line between empirical science and metaphysical speculation that few scientists maintain. Even though he asserts that natural selection can explain nearly everything about the development of life on this planet, including the complexity of human life, Wright, unlike many Darwinists, will not infer from this that there is no God or higher principle at work in the cosmos. He also finds the spiritual perspective of the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin to be deeply compelling even as here, too, he cannot verify Teilhard's spiritual claims. In the following interview, Wright takes us to the edge of where empirical evolution can go, to the suggestion of a greater meaning that the evolutionary evidence points to—and reminds us that if life's experiment is to continue on this planet, it is up to us.


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This article is from
Our Evolution Issue