Book Review: Spiritual Evolution

By Azim Shariff | September 1, 2008 | 1 comment

by George E. Vaillant
Broadway Books, 2008, 228 pages

In Spiritual Evolution, psychoanalyst George Vaillant charts the evolutionary trajectory of positive emotions like love, compassion, hope, and forgiveness—all of which he puts under the umbrella of spirituality. Drawing from neuroscience, evolutionary theory, and decades of clinical experience, Vaillant argues that these emotions are both useful and uniquely human.

This ground has been covered before, but Vaillant’s passion for his topic is intense, leading him to combine hard science with poetic prose. As a result, Spiritual Evolution is beautifully written, but sometimes at the expense of scientific accuracy.

For example, Vaillant repeatedly criticizes Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” theory in a way that is inconsistent and often misleading. Genes, argues Dawkins, are selfish in their drive to survive and reproduce, but he explicitly rejects applying the idea of the selfish gene to human morality. In the sonorous but vague rhetoric of Spiritual Evolution, it’s never clear whether Vaillant’s criticism of selfish gene theories is simply a moral reaction to the very idea of selfishness in nature, or if he is actually trying to repudiate Dawkins’s scientific position. Of course, Dawkins and Vaillant do have one thing in common: Both disdain organized religion, which Vaillant simplistically dismisses as the “bad” half of spirituality.

Ultimately, Spiritual Evolution occupies an awkward space between scientific inquiry and poetic meditation. This makes the book frustrating at some points, but inspiring and insightful at others.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:


interesnting book!

Tarjetas de visita | 7:45 am, January 22, 2012 | Link

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training
International House
December 9-10, 2016

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training

This workshop is an introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), an empirically-supported training program based on the pioneering research of Kristin Neff and the clinical perspective of Chris Germer.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement