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.