In our current era of holy terror, passionate faith has come to seem like a present danger. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have been happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and declare that the danger is in religion itself. God, Hitchens writes, is not great.
But man, according to George E. Vaillant, M.D., is great. In Spiritual Evolution , Dr. Vaillant lays out a brilliant defense not of organized religion but of man’s inherent spirituality. Our spirituality, he shows, resides in our uniquely human brain design and in our innate capacity for emotions like love, hope, joy, forgiveness, and compassion, which are selected for by evolution and located in a different part of the brain than dogmatic religious belief. Evolution has made us spiritual creatures over time, he argues, and we are destined to become even more so. Spiritual Evolution makes the scientific case for spirituality as a positive force in human evolution, and he predicts for our species an even more loving future.
Vaillant traces this positive force in three different kinds of “evolution”: the natural selection of genes over millennia, of course, but also the cultural evolution within recorded history of ideas about the value of human life, and the development of spirituality within the lifetime of each individual. For thirty-five years, Dr. Vaillant directed Harvard’s famous longitudinal study of adult development, which has followed hundreds of men over seven decades of life. The study has yielded important insights into human spirituality, and Dr. Vaillant has drawn on these and on a range of psychological research, behavioral studies, and neuroscience, and on history, anecdote, and quotation to produce a book that is at once a work of scientific argument and a lyrical meditation on what it means to be human.
Spiritual Evolution is a life’s work, and it will restore our belief in faith as an essential human striving.
George E. Vaillant, M.D., is a psychoanalyst and a research psychiatrist, one of the pioneers in the study of adult development. He is a professor at Harvard University and directed Harvard’s Study of Adult Development for thirty-five years. He is the author of Aging Well and The Natural History of Alcoholism , and his 1977 book, Adaptation to Life , is a classic text in the study of adult development. He lives in Boston; East Thetford, Vermont; and Victoria, Australia.
Praise for Spiritual Evolution
“George Vaillant is a poet, a visionary, and a scientist. This book is the culmination of a fifty-year project that revolutionized our view of human development and now may revolutionize our view of religion and spirituality.”
—Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism
“At last—an explanation of spirituality from an evolutionary perspective that does justice to both. With his tremendous breadth of experience and personal wisdom, George Vaillant is the perfect spiritual and scientific guide.”
—David Sloan Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral
"More than a scientific defense of faith, George Vaillant's book is a moving account of his own intellectual quest, through science, for a spiritual view of human evolution and experience. Clearly a labor of love and a needed antidote to recent attacks on religion. An important book."
—Melvin Konner, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Tangled Wing
“ Spiritual Evolution is a truly outstanding book, an exquisite weaving of science and spirituality focused on the positive emotions. The result is a wonderful synthesis of material leading to a compassionate and empowering conclusion about the future of humanity. A must-read for everyone who has considered the intersection between spirituality and the human person.”
—Andrew Newberg, coauthor of Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
“In this inspirational and scientifically brilliant essay on human nature, Dr. Vaillant defends the love, hope, joy, compassion, awe, forgiveness, and faith that together form our naturally evolved spiritual essence—an essence enlivened by religion at its best, and distorted by religion at its worst. He draws on a lifetime of heralded literary, scientific, spiritual, and medical insight to write the one prescription that can dispel our shadows of confusion and help heal the world.”
—Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., coauthor of Why Good Things Happen to Good People
“With uncommon lucidity, balance, and scholarship, George Vaillant draws brilliantlyfrom neurobiology, social science, human developmental psychology, andthe wisdomof the great writers and thinkers to clarify and illuminate the positive emotions such as love, compassion, and altruism that elevate humankind and may yet save it.”
—Irvin Yalom, M.D., author of Love’s Executioner