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Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith

Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith

by George Vaillant

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
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 brilliantly from neurobiology, social science, human developmental psychology, and the wisdom of 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

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Read an Excerpt

Positive Emotions

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, let me sow forgiveness;…
Where there is doubt, let me sow faith;
Where there is despair, let me give hope…
Where there is sadness, let me give joy;
O Master, grant that I may not so much to seek compassion but to give compassion.
—“The Peace Prayer of St. Francis” attributed to Father Esther Becquerel (1912)

Just as a prism separates white light into a spectrum of discrete colors, so this book separates spirituality into a broad spectrum of positive emotions. By focusing on the positive emotions, I wish to perform for spirituality what the science of nutrition has performed for the world's discordant diets. Just as nutrition identifies the vitamins and the four basic food groups that make other people’s peculiar ethnic diets nourishing, so neuroscience, cultural anthropology, and ethology identify the love, community building, and positive emotions that enduring religions have in common.

Here’s a true story told by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist. Traveling by train from Washington to Philadelphia, Dr. Kornfield found himself seated next to the director of a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders, particularly gang members who had committed homicide.

One fourteen–year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor [in jail] he'd had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I'll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” (1) And she became the mother he never had.

Her compassion! Her forgiveness! Where did they come from? We can all identify with the woman's primal growl of “I’m going to kill you.” And when, in her living room, she reminded her boarder of what she had said in court, I feared what would come next. But then I was surprised. For Hindu and Jew, for Buddhist and Christian, that moment would have been equally moving, but this story lacked even a hint of “religion.” What had happened? Unselfish love had conquered both Darwinian “selfish” genes and Kantian pure reason. The transformative power of positive emotion had interceded.

Positive emotions—not only compassion, forgiveness, love, and hope but also joy, faith/trust, awe, and gratitude—arise from our inborn mammalian capacity for unselfish parental love. They emanate from our feeling, limbic mammalian brain and thus are grounded in our evolutionary heritage. All human beings are hardwired for positive emotions, and these positive emotions are a common denominator of all major faiths and of all human beings.

Thus, this is, in some respects, a revolutionary book. I shall argue that the positive emotions are not just nice to have; they are essential to the survival of Homo sapiens as a species. In Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio, a sensitive clinical neurologist and arguably the wisest student of emotions on the planet, convincingly argues that the mind and the body are one. However, he concludes, “it is difficult to imagine that individuals and societies governed by the seeking of pleasure, as much as or more than by the avoidance of pain, can survive at all.” (2) If readers will permit me to define pleasure as the result of positive emotion rather than mere hedonism, then Damasio is in error. This book summarizes scientific evidence—gathered over the fourteen years that have elapsed since Damasio made his assertion—suggesting that positive emotions are very important indeed. As noted in chapter 6, by the year 2003 Damasio too had softened his position.

As the twenty-first century begins, a great many people—especially in the English-speaking world—are in search of some kind of common spiritual ground. On the one hand, increasing education and intolerance for patriarchal dogma have led to steady erosion in membership in most mainstream religions. On the other hand, this shift toward secularism has been offset by an equally steady increase in fundamentalist religions that isolate their believers from the rest of the world. As a result, contemporary culture holds no universally accepted view of human nature. If the world is going to function as one small planet, the development of some kind of consensus regarding human nature is essential. That consensus should include the recognition that human nature is more than a bunch of "selfish" genes.

Recently, I tentatively began to discuss spirituality with a close friend of mine, a brilliant woman and a devout Episcopalian to boot. “When I hear the word 'spirituality,'” she exploded, “I break out in spots!” I was surprised to hear her voice her sentiment so strongly, but to her spirituality was no more than illusion. The problem, of course, is that the word “spirituality” has many meanings. While spirituality is both the source and the outgrowth of faith for many people, for just as many others it is considered suspect. For them, spirituality is equated with the occult and with bogus faith healers; it brings to mind reincarnation, telepathy, crystals, angels, and tarot cards. To others, spirituality can appear as nothing more than covert narcissism and a new-age mandate to follow your bliss. I believe these mind-sets to be terribly mistaken.

True, we may have trouble defining spirituality, but we all know and admire it when we see it. Let me mention three men who would be on most people’s list of spiritual exemplars. For reasons embedded in our evolving genes, it is likely that the behaviors of three forgiving and compassionate leaders, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi, will remain in memory and continue to shape human behavior.

This book defines spirituality as the amalgam of the positive emotions that bind us to other human beings--and to our experience of “God” as we may understand Her/Him. Love, hope, joy, forgiveness, compassion, faith, awe,(3) and gratitude(4) are the spiritually important positive emotions addressed here. I have omitted from the list four other positive emotions—excitement, contentment, hilarity, and a sense of mastery—because we can feel these latter four emotions alone on a desert island. In sharp contrast, the eight positive emotions that I have selected all involve human connection. None of the eight are “all about me.”

Negative emotions such as fear and anger are also inborn and are of tremendous importance. Dedicated to individual survival, the negative emotions are “all about me.” In contrast, positive emotions have the potential to free the self from the self. We feel both the emotions of vengeance and of forgiveness deeply, but the long-term results of these two emotions are very different. Negative emotions are often crucial for survival—but only in time present. The positive emotions are more expansive and help us to broaden and build. (5) They widen our tolerance, expand our moral compass, and enhance our creativity. They help us to survive in time future. Careful experiments document that while negative emotions narrow attention and miss the forest for the trees,6 positive emotions, especially joy, make thought patterns more flexible, creative, integrative, and efficient. (7) In the example of the mother and her son’s killer, positive emotion led to a remarkable expansion in the lives of each. In contrast, negative emotions like disgust and despair freeze us in our tracks. When we are frightened, angry, or depressed, it is hard to create or to learn new things.

The effect of positive emotion on the autonomic (visceral) nervous system has much in common with the relaxation response to meditation popularized by Harvard professor of medicine Herbert Benson.8 In contrast to the metabolic and cardiac arousal that the fight-or-flight response of negative emotion induces in our sympathetic autonomic nervous system, positive emotion via our parasympathetic nervous system reduces basal metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension. Indeed, if sleep slowly lowers our basal metabolism by 8 percent, meditative states lower our metabolism 10 to 17 percent. Functional imaging (fMRI) studies of Kundalini yoga meditation by Andrew Newberg and associates at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School have documented such increased parasympathetic activity producing relaxation, followed by a profound sense of quiescence. (9)

California psychology professor Robert Emmons has spent his career studying gratitude and notes that ingratitude shrinks the self; gratitude expands the self. “First, gratitude is the acknowledgement of goodness in one's life…second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of the goodness lie at least partially outside of the self.” (10) The wonder of an American Thanksgiving Day celebration need not be religious, but I would like to submit that it is more spiritual than humanist. If the universe were just about humans, it would be a terrible waste of space.

Positive emotion, meditation, and spiritual experience cannot be disentangled. One report noted that 45 percent of people sensed the sacred during meditation and 68 percent experience a sense of the sacred after childbirth. (11) Benson reports that 80 percent of his meditators chose a sacred symbol as a mantra for meditation.(12)

Spirituality, then, is not just about following your bliss. Spirituality has a deep psychobiological basis—a reality rooted in the positive human emotions that needs to be better understood. Today many fear or mock religion because of its association with “holy terror” and “assault on reason.” In contrast, I believe that by taking the science of positive emotions seriously, we can make spirituality palatable, even useful, to the critics of religions. Simultaneously, we can help those enthralled by their own faith traditions to appreciate what they have in common with the faith traditions of others.

Positive emotion is a brain activity that all humans share because they are born with it. Richard Davidson is a University of Wisconsin neuropsychologist who has built his distinguished career on clarifying that in people with gloomy, introverted personalities the right prefrontal brain (above your right eye socket) is biologically more active than the left prefrontal brain. In people with sunny, outgoing personalities, the left prefrontal brain is more active than the right. In studying the brain activity of a devout Tibetan monk with decades of loving-kindness meditation behind him, Davidson found that the monk's left prefrontal brain activity was higher than in any of 175 normative Westerners he had tested. (13)

Once we recognize that spirituality has a biological basis, we realize that we must have evolved toward spirituality. It is not too great a leap to hope that as natural selection continues, if we don't denude or blow up our planet first, human beings may become still more spiritual.

Spiritual Evolution builds on the relatively new scientific disciplines of ethology (animal behavior) and neuroscience—both of which have enabled the scientific study of positive emotions such as love, joy, awe, and compassion. Each of these emotions has a neurobiological basis and an evolutionary architecture that will be explored in individual chapters. The exact mechanism by which such evolution takes place is a subject of speculation, but over the last fifteen years it has become clearer. The mechanism undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that “emotions are curious adaptations that are part and parcel of the machinery with which organisms regulate survival.” (14) You see, evolution has the daunting task of organizing 100 billion neurons into an adaptive brain, using only 45,000 genes. All the genes can do is to provide the means by which environment can do the heavy lifting in sculpting our brains.

Over the past fifteen years, four scientists have suggested the means by which natural selection could lead to prosocial behavior. In 1992 Gerald Edelman began with his concept of "neural Darwinism": the sculpting of the brain by individual and cultural environments, outlined in an influential book, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. (15) A few years later, Antonio Damasio with Descartes' Error, and Jaak Panksepp, with his magisterial but less well known book Affective Neuroscience, marshaled evidence that the genetically hardwired mammalian emotional system might provide the value system by which our prosocial behaviors and "seeking" systems evolved.16 Finally, David Sloan Wilson with Darwin's Cathedral provided convincing evidence for positive group selection. (17)

This architecture, and the evolution of the title, do not, however, refer just to genetic natural selection. There are actually three forms of evolution that are relevant here: genetic, cultural, and individual. For selfish reptiles to evolve into loving mammals took genetic evolution that led to the development of the limbic system, the brain region underlying our positive emotions. For loving, playful, passionate mammals to become creative scientists and intellectual theologians took genetic evolution that led to the development of our huge human neocortex, the brain region underlying both our science and our religious dogma. Although these two very different brain regions are neurologically rich in their connections, they sometimes treat each other like strangers. Emotion and reason, spirituality and religious dogma often fail to understand each other.

For human beings to have evolved into Samaritans who often place compassion, forgiveness, and unselfish love above a mentality of might-makes-right has required cultural evolution, for cultural evolution is more rapid and more flexible than genetic evolution. True, evil probably still occurs at the same per capita rate as it did in the Iron Age. However, with each passing century, cultural awareness, if not always scientific understanding, of the positive emotions gains ground and contributes to community survival. Positive emotions have been experimentally shown to help humans behave more communally and more creatively and to learn more quickly. (18)

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

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.

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