Explanatory Power II
Part Two of the Mystical Rationalism of Robert Wright
Being the second installment of Explanatory Power.
The Descent of Bob
While John McPhee’s encouragement may have convinced a young, skeptical Bob that he could earn a living as a writer, this was not in actuality the decisive moment that inspired his career.
In fact, far more motivating was the suggestion of his mother who, having seen Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President’s Men, found the idea of journalism quite sexy, and suggested the prospect to her son. This was reinforced when his English teacher said she thought Bob should actually read the book as well. These two female voices early on gave him the idea that journalism was a worthy pursuit, one which could potentially result in status, and assumedly the ability to acquire a mate and produce offspring.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that after Wright accomplished the extraordinary task of Nonzero, being as he was duly wed and prosperous, the drive to produce books would to some degree subside.
Not that it ever disappeared completely, nor that he stopped producing them entirely, but the production slowed a great deal, and was complicated by another once status-promoting pursuit: Religion.
It took about a decade for the Evolution of God to come out, and one can see why. Instead of following the established threads of technology and science (although they no doubt played important roles), the Evolution of God drew quite a lot on religious texts. Similar to Nonzero, the book looked at how religions evolved across cultures over time, and noted that monotheisms seemed to emerge as market forces drove more and more diverse cultures into interaction with one another — capitalizing on reciprocal altruism. The extraordinary selling point was his depiction of Christianity as a sort of cultural technology which allowed the business class to always have contact with a people via ideology, even when travelling alone abroad, the same force that still plants Gideon bibles in many hotels.
It was an original concept and a lengthy, well-researched book. But, also like Nonzero, it left journalism behind, in a certain sense. Whereas Three Scientists was tied to its governing trinity of characters, and the Moral Animal was anchored to Darwin, Wright was now in Jared Diamond territory, producing a popular book of Big History. The most compelling section of the Evolution of God is when it reprises the Logos motif from Nonzero through a small but compelling portrait of Philo of Alexandria. But much of the book feels like it’s paring down wisdom literature for the purpose of supporting a thesis, which in many ways demeans the sacred import of religious practice.
There was a cause for this wandering, however, and a noble one. For Wright was in no way idly resting on his laurels. In fact, the entire time, he was continuing to churn out columns and articles. And, perhaps most notably, he was beginning Bloggingheads and Meaningoflife.tv. These two sites would feature innumerable conversations (often conducted by scholars and burgeoning journalists (many going on to write for the New York Times), and included all the topics you might imagine from a Bob Wright joint: politics, philosophy, religion, history, science, technology, and the like. This shift was crucial in many ways, for he was now in some sense both editor and anchor, and while shifting from writing to diavlogs he was reintroducing the character-centered element that kicked off with his early writing (albeit it was now in the form of interviews).
In many respects, this shift also was the logical outcome of Nonzero. Information, after all, is in no way dependent on writing as its sole (or even primary) conduit. And in the post-television internet era, it only makes sense for the memes to disperse themselves quickly and efficiently through the abundantly available new channels, including YouTube. As decades have transpired since his study with McPhee, it is not surprising that so has the influence of writing on Wright’s search for status. But what has not waned is his desire to understand and explain, and this comes from a much more fundamental and mysterious place.
Bob’s Dad was, as we noticed before, a colonel in the military. This position must’ve affected young Bob in important ways. To have the fates of men in some way tied to your decision-making must’ve conveyed some sense of duty and responsibility not available to most sapiens. And Wright in big ways conveys this consciousness in his recent work with the Nonzero Newsletter — always clear that, without contemplation, our collective fate could easily be disastrous.
Somewhere in that mix of history and science, Bob started practicing Vipassana meditation. Should you spin through his YouTube videos, you’ll find that one of his favorite interlocuters is Josh Summers, who he met at an Insight Meditation Society retreat. These, along with conversations with figures like the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, as well as many other forms of Buddhist practitioners, convinced Bob that some of his ideas might be book worthy. His general idea is that the powerful theory of Natural Selection makes a simple observation: we are vulnerable to self-delusion. Bob thinks meditation can help with that. He also thinks it can help people slow down and notice the types of nonzero dynamics that are at play in global affairs, and possibly allow us to learn from our mistakes and stave off catastrophe.
Again, Robert Wright is no optimist. But all mysticism aside, he’s extremely rational.