[...] Another recent book dealing with cultural, but particularly emotional, evolution is George E. Vaillant‘s Spiritual Evolution. It focuses mainly on the relationship between a range of positive emotions and different areas of the brain. For each of these emotions (among others love, joy, and compassion) Vaillant shows the ties to different stages in evolution ranging from basic impulses we share with reptilians to more recent developments in neo-cortex unique to humans and (some) other mammals. The style of the book is informal and anecdotal, ultimately not geared towards a scientific proof of all the author’s assertions, but more towards an emotional and spiritual resonance in the reader, which makes it a stimulating read anyhow, although a more rigorous scientific treatment might make the book more convincing to some people.
Vaillant’s main point is that a revaluation of the positive emotions will enable us to lead spiritual lives that benefit both ourselves and others around us. By examining the basis of emotions in biological evolution, we award them also the scientific appreciation they are due, something which has been sorely lacking in psychology and other sciences until now, as the author points out. The distinction Vaillant makes between spirituality (which he ties to the experiencing of specific positive emotions, e.g. love, hope, joy, awe, and mystical illumination) and religion (a more rationalistic social institution geared towards the propagation of ethical values, group identity, and indeed spirituality) is a very valuable one, and one which I have espoused myself for years. I, too, would argue that while religion, in particular the (pseudo-)rational and social aspects of it, may be responsible for great suffering in the world (as are certain non-religious social movements), it does not mean we must denounce spirituality along with it.