Robert Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True originates in two distinct traditions. The first is evolutionary psychology, which holds that our brains evolved adaptively to maximize procreation and survival, producing everything from the consciousness of selfhood to the psychology of pleasure to competitive kinship structures. The second is Buddhism (at least Wright’s variant), which holds that most of these adaptive behaviors are not only illusory, but ultimately the source of all human suffering. For Wright, meditation (Vipassana) is a way to consciously examine and redirect our inherited neural response mechanisms (evolutionary psychology), thereby decreasing suffering (Buddhism). If Wright’s extended discussion of evolutionary psychology is true, then Buddhism‘s solution to suffering is true as well—even if the actual solution means simply not getting as angry as often or being able to get a good night’s sleep before a stressful public speaking engagement. So far so good.
But there’s more. Wright states at the outset–and all along the way–that meditation might be more than a methodology for addressing individual suffering. For Wright (and for many evolutionary psychologists), the global problems we face are by-products of the mismatch between our hunter-gatherer brains and contemporary realities. A brain that adaptively evolved small kinship networks may not be the best brain to deal with global ecological calamity; the brain that evolved rapid response mechanisms, especially to danger, might not be the best brain to control nuclear weapons. In this expanded scenario, meditation allows us to intervene in hunter-gatherer neural biology, see the world differently, make decisions based on the reality we inhabit rather than the archaic evolutionary tools that got us here. If enough people adopt meditative practices and change their relationship to the crippling effects of evolution, the human race might reach a tipping point, the “Metacognitive Revolution.” For Wright, this revolution is our last best hope: the way to stop war, end eco-catastrophe, and avert evolutionary suicide, one meditating brain at a time.
Whether Buddhist meditation can save the planet isn’t really the point (and certainly not the focus of the book). The point is Wright’s widely shared belief that our current unmediated cognitive abilities are not enough to avert catastrophe. Underlying this belief is a deep, unspoken anxiety surrounding biological evolution, a nagging suspicion that natural selection, left to its own devices, leaves no one standing. Buddhism and meditation are Wright’s antidotes to this anxiety, an embodiment of his desire to expand human agency beyond the biological determinism at the heart of evolutionary psychology’s description of behavior. Wright doesn’t prove Buddhism is true; he hopes it is true. He also hopes human beings are capable of happiness and of shaping their own individual and collective futures. Breathing in, he knows he’s breathing in.