When the world’s leading myrmecologist writes about ants, evolution, and ecology, it’s fine indeed. But when E.O. Wilson opines on matters beyond his expansive scientific expertise, it is usually less enlightening. Over at National Geographic, where Wilson talks about his new book, we have an example of the latter. In that book, The Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson attempts to answer a question which arose and became pressing only in those places significantly impacted by the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, and Consumer Capitalism. Because existential meaning often entails cosmological considerations, Wilson feels compelled to “explain” religion:
You say that we were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity. This puts you at odds with most of the world’s religions. Why are they wrong?
They’re very wrong. And it’s urgently the time to enter into frank discussion over why they’re wrong. But we don’t generally allow it to be discussed, because too many people would be offended. Let me make this point, though. There’s already a neurobiology of religion and religious belief in the scientific realm. What are the genetics and evolutionary origins of religion, and exactly why is it a certain form?
I think when we get deep enough, we’re going to see that humanity shares a predilection for certain big questions accompanied by deep emotional responses, which are biological in origin. I would call them theological, or transcendent, concerns common to human beings everywhere. Is there a supreme being who created us and guides us in some manner? Will we have an afterlife? These are the big questions.
But there’s also the creation myth. And where I would call the transcendent forms of religion authentic and typical of human beings, I would call the individual beliefs, or faith, as coming from an entirely different origin. The faith of organized religions, hundreds of them, consist substantially of the creation myth that they champion.
And without exception, they’re convinced that the creation myth and supernatural stories of their faith are superior to all others, no matter how gentle, no matter how generous or caring a particular faith is. It is the holder of the truth.
Why is this the case? Because people have ingrained in them, genetically, a tendency to believe stories that unite their group, define their group, and allow them to flourish within the power sphere of that group. And this is the simple, straightforward origin of religious faith.
This brings to mind H.L. Mencken’s sage observation: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Wilson’s simple origins story reflects his belief in group level selection and cultural evolutionist idea that religions are adaptations which enable the formation, cohesion, and legitimation of large-scale societies. This could be correct, though the argument is controversial and far from settled. Even if this gene-culture evolutionary explanation is correct, it’s only part of the answer.
When it comes to modern forms of “religion,” or those which humans have developed over the past 2,500 years, straightforward monocausal answers won’t suffice. So why is Wilson telling a simplistic origins story? I suspect it’s because his primary model for “religion” derives from monotheistic traditions which are exclusivist. The giveaway here is Wilson’s persistent use of the terms “truth” and “faith,” which are concepts that particularly derive from Abrahamic religions. This probably also accounts for Wilson’s sense that organized religion tends toward tribalism and intolerance. While this has historically been true of monotheistic traditions, we need only think of polytheistic Greece and Rome to know that it is not true of others. While the Greeks and Romans had many reasons for their conquest and enslavement of others, they did not go to war because the gods demanded it or faith required it. Profane decisions, not sacred duties, originally drove this competitive process.