Myrmecology & Theology

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.

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5 thoughts on “Myrmecology & Theology

  1. Bob Wells

    It’s very lazy thinking to take maybe 7000 years (closer to 2500 years) of completely atypical human history and define all humans at all times by it. The only way to understand any creature’s evolutionary past is to study it in its environment of evolutionary adaptedness.

    Studying “civilized” humans to learn about our evolution is like studying chimps in a zoo and ignoring them in the wild. You will learn, but it will all be wrong or at best very incomplete.

    Bob

  2. GregJS

    If I understand correctly, Wilson thinks the general concern with a supreme being and an afterlife – the big, theological or transcendent issues – is a natural, authentic, proper human concern. What he has a problem with is the specific stories different groups of people have come up with because he thinks we are biologically programmed to hold our own group’s beliefs as uniquely right and everyone else’s as wrong.

    Makes me wonder then: What kind of answers to the “authentic” transcendent questions would he deem appropriate? If all people got together and picked one of the thousands of origin myths that exist and agreed never to argue again, would that then satisfy him? Or does he want a purely biological creation myth? Would that then be the one correct way of answering these questions (meaning that everyone else’s is wrong, once again)?

    To my mind, what Wilson is missing is that these big questions, precisely because they are transcendent, cannot be answered in the relatively more straightforward, rational terms that often work so well here on the immanent realm. So, quite naturally, each group of humans has answered these questions in highly idiosyncratic mythical-poetical terms. What other way is there to answer them?

    Of course all of these answers are going to be totally different from each other – at least in their superficial details. And sure, shared beliefs can add to group cohesion, which could be helpful if and when you find yourself in a fight with another group. But to my knowledge, these beliefs themselves were never THE issue between peoples – until relatively recently. That is, these differences were never the basis of any arguing or fighting whatsoever; most peoples never expected to have similar origin myths; it would never have occurred to them that this was something to argue or fight about; and they would have thought it bizarre if another group of peoples adopted their myths instead of keeping their own.

    So I agree, Cris – Wilson must be speaking entirely from within the narrow cultural perspective of how monotheistic, Abrahamic religions have tended to operate (and the secular belief systems, like capitalism, communism, etc. that emerged from them). Another total mis-assessment of human nature based on our own culture/behavior.

  3. Cris Post author

    Greg, this portion of your comment (with which I agree in total) is so good that I’m going to emphasize it:

    And sure, shared beliefs can add to group cohesion, which could be helpful if and when you find yourself in a fight with another group. But to my knowledge, these beliefs themselves were never THE issue between peoples – until relatively recently. That is, these differences were never the basis of any arguing or fighting whatsoever; most peoples never expected to have similar origin myths; it would never have occurred to them that this was something to argue or fight about; and they would have thought it bizarre if another group of peoples adopted their myths instead of keeping their own.

    This is a point I have often made to scholars who claim that “religion” is an adaptive product of group level selection. Assuming for the sake of argument that hunter-gatherers provide our best evidence on how this might have worked in the ancestral past, we know that neighboring groups usually cooperated. This is not surprising given that neighboring groups often spoke the same language and were usually comprised of actual and fictive kin. These groups also tended to cooperate for purposes of trade and marriage exchange.

    When such groups engaged in large-scale competition or outright hostilities — which appears to have been rarely and was probably the result of long-range migrations — it was not because they had divergent cosmologies or worldviews.

    In fact, when different ethnolinguistic groups of hunter-gatherers came into contact with each other, the usual course was to share these divergent views, which were easily (and often eagerly) assimilated. While creation myths remained relatively stable and unique to each ethnolinguistic group, alternative ideas and rituals were a potential source of spiritual power, so these were sought out and often adopted. The widespread diffusion of the Sun Dance and its adoption by highly variable Plains tribes is a good example of this process.

    So this whole cultural evolutionist model for the evolution of “religion” (i.e., that such beliefs cause groups to cohere and out compete other groups) does not fit what we know about hunter-gatherer proxies for the ancestral past. If this gene-culture or bio-cultural model has validity (and I have serious reservations about treating societies as organisms subject to selection), it’s for historically more recent large-scale societies that have organized forms of “modern” religions.

  4. GregJS

    Cris,
    What you are saying about the Sun Dance is a good example of how open, fluid, and non-dogmatic most peoples have been about their “religious beliefs” (do you have a better term to use here?) and practices. Jerome Lewis’ dissertation on the Mbendjele Pygmies http://issuu.com/gfbertini/docs/forest_hunter-gatherers_and_their_world (which I learned about on this blog) also describes very nicely how rituals diffuse among related groups – and also out to the surrounding Bantu villagers. Not only is there no basis for religious fighting or anything approaching prostelyzation or “conversion” among such peoples, but even more significantly they probably wouldn’t even understand the concepts. Far from trying to impose beliefs/practices on others, there is some tendency try to maintain custodianship over “their” rituals and the powers evoked by them.

  5. jaap

    My father was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. He absolutely refused to give me a Christian education: that was something I should work out for myself. He begged me never to believe in anything that I did not personally experience. And I’m wondering now – far too late, at the age of 64 – what it was that he had personally experienced. And I know now that’s always how it is: when your thoughts have finally got round to asking the right question, the phenomenon has long gone! This fleeting world that can be felt but not talked about has become a person to me. Since I came to live in Austria I’ve come to call him/her/it??? ‘der Fritzerl’. Yes, male … My problem. But he’s my big friend, and my little wee friend! And I know there’s something that cannot die, but that’s not my thoughts, not my concepts, not even the greater part of my loving-kindness, which will utterly perish together with all my exstacies and my traumas … My memories of meeting der Fritzerl I can count with the fingers of one hand … It will do. I don’t remember my dreams, and I know I can’t fathom my own existence. And there I’m happy!
    PS: I quoted Shakespeare twice. Have you spotted it?

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