A Biologist Looks at Religion, the Humanities, and Our Compulsive Sociability

At age 85, the naturalist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has a new book out, ambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence, a philosophical weaving of Wilson’s themes of human and animal sociality and its consequences for humanity. Here and in earlier books, I value Wilson’s reaching out from solid science to the many implications of that science for how we understand our world.

In his field, Wilson remains at the center of the controversy over whether natural selection creates change not only in individuals but also in groups (Wilson’s position) or in an individual’s kin. Although Wilson describes that complex debate in the book, I’ll leave it aside here and try instead to piece together, in his words, some sense of his big picture of sociality, religion, and the humanities.

(nawe.co.uk)

Wilson: We’re addicted to anthropocentricity, bound to a bottomless fascination with ourselves and others of our kind. (nawe.co.uk)

Sociality. We underestimate the degree to which sociality, our tendency to form organized groups, is a distinguishing trait of our species. It is, Wilson argues, our virtue and our curse, the source of our unity and our bigotry, a trait that relies on our communication via our eyes and ears, distancing us from the world of smells and tastes in which other animals and even plants live.

In Africa roughly two million years ago, one species of the primarily vegetarian australopithecines evidently began to shift its diet to include a much higher reliance on meat. For a group to harvest such a high-energy, widely dispersed source of food, it did not pay to roam about as a loosely organized pack of adults and young….It was more efficient to occupy a campsite and send out hunters….Mental growth began with hunting and campsites. A premium was placed on personal relationships geared to both competition and cooperation.…The social intelligence of the campsite-anchored prehumans evolved as a kind of nonstop game of chess.…[This intense sociality, which we share with only about 20 other species, mostly insects,] allows us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. (pages 20-22)

[Humans have inherited] the overpowering instinctual urge to belong to groups.…A person’s membership in his group—his tribe…confers upon him to some degree or other a sense of superiority. When psychologists selected teams at random from a population of volunteers to compete in simple games, members of each team soon came to think of members of other teams as less able and trustworthy, even when the participants knew they had been selected at random. (31)

Religion is an extension of our social intelligence, reflecting our need to be both part of and protected by a group. Like our sociality, religion has served us both well and badly. There are no gods; we are alone and we don’t understand ourselves as well as we will need to in order to assure our future.

The brain was made for religion and religion for the brain….The great religions…perform services invaluable to civilization. Their priests bring solemnity to the rites of passage through the cycle of life and death. They sacralize the basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor. Inspired by their example, followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God….

(commons.wikimedia)

(commons.wikimedia)

The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular….It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things. (149)

It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist. The true cause of hatred and violence is [not a matter of extremism but the conflict of] faith versus faith. (154)

The Humanities. Understanding ourselves better requires both science and the humanities. Science takes the broadest view of nature, but scientists will unveil fewer big discoveries in the future. The humanities are open-ended but are limited in their own way.

So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future, it is also what we will choose to become. (173)

(slideshare.neet)

(slideshare.neet)

To speak of human existence is to bring into better focus the difference between the humanities and science. The humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment, the latter including plants and animals of aesthetic and practical importance. Science addresses everything else. The self-contained worldview of the humanities describes the human condition—but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence—the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place. (174)

We have become the mind of the planet and perhaps our entire corner of the galaxy as well. …. [But] we are hampered by the Paleolithic curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence but are increasingly a hindrance in a globally urban and technoscientific society. We seem unable to stabilize either economic policies or the means of governance higher than the level of the village.…People find it hard to care about other people beyond their own tribe or country, and even then past one or two generations. It is harder still to be concerned about animal species…. [Our inner conflict, spawned by evolution, between cooperation and selfishness] is not a personal irregularity but a timeless human quality. (178-179)

If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities.

Yet this great branch of learning is still hampered by the severe and widely unappreciated limitations of the sensory world in which the human mind exists.…Creative artists and humanities scholars by and large have little grasp of the otherwise immense continuum of space-time on Earth, and still less in the Solar System and the Universe beyond. They have the correct perception of Homo sapiens as a very distinctive species, but spend little time wondering what that means or why it is so. (185-186)

I’m not sure that the humanities will ever take on topics much beyond the complexities of the human experience, but I agree that people want enlightening information about their place in the universe. Perhaps in the past, traditional religion met that need; perhaps in the future a more naturalistic spirituality will do so.

Stephen Hawking, Cosmology, and Spirituality

I recently saw the current film about Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything,” enjoyed it very much, and decided I was overdue to read A Brief History of Time. For the first few chapters, the book was a master class in the emergence of current theories about the universe. Hawking handles the abstractions of astrophysics as deftly as most people handle a knife and fork. I was on edge keeping up with him, and he writes so clearly that I succeeded.

(wikimedia)

(wikimedia)

Up to a point. About a quarter of the way through the book, it looked like I was going to flunk the course. It was sentences like these that did me in:

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity…predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down. Such a point is an example of what mathematicians call a singularity. In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (Kindle location 687)

The theory of relativity wasn’t the only thing that broke down at that point. I’ve never understood what a singularity is nor can I thoroughly grasp how space or “space-time” can be curved. Over the years I’ve stared at those diagrams of what look like drain holes without being able to connect them fully to what I know of space or time. I do have a very elementary grasp of galaxies, the expansion of the universe, black holes, and portions of the theory of relativity, but when it comes to singularities, quanta, curved space, and why nothing can go faster than the speed of light, the little tv in my head loses the picture. So I drifted away from the book.

I’m sure I’m not alone in all this. Science, always pushing the limits of  knowledge, remains comprehensible to an educated audience as long they can visualize the new theories. But modern science has moved into the realms of the enormously large, the incredibly small, and the unbelievably old, and in the process has moved beyond many people’s capacity. Hawking himself observes that “in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists” (2558).

Don't ask me how, but space is curved—with spin. (wapsec.com)

Don’t ask me how, but space is curved—with spin.
(wapsec.com)

One result that I find troubling has been that while some religious and spiritual organizations accept science as a source of information about the natural world, probably only a few of their members can understand what science is saying about the basic nature of the universe. The educated generalist, whether theist or non-theist, who turns to science to learn about the building blocks of nature may quickly come face to face with concepts that she or he just can’t grasp. Fortunately, such complexities don’t interfere very much with people’s believing in a god or other ultimate entity.

Over time, the cosmology-spirituality gap has been slowly closing. Scientific facts and theories that were unknown or controversial a few decades ago seem to be working their way into the religious mindset gradually. Evolution seem the obvious exception, but outside of America it is considered a sensible view of the past. And in my case, twenty years ago I would never have thought that the longevity of life over 3.8 billion years would mean much to me, but now it is central to my appreciation of life. From time to time, in articles about society or politics, I come across casual references to quantum mechanics or the uncertainty principle as phenomena at the root of how events turn out. Who knows? Perhaps my grandson will grow up to feel that string theory is his key to making sense of the world.

Significantly, Hawking’s book itself, intended for a general audience, represents his own effort to bring the frontiers of cosmology closer to home for “ordinary people” (his phrase). As for my failed first effort to read it, I went back to it, absorbed what I could about black holes and theories of the universe, and appreciated the breadth and agility of Hawking’s mind. It was well worth it.

In the last couple of chapters, Hawking acknowledges how far the work of modern cosmologists remains from most people’s picture of the universe, but he is optimistic about closing the distance. The era of new and bewildering theories about nature, he writes, may be drawing to a close because a grand theory that unifies all the partial theories seems to be coming into sight; “we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature” (2319). When that stage is reached, theoretical cosmology can settle down and become sufficiently streamlined and teachable that laypeople will be better able to grasp it. “A complete, consistent, unified theory is only the first step: our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence” (2504). The italics are in the original. Hawking recognizes that the value of science lies finally in the understanding that it brings to people and not just to scientists.

Our sun, one of 400 billion  stars in the Milky Way galaxy, one of 100 hundred billion galaxies.    (nasa)

Our sun, one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, one of 100 hundred billion galaxies
(nasa)

Money, Suze Orman, and Survival

These days when I catch Suze Orman on TV, I watch her for a while. Her in-your-face “here’s what I want you to do” approach used to put me off, but I’ve been a financial coach for low-income individuals for a few years and I’ve changed my mind about her.

Suze on the job (suzeorman.com)

Suze on the job
(suzeorman.com)

My role as a coach or mentor is to meet with individuals over weeks or months to help them stay on their budget, be smart about their expenses, and  keep plugging away at their financial obstacles. The sessions are conversations, and that is what Suze is good at. I listen for what it is she is probing for and how she puts the pieces together. What do you owe? How much are you saving for retirement? For emergencies? What’s your age? Family? Health? Why are/aren’t you putting money in this, cutting back on that, opening/closing this account? What’s your question for me? And when people aren’t sure whether to make payments on a new giant television or add to their retirement fund, she repeats her mantra: People first, then money, then things.

Suze seems to be the right guru for a time when incomes have been stagnating and personal finance has become bewilderingly complex. Back in the days when people farmed, hunted, built their own homes, and bartered for what they couldn’t do or buy themselves, money was not the only way to procure the necessities of life. Now, for almost all urban and suburban dwellers, it is the only way. Money is the gateway to the goods and services that people need for their very survival.

I liken the hurdles of today’s ordinary household finance to the survival challenges that early humans and even plants and animals face in other forms. That’s a big jump, of course; there are no money-like exchangeable units in nature. But a goal for all living things is to get to the resources for staying alive, whether those are water and sunlight for a plant or the money to pay the water and the light bills for a human family. When either the natural resources or the financial ones become scarce or inaccessible, creatures suffer. If chimps and spiders and daisies could talk when times are bad, their questions would resemble those of the bewildered American consumer: will there be enough for me to get by; how do I provide for the kids; how much should I consume now, how much should I store for later; who might be trying to get what I have?

Finding resources (gettyimages.com)

Working on resources
(gettyimages.com)

For humans today, answering those questions requires a complex literacy that involves reading, numeracy, and basic knowledge of transactions of all kinds. Minimally, such literacy calls for understanding and managing the basics of: bank accounts, credit and debit cards, credit reports and scores, pay checks, deductions, Social Security, health, car and home insurance, deductibles, liability, student loans, alimony and child support, inheritances, retirement accounts, rents and mortgages, and last but not least the seductions of marketing.

And if you’re poor, you can add housing vouchers, SNAP food credits, temporary cash assistance, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, disability assistance, Earned Income and other tax credits, and utility bill assistance.

Finding resources (lifehopeandtruth.com)

Working on resources
(lifehopeandtruth.com)

While other creatures are born with their survival mechanisms built in, you might expect that the modern brainy human animal would learn the complexities of financial survival in school. But we don’t. (Twenty states do require one personal finance course in high school or the inclusion of such material within another course, such as math. But such short programs barely scratch the surface beyond budgeting and saving.) In theory—but rarely in fact—we learn it from our parents; maybe that’s why Suze Orman scolds and praises as if she were the mother of her audience.

This educational neglect of the realities of money and family finance is not accidental. Education prepares young people to join the workforce but not the marketplace. Kids spend 12 years reading, writing, calculating, following schedules, and playing well together so they will be prepared for the world of work. But these same kids will also become—and by middle school already are—participants in the marketplace, and a market society does not like shoppers who are too smart. It is not in the interest of profit-makers if a 10th grader can comparison shop in the supermarket candy aisle or a forty-year-old utility worker can keep the family credit score at 800.

Finally, add in the grim reality that soon, globally, the wealthiest one percent will own 50 percent of the world’s wealth. As they have for many species before us, resources may grow more and more scarce for most individuals. We need more hard-nosed navigators like Suze to get us through.