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

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


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….



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)



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.

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. In the past, traditional religions met that need; perhaps in the future a more naturalistic spirituality will do so.

2 thoughts on “A Biologist Looks at Religion, the Humanities, and Our Compulsive Sociability

  1. I quite like Edward O. Wilson’s views, although I think he is wrong about group selection – and that (presumed) error influences his thinking in other matters like sociality, religion and the humanities.

    I suspect you have to go back to basics and attribute our species distinguishing traits to much lower level subconscious activities. I think that people subconsciously build mental models of the others around them so that they may survive ‘better’ in the group. This is almost certainly (now) a genetic predisposition. There is some argument that the Default Mode Network (those areas of the brain that are active when we are not ‘on task’) is dedicated to maintaining the mental model of others and may also be linked to daydreaming and creativity (see Wikipedia). In addition the way the brain works seems to boil down a lot of raw associations into simpler labels or schemas, so we end up with abstractions like the Generalized Other (see Wikipedia). I suspect that this Generalized Other could also contain the Generalized Boss, the Generalized Minion, Generalized Status Display, Generalized Ritual, and so on. People then spend some effort in trying to confirm the concrete evidence for such generalized abstractions because most people love certainty and dislike uncertainty.

    I can see ways in which this unconscious modelling results in the conscious concepts of sociality, religion, and the humanities. Which is a long way around to unpicking the higher level concepts of sociality, religion, and the humanities, but I think it necessary to get the foundations in place first. Otherwise our speculations could be unsound.

    I’ve also been thinking recently that humans have an additional trait that has served them well – optimism.This might also arise from the daydreaming activity of the Default Mode Network. If humans had a slight bias towards ‘get up and go’ rather than ‘hunker down and suffer’ this too could ratchet up the survival prospects.

    Do you feel lucky?

  2. Thanks for the extended comment. The Wikipedia articles on the Generalized Other and the Default Mode Network (especially its pathophysiology) are fascinating and recommended for any readers here.

    The Generalized Other reminded me of how, in helping college students with their writing, I would invoke “your reader” to encourage the students to get beyond their own head and imagine a reader who is of typical intelligence and patient but prone to confusion and sometimes boredom. A variant of the GO and the law’s Reasonable Person, with less emphasis on social expectations and more on reading skill. It was not usually an easy leap for young writers to make.

    That ‘get up and go’ is more advantageous than ‘hunkering down’ would make for an interesting analysis.


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