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

(cc) Hasin Hayder
(cc) Hasin Hayder

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, as in earlier books of his, I appreciate Wilson for his reaching out from biology so widely as he applies that science to how we understand ourselves.

In his field, Wilson remains at the center of a controversy over whether natural selection creates change in groups (Wilson’s position) or in an individual’s kin (most other scientists’ stance) as well as in individuals. Wilson discusses that debate in the book, but I’ll leave it aside here and try instead to piece together, in his own words, his broad picture of sociality, religion, and the humanities.

Sociality. We underestimate the degree to which sociality, a species’ tendency to form organized groups, is an outstanding trait of humans. 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 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 yet 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 of the conflict of] faith versus faith. (154)

The Humanities. Understanding ourselves better requires both science and the humanities. Science takes the broadest view of the place of human beings in the cosmos. The humanities describe the human condition 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.

 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)

Wilson excludes religion from the humanities (although that is where it is located in traditional categories of knowledge) and instead assigns the widest view of humanity to science. But perhaps such distinctions are not helpful when it comes to the broad perspective on the universe that he hopes for in the future. Perhaps that perspective will include a naturalistic spirituality that integrates the three.


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