A Christmas message from Charles Darwin

In a New York Times commentary two days ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tackles the consumerist “war on Christmas/Hanukkah” but with a neuro-evolutionary twist traced back to none other than Charles Darwin. He argues that despite the rightwing clamor about the impending destruction of Christmas and all things deemed proper religion, religion is doing quite well “in an age of science” and after “a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.” The proof? Well, “still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith.” He might have added that an even higher percentage would work for Islam, and probably Hinduism and Buddhism as well.

For Sacks this adherence to a religious faith “is truly surprising.” Really? It seems that the best explanation for him comes from Darwin, once considered the Great Satan of Scientific Doubt. Here is the dubious (and I believe ultimately “missing”) link between what people say in opinion polls about religion and the scientist whose 200th birthday was celebrated only three years ago:

Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums.

So “survival of the fittest” must mean that since something as vague as “religious faith” survives in opinion polls, it must be very, very fit. In this case the evidence does not fit very well. Sacks notes that Darwin was “puzzled” by the fact that the ruthless do not always win in the battle for survival. How could altruism possibly result from natural selection? Darwin was puzzled because he had no idea of genetics or DNA, despite his correct notion that inheritance is always unique; thus, his model provided a mechanism that explained why so-called “fixed” species could actually transform and did not in itself explain why. But Sacks misses the point on what allows humans (and no doubt several of our ancestral cousins) to be moral at all: the ability to think morally rather than simply act according to a programmatic code. The seeming altruism of an insect or bird is not the same as altruism among humans, because it is not thought out as humans do. Nor is it the case that altruism demands self-sacrifice; caring for one’s offspring can be as altruistic an act as sacrificing one’s life for a comrade. If a mother or father sacrifices herself or himself to save a child, this is indeed reproductive success as Darwin would define it.

But Darwin is not really the issue here, unless Sacks wishes to analyze Darwin’s own views on religion. In his Autobiography (a great read at any time of year), Darwin clearly rejected the formal Anglican Christianity of his day, but he did not consider himself an atheist. The term “agnostic,” created by his friend and public relations bulldog Thomas Huxley, is a closer fit to what Darwin is suggesting about the transformation of his own faith. He did not reject the idea of some intellectual force setting the whole universe in motion or keeping it together, but he did not see any viable explanation in the religions he knew.

The evidence that Sacks relies on comes from neuroscience, at least as a religious person wishes to interpret brain signals and chemical sequences:

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

Well, one could also say that we also have neurons that induce violent behavior, even to enjoy causing pain to others, so we must be hard wired for tyranny and thus we are all immoral creatures. We can anatomize neurons, to be sure, but consider that it is estimated that a human brain contains about 100 million neurons (which are quite variable) and 100 billion synapses; plotting exactly how neurons are part of our behavior is hardly reducible to a mirror image. And the assumption, following a model by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, that we can understand how the brain works by positing a fast track of instinct vs a slow track of reflection is fine for an introductory psych class, but hardly a viable explanation of how we humans interact in any given situation.

There is a problem in the rhetoric of wiring. There are no “wires” in our body and thus the metaphor is useful only as a metaphor, not as an anatomical object. Our DNA code results (still quite mysteriously to those who study this) in propensities for certain kinds of actions, but no matter what the code calls for, it can only be activated in a specific environment. For some time now that environment that we are all born into has been called “culture,” an admittedly cumbersome term, but certainly as useful as “god” for theologians. Sacks finds in evolutionary science a reason to be religious, but in fact what he is referring to is a reason to be social. While we are not the only social species by any means, our success as a species is utterly dependent on our ability to form groups in combination with an evolving capacity to reflect in the process. To follow up on a case study Sacks mentions, if more people are bowling alone, but not joining bowling teams, this is also because bowling can be done alone. One does not actually play alone in soccer, football, or baseball because they are team sports. At any rate, those folk who prefer not to join bowling teams may have a wide variety of social groups already. And do they, in fact, not talk with anyone else in the bowling alley?

Religion, a rather broad term, is certainly one way in which humans organize themselves, but religious rhetoric can as easily be used to harm others as to comfort them. Sacks is right in noting that formal religions have great survival ability, but he neglects to consider why in historical terms. There have been many, many religions, but those that survive have political trajectories. Try to imagine Christianity without Constantine, or Islam without its conquering spread east and west through the defunct Roman Empire. Is Christianity the world’s largest official religion because it has the correct view of “God” or because of the political success of those societies which supported it?

The fact that people say they have a religious faith does not mean that any specific religion has the “truth.” Sacks argues that religion is all about communalism (as though monks are not religious) and the “best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age.” Does this mean that atheists and agnostics buy the most consumer products? Are the church and synagogue goers less likely to go Christmas or Hanukkah shopping than those who darken the doors of a church or temple only a couple times a year? And how exactly is being a consumer a sign of being an individual when many of the products we consume enhance social interaction?

Sacks concludes his commentary with a bait-and-switch.

The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

Where did “God” (with a capital G no less) come into this argument about religion as social bonding? Thanks to the Victorian anthropologist Edward Tylor, the scholarly community was liberated from the idea that religion had to be defined as belief in a deity (especially a singular supreme deity) with all else relegated to mere superstition. There are very practical reasons why religion serves as a social bond (for good or ill), but none of these indicate that belief in a particular “God” or any kind of deity is necessary. The more generic the God concept, the more likely people will say they believe in “God.” But the devil usually sneaks into the details. As history demonstrates over and over again, a strict dogmatic belief in a particular view of God or a particular political ideology often leads to intolerance, not altruism.

Could human society survive in the West (I guess the rest of the world does not matter to Sacks or is being written off) by never losing their “sense of God”? Societies come and go, but it could be argued that a particular religious faith owes more to the political and economic survival of the society that follows it than the other way around. Neuroscience and evolutionary biology seek to unravel the mechanisms by which human beings came to be human and what makes us unique as humans, given our shared ancestry. But “religion” is part of what makes us human because it is part (and not the only part) of what makes us social. Sacks suggests that perhaps God “has a sense of humor,” but we certainly know that humans have very funny ideas when it comes to talking about “God.”