Rational Religion

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Of Guilt and Instinct


As a rash young philosopher I deplored the Catholic church's emphasis on the ritualization of guilt and expiation.  It all looked like a straw man...or rather a strawman army... to me.


You created a whole lot of thou-shalt-nots and made all the faithful feel guilty about doing them.  Then you gave them a safety-valve outlet... the confessional... to keep the constant guilt feelings from paralyzing them or driving them crazy. 


All this kept the flock very busy and diverted them from thinking about the absurdity of the whole exercise.  To make sure they never asked any of the obvious questions which would have brought the whole house of cards down a-fluttering, you started drilling this stuff into them from way before they had any independent cognitive powers at all so it was as much a part of them as the language they spoke.


I considered it as clever as it was amoral.


Over the years I have come to understand what the Catholic church has learned over its somewhat longer lifetime.


There are thou-shalt-nots.  They may not be exactly the same ones as little Catholic children learn in catechism class, but there are things that human beings shouldn't do to each other or themselves. 


And you don't have to invent them.  All you have to do is study history and observe your species-mates and they define themselves.


Furthermore, most of these things come with built-in genes attached.  That is, we are impelled to do them by circumstances and conditions not entirely within our control.  So there had better be some kind of psychological penalty which prompts us to fight our more potentially disastrous urges. 


When I was a young person, going to various schools, the fashion was to deny that human beings were ruled at all by instinct.  Instinct was something that "lower animals" had to depend upon because they lacked our cognitive abilities.  The party line -- even among most scientific thinkers only a few decades ago -- was that as we evolved into Homo sapiens we had gradually lost or eliminated all our innate pre-programming as we replaced it with higher intellectual functions.


I think it was all a part of a final paroxysm of denial which started with Darwin's publication of "Origin of the Species."    As it became more and more apparent to anyone with a teaspoon of analytical skill that -- if we had been as specified "made by God in His image" He had taken a mighty circuitous route to our creation -- our importance in the philosophical scheme of things steadily waned. 


Our diminution didn't start with Darwin, of course, but long before; with Copernicus and Galileo; and even before them, with some very smart Greeks.  


As soon as the earth became round, there arose the possibility that there was someone or something..   NOT US…on the other side of it.  As soon as it stopped being the center of the universe, we no longer lived at the center of even our own solar system.  The deeper we looked into space, the more apparent it became that we weren't even close to the center of a rather pedestrian galaxy which was only one of probably billions.


We knew a lot about the size of the universe and our unremarkable place in it by the 1940's and the knowledge was making even the greatest thinkers among us feel rather small. (Perhaps, them, especially.)


At least we still had our undisputed place at the top of the evolutionary pyramid here on earth!  So, whether we mourned it as loss or regarded it as an inevitable consequence of being able to think, we were sure we had pretty much gotten rid of our instincts.


The last 50 years have been a bad time for any intelligent person who has been early indoctrinated into any of the more restrictive anthropocentric theologies.  A paralyzing weight of empirical evidence  -- from Jane Goodall's studies of chimpanzee societies to several dozen pounds of our possible ancestors' bones found scattered mostly around Eastern Africa; to the occasional undeniably still bird-brained parrot who seems able to use the English language with as much syntactical skill as a human toddler --  places us ever more firmly not at the "top" of anything, but within a spectrum of evolution and behavior.


And we are finally having to admit that a lot of what we euphemistically called "drives" in my youth - to distinguish them from "instincts" which governed lesser creatures than we  -- are programmed into our DNA as certainly as our dog's predilection for chasing things and our cat's obsession about cleaning her fur.


There is no way to prove exactly what conditions we evolved under, but we can deduce some of them by observing the end (hopefully not the "finished") product. 


We have learned, rather surprisingly, from old bones and at least one set of mummified footprints, that our upright posture probably showed up a good while before we had enough brain even to be classified in the genus Homo.  We can guess, from this fossil evidence, that the evolutionary advantages of having eyes placed in a position where we could see over a good deal of our predators' cover (not as commanding a view as the giraffe's, but superior to a warthog's and even Cousin Baboon's) made it a good idea to become bipedal.  This superior viewpoint serves a passive defensive purpose, preserving our individual genes to be passed on to the next generation, but it also confers an active advantage in those cases where we, ourselves, play the role of predator.


Of course, in the process of becoming bipedal, it is also necessary to become very efficiently bipedal.  You not only have to walk upright, you have to run that way, too.  Otherwise you lose your observational advantage just when it is most crucial to your effort.  Whether you are chasing or being chased it's an advantage to be tall and fast.


Our  Whicheverpithecan ancestors probably had pretty good brains, too; at least the equal of a chimpanzee's, so they caught onto changes in their environment pretty quick. 


Since they were a relatively large animal, incapable of digesting cellulose (like a ruminant) they had to either live in an ecology where food was plentiful or they had to have a rather sizeable range. 


It is pretty likely they came of sociable stock.  There are primates in the modern world which are essentially solitary.... natural hermits.  The most salient example is a near relative, the East Indian Orangutan.  Even the other Southeast Asian great ape, the gibbon, is not found in troops like most of the other monkeys.  But our ancestors must have been much more like our nearest "blood"  (actually genetic) kin, the chimps. 


There are individuals among us who are "loners" but that personality trait is more of an extreme variation from the social human  norm; the rare exception that "proves the rule."


Most of us seem to function better as part of a group, at least for certain crucial elements of our lives.


But, not too large a group!


It should be of a size to provide us with emotional and economic support but not so huge that we become lost in it and our individuality is blurred.


Because it is difficult to find a single group which provides the ideal amount of everything for each person in it, we modern creatures have learned to migrate efficiently between a number of groups, taking from each what we need to make us -- as individuals --whole. 


We go to our jobs and our classrooms; we return to our families daily.  We unite on a regular schedule with like-minded people in our congregations and fellowship halls and share brief but intense experiences with people we have never seen before and will never associate with again in football stadiums, concert halls and even -- in a weird sort of virtual community  -- watching the same television program in thousands of different places.


Most of our lives seem to revolve around shared experiences.  So we can postulate that we evolved as a social animal for at least the last several million years.  But the realities of finding enough food and safe places to sleep would have made it inefficient for us to associate in large, ungulate-like herds. 


We don't have the jaws and teeth of a predator, but we still have to get our vitamins and protein largely pre-packaged. 


Our ancestors were most probably scroungers and opportunists.  They ate a lot of nuts, berries and tubers (all conveniently concentrated for us by the plants' own efforts to reproduce and store food) and they scavenged the occasional kill of a more efficient hunter or knocked off the easy prey like frogs and clams and baby rabbits. 


We lived in small groups of no more than a few dozen people (probably further fragmented into family groups or special friendships most of the time) and we moved a lot because we had a tendency to eat ourselves out of house and home on a regular basis...even if we weren't subject to changes in the season.


And always, because there was constant pressure to do so -- from other animals, the climate, the tribe across the river -- we got gradually smarter and more neurologically complex until at some point we became Cartesianally conscious.  That is, we realized that we existed, because we could realize we existed.


It probably wasn't a single "point," and it almost certainly happened hundreds of times, before enough of us had developed enough language skills to put it into words for ourselves and to discuss it with one another.  But along with this powerful philosophical/psychological transition came a fundamental and just as powerful error.


Once we realized that we could think, it became inconceivable to us that we could cease to do so.


Consciousness carries a built-in curse, which derives quite naturally from the billions of years of survival-impetus built into our DNA. 


It wants to live forever!


It is also easily misled into megalomania.  Since it was obvious that none of the other animals could think as well as we, it was easy to decide that they couldn't think at all. 


In truth, this particular anthropocentric mistake is probably a fairly recent one.  Few "primitive" societies are as bad about it as the more highly "civilized" ones.  It's pretty hard to believe that a monkey can't think if only your very best hunter can outsmart him...and then just occasionally. 


It's easier to believe in the mindlessness of domestic livestock, raised lo these thousands of generations for slaughter.  (Unless, of course, you have had dealings with pigs.)


Before we go further, let us not forget that we have evolved at all times in the presence of our own ever-more-complex brains.


I suspect that the gap in IQ between our species and the rest of even our closest relatives is attributable to a double-bitted consequence of the process by which we became (it's too grandiloquent a term, but it's the one we use) sapiens


In the first place, I suspect there is a point of critical mass for any organized aggregate of neurons.  As soon as there are enough of them, making enough complex interconnections, there ensues a kind of self-inventing explosion; or rather, the opposite; a coming-together;  a Gestalt, in which the whole becomes not only greater than the raw sum of its constituent parts, but incalculably greater!  A sort of neurological phase change, like water changing to ice; or to steam, it probably happened -- on the geological time scale -- incredibly fast.  It might even have happened within a few generations; probably not as few as one or two, but -- given the right environmental pressures -- within less than a dozen.


It's actually there in the fossil evidence...or in the lack of it.  It could always prove to be just the haphazard incompleteness of the fossil record, but nobody has yet found that key skull who could be called the "missing link".  


There was Neandertal, who had as large a brain as we, but from the cranial evidence somewhat differently organized.  And then, apparently quite suddenly, there was Cro-Magnon, generally indistinguishable from us.


 And so recently!  After two or three million years of hominids and near-hominids -- some of them apparently persisting as species for a million years or so -- here within the last hundred millennia is Homo sapiens.  And after about 30 thousand years ago, at the latest, only Homo sapiens.


Steven Jay Gould's Punctuated Equilibrium is a viable theory, here.   Life goes on indefinitely as long as conditions remain the same.  Comes some big environmental change - like an ice age or continent-wide desertification or a big enough hunk of extra-terrestrial rock - and life either changes to meet the new conditions or it ceases, altogether.


The process of natural selection is reactive, not pro-active. 


Species do not evolve new strategies in response to catastrophic environmental changes.  They have to play the cards they hold at the time. 


If they do not possess a sufficient catalog of individual variations, some of which can survive the changes, then those lineages come to an end. 


If the change is abrupt and global  -- as in the case of the occasional "doom comet" -- most species become extinct in a geological instant.  The changes are too radical and too abrupt to give them even one generation to select for survivors.


If it is more gradual, but just as extreme...such as an ice age...there is both opportunity and pressure.  Speciation is likely to be rapid and profound.


I now submit that the development of human consciousness...that big relatively sudden interconnection in one or a few (probably genetically related) pre-sapient brains… was - and for the affected species most specifically -  a cataclysmic event on the order of a profound global climate change.


Once sapiens-level intelligence was loose on the planet, and reproducing, nothing could ever be the same, again.


Which brings me to the other blade of my double-bitted analogy.   Not only do I suspect that we became very smart very fast; we also used our powerful new advantage to lunch all the competition in sight. 


Always the most readily identifiable competition is our nearest relatives, who look kind of like us, act kind of like us and - most important - tend to eat most of the same stuff we do and want to sleep in all the safest caves.


If these guys are just as smart and aggressive as we are, wisdom becomes the better part of valor and it's easier to migrate than to fight.  If they aren't our match, intellectually, they're toast; or lunch, which kills two birds with one para-homicidal stone.  We eat them and remove them from the food chain at the same time.


There aren't very many species which are as genetically isolated as we.  Admittedly, we prove to be much closer kin to the chimps and Orangs than even the most objective of us would have liked to think only a couple of generations back, but given our astonishing reproductive  proclivities it is odd that we don't have any near-but-not-quite-sapiens relatives tucked into some isolated environment someplace.


But we don't.  And evidently only a couple of million years ago we had several Genus-mates...enough and in such variety that it is impossible to figure out which one of the ones we've found (if any) may have been our actual ancestor.


It becomes most tempting to postulate that advanced intelligence was not only a rapid phenomenon, but a dispersive one.  That is, any local environment very quickly became too small for a burgeoning number of transcendently efficient exploiters thereof. 


Given the reproductive success that efficient exploitation of the environment implies, there must have been a good deal of fairly early  "moving on."   When your most dangerous competition for food and shelter comes from your own brothers and uncles, it's smarter to pack up the wife and kids and migrate to someplace where you only have to knock off a few dumb monkeys to have things the way you want them. 


Now I don't pretend to specify when this sea-change in the rules occurred.   If I had to guess I would hazard that it happened a few times, or at least in stages.  That is, one big leap in intelligence led to one dispersal; the next leap, possibly more profound, led to another, and so on.


  'Pithecines and early hominids would have dispersed in waves from one or several points of origin, the smarter and more dangerous catching up with and overrunning (and maybe occasionally interbreeding with) their predecessors in turn.


Given the admittedly spotty fossil evidence, uncovered so far, one might suspect that some of the earlier species may have been more disposed to put distance between themselves and their troublesome cousins than we Cro-magnons, who tend to be rather sedentary and quarrelsome.  History tells us we like to put down roots, if not in a specific plot of land then in an easily-exploitable territory, small enough to become familiar with. 


Once so established, it takes a lot to get us to relocate.  In many instances we'd rather fight than move.


Still, maybe the bulk of our territorial behavior is cultural. 


Some human populations are so attached to place that they literally starve to death rather than emigrate.  But apparently the importance of home isn't instinctive, because others - like most educated modern Americans - disperse readily and voluntarily, in pursuit of employment, education, or whim, with only vague nostalgia in lieu of an emotional tie to homeland. 


And genetics tells us it's all the same animal...whether it roams the vast outback of Australia, or never leaves the natal block in Brooklyn. 


We are, apparently, infinitely adaptable:  if we start young enough.


Which brings us back, oh so circuitously, to the question of guilt and the thou-shalt-nots. 


Guilt for guilt's sake is just a complicated - often paralyzing - way of keeping the faithful in line.  But it's probably not a good idea to get rid of guilt, altogether.   Guilt is the persistent sensation of having done something wrong.  If you have done something wrong, guilt may keep you from doing it again.


This, of course, unless you have been raised in one of the "guilt for guilt's sake" religions; in which case you may feel quite incomplete without a certain component of guilt and you may go misbehave in order to fulfill that need.


But we must all take responsibility for our actions; or inaction. (Tiny children and the profoundly mentally impaired excused, of course.) 


The rules of human intercourse are simple.  They are part of the wisdom of every society.   If you fudge them, you should feel a twinge.  If you violate them blatantly in pursuit of your own gratification, you should feel guilty.  If your transgression has caused serious harm, you should make amends.


But, in no circumstances should you wallow!  Wallowing is a form of enjoyment.  "Mea culpa," can be a really seductive emotional high.  Not only is it unproductive, it can make you a drag to be around.


One may wonder, if there is no proof that any of this matters, why bend such assiduous effort towards leading a good life?


There is likewise no proof that ALL of it doesn't matter on one level or another; as a matter of fact most of it seems to matter to someone.   In any case, there is certainly no point in making things tough for one another.


Point!   If we are most provably a gene pool, then acting in the best interests of the pool is at worst logical; at best, divine; at least self-interested.