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Monday, December 24, 2012

Maybe, but We're Still Animals

Posted by on Mon, Dec 24, 2012 at 10:29 AM

In a column in the New York Times, Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the UK's United Hebrew Congregations, makes an argument for religiosity, by claiming that humans are "moral animals" who are hardwired for empathy and altruism:

If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.

I agree with Sacks' general premise, if not necessarily his conclusion. Altruism—the willingness to sacrifice one's individual interests for the good of the group—is almost certainly a trait that confers a broad evolutionary advantage in a context where survival of the individual is so heavily dependent on survival of the group. This is especially true when one considers that the driving force of evolution is not survival of the individual, but of the genetic code, code that is shared closely with the rest of one's tribe. If there is an altruism gene, then sacrificing oneself on behalf of one's cousins might assure that this gene lives on.

Likewise, the sheer prevalence of religion in human societies strongly suggests that this behavior is at least rooted in a trait that provided early humans an adaptive advantage. Maybe it's closely connected to altruism. Social cohesion is necessary for one group to compete against another, and religion is certainly an effective tool toward that.

That said, I don't think that Sack's conclusion—that society cannot do without religion—is as obvious as he thinks. Both altruism and religiosity can and do exist without the other. Many people act morally without religion, and many an immoral act has been committed in the name of one god or another. But mostly, I find Sacks' whole evolutionary biology argument a rather odd one for a religious leader to make, as it appears to devalue the significance of faith.

For to say that we are moral animals (and I'd agree that we are) is to admit that we are just animals nonetheless: Animals that crave sweets and sex and spirituality and whatever else has proved advantageous over millions of years of natural selection. And while that's a process that doesn't necessarily preclude a god, it certainly doesn't require one any more than an act of altruism requires a religious faith.


Comments (20) RSS

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Afreet 20
Morality does not come from religion. In many cases, morality persist *despite* religion.
Posted by Afreet on December 26, 2012 at 8:16 AM · Report this
@17 He went to Catholic school for middle school, teachers there are nuns, so I'd say he had a nice dose of religion. Honestly, everyone, religious, not religious, everyone is against killing kids. Not having gone to church would not have increased the number of "don't kill kids" lessons he might have learned.
Posted by gnot on December 26, 2012 at 12:58 AM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 18

Mayhaps. But for all this doing that we've done, what has any of it amounted to?

Percy Bysse Shelley's poem Ozymandias illustrates my point.Long after we are all gone, and all that remains of humanity's intellect are the artifacts we have created, what will be that is somehow better for our having improved it?

All species go extinct eventually, and ours will as well someday. Death is real, both individually and on the species level. And once the humans are gone all those things we all thought were so significant-music, poetry, art, religion, philosophy, science-what will any of it have meant?

Our pre-human ancestors, such as homo erectus and the Australopithecines had brains too, and presumably could on some level think. What is left of any of their thoughts?

The occasional fossil. Puzzling arrangements of grave goods nobody understands the significance of. A few crude instruments of no real value. That's kind of it.

And someday, that's all that will be left of us.

So what use is all the inherited culture and knowledge, anyway? Since culture only survives inside the human mind, when there are no human minds left, then culture itself will also vanish.

Thus, it has no lasting significance, if we measure time on the grandest scale. Neither do we.
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on December 25, 2012 at 10:24 AM · Report this

Was he a regular there?

Or does this bit of "information" go in the file folder along with other hearsay such as:

1) The motive was that his mother was committing him
2) That she worked at the school.
3) That she was a substitute teacher
4) The he listened to 1950s "classical" rock music.

How does this Informational Pollution get into the stream.

Someday we'll know.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on December 25, 2012 at 12:38 AM · Report this
Toasterhedgehog 16
@14 Squid never built telescopes. They may have more neurons, or a larger brain, and the lotus flower may have more genes, but those measures don't take into account our second inheritance, the inheritance of culture and knowledge. Take the information you learned from adults, and add that to your genetic inheritance. Compare the overall amount of information beyond your DNA that defines you to that of a lotus. DNA is all the lotus has. Same with squid and octopuses. They die after mating, and cannot teach their offspring. We can't test whether an octopus would build an atom bomb. My guess is that the evolutionary pressures that drove us to create that technology are not so dissimilar from those that drive the totally awesome, beautiful, and kick-ass octopuses. We had the opportunity to create an world wide murder device. Cephalopods, due to their biology didn't. Maybe they wouldn't. There's no way to know.

I agree. We have no divine authority or superiority. But we earned the authority obtained through naked power. We have created the value of death. We have imbued complexity with meaning. We have attained an unprecedented power over the biosphere. If a species on this Earth has attained a superior morality, I invite their communication, but if they exist, they haven't tried to communicate with us. Given the stakes, it would be immoral not to.

To summarize, We have to be the most moral and intelligent species with an interest in the biosphere of Earth, because anyone better than us would have stopped us. For humanity, for better or for worse, the buck stops here. Marriage and Presidential metaphors in one sentence! I'm really drunk! No one will ever read this. I don't care. My thoughts are fun! I'm at work for the next few days! Yay me!
Posted by Toasterhedgehog on December 24, 2012 at 11:52 PM · Report this
sirkowski 15
Empathy and altruism came to us before religion. That's quite obvious when you look at primates and social mammals. Religion is just an after thought that primitive humans used to justify their empathy, altruism and morals.
Posted by sirkowski on December 24, 2012 at 10:57 PM · Report this
Tacoma Traveler 14
There is a concept called the Great Chain of Being that originates in medieval Catholic philosophy. It places man at the top of a chain of living organisms, just below the angels (who are just below god). The simplest creatures are at the bottom.

This concept is the justification for Dominionist philosophy. Even secular people often express this idea, such as the famous cartoon that describes evolution originating with a fish in the left of the frame, several other animals marching on dry land toward the right, and man at the right edge of the frame.

Its also complete nonsense. Every nonextinct species is just as successful as any other nonextinct species. If we measure complexity in terms of the number of base pairs in the genome, a lilly (yes, the flower) is far more complex than a human. If we measure it in terms of how long the species has managed to survive in it's current form, we live not in the Age of Man but in the Age of Bacteria. If we measure it in terms of cranial capacity, we are inferior to the giant squid.

The reason why mankind wound up at the top of the Chain of Being is because the Chain was conceived by men.

Do we know that other creatures are not moral? How do we measure that? What basis do we have to say that octopi are not morally superior to we? After all, the cephalopods never built a damned atom bomb.

Moral animal, indeed. Is this why we are engaged in endless warfare throughout all recorded history? Is this why we allow our own kind to go homeless and hungry? Is this why we insist on dumping toxins into the air so we can poison every living thing on Earth so we can run around in circles on our highways pursuing careers that, in the very long run of history, mean nothing?

No, rabbi, we are not the moral animal. We are quite the opposite.
Posted by Tacoma Traveler on December 24, 2012 at 6:26 PM · Report this
Fish Wrench Asteroid 13
Religion is a side effect of the flexible nature of the human brain. Human babies obtain knowledge through observation, experimentation, and mostly from what adults teach them.

Our brains are built to absorb what we're taught regardless of whether it makes sense. A child that is obeys when told not to run into traffic, not to swim in crocodile infested water, or to avoid eating the red mushrooms in the forest has a better chance of passing on their genes. We're genetically programmed to have faith in what authority figures teach. And if you never learn the wonders of reason, you'll have faith, even in the teachings that make no sense. As long as those beliefs don't cause an evolutionary disadvantage they will live on.

The tools to explore are world for the majority of humanity's existence have been limited to our senses. We were masterful scientists in the field of hunting and gathering. But our observational ability was far below our capacity for curiosity. So we filled in the holes in our knowledge with imagination.

The majority of humans become altruistic the moment they grasp the theory of mind and someone gives them some food. It's hardwired. It has nothing to do with religion because it's more ubiquitous than religion.

The minority that don't have altruistic natures become very rich and powerful. They become Popes and Kings and CEOs. They don't share their food with others.
Posted by Fish Wrench Asteroid on December 24, 2012 at 5:01 PM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 12
@11 Adam Lanza was a regular at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church along with his mother. I believe they have Confirmation and Communion there as well.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on December 24, 2012 at 4:14 PM · Report this
Contradictory argument.

If we were moral animals with things like altruism genetically hardwired then we would need to go to church every Sunday to have Thou Shalt Nots drilled into us.

Nature versus nature is efficiency versus flexibility. We then come back to Dawkins argument of a "God Slot" or place in our hardware for a deity meme. This gives us flexibility. We times are good, we live closely together in urban density and say "Hello" and "Good Morning". When times are hard we become psychopaths marauding for survival.

The real danger, if that exists, is modern society doesn't beat the devil out of us any more. The people of Newton who were scrolled with First Communion and Confirmation were normal. Adam Lanza who was cloistered in an upper middle class home with online games was crazy.

The God slot in his motherboard was empty.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on December 24, 2012 at 3:42 PM · Report this
Timrrr 10
Altruism & generosity are not simply the domain of mankind. (Although thinking that it must be, I suspect, IS a uniquely human trait!)

We now know even rats exhibit empathy, compassion & selflessness: WP | A New Model of Empathy: The Rat

So I guess that means rats must have religion too, eh?
Posted by Timrrr on December 24, 2012 at 2:48 PM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 9
@2 He should be so lucky.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on December 24, 2012 at 2:11 PM · Report this
@4, that depends if you're a member of an authoritarian religion. Many of us aren't.
Posted by sarah70 on December 24, 2012 at 1:32 PM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 7
"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

-Steven Weinberg
Posted by Urgutha Forka on December 24, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 6
Yep. Religious apologists have figured out that with a little hand waving, neuroscience can be made to mean anything you want it to mean. It's the new quantum theology. Which was the new intelligent design. Take some sexy new science and stuff god in wherever things get fuzzy.

We know how that works out when the dust settles.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on December 24, 2012 at 11:39 AM · Report this
dirac 5
Let's counter unsophisticated generalities in like-kind! It's better to stroke oneself with their hand than their own thoughts. Off to find some porn...
Posted by dirac on December 24, 2012 at 11:04 AM · Report this
You can see "morals" like empathy and altruism in a lot of animals. Particularly social animals. Same goes for the behavior of following authority, something that religion also requires. God is just an imaginary alpha male. Sacks is just grasping at straws.
Posted by GermanSausage on December 24, 2012 at 10:50 AM · Report this
rob! 3
Atheists Join Religious Groups In Giving Sandy Hook Support…
Posted by rob! on December 24, 2012 at 10:49 AM · Report this
dnt trust me 2
Peabrain, quit sucking on Goldy's cock.
Posted by dnt trust me on December 24, 2012 at 10:46 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 1
The argument we can't be a caring, cohesive society without religion is bunk. Religion divides people and creates a lot of hate as well. But you'd expect a rabbi, or any preacher, to be self serving in their pronouncements. Religion craves money. Without donated money, this guy would be peddling something else we don't need.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on December 24, 2012 at 10:43 AM · Report this

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