Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Learning about religion from chimpanzees and gorillas

Several new books have come out on the topic of origin of religious beliefs in the past few months. The latest is by an anthropologist, Barbara King, and its called Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion. Her theory is based on the studies of social behaviour of apes and monkeys.

Here is a long Salon.com interview with Barbara King.

The Salon article does a good job of summarizing some major ideas on origin of religious beliefs in one paragraph:
Take Daniel Dannett, the philosopher who has proposed that religion is a meme -- an idea that evolved like a virus -- that infected our ancestors and continued to spread throughout cultures. By contrast, anthropologist Pascal Boyer argues that religious belief is a quirky byproduct of a brain that evolved to detect predators and other survival needs. In this view, the brain developed a hair-trigger detection system to believe the world is full of "agents" that affect our lives. And British biologist Lewis Wolpert, with yet another theory, posits that religion developed once hominids understood cause and effect, which allowed them to make complex tools. Once they started to make causal connections, they felt compelled to explain life's mysteries. Their brains, in essence, turned into "belief engines."
King's basic idea regarding religion is also summarized in the article (there is obviously more detail in the interview and in her book):
For the last two decades, King has studied ape and monkey behavior in Gabon and Kenya, and at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. In her new book, "Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion," King argues that religion is rooted in our social and emotional connections with each other. What's more, we can trace back the origins of our religious impulse not just to early cave paintings and burial sites 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, but much earlier -- back to our ancient ancestors millions of years ago. And today, King says, we can see the foundations of religious behavior in chimpanzees and gorillas; watching our distant cousins can do much to explain the foundations of our own beliefs.
But more relevant here is her response regarding science & religion compatibility:
I'm part of the camp of people who thinks it's perfectly possible to see religion and science as compatible areas of thought and inquiry. In my book, I lay out three choices. You can say you've got to choose one. You can believe in science or you can have faith in God -- the Richard Dawkins school of thought. Or you can say there are "non-overlapping magisteria" -- the famous Stephen Jay Gould answer that religion will help us with meaning, and science will tell us about other things. I'm actually in a third place. If you can avoid being a biblical literalist, and if you can avoid being an arrogant scientist who tells everyone else what to think, you can think on multiple levels at once. There's a lot of beauty in seeing that religion and science are really about the same things. They can be perfectly compatible.
She describes herself as spiritual - which is quite a vague category. Her view on the compatibility of science & religion is equally vague. Of course, they can be compatible if you consider the feeling of awe provided by science as a religious experience - and that is indeed a good way of thinking about religion and science. But I'm not sure if this is what she is saying. Otherwise, its quite hard to make science & religion compatible/tolerable without resorting to Gould's non-overlapping magestaria (which has its own problems).


ThomasJeromeNewton said...

wht no alpha waves when rfering to cognition?

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