Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (2004)

Christopher Boehm's thesis (see November 21, 2012 post) is that members of egalitarian late-Pleistocene human hunter-gatherer groups suppressed their egoistic self-interest that had long been a part of their genetic fabric dating back millions of years to their chimpanzee roots and adopted altruistic, cooperative sharing practices in order to avoid ostracism, deprivation and perhaps more severe forms of punishment directed at those group members who cheated on the egalitarian expectations of others in their group.  Survival or "fitness" for continued survival within the group favored those who were able to exercise greater self-control over their egoistic impulses and cohere with the group.  Sharing of meat within a group on roughly equal shares became a key behavioral norm sustaining individual and group success/survival/fitness. 

Michael Shermer would agree with Boehm's thesis, and he even cites Boehm's earlier works on this subject.  Yet while there is some "science" covered in Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil --- including many of the facts and ideas mentioned in the three previous posts --- the book seems largely devoted to defending Shermer's self-described status as a "skeptic" and the view likewise found in Boehm's Moral Origins (see November 21, 2012 post) that the evolution of human morality preceded the development of religion and religious institutions.  Shermer wastes no time asserting that religion co-opted the moral sentiments and behaviors that hominid evolution already established among humans over hundreds of thousand of years resulting in the development of morality and ethics within paleolithic humans.  The significance of Shermer's claim is his conclusion that morality does not need religion or god.  "While individual religious believers may be exceptionally moral and tolerant people, and while religion may inspire some individuals' extraordinary morality and tolerance, religion does not necessarily foster these desirable traits."  The history of religion is littered with intolerance and even hatred of others, particularly those outside of a group, and that is even true today.  Here is what Shermer says:

"At the foundation of the Bio-Cultural Evolutionary model is an evolving moral sense.  By moral sense, I mean a moral feeling or emotion generated by actions.  For example, positive emotions such as righteousness and pride are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing "good."  These moral emotions likely evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being good either for the individual or the group.  Negative emotions such as guilt and shame are experienced as the psychological feeling of doing "bad."  These moral emotions probably evolved out of behaviors that were reinforced as being bad for the individual or for the group.  This is the psychology of morality --- the feeling of being moral or immoral.  These moral emotions represent something deeper than specific feelings about specific behaviors.  While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the general moral emotion of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved emotion that is universal to all emotions."  Later Shermer adds, "[S]pecific behaviors in a culture may be considered right or wrong and these may vary over cultures and history . . .[b]ut the sense of being right or wrong in the emotions of righteousness and pride, guilt and shame, is a human universal that had an evolutionary origin. **** The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of moral traits evolved as a form of social control to ensure the survival of individual within groups and the survival of human groups themselves.  Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, but morality need not be the exclusive domain of religion.  Religions succeeded in identifying the human universal moral and immoral thoughts and behaviors most appropriate for accentuating amity and attenuating enmity.  But we can improve on the ethical systems developed thousand of years ago by people of agricultural societies whose moral codes are surely open to change.***[R]eligion codified these moral principles for sound reasons having nothing to do with divine inspiration.  The moral sentiments and principles came first, evolving over the course of a hundred thousand years of humans living in a Paleolithic environment.  Religion came second, co-opting morality and codifying it to its own end, all of which happened in just the past couple of thousand years.  What would happen if we jettisoned religion altogether?  Would society collapse into immoral chaos?" Shermer asks.  "No, it would not," he responds.  Our moral sense is older than religion and would continue to survive even if a titanic cultural change occurred with the disappearance of religion." 

Both Boehm and Shermer put the origins of moral sentiments in humans --- the equivalent of the Golden Rule --- at about 35,000 years ago.  Religion, a cultural phenomenon emerged later, "as bands and tribes gave way to chiefdoms and states.  Religion encouraged altruism and selflessness, discouraging excessive greed and selfishness, promoting cooperation over competition, and revealing the level of commitment to the group through social events and religious rituals."

The emergence of religion was not a sudden phenomenon, and religion probably did not emerge  to encourage altruism and selflessness. Anthropologists and archaeologists have documented that human social structure likely evolved from egalitarian bands and tribes to chiefdoms to states and nations.  If we accept Boehm's characterization that the hunter-gatherers lived in small, but relatively mobile egalitarian groups (30-100 persons).  There is evidence that the origins of religion are  found here and its origins probably had nothing to do with origins of altruism and morality.  Anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers reveal a variety of perceptions of supernatural beings, typically animate, but sometimes inanimate aspects of nature that are perceived to be "alive." But as Robert Wright reports in The Evolution of God, if you ask hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they would not know what you are asking about. Religion as we know it does not exist for the hunter-gatherer.  They do believe that a spirit exists that moves animate life, and what the hunter-gatherer is interested in from their spirits is an explanation of why bad things happen and how can things be made better.  Hunter-gatherers do not worship gods; they treat their spirits or gods like other humans. Available evidence indicates that the origins of religious experience lie in shamanism, a spiritual phenomenon  linked to magical practices designed to encourage a successful hunt and healing. Anthropological evidence of shamanism is found as early as the upper paleolithic (10-30,000 years ago). That would place the development of shamanism several thousand years after the origins of morals in humans.

In The Evolution of God (see May 12, 2010 post), Robert Wright suggests how shamans might emerge in an egalitarian environment, citing an example from research on the Crow tribe of the North American Plains:  "any tribesman might become a shaman after going on vision quest and having an apparition signifying his adoption by a particular spirit." He cites the !Kung San where, during an all night curing dance, "any man or woman was eligible to enter a trancelike state and thus summon num, a spiritual healing energy." Shamans often rely on dreams or visions or an altered state of consciousness to bring them special "knowledge," which they believe is possessed uniquely by them and which they translate to prophecy.  But in the end, to maintain one's status as a shaman depended upon their efficacy in curing, causing rain to fall, or ensuring a successful hunt.  If the shaman was not effective, he or she was replaceable.  Wright suggests that shamans may have practiced deception in order to sustain their status.  Successful shamans possess a certain power within their group, but this power may or may not have been necessarily political like the power of a local governor or mayor, says Wright.  Political leadership within a group may have emerged from the leadership of the shaman where the shaman emerged to become a mediators of within group conflict and conflict between groups.

According to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, archaeological evidence indicates that hunter-gatherer societies evolved to chiefdoms about 5500 B.C., perhaps earlier.  The emergence of chiefdoms however follows by about 4500 years the beginning of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the beginning of the Neolithic Period, when the cultivation of food (as opposed to merely harvesting wild food) would have encouraged settlement rather than nomadic mobility.  As the homo sapien population grew around these settlements, small groups or bands started aligning into communities, perhaps consisting of a thousand or thousands of people.  Characterized by several settled communities controlled by a single leader, equality is no longer a characteristic of the group and heredity is a source of status within the chiefdom.  Hierarchical forms of leadership emerged within chiefdoms.  The chief probably became involved in directing the distribution of food within his communities. 

In describing religion in the age of chiefdoms, Robert Wright writes in The Evolution of God:

"Shamanism, then, turns out to have been the start of something big. This early form of religious expertise, found in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, was at most an amorphous leadership. Though the shaman’s claims to supernatural skill earned him or her social status and a kind of power over people’s lives, shamanic influence rarely translated into clear-cut political clout. But as agriculture emerged and chiefdoms crystallized, political and religious leadership matured and fused, and the fusion held these newly complex societies together."

While noting considerable diversity among chiefdoms, Wright describes the Polynesian chiefs studied by anthropologists as possessing a "divine authority," even emanating from the divine and perhaps returning to the divine after death, possessing a divine or supernatural power referred to as mana.  According to Wright, this represented a natural extension of shamanism: "elevate your importance by claiming special access to the supernatural." In chiefdoms, we see the merging of supernatural religion and political leadership.  Wright continues:

"In this phase of cultural evolution ---- with personal policing having lost its charm but with government not yet taking up the slack --- a supplementary force of social control was called for.  Religion seems to have responded to the call.  Whereas religion in hunter-gatherer societies didn't have much of a moral dimension, religion in the Polynesian chiefdoms did:  it systematically discouraged antisocial behavior."

This is the point in time that Shermer is referring to when religion embraced and co-opted morals.  Now human social sanctions were supplemented by threats of supernatural sanctions.  It took religion between 25,000 and 30,000 years of human history, one thousand generations, to embrace the Golden Rule and encourage self-restraint.  Wright concludes, "When you add up all the little ways Polynesian religion encouraged self-restraint ---- enough perhaps to compensate for the absence of a centralized legal system.  And religion in chiefdoms was doing more than fill in for not-yet-invented secular laws; it was paving the way for secular laws."

According to Boehm, morality and altruism emerged when individual humans began to submit to the interest of the hunter-gatherer group.  Submissiveness and obedience became a human trait in the late Pleistocene.  Religion encourages submissiveness, and studies suggest that religion exploits the submissive tendencies of naturally submissive persons.  Robert Wright's reporting on religion in the era of chiefdoms would suggest that chiefs were not submissive, because they viewed themselves as among the gods.  At some point in human history, very recently I submit, religious leaders shed the view that they had some special connection to the supernatural and to gods and became submissive to the god(s) they worshipped.  This may reflect a return, perhaps not completely, to a more egalitarian group environment and it would be interesting to know what prompts this circumstance, but I would suggest that survival as leader in the cultural milieu might have something to do with it as well.  And in that vain, the separation of political leader and the "priestly class" as evidenced in the history of the Jews in the Old Testament may have had something to do with the submissiveness of religious leaders as well.

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