Showing posts with label Evolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Evolution. Show all posts

05 February 2016

Setting Ourselves Apart

Nihang Sikh
In this essay I will explore some issues surrounding our identity as members of a religious group (which might also be of interest to readers who aren't religious). Some of the opinions I'll express in this essay will be controversial. I'm not entirely convinced by liberal rhetoric on difference and tolerance. I do believe that we should be tolerant of difference, but when I look at the society I live in I have to admit that I might be in a minority. And given that a sizeable proportion, perhaps even a majority, of this society is not in tune with liberal rhetoric, what does that mean for religieux in practice? My purpose here is to try to understand issues of identification with a religious group and how that might play out in practice in the actual society I live in, rather than with reference to an ideal society that does not exist. Clearly there is a certain amount of intolerance towards minorities here. I think an evolutionary perspective on humanity helps us to understand why that might be, and at least to me, it suggests that our approach to diversity might be flawed. It's fair to say that this essay is a bit of a ramble and an opinion piece.


Evolution

I've written about evolution and human societies quite often now. The facts seem to be that human beings are evolved for living in small communities of up to 150 people. These communities may be part of larger units—multiples of 150—but larger units tend to fission for purposes of daily life, coming together on special occasions. This limit is imposed, according to research by Professor Robin Dunbar, by the ratio of neocortex to brain volume. Larger groups require more neo-cortex because we have to keep track of more relationships in real time (family, friends, lovers, feuds, alliances, etc). Other primates mainly use one-to-one grooming to ensure individuals are well integrated in the group and that it has overall cohesion. Our groups are now so big that we could spend all our time grooming and still not interact with everyone in our group. And we have to eat and sleep! So we evolved group activities to help balance our time budget. Cooking food also helped by making our food more calorie-rich, reducing our foraging time.

Some of our most important faculties, such as reasoning are designed to work in small groups. Our orientation to the world as a social primate, like all social animals, is safety in numbers and cooperation to achieve common goals. An aspect of this is that we are distrustful of strangers and intolerant of individual differences where they threaten group cohesion. Our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Individuals who were loath to work with us or who worked against us were bound to be neutralised either by assimilation back into the group, or by expulsion from it (or in extremis by being killed). One of the most powerful means of social control we have is isolation: shunning, exclusion, banishment. Ironically, loneliness is often a feature of urban life, especially as we get older.

In his book on the people living in the New Guinea highlands, The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond explains that a hunter-gather tribe there has a well demarcated territory in which they can forage for food. They usually have uneasy relations with immediate neighbours and encroach on their land at their own risk. To be caught outside your own territory is to risk being killed on sight. A person living in this environment would seldom, if ever, stray much beyond the traditional borders of their tribe. They would never meet their neighbour's neighbours. Of course New Guinea is densely populated compared to some other places. However, rather than clump and blend, the tribes there stayed small and distinctive, with hundreds of languages between them. They are vastly more culturally diversified than similarly sized countries in the rest of the world. Australia was similarly diverse before the arrival of Europeans. We are evolved to suit this kind of situation of small groups and strong in-group/out-group boundaries. Since then our culture has changed at a very much faster rate than evolution can keep up with.

About 10-12,000 years ago our communities began to clump together. This is usually associated with the invention of agriculture, though at first this was a relatively unsuccessful venture that led to reduced food availability. It took centuries of trial and error for settled agriculture to begin to produce enough food to be a more effective way of life than hunting and gathering. It's likely that domestication of herd animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, was a key move towards larger groups, since it makes more protein available in a more reliable way. As long as there is pasture, herd sizes can increase exponentially (according to Dunbar the limiting factor is rainfall). Once we worked out how to produce a food surplus that would support non-farming society members, the stage was set for a revolution in how we lived. Numbers in our groups began to swell beyond the limits of neocortex. Once a few members of our society were freed from the necessity of finding food they could specialise in other activities (though they still had to sleep and participate in community bonding activities). Civilisation began to emerge. By which we mean groups with large populations and institutions to enable them to live together: division of labour, kingship, land ownership, organised warfare, religion, etc.

In these early stages of our social evolution, religion emerged partly as a way of helping groups members experience themselves as connected to the others. As already mentioned, Robin Dunbar has argued that as group sizes increased in our early ancestors, our usual primate methods of group bonding became ineffective. The time taken for one-to-one grooming with every group member, for example, became more than the time available. A variety of many-to-many grooming substitutes had to evolve alongside our burgeoning groups. Amongst these were group laughter, singing, and dancing. Presumably story telling also played a part. The first anatomically modern humans to migrate from Africa almost certainly carried myths with them that then took root and survived in far flung places like New Guinea and Australia. These group activities result in the production of the endogenous opioids (or endorphins) that produce a feeling of well-being. Religion took the form of collective rituals, often involving group dancing, singing and story telling, and explicit shared beliefs. This helped the group to experience a sense of connection and common purpose. Rites of passage for children becoming adults often involved a shared ordeal that helped to bond group members. A distant echo of this is "hazing" and groups often haze new members to help bond them (ironically this may involved inflicting suffering or humiliation on them). One has to be willing to undergo hardship for the group. And lastly groups of people like to ensure that they look different to neighbouring groups. One of the ways that tribes of people, multiples of 150, identify each other is through distinctive clothing, symbols, or body modification. In small societies every one is marked the same way. Armies still use this concept in their adoption of uniforms, flags, and insignia.

However, many of us now  live in massive, multi-ethnic societies in which any number of sub-groups exist based on ethnic identity and/or religion amongst other things. And members of some of these communities are still going out of their way to identify themselves with their sub-culture through wearing special hats, special grooming practices (involving hair in particular), and/or adopting special clothing. The subculture might be based on ethnicity or religion or it might be based on something more abstract. And we might identify with more than one subculture.

A lot of the discussion in the UK at the moment is over how Muslims fit into Britain. Many Muslims feel bound to make strong statements of their identification with their religion often through grooming and sartorial statements, or through beginning their contribution to public debates with the words "As a Muslim...". They are Muslims first and they want everyone to know and acknowledge this. A few vocal people, who adopt the same identifiers, are openly critical of the British way of life and wish to impose a traditional Middle-Eastern form of governance (ironically if they got their wish they'd almost certain lose the right to freedom of speech). Some extremists argue for violent overthrow of the state and the culture, and some are currently plotting to kill British people to make their point. Muslim terrorists have succeeded in one major terrorist attack, ten years ago, and several other plots have been foiled. I'm using Muslims as an example because they are in the news. We Buddhists also get involved in flouting our religious identity, and not a few would love to overthrow the current government and impose some kind of Buddhist rule (though they are generally speaking more circumspect about this). I sometimes see monastics wandering around in their robes and shaved hair. Or one sees people with ostentatious jewellery: badges, mālās, vajra-necklaces,  monk's bag etc. I do it too some extent because I prefer to use my Buddhist name in most circumstances. To religious people, religious identity is important. And usually we want other people to know we are religious. If it's not obvious from our hair or clothes, we'll habitually bring it up in conversation. We're tedious like that.


Society & Tolerance

It's not that long since British people felt their society to be relatively homogeneous. Yes, it was riven by strong class divisions, but these divisions were familiar, and the classes were unified to some extent by their rejection of outsiders. Even today Brits are almost nostalgic for the version of the class system of the 18-19th century - witness the constant rehashing of stories set before liberalism took hold. British people will joke about incomers to some villages being treated as the "new people" for three or four generations. This is a joke based in reality. Some people are really like that.

In fact immigrants have long played a part in British society, though usually on a small scale. An almost continuous series of waves of immigration from Europe have arrived over the centuries. Some were completely absorbed (e.g. Huguenots) and some were not (e.g. Jews, Roma). For their own reasons Jews tend to retain their identity, live somewhat apart from the mainstream. Hasidic Jews are definitely separatist. Which brings us closer to my main point. Ironically this very practice of separatism has itself often been a trigger for prejudice against Jews. This is not a justification or an excuse. I'm not saying that it is right! I'm saying that anti-Semitism is a something that Jews still encounter and that sometimes they inadvertently trigger it.

The trouble is that if you are apart from the mainstream, then when times get tough the mainstream may well turn on you. This can happen in any number of ways. In contemporary Britain there is a backlash against people who accept welfare for example. It was relatively socially acceptable in the 1970s, but nowadays if one accepts welfare it is, for example, very difficult to rent a house to live in. All people who accept welfare are tarred with the same brush: lazy, unreliable, and criminal; whereas British people generally see themselves hard-working, steadfast, and honest. Fifty years ago the Brits described people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity using the same slurs. Before that it was the Irish. The Spanish have often been a target. As have all people of colour from Africa, America, Pacifika, and Asia. Outsiders, especially minorities, are easily portrayed as representative of the antithesis of in-group values. The English language has many apparently innocuous terms that were once ethnic slurs: French letter, Dutch courage, Wandering Jew, and so on; and even more outright terms of abuse, such as nigger, kraut, frog, dago, wop, spick, etc. The English will still depict the Scots as miserly (when in fact they were just poor, mostly because of the English). Within England the English make fun of the accent of Birmingham, or suggest that people from Norfolk are inbred. It's often done in a jocular way, with a nudge and a wink, but its done almost continually. Where there is smoke, there is fire. And the thing is that this kind of attitude is general amongst people I've met. In India the low caste Buddhists I know tell me that even the very low castes have other low castes that they look down on. Despite how caste has blighted their lives, they are still caste conscious. Where I grew up, people from Auckland are called jafas (after a sweet called a Jaffa). This is an acronym for Just Another Fucking Aucklander. And we told jokes about Australians being stupid and immoral (they told more or less the same jokes about us). When I lived Auckland, my neighbours from mainland China confided in me that they "did not like Indians". The awareness and marking of difference seems to be ubiquitous. I would argue that it reflects an evolutionary outcome of being a social species: high in-group trust, low out-group trust.

I want to argue, against the liberal mainstream, that this distrust of strangers is not a bug of society, its a feature. Again, this is not an endorsement. It is an attempt to understand an apparently senseless behaviour in evolutionary terms. I believe that the better we understand our unconscious motivations, the better able we will be to overcome the conditioning. But the first step is admitting that most of us don't like strangers. If there is any doubt about this, I can cite various politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Tony Abbott, Marine La Pen, from around the world who represent a silently fuming body of people who are fed up with multiculturalism, tolerance, and immigrants; fed up with liberal values being pushed down their throats. The danger is that we don't understand this phenomena and fail to take adequate steps to counter it. We ought to be reflecting on our failure to effectively communicate evolution for example. If we believe that tolerance and migration are good, then we need to better understand why some people oppose it and why politicians who voice that opposition are increasingly popular at the moment. But too often liberals are not at all interested in how their opponents think. Rather ironically, they define conservatives as out-group and demonise them.


The Religious Other & Liberalism

This essay was sparked by reading a news item about a Sikh man who had been beaten up by a red-neck in America. The Sikh man's family had lived in their adopted town in the USA for over a century. And the man who beat him shouted, "Why are you here?" Chances are, the Sikhs migrated to America before the red-neck's family did! Any thoughtful American would already have concluded that they have more to fear from "white" Americans with guns than from any Sikhs. A quick trawl through the long list of mass shootings in the USA suggests that none of them were carried out by Sikhs. In fact one of the shootings involved a white American shooting up a Sikh temple and murdering many people. So it seems that a Sikh is significantly more likely to be the victim of mass murder than the instigator of it. So why would a red-neck target a Sikh man?

Part of my answer is to do an image search for "Sikh". The top 100 images are mostly of men with long beards, wearing turbans. The images are of Sikhs are mostly men, but from all walks of life. Importantly Sikhs often serve their adopted countries in the military (usually a high status job for red-necks). But a Sikh man is instantly recognisable as a Sikh. Sikh men ensure that they stand out as Sikhs. What I am suggesting is that if you were never educated about Sikhism, and most Americans are not, and at a time in history when the news was full of stories about foreigners who want to kill Americans, and all you saw was someone making a sartorial statement along the lines of "I am not one of you, I am a Sikh", then that might trigger a primal, aggressive response. I'm going to emphasise this point: this explanation is not an excuse, the point here is to try to understand why people become aggressive towards strangers and suggest ways to mitigate such reactions. 

I don't mean to single out Sikhs, it's just that the news story featured a Sikh man and they do often make this strong statement of setting themselves apart. Another group who often suffer this kind of abuse, in Britain at least, are Muslim women who insist on wearing full-face veils, something which is almost an anathema for mainstream British women who fought for the rights to be seen and heard, and are still fighting for equality. The British women I know find the wearing of veils and face coverings very difficult to empathise with. They are still concerned with finding an equal footing in society with men. They continue to fight inequality and discrimination and the veil seems to represent both. I recall quite an interesting radio interview with a British Muslim woman who became so fed up with hearing cat-calls from men that she decided to wear a full-face veil. She would go out covered from head to toe with only her eyes showing. But unfortunately this change in her appearance meant that cat-calls turned to sometimes violent abuse. It was awful. She was in an invidious position, but it was made considerably worse by her adoption of ostentatious religious garb that set her apart from the people around her. It was not an effective strategy. Anyone who looks, speaks, or acts differently from might become a target for hostility - where difference is entirely relative to the situation.

As I say, our distant ancestors survived and prospered by ganging up and pulling together. Nothing unites people like a common enemy. Who that enemy is, is also entirely relative. 

Liberals seem to naively expect society to just accept differences. To be sure, they have had notable successes in outlawing prejudice against people who are different in ways that they have no control over. It is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity for example, which is not the same as saying that it has been eliminated. But for example, being sexually oriented towards your own gender carries far less stigma than it used to. We have also made it illegal to discriminate on some differences that are based on individual choices, such as political views (up to a point) or religious profession. Social liberalism has been a force for good in that it has helped minorities to emerge as equals in society. And it continues to have successes, in the form of marriage law reform for example, despite a decisive shift to the right in politics in Britain. But liberalism has to some extent steam-rolled these changes through. And under these circumstances there is always the risk of a backlash.

The Liberal response to all of the situations I've described: aggression towards a Sikh, cat-calls, and violent abuse is the same each time. Such things should not happen. Every one must be tolerant. Our laws reflect these values. But our streets, apparently, do not. We invent new crimes to make it clearer. Now if you abuse someone of a different race or sexual-orientation, that is not simply a violent crime, it is a race hate crime that carries harsher penalties than mere violence. We've defined a whole variety of hate crimes with harsh penalties. These offences often come with new labels. We mistaken refer to hatred of something as a phobia (or fear). I'm not sure this confusion of terms helps. Islamophobia is not a fear of Islam, it refers to a hatred of Islam. It's not born from fear, it's more likely born from disgust, the response to a stranger. Similar homophobia is not a fear of homosexuals. Personally I see theistic religion as a rather negative influence in society, though for some people it can be personally positive. Hate is probably too strong a word for what I feel. I'm certainly against theists having more say in society and would very much like to see the Church of England disestablished and a true separation between church and state. Nor do I hanker for a Buddhist state, since all the Buddhist states in history have been awful or even monstrous. In this sense I'm a secularist.

Making a law and punishing offenders is not the same changing the culture. A more successful strategy might be to welcome different people into public life. It's only in living memory that Britain allowed radio and TV presents to speak in regional accents. People of colour are still vastly under-represented in public life. And as we've seen some institutions, like the Oscars, seem determined to resist any liberal reforms that would make them treat women or Africans as being of equal status and value. TV is currently squeezing in a trans-gendered character where-ever it can, because this has become a cause célèbre. No reason it should not be a time for more awareness of this issue, but it's not as if we have solved the problem of under-representation in a broader sense. Women are still vastly under-represented in the higher echelons business and politics for example. The chances of an African American winning an Oscar are still minimal. And so on. Equality laws are not going to change things while, say, a woman only rarely gets a senior cabinet post in a British government (and this true of the cabinet of the only woman Prime Minster we've had as well).

With regard to "race" it's important to emphasise that skin colour is a particularly bad determinate of relatedness. Skin colour is simply a measure of how close to the equator your ancestors lived. If they were from the tropics, you'll have dark skin. If they were from higher latitudes you'll have pale skin. It's all to do with how much vitamin D one can synthesise and it changes quite rapidly - just 5000 years and your skin will change to suit. Humanity is all one species by any definition of the word. That said, the human population of, say, Africa is far older and thus far more genetically diverse than the rest of the world. Thus any two Europeans with pale skin are far more likely to be related than any two African people with dark skin. It's only legacy thinking that makes us think of dark skinned people as homogeneous. Of course in countries where Africans were transported as slaves, the slave population became a melting pot. The whole concept of "race" is bankrupt and more or less meaningless. The fact that Britain uses "black" and "white" as ethnic terms still makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, because the terms are meaningless (no one in the world is either black or white), but also because they preserve the prejudice of the recent past and reflect continuing discrimination against people with brown skin.

An important issue in Britain is immigration. In 2015 around 100,000 people emigrated to the UK. That's a town the size of Cambridge, where I live. Providing housing, infrastructure, and services to another 100,000 people, at a time when government spending continues to fall is stretching the resources of the country. If it happens every year, and it does, then we have a major problem here. Research seems to show that migrants taken as a whole make a net contribution to the economy, but even so the government is still cutting spending on things like the National Health Service, which struggles to cope with serving the needs of the present population. Unfortunately, compared to the rest of Europe, Britain continues to attract economic migrants, both temporary and permanent. And European law says that we cannot place barriers in the way of the movement of labour within the Union. This has led to the leaders of the country to offer an in-out referendum in which the citizens can vote to leave the European Union. The issue of identity and where we belong (and how we treat outsiders) is playing out in national and international politics also. 

Britain has also seen a number of high profile terrorist attacks on our soil. These were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. And we are told that a large number of plots to commit acts of terror are foiled on a regular basis by the security services. Some of these result in public prosecutions. And yet we are being drawn further into wars in the Middle East that appear to be fuelling the fundamentalist recruitment drive. The media that reports these situations has a vested interest in promoting negative emotions. The media thrive on our fear, anger, and disgust. And we, collectively, seem only too willing to feed the troll. The local terrorists are ostentatiously Muslim. There is a legitimate fear of religious fundamentalism amongst Muslims inspiring violence against British citizens. Some say that such people are "not Muslims". But this is facile. Islam, like every religion is split into sects that disagree on who is in charge and who is an authority. Appeals to the authority of the Koran are meaningless unless we accept the premise that it is God's word. Even then, what God meant is open to interpretation - God always seems to like to leave room for different readings. In the end it is men who decide what God's will is. The terrorists are Muslims. Very much so. The fact that other Muslims disagree with them is interesting, but not definitive, even if the British Prime Minister co-opts that view for his own ends. 


Rights

And amidst all of this are religious people who insist on asserting their religious identity over and above any other aspect of their identity. Like many groups who are insisting on their "right" they seem to unconcerned with unforeseen consequences. They have a right and it is up to the rest of us to protect that right of theirs, whatever it may cost us. In Britain I observe that there is a general unwillingness to think that one's actions might have consequences, especially if the actions are an expression of some right. If one is claiming a right then the consequences are not the responsibility of the individual. Society is seen as a guarantor of rights. And if our behaviour involves risk then it is up to society to eliminate that risk. So many people here go out at night and binge drink so that they completely lose control of themselves. And these people expect to be safe. But they are not safe. In many cases they might not even be safe doing what they are doing if they were sober. They are definitely at risk when falling down drunk. And yet they assert they have a right to be safe, whatever risks they may take. And complain when the government treat them like children. Sadly in the Cambridge News today is the story of a bright young Cambridge University student who was killed by a car: it was 1:30am, she was very drunk, wearing dark clothes, walking in the middle of the road, on a major arterial road, when she was struck by a car. The driver was going under the speed limit and watching out for cyclists with no lights (very common in Cambridge). 

Having been a victim of violence I sympathise to some extent, we all want to feel safe when we go out at night. But while society has yet to eliminate violent people, wouldn't it be more prudent to take reasonable precautions against becoming a victim of violence? Is there any rational or realistic expectation of eliminating violence from society? I can't imagine it myself. Is it realistic to expect everyone to obey the law all the time? Not really. So why would anyone expect to act as though they lived in a utopia? Of course we don't want to simply blame the victim. That's not what I'm getting at. But if you are in a minefield, there's no point in complaining that mines are illegal and immoral. One must take practical steps to get get out of the minefield without getting blown up before complaining. Nor am I saying the campaigning is pointless. We have seen a good deal of positive social change in my lifetime. What I'm talking about is a culture of entitlement. The idea that we are entitled to live in a utopia. That we ought not to have to make an effort to defend our rights from those who would deny them to us. It's the sense of entitlement that I don't understand. 

Talking about these things is difficult because if one expresses a dissenting opinion one tends to become a target for trolling. Labels get thrown around and thinking through the issues gets replaced by an enforced orthodoxy. And anyone who dares to dissent from this orthodoxy is characterised as evil. Lately the trend is to label anyone who argues with the liberal mainstream as a Nazi. Its as if we've forgotten the mad imperialism that brought the whole of Europe and half the world into an all-out war characterised by massive loss of life and destruction of property. We've forgotten that the Nazis attempted genocide, murdering sex million Jews. The Nazis were not simply authoritarian or dictatorial or anti-liberal. They were mass murderers on a scale that's hard to imagine. We trivialise the word Nazi at our peril. Once we trivialise a phenomenon like the Nazi's we raise the risk of it happening again: and this at a time when far-right groups are making steady gains in some European countries. 

There's a worrying trend to argue that people should not be allowed to say things that liberals disagree with. That one should not be allowed to say things that people might take offence at. Recently the British parliament actually spent time debating whether or not Donald Trump, a major investor in the UK economy, should be allowed to visit the UK. The reason was that he'd just said that his policy would be to stop Muslims entering the USA until there was some way to be sure they were not terrorists. This was shortly after the Paris bombing, where one of the bombers had entered France as a refugee. Many people argued that Trump should not be allowed here any more. The fact that this was a debate suggests that we have lost sight of what freedom of speech means. Trump can say what he likes. Our fear can only be that people will take him seriously. Why would we fear that? Of course the Trump the irony is that apart from one egregious example (9/11) most of the murderous attacks on American soil, the mass-shootings, are by non-Muslims and Americans of European rather than Middle-Eastern origin. Their problem is not so much religiously inspired terrorism as it is gun crime.


Setting Ourselves Apart.

If we religieux wish to set ourselves apart then we need to be realistic about the possible consequences of this. Out-group members may well receive harsh treatment, especially at times when there is economic or political upheaval. Arguing that this is not fair is childish. The world is not fair. People are what they are. Liberalism has certainly made some progress in the West, but our society is far from perfect, and many places are profoundly anti-liberal. We do not live in a utopia and probably never will. (I've written about this before: Living in a Non-Utopian Universe, 12 Sep 2014)

On the other hand I don't think it's true to say that religious people have more in common with each other than with non-religious people. The shared values that we have tend not to come from religious profession, but from the wider society. Religion is paradoxical in this sense. Since any one religion is always a minority these days, identifying with it to the point that one feels one must make a public statement of identification makes for a stronger sense of belonging to the religious community, but of being more set apart from society generally. If one also characterises society as generally evil or misguided, then the "us & them" effect is even stronger. Do we ever think about what we are sacrificing in order to experience a strong sense of belonging to our religious group?

Setting ourselves apart amidst a larger community is a two edged sword. A common enemy does bring people together, but we run the risk of becoming that common enemy and uniting people against us. This ought not to surprise us. At the level of our adaptation to pre-civilisation lifestyles, this makes perfect sense. It's part of our of survival strategy. As admirable as liberal values of tolerance inclusivity, and egalitarianism are, by setting ourselves apart we run the risk of testing how deep those liberal values go. And all too often they don't go very deep. So it might be worth religious people asking themselves, is it worth it. Can we get that feeling of belonging without all the public displays of affiliation and overt tribalism? Or is the acknowledgement of strangers really that important to us? 

One thing we need to think about is why some people are happy to define their in-group as "humanity" and why for some it is so much narrower. Why for some people seeing a man in a turban is a delightfully exotic sight, and for another it is a trigger for violence. And we really urgently need to drop any moral rhetoric along the lines of "because they are stupid". Sometimes people are stupid. But pointing this out never really helps. We need to try to get beyond our own simplistic, moralistic judgements and really connect with the values of others. That we might not share those values makes this difficult, because all of us find it difficult to embrace someone who's values are different from ours. But until we understand those values we will not make a connection of the kind that can bring change.

~~oOo~~


See also

25 September 2015

The Complex Phenomenon of Religion.



It's 25 years today since my father died. His death was one of the events that got me thinking about life, death, and all that. I dedicate this essay to:

Peter Harry Attwood (1935-1990).

Religion is sometimes portrayed as a simple phenomenon. As a simple crutch for the weak, as a "violent" control mechanism and so on. Although these kinds of criticisms sometimes contain a grain of truth, in fact religion more generally is a complex phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of a number of qualities, characteristics, or abilities that humans possess. In this essay I will try to outline a set of minimal common features of all religions and link them to an evolutionary account of humans.

The diagram below attempts to summarise some of the key factors involved and to show how these factors interact to produce the basic phenomena of religion. However, any given religion may include many more elements and be considerably more complex that this summary suggests. At the end of the essay I will add a few comments about Buddhism as a religion and about what makes Buddhism distinctive (or not).




Religion seems to minimally involve supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife. I have argued that belief in all these is "natural", by which I mean they are emergent properties of the way our brains work. I do not mean that these are necessarily accurate intuitions in the sense of being true. However, as ideas which have guided human behaviour they have been very successful in helping us go from being just another species of primate, to the highly sophisticated cultures we live in today (and I include all present day human cultures in this). What follows is not a critique, but a description. There are possible critiques of every point, both in the conclusions of religieux and of the reasons for things that I am proposing here. But I want to outline a story about religion without getting bogged down in the critique of it. In most cases I've made the critique previously. 

Supernatural agents emerge from a combination of such properties of the brain such as pareidolia (the propensity to see faces everywhere); agent detection and theory of mind (Barrett; see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth Are Still Plausible?). Fundamental to the supernatural is ontological dualism and the matter/spirit dichotomy.

Theory of mind is tuned to make living in social groups feasible and means we tend to see other agents in human terms (anthropomorphism). Supernatural agents are human-like in their desires and goals, and counter-intuitive only in that they lack a physical body. Because this is minimally counter-intuitive it makes supernatural agents more interesting and memorable. Thus, human communities tend to be surrounded by a halo of supernatural agents. Lacking bodies, supernatural agents may possess associated abilities, such as the ability to move unhindered by physical obstructions, but they are often located in some physical object, such as a tree, rock or home. Those who can bridge the two worlds of matter and spirit we call shaman. Though of course spirits also operate in the two worlds, if spirits remained wholly in their spirit world they would be a lot less interesting. For some reason the spirit world seems inherently leaky. Shamans interpret and use knowledge gained from spirits to guide decision making in the material realm. Supernatural agents can become gods and when they do, shamans become priests.

Fundamental to this account of religion is the social nature of human beings. Any account of religion which rejects the social nature of humanity or demonizes the basic structures and functions of human groups is simply uninteresting (so that is almost all psychology and most of social theory inspired by French philosophers). Unfortunately in this libertarian age there is a tendency to take a dismissive or critical stance on human groups. Social living is undoubtedly involves compromises for the individual. But the evolutionary benefits massively outweigh any perceived loss of autonomy. What's more human social groups look and work very much like other primate social groups. This has been apparent since Richard Leakey sent three young women to Africa to study chimps, gorillas and baboons in the 1960s. The most revealing of these studies was Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees at Gombe stream, which showed chimp groups to share many traits with human groups. As social animals our behaviour is tuned towards being a member of a group, as it is in all other social primates.

Robin Dunbar showed that the average size of group that a social animal generally lives in, is correlated with the ratio of the volume of neo-cortex to the rest of the brain. For humans this predicts an average group size of ca. 150, a figure for which there is now considerable empirical support. The Dunbar Number represents a cognitive limit, beyond which we cannot maintain knowledge of each member of a group, their roles in hierarchies, mating preferences, past interactions, that is the information we need to be a well informed group member. In practice humans typically organise themselves into units of about 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500 and so on. Groups of different sizes serving different functions and operating with differing levels of intimacy and knowledge. As well as collecting information through observation, we use theory of mind to infer the disposition of other group members. The smallest viable unit of humanity is probably the 150 sized group.

Social living depends for it's success on the active participation of all group members and social norms. Norms are primarily to help the group function effectively. But they may work indirectly, for example to help strengthen group identity "We are the people who....". If social animals were, as economists claim, fundamentally selfish, then groups could not function. We are adapted to being cooperative. But there are temptations to freeload or break other group norms. Up to around the 150 number, groups maintain norms by simple observation. Everyone knows everyone else's business. 

Anthropomorphism allows us to relate to non-human beings as part of our group. We also have the ability to empathise with strangers, though empathy evolved to help us understand the internal disposition of other individuals or small groups. Empathy is personal, which is why we humans still have trouble comprehending large scale disasters without some Jarrod Diamond has noted that in places like the highlands of New Guinea, where the population is almost at a maximum density for hunter-gather lifestyles and thus competition for resources is intense, that tolerance of strangers is low (which is also true of other primate species). In many instances, strangers are killed on sight. However surpluses and trade between groups makes tolerance of strangers more feasible. Thus the factors which lead to civilisations (i.e. much larger groupings) also facilitated tolerance of strangers. Ara Norenzayan has argued that religion with "Big Gods" was a major factor in enabling the large scale cooperation implied by civilisation. Large groups mean that keeping track of each group member becomes more difficult. Monitoring compliance with behavioural norms starts to break down. 

Social groups which perceive an active halo of supernatural beings incorporated into their daily lives may rely on these supernatural agents as monitors of group norms (Norenzayan). In which case the role of the shaman is also expanded. The beings involved in monitoring are likely to become more active and present. They may begin to play an active role, for example punishing transgressive behaviour. Because supernatural agents are already counter-intuitive in lacking physical bodies, they can easily evolve in this direction. Those involved in monitoring the social sphere have a tendency to become omnipresent (the better to see you) and, as a result, omniscient. Once they start dishing our punishments they can become omnipotent as well. Thus ordinary supernatural agents can become gods.

Once gods emerge they typically require more elaborate acknowledgement, rather like a dominant member of the tribe gets first preference in food and mates. A group may enact elaborate and costly rituals aimed at securing the cooperation of spirits and gods. Making sacrifices (in the sense of giving scarce resources) helps to encourage participation in group norms (see also Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Costly sacrifices bolster the faith of followers. Those who officiate at such ceremonies are likely shaman initially, but become focussed on interpreting and enacting the will of the gods rather than spirits in general. In other words they become priests. The prestige of priests rises with the prestige of the gods they serve. Along with sacrifice, priests may introduce arbitrary taboos that help define group identity. As Foucault noted, the power of the group or leaders to shape the subject is matched by the desire of the subject to be shaped. As members of a social species we make ourselves into subjects of power; or even into the kind of subjects (selves) that accept the compromises of social lifestyles. As social primates we evolved to participate in social groups with hierarchies. On the other hand evolution no longer entirely defines us - we did not evolve to use written communication for example (which is why writing is so much more difficult than talking).

We have a tendency to think in terms of reasons and purposes - teleology. In teleological thinking, things happen for a reason. We exist for a reason. The world exists for a reason. Things happen for a reason. In modern life we often seek reasons in individual psychology. In the past other types of reasons included supernatural interference and magic. The stories we tell about these reasons for events become our mythology. Even so we are left with questions. If we are here for a reason, we want to know what it is (because it is far from obvious to most people). If following the group norms or the prescriptions of gods is supposed to make everything run smoothly, then why does it not? If gods are members of our tribe and can intervene to help us, why do they not?

Despite the emphasis on keeping group norms and associating this with the success of the group, life is patently unfair. We can be the very best group member, keep all the rules, and yet we still suffer misfortune, illness, and death. The world is unjust. But we tend to believe the opposite, i.e. that the world is just, that reasons make it so. If everything happens for a reason, then bad things also happen for a reason. But what could that reason possibly be? The meeting of injustice and teleology is extremely fruitful for religion, but before getting further into it we need to consider the afterlife.

The matter/spirit dichotomy seems to emerge naturally from generalising about human experience. Some people have vivid experiences of leaving their body for example which, on face value, would only be possible if the locus of experiencing is separate from the physical body. The very metaphors that we use to talk about aspects of lived experience tend to frame the matter/spirit dichotomy in a particular way. Matter is dull, lifeless, rigid. Spirit is light, lively, and infinitely flexible. Matter is low, spirit high. And so on (see Metaphors and Materialism). We understand life through Vitalism: living beings are matter made flexible by an inspiration of spirit. Spirit in many languages is closely associated with the breath—spiritus, qi, prāṇa, ātman, pneuma—perhaps the most important characteristic of living beings in the pre-scientific world.

The greatest injustice seems to be that our breath leaves us, i.e. we die. All living beings act to sustain and maintain their own existence, their own life. Self-consciousness gives us the knowledge of the certainty of our own death. In a dualistic worldview, death occurs when the spirit leaves the body. The body returns to being inanimate matter (dust to dust). In this worldview, spirit is not affected by death in the same way as matter. Indeed spirit is not affected by death at all. Once the spirit leaves the body a number of post-mortem possibilities exist: hanging around as a supernatural agent; travelling to another world (to the realm of the ancestors for example, or to paradise); or taking another human form. The precise workings are specific to cultures, but all cultures seem to have an afterlife and the variations are limited to one or other of these possibilities.

Something interesting happens when we combine normative morality, teleological thinking, and the afterlife. If things happen for a reason and one of the main reasons is our own behaviour and there is injustice, then it stands to reason, that our own behaviour is (potentially) a cause of injustice. We link behaviour to outcomes. And if everything happens to a reason it's hard to imagine the morally good not being rewarded and the morally wicked not being punished. And if something bad happens, then maybe we have transgressed in some way. In which case a shaman or priest must consult the unseen, but all seeing supernatural monitors (this is incidentally why the Buddha had to have access to this knowledge). This world, the material world composed primarily of matter, is manifestly unjust. By contrast, an afterlife is very much a world of spirit and as the basic metaphors show, the world of spirit is the polar opposite of the world of matter. If the world of matter is unjust (and it is) then the world of spirit is by necessity just. The rules of the afterlife must be very different. Gods hold sway there for example. Gods whose reason for being is to supervise the behaviour of humans. So it is entirely unsurprising that the function of an afterlife, in those communities which practice morality, is judgement of the dead. This happens in all the major religions, and dates back at least to the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Here we have, I think, all the major components of religion. And they emerge from lower-level, relatively simple properties of the (social) human mind at work. Thus religion is a natural phenomenon. It is not, as opponents of religion like to assert, something artificial that is superimposed on societies, but something that naturally emerges out of anatomically modern humans with a pre-scientific worldview living together. If chimps were only a little more like us, they too would develop like this. Neanderthals almost certainly had religion of a sort. The naturalness of religion predicts that every society of humans ought to have religion or something like it. And they do, except where people are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD people are psychological outliers from the rest of humanity. But WEIRD culture is build upon layers of religious culture, with Christianity superimposed on early forms of religion (and perhaps several layers of this). Again, for emphasis, the naturalness of religion does not mean that a religious account of the world is either accurate or precise. It is certainly successful, depending on how one measures success, but as a description of the world the religious view tends to be flawed making it both inaccurate and imprecise. 

Religious communities have some distinct advantages over non-religious communities in terms of sustaining group identity and encouraging cooperation.  The Abrahamic religions certainly have many millions of followers, and the followers of these religions have established a vast hegemony over most of the planet. On the other hand Christianity seems to be waning. Religious ideologies are giving way to political ideologies. Communism was one such that is also on the wane. Neoliberalism seems to have survived the near collapse of the world's economies to continue to dominate public discourse on politics and economics. Liberal Humanism seems to be a potent force for good still, though as we have seen it cannot be successfully linked to Neoliberal economics. 


Buddhism

There are those who argue that Buddhism is not a religion. This is naive at best, and probably disingenuous. Buddhism has all the same kinds of concerns as other religions, all of the main components outlined above—supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife—and many of the secondary components as well. In many ways, Buddhism is simply another manifestation of the same dynamic that produces religious ideas and practices in other groups. Sure we have an abstract supernatural monitor, but karma does exactly the same job as Anubis, Varuṇa, Mazda, or Jehovah in monitoring behaviour. It's merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. WEIRD Buddhists play down the halo of supernatural beings, but traditional Buddhist societies in Asia all have folk beliefs which involve spirits (e.g. Burmese nat) and many similar animistic beliefs, such as tree spirits (rukkhadevatā) are Canonical. 

David Chapman (@meaningness) and I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter a few days ago (storified). DC noted that some of those who are opposed to secularisation of mindfulness training, are concerned about disconnecting mindfulness from "Buddhist ethics". They seem to argue that the problem is that mindfulness without ethics is either meaningless or dangerous, or both. DC's point was that there was nothing distinctive about Buddhist ethics and that, in the USA at least, what masquerades as "Buddhist" ethics is simply the prevailing ethics of WEIRD North America. So to argue against mindfulness being taught separately from Buddhist ethics is meaningless. For example Tricycle Magazine has run positive stories on Buddhists in the US military. If soldiers can be Buddhists, then Buddhist ethics really do have no meaning. Indeed there is nothing very distinctive about Buddhist ethics more generally, nothing that distinguishes Buddhist ethics from, say, Christian ethics. Sure, the stated rationale for being ethical is different, but the outcome is the same: love thy neighbour. (David has started his blog series on this: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud).

Certainly Buddhism is not the only religion to use a variety of religious techniques for working with the mind, including concentration and reflection exercises. Mediation was a word in English long before Buddhism came on the scene (noted ca. 1200 CE). Arguably all the practices that we associate with Buddhism were in fact borrowed from other religions anyway (particularly Brahmanism and Jainism). According to Buddhism's own mythology, meditation was already being practised to a very high degree before Buddhism came into being. The Buddha simply adapted procedures he had already learned.

So is there anything about Buddhism as a religion that is distinctive? Some would argue that pratītya-samutpāda is distinctively Buddhist. However too many of us portray conditioned arising as a theory of cause and effect, or worse, a Theory of Everything. It is certainly a failure as the latter, and far from being very useful in the former role (the words involved don't even mean caused). Since almost everyone seems confused about the domain of application of this idea, one wonders whether Buddhists can lay claim to the theory at all. If Buddhists make pratītyasamutpāda into an ontology then pratītyasamutpāda would hardly seem to be Buddhist any longer. Nowadays, Buddhists all seem to think that having read about nirvāṇa or śūnyatā in a book makes one an expert on "reality".

DC and I tentatively agreed that any distinction that Buddhism might have is probably in the area of cultivating states in which sense-experience and ordinary mental-experience cease, what I would call nirodha-samāpatti or śūnyatā-vimokṣa etc. It is these states in particular that seem to promote the transformation of the mind that makes Buddhism distinctive. It's just unfortunate that we have so many books about these states, and so many people talking about them from having read the books (and writing books on the basis of having read the books), and so few people who experience such states. The thing that distinguishes Buddhism is something that only a tiny minority are realistically ever going to seriously cultivate, and probably a minority of them are going to succeed in experiencing. So Buddhism in practice, for the vast majority consists in beliefs and activities that are not distinctively Buddhist at all - loving your neighbours, communal singing, relaxation techniques, philosophical speculation, propitiation of supernatural agents, and so on.

And while some people are having awakenings, the level of noise through which they have to communicate is overwhelming. Buddhists have adopted so much psychological and psycho-analytic jargon that Buddhism as presented can seem indistinguishable from either at times. One gets the sense that today's "lay" Buddhism is closely aligned with the goals of psychologists. Not only this but we also get a lot of interference from pseudo-science, Advaita Vedanta, and home grown philosophies.

So, to sum up, religion is a natural phenomenon. It emerges from, is an emergent property of, a brain evolved for living in large social groups. A religious worldview makes sense to so many people, even WEIRD people, because it fits with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of this as another religious worldview. But this does not mean that a religious worldview is accurate or precise, or that a secularised version of religion is an improvement on religion per se. Secularised versions of Buddhism are simply religion tailored for WEIRD people. It is more appealing to secularists who none the less feel that something is missing from their lives (because they are evolved to be religious). If Buddhism is distinctive, it is distinctive in ways that the vast majority of people will never have access to.

The main point I take from this is that religion is comprehensible. People who hold to religious views are comprehensible. While I think religious views are erroneous, I can see why so many people disagree, why religion remains so compelling for so many people. I can sympathise with them. And while I'm not an evangelist, it does make it easier for me to stay in dialogue with, for examples, members of my family who are committed Christians. As with the problem of communicating evolution, part of the problem with religion remaining plausible is the sheer ineptitude of scientists as communicators - their remarkable ability to understand string theory, or whatever, seems to be matched by an astounding lack of insight into their own species. And philosophers, whose job to is make the world comprehensible, have also largely failed. They both fail on the level of making new discoveries comprehensible and on the level of communicating why new discoveries are important. And when they fail, priests and other charlatans step into the gap, and that too is understandable. 

~~oOo~~

References to particular works or thinkers that are not linked to directly can be checked in the bibliography tab of the blog. 

18 September 2015

The Failure to Communicate Evolution


EVOLUTION IS IN THE NEWS a lot these days. Buzzy scientists, like waspish Richard Dawkins, make stinging attacks on Creationists, who respond in kind: The God Delusion versus The Dawkins Delusion. In the US something like a pitched battle is going on in some places, where creationists want to replace science in schools with a literal reading of the Bible.

When evolution is a self-evident fact, and I think it is, why are so many people unconvinced by it? Building on my work on the psychology of belief I'd like to use problem of communicating evolution, or more precisely the problem of failing to communicate evolution, as a case study.

In my essay Facts and Feelings I set out my take on Antonio Damasio's model of how we process new information. Presented with some new item of information we evaluate the likelihood it is true. As per Justin Barrett's theory of belief, discussed more recently, we make these decisions based on fit with existing non-reflective beliefs. In any situation we will usually have a range of facts (items of information we consider to be true) and we have to judge which information is relevant to the situation, and which information take precedence in determining our course of action. I called this salience. Not everything that makes sense is salient; and not everything that is salient makes sense. 

A few hundred years ago in Europe, everyone knew that God created the world and this seemed to make sense to the vast majority. It was also deeply salient because the existence, omnipotence and omniscience of God were always important factors in understanding any situation and deciding how to act. The Church was the final authority on these matters and had adopted an earth-centric model of the universe. All the "heavenly" bodies, the sun, moon, planets and stars, orbited the earth. And then the situation began to change. Astronomers observed, for instance that the orbits of the planets were very difficult to explain if they orbited the earth and simple it they orbited the sun instead. And the orbits were ellipses rather than perfect circles. They saw that some "stars", visible only with a telescope, orbited not the earth or the sun, but Jupiter (the moons of Jupiter). Old sureties began to break down. Scientific Empiricism started to come into it's own. Knowledge based on closely observing the world began to supplant knowledge gained through abstract or theological speculations. Astronomers, using nothing but simple telescopes and patient observation, changed how we see the world and our place in it. Later with more sophisticated telescopes they introduced more paradigm changes. Now we know that our sun is an average, nondescript star in a fairly ordinary galaxy. One star out of 100 billion stars, in one galaxy out of 100 billion galaxies. Of course some of this knowledge is inferred. But the whole package has been observed so often that there can be no doubt that this is the case. It's as obvious a fact as that Cambridge is a town (population of about 120,000) in the United Kingdom, a country of population ca. 65 million.

A simple view of this change is that this shift in our understanding happened simply because the empirical knowledge was more true than theology. But my model suggests that it must also have been more salient to the people concerned. Why was astronomical knowledge more salient? I'm no great historian, but it seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church was starting to lose authority at around the same time. Martin Luther died in 1546. The key figures of the astronomical revolution were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543), Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601), Galileo (1564 – 1642) and Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630). The concerns that led to the forming of Protestant churches probably helped to provide an environment in which the observations of astronomers would be taken more seriously. The world was changing in others ways as well. Christopher Columbus (1450 or 51 – 1506) and Hernán Cortés (1485 – 1547) were busy expanding the Spanish Empire and enriching Spain immeasurably around this same time, while Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the earth. This was also the time of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, the beginning of European involvement in slavery, and so on. The Renaissance is in full swing and along with it the rediscovery of ancient Greek Humanism.

Truth is relatively simple considered alongside salience. What makes a truth salient, is tied up with psychology, culture, and politics. I will argue that the problem of evolution is complex, because the truth of it is not self-evident to many, there is massive competition in terms of salience, there has been a failure of empathy in communicating evolution. 


Evolution

Empiricism, science, has progressed in leaps and bounds since the 17th Century and the telescope. One of the great milestones in the progress of knowledge about the world was the publication of the On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1849. Of course this book did not, in point of fact, explain the origin of species, nor did it speak of "evolution", but Darwin subsequently did write about evolution and his name became synonymous with the theory. It was to be almost a century before a plausible theory of the origin of the variation upon which natural selection worked. This came with the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick, Franklin, Watson & Wilkins, and the subsequent identification of sections of DNA called genes which encode the structures of proteins that a new more complete Darwinism was born which explained both variation and natural selection at the level of genes. 

The theory which combines genetics with Darwinism is sometimes called NeoDarwinism (the term is pejorative). NeoDarwinism is often referred to as The Theory of Evolution, but it really should be A Theory of Evolution. In fact I do not think it is the best explanation for the emergence of new species, nor is it a complete description of heredity and variation. Recent discoveries in epigenetics forced a reconsideration of the NeoDarwininan account of genes. Genes are not passive carriers of information, rather the genome as a whole is actively responding to the environment. For example, the amount of food available in one generation can affect how genes are expressed in a subsequent one for example. Also the genome of our symbiotic microbiome is many orders of magnitude larger than our own and can strongly affect our bodies, to the point where it has been called our "second genome". Study of the interactions between us and our symbionts has been slowed by the dominance of the NeoDarwian view which tends to see everything in isolation. This reduction of heredity to the "selfish gene" was what prompted me to refer to Richard Dawkins' popular explanation of genetics as "Neoliberalism applied to biology". In fact Neoliberalism is libertarian and utilitarian in character and these are both class-based ideologies. (See The Politics of Evolution and Modernist Buddhism).

In my view the best explanation of the origin of species is one with almost as long a pedigree but one which, though having greater explanatory power, is less fashionable. The Theory of Symbiogenesis is closely associated with the late Lynn Margulis whose seminal 1966 paper, under her married name Lynn Sagan, On the Origin of Mitosing Cells (note the implied connection with Darwin in her title) showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria. However well known this idea is today, it was originally rejected by the mainstream, and Margulis's ideas were marginalised. Margulis saw evolution as "community ecology over time", as a process which included elements of competition and war amongst species or genes, but was primarily driven by elements of cooperation, symbiosis, and combination. I agree with her assessment that Darwinian evolution, with its basis in metaphors of war and later selfishness, appealed to male scientists more than Symbiogenetic evolution which appeared too feminine.

However we describe the mechanism, it seems clear that species evolve from common ancestors and that all life on currently found on earth has a common ancestry, and that the process of life evolving has occurred over thousands of millions of years. No other explanation can fit all the facts. And yet some religieux, particularly fundamentalist Christians, refuse to accept these facts. Some Christians maintain that the Bible is a factual account of the history of the Earth. Why is this belief so tenacious? How can such people refuse to believe in evolution? I think there are a number of reasons, for example I see weaknesses in the theories that leave loopholes; a failure to create appropriate salience; and a failure to establish an empathetic connection.


Loopholes

Theoretically a infinite number of monkeys working over an infinite time span would eventually reproduce Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace, by accident. The time required to produce a novel by random typing is so very long that the probability might as well be zero. But this deeply counter-intuitive idea is central to NeoDarwinism. In this view random mutations are the source of variability, and survival of the fittest weeds out variations which are not viable. It's as though we were to start with the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and introduced random typos and printing errors over a million printings. We don't expect War and Peace to emerge. We expect the text to become less and less comprehensible and eventually to become random gibberish. We expect this, and it is precisely what we observe happening in copying. Buddhist Sanskrit manuscripts being copied in Nepal are literally gradually becoming incomprehensible because the scribes cannot (or do not) properly error check. It so happens that the most recent manuscript of the Heart Sutra to be identified was discovered by me in a digitised collection from Nepal. This manuscript is rife with errors, omissions and additions. Over about 280 words in Sanskrit, my edition has 140 footnotes, so that on average every second word is problematic. As it is, the manuscript is only readable if we know what it ought to say. On it's own it is already gibberish, though with enough surviving elements to identify the text it descends from. The second law of thermodynamics (entropy) tells us that all closed systems should become more disordered over time. This is what happens at the level of chromosomes and cells. They gradually lose coherence and become more disordered, so that replication errors give rise to cancers for example. To date replication errors in ageing cells have never been observed given rise to rejuvenation. Errors wreck the process of replication, and mutations are vastly more likely to give rise to errors than viable code. We can call this the replication problem

So how does mutation drive improvements in the genome? The idea is that some small proportion of mutations enable an organism to better fit it's environment. And we do see some adaptive variations. The classic example, from texts when I studied biology, is the white moths that sometimes throw up a black individual. In the 19th century everything gets covered in soot and white moths are obvious and eaten by birds, while the rare black variety survive and become the dominant type. But then in the 20th century there's a big clean up and the situation reverses. The white moths come back because in this case white is the dominant gene. The argument is that the different versions of the gene for colour in the moths are the result of mutation and that environmental factors make one more adaptive than the other. 

In order for a mutation to be passed on the individual carrying it must survive and breed. But the vast majority mutations are deleterious (are cancer causing for example), and to be passed on the mutation must occur in gametes (ova and sperm in animals). Even given vast scales of time involved in evolution, this is all very counter-intuitive. The replication problem is a loophole. Any theory of evolution which allows for random mutation to be the driving force, is just not convincing because it is counter-intuitive. Presented with NeoDarwinism as The Theory of Evolution, plenty of intelligent and right thinking people conclude that it too unlikely to be credible. Lynn Margulis argued that while the NeoDarwinian account of evolution might account for variability with species, it did not account for the emergence of new species.

On the other hand, of course, we do see variability in genes. Such variations are apparent in humans for example and have formed the basis of the out of Africa hypothesis - the idea that all modern humans migrated from East Africa ca. 75,000 years ago to colonise every continent is partly based on tracing variations in genes in mitochondria and on the Y chromosome. But these variations are necessarily tiny and are not sufficient to define new species. The gene, or complex of genes, does the same job in all it's variations. Despite quite widely varying physical features, there is presently only one species of humans on the planet, a rather unusual occurrence in the history of hominids. Which brings us to the next loophole, the problem of observing speciation

The scientific literature on the emergence of new species is sparse, and often inconclusive. This is not helped by the fact that we have competing and contradictory definitions of what a species is. Summaries of this literature [1] produce what seems like a relatively small number of candidate cases where speciation seems to have occurred, but many of the examples are not due to the mutation of a gene, but to hybridization and polyploidy (mutation in whole chromosomes by doubling or tripling). Where two populations have diverged to the point of being unable to physically mate or produce viable offspring it is usually from artificial stress placed differentially on two initially identical populations in a laboratory. In the wild, the London Underground Mosquito its thought to be a naturally occurring example. However as Lynn Margulis notes with evident satisfaction (Symbiotic Planet, p.7-8) in an earlier, similar case with Drosophila fruit flies it was shown that what changed was not the organism, but its bacterial symbiont. Indeed from Boxhorn's summary it is not always obvious what has caused the phenotypic change. In most cases of so-called speciation, no gene mutation has been identified, nor has anyone gone back to alter an identified gene in the origin population to artificially produce a new species, though of course we have altered many genes in many different organisms. These would be a minimal requirements for confirming that speciation was due to the mechanisms proposed by NeoDarwinians. Since very few people are interested in symbiosis, changes in, for example, gut bacteria are seldom investigated and cannot yet be ruled out in most of the promising cases. Given the centrality of speciation for the theory of evolution there is surprisingly little research aimed at identifying and replicating the mechanisms of speciation.

Worse, the sources for these 'facts' are not freely available, and the vast majority are not qualified to assess how true they are since they are couched in jargon it takes years to learn. Science journalism further muddies the water because it frequently opts for sensationalism over solid results. Journalistic standards are very much lower than those of scientific publications. And here the specific problem is that journalists repeatedly report variation as though it is speciation. And it is not. Such easily refutable speculations help to undermine the case for evolution, help to make it seem less plausible to those who have a vested interest in a religious view. The lack of widely cited and well replicated cases of speciation is a major failing of evolutionary science.

Another loophole left by NeoDarwinism we can call the incremental problem. This is the argument that something like the eye could not have evolved one step at a time because it is far to complex. This is partly a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine the steps required to go from a single light-sensitive cell to a complex eye with specialist organs like a lens, eye muscles, various fluids, specialised nerve cells and so on. The number of potential steps is enormous and the tiny variations which might accumulate are difficult to put together into a coherent picture. Big numbers are just abstract concepts for most people and have no kind of real life analogue: we struggle with geological time periods especially. "A million years" has more or less no meaning to most people. Thus the evolution of complex organs through random (undirected) mutations in genes, is also counter-intuitive. 

So, even though I am educated in the sciences and have studied evolution, and even though I believe evolution to be self-evident, the details of how evolution works are far from clear to me. A good deal of the detail seems counter-intuitive as it is commonly explained. NeoDarwinism in particular seems a less plausible explanation of speciation than Symbiogenesis. A minor point in favour of Buddhism is that it does not conflict with the basic idea of evolution, even though the cosmology and cosmogony that many Buddhists cite is incompatible with a scientific worldview. On the other hand, for a Young Earth Creationist there are all these loopholes, all these weaknesses in the theories of evolution—the replication problem, the observation problem, and the incremental problem—that make it easy for them to shrug off evolution as a theory. And they have a strong emotional attachment to the competing story in the Bible that means that there is competition for what is most salient in the discussion of what life is and how it changes over time.


Salience

Scientists aim for objectivity. This makes sense. It allows us to get insights into reality by triangulating the observations of many observers. Each observer brings an element of subjectivity to the observation, but by combining the observations of many observers over repeated observations we can eliminate a good deal of what is due to subjectivity. If we observe dispassionately it makes the process more efficient. This approach is sustained in communicating science in official publications. The language is impersonal and favours passive constructions e.g. "the animal was observed to eat an apple." Just the facts. But contrary to the old saw, the facts do not speak for themselves. In ordinary life we rate the importance of information by the emotion that it elicits in us. Those of us who are excited by concepts and science are quite rare. Without any sense of how relevant these facts are, we struggle to assess their salience. We're even puzzled as to why scientists are excited by them and want such huge amounts of money to study them. Recently there's a trend towards funding research on the basis of how much revenue it will generate. I see this as a direct symptom of the failure to communicate the salience of research. Left to their own devices politicians fall back on what they do understand.

Now compare the way that fundamentalists communicate their version of events. The message is accompanied by strong emotions, and these are reinforced by communal rituals, and by peer networks. Preachers not only tell us the facts as they see them, but they communicate both verbally and non-verbally that this is most important thing we have ever heard. The message is simple, clear, and repeated often; and it addresses our most fundamental questions about life and death. The religious message could not have more relevance. One's immortal soul is at stake. And for most people an immortal soul is an intuitive concept, unlike evolution.

It is not so hard to see why some people don't feel any real conflict over what to believe and reject the theory of evolution. It is communicated in such a way that it has little or no salience for them. It is not communicated in a way that demonstrates how important it is to know this. If a person does not value this kind of fact up front, they are not going to be converted by an appeal to intellect. But there is also a countervailing force. When we begin to unravel someone's religious faith we undermine their worldview in many ways. Not simply their view on God's role in creation, but their felt sense of the God's presence; the importance of God's commandments in morality; the whole concept of the afterlife and how it will play out for the individual; the rationale and coping strategies for dealing with adversity; the sense of meaning and purpose that helps them deal with a life working in a bullshit job (and all that goes with that); and so on. It's not that they should simply give up believing in God and will be better for it. We have no reason to think that undermining someone's faith would do anything but harm to them. The wholesale conversion of Westerners to atheism is no doubt a big subject for debate, but to my mind it has created generations of nihilists and hedonists, who threaten to undo much of the progress made since the European Enlightenment through short termism and the individual pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and power without any thought for other people. That one of the main responses to this nihilism is a further retreat into Romanticism is not helpful either. I'm pretty sure that Neoliberalism is not better than Christianity as an ideology.

Even for the average atheist its can be hard to see why believing in evolution is important. Believing or not believing has little or no relevance to how we live our lives: how we work, shop or play. It doesn't make us better people. It won't make us live longer or be more prosperous. There's no reason we should care about evolution. The reason any of us know about it at all, is that eggheads insist that we learn it at school. Which brings us to the third problem.


Empathy

One of the characteristics of the current public debate on religion is hostility. Many prominent atheists now embrace the sobriquet militant. Just as in the theory of evolution, the metaphor most often invoked in these discussions is war. What might have been a discussion or a dialogue, or a dance even, is now a battle. Wars are decided by annihilating the enemy or forcing the survivors to capitulate and lose everything. Verbal exchanges are not aimed at creating understanding, or even communicating facts now, they are aimed at taking positions, landing blows, at undermining opposing positions, and at destroying opposition. Stepping into this theatre of war carries with it the threat of attack. This metaphorical war sometimes erupts into literal conflicts, and in the USA not a few court cases. Not surprisingly in situations where both sides are expressing considerable illwill, there is little actual communication.

There is a good sized body of research on what makes for good communication and how to persuade people of your point of view. Indeed the study of rhetoric dates from ancient Greece. None of this research, nor even common sense, suggests insulting your interlocutor or their beliefs as an effective strategy. Despite this, some of those who lead the secular charge in the war on religion, completely ignore all of this valuable research, and resort to insults and accusations. This issue is much more tense in the USA where Christians themselves are more militant (having been mobilised to political awareness by the political right in the late 1970s). But I think scientists have to have the courage of their convictions. Why are the scientists not using science to inform their rhetoric? Could it be that they lack faith in science, or is it that they don't even consider that they might be poor at communicating? Do leading scientific secularists not observe the results of their actions, reflect form hypotheses and test them? They do not seem to as far as I can tell. They preach to the converted and damn the heretics to hell, as it were. 

The strategy of scientists, presenting people with a series of facts with no clear statement of values, leaves people cold. "Coldness" is part of an extended metaphorical dichotomy relating to our inner life: EMOTIONS ARE HOT; INTELLECT IS COOL. Rational arguments are cool, but purely intellectual people are often perceived as cold. Other phrases which draw on this metaphor are: "He is a cold fish", "She gave him the cold shoulder", "She was frigid". A cadaver is cold to the touch. Warmth is the characteristic of life, warm-blooded animals maintain their body temperature above ambient and thus radiate heat and feel warm to touch. (The use of "hot" and "cool" in reference to Jazz is another story, one I'd love to go into sometime, but a digression too far for this essay). In the Capgras Delusion one can recognise loved ones, or in one recent case one's own reflection, in the sense of seeing and identifying all the details, but a brain injury prevents the connection of the visual details with the emotional response that typically goes with familiarity. The person with Capgras cannot understand the disconnection and typically confabulates a story that the loved one has been replaced by a replica.

On the whole human beings are not moved by bare facts. But it's worse than this. On the whole we see people who try to communicate solely in terms of facts extremely negatively; as cold, unemotional, uncaring, and inhuman. The whole point of the Mr Spock character in Star Trek was that his emotions were just below the surface and constantly threatened to burst out. And even if they did not his apparent coldness highlighted his limitations in dealing with humans, and acted as a contrast to the hot-blooded impulsiveness of Captain Kirk. They were a team that only really functioned well together. And on the contrary people who emotionally communicate a clear sense of values can often get away with being completely irrational.

It's interesting that nature documentaries are a clear exception to this cold style of communication of science. TV producers know that the audience are drawn into their work by drama and intrigue. The facts have to be woven into a narrative which creates an emotional resonance. David Attenborough is a master of this. His documentaries draw the audience in by portraying life as a drama with archetypal characters. This enables the audience to identify with the "characters". This was also part of the fascination with Jane Goodall's work on the chimps at Gombe stream. Her approach of using names helped us to come into relationship with the chimps, to glimpse ourselves in their games, loves, and struggles. And perhaps this dramatic style is a hint to those who would communicate about evolution to a wider audience? We want to know, above all, why we should care about evolution. 

I began writing this essay just after reading Richard Dawkins book Unweaving the Rainbow. In the preface he evinces surprise that his book The Selfish Gene convinced people that he was a nihilist who saw no value in life (he describes people as machines). People apparently often ask him how he even gets out of bed in the morning with his bleak outlook on life. Unweaving the Rainbow is his attempt to show that he is anything a nihilist, that he is alive to the wonder and mystery of life and the poetry of the universe, and is fully convinced that we all should be awed and amazed simply to be alive. He tries to tell the reader that curiosity and fascination with life is what gets him out of bed in the morning. I suggest that part of the problem with The Selfish Gene as literature was that it was not consciously concerned with communicating a sense of values, though I would say that it did unconsciously communicate the values of Neoliberalism. I'm ambivalent at best about his writing and opinions, but no doubt Dawkins has values. However, these values are unspoken in much of his intellectual work, precisely because the academic ideal is to emotional content of communication: the myth of the objective, dispassionate point of view. This has real value in the pursuit of science, but not in communicating to ordinary people. Unweaving the Rainbow appears to be trying to address this point, though I suspect given the low profile the book has in his oeuvre it is rather too oblique. Also a good chunk of the book resorts to being rude about the people he seems to most want to convert to his views; religious believers. He just can't seem to help himself. Whatever his merits as a genetic scientist, Richard Dawkins seems not to understand people very well.


Conclusion


We tend to blame religious people for their failure to embrace evolution. On the contrary I say we can lay the failure to communicate evolution squarely at the door of scientists. They have education and access to the resources, but they squander them. There's a movement in the UK to promote the public understanding of science which is doing great work. Choosing good communicators like David Attenborough, Jim Al Khalili, or Alice Roberts to front TV shows and make public appearances is helpful because they humanise the communication. It doesn't hurt that some of them are very attractive as well as intelligent, but the key to their success seems to be their personal enthusiasm for, and ability to speak clearly on, their subject; and their ability to help us understand why what they are talking about matters. 

The success of any communication between two people depends on their being empathy between them at the outset. If what we are trying to communicate is counter-intuitive then we have a difficult job to show why the idea is still plausible. If the people we are trying to communicate have an emotional investment in some other explanation, then we can improve our chances by trying to understand their values and concerns and addressing them. None of this is rocket science. And the people who are doing the communicating are scientists.

As with Buddhism the process and ideals of science are, generally speaking, admirable in the abstract. But the people involved introduce an element of imperfection. The perfect instantiation of science or Buddhism has yet to arise. Tolerance is called for. Both of religious believers and of scientists, even if we do expect more of the latter. 

~~oOo~~

Notes.

1. Speciation:
  • Boxhorn, Joseph. 'Observed Instances of Speciation.' The TalkOrigins Archive
  • Stassen, Chris. Some More Observed Speciation Events.  The TalkOrigins Archive
  • MacNeill, Allen. 'Macroevolution: Examples and Evidence.' The Evolution List. evolutionlist.blogspot.com [draws on Boxhorn; the comments on this blog post are well worth reading as well!]
  • Zimmer, Carl. A New Step In Evolution. The Loom, Science Blogs. Observations of bacteria evolving a new metabolic pathway. 

Margulis, Lynn. (1998) The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Basic Books.

11 September 2015

Supernatural Monitors and the Buddha

I've previously argued that when a human group exceeds the Dunbar Number, 150, that it can no longer adequately keep track of compliance with social norms. Dunbar discovered a ratio between the size of the neocortex of the brain of mammals and the size of group they can sustain. The idea being that social animals need to know about the status and relationships of other members of their group in order to successfully navigate the social sphere. In primates one of the main ways of maintaining relationships was one-to-one grooming. However Dunbar notes that as human groups got bigger along with a bigger neocortex, there was simply not enough time for grooming with everyone. So less direct ways of achieving group cohesion developed. Dunbar has suggested for example that group singing and dancing, both known to stimulate endorphin production, helped to produce a communal sense of well being. (see Dunbar 2014)

Probably at least from the time of anatomically modern humans (ca 200,000 years before the present) our communities were seen from within as being surrounded by a halo of supernatural beings. Our own ancestors would have been chief amongst them, but this halo also contained animistic spirits of place, trees and other significant objects. Evolutionary psychologists, such as Justin L. Barrett, Stewart Guthrie, and Ara Norenzayan, have described how our minds have evolved to find supernatural entities plausible. Once these functions of our minds were in place, the emergence of the supernatural was more or less a given. Most humans, at most times and in most places believe in supernatural agents. It's a side effect of how human minds in general work. I explored why this might be so in my two part essay on why karma and rebirth seem plausible

Western
Educated
Industrialised
Rich
Democratic
In fact, not believing in the supernatural is a feature of WEIRDness, where the acronym stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. Norenzayan has shown that people from WEIRD nations are psychological outliers: "WEIRD people occupy the extreme end of [the spectrum of human psychology]... WEIRD populations are atypical of other human populations" (52-53). There suggests that there is something about being WEIRD that alters the way we process sensory information and makes the supernatural seem less plausible. But we're not quite sure what that something is yet. And being WEIRD does not guarantee that people find the supernatural implausible, because many of us WEIRDos still do find it plausible. It simply makes it more likely. 

Living in groups is a highly successful strategy for survival and evolutionary fitness. Collectively we are much stronger and smarter. In small human groups, it is very easy for each member to monitor the behaviour of the others to ensure there are no freeloaders or backsliders. We know when members are following group norms and when they are not; we know when people are pulling their weight or slacking. Thus surveillance and compliance emerges from day to day interactions rather than being a special function. Members of the group conform because they know that everyone else sees what they do. And that conformity is part of what makes a social species successful. The possibility of deliberate deception in fact only seems to arise in the primates. 

For a society below the Dunbar threshold, bad behaviour might not always be seen to arise out of individual evil intention. There is always the possibility that an individual has been affected by a mischievous or malign spirit, or by magic. Breaking norms does not always call for punishment. Indeed punishment is a poor way to try to re-establish broken trust. Punishment relies on fear to enforce norms. Trust can't be based on fear. Repairing the breach might mean identifying an environmental or a supernatural cause. This has real advantages in a small community. The individual is not victimised by the group, but reminded on their absolute reliance on the group, and is left with their connections to the group intact. The small, isolated group needs each individual as much as the individual needs the group. The problem can be resolved without polarising the group against the individual and vice versa. A common enemy brings people together.

So a breach of norms can be an opportunity to examine how well integrated the wrong-doer is into the community, or to look for environmental problems (whether natural or supernatural). This might not play out in a way that a WEIRDo can recognise. Sometimes the actions of such communities can seem to lack logic from the outside. WEIRDos may label this as "irrational" and so on. Ariel Glucklich's observations about how Tantric magic functions in modern day Varanasi showed that apparently irrational actions have their own internal logic. They can be part of a worldview in which interconnectedness is the highest value:
Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events. (1997: 12)
Interrelatedness is what makes a social group function. Awareness of this, awareness of the relations in the group are crucial to a well functioning group. A group member who does something selfish is not necessarily seen as wicked. They might simply be unintegrated for some reason, probably beyond their control.


Growing Larger

When the human group size crosses the Dunbar number threshold this mechanism for maintaining the group can fail. It becomes possible for members to break the norms of behaviour, to deceive the group, to freeload, for example, and for no one to notice. This is a massive problem for a group which depends, at many levels, for it's survival on everyone doing their bit. Surveillance needs to become a special function. And how does this happen when actions can be performed in private? What Norenzayan and others have argued is that supernatural agents stepped in (so to speak).

My version of this process is to imagine a group of humans living together with their halo of ancestors and nature spirits. Some effort goes into living well with the supernatural members of the community - offerings are made, ceremonies conducted and so on. Specialists emerge who are adept at communicating with the spirits. We can call these adepts shaman. The shaman serves as intermediary between the communities in the different worlds. They interpret the will of the spirits for the humans, and also can call on spirits for help. The shaman also understands how to reintegrate group members who have become disconnected. "Healing" may well simply consist of helping someone experience the fullness of their interconnectedness.

One thing about spirits is that they are already counter-intuitive. They are living things with no physical presence, no breath, and yet they interact with the physical world, which is counter-intuitive even for pre-modern groups. In this case, it is not a stretch to attribute to them other counter-intuitive abilities, such as the ability to observe actions carried out in private. Indeed in a world where invisible agents are normal, one never knows when one of them is looking over one's shoulder. So a supernatural watcher who does not have the physical limitations of a human body, can be anywhere and see anything.

So to some extent the larger groups rely on supernatural monitors. This works if people believe they are being monitored. Norenzayan recounts several experiments that seem to confirm that people who understand themselves to be observed behave better than those who think they are not observed. For a supernatural monitor the effect is only seen in believers. So groups that have supernatural monitors will be more successful because they are more coherent. Narenzayan's major thesis is that religion, with its emphasis on supernatural monitors enabled much larger groups and facilitated cooperation on a much larger scale that might otherwise have been the case. 

As with any community some members stand out. Over time certain spirits took on greater roles. Presumably certain spirits took on the role of supervisor or what Norenzayan calls a "supernatural monitor". And perhaps the supervisor was also involved in helping to mend breaches of trust and keeping people integrated. But as groups got even larger, into the range of thousands of people, the whole system became less and less personal. While we can certainly be on nodding terms with a much larger group of people, we cannot have intimate knowledge of them. In small hunter-gatherer situations strangers are rare and maybe poorly tolerated. Strangers may indeed simply be killed on sight. In a tribe of 1500 members, strangers within the group start to become routine. When there are a number of tribes in an area, out-group strangers would also be relatively common. Tolerance of strangers is required for trade. Groups would have to have developed ways of recognising strangers as part of the same group. This would involve external signs of membership such as clothing, distinctive ornaments or body modifications. And there is simply no way to feel part of such a large group in the same way that one feels part of one's immediate group. Obeying the norms of a group of 1500 is a different proposition to obeying the norms of a group of 150. On the family or clan level the approach of integration continued to function. But on the tribal level they simply could not and so an individual compliance at this larger level came down to rewards and punishments.

The supernatural agents who were now doing the surveillance, aided by those who interpreted the spirit world, became increasingly important to these larger societies. As we have noted, people are far more likely to follow group norms (to "behave themselves") if they think they are being observed. Invisible agents are always on the case. Always watching. Indeed the ability of the supernatural monitors was stretched until they saw everything. One of the main features of the "Big Gods", which Norenzayan describes, is their omniscience. They see everything and thus help to ensure compliance because members of groups with such surveillance always have the sense that they are being observed. Thus local spirits evolved into Big Gods. And Big Gods helped to ensure the coherence and success of larger and larger groups of people who had less and less in common.


Karma as Monitor

In the Ṛgveda we see two gods that are concerned with monitoring: Mitra and Varuṇa. However, these two gods fade from view. Around the time of the second urbanisation the story of supernatural monitoring takes an unusual turn. Animistic spirits are typically either animal or human in form, or sometimes a hybrid of the two.  And Indian myth certainly has plenty of these. Karma, the supernatural monitor of Upaniṣdic Brahmins, Buddhists and Jains, was neither. Karma was conceived of as a "force of nature", abstract and formless. To the best of my knowledge this change has not received any attention from scholars. Diachronic or longitudinal studies of religion over time in India seem not to be very popular. Most scholarship, even comparative studies, is synchronic or focussed on a particular time.

Different versions of karma emerged in different communities, and especially in Buddhism, within communities, but karma never takes form, never stops being abstract. Karma is always an invisible link between action and consequence. Later it is likened to the process which links a seed to a flower (bījaniyama) and to the timeliness of other natural processes (utuniyama), but such similes only tell us that Buddhists saw karma as another natural process that they did no understand. This form of supernatural monitoring has received only scant attention so far from evolutionary psychologists who all seem to be obsessed with gods. One can understand this bias to some extent, most evolutionary psychology work is being carried out by WEIRDos, some of it by theists (Barrett), and a lot of it in an atmosphere of bitter rivalry between atheists and theists (especially in the USA). Still the Indian situation must surely shed important light on the evolution process precisely because karma as supernatural monitor is not anthropomorphised.

What I wanted to highlight in this essay is that, despite the fact that karma is a force of nature and not a being, in some cases the Buddha gains access to the god-like viewpoint of a supernatural monitor. And initially at least, he does so without becoming a god or an intercessory saviour. In some accounts of the Buddha's awakening he attains the three kinds of knowledge (tevijja): the knowledge that comes from recollection of former lives (pubbenivāsānussatiñāṇa); knowledge of the death and rebirth of beings [according to their karma] (sattānaṃ cutūpapātañāṇa); and knowledge of the destruction of the āsavas (āsavānaṃ khayañāṇa). It is particularly the first and second of the vijjās that concern us here. In a worldview with a cyclic eschatology, any supernatural monitor is going to be concerned with ensuring that people get the rebirth they have earned. Karma is primarily a way of explaining how rebirth works to fulfil the Buddhist version of a just world. Wicked people go to bad destinations (duggati) where the predominant experience is misery; while good people go to a good destination (sugati) where the predominant experience is happiness. 

But Buddhism is also a hybrid system (according to my own taxonomy of afterlife types) because the really exemplary people are not reborn at all. This is necessary because even in the best of all possible rebirths—to the Brahmā realm—one lives a long, blissful life, but one still dies. And there is no greater misery than death. Thus the ultimate aim of traditionalist Buddhism is to avoid rebirth altogether, with some adding the caveat that they wish to go last amongst all beings and will help others to end rebirth first. For Brahmins, escaping from rebirth means this involves merging with Brahman, as the wave merges back into the ocean having arisen, crested and broken. Buddhists, by contrast, were cagey about the afterlife of one who was "in that state" (tathā-gata) of not being reborn. Any kind of permanence would wreak havoc on Buddhist metaphysics.

So the Buddha gains access to the god-like knowledge of a universal supernatural monitor. He gains knowledge not only of his own previous lives (pubbenivāsa), but of the death and rebirth (cuta-upapāta) of other beings. Such knowledge requires that one be aware of everything that is happening everywhere at all times, i.e. omnipresence and omniscience. These two qualities specifically denied the Buddha by the early Buddhist texts (see Kalupahana 1992: 43-4). However as time goes on the Buddha becomes more and more god-like. His limitations are gradually weeded out and his abilities expanded. For later Buddhists the Buddha is omnipresent and omniscient, and they gradually add omnipotence to the list as well. I discussed this trend in my 2014 article on karma in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics.

An almost exact translation of omni-scient in Sanskrit is sarva-jñā. This, along with it's synonym prajñāparamitā 'perfection of understanding', are both qualities attributed to the Buddha in Mahāyāna texts. And yet despite all of this, karma remains the primary way of thinking about morality. Of course karma changes with time, as I describe in my 2014 article, and while such changes undermine the role of the karma as supernatural monitor and claw back some of the power into human hands, especially in the matter of avoiding the consequences of evil actions, it is still karma that governs rebirth.

Just as the bodhisatva approaches Buddhahood (the end of rebirth) but continues to be reborn in order to stay in play with living beings; the Buddha seems to approach godhood but never quite cross the threshold. So when Amitābha promises the believer that they will be met after death and guided to a place where the Dharma is almost infinitely easy to practice, he still cannot avoid the need for individuals to awaken themselves. In Sukhāvati everything one needs to practice the Dharma is laid on in abundance, there's no sex or other possible distractions, and yet one must still learn and practice. Awakening cannot be bestowed like grace. Even in tantra, in the ritual recapitulation of Mahāvairocana's communication of awakening to Vajrasatva through mudra, mantra, and maṇḍala, it is not a matter of a deity transforming the sādhaka, it is a matter of the individual and cosmic wills coming together to transform each other. A relationship of give and take or kaji as the Japanese call adhiṣṭhāna


Conclusion

A full account of karma in evolutionary terms seems a long way off simply because it does not seem to interest either the Evolutionary or the Buddhist research communities. Evolutionary study of religion is focussed on theism since this is the major issue for WEIRDos. In any case it would be a complex undertaking because karma is complex at any given time, across sects, and changes considerably over time. A complete chronological account of karma would be a good first step towards a complete picture. But for some reason such fundamental research has, to the best of my knowledge, yet to be undertaken. Of course there are many partial studies of karma in specific circumstance, and very many which seek to understand karma in modernist terms, but there is nothing like, say, the major studies of dharma theory (e.g. Ronkin 2005) or the khandhas (Hamilton 2000). I've attempted to trace one major change in karma in my 2014 article and other facets of karma in essays here on my blog, but there are no major studies of karma as far as I know.

One of the problems we face with Buddhist studies is that cracks get plastered over. Even academics seem to aim at producing normative accounts of Buddhist doctrines, to get at the putative underlying unity of the texts, rather critiquing the ideas in Buddhist accounts. There is no tradition of critiquing Buddhism, except in theist terms. Worse, I now see the idea of underlying unity as a myth rather than a reality. Taking that myth too literally is a major impediment to understanding the development of Buddhism. The doctrine of karma is one of the weaknesses, because it fundamentally contradicts and is contracted by the doctrine of dependent arising. Here is another potential crack: how does one gain a godlike perspective, omniscient and omnipresent, on a process like karma? Given how karma works, how is any such perspective possible? The idea is deeply self-contradictory.

That said, this fact that the Buddha gains access to the god-like perspective of a supernatural monitor is a fascinating facet of Indian and Buddhist metaphysics. It tells us that despite the abstract conception of karma, that a godlike perspective is still possible. Buddhists believed (and in some cases still believe) that there is a view point in the universe which sees everything and knows everything and it is in theory possible to attain this view point. This perspective, initially at least, conveys knowledge, but not the power to change the situation. For early Buddhists, changing the situation could only come from practising the practices. Though of course the Buddha's personal power increases. In the later version of the Samaññaphala Sutta simply meeting the Buddha and hearing a Dharma talk rescues the murderous King Ajātasattu from his fate of rebirth in Hell. This whole change in the dynamic of karma in a world of the increasing soteriological power of the Buddha requires further study.

As Buddhism continues to be assimilated into WEIRD cultures it will inevitably change. History shows that Buddhism adapts to suit the needs of the time and place that Buddhists live in. In WEIRD places our problems are distinct from those of Iron Age or Medieval India or Asia. Supernatural explanations seem less plausible and satisfying to an increasing number of people who are none-the-less attracted to Buddhism, precisely because Buddhists promote Buddhism with realist rhetoric (we can teach you about the nature of reality). Redefining Buddhism without the supernatural elements is an ongoing process. Letting go of the accretions that make us think we understand "reality" may take even longer. I think we are generations away from a workable demystified Buddhism that can stand alone without constant reference to tradition. I think that evolutionary theory will play a major role in creating this new form of Buddhism. It is by far the most important single idea to emerge from WEIRD culture in terms of how we understand ourselves. 

~~oOo~~


Bibliography

Attwood, Jayarava. (2014) Escaping the Inescapable: Changes in Buddhist Karma. Journal of Buddhist Ethics 21: 503-535.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Glucklich, Ariel. (1997) The End of Magic. New York, Oxford University Press.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, Sue. (2000) Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Norenzayan, Ara. (2013) Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Princeton University Press.

Ronkin, Noa. (2005) Early Buddhist Metaphysics. Routledge.


Note. A few minutes after clicking the "publish" button on this essay I noted another blog: Subliminal religious prompts might not make people nicer after all, which contradicts the findings that Norenzayan relies heavily on in his account of religion.