An Integrative Look at Nature, Faith and the Human Mind
By Robert DePaolo
Freud once described history as a series of race wars, implying that bigotry is and always has been tantamount to a non-malleable virus infecting all of human society
It is a debatable point. Detractors might say mankind can and typically has learned his way out of racial bias as a result of exposure to, interaction with, and dependence on people of other races. For example in recent times the population of blacks and other racial minorities has increased in western nations, providing support in war and industry and enhancing the national spirit in the arts, athletics and literature.
On the other hand, adherents might contend that built into the human genetic code is an equally non-malleable tendency to protect and preserve the local gene pool, and that stranger-hostility is quite characteristic of all primate groups – including homo sapiens.
Some studies seem to support that view, in particular the work of Wilson & Wrangham, (2003). Their results coincide with a main tenet of evolutionary psychology that primitive behaviors devoted to gene pool preservation will take priority over the egalitarian philosophy framing the rules of social interaction in most democratic societies.
In terms of human experience, “strangeness” does not have to be based on race. It can be based on language differences, ethnic background, gender and any number of real and superficial distinctions. It’s just that the physical differences among races makes the process of discriminating between “us” and “them” rather perceptually and emotionally convenient.
Even with distinctive racial traits, “stranger bias” is hardly inevitable. It seems to be merely one of two options provided by the human brain. As Perry, (2008) and Cromwell & Schultz (2003) have suggested, the sheer size of the brain, particularly in the vast regions of the cerebral cortex (a section less influenced by primal urges and more concerned with learning and integrating new associations and concepts) provides a check and balance on our most basal instincts. Indeed Freud’s theory regarding the separation of the ego from the id for impulse control might have its physiological correlate in the frontal cortex.
In that context perhaps, despite Freud, it is not race, but the human capacity to over-distinguish between objects and persons that comprises the true sociopolitical virus. In truth that process, often referred to as discrimination learning, is more of a two sided coin than a virus because when it comes to drawing distinctions, that component of mind can employed for better or for worse; for example to chart the course of history, politics and scientific discovery, leading either to progress or social devolution.
That all good and bad, productive and destructive elements in society emanate from the human mind is a tautology requiring no further elaboration. On the other hand the way in which the human mind works does invite scrutiny, because the mind/brain is a flexible structure by virtue of its genetic and functional make-up, which can lead to any number of behavioral and attitudinal possibilities. In fact, as Mercado (2008) has suggested, the human brain appears to be a kind of bimodal organ constantly shifting between discriminatory and integrative cognitive processes.
Since human brain evolution occurred in the context of an arboreal lifestyle requiring integrative perception, a capacity for figure-ground (stereoscopic) visual distinctions and internal memory to correct for visual and acoustical vagaries in the trees, it tends to bring ideas together into common focus. In that sense the primate brain template provided us with a penchant for integrative thought. On the other hand the latest primate brain revision providing new circuits to facilitate upright walking seems to have led to a bifurcated human mind, featuring a left-right motor cadence requiring separate inhibition-excitation sequences. This process was converted to other functions and led to an enhancement of discrimination and attention capacities. While all creatures can learn to distinguish between stimuli, the finely tuned alternating/competing capacities to separate and integrate experiences appears to play a significant role in th development of both the personality and human culture.
One can see the bimodal mind in action in virtually all human endeavors. For example the ability to put circuit A on hold while circuit B is activated enables the Eskimo not only to walk upright but to describe 12 different kinds of snow. Meanwhile the fact that humans can weave experiences together enables the rest of us to understand that snow consists of one chemically configuration and is simply water at a different state of temperature.
Thus we seem to shift back and forth between convergence and divergence in our actions, thoughts, beliefs and prayers and perhaps the course of human history is partly determined by which of those two trends is emphasized and championed by society at any given time.
It clearly has played a role in American politics. For example the evolution of the political parties has been part real and part illusory – the need for group distinctions often overriding the practicalities of “the party philosophy.” Despite its origin in Jefferson’s democratic-republican party, which favored agriculture over industry and (as evidenced in Jefferson’s letters on moral principles) held to the possibility that agnosticism and morality were not mutually exclusive, the current Republican party has adopted a fairly vigorous religious mindset and champions the cause of industry. Meanwhile Democrats…Dixiecrats, who in earlier times became a collective albatross around the neck of voting rights now claim to be the only party truly sensitive to the plight of minorities. The fact that the members of both parties compete fervently during elections based on ostensibly clear choices in policy and legacy seems to indicate that discriminatory thought for its own sake has prevailed in recent times.
If unnecessary group distinctions have proved to be a mild impediment to the evolution of American society (as accurately predicted by James Madison and Voltaire) such artificial distinctions have been insidious among the so-called major religions.
Depending one what mind-mode is in play, one could assert either that there are no meaningful distinctions among the beliefs of Jews, Christians and Moslems – making several thousand years of hostility seem unnecessary, not to mention foolish, or that the contrasts are so substantial that disputes over territory and doctrine would have been unavoidable in any case.
The integrative part of mind might angle in on the fact that the three faiths have virtually identical moral premises. For example in reading the Bible and the Qur’an one could conclude that the Ten Commandments are a staple of all three religions. While the Christian and Jewish interpretations involve slightly different wording, all ten laws are morally and functionally identical in both instances. For example the first item in both interpretations refers to placing “No Other God Before Me.” Interestingly both the Christian and Judaic versions, derived from Exodus and Deuteronomy, allude to the fact that loyalty is God’s due for having “brought the people out of the land of Egypt.” The individuals involved in that episode; Moses, Aaron et al. were of course thoroughly Hebrew, and despite their resentment-fueled drift toward pagan worship in the desert, they had no real interest in modifying the Jewish faith, as had Jesus.
Yet over time a common belief system and way of life gave way to the distinction-seeking circuits, leading to persecution of Jews who despite having different rituals, held essentially the same beliefs as the Christians who persecuted them.
The one salient distinction between Judaism and Christianity was of course Jesus’ claim to be God (if indeed that was his claim) which most Jews during the Common Era would have considered blasphemous. Yet even that distinction is somewhat dubious, since Jesus often alluded to prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as being in effect, his role models. He pointed out that they too had ascended into heaven, were reborn, and transcended the usual limits of mortality. During the Common Era most Jews held similar views of the higher prophets – and certainly of David.
Even more interesting, in light of the mind’s propensity for integrating and discriminating, are the similarities between Islam and the Judeo-Christian ethic. It is commonly known that the Islamic prophets are, by and large, the same men and women worshipped by Jews and Christians. For example Moslems adhere to the words and deeds of Abraham – whom they call “Ibrahim.” They consider Jesus, whom they call “Eisa al-Masseh” a prophet. They honor the legacies of Moses, whom they call “Musa,” Noah, whom they call “Nuh”, and Isaac, whom they call “Ishak,” and they seem to hold Mary, the mother of Jesus (Maryam in Arabic) in even higher regard than either Christians or Jews.
Despite no direct allusion to the Ten Commandments in the Qur’an Moslems also adhere to the Decalogue, albeit with a few minor revisions. For instance, in “Al-Israa” (The Night Journey) The Qur’an (47:19) states: “There is no other god beside God.” In 14:35 it says: “My Lord, make this a peaceful land and protect me and my children from worshipping idols.” There are also references to not taking the Lord’s name in vain, adhering to the Sabath (though on Friday), honoring one’s parents, abstaining from adultery, murder and theft and from coveting thy neighbor’s wife and bearing false witness.
One possible distinction between the Bible and the Qur’an might be seen in a slightly different wording of one of the commandments. While the Old Testament says: “thou shalt not kill” the Qur’an says in 17: 33: “Do not kill unjustly.”
Could this subtle difference justify the current nihilistic mindset of Islamic extremists intent for so long on exterminating Israelis and infidels in the west? It seems unlikely, especially since some Biblical scholars maintain that in the Old Testament a similar distinction between murdering and killing is implied as well – the argument being that Jews also believed it was occasionally necessary to kill for purposes of self defense and tribal preservation.
With that in mind perhaps history is less a function of time and place than of mind. The Crusades, the current conflict in the Middle East, the war on terror merely a series of plays in the theater of life, staged not by the actors, as Shakespeare maintained, but by a calcium, protein, myelin, water and information containing vessel known as the human brain, during times when the discriminatory aspect of mind took center stage.
A Thousand Years Later…
A Thousand Years Later…
While the conflict among Christians, Jews and Moslems has continued in modern times we also have an increasingly contentious dispute between proponents of evolution and people of faith. Once again, the question could be asked as to whether this is a real or anthropocentric distinction, and whether, as with The Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an, the similarities outweigh the differences.
I would like to suggest such a possibility, and do so by drawing comparisons between the Decalogue, Al-Israa and the theory of natural selection.
One integrative idea is that the biological mandate revolving around the survival of both the individual and the group, seems to be in agreement with the laws inherent in these religious texts. In order to understand how merely requires a narrowing down and re-categorizating of the commandments into two main bio-moral laws. One espousing altruistic (social, survival enhancing) behaviors or restraints, the other devoted to creating a hierarchical, regulatory structure by which these behaviors and restraints can be prompted and governed over the course of time.
To elaborate; group survival, and by inference, protection of the local gene pool, require cohesion among members. The same cooperative behaviors observed in a pack of lionesses and wolves that enhance survival are also beneficial to human beings. With laws prohibiting theft, murder, adultery and coveting, interpersonal conflict is ameliorated, thus enhancing group cohesion. That dynamic leads to a stronger esprit de corps among members, giving impetus to behaviors that provide for the strong and give shelter to the weak, especially with regard to the protection and care off offspring.
In a bio-moral sense, the Bible and Qur’an are ingenious texts, particularly with respect to one characteristic that typifies all primate groups – the alpha male/female phenomenon. While dominance is often viewed as a bad thing – particularly by those living in a democratic society, it actually works in the primate world. Dominant males protect the members of the group and maintain order by issuing unilateral decisions which are the final word on conflict resolution. The reason this works is based on information dynamics. If all members of a group had equal status and conflict arose, say over territory, there would be no foundation by which to alleviate the conflict other than by mutual destruction. Genetically speaking, that would be an unfortunate trend. Since each member would presume to have equal claim to the territory the only possible endpoint would be a bloody victory by one party over another.
Interestingly, the way this might play out is by one member lining up more supporters than his rivals, thus giving him a numbers advantage in the course of battle. At the point where he emerged victorious, the fact that he had many followers would make him by
definition, a leader – thus setting up a hierarchy in any event. Consequently, in the primate world and perhaps in the mammalian world per se, hierarchies not only work but are perhaps an inevitable by product of socio-mathematics
The problem with humans is that while we also tend toward hierarchies (witness our worship of movie stars, athletes and musicians) we also have a more egalitarian outlook that is perhaps itself a byproduct of human evolution. It results from the fact that our large brains can conjure up so many tools, inventions, artistic configurations and ideas that no single alpha male or female can be sufficient. Thus our species seems to require many alphas.
That creates a potential moral dilemma. Specifically, if power is compartmentalized so that certain individuals protect us from certain hazards but not others – for example a police officer vs. a heart surgeon – there is no overriding arbiter to protect us from broader existential problems or problems that no single person can solve. Beyond that, the powerful can themselves conflict, such that a Brutus can assassinate a Caesar. In such circumstances who then has absolute, overriding authority? Who can decide on matters of conflict and prescribe behaviors and values for all, amidst this broad dispersion of power? Even if abstract laws become the objective solution, there would have to be someone to create and enforce those laws. In other words the combination of inevitable social conflict and the survival-based need for social equanimity in complex human society would perhaps invariably require a transcendent “referee.”
Thus carried to its logical endpoint, the evolution of the human brain from a hierarchy-based and less egalitarian primate brain would inexorably lead to a belief in and need for God.
At face value this conclusion might upset both religious adherents and atheists: the former because it takes God from the spiritual to the bio-natural domain, the latter because it suggests we will never reach a point in our social evolution where we can abandon a belief in some type of God.
Actually neither group need fret over this set of possibilities. First, because it is impossible to know whether natural selection runs contrary to God’s plan or whether perhaps God, in his wisdom has simply given us laws that coincide with the nature He also created which happen to favor survival of the only species capable of religious thought. To suggest there is an inherent incongruence between the idea of a God and the theory of natural selection would be to suggest that God wants us to act in ways that don’t coincide with a world He himself created.
As for the atheists, perhaps nature is all there is. Yet even if that were true, nature would require a lawful foundation, a grounding point by which matter and energy could have formed within the hot, formless plasma known as the cosmic egg. In other words whether or not one believes in a creator, it is difficult to conceive of a universe that began or transitioned from the size of a pin to its current expanse not undergoing some sort of creation process. Even if God doesn’t exist in quite human form, a tenet to which many religions (including arguably Christianity – which views God as a triad consisting of at least two ethereal beings) have always adhered. Does that mean that some overriding regulatory, creative alpha-component (say for example a superstring or particle constant that one day might be called the “El” particle) doesn’t exist and cannot work its wonders by transcending the rest of nature? I suppose it would depend on which part of our brain was in play at any given point in time.
Cromwell, & Schultz (2003) Effects of Expectations for Differential Reward Magnitude
on Neuronal Activity in Primate Striatum. Journal of Neurophysiology 89: 2823-2838
Freud, S. (1960) The Einstein-Freud Correspondence; From; Einstein on Peace O.H Nathan & H, Norden (ed) New York; Schocken Books 186-203.
Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Research and Collections, Montecello Research Dept. Aug 2007
Mercado, E (2008) Neural and Cognitive Plasticity: From Maps to Minds. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 134, No. 1 109-137.
Perry, B. (2008) Aggression and Violence: The Neurology of Experience. Scholastic.com 1-2.
Wilson, M. & R. Wrangham. (2003) Inter-group Relations in Chimpanzees. American Review of Anthropology 32: 363-392