This website contains two short e-books. The first is on evolution. It is the product of more than forty years of thought and research and is a topic that has fascinated me since high school.
My approach will be to look at simple ideas that have evolved to address human curiosity, and then move to more complex systems like economics, medicine, religion and altruism.
The second e-book is “Snippets” which is a collection of short stories from various travel and exploration books of the last few centuries. An explanation of the contents is given in its introduction. To see this book, click on the Snippets tag above.
2. Genetic and Cultural Ideas
The purpose of this chapter is show that some knowledge in our minds is genetic, with a unit of this knowledge being a genetic idea. We all know our cultural ideas and their interaction (thought) but often give little importance to the accompanying genetic side that is always in the background. This genetic/cultural model will be the basis for all the arguments below.
A tree interacts with its environment through its genes. Genes initiate growth and so the tree forms branches and leaves. Hormones travelling down the stem direct the tree’s growth towards the light. Dry weather can cause a leaf’s pores to close to conserve moisture. How the tree acts in its environment is directed by genes. I will use the term “gene” here to mean any pattern of chemicals resident in cells that influences the growth, survival and eventual reproduction of an organism. DNA is the main carrier of instructions in the cell with new genes coming from mutations or recombination in the mating process.
The chance of reproduction for a tree will depend on the fertility of the soil, moisture, predation, fertilization of seeds, and countless other factors. The tree’s success depends on its genes as well as the environment in which it finds itself. Without a brain, all the tree’s actions in its environment are initiated and controlled by genes. While genes might allow the tree some flexibility depending on this environment, the tree’s genes are still fixed for life and change can only occur at each new generation.
For a mobile animal with a more varied lifestyle than sedentary trees, information from the environment must be stored. A sea bird nesting on an island must remember where that island is and the position of its nest among possibly thousands of nests. Like the tree, most of the bird’s actions, such as its growth and metabolism, are genetically driven. But genes alone are not sufficient for survival and a brain is needed to store information about the environment. This includes “getting home” and “finding the nest” ideas. The bird’s desire to nest is a genetically produced idea. It “knows genetically” it wants to nest. For convenience, I will shorten “genetically produced ideas” to “genetic ideas”. To succeed in nesting it must also learn about its environment, and this learnt knowledge could be called “cultural”.
But not all genes end up as ideas in the mind to play a part in thought. Genes that code for red blood cells, genes for digestion, or genes for the immune system, to grow bones, and so on, do not end up in the mind. The maintenance of the body is carried out behind the scenes and animals have little mental choice in these processes. Of all the genes, only some will play a part in the mind and these will be involved with behavior, feelings and desire.
The brain has many ideas, some of them genetically produced, others cultural. The total of all these ideas is the animal’s knowledge, and the interaction of these ideas are the animal’s thoughts. Similar words used in past discussions for genetic ideas include: nature, innate, inborn, instinct, á priori, and id. Genetic ideas come before birth and cultural ideas come after birth. There has been a long-standing debate as to whether it is “nature” (genetic ideas) or “nurture” (cultural ideas) that drives human thought. Scientists recognize both as contributors and it is the extent of their influence that is now the subject of interest. Is it 80/20, 20/80 or even 50/50 for example? The old idea of tabula rasa, where the mind was thought to be empty upon birth, is well and truly over.
In humans, the desire to walk is also genetic but a child’s first steps are uncertain. The art of walking comes from practise. Walking ideas are accumulated in the brain. Here genetic and cultural ideas are so interwoven that walking eventually becomes effortless. Little thought is needed in the process. Similarly, a bird flying or a fish catching prey are practised actions that eventually become largely spontaneous. The practised part is stored in the brain. How to walk, fly or catch fish involves both genetic and cultural ideas and these ideas interact in the mind.
For humans, the neuronal network extends to the whole body with concentrations in the brain, spinal chord, around the heart and around the gut. Taking hunger as an example, hormones, the messenger of neuronal networks, are sent by the stomach to the brain to produce the idea “I am hungry”. Like the bird knowing that it wants to nest, a person knows genetically s/he is hungry. People differ in their external attributes in appearance, height, and strength, and this is often illustrated by the “bell curve” distribution. Similarly, people will also differ in their internal attributes also according this distribution, with hunger being one of these attributes. So each person inherits a different genetic hunger that is unique. This genetic hunger can be sophisticated and a person may feel hungry only for a certain type of food or only for food cooked in a certain way. Given a wide choice, two people rarely desire the same meal. Evidence could be when a group of people go to a smorgasbord where individuals can select from a wide variety of foods. While there is some overlap in the food selected, there is nearly always difference. In contrast, given a small choice, such as marooned at sea on a life raft, genetic hunger is least specific and any food will do.
To satisfy hunger, cultural ideas need to be learnt. This includes the location of a cupboard with its utensils, where the food is, and a recipe to use. Knowing the different types of food and knowing how to prepare them are all learnt after birth. These ideas make up a person’s knowledge of cooking. The person cooks the meal desired. Here genetic and cultural ideas struggle for prominence in the brain with the result being a particular meal prepared over many possibilities. After eating, hormones will “wash” the brain with hunger satisfied.
In general, cultural ideas address genetic ideas with varying degrees of success. The final recipe followed might not have produced a particularly satisfying meal. A person might resolve to use a different recipe next time or the same recipe with some variation. People remember their experiences and these new cultural ideas will influence future decisions. Other cultural ideas include, language, mannerisms, how to dress, drive a car and operate a computer. As children grow and mature they gather cultural ideas that will address their genetic ideas.
The concept of genetic and cultural ideas interacting in the brain is general and applies to all thought. Genetic ideas, stored as patterns of chemicals in our cells, particularly in DNA, produce genetic ideas for thirst, joy, love, hate, fear, and curiosity. Also included is a genetic desire to nurture, to hunt, to socialise, to exercise, and to reproduce.
The genetic ideas in the mind are inherited in varying strengths. The desire for food is stronger in some than others. The desire for socialisation also varies with some people happiest at a party while others might opt for a life of solitude on a deserted island. Some people show little interest in the rest of the world while others are only satisfied when going from one country to another. For others, with a strong genetic nurturing desire, a few children might not be enough and so they may adopt children or start an orphanage. Others choose to have no children. For some people most things are funny, while others rarely laugh. Our bell curve illustrates variation in our genetic ideas and this leads to variation in the cultural ideas we choose to adopt. This variation makes every person unique.
The mechanism of the brain is still largely a mystery and least known is how ideas are stored and retrieved. What is the chemistry behind ideas like “meet you tomorrow at twelve for lunch” and then retrieving and acting upon it the next day? It is still an area of research. An answer such as “storage is just through interconnected neurons” is superficial. Although electroencephalography and fMRI have shown us something of the areas of the brain that are firing for certain types of thoughts, this does not tell us much. There are some ninety or more hormones that wash around the brain, giving a variety of feelings and experiences. How these hormones generate these feelings is not well understood. There is a lot yet to be discovered about brain function. Therefore, describing how genetic and cultural ideas struggle for prominence, (with the direction of this struggle being the “will”) I don’t think is possible at this stage.
The genes a person inherits can only be “habit” as they are fixed at birth. They can be overridden by cultural ideas but never removed. Hunger will always reappear when the stomach has been empty for some time. People can override genetic hunger culturally, such as when fasting, but any overriding requires some effort.
Cultural ideas can also become habit but this is not fixed and can be removed or modified at a later stage. People learn to cook and over time favourite meals emerge that provide a certain level of hormonal wash. This level of hormonal wash (the reward) becomes habit. Later in life a person may be reluctant to try new recipes as this requires a change to the cultural ideas with which s/he has become comfortable. There is a risk in changing known ideas for unknown ones as it might return a lower reward. Each person longs for the flavours best known. The recipes represent cultural ideas that were taken in when young when there was no competition. And so French people learn French cooking and Japanese people learn Japanese cooking and while one may occasionally enjoy the cuisine of the other, substantial change is rare. Original cooking ideas are difficult to dislodge. Similarly, we take on the local religion, language, architecture and mannerisms and these habits can also be difficult to dislodge in later life should change be desired.
Some genetic ideas, such as those for hunting, can be so strong that they must still be “exercised” for people to remain healthy psychologically. Today there are few animals left to hunt so various sports have evolved to address this genetic desire. Real hunting is redirected to catching a football, where the football is the wild animal that must be possessed and where players compete to catch it in a net. Such games often originated as pre-hunting practice for children with an animal’s bladder for a ball. Here the players receive a hormonal wash (reward) from the football’s successful capture. Today, most hunting has been redirected further to observing rather than participating. For example, in a football match an audience participates in this hunt by observation. The process is then repeated with the ball again recaptured. After a few hours the genetic hunting desire of the audience has been met. Other hunting games, such as tennis or chess, and now computer games, have a similar effect.
Another desire related to hunting is the genetic desire to collect. This desire is to be expected particularly in cold regions or regions with irregular rain as food must always be available. Excess food can be stored for later times of scarcity. Collecting food at a supermarket is the modern method. Some people feel happier with a large pantry and reserves of food. But people can also have an above average genetic collecting desire. To satisfy this greater desire some collect for the sake of collecting and so one person may have hundreds of pairs of shoes while another may spend a lifetime collecting postage stamps. Such excessive cultural addressing of genetic ideas can bring great pleasure.
As mentioned earlier, the original purpose of the brain and the reason for its evolution in the first place, is to store cultural ideas. By learning about the environment, the chances of survival and reproduction should be increased. Cultural ideas must not lead to actions that decrease the chance of reproduction. In order for the genes to control the body so that actions taken are not too wayward, a system of reward and punishment evolved. From a genetic eye-view, a good action is one that increases the chance of reproduction and a bad action one that decreases it. When a good action, such as eating food, is taken the genetic reward is a pleasant feeling of satiation. In contrast, not eating is not in the long-term interest of the genes and so pain results. Other examples include seeking a partner which leads to children and this is rewarded with the feeling of love. Not forming partnerships can be punished with feelings of failure and loneliness. The feeding of one’s children brings satisfaction while being unable to feed them brings despair. Good actions are rewarded with happiness and bad actions with pain. Through reward and punishment, the genes direct the body’s growth and eventual reproduction. As we will see later with religions, genes use a “carrot-and-stick” approach to manipulating the body. “Seeking happiness” and “avoiding pain” is the general method of all animals with developed brains. People look for happiness by taking in those cultural ideas that they believe will best address their inherited genetic ideas.
The claim that all actions are for increased happiness (or, as we will see later, all actions are selfish) needs some justification. This perceived increase of happiness need not be immediate. A person may endure a boring job only because of the necessity of feeding children that is thought to be the greater good. Here genetic nurturing plays an important role and a later happiness is predicted from successfully raising one’s children. A person may work grudgingly at passing exams only because happiness in the form of a better job is hoped for in the future. Here genetic desire for status and success are important. A priest may go without in this world in the expectation of greater merit in an afterlife. Here a belief in life after death is necessary. In all cases the path taken is still one that is seen as maximising happiness in the long term.
The idea of happiness is also complex. Pleasure and pain can be intricately linked. For example, it is only when you have camped in the rain and mud on a “holiday” that you can later appreciate a bath and linen. Having a bath that was routine before the trip now causes intense pleasure. Similarly, a person who suffers great hunger needs only the simplest food for satisfaction. Or a person may undertake a grueling run in order to get the satisfaction of completing the course. A mixture of pleasure and pain is acceptable if one can calculate a net happiness.
We also seem to do many things that cause a lowering of happiness. The mind is capable of mistakes and, as well, there is an element of luck in life. We might decide on a trip to the seashore but strong wind or rain may ruin the trip. We may enroll in a course to improve our education but then find it poorly run. We may go to a restaurant for a nice meal and get food poisoning. So while our happiness goes up and down, there is still a genuine attempt to make choices that improve our lot.
Some choices, such as suicide, are extreme and it can be hard to think of them as increasing happiness. Roman soldiers such as Brutus and Mark Antony committed suicide when their armies failed. The Essenes of Qumran committed suicide by jumping over a cliff to avoid capture and certain death by the Romans. The Japanese samurai was capable of suicide if he failed in his allotted task. In 1978 about nine hundred people in Jonestown, Guyana, committed suicide by poison, in the expectation of going to a better life after death. In all these examples, the people involved each had a substantial volume of cultural ideas. In Jonestown, while some people were unwilling to die and resisted, many went willingly to their death. For the willing, they were not really dying but going to a more pleasant place than the current earthly one. Parents even encouraged their own children to take the poison expecting to see them again shortly on the “other side”. From the gene’s eye-view nothing could be more destructive than suicide (in terms of the eventual genetic goal of reproducing) yet in their minds these people were still maximising their happiness. Here the volume and disposition of cultural ideas was such that genetic ideas for survival could be overridden.
Another type of suicide involves injury or disease that is so painful that death is the only release. This is the usual argument for people who opt for euthanasia. As well, they have often already raised a family so the nurturing desire has been met. Suicide from despair is also common in prisons where there can be little chance of escape and life seems hopeless. People in hopeless situations where they see no future become depressed and this can lead to the only escape they know which is death.
Suicide can also be from spells. For some people, if a spell is placed upon them, so certain are they of their own death that they give up the will to live. Curses and spells are common in the black magic of Africa. “Pointing the bone” is a spell in Australia that has led to death.
If we take death from suicide as zero happiness, then death for some people is a net improvement of happiness. I do not know of cases of suicide in young children or non-human animals such as elephants or chimpanzees. The volume of cultural ideas in their minds is not yet great enough to generate this act.
3. Belief Systems
A belief system, or idea system, is a set of cultural ideas that go together to the extent that usually a word has been coined to represent the set. Belief systems include languages, religions, political systems and so on. The cultural ideas that make up these beliefs are usually stored in brains but can also be outside, in the words of books, the appearance of artifacts (in clothes, for example), or electronically in computers.
Belief systems include artifacts such as a cup which addresses genetic thirst. Information, such as the preparation of clay and methods of glazing and firing in its manufacture are needed to make it. The information of the cup is not in one location but exists in artifacts such as books and journals and also as ideas in the minds of people. The quality of this information will determine the cup’s success in production and sales. The cup is a belief or idea system in the sense that people make it because they believe it will work and will improve their lot in life.
The purpose of legs is to escape enemies and find and capture food. New cultural ideas have evolved to address and enhance these genes for movement. The first was probably a simple artifact such as shoes that made running more comfortable. The horse allowed a faster movement and extended the range of travel. The coach, where tired horses were exchanged at intervals, made long distance travel possible. The car, and later planes, extended this range further. These new cultural ideas produced a more satisfying hormonal wash in the mind than just walking. People believe in these artifacts and so make them for their use.
Similarly, new cultural ideas that led to the modern stove allowed an elaborate well-cooked meal and this is preferable to some raw food singed over a fire. A steel knife is better than a flint for cutting. Spears for hunting are better than throwing rocks, and guns are better again than spears. A house offers more protection from the elements and so is an improvement over a cave. Insulated and well-fitting clothing are better than animal skins. Books aid remembering and are superior to passing cultural ideas down through generations orally.
Other artifacts such as clothes, originally used to maintain body temperature, can become elaborate works of art that may even help a person find employment or have success in finding a partner. Sunburn creams stop sunburn and disinfectants help with bacterial infections. Electric lights allow people to see at night and computers allow rapid communication. All artifacts are belief systems and have evolved to address the characteristics of the human body. People, given the opportunity, will opt for cultural ideas that they believe will improve their lives.
But the success of these cultural ideas varies. Poorly made cars have caused the death of many people. Glasses inappropriately prescribed, often to children, have caused a deterioration of eyesight. Not all sunburn creams work and some disinfectants have been ineffective. Guns have led to untold killing. Despite such failures, cultural ideas have, on the whole, been successful increasing comfort compared with earlier times.
Belief systems are many and varied and have evolved from human thought. Thought generates new ideas and these new cultural ideas survive differentially in a sea of minds. One that people know well is medicine. We have all inherited a genetic immune system from our evolutionary past that is our first line of defence from infection and disease. With a growth in the volume of ideas it is only to be expected that cultural medical ideas would arise to enhance and supplement genetic medical ideas. The first ideas, passed down orally, could be called traditional or folk medicine. Our first attempts were more often magic than logic.
African witchdoctors knew something of traditional medicine but a good part of their practice was pretence and exploitation. The use of fetishes and divinations as protection from disease could have had no real value. But not all was ineffective and there was a “bush craft” intertwined with their practice that recognised many plants for their medicinal properties. The witchdoctor could be capable of cures in some cases.
Other folk cures have been successful and incorporated into modern medicine and include the chewing of willow bark to relieve headaches of which the effective ingredient (aspirin) was later produced artificially in large quantities. The bark of the South American cinchona tree was used by the local Indians against malaria. Scientists later reproduced the active alkaloid (quinine) artificially and its use allowed the extensive colonisation of Africa and South America. Today, many traditional medicines have been investigated and the active components extracted and reproduced artificially.
Early European medicine also had its problems. Without microscopes bacteria were unknown and operations were performed with little attempt at cleanliness. Blood circulation was unknown so cupping and the use of leeches to remove local diseased blood killed many people. Mental disease was often associated with devils entering the mind, with exorcisms given as a cure. Early medicine was mixed with both mythical and factual components.
The Chinese, in a more systematic approach, developed many weird and wonderful concoctions for various illnesses. A lot of these cures took advantage of the wide variety of chemicals in plants. Cures were found largely by trial and error. Here people would notice the effect of a particular herb. Later two herbs would be mixed to produce a greater effect and so on. Mixtures of plants and their methods of application would improve over time. Just as a bird can fly without understanding the mathematics of airflow, herbal medicines worked without the practitioner knowing the chemistry of their method. Experiencing the results was sufficient proof of their effectiveness.
One of the most successful medical ideas was that of vaccination which started with the use of cowpox as a vaccination against smallpox. Vaccinations are now the mainstay for fighting a wide range of diseases. Another successful idea was the use of anti-bacterial compounds produced by the penicillium fungi. Many new anti-bacterial compounds have now been produced. Other ideas, such as chemotherapy, evolved from the mustard gas of the First World War. Some soldiers exposed to the gas had their cancers arrested. All are medical ideas that address the genetic desire for good health.
But not all medicines are beneficial. In our modern society there is a lot of false advertising and trickery. People hope the medicine works. Examples could be the countless creams to reverse the aging of the skin or magnets that cure arthritis. Faith healing with prayer is also popular. In other cases doctors prescribe medicines that are pushed by manufacturing companies and have little understanding of a medicine’s real effectiveness. Side effects are often not disclosed or downplayed. Other medicines are simply fake and produced in countries that don’t have adequate legal structures. Some people’s lives have been ruined by the medical advice and medicines they have received. Not all cultural ideas are of value.
Despite these flaws, new medical ideas, along with improved nutrition and sanitation, have led to the average lifespan almost doubling in many parts of the world. The important point here from the brief description of medicine above is that all belief systems contain both factual and mythical parts. Sometimes the factual and mythical components can vary between people because they are genetically different (as per bell curve mentioned earlier). For example, one person may be saved from an infection by penicillin while another may die from an allergic reaction to the penicillin. What is fact for one can be myth for another. A person is best off in terms of happiness utilising the factual components of a belief system and avoiding the mythical. People should look critically at their cultural ideas to discover what they actually need. The complexity of many modern medicines can make this judgment difficult.
Another important belief system is the house. A good part of human endeavour is aimed at obtaining this artifact. One can imagine that in primitive times when it rained a person would stand under a tree or better still go inside a cave. A mud hut might not be as damp as a cave. Caves are not common and a hut can be built anywhere. We inherit a genetic desire to seek shelter from the rain, cold and sun, so structures that address this genetic desire are bound to evolve. In the last few hundred years, houses have, on average, become larger and more complicated. The house is full of artifacts such as carpets, lights, chairs, tables, stoves, refrigerators, and in some, even air conditioning, without which some modern people insist that life would be intolerable. The house is a cultural idea that addresses the genetic need for shelter and comfort. People seek such artifacts because they believe their happiness will increase.
But these artifacts do not come without cost and so people must work to obtain them. It is not clear that a person needs such a large house. Maybe a house half the size would allow a person to work for thirty years instead of forty. Governments, books, films, and so on, sell the idea that greater artifact possession equates roughly to greater happiness. As artifacts are taxed in their production, (income tax on the wages of artifact manufacturers) and on their sale (a further value-added tax), the greater the throughput of artifacts in a society the greater the government revenue. For a house, the government often sets a minimum size, that is, the government insists on a minimum volume of artifact use. By setting a minimum “standard” a certain level of revenue is guaranteed. Here, some people, realising that they have wasted their time accumulating endless artifacts, feel misled by the cultural ideas to which they have been exposed.
Imagine if people built their own houses and grew most of their own food. A government could then only exist in a reduced form. The amount of tax collected would not be sufficient for a large government. With reduced funds there would not be the billions to spend on armies. The tall buildings and concrete highways would be gone. Which system is better I don’t know although as most artifact production is linked to fossil fuel use, it would seem preferable to use less rather than more. Like the medical example, the main point I want to make here is that the house idea contains both factual and mythical components. Whether a component is factual or mythical can depend on a person’s genetic inheritance. Some people may be happier in a yurt while others happier in a large house. What is right for some might not be right for another. People will be best off in terms of happiness by knowing what level of artifact use and what type of artifacts best address their genetic inheritance.
Our laws are also belief systems. They appear numerous and convoluted, but they are still simply cultural ideas addressing genetic ideas. Animals, such as lions and chimpanzees, vigorously defend the land of which they have taken possession. Similarly, a human tribe once established in a particular location will fight off any intruders. Genetic territorial behaviour in the modern human is addressed by borders of countries and titles for land. People see their particular block of land as inviolate. They feel happy knowing the exact boundaries.
Male lions and chimpanzees (although not the bonobo chimpanzee which has different genes) fight for the right to mate and are vigorous in keeping any females won. In humans we can expect laws to be made to accommodate marriage and also laws to punish sexual selfishness, such as adultery and rape.
Possession is also genetic in most animal species. A dog will not snatch a bone from your hand, but once the bone is given there is no going back. The dog knows genetically that it now has possession and it may well growl or even fight to retain the bone from other dogs or even its owner. Similarly, humans have a genetic understanding of possession and so we can expect a myriad of laws to evolve to address these genetic ideas.
4. Religious Belief Systems
A religion is also a belief system and so we can expect it to have factual and mythical components. The idea of “heaven” addresses the genetic fear of death and “hell” addresses the genetic fear of pain. Religions are carrot-and-stick belief systems. They are not unique in this respect. Despotic regimes, such as communist Russia under Stalin, also rewarded those which towed the party line and imprisoned or killed those that went against it.
Religions, by including the idea that you do not really die when you really do die, will get more adherents. It is pleasant to think that life will go on forever. Religious texts are full of terms like “eternity” and “everlasting”, suggesting an infinite system. People want to believe it and so a religion that says it is true will increase its chance of survival.
But when logic is applied to the idea of heaven and hell difficulties arise. What would a heaven look like? A baby who died would surely not remain a baby in heaven for eternity. It would need care to grow and mature. A young person, dying before having the chance of a family, would be denied this important reproductive experience. If it were possible to have children in heaven, would they be breast fed and later given earthly foods or would it be some form of mystical food. Surely we would not eat and grow food in such a place. If a cook died, heaven would not be a happy experience as his/her chosen profession would be denied. I can’t see how golfing, football, flying, stamp collecting, fishing and just about every other pleasure that humans have enjoyed on Earth could be possible in heaven. We would be left with conversation but what would there be to talk about? Even if one engaged in melancholic reminiscences, could this be done eternally? Of course there would be some benefits as I assume one would not have to pay tax or consult doctors. The point here is that any rigorous logical examination of heaven soon shows the impossibility of this idea.
Logic can also be applied to the idea of a hell. How could a person with no material body suffer pain? Who would keep the fires burning to keep people in pain? The logical difficulties are endless so heavens and hells can be considered a myth.
The devoted and convinced religious person brushes all these arguments aside as trivial saying that heaven and hell are so different that the pleasure and pain cannot be understood in human terms. This is a cover for “I do not know”. It is a “god works in mysterious ways” type of argument. But with these convenient answers no attempt is made to say in detail exactly what these new pleasures and pains could be. Where does the eternal bliss come from? Presumably not from hormonal washes generated by cultural ideas addressing genetic ideas.
Genetic ideas addressed by religion includes that of “wonder”. Wonder is found especially in children. Everything is new and amazing. They wonder why it is so. Closely linked to wonder is curiosity and children constantly ask “why”. They are genetically designed to explore their environments to find out as much as possible with their eventual success in growing and reproducing depending on how well they learn.
Inherited genetic ideas includes those for awe. While they are young, children are in awe of their parents, other adults around them, and their whole physical world in general. They listen to and believe what they are told. At this stage, with logic undeveloped, any religion can be imposed upon them. It gives rules of how to live and tells them why the world is as it is.
In small towns or villages it would be rare to hear different opinions and so the child takes on the religion to which it is exposed. Religions, once established can be active in repressing other religions and still today having the wrong religion can result in death in some countries. This is particularly true for monotheistic religions such as the Semitic religions where the god is invariably a jealous god that does not like its adherents worshiping any other gods. People with different ideas are destined for hell. Religions with multiple gods do not seem to have the same problems.
Religions also address that which we find pleasant. Genes allow the cheering pleasure of music and one can imagine singing being commonplace before religions even started. This genetic desire has been developed by religions with rhythmical music and singing giving an elated feeling. Having a church service followed by hymns, with all the people singing together, is a unifying and pleasant experience. Some of the most beautiful music written has been religious music.
Religions also address the feeling of being in a large space. Churches are caves above ground and they can have a grand feeling. They are dry and safe, both genetically desirable states. They can be a place to get away from the chaos of life and to reflect and meditate. Their size, and possible echo, creates awe for impressionable children.
The desire to socialise is also inherited genetically. Children fear being different from the people around them and so fear social isolation. Having different cultural ideas from other children reduces happiness. Fear pushes children into religion. Should they not take on the current religion they are told that eternal punishments in the form of a fiery hell or endless rebirths into lower life forms await them. Later, fear of isolation stops adults from leaving.
Socialisation is also addressed by children and adults attending prayer sessions. After the service there is a chance for people to mix and converse. Friendships can be made and doctrine reinforced. Any elated feelings that arise after the desires and feelings mentioned above (that for music, cave feeling and socialising) are addressed, could be labeled the “presence of god” thus strengthening belief in the religion. If the service has produced pleasant hormonal washes attending prayer can become habit.
Another way for people to address genetic socialisation is to make religious figures, such as Jesus, Krishna or other deities, their best friends. Representations in the form of statues or paintings can be kept in the house. The deities become part of their social life through prayer and offerings. Requests for certain outcomes can be made. If a request is answered it is a “miracle”. With these figures as best friends people reduce their loneliness. These new friends can bring great comfort with a feeling of being loved and protected.
Religions have also recognised other genetic ideas. For example, in evolutionary texts, expressions such as “law of the jungle” and “red in tooth and claw” recognise that there is a ruthless struggle for survival and that the animal that struggles the hardest and/or the longest comes out on top. People have evolved to compete with each other. And so we have genes within us for jealousy, theft, murder, rape, revenge and hate, all which assist in this competitive struggle. The principle here is that many humans, given the chance, will behave selfishly and often with great cruelty and indifference to other humans in order to improve their lot. Today we have a police force that checks behaviour and if by chance such checks are removed, such as in wars, or if a government collapses, there is a tendency to return to uncontrolled selfishness. People should not overestimate the stability of their societies.
Religions did not understand genetics and so invented parallel systems for law-of-the-jungle genetic ideas. Words associated with genetic selfishness include sin, evil, and the devil. The presence of these genes in the newborn is its “original sin”. This division was helpful in allowing certain genetic ideas to be categorised and so to separate selfish behaviour that went against society from that useful to building societies. For example, imagine a child at a party who sees a cake. The child’s genetic selfishness says “I want to eat the lot” while the cultural ideas it is in the process of learning say “I should take one slice and offer the rest to others”. The young child initially leans towards the genetic side but, as it grows and takes in more cultural ideas, its behaviour will move in the direction of sharing. The child might be taught to label this genetic desire to eat the lot as a sin or the devil trying to lead it astray and think of it as “bad” while the cultural idea of restraint and sharing are “good”. Greed does not help build societies whereas sharing and kindness does. Religions, while recognising but incorrectly labeling genetic law-of-the-jungle, did some good in building the basis of societies. With these basic instincts controlled, other genetic ideas, such as that for nurture, love, affection, and creativity, could blossom.
While religions brought some stability, their labeling of genetic ideas was not always sincere. Genetic curiosity, where it led to a questioning of religious doctrine, was controlled by laws for heresy. Non-believers suffered torture and death for having different beliefs. Some scientists were also penalised for seeing the world in a different way. Opposition to religious dogma was eliminated.
Confession allowed people to unburden guilt but it also allowed a view into the thoughts and activities of parishioners. Priests could better manage a parish if they knew all its secrets. Religions have been very active in controlling human thought.
There have been countless religions most of which are now extinct. Imagine a village in earlier times with no religion. How could a religion start? A new cultural idea, like “there is a spirit of crops” thought up in the mind of one person would have a good chance of success. This might be built upon with “a prayer is needed to appease this spirit and ensure that our crops are successful”. As this prayer would only take a little time to perform, the village might pray rather than risk losing their crops. In this case the prayer idea has addressed the genetic fear of hunger. The person who thinks up this idea might gain status in the eyes of the other villagers and so there is a reason to spreading it. New ideas do not have to be true, they only have to be believed. The ritual for the protection of the crops must only be seen, from the villagers’ eye-views, to protect the crops. If the crops are generally successful, then praying will “save” the crops in the majority of cases. On the occasion that it does not, there is always the opportunity to say that the prayers were not sufficient or correctly done. Sometime later another person may say that a place for the spirit is needed and so a house is set aside for worship. People may begin to meet there. Maybe the crop spirit is thought to reside in the house, and so on. As the religion evolves, morals and rules of behaviour are included. The new religion now provides a frame of reference through which the world can be viewed. Over time, a priest class will evolve to ensure the correct following of the religious ideas. By a process of addition and modification, the religion will evolve and mature.
The priest class can live by intrigue, often becoming the ruling class or, if not, able to influence the ruling class. There are some countries today still ruled by religious leaders. The priests can live from contributions and in return the people get the comfort and support of the religion. But history shows us that when religions have full control over the people they often become ruthless in disposing of anyone of a different viewpoint.
Religions are full of myth. It is difficult to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, divided a few loaves to feed thousands and became alive again after he had died. These stories could be metaphors for some deeper meaning. No doubt all have alternative explanations that have been lost in time. Yet some people are drawn to these types of magical beliefs. Children are most fertile in their imaginations, telling the most fanciful stories that a parent knows could not possibly be true. They don’t allow facts to get in their way. The Harry Potter series of novels has had huge appeal worldwide to children, even though they are full of magic and impossible events. For some of these children the novels themselves have almost become their religion. Children want to believe in magic. Adults may look back with fondness (or horror) to the imaginary nursery stories they had as a child.
With very little science, early human populations were like children in their understanding of the world and so we can expect any religions that formed to be embellished with magic. There is romance in myth. Wishful thinking and hope enter into this embellishment and so we end up with religious texts that no person trained in logic could ever accept as true. There is something attractive about just believing despite the lack of evidence. I think it all goes back to the genetic ideas for awe, wonder and curiosity. Fanciful stories appeal to people and I believe that by addressing these three genetic ideas, religions have drawn people to them.
It is not surprising then that we can still find people trained in science believing that fanciful stories like Genesis are factual accounts of how the world came into existence. These people overlook magic here because their genetic desire to believe is stronger than their logic that tells them that it cannot be so. They turn reasoning off temporarily in order to keep their religion but turn it on again when they go back to their scientific jobs.
One of the major ideas of religion is that of the soul (or spirit) that goes to a heaven or transmigrates to another newborn human or some other animal. This cultural idea addresses the genetic fear of death. The soul is usually taken as something separate from the material body. While the body decays upon death and disappears the soul does not and remains.
There are a number of problems with this idea. If we take the soul or spirit to be immaterial, then how then does something immaterial interact with something material such as the human brain? This seems a contradiction. If only materials can interact with materials, the immaterial would have to become material temporarily to have an effect on the material. If it can become material it can’t be immaterial, and so on. These types of contradictions make a belief in a non-material soul difficult. I can’t see a way around this problem.
Another problem is the origin of the non-material soul. As the Earth was originally a fiery ball with no life before it cooled, souls must have come later. Did souls start with Homo sapiens? What about earlier species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus, did they have souls? And if so, what about even earlier ancestors all the way back to fish? Where is the boundary on the evolutionary tree between having a soul and not having a soul? Could there be a situation where a parent does not have a soul and a child does? This is difficult to believe. The idea of souls only for humans does not seem compatible with the idea of evolution.
Another problem is our population explosion. New souls would need to be created by some means unknown at a fantastic rate. Similarly, if there were a catastrophe with an ice age or asteroid strike and the population plummeted, where would the excess souls go? Is there a temporary repository apart from heaven or hell where the souls could reside?
For the scientist the whole idea of souls seems far-fetched and they would rightfully ask: where is the evidence? The idea of a soul seems just one of the many magical beliefs embedded within religions that have been instrumental in their appeal and therefore survival. People like the idea of being special and to give humans immortal souls sets them apart from other animals.
It is easy to think of better explanations for the soul. Say we have a tray of coloured balls; by rearranging these balls we can make a pattern and so a message. By rearranging them further we can make a change to the previous message, and so on. Now there has been no material change; the exact number of atoms existed in the tray of balls before and after their rearrangement. Yet there is a new message that was not there before. Something new can be made without a material change. The balls could be the atoms that make up the genetic and cultural patterns of chemicals in the brain. In one sense then, these patterns are made from material and therefore are material, yet in another sense the patterns are independent of the material and therefore immaterial. I believe that the pattern itself is the soul.
There is some evidence for this line of reasoning. Say a person suffers a car accident. A serious knock can cause concussion and so damage to the brain. The pattern of atoms in the brain has changed and friends may see the person as having a different personality. The soul has been affected. Upon death the pattern is destroyed completely and the soul no longer exists. This idea that the soul is finite and nothing continues after death is unpleasant to many people and so they are reluctant to believe it.
But on closer examination the idea of a soul is not completely wrong. It is part metaphor, that is, it has both mythical and factual components. A person inherits half of his/her genes from each parent with the genes of these parents coming from grandparents and so on, back into antiquity. The genes are patterns of chemicals that are more than the chemicals themselves. These chemical patterns have taken billions of years to evolve if we go back to the first living organisms. This inherited genetic pattern could be called a genetic soul. In this case the cultural idea of reincarnation, where a soul comes from outside and inhabits a human body, is not too far from the truth. A person’s genes do come from parents, but not from outside. It is only natural when similar characteristics of grandparents and parents are noticed being passed down the generations to assume that there is some sort of vehicle for this transmission. Seeing genes as an explanation was not possible before modern chemistry so the “soul” became the agreed explanation. Like the use of “sin” for law-of-the-jungle genes, religions have hit upon some fundamental truths with the idea of souls but they were unable to develop their ideas fully because science was not advanced enough at the time. It was therefore necessary to resort to metaphors.
The pattern of cultural ideas that develop in the brain during a person’s lifetime is the cultural soul. A child will learn some ideas from its parents, some from society, and some it will create itself through its own thinking. These ideas are stored within the brain. The child then has inherited both genetic and cultural patterns. The genetic pattern is passed in part internally and the cultural pattern is passed in part externally to any offspring. In this sense then, some genetic and cultural soul survives death.
All religions I know of have been started by males and so it is only natural that the doctrines produced will be centered around the thoughts and activities of men. With this bias men are often given higher status and greater rights in religious scripts. Most religions put men firmly at the head of the family. The education of boys usually takes precedence over that of girls. Women are usually barred from religious office or, if not, given unimportant roles. Some religions allow men more than one wife, but few allow women more than one husband. All these non-symmetries make it clear that religion is a male phenomenon. Because of this, women should be the most vigorous in rejecting it.
Religions are not the only belief systems to have evolved by offering explanation, comfort, hope, and protection. Pseudo-religious organisations like the Masons offer fellowship with strong bonds often forming among members. Other groups, such as the Lions and Apex, do charity work for non-members. The army is also a group that can offer support and care to its members. Semi-spiritual organisations can be orientated around business, such as Amway. The communist system in Russia had a structure not dissimilar to early religions and ruthlessly put down non-conformists. Yet everyone had a job and a free medical service and when it eventually collapsed, many were sad to see it go. It offered a certain level of comfort and security, conditions that people crave.
The concept of altruism (or other-ism, thinking of others) has long been debated by philosophers. For me, its existence or not is most interesting. In chapter 2 I said that all actions are for increased happiness. This is the same as saying that all actions are selfish. To try and show that some actions are not selfish, I have made a lot of technical argument and some people might want to skip this chapter and go to the next.
Most actions are not altruistic but an exchange, such as getting a job, eating at a restaurant or paying bills. All these actions are selfish to all participants involved but even so, while selfish, all parties benefit. All have an increase in happiness. A person gets a nice meal and the restaurant workers earn money. All are happy.
Other selfish exchanges can include a village where all the males will group together to defend it from attack even though many of the villagers will not be related. Other exchanges are delayed. A hunter who makes a large kill will share it with others in the expectation of sharing in the food of other successful hunters if he fails. Modern expressions such as “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” emphasise this type of exchange. Everyone benefits from these actions.
Other actions, like an army sacking and pillaging a town, the actions of robbers, or a boss bullying staff, are not exchanges and are detrimental for those on the receiving end. Similarly, in the chapter on religion above, the growing child has to be taught that some types of selfish actions, where only one party benefits, do not help build societies. They must leave some of the cake for others.
Altruistic actions, on the other hand, are usually one way, may involve choice, and increase the happiness of recipients. Of the four types of altruism, the first, most obvious one, is genetic altruism where parents help their own children. This is the “genetic nurturing” I have already referred to many times before. This strong desire to nurture is broad and can include all aspects of child-raising. Rearing children in most cases brings great happiness. While the parent is acting selfishly as they are ensuring the survival of their genes, from the eye-view of the child the parent is acting altruistically. Genetic altruism also allows for helping relatives to varying extents as they share many of the same genes. A component of genetic nurturing is empathy as a parent must be able to judge when help is needed and to what degree. The successful raising of children depends on it.
The second type of altruism is reciprocal altruism where people help other non-related people. An older person may pick up young hitchhikers on the basis that he used to do a lot of hitchhiking when young and so he is repaying his “debt” to society. A person in retirement may work for a club like “Apex” and help others as he was helped by the same club when s/he was young. Here a person has a choice as to whether to return the original good deeds. This has some similarities with genetic nurturing in that the parents help their children in return for being helped by their parents when they were young.
The third type of altruism could be called “redirected altruism”. It is the by-product of the genetic nurturing of the first type of altruism mentioned here. Imagine a couple who want children, but due to some genetic flaw are not able to have them, or a nun whose religious beliefs bar her from having children. A strong genetic urge for nurturing could be addressed by helping unrelated children or adults around them. They could adopt children or start a charity or orphanage. This is similar to people who watch football mentioned earlier. People “hunt” by watching others hunting a ball on a field. This redirected hunting gives them the hormonal wash they would have had, had they been hunting real animals themselves. It might not be as satisfying as a real hunt, but it is better than nothing. The redirected altruist helps non-related people. By addressing their genetic nurturing they then receive a hormonal wash as if they had helped their own children. It might not be as good as helping their own children but it is a reasonable substitute. Therefore, driven to exercise genetic nurturing in order to remain psychologically healthy, the couple or nun has no choice but to help unrelated individuals. Redirected altruism can be very broad, and can include land conservation, fighting for more equitable laws, or for workers’ rights.
A fourth type of altruism has sometimes been referred to as “pure” altruism. Some philosophers (such as Epicurus) argue that this type of altruism cannot exist, as a couple, who help others at their own expense, will have fewer resources to give to their children and so these children will be materially disadvantaged and have less chance of survival over the children of non-altruistic parents. Any new genes for altruism would not survive for long. When examined closely this argument does not deny pure altruism in the short term, as the altruist, and possibly a generation or two of altruistic children, could survive. But it denies the existence of pure altruism as a viable genetic option in the long term. Inevitably, such genes should die out. That is, any new genes for pure altruism will not persist in the population. Such an altruist would be extremely rare in earlier times.
But things have changed in modern societies with the invention of the social welfare system. A struggling family with many children gets money for food and accommodation with no expectation of any help in return. There is no requirement even to have ever paid tax. The “rare altruist” of earlier times is now guaranteed assistance by the commonplace welfare system. Any genes for this fourth type of altruism could now survive. Almost all countries today have some sort of welfare where the disadvantaged get at least some support.
With welfare, new genes for altruism in a child, rather than being short lived for a generation or two, could not only survive but should prosper under such a system. The altruist is bound to survive and go on to produce a family. Any new altruistic children who would have had a low probability of survival would now have an improved probability of survival. Over time, perhaps in hundreds of generations, a welfare system would allow any genes for altruism to spread in a population. It may have already happened to some extent. This could be the most important change in the history of evolution. It would certainly make humans unique over all the other animals. We would significantly change as a species. There could be a reduction of aggression and territorial disputes, wars should decrease and kindness prevail. The world could be a much-improved place to live with this genetic change being our saving.
The existence of new genes for this fourth type of altruism will still mean that all actions are still selfish. The difference is that a person is now acting to address new genes for altruism rather than addressing genes for nurturing when helping others. They will still get a hormonal wash from addressing genes but it will be from different new genes. This action will still be selfish from the eye-view of the person doing the helping but altruistic from the eye-view of the person being helped. This is where altruism can become confusing. Some people might think that altruistic behaviour means that a person will behave selflessly. The important point here is that the pure altruistic genes for helping unrelated people did not exist before.
But how could such a welfare system arise in the first place? The first seeds probably came from past religions and philosophers. The Confucian and later Christian idea of “love your neighbour” has altruism as a central idea (the neighbour being an unrelated person). A favourite theme of Mohammed was to help orphans as well as the giving of alms. If altruistic behaviour was proposed in the past then it is continued in the present by vote. I suppose it is like insuring your house. A small amount of money for insurance will stop the long-term worry of being homeless if one’s house burns down. Similarly, if the majority of people are prepared to vote for a small amount of tax to go towards a welfare system to prevent the worry of losing one’s job or otherwise falling on hard times, then this idea will become a standard through the passing of laws. While voting for welfare can still be selfish in one sense, in another sense it helps the survival of non-related people, some of whom might have genes for altruism.
The argument above is based on the idea that organisms will adapt to new environments. It proposes that the human genome could change because of the emerging cultural welfare system. Is there any evidence that human cultural systems can make any human genetic changes? That is, can pure altruism really come into existence? I will spend the rest of the chapter looking at the likelihood of this happening. First we could look at other species to see if there has already been any genetic change.
Genetic change is certainly true of plants and non-human animals that have humans in their environments. The idea of domestication is the process of humans changing the genes of other organisms. It has occurred over a much shorter time than would normally happen in the wild; possibly over tens, hundreds or thousands of years, depending on the domesticated organism in question. Having humans as part of their environment has sped up the evolutionary process of differential survival. There are currently whole agricultural departments dedicated to changing the genes of domestic species. Wheat grains are differentially selected by humans. Those with new genetic mutations to produce a larger high-protein grain will be selected for re-sowing. Improved offspring will again be re-sown. Where water can be a problem, drought-resistant strains can be selected. The wheat we have today has been considerably modified from the original wild grains. Usually, such modified grains return over time to their original form if put back in the wild.
Cows with new genes for a greater volume of milk will be selected by farmers for breeding. Offspring with even greater volume will again be selected. There are now cows that produce so much milk that a calf can only consume a fraction of it. Such animals would no longer survive in the wild. In beef cattle, the fatter and better-behaved animals will be retained with lean and unruly ones eaten. Animals will be selected for rapid growth and tender meat, not necessarily characteristics of wild animals. A similar argument can be made, to varying extents, for a whole range of other domesticated plants and animals.
Dogs have had a long association with humans. Most likely some types of dogs started to live on the fringe of human encampments. They were befriended by humans and eventually came to live with them. Genetically friendly dogs were accepted and unruly dogs rejected. Humans and dogs could work as a team with dogs tracking by scent and humans spearing the cornered prey. Dogs are very social with great loyalty between them and so extending this genetic loyalty to humans would not be a large genetic step. Some dogs protect their human masters as if they were protecting their own offspring. Humans have become part of a domestic dog’s genetic socialisation.
The important point here is that organisms adapt to the environments they experience. In this case, wheat, cows and dogs all had humans as part of their environment and this led to genetic change. They survived differentially depending on how well they fitted into this new environment of human ideas. In the process of domestication there is a knowledge transfer of human cultural ideas to the genes of other organisms.
But humans are part of their own environment. Can human cultural ideas lead to human genetic change? I will look at a number of different examples where this could be occurring.
One example could be the use of contraceptives. In earlier times, sexual intercourse led to pregnancy and of the many children born, a proportion died. Offspring survived differentially. Today, new cultural ideas include a range of contraceptives that can prevent fertilisation. Here new ideas have allowed more frequent mating, often with different partners, resulting in greater hormonal wash and possibly increased happiness. Children are avoided or reduced in number. Through the use of contraceptives, a person gains the genetic reward (sexual pleasure) without the genetic consequence (children). The person is still opting for maximum happiness by addressing genetic ideas but in this case sexual happiness and reproduction no longer go hand in hand. From an evolutionary point of view this is quite an unusual situation. The original purpose of the brain was to allow cultural ideas to be accumulated so that the chance of reproduction was increased not reduced. Here people are actively deciding to limit the number of their children even though they may well have the resources to raise considerably more children. They may even decide to have none at all yet still enjoy sexual union. In this case, cultural ideas have turned against the genes. The genes are not fulfilling their original purpose. This is a variation of the idea of suicide mentioned earlier. If a person decides to have no children, then it is a type of reproductive suicide, if only for the next generation.
If people with low genetic nurturing desire are less likely to contribute to the next generation, then there must be some affect on the human genome. Today, many couples in western societies are opting for fewer children. They have discovered new ways of addressing existing genes that produce greater happiness than the traditional large family. They are putting travel, lifestyle and career first in a more hedonistic approach to life. There appears to be some volume of cultural ideas necessary before this way of living can be taken. That is, limiting children is a sophisticated idea compared with normal reproduction.
Another example could be pelvis size. Today, if a mother’s birth is becoming difficult, a doctor may decide to give the child a caesarean birth. There were certainly many deaths in earlier times caused by complications during birth and a caesarean birth today may allow some mothers to survive where they would have otherwise died. If the mother has new genes for a small pelvis that preclude her from a natural birth then the survival of these women and therefore their children will allow these new genes to spread in the population. Current research shows evidence for a decreasing pelvis size in western women. It might be that in the future (with the future being hundreds of generations), caesarean births will become the norm rather than the exception. Some increase in this operation might be because there is a reluctance to accept the pain of childbirth but another part might be small pelvis genes. The point here is that it seems a medical practice can influence the direction of human evolution.
Children born today might have genetic errors that are compensated for by medical intervention. Examples could be debilitating medical conditions such as diabetes and asthma. Where diseases have a genetic component, and where these genes are continued through successful reproduction after medical intervention, any genetic errors will increase in frequency. Over time, such genetic errors could be commonplace rather than rare. The result will be an acceleration of medical treatments for offspring suffering the same or similar conditions to the parents. The net effect will be a transfer of the major responsibility for health from the genetic to the cultural. If we become more and more reliant on medical ideas then the medical services industry could outgrow every other industry and eventually consume most of human endeavour. This seems to be happening already.
There has been a minor recognition of this danger with some attempt to stop the proliferation of genetic errors. For example, some genes that cause breast cancer, Down syndrome, haemophilia, and so on, are now known and an early test of the foetus in the womb has led to some pregnancies being terminated. That is, differential survival is being re-introduced in a small but rising number of cases.
My conclusion can only be that today new human cultural ideas are influencing the direction of human genetic evolution. If a cultural welfare system allows genes for pure altruism to remain in a population and eventually spread, we could be entering a period of immense genetic change, and it could even produce a new type of organism.
6. The Evolution Path
Science offers an alternative explanation to religions as to how and why we came into existence. Religion is the main competitor of science. Yet science and religion are similar as they both have at their base, wonder, awe and curiosity. Science however, adds logic and requirements of proof for its ideas. Religions, being formed before modern science, were more like guesses as to the how the world came about and therefore religion must be more laden with myth than science. For example, a guess made thousands of years ago that the world was made in six days is still believed by some people today. Many religions have resisted, downplayed or denied the ideas of biological evolution which is a part of science. Religions rely on faith (blind belief) and usually discourage the questioning of their dogmas. For religions, evolution could be thought of as that part of science that is not palatable. Believing in evolution rather than the resident religion can be very dangerous in some countries today. Religious and scientific ideas can be in competition for human minds.
In many countries, the parts of science that expose the myth of religion are avoided in schools. Explanations like the Big Bang are against the idea that god created the world and so are not always taught. The idea that life evolved by chance from chemicals in some “primordial soup” is also often avoided. In contrast, other biological ideas such as those of medicine are readily accepted and are taught in all the universities. Other scientific ideas, such as those that allow aeroplanes to fly and mobile phones to communicate, are embraced with enthusiasm and these artifacts are in constant use. So it seems that religions agree with those parts of science that are not a threat to their dogma, but reject those parts of science that expose and challenge them.
Evolution, while not as popular as other parts of science, is still an idea that is gaining in popularity. Evolutionists may call themselves atheists, agnostics, or humanists. They are currently in the minority and I think there are two reasons why. The first is that many people have not really been exposed to the idea of evolution. Education levels are poor in many countries with children receiving only a few years of schooling before having to work. As they grow up in a religious setting they naturally continue this belief system.
The second reason for believing in religion is that it has greater appeal than science. There is more romance in it and it offers an afterlife. There is a soul that is something more than just the physical. It is not as lonely as science as there is an all-knowing god to love and protect us. Religion is a comfort and hope belief system and people follow it because it addresses many of their genetic desires. They believe (or are told) it brings happiness. Religion, once entered, is not always easy to leave. As mentioned earlier, it is a carrot-and-stick belief system. The carrot is the comfort, hope and afterlife, and the stick is the punishment of a hell or lower rebirth for those who disbelieve. Evolution is not a carrot-and-stick belief system and there is no punishment or reward for non-belief or belief. Evolution offers only one life. People want to think of themselves as special by inventing a second life after death but there is no scientific evidence for it. Accepting that we are just evolved animals on a finite planet with one life is not easy. Therefore it is not clear that evolution offers the same level of happiness as religion. For many people, evolution is the more difficult and courageous path to follow.
Religions appeal to people by separating them from non-human animals. For example, it is very difficult for some people to say, “I am an animal”. People want to think of themselves as more than just animals. They like to think that, because they have made a few artifacts and have some intricate beliefs, they are now somehow no longer part of the animal kingdom. They want to be part of a religion with magical gods personally interested in their well-being. Some religions encourage this belief by giving only humans souls and rebirths. Evolutionists can only see themselves as evolved animals.
It is also difficult to think of the Earth as finite and that our rich archaeology and complex cultures will one day disappear. That we are animals in a finite world is not palatable and so we look for alternatives. It is much easier to think that life is eternal, everlasting and that a blissful existence awaits us upon death. Evolutionists would recognise that our time here on Earth is limited and eventually our species will cease to exist.
We fear the unknown. If we believe in god, who knows everything even though we don’t, then there is no unknown. Believing in god is an indirect way of getting rid of the unknown. Science is just beginning with much that is unknown. That a television works is not in doubt, cars do transport people and buildings don’t often fall down. But we are still at the early stages of scientific knowledge. Science has really only been going in earnest for a few hundred years. DNA was only discovered some seventy years ago. We know something of science but not all. The intricacies of sub-atomic particles (quantum mechanics) is still largely a mystery. The cause of gravity is not understood. The extent of the Universe is not known. How the Universe came into existence is still a subject of speculation (discussed in the last chapter). All these unknowns can cause fear. I have not met enough people who are prepared to say “I do not know”.
Where will science be in a few thousand generations? I have no idea. Maybe the volume of scientific ideas will increase to such an extent that we will become more comfortable with it and so more comfortable with the evolution part as well. A better understanding of life could remove much of our fear. Maybe with fear reduced, more people with strong genetic awe and wonder will exercise their spirituality through evolution rather than religion. But answers are not guaranteed. It may be that the ideas we can think up are restricted by the neuronal and hormonal form of our brains and that answers to difficult questions can only be elusive. We will know more, but will it be enough to offer alternatives to a belief in god? Or will fear of the unknown still drive people to religion? Evolutionists recognise that there is much that remains unknown and possibly some things that will never be known.
There are some benefits of evolution that are not found in religion. Religions are not so much to make us happy in this lifetime, but to make us worthy of a happier life in the next. Work must be done to obtain this future happier life. In practicing religion, people might attend a place of worship and give money for a religion’s upkeep. They may pray and possibly make offerings. Time and effort is required to practise a religion. In this sense a religion can be seen as a burden. But for the evolutionist this burden is no longer necessary. One does not have to perform in this lifetime in order to earn a reward in the next. The evolutionist is free to use this extra time in other ways. Believing in one life frees people to enjoy their existing life to the full. In contrast, a monk who spends his life in prayer and penance in the expectation of greater merit in an afterlife has wasted his life. But in his eye-view he has still chosen to maximise happiness. For the evolutionist, the monk has made an error of judgment as the expected reward will be denied.
If a person rejects religion what decisions should s/he make? Crucial to this answer is genetic inheritance. Selfishness is part of this inheritance. Say a person is born with high genetic curiosity, patience and an eye for detail. S/he may decide that the best way of exercising this curiosity is through being an entomologist in the Amazon. A life of research brings great happiness. A different person who thrives on hormonal washes through activity might spend a lifetime playing tennis. Another musically orientated person may start a band. These people are being selfish in that they take actions that will maximise their happiness. But none of this selfishness detracts from the happiness of other people. As discussed in the chapter on altruism, they are all exchanges where their actions will also benefit others, and they in turn benefit from payments received.
Another person might work as an accountant and have an opportunity to embezzle a large amount of money and live a life of leisure. This person is also acting to maximise happiness but in this case detracts from the happiness of the business owner and employees. A drunk driver may run a person down putting a desire to travel above the safety of others. Another may put genetic sexual desire first and rape a person. If we divide actions into two types, then theft, violence and rape would belong in the law-of-the-jungle part mentioned earlier and recognised by religion and labeled a sin.
In one sense then, all actions are selfish, but in another sense some selfish actions help build a society, while other actions are detrimental to society. As mentioned earlier, people have recognised this division and so have voted for laws to punish selfishness that detracts from society with fines and imprisonment. A society must regulate some actions.
But other cases of selfishness in our modern world are more subtle and are yet to be regulated. The world’s population increase and the accompanying pollution is a new uncertainty that today causes much fear among people. A new moral that needs to arise would be the idea of having no more than two children per couple. To have more than two could be seen as a couple demanding more of the world’s resources than is required to replace themselves. This idea moved to the status of a law in China where only one child was allowed. But this law was unpopular and was not the product of voting. It has recently been increased to two children per couple. Eventually the world will have to vote for population control or else the biological maxim that a population cannot exceed its food supply will take the decision from us.
Another cultural idea emerging in our own lifetime is the changing attitude of people towards other animals. In Genesis animals were created for our use; in Descartes’ day animals were mere automatons without feelings or emotions and today some psychologists still debate whether other animals can have feelings or generate original thoughts. Evolution, however, tells us that we are animals and that there have been original thoughts, emotions and feelings in a long line of ancestors right back to fish and earlier. As such, we should respect our ancestors. The well-being of non-human animals is gradually being included in our system of laws. In some countries now a person can go to prison for being cruel to their pets. Having travelled to many countries of the world I can draw from my own observations and say that countries with Semitic religions have less respect for non-human animals than countries with Buddhist or Hindu traditions. This reflects the different religious scripts. Some Buddhists and Hindus see souls in all organisms while Semitic religions see souls only in humans.
What should a person do in life? As mentioned above, knowing your genetic ideas is the key. Cultural ideas that best address these genetic ideas should then be sought. But knowing your inheritance is not always enough. To choose it is necessary to reject and abandon some ideas that have been imposed on you at an early age. When people are young, they are most vulnerable to being taken down paths that do not align with their genetic ideas. The ambitions of parents can be false paths. A son may be encouraged into engineering by a father who is also an engineer. By fulfilling the expectation of his father he is denying his real desire of being an artist (say). The father may think that being an artist is not a “proper” job. Many people with genetic ideas pointing in one direction are pushed by circumstance in a different direction. As their original genetic ideas will be poorly addressed by this new direction their happiness will suffer.
Like the ideas of parents, the ideas of religion can also inhibit a child’s development. Some religions boast that given a child in its early life a point of no return is reached where the child later can never dislodge the cultural ideas implanted. They may be right but how sad this is, and what an invasion of the child’s privacy. Its self-expression has been denied. The child may want to abandon this false path in later life but find it impossible. In India some children have only the jobs of their caste allowed to them. They can usually only marry within their caste. The caste system is a set of restrictions that will, in many cases, infringe upon inherited genetic ideas. Other casteless untouchables in India, usually Dravidian aborigines, have so many restrictions that there is little hope of fulfillment of any dreams. Even becoming an evolutionist for an Indian could result in rejection by other caste members so change would be impossible.
For many countries, poverty is a significant cause of genetic ideas failing to be expressed. How many children around the world would have had quite different lives had the finances been available for the education they desired? With little access to education and forced by circumstance to work at an early age, their chance of fully realising their potential is low.
Dissatisfaction with life is quite common in western countries which shows that we are being caught up in belief systems that are poor at addressing our genetic ideas. One way of measuring the success of a country could be by looking at the number of suicides. Western countries dominate the statistics. A reason could be the complexity of our cities and the volume of ideas needed to live in them. From the age of five, some eighteen years or more of study may be necessary before a well-paid job can be found. The volume of ideas necessary to succeed is enormous. Expressions such as “escape to the country” show that many people prefer simplicity over complexity. This complexity can, for the evolutionist, make addressing genetic ideas difficult.
Cities can be polluted, noisy and congested. Many people don’t like the claustrophobia of a small office in a tall building. No one enjoys travelling to work and being caught in traffic jams or standing on crowded trains. People find themselves with a large mortgage and so have locked themselves into decades of work. Disillusion sets in and happiness plummets. Again, complicated physical environments can make addressing genetic ideas more difficult.
A few centuries ago most the population was involved in agricultural work. In western countries now only a few percent produce all the food for the nation, with all the heavy agricultural work being done by machines. There was a chance for a different destiny but it was not taken. In the industrial revolution it was predicted that machines would do all the drudge-work and so liberate humankind from endless toil. People would only have to work a few days a week and leisure would be the new norm. This industrialisation should have been our liberation but a myriad of new industries, such as security, technology, increased medical services, and especially expanded artifact production, took up any slack and so we are now working harder than ever.
This increased amount of work has resulted in many people searching for a new approach to life. They are recognising that their genetic ideas are being poorly addressed. In my travels in India it was common to meet people who had come on spiritual discovery tours in search of new beliefs. They were escaping the western world. A person attaches him/herself to some Guru. Probably the first thing taught here is meditation. Exercises may include clearing the mind of thought, thinking of nothing, stopping the noise, or concentrating on breathing. All these exercises are designed to repress the expression of ideas resident in the brain. We get used to a particular lifestyle that produces a known hormonal wash that becomes habit. While we might recognise deficiencies in this lifestyle we are reluctant to change it and jump into the unknown. We fear change. The Guru’s first task is to use meditation to take you to a place you have not been before. The Guru guides you in your jump into the unknown. By stopping the expression of some ideas in the mind, habit can be broken. Additional methods to assist in breaking existing habits can include different clothes, a new name, new friends, new foods and new routines (such as waking at five in the morning).
If all cultural ideas are pushed out of the mind temporarily (during meditation) so as to make it empty, a person cannot be unhappy. There are no ideas active to cause unhappiness. There is no longer a self to experience unhappiness. A person has only the genetic self left. Such unusual states produce entirely new hormonal washes that seem fantastic to the novice. They are shocked and surprised. Unfortunately, the Guru may link these new states with the supposed truth of his/her accompanying dogma. Experiencing new hormonal washes does not mean that there are seven transcendent states leading to Nirvana. Having unusual hormonal washes does not prove the transmigration of souls. These different hormonal states from meditation are natural properties of the body that can be produced without any reference to religion. The Guru’s teaching contains both mythical and factual components. An increase in happiness of the student does not necessarily imply that the Guru should receive a large financial donation. The Guru’s methods are not new but variations of general themes already existing in Indian philosophy.
By abandoning more and more cultural ideas you move back further and further to the genetic self. Expressions such as “discover the child in you” recognise this idea-shedding process. Children, particularly very young children, are minimally influenced by cultural ideas. They have not yet had time to take on complex belief systems. They have not yet learnt guilt. They can laugh endlessly at the most simple things. Their happiness is from the heart, that is, their happiness comes from genes. Generally this method works. For a person seeking an increase in happiness, by reducing cultural ideas, and hopefully the ones causing unhappiness, happiness has a high probability of increasing. Ideas like language or how to drive a car obviously do not need to be reduced. But other ideas such as the number of artifacts one needs, appearance, pride, ambition, and status, could all be candidates for reduction.
People should adopt those cultural ideas that best address their inherited genetic ideas. But as we have seen above, many factors such as over-population, pollution, poverty, stifling religions, lack of education, and misleading economic ideas, can make this difficult and sometimes impossible.
7. Geological Philosophy
For the religious person the Universe was created by god and so there is not much more to say. While creation is fact to the religious person it is myth to the scientist as it is unsupported by evidence. However, what is interesting is that science can also contain myth.
The idea behind determinism is the doctrine of cause and effect. One event follows another. Every event has a cause. Here a person may think that real choices are being made but this could be illusionary as choices come automatically from pre-existing conditions. Whether determinism exists or not is the subject of considerable debate today. There is some evidence that the Universe was created by a Big Bang in that matter seems to be moving away from a single point. But if the Big Bang started from nothing and there was possibly no matter, time or space beforehand, the Big Bang could not have had a cause. In philosophy, in order to disprove the proposition that all swans are white it is only necessary to find one black swan. To disprove determinism then it is only necessary to find one example of indeterminism. As the Big Bang is an effect without a cause it would seem to fit this category. As many scientists believe in the Big Bang, then it appears that this intelligent part of our society believes in indeterminism. This is a bold step to take. It seems almost like faith. Here the laws of physics are not accepted at one point of time, but are obeyed at all other points. This seems a bit like the magic of religions.
The idea of determinism is just as bizarre. If every event has a cause then there could never have been a beginning and so the universe has existed back in time infinitely.
I don’t know what to think of the Big Bang but it should not yet be taken as a complete solution. The philosopher would rightly ask: “why did the Big Bang happen”? To this there appears to be no answer. How the world has come into existence is still a mystery. Read a few books on cosmology with dark energy, dark matter, string theory, parallel and bubble universes and other theories, and the confusion will only increase. After spending nearly a decade at universities studying, and gradually putting the jigsaw puzzle of life together, to find that the last few pieces are missing, and will probably always be missing, is a bit disconcerting to say the least. While the emergence of life through evolution is now fairly well understood, the emergence of the universe that preceded life is not clear at all. The evolutionist must be comfortable in saying “I do not know”. This is not easy for some people.
The reason why some people might accept the idea of the Big Bang without question could be that knowing is more comfortable than not knowing. It is more comfortable to take a position on some issue, rather than to have no position at all. Accepting the existence of an all-knowing god is also a way of knowing the answers indirectly.
Some religions promote the idea that there is a “spiritual” world independent of the physical world where life is “everlasting”. This myth appeals to many people and they hope it is true. Some scientists are guilty of the same trick. They do this by talking as if the colonising of some planet with earth like properties is just a matter of time. It is similar to the religious idea of eternal life in some heaven but recreated in a scientific context. For travel to one of these planets, physics points out that the distances are so great that the time needed would involve many generations and so birth in space would be necessary. The logistics of food production would be a problem as plants would have to be grown in artificial light. The amount of fuel needed would be astronomical. The body suffers greatly from weightlessness and starts to waste away so there would have to be artificial gravity on the spacecraft created by some means unknown. So few people would be able to make the trip that inbreeding would be the norm. Those humans arriving at some distant planet would not be Earthlings as all they would know is space travel without ever experiencing life on Earth. I cannot see any possibility of our colonising the planets of other suns (although a station on a close planet like mars might happen). Colonising the planets of other suns is as fanciful as the religious idea of life after death. Some scientists write science fiction.
The real science gives humans a much shorter lifespan. It is extremely unlikely that we will even make a fraction of the allotted lifespan of earth which is probably about one to three billion years. The Earth appears to have experienced both temperate and glacial phases in the past and we are now in a glacial phase. In this phase there are cycles of ice ages from twenty to one hundred thousand years. While Homo sapiens as a species is only about two hundred thousand years old, earlier ancestors like Homo habilis are about two million years old. This shows some resilience in our body type in that we have already survived a number of ice ages. But there are certainly many more ice ages to come and we have no chance of surviving these at our current numbers. In an ice age the population would be reduced to a more sensible level, and in any severe ice age there would always be the risk of extinction.
In contrast, excessive fossil fuel use has many people predicting today a run-away greenhouse heating of the Earth that will cause rising sea levels and temperature change. This could cause a disruption of the world’s food supplies and so a reduction of the population. A run-away heating could also make the planet uninhabitable.
An asteroid collision led to the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty six million years ago. There are many craters on the earth and moon from past strikes and there is no reason why we should not be hit many more times in the next three billion years. If we are hit by a large asteroid every hundred million years (say) that would still mean thirty strikes before the end of the world. A strike could easily result in the deaths of all the people on Earth.
There are also other lesser events possible such as the super-volcano under the Yellowstone National Park today whose eruption is thought to be imminent. The resulting dust cloud would cover much of North America and food would soon be at a premium. Deaths could be in the tens or even hundreds of millions.
The human race is much more vulnerable than it thinks. We reduce vulnerability in our minds with “heaven” and “new planet” ideas. In geological time humans will certainly be in for a series of surprises with numbers significantly reduced, and extinction always possible, well before the end of the Earth. Fear of the unknown has led some religions and some scientists to paint a rosier picture of our chances of survival than can be justified.
8. Live in Amazement
- Evolutionists can only see themselves as evolved animals. There should also be compassion for non-human animals.
- We should recognise the possibility that much about the Universe may never be understood. The evolutionist is able to say “I don’t know”. However, it is known that the life of the Sun is finite and so the Earth will eventually disappear.
- The evolutionist should reject selfish actions that are detrimental to societies. This includes having more than two children per couple in our overcrowded world.
- Religions were early explanations of how we came into existence. Many ideas were simply guesses. Humans were portrayed as special with souls and heavens and so separated from other non-human animals. Science provides a more realistic picture of life with humans being a product of the evolutionary process. The evolutionist will reject the magic component of religions.
- There is only one life so evolutionists should look to their genes and find those cultural ideas that best address them.
- The evolutionist should have a spiritual relationship (awe and wonder) with the current world and live in amazement with this world, and not in amazement of the fantasy worlds created by religions.