February 19, 2011


God and Gossip: a review of The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering (Damon Linker, 2/14/11, New Republic)

Who will save science from the scientists? I often ponder that question when I peruse the writings of evolutionary psychologists—and did so once again as I read Jesse Bering’s new book, which is at once marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating. [...]

But why did human beings begin to feel in the first place that they and their actions matter to a divine mind? Here is how Bering explains its evolutionary origins: millions of years ago, proto-humans were unselfconsciously “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited.” But then their theory of mind kicked in, enabling them to start judging one another’s actions. We began to realize that we were being watched and judged by other people. And as our species developed language, we came to understand that we were being watched and judged not only by those who directly observed our behavior, but also by those who heard about it through the medium of gossip. Before long, the “reproductive success” of those who failed to restrain their behavior began to suffer, which in turn reproductively privileged individuals with a reputation for self-control. And the most self-controlled—those who lived as if they were being watched and judged at all times by a supernatural entity—were privileged above all others. In this way, our theory of mind and our linguistically based capacity for gossip, when combined with the genetically based imperative to reproduce, conspired to make the human species uniquely predisposed toward moralistic religious beliefs.

The first thing to be said about this account is that it is an example of evolutionary psychology at its very worst: shifting abruptly between experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors; and reducing all human motivation to the desire to get laid; and presupposing what it seeks to prove. (Why did proto-humans begin to condemn “impulsive, hedonistic, and uninhibited” behavior if they did not already possess the capacity for moral judgment and self-restraint that supposedly developed only later, with the advent of gossip?)

But let’s leave this aside and presume that Bering is right—that belief in God and the moral behavior that flows from the sense that others are watching and judging us are mere adaptive illusions. What makes Bering’s book so insufferable is his utter indifference to the likely psychological and social consequences of the truths that he understands himself to be revealing. One possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame. Bering helpfully provides us with a vivid description of the behavior of chimpanzees who, unlike humans, thoroughly “lack the capacity to care” about what others think of them:

All in plain view of each other, not to mention in plain view of your slack-jawed children, chimps will comfortably pass gas after copulating; cavalierly impose themselves onto screaming, hysterical partners; nonchalantly defecate into cupped hands; casually probe each others’ orifices with all manner of objects, organs, and appendages; and unhesitatingly avail themselves of their own manual pleasures. They will rob their elderly of covetous treats, happily ignore the plaintive cries of their sickly group members, and, when the situation calls for it, aggress against one another with a ravenous, loud, and unbridled rage.

Noting that humans typically “recoil” from such displays, Bering also mocks the reaction as “nonsense of papal proportions” that flows from a misplaced belief that humanity resides at the “pinnacle of Creation.” The truth is that chimps live their lives without the “crippling, inhibiting psychological sense of others watching, observing, and critically evaluating them.” But “humans, unfortunately, are not so lucky.”

Conservative and reactionary critics of science have often accused it of dehumanizing us. They will be delighted to learn that Bering, who clearly implies that we would be better off if we were to follow the lead of our evolutionary cousins and begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public, has made their case for them.

The dehumanization is the point of the philosophy. If you wanted us to be human you'd choose religious faith instead.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 19, 2011 8:19 AM
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