Dispatch from London

FROM KARL GIBERSON: I have been hanging out with philosophers this week at the Thomas More Institute in London. The occasion is a conference in honor of Mariano Artigas (pictured here), my co-author for the book Oracles of Science. Artigas was a much-loved scholar and priest, mentor to many students, and the author of many other books, including the acclaimed Galileo in Rome. He was 68 when he passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006, and he received his first copy of Oracles of Science from Oxford University Press as he lay dying in the hospital.
The conference, titled “Metaphysics, Ontology and the Science-Religion Debate” is, as the name suggests, a ponderous examination of some of the deeper philosophical questions about how to relate science and religion. The topics, coupled with my jet lag, have made it challenging in various ways.
What is very clear from the emphasis at this conference is the growing sense that science is facing something of a crisis. The journalist and author Dr. James Le Fanu gave a great talk about the large number of scientific accomplishments of the last 50 years that simply cannot be repeated (essentially making the same case that John Horgan makes in The End of Science). Fanu contrasted that with the present work on genomes and how little we really understand about what we are discovering there. Science, in his view, has over-promised and under-delivered and now is having to hide its failures. Thus, we see the aggressive tone of polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as they try to defend science as an all-powerful enterprise.
Steve Fuller, a sociologist who testified at Dover on behalf of the “intelligent design” movement, took me to task for equating ID and creationism in my remarks. He thinks the ID folk are in a long-standing philosophical tradition challenging the naturalism of science. I tend to see ID, however, as a secularized and repackaged set of anti-evolutionary arguments that the creationists were using decades ago and that William Paley was using before Darwin ever set foot on the Beagle.


Dispatch From the AAA Annual Meeting

FROM BARBARA KING, PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AT THE COLLEGE OF WILLIAM & MARY: Along with thousands of other anthropologists, I was in San Francisco this past weekend for the American Anthropological Association conference. These annual meetings are always an edge-of-chaos experience of chimpanzee-style fission-fusion reunions, intense talk punctuated by debates and collegial provocations, and visits to the ever-popular exhibits room (where I bought, this year, not only books but also merchandise like a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you understand punctuated equilibria!”)
My own session occurred Saturday morning. Organized by Michael Winkelman of Arizona State University and Carol Weingarten of the University of Pennsylvania, it was called “Religion in Evolutionary Perspective.”
Dwight Read of UCLA kicked things off by focusing on humans’ tendency to assign agency to beings in our world, including nonmaterial beings. He asked whether the kind of neural apparatus that underwrites this tendency could possibly exist in the absence of the development of some sort of religious thought—and answered with a “no.” While chimpanzees, Read said, have an understanding of causal connections, what’s different with hominid ancestors is that our schema allowed not just outcomes but consciously desired outcomes. Humans, in other words, invoke schema (“if I do x, y will result”) for consistently linking to certain outcomes over and over again, and sometimes do so by incorporating “unseen agents” into their calculus.
Interestingly enough, I found myself speaking after Read, who had wedded himself heavily to mental representations and evolved cognitive structures. At the start of my talk, I noted two papers published last month in our alpha-tier science journals (one in Science, the other in Nature) that converged on a central role for agency-detecting cognitive capacities in the evolution of religion. This focus on thought and cognition seems to be all the rage, but I wished to offer a different vision, a return to an anthropological perspective rooted in emotional ritual. I discussed the evidence in prehistory for emotional relationality and for symbolic ritual oriented toward the supernatural—and, of course, also for belongingness, the concept at the heart of my Evolving God book. Plainly said, I think that reducing religion to cognitive agency-detection misses an awful lot, primarily about how we evolved to co-create meaning through cognitive empathy (and even through a failure of cognitive empathy at times) with those around us.
Feeling this way, I took splendid enjoyment in the next paper. Weingarten and James Chisholm of the University of Western Australia described what it means for “Durkheim to meet Bowlby”—that is, for a focus on “exultation and joy, an overabundance of forces, on effervescence” in religion to meet a focus on attachment. Chisholm (who presented the paper) rooted their points in really deep evolutionary time, pegging the origins of the attachment process to 350 million years ago. For reptiles and nonsocial mammals, attachment is to territory (a specific location in space); for most social mammals, attachment is to the flock or herd. And for humans, attachment is to the cooperative social group. In other words, home for us is the cooperative social group. The origins of religion, then, may in part be traced to the human capacity for attachment—first to the mother, then to other emotionally close individuals, then to groups, then to leaders, then to religious leaders, and eventually to God.
I have a lot more to learn about bringing together Durkheim and Bowlby—in 15 minutes, each of us speakers could only whet others’ appetites. Chisholm and Weingarten’s search for phylogenetic precursors to complex human behaviors was carried forward in a novel way by Winkelman, who spoke next. Winkelman sees the displays of chimpanzees as rituals; in fact, the phylogenetic origin of human shamanism is, for him, in ape display behavior. What bridges the gap from ape displays to human religiosity? Altered states of consciousness. Compared to chimpanzees, “humans evolved to more efficiently process psychedelic drugs.” (Comparative primatology meets the ‘60s?!) Winkelman links some spiritual experiences to extreme neural activation (through dance and even long-distance running as much as through drugs). With co-author John Baker of Moorpark College, he has a new book called Supernatural as Natural that elaborates on these views.
Kathleen Gibson of the University of Texas had the daunting job of trying to tie these wildly divergent papers together, and proved more than up to the job. She was fair and gently provocative. (Thanks to Gibson, I realize I can sound too warm and fuzzy about religion, sometimes, when I mean to focus on evolved violence and failed belongingness as much as on harmony and empathy.) Her spirited support of developmental models was particularly effective in countering what I, too, see as an unwarranted love affair with specific innate modules in the expression of human behavior. In Gibson’s words (or at worst a close paraphrase), “the transformation of rearing”—that is, how a human or an ape is raised by parents or caretakers—can “change brain function.” The social, the emotional, and the cognitive thus come together. A great and fit ending to this set of papers!


Dispatch From the Saving Darwin Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: This morning I had my coffee in Penn Station, watching New Yorkers—who seem very nice—and listening to Coldplay on the speakers overhead, which is also very nice. I came to New York yesterday on the train for a special evening at The Harvard Club devoted to my book Saving Darwin, which argues that there is room for God within the grand narrative of evolution. The organizers brought Michael Shermer, the author of many books and the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, to interview me in front of an audience of 120 or so New York media people. Shermer doesn’t think there is room for God within the grand narrative of evolution, or anywhere else for that matter.
Shermer was expected to be a bit aggressive with the interview. After all, he edits a magazine dedicated to proving that sensible people shouldn’t believe things without adequate evidence, and my belief in God was certainly in that category. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guy who hangs out with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who had been at the previous event at the Harvard Club. But Shermer was delightful. He had read Saving Darwin carefully and prodded me on the difficult points—divine action and the nature of consciousness in particular.
He asked good questions—a mix of philosophical and personal issues. Why do I believe in God? (Because I always have, and nobody has convinced me I should stop.) But what are the reasons to believe in God? (It makes a richer worldview and grounds the goodness of the world in something other than mere titillation.) So you believe in God for emotional reasons? (Yes, but not merely emotional reasons.)
I was especially flattered when Shermer encouraged the audience to read my brief narrative of cosmic history near the end of the book, a passage that he described as the “equal of anything that Carl Sagan had written.” Shermer is an outstanding writer and a compliment like this was deeply appreciated. Over dinner later, we talked about writing. Like me, he loves to write and is always happy when the research is done and he can get down to writing. I mentioned that Ed Larson felt the opposite; he told me once that he loves the research but finds the actual writing tedious—hardly what one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.
When I got up this morning, I checked the Amazon ranking of Saving Darwin to see if the audience members had all hurried home and order copies. The overnight improvement in the ranking indicated that one copy had sold.


Dispatch From Chautauqua

FROM BARBARA KING: My second day at Chautauqua was both exhausting and exhilarating. Edward Larson kicked things off with a talk about the history of teaching evolution in the United States, “from Dayton to Dover.”
Larson identified three more-or-less chronologically-ordered phases, in terms of which was the dominant strategy: attempts to remove evolution from the classroom altogether; programs designed to balance instruction so that both evolution and creationism are represented; and the “evolution is just a theory” movement, where intelligent-design advocates and others insist that evolutionary theory is debatable and needs evaluation against alternatives.
Particularly intriguing to me was Larson’s explanation of a seismic shift that came in 1961 (the second phase). Until then, even the most prominent figures who challenged the teaching of human evolution in public schools—like William Jennings Bryan of the famed 1925 Scopes Trail in Dayton, Tennessee—did not embrace biblical literalism. Only when Virgina Tech engineering professor Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961 did “a scientific-sounding” reply to evolution become available. Here was a turning point, with Morris a “Moses leading the faithful into a promised land where science proves religion,” said Larson—except, as Larson was quick to explain, the science was so drastically flawed as not to be science at all. The Earth is not 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs and early humans had not co-existed, as Morris claimed.
Yet, I learned, the Morris text is now in its 42nd printing! It’s a powerhouse influence on some significant number of Americans still today. This fact reminds us that though a lot of high-profile court cases turn on questions of teaching intelligent design, an army of young-earth creationists is out there too, fighting from a biblical-literalist position against the chance for public high school students to learn genuine science.
Larson concluded his talk with these words: “If history is any guide, dark clouds remain on the horizon” for the teaching of evolution in American public high schools.
In the wake of that chilling prediction, I sought relaxation and immersion in beauty, and found it in a midday organ concert. It, together with last night’s Brahms symphony by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, brought special pleasure to my visit. The science and religion of Chautauqua is infused with music.
In the afternoon, I gave a talk myself, based on my book Evolving God. As a biological anthropologist, I look for deep roots in apes and in human ancestors of what (later in human evolution) became religion. During the lecture and in the vigorous half-hour question-and-answer session that followed, I enjoyed talking with Chautauquans about empathy, compassion, and violence in great apes and humans, and about the earliest prehistoric rituals (e.g., burial ceremonies) of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that may give us clues to humans’ seeking of the sacred.
An honor followed the talk: I was interviewed for a podcast by the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell. (The interview should be up on Chautauqua’s Web site next week.) For decades, Campbell has been a formidable global presence in the fight against poverty and injustice. She’s also, I have now discovered, a warm and purely fun person to spend time with.
Tonight’s agenda is simple: ice cream! And I fly home tomorrow.

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