Sunday, November 22, 2009

The "God gene" and the life-lie

Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, is the author of a new book “The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures.” In a piece in the New York Times for November 14 he presented the gist (

“[R]esearch is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”

Two groups, on opposite sides of the aisle, may have trouble with this perspective.

“For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

“For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely."

Neither group need worry, argues Wade.

“[T]he evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

“It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

“The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

One may question Wade’s suggestion that the new approach can lead to a truce between theists and atheists.

Still, the point of view is interesting. It may reinforce an insight achieved by the dramatist Henrik Ibsen in his 1884 play “The Wild Duck,” where he presents the concept of the “life-lie.” In simplest terms, a life-lie is a story we tell ourselves--a story we actually believe about our lives that lets us ignore ugly reality so as focus on a glorious future.

The main character of "The Wild Duck" is a man named Hjalmar Ekdal. After his father was ruined by a shady business deal, Ekdal has lived his life in shame. He scrapes by with his photography business, a business that his father’s arch-enemy gave him out of pity. To all intents and purposes, Ekdal's wife runs the business.

Logically, Hjalmar Ekdal should be miserable, but he is not. Ekdal is happy because he is sustained by his personal life-lie. He firmly believes that he is destined to invent a splendid mechanical device that will make his family wealthy and erase his shame. He doesn’t just tell himself this lie, he actually lives it. Each day he goes off on his own for a few hours, supposedly toiling away at The Invention. What is he really doing? No one knows. In truth, it’s irrelevant. Every day he returns in high spirits, believing that he is on the verge of perfecting the invention and saving his family's fortune.

Presumably Ekdal has developed this comforting fantasy all by himself. Not so, though, because it gradually emerges that the failed photographer’s life-lie has been nurtured by the cynical Dr. Relling, who dispenses illusions along with pills. Relling says "I try to discover the life-lie, the pet illusion that makes life possible; and then I foster it. . . . Deprive the average human being of his life lie, and you rob him of his happiness.”

Life-lies generally flourish when two processes cohabit: the individual's need to cherish illusions, and the interventionist strategy of the enabler (here Dr. Relling), who fosters them.

Parenthetically, it may be noted that Ibsen's concept runs counter to a cherished theme in Western philosophy that goes back at least to the time of Socrates: we are better off if we discard illusions. This notion has drifted down to psychoanalysis, where gullible patients spend years trying to "find out the truth about themselves." Apart from the fact that Freudian psychoanalysis rarely yields any truth, it may be that we are better off without knowing it.

Be that as it may, perhaps this concept of Ibsen’s allows us to see the “God gene” in a different perspective. Ekdal is humanity, which can only flourish by adhering to illusions, including the supreme one of believing in God--or gods. Dr. Relling personifies the priestly caste, which hands out the sustaining illusions and continually fosters them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained offers the most intellectually-satisfying explanation for the human "mystery" of religious belief from an evolutionary perspective.

It begins with the human ability of proprioception, in which we can "analogously imagine" ourselves being watched by our own selves, a trait Adam Smith called our "Impartial Spectator" that functions as a homunculus of conscience. It is the same trait that enable empathy to form within human relations -- the ability to see the world through an other's perspective, yet wholly our own.

From this primitive trait in which human emotions evolved to their current levels, mankind has imposed "violation tags" such as "virgin births" and "angelic rape" to keep the mystery ever within reach, and always elusive. Like the Midrash and other secondary literature that tries to explicate the inexplicable, mankind delights in his elementary psychobabble, keeps himself entertained, and also provides the basis for stable relationships.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Solidarityof theShaken said...

This reminds me of these survival stories where people lost in the wilderness or in some other dire situation overcome insurmountable odds and survive the event.

I've read that people of faith are more likely to survive these types of situations than those without. And yet, as you said in the article, their faith says nothing about the "truth" of their beliefs but only its value in the preservation life.

10:25 AM  

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