Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Keeping step and equality

Nicholas Wade, building upon William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History writes,

"Rhythmic activity, such as dancing or marching, can induce strong feelings of togetherness in members of a group, as is discussed further in the next chapter. And humans for some reason have acquired the ability, not possessed by chimpanzees, of entraining their movements to a common beat. It seems quite possible that this ability emerged because communal dancing fostered group cohesiveness. If so, some kind of wordless community dancing may have been the first element of religious behavior to have been favored by natural selection."  [Wade,  The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1285-1288)] 

Comment:  I mentioned in an earlier note that I had no recollection that "marching" built esprit-de-corps; however I do recall that two members of Platoon 444 (my bootcamp platoon) like chimpanzees, apparently, could not keep step.  Our drill instructor told us that unless we could coerce these two into being able to keep step, we would never be able to do well against the other platoons during the graduation competition (I don't recall the exact terminology, but that is what was meant).  So two especially aggressive members of our platoon were assigned the task of marching behind the inept two in order to keep them in step.  One managed.  The other however was big and fat and defied his "keeper."  As a consequence the "keeper" challenged (ostensibly without the drill instructor's knowledge) this large inept to a fight.  Most of the platoon witnessed it.  At the end of the fight the inept had a broken leg and was sent off to sick bay.  He did have drilled into him the "Sir, I fell over my locker box, sir" mantra so there were no repercussion in Platoon 444.   But the mission was accomplished and he was dropped from our platoon.  The rules indicated that after he healed he would complete his training with some subsequent platoon, but I don't know whether that happened.

Perhaps if McNeill or Wade heard my anecdote they would re-explain it in their terms and assert that cohesiveness had been attained through our marching.  And the sort of "survival of the fittest" marchers who got rid of the one who couldn't march was perhaps very like what went on amongst the Protohumans. 

Did something very like the modern conception of "equality" emerge amongst the Protohumans, or even amongst Platoon 444?  Probably, but only if the Protohumans and humans could meet minimum standards.  They had to be able to at least keep step (Protohumans) as well as be able to do a few other things like obtain a respectable score at the rifle range (Platoon 444).  For those who could not meet minimum standards, "equality" did not apply. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Micro and Macro parasites in India and China

From McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, page 111 - 112:

“Indian civilization . . . arose in a climate analogous to that of the African savanna lands, where rains prevail for only part of the year but where warm temperatures are uninterrupted. Such a climate had in all probability been humankind’s cradleland, and across the millennia of anthropoid evolution toward humanity, African parasites had also been able to evolve, keeping pace with any and every increase in the prevalence of their protohuman and fully human hosts. A more nearly stable ecological balance therefore prevailed in regions of the world suited to human nakedness than was the case farther north. Risk of the fulminating sort of macroparasitism we call civilization was correspondingly reduced. But since some of Africa’s more serious biological obstacles to the multiplication of human numbers— sleeping sickness, for instance— did not extend into India, the possibility of sustaining the macroparasitic social classes needed for civilization did exist there, at least marginally.

Yet despite all the drains upon the energy at their disposal, whether micro - or macroparasitic, a small surplus must have remained at the disposal of both the Indian and Chinese peasantries during the first millennium B.C. This allowed their multiplication, which in turn led to colonization of new regions, and to the elaboration of economic as well as of political and cultural structures near the major centers of population. Without such a growth of peasant numbers the two civilizations could not have developed as they did, and as long as the peasant base continued to expand without meeting insurmountable and lasting checks, the ecological disbalance favoring the rise of civilization continued to exist both in India and China.” [Mcneill, William (2010-10-27). Plagues and Peoples, Kindle Edition.

Comment: I wasn’t able to find out much about McNeill. I wondered for example if his reference to the ruling classes as “macroparasites,” might reflect a Marxist influence, but wasn’t able to find any support for that suspicion. He is entertaining as he compares the two forms of parasites and tells us that the microparasites would invariably leave the peasants with enough health and energy to produce their crops and survive; whereas the macroparasites didn’t initially see the need but eventually came to the same conclusion.

In another place McNeill describes Confucius as having created a religion the purpose of which is to restrict the ruling classes (the macroparasites) in such a way that they leave the peasants with enough to live on. The Indian subcontinent on the other hand was not able to produce the abundance of China so the two religions, Buddhist and Hindu, encouraged peasants to place their confidence in transcendence and metempsychosis.

Further on McNeill and Civilized Societies’ disease advantage

I probably should have quoted some more.  He doesn’t mean Civilization in the Enlightenment sense, but in the sense of being congregated in cities. [His definition of “Civilization” will be expanded a bit in a subsequent note.]  Diseases that weren’t possible in Hunter-gatherer days evolved when men clustered close together in cities.  Diseases like mumps, chicken pox and measles are endemic amongst civilized Europeans, but have been fatal to people who have never before been exposed to them. 

McNeill quotes the effects a disease introduced into Australian rabbits in 1950 in hopes of eliminating them.  Something like 98% of them were killed immediately, but when the 2% had offspring, only 70% died.  28% had immunity. The percent dying decreased with each generation until 75% survived and that survival rate remained.  I probably haven’t recalled these numbers precisely but they were something like that.  McNeill suggests that the introduction of a virulent disease in a people with no immunity will have a similar result – perhaps not a death rate of 98% but a significant one.  A rabbit generation is less than a year; so in a very few years they were almost back to where they started, but a people like the Aztecs would have taken much longer. 

Speaking of the Aztecs complicates this issue because the Aztecs were civilized in the McNeill sense.  It was just that the diseases they were confronted with in the 1500s had developed in Europe after the Amerindians had come over the Bering Straits land bridge around 15,000 years ago.  It was after that the Europeans developed agriculture and began clustering in towns and later cities; becoming in McNeill’s definition, along with their endemic diseases, civilized.

McNeill on Civilize Societies’ disease advantage

William McNeill wrote Plagues and People in 1976. In 1998 it was reprinted with the addition of his analysis of the AIDs disease. He thought the earlier publication was valid as is. I am 22% through the Kindle edition and have run across only one strange comment about the effect of disease upon the Aztecs during the Spanish invasion. His comment was something like one I made recently in regard to something else, namely that he read it some place but couldn’t remember where but (and here he expressed more confidence in his memory than I did in mine) some (primary or nearly primary) source provided evidence that disease was Cortes’s most potent ally. Yes, a few of the local Amerindian tribes (who had been mistreated by the Aztecs) helped Cortes, but only after they were convinced he was going to win. He had to demonstrate to them that he could win without them, and they wanted to be on the winning side.

What follows is McNeill more broadly (and more usefully) writing about the process whereby disease assists a Civilized Society against a more primitive one. This passage would seem to apply to Rome’s ability to conquer with regularity (at least early on), all the nearby more-numerous but also more-primitive tribes.

“When civilized societies learned to live with the “childhood diseases” that can only persist among large human populations, they acquired a very potent biological weapon. It came into play whenever new contacts with previously isolated, smaller human groups occurred. Civilized diseases when let loose among a population that lacked any prior exposure to the germ in question quickly assumed drastic proportions, killing off old and young alike instead of remaining a perhaps serious, but still tolerable, disease affecting small children.

“The disruptive effect of such an epidemic is likely to be greater than the mere loss of life, severe as that may be. Often survivors are demoralized, and lose all faith in inherited custom and belief which had not prepared them for such a disaster. Sometimes new infections actually manifest their greatest virulence among young adults, owing, some doctors believe, to excessive vigor of this age-group’s antibody reactions to the invading disease organism. Population losses within the twenty-to-forty age bracket are obviously far more damaging to society at large than comparably numerous destruction of either the very young or the very old. Indeed, any community that loses a substantial percentage of its young adults in a single epidemic finds it hard to maintain itself materially and spiritually. When an initial exposure to one civilized infection is swiftly followed by similarly destructive exposure to others, the structural cohesion of the community is almost certain to collapse. In the early millennia of civilized history, the result was sporadically to create a fringe of half-empty land on the margins of civilized societies. Simple folk brought into contact with urban populations always risked demoralizing and destructive disease encounters. Survivors were often in no position to offer serious resistance to thoroughgoing incorporation into the civilized body politic.

“To be sure, warfare characteristically mingled with and masked this epidemiological process. Trade, which was imperfectly distinct from warlike raiding, was another normal way for civilized folk to probe new lands. And since war and trade relations have often entered civilized records, whereas epidemics among illiterate and helpless border folk have not . . .” [McNeil, William. Plagues and Peoples (p. 86-87). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

Dance and Drill in Human History

Nicholas Wade writes,

“In the ancestral religion of hunter gatherers, people bound their communities together in emotionally compelling dramas of music, chant and dusk-to-dawn dances. The marathon rituals ended for some in exhaustion, for others in a state of trance that opened doors, for them and their community, between this world and that of the supernatural.

Little by little, the ancestral religion was suppressed in the settled societies that began to emerge 15,000 years ago and has survived only among the handful of hunter gatherer tribes that endured into the modern era. The new settled societies adopted a structured form of religious practice, one in which priests controlled the ritual and monopolized interaction with the supernatural. The communal dances ceased. The songs were silenced . The shamans were marginalized as witch doctors or sorcerers.

But the ancestral religion was woven too deeply into people’s behavior to disappear entirely. The vase was shattered, but its shards endured. It required an intuitive leap to recognize the pieces, see how they had once been assembled and figure out what the vessel’s purpose had been. That leap was made not by any anthropologist or archaeologist, but by a distinguished military and world historian, William McNeill.

McNeill’s epiphany came when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in September 1941 and set to marching about for hours on a patch of Texas plain. It was hot and dusty, and the exercise seemed worse than useless, given that marching in close formation on a modern battlefield within range of machine guns would have been suicidal. But all that aside, McNeill writes, marching about in step with the others somehow felt good. “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well -being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in a collective ritual.” 76

McNeill’s insight was that rhythmic muscular movement in unison had a strange and powerful effect on the emotions: it created both a sense of exhilaration and a feeling of solidarity with other participants. Group cohesion, though not well understood by many civilians, is a matter of the greatest concern to military commanders. A poorly trained group will dissolve and run when 10 percent of its men have been killed; a cohesive force will not break until just 10 percent of its members are left alive. This is a difference that decides battles. Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1323-1342). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Comment: Wade sites for the above, “William H. McNeill, Keeping Together in Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), page 2. Perhaps I didn’t do as much marching as Wade describes McNeill having done, but I don’t recall any equivalent sense of exhilaration. I just now downloaded McNeill’s book to getter a fuller description. McNeill was drafted in September 1941. I enlisted in July 1952. In my case I went through 16 weeks of boot-camp, several months of combat training and finally sent to Korea in March of 1953. The most marching I recall doing was in boot camp but don’t recall the emotions McNeill says he felt. He does say that “Consequently, whenever our officers ran out of training films and other ways of using up time, we were set to marching about on a dusty, gravelled patch of the Texas plain under the command of an illiterate noncom. A more useless exercise would be hard to imagine. Given the facts of twentieth-century warfare, troop movement in the rear was a matter of trucks and railroads. Close-order marching within range of machine guns and rifles was a form of suicide. All concerned realized these simple facts, yet still we drilled, hour after hour, moving in unison and by the numbers in response to shouted commands, sweating in the hot sun, and, every so often, counting out the cadence as we marched: Hut! Hup! Hip! Four!”

“Treasured army tradition held that this sort of thing made raw recruits into soldiers. That was enough for our officers and the cadre of enlisted men who were in charge of our training. But why did young Americans not object to senseless sweating in the sun?”

[McNeill. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Kindle Locations 53-58). Kindle Edition.]

We complained 11 years later of not having good equipment but we did inherit the equipment that hadn’t been scrapped after the finish of WWII; so trained with it as well as march, and we didn’t just march, we ran “double-time” more often than the sort of marching McNeill describes, and we did “object to senseless sweating in the sun,” just not so our Drill Instructor could hear us.

Following Gadamer and Collingwood, I recognize my “constellation of predispositions” inclines me to believe what Wade writes on the subject of religion, but I am having a lot of trouble with him, for what he describes as universal doesn’t match my individual experience. In the above case it is something McNeill has written and not Wade, but Wade has quoted him with approval and is invoking McNeill’s conclusions as evidence for his own.

McNeill at location 79 in Kindle concludes “that rigorous selection in favor of groups that kept together in time had led to genetic transmission of this capability, which then was inadvertently tapped by Maurice of Orange and innumerable drill sergeants ever since.”

Hmm. I was truly in the Marine Corps, honest, but I just can’t relate to marching as being that important. Yes, by the time we finished boot Camp, Platoon 444 (if I recall the number correctly) was well bonded, but we attributed it at the time to the abuse suffered from the Drill Instructors and having survived all they put us through rather than the marching.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Wilson and Wade on the nature of European religion

Nicholas Wade writes,
"In his book Darwin’s Cathedral [David Sloan Wilson] argues, with the help of several case studies, that group selection can indeed explain many features of religion.

"His thesis is that human groups function as units subject to natural selection when behavior within the group is regulated by a moral system or religion. Supernatural agents are an essential part of the moral system because they operate as the sanction that enforces it. Well-functioning groups coordinated by such a moral system out-compete other groups. The social coordination provided by the moral system enables groups to secure resources and other items of value that would be beyond the reach of individuals.

“Wilson’s concept draws on several works already described here, such as Durkheim’s theory of religion as the embodiment of society and Boehm’s description of egalitarianism among hunter gatherers, as well as his own research on group selection. He distinguishes between what religion achieves— the social coordination for which religious behavior was selected— and what its practitioners feel, which he acknowledges is entirely different. ‘Since writing Darwin’s Cathedral, I have spoken with many religious believers who feel that my focus on practical benefits misses the essence of religious experience, which is a deeply felt relationship with God ,’ he writes.  But there is no necessary connection, he points out, between an end that evolution has favored and the means it has arrived at to get there. People fall in love in part to have children, he notes, ‘but that doesn’t remotely describe the subjective experience of falling in love.’ Similarly, the experience of communing with the deity is one of many benefits that make people practice a religion.

“Wilson rejects the view of many social scientists and others that belief in the supernatural and nonrational elements of religion should be seen as some kind of mental aberration. To the contrary, religious belief ‘is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world— an awesome achievement when we appreciate the complexity that is required to become connected in this practical sense.’

“One of the ways in which religion connects to reality is through its use of sacred symbols. These symbols evoke emotions, and emotions are ancient, evolved mechanisms for motivating adaptive behavior, often doing so beneath or partly beneath the level of consciousness. “Sacred symbols organize the behavior of the people who regard them as sacred,” Wilson notes. It’s this organization— not the implausibility of certain elements in a religion’s sacred narrative—that should be seen as the criterion of a creed’s effectiveness. The adaptedness of religious beliefs “must be judged by the behaviors they motivate, not by their factual correspondence to reality,” Wilson says."  Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1255-1277). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Comment:  In The Disenchantment of the World, a Political History of Religion, Marcel Gauchet argues (among other arguments) that while Christianity was necessary to the creation of Western Europe, it is now superfluous in that all of Christianity’s practical virtues have been incorporated into its culture.  As to its impractical attributes, like the worship of God and the rituals Wilson is quoted as describing, they are as harmless as any other fad or fancy and can be safely tolerated.  While Nicholas Wade does not single out Christianity, it was Christianity which (according to Gauchet) was vital to the creation of Western Europe and perhaps (if we can overlay Wade upon Gauchet) we might now suggest that Christianity is still vital, not perhaps to any further development of Western Europe, but to the well being of its citizens. 

Freud argued (consistent with Wade) that there is indeed a moral overseer that governs our behavior, but whereas Wade calls it a belief in God or gods, Freud called it the Superego.  Wade, I suppose, will propose that Religion has ongoing viability.  Freud believed that we should reject the Christian input to our Superegos and substitute something more rationale, something Freud himself was willing to suggest (if memory serves me -- although I can't recall what it was). 

The sort of Christianity that has always interested me involves a church in which the pastor is heavily steeped in theology and philosophy and capability of debating all the interesting issues.  I would have enjoyed being in Jonathan Edwards' church, for example, but Wade isn't interested in that sort of Religion, and perhaps most American Christians aren't either.  They are more interested in the sort of Christianity Wade describes, one in which a church becomes unified by its rituals and customs.  Alas, if Wade is right, I don't seem to be a Christian at all.

Group Selection and its detractors

Continuing in Nicholas Wade’s, The Faith Instinct, How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures, “Here is how Darwin said group selection would work:

“It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience , courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.”

Further down Wade writes, “The most serious objection to group selection has to do with the balance between the forces favoring people with altruistic genes and the forces opposing them. A hunter gatherer group with many self-sacrificing, altruistic heroes might, as Darwin suggested, destroy a group less fortunately constituted, and genes for altruism in the population as a whole would increase. But within the victorious group, as time went on, the nonaltruists would devote their resources to their own families, raising more children and the genes for altruism would become less common. Skeptics of group selection say the second process, the within-group selection against altruistic behavior, will always proceed faster than the between-group process favoring it and hence will overwhelm it.

“The proponents of group selection agree that the balance between the two forces is the crux of the issue. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary,” say David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson in a recent article.”

Wade then offers arguments (from the two Wilsons) that strengthen the “group selection” view: “There are two significant behaviors that may have made humans far more strongly affected by group selection than are most other species. One was the fierce conformist pressures within hunter gatherer groups that reduce the heavy disadvantages of altruism. The other was intense warfare between groups that accelerated the rate of group selection.

A major point made by the two Wilsons is that selfishness within groups is likely to have been limited by a crucial event in human evolution— the emergence of egalitarianism in early hunter gatherer societies. . . Successful hunters are forced to share their catch with everyone else. They cannot resist sharing, and cannot put on airs, because stinginess and bragging are the two behaviors that incur the most opprobrium in hunter gatherer communities.

Hunter gatherer egalitarianism was no mere principle; it was rigorously applied. And the conformity that ensued would have greatly reduced the natural variability in human social behavior. The mighty hunters, the power seekers, the philanderers and any who stood out and made themselves a subject of gossip, all found it difficult to thrive. If everyone had to behave alike, within-group variation would have been suppressed and differences between groups would have taken over as the principal driver of evolutionary change, at least in terms of social behavior.  [Wade, Nicholas, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 1171-1211). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.]

Comment: Back in the 50s when I first began reading about these matters, there was an ongoing debate between those who believed that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were peaceful scavengers who ate what was left after such predators as lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs were done with it. Since those days evidence has mounted that early man was a hunter, and not just a hunter but the very best hunter of all the predators.

If man was merely a scavenger then perhaps group evolution wouldn’t be necessary, but if man hunts, and not only hunts but competes with other hunting tribes (which seems to be the prevailing view today) then group evolution would favor the best and most cohesive tribes; which is what Wade believes (and what Darwin in his autobiography asserted). The best hunting tribes would have eventually (using the Chimpanzee parallel) defeated the rival tribes, and consequently their gene pool distinctions. Thus, these successful hunters wouldn’t need to put too fine a point on getting their individual genes perpetuated. It would have been plain for them to see that if they were superior hunters, they would get more game and feed their tribe better. Also, if they were better warriors they would be able to defeat rival tribes and take they females, thus satisfying their concern about passing on their individual genes – if they indeed thought in those terms. There would therefore have been a distinct advantage to tribes who put the good of the tribe above their own good.

Wade uses the term “free loaders” to describe those who “steal” from the productive members of society in the various ways thieves have. This includes those who place their own safety (cowards) above that of the tribe. Tribes winnowed their cowards. They couldn’t afford them. If they wouldn’t fight and hunt and instead robbed those who did fight and hunt then the tribe killed or banished them. Today, interestingly we have great numbers of such “thieves,” not ashamed of mantras like “hell no, we won’t go.” But we are a wealthy “tribe” and can afford them. If ever times got tough we would no doubt find means to get rid of them, but as for now we don’t really care. Thanks to technology we have enough of those willing to fight; and as to “hunting,” thanks to modern agriculture and animal husbandry we no longer need it. As societies we seem more concerned about the “free loaders” who won’t work. What should we do about them? Well, not much, but they seem to be a by-product of wealth. Their hands are out to those who do work (in a manner of speaking) to rob them (in the form of a dole) of a bit of their wealth.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in 1994 published The Bell Curve, Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. I read it about then and so probably don’t remember it vividly, but among other things it argued that “since” freeloaders (and they weren’t so much interested in them as freeloaders but as being of deficient intelligence) were being supported by the dole, and since women on the dole had greater numbers of children than those who were not, society was in effect giving an evolutionary advantage to the dumb.

I don’t know where the controversy between Murray (Herrnstein avoided most of the controversy by dying) and his detractors stands. After reading their book I lost interest when I noticed that their most voluble detractors had not. Murray and Herrnstein emphasized “intelligence-classes,” assuming that greater intelligence was better for society then less intelligence. It was noticed, and still seems obvious that the smarter people do the more complicated jobs. It doesn’t sound outrageous to be told that college professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and the like are, on average smarter than garbage collectors, fast-food workers, checkout counter clerks, and those who can’t find or don’t want jobs. However, their detractors were quick to substitute “race” for “intelligence” and cast Herrnstein and Murray (figuratively) into political outer darkness.

But to be fair Wade isn’t interested in current evolutionary trends (at least not as far as I’ve read) but in the effects we have inherited as a result of 2,000 generations of group selection in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We are still killers, for example, but only in a good, group-supportive way.

Bernal Diaz confesses his fear

Though we have only his own testimony before us in his narration, The Conquest of New Spain, I have no doubt but that Bernal Diaz was an extremely brave and effective soldier, and yet . . .

“It is now a long time since we fought these terrible battles, which continued without intermission day and night, and I cannot be too thankful to the Almighty for my preservation; and now I must relate something extraordinary which befel myself. The reader will remember above that I stated how we could see the Mexicans sacrificing our unfortunate countrymen; how they ripped open their breasts, tore out their palpitating hearts, and offered them to their abominable idols. This sight made a horrible impression on my mind, yet no one must imagine that I was wanting either in courage or determination; on the contrary, I fearlessly exposed myself in every engagement to the greatest dangers, for I felt that I had courage. It was my ambition at that time to pass for a good soldier, and I certainly bore the reputation of being one; and what any of our men ventured, I ventured also, as everyone who was present can testify; yet I must confess that I felt terribly agitated in spirit when I each day saw some of my companions being put to death in the dreadful manner above mentioned, and I was seized with terror at the thought that I might have to share a similar fate! Indeed the Mexicans had on two different occasions laid hold of me, and it was only through the great mercy of God that I escaped from their grasp.

I could no longer divest myself of the thoughts of ending my life in this shocking manner, and each time, before we made an attack upon the enemy, a cold shudder ran through my body, and I felt oppressed by excessive melancholy. It was then I fell upon my knees, and commended myself to the protection of God and the blessed Virgin; and from my prayers I rushed straightway into the battle, and all fear instantly vanished. This feeling appeared the more unaccountable to me, since I had encountered so many perils at sea, fought so many sanguinary battles in the open field, been present on so many dangerous marches through forests and mountains, stormed and defended so many towns; for there were very few great battles fought by our troops in New Spain in which I was not present. In these perils of various natures I never felt the fear I did subsequent to that time when the Mexicans captured sixty-two of our men, and we were compelled to see them thus slaughtered one by one, without being able to render them assistance. I leave those cavaliers to judge who are acquainted with war, and know from experience what dangers a man is exposed to in battle, whether it was want of courage which raised this feeling in me. Certain it is that I each day pictured to myself the whole extent of the danger into which I was obliged to plunge myself; nevertheless, I fought with my accustomed bravery, and all sensation of fear fled from me as soon as I espied the enemy. Lastly, I must acquaint the reader that the Mexicans never killed our men in battle if they could possibly avoid it, but merely wounded them, so far as to render them incapable of defending themselves, in order that they might take as many of them alive as possible, to have the satisfaction of sacrificing them to their warrior-god Huitzilopochtli, after they had amused themselves by making them dance before him, adorned with feathers. [Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Kindle locations 10040-10063]

Comment: Was the fervent praying Diaz engaged in before battle taken into consideration by Nicholas Wade? Not as far as I’ve read. Wade describes religion as providing a personal overseer (sort of like Freud’s Superego) who would have kept him apprised of how he ought to behave in the coming battle, but would this overseer also provide Diaz with the strength to accomplish that behavior and more importantly rescue him if he got in over his head? Diaz thought so, and he did after all survive, and since he wrote his book when he was in his seventies, he had made it into old age with nothing changing his mind.

Diaz was a brave and a very-effective soldier and yet he felt fear as a result of seeing the torture the Aztecs engaged in before killing the 62 men captured from Cortes’s division earlier. In the modern-day American military “fear” is made light of. Soldiers going into battle will “normally” have the “jitters,” but once the fighting actually starts, they are told, they’ll be okay; which is in effect what Diaz describes as his behavior. He feels a bit guilty about the fear, but the modern soldier is told that fear is okay as long as it isn’t incapacitating, as long as it doesn’t prevent the soldier from doing his job. Bravery consists in overcoming that fear, and after all, there are comrades to the right and to the left. One doesn’t want to let them down now does one?

Falling on a grenade and other morals

I don’t for a minute believe that people only sacrifice their lives for kin. My last serious study was of the American Civil War. Countless men gave up their lives and it strikes me as preposterous, something no Civil War historian would ever say, to assert that they were all doing it for their kin. While it is doubtful that many of them had a comprehensive view of what was at stake, they nevertheless, most of them, fought bravely. And if a group’s officer ordered them to make a “suicidal charge,” they would usually do it.

Military historians have puzzled over the motivation of soldiers who will literally give their lives in battle. There are many cases, for example, of soldiers falling on grenades in order to save their comrades and these comrades were in almost all cases not their kin. The consensus view, a view I have never read anyone dispute, is that they do it for their comrades. They fight for each other. Saving their friends becomes more important than saving their own lives.

Perhaps someone who jumps in the water to save his dog doesn’t think he is going to be killed. Maybe he overestimates his ability to swim out of trouble, but someone who falls on a grenade can be in little doubt.

The same sort of thing occurred in many of the Civil War battles. At Cold Harbor for example, Grant sent charge after charge against an impregnable position. General Hood did the same thing in another battle. In World War One, waves of soldiers were sent against positions defended by machine guns. It took countless lives lost before generals realized that superior enemy tactics or technology necessitated a change in their own tactics, but what about the soldiers who were sent on those “suicidal” charges? Why did they do it? Stephen Crane, though he never fought in the Civil War, in his The Red Badge of Courage, is credited with perceptive insight into this matter. The soldiers believe they “ought” to be brave. If they don’t perform as commanded in an attack, then they were (typically) ashamed of themselves, and if they have a chance to redeem themselves by giving their lives in the next charge, they may do it. Crane’s “coward” turned “hero” didn’t lose his life, but he was willing to lose it. And here, by using the word “ought” we are entering into Nicholas Wade territory.

We know more about the Chimpanzee than we once did. It is now known that in the wild they engage in almost constant warfare with neighboring tribes of chimpanzees. One tribe will try to kill off the males of an enemy tribe, one by one, and eventually take over its females. The Chimpanzee and the line that became homo sapiens split about 5 million years ago. Wade infers that man’s pre-hunter-gatherer ancestors behaved just as the chimpanzee does today, but when man entered into hunter-gatherer societies, the old ways didn’t work. These societies no longer needed an alpha male. They needed to become egalitarian; so, according to Wade, Natural Selection developed “morals” in the Hunter-Gatherer society so that tribe members would behave as they “ought.” Wade lists what he believes were the critical “oughts,” and tribe members who didn’t abide by them, when found out, would be ostracized. Being kicked out of a tribe in those days was tantamount to a death sentence; so it was in their interest to conform.

Do I have a religious instinct?

I wouldn’t say I was raised to religion; although I might have been.  My grandmother, who was self-taught because she spent part of her childhood deaf, raised me until I was ten.  She didn’t teach me anything about religion as far as I recall.  What she did urge me to do was read all sorts of things.  She got me a library card as soon as I was eligible, and I did.  My siblings and I were sent off to church; the First Christian Church of Wilmington California, so I suppose that comprises a sort of “raising,” but my parents didn’t attend.  I recall that my younger brother used to keep the money we were given to put in the collection plate and later buy candy with it.   

By reading “all sorts of things” I eventually got to the point where I could no longer accept the literalism of the sort of religion I was being presented with by the First Christian Church.  My mother did become excessively religious after I went into the Marine Corps, but she gravitated to a denomination that was decidedly not “main-stream,” the World Wide Church of God.  I used to have regular debates with her about it. 

During my agnostic period I read a lot of Marxist and Communist literature, got in some debates with some fellow-travelers if not communists, but was never convinced by anything I read.

I decided I needed to pursue religion a bit more and went through something reminiscent of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.   I wasn’t comfortable being a non-believer, but my mother had turned me off of Christianity because at the time I thought her denomination or sect was typical.  I wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that Herbert Armstrong and the World Wide Church of God was something like a cult.  I spent time studying Zen, the writings of Gautama Buddha Buddhist, Taoism – I liked Taoism, or at least the writings of Lao Tsu quite a lot.  I didn’t join anything, however.  I then studied the Yoga third path to wisdom; which involved study rather than doing weird stuff with your body or sacrificing yourself in some weird way.  

I went through a divorce and then found that the only woman who interested me in marrying again was a committed Christian.  It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous, but I wouldn’t have been interested in a woman who was caught up in any of the other religions I had studied up until then.  This young Baptist lady suited me quite well.  Except, as usual, I spent the next 8 years studying theology and we ended up in a “reformed” Presbyterian Church. 

Continuing to read all sorts of things I now wouldn’t say that I fit any particular denomination extremely well.  Nicholas Wade would say that one can’t be religious unless he belongs to a religious “pack” of some sort.  I don’t agree with him.   I am technically a member of such a “pack” but no longer attend.  My wife would attend if she were able, but she is now an invalid.  Does my being “technically a member” satisfy Wade’s argument that I need to be part of a religious “pack” (btw he doesn’t use the term “pack,” but I can’t recall the term he does use)?  I rather think not, on the other hand our church made two physical moves, each time further away from where we live and surely if we are physically unable to make the drive, they’ve got to accept that; so maybe we are still part of it. 

Eugene Marais, baboons, and religious "instinct"

Not remembering correctly, I searched African Genesis (written by Robert Ardrey) looking for references to Raymond Dart in regard to the baboon story, only to learn it was not Dart but Eugene Marais who had written about the baboons. He wrote a book entitled The Soul of the Ape in 1919, published posthumously in 1939. He also wrote some articles one can find collected under the title My Friends the Baboons.

I’ve gotten Dart and Marais confused, but I’ll leave them that way and simply quote Robert Audrey describing the Baboon story I sort-of remembered. The following is from pages 82-83:

“Marais could always tell when a leopard was in the neighbourhood of his own band. Protected by nothing but the rocky hollows in the krans and concealed only by the limbs of the massive wild fig, the troop would begin to move uneasily. He would sense the restlessness, and then hear a particular cry of disturbance. Helplessly the troop would wait for unseen death to pass unseeing. But one night the leopard came early.

“It was still dusk. The troop had only just returned from the feeding grounds and had barely time to reach its scattered sleeping places in the high-piled rocks behind the fig tree. Now it shrilled its terror. And Marais could see the leopard. It appeared from the bush and took its insolent time. So vulnerable were the baboons that the leopard seemed to recognize no need for hurry. He crouched just below a little jutting cliff above him.

“The two males moved cautiously. The leopard, if he saw them, ignored them. His attention was fixed on the swarming, screeching, defenceless horde scrambling among the rocks. Then the two males dropped. They dropped on him from a height of twelve feet. One bit at the leopard’s spine. The other struck at his throat while clinging to his neck from below. In an instant the leopard disemboweled with his hind claws the baboon hanging to his neck and caught in his jaws the baboon on his back. But it was too late. The dying disemboweled baboon had hung on just long enough and had reached the leopard’s jugular vein with his canines.

“Marais watched while movement stilled beneath the little jutting cliff. Night fell. Death, hidden from all but the impartial stars enveloped prey and predator alike. And in the hollow places in the rocky, looming krans a society of animals settled down to sleep.”

Comment: I have this account in quotes because I’m quoting Ardrey, but he doesn’t have it in quotes. I checked a few Wikipedia references, couldn’t find any other reference to this story but found this one interesting: I especially noted the paragraph, “In 1948, twelve years after Marais’ death, Nikolaas Tinbergen[2] (1907-1988) reformulated Marais’ extremely important concept of the phyletic (inborn) and causal (acquired) memory.”

I’m assuming that Marais had informed the difference between instinctive and acquired memory in apes in some clever way; which caused me to wonder if the human genes governing the learning of language are considered “instinct.” Growing up I was taught that nothing in us is instinctive, Locke’s influence no doubt, but does anyone still say that? The ability to learn language is instinctive – or does the fact that we don’t all know the same language but can instead at a certain age rapidly learn any language, disqualify it as “instinct”?

Nicholas Wade argues that our religious inclination is as instinctive as language, contra Locke. We don’t all practice the same religion – no more than we learn the same religion, but most (not those raised by wolves or apes, perhaps) of us learn some language. But we all (perhaps) have the God-shaped vacuum referred to by Blaise Pascal. But what about the fact that some of us have become atheists? Does that disprove this idea? Not necessarily. I’ve noticed that many who claim to be atheists have taken up other religious-like beliefs. Carl Jung wrote a very interesting book on Flying Saucers: I read this book years ago and no longer have it, but if I recall correctly Jung argued that the belief in Flying Saucers was driven by the modern “abandonment” of religion. He argued that humans have something like an “Oversoul” that satisfies the human need for religion, or God, by projecting the image of perfection (the mandala) in the sky. Also, many turn to other things, astrology, for example. Pascal believed that people couldn’t be completely satisfied by such ideas, but they did have the Locke-like freedom to fulfill this instinct-like need for God with other things. But if Wade and Jung are right, could a person still manage a sort-of “pure” atheism in which he felt no “toward-God” urge? I don’t know. I have known people who claimed to have managed something like that, but then some of them later became believers in God. Perhaps also there is the option of continuing in a state of unbelief, without flying saucers, astrology or anything equivalent, but having to suffer psychologically for this state. I suppose one could choose to not-believe in God . . . or even speak for that matter.