Sometimes there seems a shortage of mirrors. Case in point, an article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for 2010 devoted to the interesting question of whether religious cues make people more likely to inflict punishment in certain artificial settings. The piece includes this précis of the state of scientific speculation on the origin of religion:
In terms of ultimate evolutionary explanation, our results are consistent with dual inheritance proposals about religion and cooperation. A number of authors . . . have suggested that the human proclivity for acquiring and transmitting supernatural agent concepts is an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes. Others . . . have argued that religions are cultural systems that exploit such byproducts to adaptive effect. — Ryan McKay, et al. “Wrath of God: religious primes and punishment.” Proc. R. Soc. B, published online 24 Nov. 2010.
But science, too, is “an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes,” as well as a “cultural system that exploits such byproducts to adaptive effect.” We didn’t evolve to do calculus, chemistry, and cognitive psychology; our ancestors evolved brains with a huge amount of built-in flexibility, and we have since found some remarkable uses for them. Science is a “cultural system” not in the sense that its narratives are arbitrary, but as a thing that exists only because human beings have figured out together how to do it, and whose standards, terms, and practices we have knocked together in social settings such as laboratories, journals, and universities. Science is, then, a socially constructed activity that exploits highly flexible brains originally evolved for pre-scientific survival.
It does not follow—and I am sure that Ryan et al. would agree that it does not follow—that science is bunk. What is strange is that sometimes people talk as if religion must be bunk if accounted for in exactly the same way. I’m nagged by shreds of such feeling myself. Partly, perhaps, this is because much religion has tended to narrate its own origin in quite different terms: in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim world, say, in terms of voice-from-outside revelation. If religion did not arrive on stone tablets inscribed by the finger of Yahweh but as a sort of emergent (but socially useful) accident, that might seem like a demotion. We might feel that religion hammered out in contingent history, by experience and experiment, cannot be good enough—though for science, these processes are the very essence of credibility.
When I think about them more carefully, these doubts feel silly. In the Christian theologies I have found most meaningful there is nothing wrong with being made out of dirt. Undistinguished origins are divine origins. Sacramental foods are ordinary stuffs grown in ordinary fields, fertilized by ordinary excrement or petro-chemicals; they contain water fallen as ordinary, contaminated rain and snow. Henri Nouwen says, in a passage I first read a few days ago,
When God took on flesh in Jesus Christ, the uncreated and the created, the eternal and the temporal, the divine and the human, became united. This unity meant that all that is mortal now points to the immortal, all that is finite now points to the infinite. (Bread for the Journey, Sep. 22 entry)
These things happen, if they do happen, not merely in time, with a Before when the finite did not point to the infinite and an After when it does. They must happen from the beginning to the end, and before the beginning and after the end.
Recurring to the shortage of mirrors, or the oversupply of one-way mirrors, I am intrigued that there seems no literature on the evolutionary origins of science. At least, I can’t find any. Googling on “dual inheritance proposals origin of science,” “evolutionary origins of scientific thinking,” and the like produces a goofy potpourri of texts, but nothing that looks like a self-reflective literature in which science dissects itself as a neurological byproduct. If there are exceptions, they seem rare. Science, in practice, tends to treat itself as out of the loop. It exempts itself—or rather, scientists exempt themselves. Evolutionary psychologists seem never, so far as I can see, to inquire into the evolutionary psychology of evolutionary psychology; neurologists never write articles explaining how the appearance of making free decisions about how to do experiments in neurology is, MRI scans prove, an illusion. Scientists tend to assume for their own enterprise a sort of virgin birth—as Athena, goddess of wisdom and mathematics (among other things) sprang from the forehead of Zeus. This does not discredit anybody’s scientific results, but it seems somehow absurd or unworthy. Self-unconsciousness is always embarrassing: the bit of toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe.
An end-credit in the McKay et al. article notes that their research was paid for partly by the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme, “Explaining Religion.” Dwelling in the American political context, I find it difficult to imagine a government entity getting away with funding a project titled “Explaining Religion,” but there it is. The program’s goals can be read at http://www.cam.ox.ac.uk/research/explaining-religion/, one being to “establish the principal causes of the universal religious repertoire”—the stuff that religious people think and do. (Is there a “universal religious repertoire”?) While they’re at it, they might take a second to ponder the principle causes of the European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme’s assumptive repertoire.