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a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.


Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

a bonobo world? an outlier, but also a possibility: 2

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1. the small world of bonobos

Definitely one of the best introductions to the bonobo world is Frans De Waal’s 2006 essay for Scientific American, available online. It describes a species that branched off from its chimp cousin some two million years ago. Although genetic researchers have made it known that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos, we’ve come to realise that a basic bean-count of genes shared is an overly simplistic approach to measuring our connectedness with other species. In any case we still have much to learn from both of our closest living relatives, especially in terms of their social relationships, and our own. We have of course developed a culture, or a range of cultures that are much more diverse and dynamic than our primate cousins, which is some cause for optimism. We are, I hope, always learning better how and what to learn.

I believe it is very much worth looking at chimps and bonobos, not as opposites, which of course they aren’t, nor quite as models for humans to follow, but as two of many possible forms of our species in an earlier stage of cultural development. The fact is, and I should think this is unarguable, early humans, in their territoriality, their aggression, their gender-based division of labour, and their ownership fetishism, have largely developed from the basic cultural outlook of chimps rather than bonobos. Our history is marred by mostly male violence and hubris, and the power of possession, formerly of land, latterly of resources and technological know-how, and their transformation into financial power and influence, leading to systemic inequalities and a cult of selfishness.

But of course human culture isn’t one thing, and it has been subject to dizzying developments in modern times. Most astonishing is the growth of knowledge and its availability and rapid dissemination in the internet age. I’ll be taking advantage of that growth and availability in what follows. However the ‘democratisation’ of knowledge that the internet potentially provides is hampered by various anti-democratic forces, such as governments who are largely able, and very much concerned, to control information flow within their borders, and social media moguls who are less interested in accurate knowledge than in the monetisation of any and every opinion. 

Whether the internet revolution, which has been with us for little more than a generation, will lead to a greater homogeneity of human culture, or its opposite, or neither in any clear sense, is yet to be seen, and so it might seem a little rich to try to learn, in our human world of close to 8 billion denizens, from the habits of a small group of primates struggling to eke out an existence in a forested region south of the Congo River. Current estimates of bonobo numbers in the wild range from 10,000 to 50,000. As is well known, their habitat is often under threat due to the political instability in the region, which has also made it difficult to assess numbers. In any case it’s clear, as with most endangered species, that the greatest threat to their survival in the wild is Homo sapiens.

Of course, one way to learn from them is to treat them as just another culture. This no doubt leads to questions about the culture concept, which will be further explored, but it seems clear that the most intelligent non-human species, such as chimps and bonobos, most cetaceans, elephants and some corvids, are highly socially organised, to say the least. Of course, always thinking of counter-examples, I can’t account for the intelligence of octopuses and some other largely solitary cephalopods, though one theory has it that their complex neurology developed as a defence against a wide range of predators – which has also been cited, mutatis mutandis, as an explanation for the complex development of culture in western Europe. 

One of the most interesting questions about bonobos and their largely female-dominated society is how that society came about, considering that bonobo females, like chimps, gorillas and humans, are smaller on average than the males. Clearly, size and attendant strength is an advantage in the kinds of environments early humans and their primate cousins had to deal with. We have no clear answer to this question, though it’s noteworthy that the bonobo diet, being less meat-heavy than that of chimps, would require less aggressive hunting, and strength to overcome prey. This raises the question – did the rise of females lead to a less carnivorous diet or was it the other way around?

First, let’s look at the bonobo diet. They are very much tree-dwellers, and fruit always forms a large part of their diet, but also leaves, seeds and flowers. Animal foods include worms and some insects, and the occasional snake or flying squirrel. This suggests that they rarely go on hunting expeditions. The bonobo habitat is generally more forested than that of chimps, and they spend more time in the tree-tops, harvesting the food they find there. It could be that the physical habitat of chimps, which is relatively more savannah-like, actually led to a more spread-out, competitive culture, compared to the closer-knit bonobos in their denser, tighter environment. If this is true, it’s reasonable to infer that the strength advantage of the larger males might be diminished by habitat. Perhaps, given a few million more years, the size difference between males and females may reduce. 

On another point of physicality, bonobos are described as slightly more gracile, or slender, than chimps, which has led some experts to believe that their physical resemblance to Australopithecus makes them closer to living examples of our direct examples than chimps. Others see different connections:

According to Australian anthropologists Gary Clark and Maciej Henneberg, human ancestors went through a bonobo-like phase featuring reduced aggression and associated anatomical changes, exemplified in Ardipithecus ramidus.

Using bonobos as a guide to potential human behaviour often meets with strong push-back. I’ve experienced this myself in a number of conversations, and usually the argument is that we are so far removed from our primate cousins, and so much more culturally evolved, and diverse, that comparisons are odious. However, I suspect much of this is due to an arrogance about our sophistication which prevents us from learning lessons, not only from other primates but from other cultures that we deem inferior, even without consciously acknowledging the fact. Yet we are learning those lessons, and benefitting from them. Generally speaking, we – I mean those from a WASP perspective, like myself – are recognising that indigenous or first nation cultures were far better adapted to their environments than the later white arrivals – and that this adaptation was hard-won over many generations, during which a collective bank of experience developed. I would cite Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, and its many references, for bringing about greater recognition of the achievements of Australia’s long-resident non-European cultures, for example. 



Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

October 23, 2020 at 3:12 pm

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Human ancestry 2 – a meander through a couple of million years’ time and a world of space

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Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits.

Charles Darwin

Homo neanderthalensis, with a very bad toothache


So in this second post I’ll take a little look at Paranthropus and then try to make sense of the move from Australopithecus whateva to Homo whateva, and so on….

There’s a lovely vid about Paranthropus here, which I’ll take much of the following from. There are three known species, P aethiopicus (about 2.7 to 2.3 mya), P boisei (2.3 to 1.4 mya), both only found so far in eastern Africa, and P robustus (2 to 1.2 mya), in southern Africa. They’re all robust species, as opposed to the gracile species A africanus. They have large cheekbones, jaws and teeth, and a prominent sagittal crest across the top of the cranium, a feature shared by gorillas and orang-utangs, and which evolved to attach strong chewing muscles down to the jaw. Apart from these robust characteristics, they shared many features with australopithecines, and have even been defined as robust australopithecines by some. It’s always difficult to split up (or lump together) specimens when only small fragments are found, so there’s a hunt on for more, and bigger, bits and pieces. From what they’ve got, though, it’s estimated that they had a cranial capacity of 475-545 cc, not much more than the average chimp, with a height of about 156cm (just over 5 feet) and a weight of 40-50kg. Smallish perhaps, but I’d be willing to bet they had a pretty impressive muscle to fat ratio. They also appear to have been sexually dimorphic to a greater degree than humans, suggestive of dominant males fighting over females, as in the case of gorillas. There’s also some evidence that the females lacked or had a less prominent sagittal crest. 

How are the Paranthropus species related to modern humans? Surprise surprise, we don’t know, and the pathways to and between the various types of Homo just get more complicated. They may simply have died out, as the more recent Neanderthals did. Researchers desperately await more finds, and more techniques for connecting the dots. 

So, leaving Paranthropus behind, it’s clear from my last post on the subject that tracing the path from our common ancestor with bonobos (my fave ape) has been a fraught process of speculation and disputation, but of course we have no choice but to keep on trying to trace that path. So, what’s the most recently-lived species of Australopithecus, and the most ancient of the Homo species, as far as we know? 

The species A africanus and A sediba seem currently to be in competition to be the immediate ancestor to Homo habilis along the pathway to H sapiens, though there may have been an intermediate, as yet undiscovered, species.

A africanus is known from four sites, all in South Africa, but dating the specimens has been difficult and controversial. The first discovery, the Taung child (1925) is still not clearly dated, and claims for it suffered at the time of its discovery, and for decades afterwards, due to the Piltdown hoax, which I won’t go into here. However, in the mid 1930s the first adult australopithecine was found, and eventually given the A africanus moniker. Evidence of bipedality in this and another adult female, found in 1947, together with evidence of a cranial capacity of about 485 cc for both, was striking evidence that bipedality long preceded brain growth (it has since been mooted as a result of reduced forestation and increased savannah-like environments through climate change, though bipedal traits seem to have existed even before this). A lack of facial projection in these specimens was suggestive of advancement towards modern humanity. And just by the bye, evidence of tool-making among hominins now goes back to 3.4 mya, associated with the A afarensis species. A fourth specimen, ‘Little Foot’, dated to around 3.7 mya, was found in the nineties, but there’s debate about whether it belongs to A africanus or a ‘new’ species, A prometheus (actually suggested by Raymond Dart decades ago). There’s an interesting piece on this here.

I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this, but it seems that the A africanus fossil of a skull now known as ‘Mrs. Ples’ is the most recent A africanus fossil ever found, dated to about 2mya. But what about A sediba? This is the most recently discovered australopithecene, mostly associated with Lee Berger (and his young son), who discovered the first bones in 2008, in South Africa. It has been argued, by its discoverers, to be the most likely transitional species between A africanus and either Homo habilis or H erectus (and it should be noted that many consider H (or A) habilis to be an australopithecine, its placement as Homo being largely based on the use of flaked stone tools, at a time when tool use by australopithecines wasn’t known).

So I think I’ll skip this controversy for now, as I want to get to the more recent radiation of Homo species. Having said that, immediately I start looking at the earliest forms given the Homo moniker, such as H habilis, H erectus and H ergaster, I encounter vast uncertainty and controversy, not to mention my own ignorance. I’ve already discussed H habilis; H ergaster (1.9 to 1.4 mya), according to Wikipedia, ‘is now mostly considered either an early form, or an African variety, of H erectus‘. Oh dear, I thought H erectus was African!

In fact, the first fossils identified with H erectus were found in Eurasian Georgia and in China, but the species may have back-migrated to Africa. Or maybe not. I’m on the verge of giving up here, but I’ll extricate myself from the mess by listing and briefly discussing the various forms of Homo that have been postulated. These aren’t necessarily in chronological order.

  1. H habilis (approx 2.1-1.5mya) – short but with longer arms compared to modern humans, with a cranial capacity of around 700 cc. Used stone tools. Relatively robust, compared to H ergaster. Contested classification. Probably co-existed with H erectus. Only found in Africa.
  2. H ergaster (approx 1.9-1.4mya) – I’ve used the Wikipedia existence range here, but the Australian museum suggests that arguments about existing classification of specimens may extend that range up to 700,000 ya. They also point out that some don’t accept this classification at all, preferring H erectus. They were relatively hairless and more closely resembled modern humans than earlier types. Possible specimens found in modern Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and most notably in Georgia (Eurasia), which suggests first emergence of early humans from Africa occurred about 1.7mya. Cranial capacity, about 860cc .
  3. H erectus (approx 1.8mya- 100,000ya?) – first found in Java, other specimens found in Indonesia, China and Africa. Short and stocky with heavy brow ridges. Sometimes hard to separate from H ergaster, especially the African specimens. H erectus is now more widely believed to be a side-branch, and H ergaster our more direct, if more ancient, ancestor. Cranial capacity about 1050cc.
  4. H rudolfensis (approx 2.4mya- 1.8mya) – specimens found in modern Malawi and Kenya. A contested classification, could be lumped in with H habilis. There is always a difficulty when dealing with limited specimens, which might be atypical, juvenile or of unknown gender. Anyway, estimated cranial capacity, about 750cc. Size and shape insufficiently known.
  5. H heidelbergensis (c700,000-300,000 ya) – evolved in Africa, but in Europe by 500,000 ya (African fossils are mostly older). Lived and worked in co-operative groups, using a variety of tools. Specimens found in England, France and Spain as well as in the region of Heidelberg, Germany. Possibly as far east as northern India. Also in Zambia and South Africa. Physically tall, up to 180 cms, suggesting descent from H ergaster. Brain capacity approx 1250cc.
  6. H neanderthalensis (?800,000-40,000 ya) – some have argued that they were around as recently as 28,000 years ago. The first fossil was found in the 1820s, and was the first fossil of any extinct hominin ever found. Their cranial capacity, at 1500cc, is larger than that of H sapiens, not surprisingly due to their larger overall build (shorter but much more solid). No specimens found as yet in Africa, but a large number of finds throughout Europe and the Middle East (and possibly in China) allow us to build a clearer picture of Neanderthals than any other extinct hominin. They used a variety of tools, which they may have obtained through trade with modern humans. They wore animal hides and used fire for warmth, cooking and protection. Physically they were thickset, with heavy brow ridges and a relatively receding forehead, a forward-projecting face, a large, broad nose, and strong neck muscles. It’s now known, of course, that they interbred to some degree with modern humans, but it’s also likely that they competed with them for scarce resources, especially during ice ages. Though we don’t now consider them to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ it may well be that the greater resourcefulness of H sapiens hastened their demise.
  7. H rhodesiensis (c800,000-120,000 ya) – now generally seen as an African subspecies of H heidelbergensis, with specimens found in Rhodesia/Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
  8. H cepranensis (c900,000-800,000 ya) – based on one fossil skull cap, or calvaria, unearthed near Ceprano, Italy in 1994. Others are for H heidelbergensis. The dating is also highly contested, with some arguing for around 450,000 ya. There’s probably quite a few more of this sort – but every new find is exciting.
  9. H denisova (? – 15,000 ya) – This isn’t an agreed taxonomic title, but the Denisovan finds are certainly exciting, with mitochondrial DNA being recovered from the first find (in a Siberian cave), the finger-bone of a juvenile female (how do they know that??). Other specimens have been found in the same cave, and another has been found in Tibet. There’s not enough material for us to picture this species, but the DNA tells us that they interbred with Neanderthals, and to a lesser degree with Melanesians, Papuans and Aboriginal Australians.
  10. H floresiensis (c190,000-50,000 ya) – found only on the Indonesian island of Flores. Another exciting, and puzzling, recent find. Could they have been killed off by those passing though on their way to Australia? Researchers are still hoping to recover mitochondrial DNA from the most recent specimens. Physically, these were unique humans with a very small stature and a cranial capacity of 380cc (chimp size), though with an enlarged Broadman area 10, which is associated with complex cognitive abilities. Other skull features, though, suggest a primitiveness going back more to H erectus. Tools found at the site have raised controversy. Do they belong to H floresiensis? They don’t easily equate with such a small brain. There is no precedent. Much still to be learned.

So I’ve raised far more questions for myself than I’ve answered. Hope to come back to this topic in future, with a focus on bipedality, climate effects, the beginnings of ‘culture’, and migration, among other things.

References (a great site, with links to details on particular species)

Paranthropus evolution (video), by Stefan Milo, 2019

Written by stewart henderson

October 30, 2019 at 9:59 pm

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.