This is the 6th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Wilson’s Critique of Religion (II).
Wilson maintains that religion emerges among humans as an evolutionary tool which aids survival. As biological creatures, at least according to this model, humans are predestined by the laws of nature and physics in mechanically following the path of cause to effect. He does not seem to acknowledge on any level that the emergence of consciousness altered biological determinism. Consciousness enables humans to make choices that shape and affect even their evolution as well as that of all the species in the world which humans manipulate through agriculture or genetic modification. But he does seem to imagine that scientific rationalism can get above mere evolution even though other philosophies or religions cannot. Why this is true is not obvious nor explained, but as a person philosophically committed to atheistic materialism he holds these things as absolute truths in a world that has not absolutes, he would say, except the laws of nature.
“By what force of evolutionary dynamics, then, did our lineage thread its way through the evolutionary maze? What in the environment and ancestral circumstance led the species through exactly the right sequence of genetic changes? The very religious will of course say, the hand of God. That would have been a highly improbable accomplishment even for a supernatural power. In order to bring the human condition into being, a divine Creator would have had to sprinkle an astronomical number of genetic mutations into the genome while engineering the physical and living environments over millions of years to keep the archaic prehumans on track. He might as well have done the same job with a row of random number generators. Natural selection, not design, was the force that threaded this needle.” (Kindle Loc. 852-58)
Wilson dismisses a God-theory since he claims creating the history of the cosmos — as it is believed to have unfolded according to scientific rationale and theory – would be “a highly improbable accomplishment even for a supernatural power.” Or perhaps it is impossible only for a supernatural power of which he can conceive, for many believers would say that is exactly what makes God God. Wilson says there cannot be a supernatural power like the Creator proclaimed by Western religions, but that is the limits of his faith and thinking, not a fact that can be established. He says God cannot be like the Creator revealed in Scripture, therefor there must be no God. By his own accounting the existence of humans is highly improbable anyway. So it would seem an atheistic theory of random events in a series of cause and effect relationships is no more statistically likely to occur than God creating the universe. Why we humans exist is an improbable situation, yet obviously not impossible. But the bottom line is that humans brought into being by an unintentional series of events that strangely brings into existence consciousness as well and beings who are able to measure and effect the ongoing unintentional process of the unfolding universe is in reality no more likely to be the explanation for why we are here than is the notion that God created us. In both scenarios there is a logical improbability. Yet against all odds, here we are and we are consciously engaging the world around us to understand the processes at work. In Wilson’s own words:
“Overall, it seems now possible to draw a reasonably good explanation of why the human condition is a singularity, why the likes of it has occurred only once and took so long in coming. The reason is simply the extreme improbability of the preadaptations necessary for it to occur at all.” (Kindle Loc. 768-70)
So whereas science may offer to us a theory or explanation following cause-and-effect principles which can trace our development through the billions of years of cosmic history, all it is tracing and explaining is our mere physical existence. It does not account for the existence of our ability to consciously look at ourselves and the universe and to effectively change the course of scientific determinism. We do this in our breeding habits for ourselves and for plants and animals in our agricultural endeavors. We also are altering the path of determinism through our work in quantum physics, where the existence of a conscious observer changes the very nature of what happens.
The ability to reason and think abstractly and see beyond our biological selves has emerged as a force in the universe and in the evolutionary process. The emergence of philosophical and religious thinking serves, even Wilson acknowledges, an evolutionary advantage for humans. But he limits that advantage to his ideas of eusociality without offering any explanation or evidence of why it must be so that the existence of religion can serve no purpose but a social one.
Religions on the other hand can look to the appearance of consciousness, of rationality, of imagination, of creativity, of spirituality as enabling us to engage the universe in new ways not limited to or by physical existence. That there may be beyond the physical world, meaning and purpose is something that evolution itself has brought us to.
For theists, we came to the point that we now have as human beings, we are gifted by God or by the evolutionary process with mental and spiritual characteristics that enable us to know the world in new ways and to answer questions which science itself cannot answer about what it means to be human and why we are here.