The Spiritual Gift of Speech

“The gift of speech was also given to us that we might understand one another, not through instinct, like the dumb animals, but through intellect.  Thus we verbally express our ideas, which are abundantly and clearly opened to us by our God-enlightened mind, the source of thought and word, in order that we might conduct intelligent, mutual, brotherly conversation on the aim of daily life and its regulation, for mutual edification and benefit, in support and consolation of each other, and the like. It was not given to us that we might talk idly; or judge, slander, and condemn our neighbors, pronouncing judgments on them like unmerciful judges and torturers rather than considering ourselves as their brothers, weak and sinful as they, if not still worse.” (Abbess Thaisia, Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One’s Life to God, pg. 72)

Biological Determinism (III)

This is the 11th 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 Biological Determinism (II).

Eve & Adam in Paradise

There certainly is a debate among humans as a whole and among Christians themselves as to whether it is more proper to speak of humans as naturally inclined to evil or naturally attracted to the godly.   The Western Christian tradition has tended since the time of St. Augustine to assume the natural state of humans is the fallen state or our inclination away from God from which we need to be saved.  The Eastern Christian tradition tends toward speaking about the original condition of humanity before the Fall as the humans natural state, with sin being part of the world of the Fall but not what is natural to humans.   St. Maximos the Confessor is said to have believed that we are naturally inclined toward the good and we have to consciously choose or will ourselves to do evil.

Wilson writes in his book about his take as an evolutionary biologist:

“In summary, the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be. To scrub it out, if such were possible, would make us less than human.”   (Kindle  Loc. 960-62)

Here we see Wilson expressing his belief in biological determinism.  Humans cannot arise above their genetic history for that history is ingrained in our genes and has become part of who we are.  Other scientists have taken Wilson to task for this stubborn belief in biological determinism which denies that the rise in intelligence and consciousness and free will has had any impact on humanity.   For example, John Hogan, writing in the scientific magazine  DISCOVER, War, What is it Good For? , rejects the biological deterministic notion of Wilson that humans are predestined to go to war.  Hogan totally acknowledges the brilliance of Wilson in biological studies, but rebukes Wilson for perpetuating “the erroneous- and pernicious- idea that war is ‘humanity’s hereditary curse.’”  Hogan is one scientist among many that do believe human evolution has led humans to a level where they are no longer passive victims of their own heredity, but rather who have because of consciousness begun to shape their own evolution.

While some scientists may only lately be coming to the realization that humans can transcend their own evolutionary history, such a belief has been core to theistic thinking for thousands of years.  The entire basis of Torah, Christian spiritual Tradition and the Quran is that humans can choose to obey divine commands that go against their genetic tendencies.  Humans can choose to love and obey God and love neighbor even when their impulses lead them in a different direction.  Compassion, selfishness, altruism, forgiveness, self sacrifice and love all are ways in which humanity can choose to behave differently than their biology may be telling them.  Humans can transcend their animal nature.

Consider also the article Beyond the Brain by Tanya Marie Luhrmann in the Summer 2012 WILSON QUARTERLY.   Luhrmann  claims medical science has learned in dealing with psychiatric disorders that ideas based in biological determinism simply don’t work in the treatment of many psychiatric patients.  She writes:

“It is now clear that the simple biomedical approach to serious psychiatric illnesses has failed in turn. At least, the bold dream that these maladies would be understood as brain disorders with clearly identifiable genetic causes and clear, targeted pharmacological interventions (what some researchers call the bio-bio-bio model, for brain lesion, genetic cause, and pharmacological cure) has faded into the mist.   …

All this—the disenchantment with the new-generation antipsychotics, the failure to find a clear genetic cause, the discovery of social causation in schizophrenia, the increasing dismay at the comparatively poor outcomes from treatment in our own health care system—has produced a backlash against the simple biomedical approach. Increasingly, treatment for schizophrenia presumes that something social is involved in its cause and ought to be involved in its cure.  …

The pushback against purely biomedical treatment is also occurring with other psychiatric illnesses. The confident hope that new-generation antidepressants would cure depression—those new miracle drugs such as Prozac and Zoloft that made people thinner, sharper, and “better than well,” in psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer’s apt phrase—dimmed when the public learned that teenagers committed suicide more often while taking them. No simple genetic cause for depression has emerged. There is clearly social causation in the disorder, and it too looks different in different cultures, shaped by particular causes, social settings, and methods of treatment. In the standard psychiatric textbook, Harold I. Kaplan and Benjamin J. Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, depression is now mapped out with a host of factors, some of them biological, many of them not, and the recommended treatment includes psychotherapy.

In part, this backlash against the bio-bio-bio model reflects the sophisticated insight of an emerging understanding of the body—epigenetics—in which genes themselves respond to an individual’s social context.

We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are. The new more socially complex approach to human suffering simply takes that fact seriously again.”

Thus, while Wilson believes evolutionary biology is proving the genetic basis for every aspect of human behavior, other scientists are disproving these very ideas.

Whatever evolution can teach us about human history, it cannot answer the question of what it is to be human.  Theists would say this is true because the meaning of being human and the forces which shape us are found in God not in our genes which are simply the physical means by which the divine plan is being worked out in the world of the Fall.

Next:  Evolution and the Ethical Human