In the previous article, I referred to gods as a kind of "parasitic intelligence" that borrows the hardware of the human brain to "run" on, as well as the human body, to make their desires manifest in the world.
A good case could be made that "gods" are symbiotes rather than parasites, even if they do come at a high price. Gods have motivated humans to do a great deal of good in the world, from founding charitable institutions and hospitals to creating magnificent art, architecture, and music. The various "holy wars" and persecutions, from the genocides of the Hebrew Bible to the present War on Terror are the price we've had to pay.
Did the Gods Create Man?
In an article, "Minds, Memes, and Selves," Susan Blackmore presents an intriguing hypothesis that the brain "co-evolved" with memes, with the memes having a major role in making our brains into radiaclly oversized (compared to those of other mammals) idea-processing organs:
"Why are our brains so big? Yes, I know this is an old chestnut, and there are lots and lots of good answers to the question. But are they good enough? Let us not forget how mysterious this issue really is. Brains are notoriously expensive both to build and to run. They take up about 2% of the body's weight but use about 20% of its energy. Our brains are three times the size of the brains of apes of equivalent body size. Compared to other mammals our encephalisation quotient is even higher, up to about [brsize]25. On many measures of brain capacity humans stand out alone. Brains are also dangerous organs to give birth to. The fact that such intelligence has arisen in an animal that stands upright may or may not be a coincidence but it certainly adds to the problem. Our pelvises are not ideally suited for giving birth to huge brains---yet we do it. Why?
The mystery was deepened for me by thinking about the size of the biological advantage required for survival. I was fascinated to read about a study addressing the question of the fate of the Neanderthals. Zubrow used computer simulations to determine the effect of a slight competitive edge and concluded that a 2% advantage could eliminate a competing population in less than a [comp]millennium. If we only need such a tiny advantage why do we have such a large one?
I am going to propose an alternative based on memetic advantage.
Imagine early hominids who, for good biological reasons, gained the ability to imitate each other and to develop simple language. Once this step occurred memes could begin to spread. And also---once this step occurred the genes would no longer be able to stop the spread! Presumably the earliest memes would be useful ones, such as ways of making pots or knives, ways of catching or dismembering prey, and names for people, events and tools. Let us assume that some people would have slightly larger brains and that larger brains are better copiers. As more and more people began to pick up these early memes, the environment would change so that it became more and more necessary to have the skills in order to survive. So these slightly larger brained people would have an advantage. That, I propose, is how we got our big brains.
The process is related to the Baldwin Effect. I like to use Dennett's 'Tower of Generate and Test' again here.
On the ground floor are the Darwinian creatures. As these develop they change the environment in which they live, creating new selection pressures that lead to new design improvements. One result is larger brains capable of learning and the arrival of Skinnerian creatures. These again change their own environment, giving an advantage to the quicker learners. One aspect of quicker learning is internalisation---thinking before you act. So Popperian creatures are born and again change their environment so that better thinkers are at an advantage. Finally the ability to copy actions appears, giving rise to the Gregorian creatures and the birth of the new replicators---the memes. Creatures of this kind again change their environment so that those most able to adopt the memes are at an advantage.
Although the process is similar to all the previous ones, this last step is a big one. Note, most importantly, that it depends not on learning nor on cleverness per se but on the ability to imitate. A second replicator has now appeared that spreads at a fantastic rate and changes the environment as it goes.
An early hominid who was incapable of mastering any of the new techniques of tool making, speaking or hunting would be at some disadvantage, and the importance of this disadvantage would increase as the memes spread. In a population with few available memes, brain size would not be very important, in a population with lots of memes it would. It seems to me that this fundamental change in selection pressures, spreading at the rate of meme propagation, provides for the first time a plausible reason why our brains are totally out of line with all other brains on the planet. They have been meme-driven. One replicator has forced the moves of another."
Though she does not mention religion specifically as an important "brain-building" meme, it has historically been a major bond holding a community together and distinguishing it from neighboring communities. It motivates members of a community to take care of each other, and stand together against other communities. Such behaviors offer significant advantages for a group's survival.
If gods were a significant factor in the evolution of the human brain, we would expect that the brain would have co-evolved specialized abilities to experience and interact with them. That the brain is "wired for god" is the theory proposed by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause, authors of Why God Won't Go Away. In a review written for Psychology Today, Michael Shermer describes the authors' core discovery:
"The most dramatic finding in the book, primarily (and admirably) written by journalist Vince Rause, concerns a portion of the brain the authors call the orientation association area (OAA). The OAA, say Newberg and D'Aquili, is largely responsible for helping us distinguish between ourselves and other things. People with damage to this part of the brain have problems navigating their way around a room: They actually cannot discriminate between their bodies and the furniture. The researchers discovered that during meditation and prayer, at the moment when the monks were at one with the universe and the nuns felt the presence of a universal spirit, there was reduced activity in the OAA. Like patients with damage to this brain area, their selves became indistinguishable from their nonselves. From these findings the authors conclude 'that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology. That biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge.'"
Apocalypse Now--or Never
If our brains and our gods co-evolved, then there is one overriding fact about our predominant world religions that must be given urgent consideration: the gods worshipped by the vast majority of humankind evolved in an era where swords and catapults were the most formidable weapons available. In such an era, war provided great benefits for the victors: slaves, wealth, additional territory and livestock, and a fresh supply of new worshippers for the victors' gods.[*]
In our time, nuclear weapons have made war between major powers far too dangerous to contemplate waging. The greatest threat from nuclear proliferation is that the weapons could fall into the hands of "true believers" (such as the clerics ruling Iran, or a terrorist group) all too willing to use them, confident of the blissful afterlife they will recieve should they be destroyed in retaliation. As technology advances, genetic engineering and nanotechnology could be used to create world-wrecking weapons even more dangerous than nukes, especially since they would not require hard-to-get materials like enriched uranium. DNA is everywhere.
Furthermore, we now live in a world where it is virtually impossible to avoid contact with rival religious and secular belief systems. An ancient Hebrew or medieval Catholic could easily live their entire life without ever encountering someone who believed differently from themselves. Nowdays, an endless fountain of information about thousands of religions is just a google away. Widespread travel and mobility insures that most people in the developed world will get to live and work in close contact with people of different faiths from their own, or none.
War is no longer advantageous, even for the "victors" or their gods. The survival and flourishing of life on Earth depends on both our brains and our gods adapting to present realities. It's time for there to be no such thing as believers in foxholes, either.
*Ancient Pagan gods placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A victor's gods would absorb or merge with the panetheon of the defeated, either through marriage of a victor's god to a conquered goddess, or equating the gods of both, according to their mythic correspondences (the defeated culture's sun god is the same as the victor's sun god, etc.). The insistence of the Abrahamic deities that they are "the One True God" rules out any such accommodation.