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Selfish genes and soft heads.

Ten years ago I wrapped up my studies for an MA in religious studies, and walked out of the academic world. I had spent the previous two years of graduate study (plus much of my undergraduate career) trying to make sense of what people believe, how they organize the world around themselves, and how we can make sense of what others believe. My ultimate motivation, I suppose, was to understand other human beings better.

I can’t say I succeeded very well at that, but I did learn a lot about the ritualistic and textual manifestations of many religions. I learned even more about the methodologies and rituals of the field of religious studies, a domain that is itself as riddled with superstition and confusion as the religions it purports to study. In the end I argued myself out of the field, convinced that what we call “religion” in the U.S. academy is inevitably a reflection of Christian conceptions of the sacred vs. the secular. Try to go beyond those preconceptions, and the field evaporates.

Beyond that were the often ridiculous feats of mental gymnastics one had to attempt in order to make sense of the field. I remember one seminar in particular, where a more advanced graduate student was presenting some of the results of his research into the ritualistic bowing found in Chinese monasteries. Among the attendees of the seminar was a professor of anthropology I studied briefly with. After the student made his exposition of the intricate significations embodied by the bows, the anthropology prof started asking if there might be parallels with animal gestures of submission. The discussion quickly focused in on that point, with the religious studies / critical theory contingent attacking the anthropologist for drawing untoward animalian parallels, I suppose. Eventually, exasperated, she said that there must be some kind of relevance — if you believe in evolution, anyway.

She might as well have mentioned the name of Satan. Apparently “evolution” was a code word for something terribly wrong, not to be mentioned within the sphere of humanistic studies. I think this is because of a reaction against social darwinism, but I’m not sure what motivated it. Anyway, it was clear she had shocked the other participants and her comment virtually shut down the discussion, because they were unwilling to let any discussion of human evolution enter into a conversation about humans being submissive to other humans.

It was then, I think, that I finally realized I was surrounded by people who were so committed to their theoretical frameworks that they were unable to appreciate, unable even to see, the most basic fact of human life. They were science-blind.

How far things have come in the last ten years. Now the evolutionists are aggressively on the march, fighting creationists in the schools and making strong arguments against religion of all kinds in books such as Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. This dialogue, with biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett, is an excellent example of such new boldness among scientists and the science-minded. Or, as Dawkins has elsewhere suggested we call ourselves, “brights.”

Edge 178: The Selfish Gene: 30 Years On

Speakers: Daniel C Dennett (Tufts), Sir John Krebs, FRS (Zoology, Oxford), Matt Ridley, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, FRS (Oxford)


  1. Ole' Dad

    A very interesting set of observations!

    Every academic discipline is riddled with preconceptions, of course. But the key element is whether or not those preconceptions can be changed. What you describe is a symptom of a discipline that hasn’t found its way, because its preconceptions have become, um … sacred.

    I’ve lately been looking at recent attempts to explain religious beliefs using evolutionary principles, or cognitive principles, or some mix of the two (which is the most promising approach, I think).

    Check out the new “Institute for Cognition and Culture” at Queen’s Unievrsity, Belfast (http://www.qub.ac.uk/icc/) for a good example what can be done and links to other sites! Also try Pascal Boyer’s page at Washington U., St. Louis (http://artsci.wustl.edu/%7Epboyer/PBoyerHomeSite/index.html). I went to a fine workshop there a few months ago!

  2. K Hubert

    Daniel Dennett is giving a FASCINATING talk on C-SPAN even as I type. So cool that I would be listening to that while reading about him here. 🙂


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