Though the world does not change with a change of paradigm,
the scientist afterward works in a different world.
– Thomas S. Kuhn
I read the following passage from Consiliance by Edward O. Wilson shortly after it was published in 1999:
For centuries the writ of empiricism [science] has been spreading into the ancient domain of transcendentalist belief, slowly at the start but quickening in the scientific age. The spirits our ancestors knew intimately fled first the rocks and trees and then the distant mountains. Now they are in the stars, where their final extinction is possible. But we cannot live without them. People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized. They will refuse to yield to the despair of animal mortality. They will continue to plead, in company with the psalmist, Now Lord, what is my comfort? They will find a way to keep the ancestral spirits alive.
. . . We are a single gene pool from which individuals are drawn in each generation and into which they are dissolved the next generation, forever united as a species by heritage and a common future. Such are the conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.
As I sat transfixed in my small home office, I exclaimed to myself, “You can do this!” I felt that all the eccentric twists in my life had prepared me for meeting Wilson’s challenge to “keep the ancestral spirits alive . . . with new conceptions, based on fact, from which new intimations of immortality can be drawn and a new mythos evolved.” I had been pondering a new narrative of human evolution for nearly three decades.
It was 1971, and freedom was in the air. I was sitting at a long wooden table with four telephones in the emergency room, surrounded by my fellow surgical residents. In the middle of the table was a small metal box. Whenever someone from the Washington Heights neighborhood repeatedly came into the ER of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital with a “hot” gall bladder, she was normally advised by the resident on call to have it surgically removed. The resident would fill out a card and place it in that box. Eager for experience, surgical residents like myself would go to the table in a spare moment and telephone the (mostly) women to persuade them to have their gall bladder taken out. For eight years I had been bursting to be a surgeon, and, at long last, my gloved hands were operating beneath the brilliant focus of OR lamps. In a single moment, sitting at that table, I fell out of that “gung-ho” camaraderie I had so relished. I suddenly felt trapped by the future that was enveloping me. I stood up from that table, turned around, and never looked back.
Several months later, among other part-time jobs filling in for general practitioners in New York City, I spent a great deal of time at the infirmary of the World Trade Center construction site. The North Tower had just been framed and the South one was about two-thirds up. The high steel construction workers were swaggering, tough-talking New Yorkers who had just finished building the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island. They would come in with minor ailments and an occasional fracture, but there was ample time to read. The book that impressed me most was Man and His Symbols (1964), by Carl Jung, which described his well-known theory of the collective unconscious, deduced from the universality of symbols in dreams. Halfway through this fascinating book, I realized that here was a physician who had parlayed clinical observations from his practice into a full-blown theory about human nature. Every bit of it captured my imagination.
The idea that all people have a vast segment of their minds in common, mediated by a shared mental “language,” resonated with me and was to persist as a foundation through all future permutations of my thinking. But much more significant to me was the life that Jung had staked out for himself. Here was someone reaping all the satisfactions of the role of healer, bringing to bear the wisdom of his knowledge on the suffering of others, but he was also an adventurer. Jung was an explorer of the vast uncharted territory of the mind. This was the life to which I aspired, and I decided to enter the field of psychiatry. From the beginning, I anticipated that, along with ministering as best I could to the disordered mental function of my patients by day, by night I would weave strands of thoughts together in an attempt to define the workings of the mind. I would be a doctor by day, a philosopher by night.
Four years after I had read Jung at the World Trade Center, it was not freedom but bondage that surrounded me. My first job was as a psychiatrist in a maximum-security prison in Maryland called Patuxent Institution. Early in my employment, I spent time counseling an inmate who had been confined to a solitary cell in the infirmary. Somehow, he would gain access to razor blades and compulsively slash his arms and legs. As I inquired about his motivations, I became spellbound by the mass of crisscrossing scars that completely enveloped his limbs. He begrudgingly told me that the act of cutting himself relieved his tension and relaxed him.
Several weeks later, I walked down a basement cell block for prisoners held in isolation; it was heavy with the scent of stale sweat and urine. Wearing a coat and tie over a white button-down shirt, I passed by the hard stares of a dozen convicts. There was always the possibility that a cup of urine or feces would be flung out through the bars. Finally I arrived at the cell of a prospective interviewee sleeping on his bunk. After I repeatedly tried to arouse him by name, he opened his eyes and simply looked at me from his bed. I told him in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that I was fulfilling a legal obligation to offer him a psychiatric examination. After several minutes of staring at me, he began to stir. With deliberate and excruciating slowness he stood up, grasped the bars, and glared at me with intimidating contempt. He had no intention of dignifying my visit with a spoken response of any kind. Struggling to maintain eye contact, I said, “I take that as a no.” As I was walking back down that gauntlet, someone spoke to me: “Dr. Wylie, come here. I want to tell you something.” It was the man with the mass of self-inflicted scars whom I had engaged in the infirmary some weeks earlier. I stepped over to his cell and reflexively tilted my head to listen to what he had to tell me. Suddenly, I felt a blow to my face. We locked eyes. His expression, which was to haunt me for the better part of two years, was viciously contorted. He hit me again, not too hard—nothing serious, I thought, and walked away. Weirdly, I suddenly felt in control of that corridor, giving hard stares right back as I walked. I opened the great door at the end of the hall, noting a sensation of increasing warmth on my chest. I looked down: the front of my suit was soaked in blood. He had lured me close and slashed my face, laying open the right cheek, and a second swipe almost cut the great vessels on that side of my neck. In the moment I felt oddly relieved by the situation, almost as if I had gone through a primitive initiation ceremony. Had I gotten past the dogs guarding the gates of Hades?
After the three years of residency training in psychiatry, the prison had become my first philosophical theater. At first I thought I was watching the Freudian psychodynamics I had studied, acted out before me. After I was drawn into this drama in the role of victim, however, I had a tectonic shift in my thinking. I began to consider that the behavior in which I was immersed was not a reflection of the Freudian theory of mind but the underlying reason for it. Could I be watching the distant echoes of the way life might have been for primate ancestral species through the veils of deep time? Could this behavior shed light on the actual narrative of how our minds evolved the extraordinary capacities they now possess? I had been exposed to Darwinian theories in school, but I now realized that Darwin and his followers provided a century of thought with well-developed principles and scientific studies that could help guide me in a search for how the mind and emotions evolved.
I was at last equipped for my long voyage. Jung’s conception of a collective unconscious, the mysterious spiritual repository of distilled ancestral animation from the ages, became the lost continent that I set out to explore. Freud, had convinced me to look to the mind, as distinct from the brain, taught me how to examine it, and laid out the domain’s general topography of an anxiety-generating dynamic between an id and superego. Now Darwin had bestowed upon me the power to ask the questions How? and Why? I would henceforth become a psychiatric paleoanthropologist of sorts, ceaselessly searching for emotional fossils buried first within the inmates’ bondage at Patuxent and then later within the suffering of those with mental illnesses.
The prison attack permanently welded me to my mission: it had penetrated me and remained lodged inside me. As a refuge from relentless anxiety from flashbacks, I consumed Darwin’s great treatises with growing excitement. Late one night, I placed this quotation in my wallet, where it remains today:
In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.
–Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
The social structure inside prison was a stark reflection of dominance hierarchy, the emblem of our primate order. I realized that the well-developed “Machiavellian” cognitive capacities of primates had been evolved upon the loom of a social structure that is comprised wholly of emotion. Thus, the key to understanding the human mind lay in grasping how and why evolution reconfigured ape dynamics into a very different template of relationships in humans.
I hypothesized that the dominance–submission hierarchies of ape societies had somehow evolved in our human ancestors, the hominins, into a social structure based on obedience to group authority. Coordinated groups, not individual actors, give modern civilizations their power. I speculated that this transformation from individual dominance to group authority had defined the hominin tribe right from its beginning six million years ago. But how could this have happened after, or in conjunction with their split from apes?
I had never been in a situation in which a preoccupation with justice was more obviously apparent than I found in prison. Not that anyone much agreed as to what justice was in any particular circumstance, but everyone strongly believed in its existence. Although I was there as a doctor, therapy sessions with inmates often centered around the justice issue. Was the cure for crime the acquisition of the capacity and desire to be obedient to justice—to learn how to be good? Must everyone learn how to be good, or is goodness innate and evolved, and if so, how? No, I thought. Goodness did not arise by means of natural selection; it was justice that had so arisen. Authority was not initially evolved to enhance the dominance of individuals; it was the authority of justice itself that was naturally selected to dominate individuals. And why was, and is, justice naturally selected? Because a just relationship, whether between a mated pair-bond or distributed among the relationships of an entire nation, is the most productive of all social structures. Justice inherently begets bounty because productive bounty was the very quality for which justice was naturally selected. Here was the kernel of a new paradigm.
At the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the struggle of too many offspring for too few resources. Upon returning from his Beagle journey observing the teeming jungles of South America, Darwin experienced his vision while reading Malthus’ essay on the perils of inevitable overpopulation. But human evolution was born into a circumstance that was very different from a teeming jungle.
The hominin tribe branched off from apes amid falling temperatures and deteriorating environments. DNA studies of chimpanzees demonstrate a population collapse at the time of the appearance of hominins. With plummeting birthrates, hominins suppressed the sterility of primates’ dominance competition in favor of the fecundity of justice of hominins. This was my idea and I set about to gather evidence to test it.
I became convinced that the fundamental transformation from apes to humans had occurred well prior to our own species in the minds of our hominin ancestors, but found that there is precious little science on the subject. Perhaps the leading researcher on mind evolution, Michael Tomasello, states in his recent book, A Natural History of Human Thinking (2014):
The main problem is that collaboration, communication, and thinking do not fossilize, so we will always be in a position of speculation about such behavioral phenomena, as well as the specific events that were critical to their evolution. Most critical, we do not know how much contemporary great apes have changed from their common ancestor with humans because there are basically no relevant fossils from this era.
Most are unaware that the genetic and biochemical causes of mental illnesses are also, thus far, beyond the reach of experimental science. As Thomas Insel, the former director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) acknowledged, “We just don’t know enough. Research and development in this area has been almost entirely dependent on the serendipitous discoveries of medications. From the get-go, none of it was ever based on an understanding of any of the illnesses involved.” Therefore, I turned to other ways of knowing. I would rigorously apply Occam’s razor (or the law of parsimony): conclusions would in the simplest way, be consistent with and, indeed, unify the accepted science in both psychiatry and paleoanthropology. A simple explanation of many facts often presents a new paradigm and provides opportunities for scientific testing, as noted by Thomas Kuhn above.
In psychiatry, we often borrow philosophical concepts for our own use. For example, an “existential problem” in psychiatry is one caused by external circumstances in the absence of mental illness. Similarly phenomenological psychiatric knowledge is obtained by eliciting patient descriptions of the subjective experience of their illnesses. All the great 20th Century psychiatrists were phenomenologists in this sense. In my psychiatric practice, I specialized in the more severe illnesses, and during 35 years in collaboration with my patients, I refined descriptions of each of the major mental illnesses and I have submitted them to an evolutionary analysis.
Using this approach, I concluded that the most common forms of clinical depression included a pathological intensification of the fundamental fear of interpersonal separation and/or the fear of being trapped at the bottom/periphery of a group. It could have been the cohesive effect of these two basic social fears that had inhibited the antisocial fight-flight responses and enabled the formation of hierarchical primate groups some 52 million years ago. These cohesive fears then could have intensified in the transformation from dominance hierarchies in apes into the authority–justice system of hominins six million years ago. Here, my Freudian training helped. I saw that social fears imposed by a Freudian superego suppressed ape-like id impulses.
The illness of schizophrenia revealed the communication system of language that had knitted together the hominins’ novel social structure. My principal teacher about the baffling puzzle of schizophrenia was a patient that I followed for my entire career. She well knew of my interest in her condition and was eager to assist me. The curious moment that precipitated my understanding of the evolutionary significance of her illness was a seemingly trivial exchange: I asked her how she could drive with all of the intrusive thoughts constantly bombarding her. She replied, “Don’t you ever daydream while you drive, Dr. Wylie?” This sudden thrust into her subjective world precipitated an evolutionary insight into her enigmatic symptoms.
The most fundamental experience in schizophrenia is that of receiving communications from external sources of intelligence through the medium of thought (the actual hearing of voices, although dramatic, is of secondary importance here). The fact that those afflicted with schizophrenia lose the capacity to respond to group imperatives and identities, such as emotionally responding to accepted norms of status or engaging in partisan politics, indicates that the very means whereby groups unconsciously communicate their ethos to individuals is in a dysfunctional state of hyperactivity in these patients. The primary function of the group communication that is disabled in schizophrenia is to bind large competitive groups together with emotions of loyalty. People with schizophrenia are always outsiders.
Because schizophrenia is such a crippling disorder with a consistent incidence (1%) across different times and cultures, and because it leaves spoken language ability largely intact, perhaps the aspect of communication function that it disables is a vestige of a process that had been far more central to earlier hominins. In other words, this one facet of modern communication that serves to transmit group beliefs and loyalty had been the only form of language communication of our ancestral species and therefore central to their survival.
Here was phenomenological evidence in the form of an emotional fossil for my idea that the transformation from individual dominance hierarchies to group authority was the key to human evolution. Prior to modern humans evolving our complex, multifaceted vocal language, communication might have been motivated solely by obedience to the evolved authority of groups. I had proposed that the foundation of group authority was the enforcement of the rules of justice, which operated much like an immune system, clearing the group organism of disruptive striving for individual dominance so that productive coordination of group behavior could proceed. After reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations, I concluded that the primary adaptation of our hominin tribe is the ability to coordinate divided labor, and that justice is the one moral sentiment indispensable to its function.
British psychologist Robin Dunbar is well known for correlating the brain size of primate species with the sizes of their groups. However, he also discovered that brain size in other mammals correlates with monogamy. He hypothesized that the coordination of labor in pair-bonds is much more cognitively demanding than analyzing self-interest within hierarchies. Consistent with the literature in this field, it is likely that hominin brain growth involved complex social cognitions necessary for competency in the coordination of group behavior (primarily in the frontal lobe) along with the requisite language abilities.
With these ideas firmly in place, I began to think about the fundamental elements of a novel “language” evolved by hominins that made possible the achievement of functional social coordination. Whereas animals (including apes) evolved by individual competition are very stingy with information, humans are shameless blabbermouths. In fact, the most distinctive feature of our communication is that it is based on sharing our intentions. The mention of daydreaming by my patient summoned a daydream of my own: the narrative of the hominin metamorphosis—one that had the power to unify all existing paleoanthropological science.
Just as neurological systems evolved to coordinate multicellular organisms during the Cambrian Explosion, language evolved as the neurological system that coordinated what could be called the hominin group-organism. Individual dominance was suppressed by an egalitarian social structure that enforced the rules of justice. With justice established, language enlisted individuals to continuously and simultaneously signal and receive signals in order to arrive at a decision of what, together, they should do next.
Basic paleoanthropological facts about pre-modern hominin species and interpretations of them:
1. Fact: An ancient skull is designated a hominin on the basis of upright posture indicated by the forward position of the hole through which the spinal cord passes (foramen magnum).
Interpretation: Hominins had to stand up due to the need for constant visual contact created by the vastly increased volume of communication demanded in language, conveyed (at least at the beginning) more by gesture than voice.
- Fact: Early hominin skulls possess very large molar teeth (megadontia).
Interpretation: Early hominins evolved to eat low quality plentiful foods and avoided the competitive, disruptive effects of hunting for high quality foods. This was to change in later, meat-eating hominins of the genus Homo, which became more prone to violence.
- Fact: Tool making became widespread (and occurred in groups).
Interpretation: Tool making was an extension of language in that tool making groups constantly watched each other for signs of the authority of how it should be done.
- Fact: The hand ax remained essentially unchanged across Africa and Eurasia for 1.5 million years.
Interpretation: The primary function of this tool was not its use but the cohesion created by its communal construction. Because hominins were fundamentally gregarious, tool making routinely occurred between groups of groups and, as they migrated back and forth, maintained unbroken chains of direct experience across continents, millennia after millennia.
- Fact: More recent hominins evolved very large brains.
Interpretation: Large brains were necessary to meet the cognitive demands of synchronizing hunting and gathering in diverse climates by means of language.
It was at this juncture in my thinking that I read E. O. Wilson’s challenge to create a new mythos for our species based on evolutionary fact. In the previous decades, I had projected Jung’s conception of a collective unconscious back in time as the sole conscious awareness possessed by our ancestral hominin species. I turned my attention to the possibility that this ancient consciousness was the biological root of the phenomenon of religion. My goal was, and remains, not to reduce religion to a physically evolved phenomenon, but to reveal a dimension of the metaphysical reality of religion that has been conceived from emotional fossils buried in mental illnesses, constructed according to the principles of evolution, and consistent with the science of paleoanthropology.
My proposal is that, by means of natural selection, the hominin tribe was initiated by a decisive shift of the level at which evolution takes place—from the individual to the group. It is the group that then predominates by actively suppressing dominance at the individual level. Although this process is known as group selection, the term “group” is an impediment to understanding it because it conjures up a physical kinship group. Instead, this form of natural selection, favors relationships that are the most productive, whether they exist within or between physical groupings held together by family bonds.
It would be more correct to refer to group selection as “relational selection,” which bred not competition but coordination. This led to productive collaboration from the level of monogamous pair-bonds to larger, nested groupings. Intentions to survive evolved to emanate from the relationships between individuals. And these intentions evolved a collective motivation to suppress unproductive egoistic instincts within the individuals constituting them. Language was evolved to ascertain, communicate, and carry out a group’s will, which emanated from a virtual space. No one could see it, but all could feel it. This invisible but biologically based will could be said to possesses intentions, i.e.: a spirit . . . the human spirit.
I saw that the crucial link between the world of religion and the world of evolution is the natural connection between justice and productive fecundity. In fact, the idea of a collective human spirit intending justice lies at the root of the three great monotheistic religions. Robert Bellah in his Religion in Human Evolution (2011) contrasts the trajectory of Zeus in Greece and that of Yahweh in Israel:
As a thought experiment, in what might have been we can think of the close connection of Zeus and justice (dikē) beginning, tentatively, in Homer, becoming quite explicit in and central in Hesiod, powerfully applied to his immediate situation by Solon, and reiterated once again in the tragedies of Aeschylus. But although the concern for justice remains central for those we call the Presocratics, the connection with Zeus loosens drastically. We saw in the case of Israel that Yahweh emerged gradually from being one of many other gods, even the greatest god, to the status of the one and only true God. Zeus never underwent that fate, even though the possibility was never entirely lost: witness the Hymn to Zeus of the early third century BCE Stoic Cleanthes.
The authority of justice that arose in the human lineage possessed, and continues to possess, the requirements of “life” as defined by modern genetics: the ability to replicate, and to evolve by means of natural selection. Of course, the physical DNA of relational genes would reside within the individuals. However, the intentions of authority, which are the expression or phenotype of relational genes, would be naturally selected because of the substantial survival benefits it provided by the coordination of shared behavior. These genes, within each individual, are selected on the basis of whether they can enable productive relationships with other individuals. In each new generation, relational capacities arising from genetic components reconnect themselves into new relationships, and the ones most able to productively coordinate their mutual behavior are selected.
There are two widely held “scientific” explanations for the ubiquity of religion. The first is Freud’s idea that religion is the fulfillment of a wish for a father, implanted during childhood. Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday (2012) expresses his version of the other prevalent view that religion has provided a variety of functions such as explaining the supernatural, providing comfort about pain and death, preaching political obedience, and justifying wars. The first two of these explanations are implied by E. O. Wilson in this essay’s opening quotation. I propose that the phenomenon of religion has been commandeered to serve these functions in the cultures of our own species. The deeper question is, given the universal existence of the world of spirits in both ancient and current human cultures, what was this metaphysical dimension doing there in the first place?
Diamond’s speculation about this deeper question is that “what we call religion may have arisen as a by-product of the human brain’s increasing sophistication at identifying causal explanations and at making predictions.” But Diamond operates within the current (Darwinian) paradigm that the repository of human evolution must be confined to the individual brain.
In contrast the narrative presented here explains the universality of the spiritual realm of religion by virtue of its centrality to human evolution. Six million years ago we became human by evolving a collective consciousness which was obedient to a living authority demanding justice on account of its inherent bounty. The animation to religion flows directly from that authority, without which we would still be competing with one another at a subsistence level within each of our tiny family hierarchies.
My proposal is that religions are evolving cultural realms that have their origin in the actual felt experience at the core of our collective being of what it has been like to be human since the time of our earliest hominin ancestors. Far from being a recent by-product of our evolution, religion arose directly from the biological foundation of all that is human in us.
The long struggle of the human spirit is that of imposing justice upon the Darwinian struggle for survival. How much more majesty there is in the vision that the unique aspect of our nature is animated not by tooth and claw, but rather by our tribe’s ancient mission to transform the power of aggression into the bounty of communion.