Several readers sent me this op-ed piece from yesterday’s New York Times. It’s by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and is called “The moral animal.” And it pains me terribly for two reasons. The first is my prejudice that religious Jews are not supposed to be as loony as, say, religious Christians or Muslims. Indeed, many “religious” Jews are just a hairsbreadth from atheism. Well, so much for that notion.
More important, Lord Rabbi Sacks, or whatever he’s called, justifies religion on evolutionary grounds. It’s an evolved phenomenon, so he says, coded in our genes. And it evolved not by individual selection, but by group selection. Right off the bat he makes two mistakes: we have no idea whether religiosity is coded in our genes per se, is piggybacking on some other evolved phenomenon (like our willingness to be inculcated as children), or is simply something that appeals because it offers us surcease from our mortality. The other error is the claim that even if religion did evolve genetically, it did so by group selection, a notion that I’ve criticized repeatedly on this website (search for “group selection” if you’re interested).
So this leads to what Rabbi Lord His Highness Sacks calls a great irony. But first he reveals his agenda by claiming, correctly, that faith is on the run:
At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.
and then saying that although that’s true, religion holds firm because some people are still religious!:
Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.
Well, I’m not so sure how many predictions there were in the 1700s of religions “imminent demise,” or how “imminent” it was supposed to be; but Europe has certainly become more secular in the last three hundred years—including Rabbi Sacks’s own country. Faith is tenacious, and, especially in the U.S. will be slow to wane. But what “different story” are the figures supposed to tell? Rabbi Sacks doesn’t say.
But he does see the tenacity of faith as ironic, for all those nasty atheists accept evolution, and evolution is what accounts for religion! Oh, the pain!
The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.
Well, Sacks conflates biological with cultural evolution here; in the strict evolutionary sense, which is apparently what he’s talking about, “adaptive fitness” refers solely to the relative reproductive output of carriers of different genes. And we have no idea whether religion is coded for by genes. (I rather suspect, given its rapid disappearance in Europe, that there aren’t “genes for religion.”).
Then Rabbi Sacks tells us that Darwin suggested the correct answer: group selection. But as far as I know, Darwin never floated this idea. (Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.**UPDATE: I stand corrected; see below.)
Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants. [JAC: Leafcutter ants? Altruism?]
Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.
Sacks doesn’t say what he means by “hard-wired for empathy,” but if we are, it’s empathy towards members of our clan, not humanity in general. Save via group selection, which only a few biological miscreants still see as efficacious, evolution could not favor a form of pure altruism that compels one to sacrifice your own reproduction to further the survival and reproduction of others.
Lord Rabbi Sacks mentions the debate about this issue, but settles it by fiat in favor of group selection:
The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.
First of all, Darwin’s answer to the evolution of religion wasn’t, as far as I know, group selection. He may have speculated about religion in his letters, but I can’t find a discussion of its evolution in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which is where it should be. I suspect the good rabbi is makng this up, or mistaking D. S. Wilson for Darwin. And Sacks misleads the reader into thinking that group selection is not only efficacious, but the consensus view of scientists. In fact it isn’t: as far as we know, human “altruism,” insofar as it’s evolved, is really selfish, involving kin selection (the dispensing of benefits to relatives), or a kind of tit-for-tat strategy that evolves via individual selection in small groups (“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”). Both of these involve individual rather than group selection.
The rabbi then suggests that, according to Daniel Kahneman, one part of our brain favors altruism, another part selfishness. I haven’t read Thinking Fast and Slow, so I’ll let the readers who have judge this claim, but I suspect that there’s no evidence for it. And so, according to the scientific data tell us what religion has always maintained:
The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.
Duh! Did we need prophets and philosophers to tell us that humans can do good and bad things? We’ve known that ever since the first australopithecines began to ponder each other’s behaviors.
Finally, the rabbi pronounces that human society can’t do without religion, for the “hardwired” tendency to believe is good for our species:
If this is so [evolution, blah blah blah], we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters. . .
Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.
To paraphrase the physicists, Rabbi Sacks’s article isn’t even wrong. It gets what we know about the genetics of religion wrong; it gets the scientific consensus on group selection wrong; and it gets the notion that we can’t live without religion wrong (I have one answer to this contention: Scandinavia). Why would the New York Times publish this kind of thoughtless and mistaken tripe?
To that I have a four-word answer: “Sacks is Head Rabbi.” To paraphrase what Christopher Hitchens said about Jerry Falwell, you can get all kinds of nonsense published if you can just put the title “Rabbi” in front of your name. But Sacks’s latest nonsense is beyond the pale. It’s so dreadful that it embarrasses me as a cultural Jew. Jews are simply not supposed to be that stupid—or at least we’re supposed to do our research before pronouncing on biology. Rabbi Sacks gets an F for effort, and shame on the New York Times.
I’m not the only cultural Jew who feels this way. One of my landsmann friends emailed me this:
This unctuous piece by England’s favorite Rabbi is, in the world of my late grandmother, “a shanda fur die goyim” (“a shame before the gentiles”, i.e., “embarrassing or compromising behavior performed by a Jew where a non-Jew can observe it.”).
UPDATE: Courtesy of Andrew Berry, the Darwin quote has come to light (from The Descent of Man, chapter 5), and it does show Darwin advancing a nascent form of group selection.
It deserves notice that, as soon as the progenitors of man became social (and this probably occurred at a very early period), the principle of imitation, and reason, and experience would have increased, and much modified the intellectual powers in a way, of which we see only traces in the lower animals. Apes are much given to imitation, as are the lowest savages; and the simple fact previously referred to, that after a time no animal can be caught in the same place by the same sort of trap, shews that animals learn by experience, and imitate the caution of others. Now, if some one man in a tribe, more sagacious than the others, invented a new snare or weapon, or other means of attack or defence, the plainest self-interest, without the assistance of much reasoning power, would prompt the other members to imitate him; and all would thus profit. The habitual practice of each new art must likewise in some slight degree strengthen the intellect. If the new invention were an important one, the tribe would increase in number, spread, and supplant other tribes. In a tribe thus rendered more numerous there would always be a rather greater chance of the birth of other superior and inventive members. If such men left children to inherit their mental superiority, the chance of the birth of still more ingenious members would be somewhat better, and in a very small tribe decidedly better. Even if they left no children, the tribe would still include their blood-relations; and it has been ascertained by agriculturists that by preserving and breeding from the family of an animal, which when slaughtered was found to be valuable, the desired character has been obtained.
Turning now to the social and moral faculties. In order that primeval men, or the apelike progenitors of man, should become social, they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings, which impel other animals to live in a body; and they no doubt exhibited the same general disposition. They would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack or defence. All this implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage. Such social qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit. When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience, as Mr. Bagehot has well shewn, is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.