Table of contents + Prologue

 

What Makes Us Human

When and why we created God, and how belief transforms our evolution. 

 

Table of contents:

Part 1.

Belief – 2 ½ million to 25,000 years ago

Prologue.

Chapter 1. Where do we come from?

Chapter 2. Induction: our first evolutionary milestone.

Chapter 3. David Hume, and the so say problem of induction.

Chapter 4. Homo habilis to Homo sapiens.

Stone tools – Fire – Emigration – Dissatisfaction

Chapter 5. Cave paintings.

Chapter 6. How we date the past.

Chapter 7. Language.

Writing

Chapter 8. Religious rituals.

Burial of the dead – cave painting – “Venus” figurines – our population explodes –the extinction of the Neanderthals

Chapter 9. Belief: our second evolutionary milestone.

 

Part 2. 

God– 25,000 to 5,000 years ago.

 

Chapter 10. The first villages and agriculture: our third evolutionary milestone.

The ending of the Ice Age – agriculture

Chapter 11. The law.

The earliest legal codes – a moral universe – an oral legal code

 

Part 3. 

Man– 5,000 years ago to the present.

 

Chapter 12. Athens: the secular state.

Chapter 13. The sun, the moon and the stars: What goes on in the heavens?

Chapter 14. Knowledge, and the scientific revolution.

Democritus and the atom – Copernicus – Johannes Kepler – Galileo and the scientific method

Chapter 15. Aristotle, Anselm and the ontological argument.

the three Laws of thought -Anselm of Canterbury

Chapter 16. Spirituality: Plato’s legacy.

Pythagoras and Parmenides – Plato’s forms

Chapter 17. Free will: Epicurus’ sleight of hand.

Democritus’ atomism

Chapter 18. From the supernatural to the scientific.

Organized religion – the Milankovitch cycles

Chapter 19. Beyond God: Nietzsche and Socrates.

Socrates’ akrasia

Epilogue.

Select bibliography.

Appendix 1.

 

Prologue.

When we look at the chaos across the globe, and back through the history of man, an unavoidable question leaps out; is there something inherently malevolent about religion? Has not every war that has ever been fought been waged in the name of God? Far from providing us with the answer to any of our prayers, is religion not in fact the cause of many, if not most, of our problems? Surely all of thisis God’s fault? Nietzsche’s response to all which, and his favourite joke, was to quote Voltaire, who said,

God’s only excuse is that He doesn’t exist.

Which is all well and good and seems to be self-explanatory. But the problem with this line of thought is that as soon as you have allowed these questions to form, you instinctively follow them up with another. If religion isso obviously harmful, how is it that so many societies have always organized themselves around it? And you naturally follow that up with, haveall societies all been centred around a set of religious beliefs? And as soon as you begin to look into that, you quickly realize that the answer is yes. And you do not have to have a PhD in Biology to see how fatally undermined your original line of questioning has been rendered.

Evolution by natural selection works through a series of tiny, random changes that eventually produce character traits. If a trait is useful, then the individuals that have them will be better equipped to survive, so they will be more successful at the all important reproducing that every species relies on for its survival. And those traits that made them stronger will become increasingly common. So, as all human societies haveorganized themselves around their religious beliefs, then not only must religious belief be advantageous, it must, necessarily, be one of the main reasons we have been so successful as a species.

So how do we explain this conundrum? After all, an unimaginable amount of harm really has been done in the name of religion. And yet, demonstrably, it must be fundamentally usefulto us. How do we square this circle?

Footnote:

(In this context, Religionand beliefare effectively synonymous. In theory, you can have your own, personal set of religious beliefs that you practice independently of any organized religion. But in reality, we only ever practice our beliefs in the company of others. So, if only for consistency, I shall be sticking to the less loaded term of belief.)

The only way to unravel this is by doing exactly the same thing that we would do with any other kind of question. We have to sit down and examine whatever evidence we have, in an objective and scientific way, to draw whatever conclusions it produces. And the only way to do that is by untangling belieffrom God.

Because we begin to practice belief at a particular moment in time, and for a very specific reason. As soon as we do so, our evolution is transformed. And almost over night, we evolve into the sorts of fully-fledged human beings that we recognize today. But it is only much later that we create God, fashioning him in our image, and we do so for very different and specific ends.

 

By looking separately at the individual histories of belief, and then of God, we will come to appreciate the very different reasons that we brought them each into life. And thus to understand the very different functions that they each perform for us. Because if we want to understand what it is that elevates us as a species above the rest of the animal kingdom, it is here that we need to focus.

Once we chart that early history of ours, it quickly becomes obvious quite how pivotally important belief is for that evolution. As a matter of fact, it is what our evolution culminates with, and is the explanation for that explosion in our development, which takes place around sixty thousand years ago.

For some two and a half million years, we evolve at a steady rate. Which is impressive, when compared to all of the other creatures around us. But in retrospect, we seem during that time to have been evolving at a relatively slow and ponderous pace. Because, around sixty thousand years ago, that evolution suddenly explodes into life and everything changes. The reason that change comes about is because it is then that we begin to practice belief.

Over the past few decades, we have managed to unearth an enormous amount of evidence detailing what those changes to our development were. What they mean for our daily lives, and what they tell us about how our evolution progresses. So that today, we are in the unique position of being able to join up all of those various dots.

This puts us in an incredibly privileged position. We are the first people ever to have lived, who can look back in time and describe, in a scientific and objective way, where we came from, and how we got here. To unpick, in other word, exactly what it is that makes us who and what we are. And the only way to fully fathom what it is that makes us human is by investigating why it is we that we have this compulsion to practice our beliefs. This will explain why, once we begin to practice them, we immediately become so incomparably stronger. And why it is that, some considerable time later, we then fashion a God, carefully shaping him in our image. In other words, the only way to properly understand what makes us human, is by conducting a scientific exploration of belief, and then of God.

But there has been a huge resistance to looking at either God, or belief, in a scientific way. To subjecting them both to rigorous, scientific analysis, using all of the myriad tools we today have at our disposal. And in order to understand what lies behind that reluctance, we need first to look briefly at the way in which our attitude towards science and religion has changed over that last century or so.

After the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Speciesin 1859, there was a palpable sense of religion coming under attack, and of science being pitted against religion. Either, you accepted the material evidence thrown up by science, which clearly contradicted the claims made by any of the religions, and specifically the idea that God had created an unchanging world. Or, you rejected the “claims” made by science, and insisted instead on holding on to whatever truths your religious convictions provided you with. That sense of Us and Them, of science and religion being two opposing and contradictory forces, was one of the principle characteristics of the twentieth century. And it was the product of two separate legacies from the century before.

First, Darwin was part of a nineteenth century quartet comprising of him, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, all of whom came to have an enormous influence on the twentieth century that followed. And all of whom, very unusually, were atheists. This is a complete historical anomaly. The vast majority of the world’s most influential figures, whether throughout the history of culture or the history of science, were moved to do what they did to better understand the glory of God, and to celebrate the wonder of His creation. They were each as passionate about their beliefs as everybody else around them was. Indeed, a disproportionately large number of them could comfortably be described as mystics, from Pythagoras, Socrates and Plato to Kepler, Newton, Spinoza and Wittgenstein.

And second, the nineteenth century had witnessed the culmination of the Romantic movement, and one of the central ideas at the core of that had been the conviction that nineteenth century man was the culmination of our species, and represented the very apex of civilization. Proof of which, it was contended, were all of the discoveries that science had made over the previous couple of hundred years. There was a palpable sense that science was on the verge of answering all of our questions and of solving all our problems.

These two elements came to coalesce, so that one of the “problems” that science seemed to have now solved was religion. Hence, for many people at the turn of the twentieth century, one of the triumphs of modern man was that, thanks to science, he could now free himself from the shackles of organized religion. As, any moment now, science would provide us with the definitive explanation for everything in the universe, and how each of its components fitted together.

But as the twentieth century unfolded, that sense of triumphalism was completely upended. On the one hand, the unparalleled chaos and violence unleashed in the new century seem to suggest that, if anything, modern man had taken a giant leap backwards rather than forwards. And on the other, the two great discoveries of twentieth century science, Relativity and quantum physics, not only failed to answer any of those last, few remaining questions. They seemed, as far as anybody could make out, to throw up a plethora of unfathomable new ones. Far from clearing anything up, the picture of the world that modern science was producing seemed to be incomprehensibly murky and significantly moreconfusing.

Not only that, but people began to notice that the transformation into a largely secular world that so many people had predicted for the twentieth century had failed to take place. And, looking at the world that they lived in, they saw that the vast majority of people were every bit as passionate about their beliefs as people had always been. It was only in a tiny corner of the globe, in the mass media and down certain corridors of academia, that people had become predominantly secular.

Which then resulted in a reaction againstthe idea of seeing science and religion as being inherently oppositional. It waspossible to practice science rationally and reliably, and to hold and practice your religious beliefs in private. What you thought, intellectually, and what you believed in, spiritually, were two entirely separate entities. Not only that, but so they must remain. It was just as important, it was now thought, to keep your beliefs out of your scientific enquiries, as it was to avoid making the mistake of allowing your religious certainties to be pointlessly subjected to the rigours of scientific analysis.

 

So that, instead of being seen as oppositional, science and belief were now viewed as occupying two completely distinct spheres, that did not, and must not, intersect. There was even a name for this, which Stephen Jay Gould came up with in an essay he wrote in 1997; NOMA, or Non-overlapping Magisteria.

All of which sounds like a sensible and even a generous attitude to have adopted. But as an eminent evolutionary biologist, Gould of all people really ought to have known better. Because what this did was to prevent us from conducting precisely the kind of scientific investigation that we need to do if we want to find out what it is that is so usefulabout belief. And why it was that, much later, we then came to create God. In effect, it delayed us from more speedily piecing together all of the evidence that has started to surface over the last century or so.

Because all the evidence that we have now amassed really does place us in this remarkable and genuinely unique position. On the one hand, there are areas of enquiry, and tools to delve into them, that were unavailable to us in any other epoch. From radiometric dating and DNA analysis, to satellite imaging and computer mapping. And on the other, anyone with access to a computer and the Internet can have instantaneous and unlimited access to pretty much any of that mountainous data.

All of which means, that for the first time in our history, we are now in the extraordinarily exciting position of being able to answer what is probably the oldest questions that has ever occurred to us; where do we come from?

 

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