"Religious belief itself is an adaptation"

Sociobiology founder Edward O. Wilson explains why we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions, denies that "evolutionism" is a faith, and says that heaven, if it existed, would be hell.

Published March 21, 2006 12:16PM (EST)

For a man who's obsessed with tiny critters, Edward O. Wilson has a strange knack for stirring up controversy about life's biggest questions. The Harvard biologist is a renowned expert on insects, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Ants." But it was his seminal 1975 book "Sociobiology," which laid the groundwork for the new field of evolutionary psychology, that made Wilson a scientific luminary -- and a major intellectual force in America. That book, along with its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, "On Human Nature," argued that many human behaviors -- including aggression, altruism and hypocrisy -- are shaped by evolution. Wilson's tilt toward nature in the age-old nature/nurture debate may have put him on the map, but it also made plenty of enemies. Fellow Harvard biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin denounced sociobiology, saying it provided a genetic justification for racism and Nazi ideology. Wilson's classes were picketed. In one famous incident, demonstrators at a scientific meeting stormed the stage where he was speaking and dumped a pitcher of water over his head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!"

Over the years, sociobiology -- once so controversial -- became a widely accepted branch of science. Ultimately, Wilson won the National Medal of Science for his scholarship. And his own popularity soared when he emerged as a champion of biodiversity and a passionate advocate for endangered species. His 1992 book "The Diversity of Life" became a bestseller. But he stirred up more trouble in the late '90s with another book, "Consilience." This was his attempt to outline a unified theory of knowledge, which had the effect of elevating science at the expense of religion and the arts. In his view, knowledge of the world ultimately comes down to chemistry, biology and -- above all -- physics; people are just extremely complicated machines. Wendell Berry, among other critics, railed against Wilson's scientific reductionism, calling it a "modern superstition."

Wilson is now retired, though -- at 76 -- he still spends plenty of time at his Harvard lab. And he continues to write and lecture. He recently edited a collection of Charles Darwin's books titled "From So Simple a Beginning" (W.W. Norton). In person, Wilson is a courtly Southerner. He's an affable man who laughs easily and -- unlike many scientists -- is quite willing to speculate on the most cosmic questions. This was evident when he stopped by my radio studio before giving a sold-out lecture at the University of Wisconsin. We talked about Darwin and the growing rift between science and religion, as well as Wilson's own take on religion -- his "provisional deism" and his personal horror of an eternal afterlife in heaven.

What were the personal and intellectual qualities that made Darwin such a great scientist?

A relentlessly inquiring mind, a love of natural history acquired as a child, the extraordinary opportunity presented by the voyage of the Beagle to travel around the world at exactly the right age when the mind is opening, the opportunity in the scientific world to make a major discovery, and -- I should not overlook -- being a country squire with no economic pressures.

Did he have any particular agenda when he set out on his voyage on the Beagle?

I don't think so. He was a deeply religious man. He hadn't thought about evolution at all. What he was was an all-purpose observer, with a particular interest in natural history, and of course in beetles, which were the love of his life.

And it's worth pointing out that when Darwin first set out on the Beagle, he brought his own Bible. He had to overturn his whole upbringing to come up with this revolutionary idea.

Darwin departed England a devout Bible literalist. After failing his effort to become a doctor, he had in fact trained as a minister at Cambridge University. As he says in his autobiography, he would even pull out the Bible to settle some argument with other members of the ship's crew. But then as the trip went on, for reasons Darwin really never disclosed but I don't think had to do with the idea of evolution, he gradually dropped his Christian beliefs. Becoming a man of the world and much more aware of other cultures and religious beliefs, he realized that the stories of the Bible were basically no different than the stories of these other religions.

But what really turned him against religion was the doctrine of damnation. He said if the Bible is true, you must be redeemed in Christ and be a believer in order to go to heaven. And others will be condemned. And that includes my brothers and all my best friends. And he said that is a damnable doctrine. Those are his words.

Darwin's own transformation from devout Christian to non-believer obviously raises significant questions in our own time. It raises a very provocative question: If you fully accept the theory of evolution by natural selection, does that logically lead you to atheism?

Well, it does up to the origin of the mind and spirit. And one of the Vatican's scientific spokesmen, incidentally, just recently turned thumbs down on intelligent design. John Paul II took the position that evolution's been pretty well proved, and certainly was acceptable as God's way of creating the diversity of life. But the human soul was injected by God. So that's a kind of compromise position that a lot of devoutly religious people have taken.

But that begs the question, when did the soul enter? I mean, if you accept evolution, at some point humans evolved out of something that came before. So do all creatures have some kind of soul? Or do only humans have a soul?

Yeah, that's the dilemma. Of course, there is no reconciliation between the theory of evolution by natural selection and the traditional religious view of the origin of the human mind.

Are you saying we have to choose between science and religion?

Well, you have to choose between the scientific materialist view of the origin of the mind on the one side, and the traditional religious view that the spirit and the mind are independent of the process of evolution and eventually non-corporeal, capable of leaving the body and going elsewhere.

This is not a view that all scientists subscribe to. Stephen Jay Gould famously talked about how science and religion are two entirely separate spheres. And they really didn't have anything to do with each other.

Yeah, he threw in the towel.

He dodged the question.

He dodged the question, famously. That's no answer at all. That's evasion. I think most scientists who give thought to this with any depth -- who understand evolution -- take pretty much the position that I've taken. For example, in the National Academy of Sciences, which presumably includes many of the elite scientists in this country, a very large number would fully accept the scientific view. I know it's 80 percent or more who said, on the issue of the immortality of the soul, they don't care.

It would seem that religion and science have two entirely different ways of understanding the world. Science is founded on reason and deduction and empirical study. Religion, on the other hand, is grounded in faith -- often a leap of faith, in mystery, in living with the non-rational part of your mind. Are those two utterly alien ways of looking at the world? Or is there any common ground?

The only common ground that I see is the one that was approached by Darwin himself. Religious belief itself is an adaptation that has evolved because we're hard-wired to form tribalistic religions. Religion is intensely tribalistic. A devout Christian or Muslim doesn't say one religion is as good as another. It gives them faith in the particular group to which they belong and that set of beliefs and moral views.

What about the sense of awe, of wonder? That's something you hear about all the time among religious people. And you also hear about it from some scientists as well.

Well, you do. You hear about it from me. Awe is hard to put into words. But it certainly involves a sense of the mightiness and splendor and almost indecipherable intricacy of something greater than ourselves. A lot of religious mysticism arises directly from it. But it's equally experienced by the secularist whose mind opens to the splendor and intricacy of the material universe.

I've talked with some atheists who've suggested what they really need is a spiritual atheism. They need the sense of awe. They're competing with religious traditions, with very powerful stories, that have been passed down through the ages.

Yeah, that's true.

Does the scientist, does the non-believer, need that as well? Can the non-believer have that?

The answer to the second question is yes. The answer to the first question -- do they have it? -- is usually no. The problem with secular humanism is that it does lack it. I think it was Camille Paglia who talked about Foucault and the almost religious awe that the French post-structuralist philosophers once had in France. She compared it to the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition and said 3,000 years of Yahweh beats one generation of Foucault.

Would you be comfortable saying that science can have a sacred dimension?

Sacred, yes, in the sense of spirituality. This would be based upon a deeper understanding of just how intricate and surprising the universe is. The story of the origin of life on this planet -- the time scale, the magnitude of it, the complexity of how it has been put together -- all of that engenders in me even more awe than I ever felt as a devout Southern Baptist growing up.

You grew up in a religious family?

Oh yes, I grew up fundamentalist. I grew up as a Southern Baptist with strict adherence to the Bible, which I read as a youngster. As a child, I was warned by counselors and routine religious training that the truth was in the Bible. Redemption was only in Christ and the world is full of Satanic force. Satan himself perhaps -- but certainly his agents, witting and unwitting -- would try to make me drop my belief. I had that instilled in me. You have to understand how powerful the religious drive is -- the instinct which I consider tribalist but probably necessary -- in most societies for continuing day-to-day business.

That's an interesting perspective. Basically, you're saying it's necessary but it's wrong.

Well, you see, that's the dilemma of the 21st century. Possibly the greatest philosophical question of the 21st century is the resolution of religious faith with the growing realization of the very different nature of the material world. You could say that we evolved to accept one truth -- the religious instinct -- but then discovered another. And having discovered another, what are we to do? You might say it's just best to go ahead and accept the two worldviews and let them live side by side. I see no other solution. I believe they can use their different worldviews to solve some of the great problems -- for example, the environment. But generally speaking, the difficulty in saying they can live side by side is a sectarianism in the world today, and traditional religions can be exclusionary and used to justify violence and war. You just can't deny that this is a major problem.

To return to your personal history, when did you reject that early fundamentalist belief? When did you start to question the literal interpretation of the Bible?

One thing I did was grow up as an ardent naturalist. I never grew out of my bug period. By the time I got to college, I was steeped in natural history and biology. I didn't learn much else in the high schools of Alabama, but I was really steeped in that.

By the time you got to college, had you rejected your religious background?

In college, I did begin to get a good education. As soon as I got to the University of Alabama, I discovered evolution and the new synthesizers of evolutionary theory. I read them all. This was an epiphany. I realized that all I had loved about the natural world, and all I had learned, now made sense. And that's what converted me.

So you spent your whole youth out in the fields, observing nature, but in some ways it didn't add up because you hadn't understood evolution.

It didn't. And it can't. That's the problem. You cannot explain the patterns of diversity in the world, the geography of life, the endless details of distribution, similarity and dissimilarity in the world, by any means except evolution. That's the one theory that ties it together. It is very hard to see how traditionalist religious views will come to explain the meaning of life on this planet.

Let me follow up on this because I've heard you call yourself a deist.

Yeah, I don't want to be called an atheist.

Why not?

You know, being a good scientist, and having been drawn up short so many times on my own theories and speculations -- as all honest scientists are -- I don't want to exclude the possibility of a creative force or deity. I think that would be a mistake to say there is no God or supernatural force. As the theologian Hans Kung once said, how are we to explain there is something and not nothing? Well, that's a question I'm happy to leave to the astrophysicist -- where the laws of the universe came from and what is the meaning of the origin of existence. But I do feel confident that there is no intervention of a deity in the origin of life and humanity.

That is the distinction between theism and deism.

That is the distinction. So I am not a theist, but I'll be a provisional deist.

To be a deist, you're saying maybe there was some creator, some presence, that set in motion the laws of the universe.

Maybe. That has not yet been discounted as a hypothesis. That's why I use the word provisional.

It's fascinating because everything you've said up until now suggests that you should be an atheist. Why hold out the specter that maybe there was some divine presence that got the whole thing going?

Well, because there's a possibility that a god or gods -- I don't think it would resemble anything of the Judeo-Christian variety -- or a super-intelligent force came along and started the universe with a big bang and moved on to the next universe. I can't discount that.

Let's just play this out for a minute. If there was this creative ... whatever you want to call it...


This intelligence that got our universe going, what happened to that intelligence? Did it go off to the next universe?

That's what I mean. That's exactly what I said. (Laughs)

Thirteen billion years ago, it left and went somewhere else?

Well, they are now either lurking on the outer reaches of the universe, watching with some amusement as the eons passed, to see how the experiment worked out, or they moved on. Who can say?

I think this is actually of great importance when we're talking about science and religion. There are a lot of people who discount the literal interpretation of the Bible because it does not square with modern science. And even God is such a loaded word. What if we put that word aside? Can we talk about energy or some sort of cosmic force?

That's why I say, I leave this to the astrophysicist.

Not the religious scholars?

Oh, of course not. They don't know enough. Literally. I hope I'm not being insulting. But you can't talk about these subjects now without knowing a great deal of theoretical physics, particularly astrophysics and developments in astronomy concerning the origins and evolution of the universe. But one thing we may very well be able to understand from start to finish -- we haven't done it yet -- is the origin of life on this planet. And that's what counts for human beings. Where we came from. And it's beginning to look -- it's looking pretty persuasively -- that we are in fact ultimately physical and chemical in nature, and that we evolved autonomously on this planet by ourselves. There's no evidence whatsoever that we're being overseen or directed in our evolution and actions by a supernatural force.

But this raises another question. I know evolutionary biologists disagree on this point -- whether there is some inevitable progress in the course of evolution. In other words, once the simplest forms of life appeared on Earth, was it inevitable that eons down the road, some highly intelligent creature would evolve -- like humans?

Yeah, philosophers love this question, and scientists like to stay away from philosophers. To get involved is like a bird landing on tangled foot. Let me see if I can square away the idea of progress. If you define progress as an increase in complexity -- say, going from a simple bacterium-like organism up to an advanced animal or human society -- there's no question that evolution has progressed. But if you see it as some kind of teleological force that is moving evolution along, that there will be progress in the universe from A to Z, you cannot see that in evolution. Progress is basically a human concept.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the evolutionary viewpoint, but you also want to find some larger purpose, it would seem to be comforting that evolution moves toward greater complexity. It will keep evolving into something that's bigger and greater.

Well, I'm an existential conservative. I take the view that the human species has evolved to be a biological part of this biosphere. We belong in this biosphere. We are intimately connected to it. Our physiology, our psychology. This planet can actually be a paradise if we use our intelligence to make it so. That, to me, would be progress.

You're saying humans have purpose here.

Yeah, they have purpose to live long and be happy.

More than that. They have purpose to be good stewards of this Earth.

I believe so, yes. When you unpack happiness into satisfaction, fulfillment, vision, awe, a sense of higher purpose and quality, we have that ability. And I think it will be reached not by traditional religious faith but by knowledge and human self-understanding.

There are some people who talk about evolution as a kind of secular religion. The philosopher Michael Ruse has made this argument. He talks about "evolutionism." If you want to identify the characteristics of a religion -- a complete, all-encompassing worldview, with an origin story, you can find that in the theory of evolution.

Maybe Michael, who is a friend of mine, was talking about me. I often write in a spiritual tone, particularly on issues like biophilia -- our relationship to the natural world, which is now a well-founded psychological principle. But let me say something about scientists, including those who work on evolution. Basically, they don't worry about things like this. They're not uplifted in this manner. They are journeymen doing this. They realize that the commerce of science is original discovery. That's our silver and gold. When you talk with them, they won't have a conversation like the one we're having now. They'll talk about the latest findings on ecosystems or the organization of California tidal pools. They go home, and watch television, and maybe go fishing. But basically, they are journeymen. There are relatively few people who are doing anything like a spiritual search.

You're saying scientists, for the most part, don't have existential crises?

That's correct. Most are not religious. They're quite happy with what they have. Therefore, scientism -- or science as an alternative religion -- is not in my opinion a valid comparison. I don't see it as having the qualities of a religion, in terms of obeisance to a supreme being or of an urge to proselytize.

Suppose, miraculously, there was proof of a transcendental plane out there. Would you find that comforting?

Sure. Let me take this opportunity to dispel the notion, the canard, that scientists are against transcendentalism, that they want to block any talk of it, particularly intelligent design. If any positive evidence could be found of a supernatural guiding force, there would be a land rush of scientists into it. What scientist would not want to participate in what would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time? Scientists are simply saying -- particularly in reference to intelligent design -- that it's not science and it's garbage until some evidence or working theory is produced. And they are suspicious because they see it coming from people who have a religious agenda.

I guess I'm asking a slightly different question of you personally. Would you like there to be evidence of God? Forget about this as a great scientific discovery. Just personally, given your background, would that be thrilling? Would that be comforting?

Well, it would certainly give you a lot of material to study and think about the rest of your time. But you didn't ask me the right question.

What's the right question?

Would I be happy if I discovered that I could go to heaven forever? And the answer is no. Consider this argument. Think about what is forever. And think about the fact that the human mind, the entire human being, is built to last a certain period of time. Our programmed hormonal systems, the way we learn, the way we settle upon beliefs, and the way we love are all temporary. Because we go through a life's cycle. Now, if we were to be plucked out at the age of 12 or 56 or whenever, and taken up and told, now you will continue your existence as you are. We're not going to blot out your memories. We're not going to diminish your desires. You will exist in a state of bliss -- whatever that is -- forever. And those who didn't make it are going to be consigned to darkness or hell. Now think, a trillion times a trillion years. Enough time for universes like this one to be born, explode, form countless star systems and planets, then fade away to entropy. You will sit there watching this happen millions and millions of times and that will just be the beginning of the eternity that you've been consigned to bliss in this existence.

This heaven would be your hell.

Yes. If we were able to evolve into something else, then maybe not. But we are not something else.

By Steve Paulson

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

MORE FROM Steve Paulson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Evolution Religion Science