Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Q&A with Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel

Carel van Schaik
Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel are the authors of the new book The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible. Van Schaik is a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Zurich. His other books include Among Orangutans and The Primate Origins of Human Nature. Michel is a historian and journalist who also lives in Zurich.

Q: In the book, you ask, "What, then, led the two of us to believe the Bible might yield other insights than those of interest only to true believers?" How do you answer this, and how did the two of you come to work on this book?

A: Believers and atheists alike are often bewildered by the Bible’s texts, trying to wrest meaning from its opaque verses. Much makes little sense or even seems wrong, and some of it is unexpectedly gruesome. In response, believers tend to studiously ignore certain passages, whereas atheists condemn the Bible wholesale.

We have always been fascinated by the Book of Books, and once found ourselves discussing Genesis. We wondered about why the Bible presents us with one disaster after another so soon after God had created the world and us: he threw his own creatures out of paradise, Cain killed his brother, a terrible flood drowned millions, the tower of Babel was abandoned unfinished, and fire and brimstone rained on Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Kai Michel
And the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs, are also full of family feuds. All in all, Genesis is one long series of catastrophes. We asked out loud what many people must also have been asking themselves: why?

Believers know the answer: because humans are fallible. But if so, why did God create us in the first place? To the atheists this shows why God is a farce.

But we experienced a déjà-vu here: it all sounded so familiar. Over the past few decades archeology has shown that when people gave up being hunters and gatherers, life became all toil: people had to earn their living by the sweat of their brow. They grew to be less tall, were sicklier, and died younger than before. Jared Diamond once called the adoption of agriculture “the biggest mistake in the history of the human race.”

The newly invented institution of property led to inequality and monopolization and created the problem of how to transmit wealth across generations. Brothers, once their best allies, became deadly competitors; families were torn apart by strife or engaged in bitter feuds with other families. Droughts and floods afflicted the newly sedentary people. New epidemics ravaged entire populations.

Once cities and states arose, things went from bad to worse: the old in-group solidarity was broken, inequality and suppression exploded. So, Genesis was quite literally right: once we lived in paradise, but east of Eden it all went wrong.

If you continue reading beyond Genesis, you will find the text littered with commands and prohibitions. In fact, someone counted 613 of them in the Torah.

They have very little to do with the kinds of things we now think of when we talk about religion: they were not concerned with the meaning of life or other spiritual themes. Instead they were all about avoiding disaster. We find rules against injustice and exploitation, loads of prophylactic health and diet advice, and tons of suggestions as to how to keep families peaceful.

We therefore read the Torah as the heroic attempt to come to grips with all the urgent problems foisted upon us by agriculture and despotic states– all at a time when there was no form of natural science, and when instead each untoward event was seen as the punishment of a wrathful God, so all we had to do was to follow his commandments and all would be good.

That is why we see the Torah as an amazing cultural protection system, and why we think its authors deserve a place in the science hall of fame.

In fact, many of these problems still plague us to this very day. In our heart, we are still those old hunter-gathers, who feel like misfits in the modern world.

By reading the Bible using our reverse-engineering approach, we can identify the problems that the spectacular cultural evolution since the dawn of agriculture imposed upon us.

It also reveals where our cultural solutions remain imperfect: we’re still upset about injustice and suppression, we still yearn for social belonging, we still have trouble with being faithful ‘till death us do part, and once in a while we feel a vague discontent with our culture. In other words, we’re longing for paradise.

So we decided to subject the whole Bible to an evolutionary reading.

Q: In the chapter on Adam and Eve, you write, "Adam and Eve's fate throws up one question after another, and we have an urgent need to find meaning in the story." How do you interpret their story, and how does that differ, perhaps, from other interpretations?

A: Isn’t it utterly amazing that until today there is no uniformly accepted way of reading the first story in the Bible? Some say it is about humanity’s hubris, others argue it documents the birth of our knowledge of morality, yet others insist it reveals the omnipresent influence of evil forces, and so on and on.

Evidently, we modern readers have trouble squeezing meaning out of this story. God creates people, and they make a mistake in that they snack from a tree’s forbidden fruit – upon which God unceremoniously evicts them from paradise, forever and ever. Does that make sense? Could God not have been a bit more lenient?

So, what was the real goal of the Biblical authors? They wanted to make clear to their audience why we humans have to live in a world unworthy of the creation of a multi-talented God. They also wanted to stress that God is serious about His commandments. Genesis serves as the overture to the major piece: The Law.

Two things are really fascinating about this story. One is our reaction to God’s stern punishment. Our reluctance to accept God’s harsh verdict for what is really a minor misdemeanor simply reflects human nature: Our hunter-gatherer soul rebels against it. In the small groups in which we used to live and our psyche evolved, such utter lack of forgiveness did not exist.

Of course, transgressions caused indignation, but in most cases, mediation would ensure that everyone would make up and peace would be restored. This may sound overly romantic, but it was a bitter necessity: People were utterly dependent on each other. Reconciliation is one of humanity’s major strengths.

The second thing that enthralled us is that the story actually correctly describes the transition from foraging to food production that began in a few areas in the Middle East some 12,000 years ago and that the people must soon have interpreted this change as a change for the worse, as punishment.

Today we do not see it that way, of course, but we had to cross a deep valley of misery before we, or at least the lucky ones among us, emerged healthy and prosperous.

The Bible faithfully depicts the key problems of the new sedentary lifestyle. Humanity’s first transgression was a violation of property rights. Foragers do not understand that anyone can claim to own land or trees, and yet be from the same community.

The abstract notion of property had to be invented and asserted. Hunters and gatherers simply collected all the fruits they could find. And now someone suddenly says: “This is my tree. You are not allowed to take its fruits.” Little wonder that initially no one understood this rule and had to be rudely reminded of it.

Another major problem is patriarchy. Among nomadic foragers, women have a certain degree of economic and sexual autonomy. Now, all of a sudden, with the advent of agriculture and property that must be defended and inherited, men become strictly organized in patrilineal clans, and women are turned into tradable chattel.

The Bible talks about this: "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.“ And Genesis is right!

It is also right about its statement that women were punished for causing us to be thrown out of paradise by making giving birth a painful, even outright dangerous ordeal. Foragers do not have such problems, to a large extent because they were taller and probably also because they moved, labored and sat quite differently.

Q: In your introduction to the section on the New Testament, you ask, "But what made Christianity so enormously successful?" What are some of the ways in which you answer that?

A: Christianity owes its amazing success to its being the Swiss Army Knife among the religions of antiquity, for it was willing to adapt and incorporate new ideas, and so could serve a variety of functions.

Because our space is limited here, we can discuss only one issue, the one we just talked about: the continued presence of social injustice and natural disasters. The Torah had been quite explicit: All untoward events are God’s punishment for human transgressions.

Over time, however, it gradually dawned on the believers that even if one followed all the rules of the Torah, misery in the form of disasters, epidemics or injustice did not go away. How could God let it happen that true believers had to die for their faith, and so became martyrs?

In response to this crisis, already in the Old Testament, we see the emergence of two new concepts. First, Satan gains in prominence (think of the Book of Job), and, together with his army of demons, becomes responsible for the evil in the world. This means that the evil we experience is no longer seen as punishment but instead a test of the strength of our faith.

Second, the Book of Daniel is the first to broach the notion of an afterlife in heaven as God’s reward for steadfast faith in this life.

What the New Testament und early Christianity did was to refine and further elaborate on these new ideas – the devil and our resurrection at the Last Judgment.

Christianity decreed that it is the sacred duty of all true believers to fight the devil and his forces like Jesus did with the demons – and to close ranks with one’s fellow believers in this struggle. Ironically, its apocalyptic matrix unwittingly reinvents an ancient Stone Age adage: support your in-group friends and send your enemies to hell.

In sum, Christianity urges us to no longer quietly endure evil and adversity as God’s punishment, but to actively resist it, indeed wipe it off the face of the earth. Although this is of course not the only reason for Christianity’s success, it played a major role.

Q: You write toward the end of the book, "Far too few are aware that [the Bible] is the product of almost 1,000 years of work..." How would you describe the history of the Bible?

A: We see the Bible as humanity’s diary – a running commentary on all the unexpected events in one’s life. One millennium long, it was a work in progress, with authors editing existing books, sometimes quite drastically, and adding new texts of their own.

With every new book, the scribes also tried to update the explanations for the continued existence of earthly misery, but also inevitably produced the many inconsistencies that today’s readers find so puzzling. The Bible is quite literally the Book of Books, a pluralistic product of cultural evolution.

Judaism still maintains this updating tradition. New interpretations and comments continue to be added to their new diary, the Talmud.

Christianity chose another path. The Christian Church had to establish its authority on its diverse and scattered, and therefore more unruly constituency, and so decided to canonize the Bible.

As a result, exegesis now became the job of an elite group of experts, whose conclusions were broadcast to the believers as binding dogma. The Bible became a fossilized text – the Holy Writ of a perfect God.

One could argue that was the Bible’s fall from grace. With every passing year, the Bible becomes slightly more outdated, widening the gap between the Book of Books and its readers. Little wonder that today’s readers are befuddled by many of the stories.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Carel continues to do his anthropological work, focusing on primates in an attempt to unravel what made us human, whereas Kai is already busy writing his next book, on an archeological topic.

But more importantly, together, we are planning to carry on the cultural evolution project by subjecting the books of other religions to a similar analysis, regarding them too as diaries.

By seeing how people responded in different places to somewhat different combinations and severities of problems and catastrophes, we hope to refine our definition of what it is to be human.

Obviously, a full analysis would require many years of study by a coordinated group of scholars. That is way beyond our ken, so we are dreaming of setting up an institute of cultural evolution that would provide a home for this enterprise.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you read the Bible as humanity’s diary, as the documentation of our ancestors’ heroic struggle to come to terms with a world for which we were not made, to figure out how to avoid injustice and despotism, wars, catastrophes and disease – if you do this, it becomes absolutely clear why no one can possibly use the Bible’s words as the justification for fundamentalism in any shape or form.

Instead, if you do this, you will be able to appreciate the Bible in its full glory: as the Good Book of Human Nature, a book that concerns all of us—believer, agnostic or atheist. Everyone reading the Bible from an evolutionary perspective will come away with a better understanding, if not of God, then at least of the human condition.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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