Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

I haven’t written as much on the Torah portions after two years of working pretty steadily at them. With my focus on the relationship between human beings and other animals, it was inevitable that I would have to struggle with the “meaning” of animal sacrifice.

What was sacrifice supposed to accomplish? How did people feel as they prepared an animal for sacrifice? As they experienced sacrifice as a non-priest? Saw the sight of a terrified animal slaughtered, dissected and burned? There is no way to construe a sacrifice as anything other than a violent act — yet it is presented as drawing close to G-d.” How can I reconcile these things?

Some source-critical examination (a technique I don’t usually favor) helped me some with this problem but in the process caused me even greater difficulty. So did an article I read recently about Passover and the Levites, which inspired a post I have not yet finished.

But I have also turned to looking at the problem through a different lens, the lens of evolutionary biology, and amazingly, it is beginning to give me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah and rabbinic tradition. I will write a post about this eventually too.

For now, I just want to mention some books that have been very important to me in this journey: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Barbara King’s Personalities on our Plate, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus.

Most recently I’m reading Not So Different: Finding Human Nature In Animals, by Nathan H. Lents. Just to give you a sense of the topics covered, the chapter headings are: Why do we play? Animal systems of justice, Moral animals, Sexual politics, Do animals fall in love?, The agony of grief, Jealous beasts: the darker side of love, Darker still (envy, greed and power), Afraid of the dark, The richness of animal communication.

This isn’t an esoteric pursuit for me. I don’t believe we evolve beyond our basic evolutionary and biological realities. I don’t believe we are “saved” from who we are through faith except to the extent that it encourages a constant practice rooted in balancing these evolutionary drives. And although I read and appreciated Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, I don’t think it deals (or to be fair, intended to deal) with the reality of who we are as human beings and the sustainability of a culture that sets as its highest value the harmonious well-being of all life. Yes, we may have a lower rate of violence progressively through history, at least superficially and temporarily, we may be more educated and have a lower rate of poverty. All indicators may, statistically speaking, be better, but I think I could make an argument it’s not as a result of human nature evolving, and therefore I don’t trust its sustainability.

Human nature is what it is — and every religious culture and many non-religious cultures seek and present us with ways to deal with the reality of human nature and guide us toward something more than the cycle of prey and predator, something more than acting mindlessly or on instinct. These considerations seem particularly relevant today when the world is gripped — in mythic terms — by the darker side of our nature.

Every culture, every ideology, every religion demonstrates that in particular conditions, groups will arise that generate “other” hatred and violence and display and encourage an utter lack of empathy. I believe that attachment to one’s group and what goes along with that — asserting superiority over other groups, feeling and acting dismissively toward the needs of other groups, and ultimately violence toward other groups, including non-human animals — is rooted in our evolution and biology. But so is cooperation and empathy — among both humans and non-human animals. Not So Different helped connect me to the science behind what I perceive and gives me a new appreciation for the insights of the Torah.

I hope I have time in my life to study how each religion offers opportunities to work with the reality of who we are as human beings and shapes and educates us to maintain a world-sustaining balance. The chances are good, though, that I will only have time to explore this issue in the kind of depth I would like in the framework of my chosen religion, Judaism. I may not even get past the Bible with that. In fact, I may not even get past the first five books, the Torah.

But no matter how far I’m able to follow this line of study, one thing is clear to me: the darkness that many of us feel in the world today with right wing populism ascendant is the result of giving precedence and unfettered freedom to a biological drive toward greed and an us-them mentality. It is the failure to balance that survival-centered drive with other biological realities like group cooperation and empathy that ultimately leads to violence. This is not a problem of the “right” or the “left,” though, or of any particular religion or culture. It is an imbalance that can occur within any human being and within any society or religion or ideology.

The antidote to violence and hatred in the world is cooperation and empathy, taught and nurtured through daily experience and practice. And what my religion teaches me is a mindful practice that takes us on a path between the extremes, between the drive for self-preservation and the drive toward cooperation and empathy. There is a way we can strive not toward perfection but toward a balance based on realities of human nature the Torah intuited and science now proves.

3 thoughts on “Balancing our evolutionary and biological realities

  1. Your post raises issues I have long struggled with in my life, my reading and my teaching, both on the individual level and the societal. Oh, only if the laws of Darwinian evolution also applied to cultural and societal norms! But we have to struggle forward always with the knowledge that our progress is only sustainable to the extent we institutionalize, re-teach and nurture those norms which are the hallmark of civilization. It has become somewhat commonplace to talk about the “thin veneer” of civilization, nonetheless, the observation is valid. As one witness to the Holocaust [interesting etymology holókaustos whole burnt offering in terms of you theme] put it, how could the culture that produced a Goethe, Beethoven or Brahms also allow, ignore, or worse, plan and carry out death on such a massive scale. We don’t hang Quakers on Boston Common anymore, nor is hanging-drawing-quartering practiced on Tyburn Hill. Yet Michael Donald was lynched in Mobile, Alabama in 1981. The genocide in Rwanda is so recent. The rising hate and vehemence in both politics and social media scare me. They are an alarm bell. Civilization is so fragile. We can so easily enter Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

    1. David, these are exactly the questions and issues that trouble me! I’ve just never believed we are evolving as human beings or that any progress we make in society is sustainable without conscious — and constant — effort. I see no evidence of it. The wisdom of thousands of years ago is just as wise today — and our impulse to brutality just as strong. Yuval Noah Harari (a historian and writer I imagine you would thoroughly enjoy if you haven’t yet found his books) says, perhaps somewhat facetiously but not really, that to know how the world will look with regard to humans when machines dominate over creation, we need only look at how non-humans animals fared under human dominance. Our politics scare me as well. And though I have resisted the constant attacks on media as another part of undermining our trust in our institutions and continue to absorb quite a bit of what the media brings me, I have progressively withdrawn over the last couple of weeks since the Mueller report came out. I just can’t bear listening to the constant drumbeat of partisan litanies any more, at least not right now. I think 24-hour news is a problem. And I think our current president is just the inevitable result of what we have nurtured as a society in letting those evolutionary drives toward wealth, success and power predominate.

    2. Part of my search, btw, over the last couple of years is to understand what the Torah sees as the relationship between humans and other animals — is there anything that would make the objective case that humans are more valuable than animals, thus allowing us to kill other animals or use them in any way we see fit? While Not So Different seems to say really, there aren’t significant differences, certainly none that would elevate humans over non-human animals in any way, Harari says the distinguishing characteristic of Sapiens is that they can cooperate flexibly in large groups. Combine that with our ability to create fictions and persuade others to believe them, and we have the basis for pushing human beings to the top of the food chain. It’s a fascinating explanation and very persuasive, but it still doesn’t speak to the question of value. I think ultimately Harari, too, would say there is no objective basis for saying human life is superior to other life on the planet. Oddly, I think the Torah says the same thing — the Israelites can as well be prey as predator except to the extent they agree to follow, and in fact follow, the code, the commandments — which lead to life. I think that says the same as your phrase, “our progress is only sustainable to the extent we institutionalize, re-teach and nurture those norms which are the hallmark of civilization.” And even though “we don’t hang Quakers on Boston Common anymore,” in addition to the other brutalities you mention, we also kill 90 billion animals a year, force breed them just to kill them, most of it out of sight so we need feel no moral responsibility. If this stops, then I will be open to the possibility that our consciousness is evolving.

Ideas? Would like to hear from you!