Aping Around: The Importance of Our Animal Nature

Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species more than 150 years ago, in 1859, to share the discovery that the slow processes of evolution have shaped us, along with all other living things, over billions of years. For a long time, there was much resistance to the idea of evolution, but you can only deny the evidence for so long. It has become impossible not to believe in evolution, since evolution merely describes the behavior of genes over vast stretches of time, and these days you can’t deny the existence of genes without looking like an idiot or a hypocrite. Today, even the Pope claims to believe in evolution, and so do most Christians and Jews.

Evolution was probably the most upsetting scientific discovery since Copernicus discovered that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, but merely another planet orbiting the sun. Copernicus died soon after publishing his results, and when Galileo Galilei took up his ideas, the church threatened to have him executed, and he had to retract his statements. So if Christians and Jews believe in the absolutely revolutionary scientific ideas that the Earth is not the center of the universe, and that we are all great apes, does this mean they believe in science? Or do religious people just wait for individual scientific discoveries to become incontrovertible, and then reluctantly adapt their views to save face? Are these people being intellectually honest, and if not, why not?

I do not intend these questions as ridicule; I ask out of compassion, skepticism and a need to understand. The fact that so many people believe in science and religion at the same time makes me think that knowledge really is useless as far as human psychology is concerned, and history is therefore circular. We will always act in stupid and irrational ways, and never become self-aware, as long as we believe one thing, without taking into account the implications of this belief for the other beliefs that we hold. The ideas of evolution and science have certain implications for our other beliefs—implications that may solve several of our social problems. The Homo sapiens sapiens that we see in the mirror in the morning when we wake up holds many of the answers: it is a question of how we understand ourselves.

People know they are apes, but they find it hard to distinguish this from the fact that they are also John or Cathy, with all that that implies. They bring this latter fact up as if it defeated any argument drawn from science, even though they use science to describe everything they see and hear in the world (they even use medications to alter the state of their souls!). People struggle to recognize that, psychologically, they are great apes, but this basic recognition is necessary if we want to achieve those rational Christian goals that most people share.

What Do You Believe?

The Bible is full of the stories of the Israelites—where they went, what they ate, who their mothers and fathers were—and it also contains their values and laws and the insights of their philosopher-historians. The children’s version is full of pictures of donkeys, sheep, and bearded men wearing sandals and white clothes in the desert. Today, the book of the Israelites still sits next to the greatest scientific works on the bookshelves of many believers.

What does it mean to believe in science and religion at the same time? Science smashes most of the truths in the Bible into pieces, as if with a sledgehammer. If you believe in science, then you are no longer a man made from dust, or a woman made from a man’s rib in the image of God; you are a great ape, a being which—like all other animals, plants, bacteria and viruses—has been formed by the processes of evolution. You also need to leave enough time for the Earth to form, life to evolve and evolution to get us to where we are: which means that the Earth cannot be just a couple of thousand years old, but must be 4.5 billion years old (if you are suspicious of these exact dates, you must still accept that it is much, much older than the Bible says). Furthermore, the Earth is not at the center of the universe: it actually orbits the sun, like all the other planets in the solar system, and our sun is just one of billions of stars, many of which have their own planets, in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is only one of billions of galaxies.

A person who believes in both science and religion therefore has to concede that the authors of the Bible did not know what they were, where they were, when they were or how they were.

What We Are Left With

Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have publicly tried to justify their religious beliefs. Peterson’s first defense is that the Bible contains many valuable insights, and therefore “the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater”. However, everybody accepts that the Bible may hold literary merit. Even famous atheist Richard Dawkins has no issue with people who read the Bible as a history book, which includes the stories, beliefs and myths of the Israelites.

I can tell you a thousand fables about compassion and why it is important. I can then show you that the scientific literature says that compassion promotes bonding and cooperation among humans, and that it is therefore naturally beneficial to have compassion as a value. Nevertheless, this does not mean that any of the stories I tell you are literally true. All I am doing is describing certain values, philosophical views and human experiences by creating fictional characters, whose words and actions illustrate these concepts. The truth that I extract from these stories—namely that compassion is important—is something testable and true, but the characters, events and dialogues that I create are still fictional. The same is true of quasi-historical stories of the kind found in the Bible.

Peterson and Shapiro seem to think that we need a superhero like Jesus—a kind of Superman or Spiderman—for morality to work. They also think that we could never have arrived at the moral principles we have without religion, and that religion is therefore necessary to morality. This is a very weak argument. First, we were not lawless until laws literally fell out of the sky in the form of the Ten Commandments. Norms, or informal rules, are necessary for the most basic forms of cooperation among social animals like great apes, and the enforcement of these rules forms part of their behavior. It is these informal rules that we later wrote down, refined and institutionalized as laws.

Look at the way laws are still made today. Something happens that is costly, dangerous or unfair to some individual or group or to society as a whole, so we make a law to prevent it from happening again. This also applies to Christian values. Christians did not invent love and compassion. These emotions are naturally present in us, and have been recognized and named by cultures all around the world, and sometimes made into their central values, as in Buddhist culture. We don’t need to believe in Christianity to be fair, to love or to have compassion: we just need proper role models, and a narrative that guides us towards concentrating on these positive attributes of ourselves, while staying alert to, and guarding against our darker sides.

We should also remember that, although the moral system contained in Christianity certainly shaped the history of the west in very prominent ways, our moral sense has advanced since then. For instance, the Israelites did not learn that slavery and patriarchy were wrong even when Jesus was amongst them: he apparently didn’t even notice these injustices. Peterson argues that people in the West, like Sam Harris, who believe they are atheists, are actually Christians, because some of their moral principles can be traced back to Christian influences. By the same token, if you believe slavery is wrong, you are actually a Lincolnite, because the Emancipation Proclamation influenced your moral values. You cannot be a Lincolnite and a Christian at the same time, because a literal interpretation of the Bible implies that it is perfectly fine to have slaves.

The truth is that we are constantly borrowing ideas from everywhere, we are constantly being fed new role models, and we are constantly changing our minds. We are not any of our ideas, and neither are our role models their ideas. We merely think ideas, and set examples. Peterson is correct that rules need to be compelling in order to be followed. However, it is easier to follow rules that use reason to persuade us to act in a certain way, than to follow rules that are enforced, but never explained. Such rules are subject to whim and interpretation. This is clear from the example of Islam: in the Muslim world, extremist Muslims routinely kill moderate Muslims for moral reasons, even though they all follow the same book. Morality is a practical matter, and we need to be rational about it.

How Do We Derive an Ought from an Is?

The philosopher David Hume famously found it problematic to make claims about what ought to be, based on statements about what is. This is the famous fact-value gap. Peterson believes that values like love your neighbor cannot be derived from facts. Peterson is right that our sense of morality is very impressionable and is, in many ways, contingent on what we are taught. If you are taught that killing and eating people from the neighboring village is good, you will probably do so and gain status from it. If you don’t, your tribesmen will likely make you feel guilty or inferior (in other words, like a bad person). In a warlike tribe, it makes sense to attack your neighbors and terrorize them by eating their flesh. However, today we find this behavior disgusting. The fact that others humans are able to hold moral values completely opposite to our own seems to imply that we cannot derive a rule for how things ought to be simply from what is.

This, however, is not the case. We should expect to be able to derive moral values from a description of facts—because we are animals, and we work with ifs, which represent our goals. Our goals are determined by the is, i.e. the emotion that, together with our interpretation of the situation, motivates us to act. For instance, we are motivated by fear to prefer peace over war, because we understand that fights are costly. Economists are also happy with peace, because of the fact that stable societies are more productive and wealthy than unstable ones. It is a fact that inequality makes societies unstable. We do not like being treated unfairly and, when this happens, we tend to react negatively. Hence, we are still hung up about racism, slavery and sexism. This simply is the case—and it would seem that capuchin monkeys feel the same way about unfair inequality.

If we want to build a stable society (goal), we ought to be fair to one another (a moral value, or rule, that is derived from the facts). We are able to derive moral values from facts because human beings have shared social goals (ifs), and there are better and worse ways of working together to achieve those goals (oughts). If we collectively understood that we live as apes, I see no reason why we should not agree with Sam Harris’s moral ethic. Harris defines morality as the reduction of harm and the maximization of benefits to living things as far as possible: in other words, it’s about maximizing wellbeing. There has never been a fair criminal trial in which someone was prosecuted for benefiting another person or the community as a whole. A crime is committed when somebody tries to harm somebody else. We feel the legal process has gone wrong when somebody hurts someone else and nothing happens, or when somebody does not hurt anyone else, and is nevertheless accused of or prosecuted for doing so (as, for instance, in witch hunts).

The Ape Is the Solution

The idea of truth is at the root of the problems that we face. The processes of globalization have brought together a wide variety of cultures in the melting pots of cities and nations. We have been able to tolerate our differences so far, but have not fully recognized the importance of reconciling our values and underlying beliefs as different groups and cultures. Despite our secular institutions, we still retreat to our corners and fall back on the groups that we have marked out for ourselves. In the US, the rival political groups of Democrats and Republicans spend a lot of time screaming at each other, while their teams of rival journalists unabashedly display their colors in the echo chambers of the media; social activism has replaced journalism and intellectualism, and, on social media, people are ever anxious to call others racist, sexist, fascist and homophobic. We have no consistent, underlying belief system, ethic or identity in our globalizing world: we have only narratives of group differences and group identities.

The fact that we are animals, and that everything we do, think and say is the action, thought or utterance of an animal is the most fundamental fact of our existence, and it should be the foundation of all our academic inquiries, laws and important decisions. This will never happen if we do not talk about the profound implications of our shared animal nature.

Yes, we are each unique, with our own unique experiences, and life is a theatre of consciousness that we enjoy alone and in the company of others. However, it would benefit everyone if we could all snap out of the stories we are spinning for ourselves, and recognize that we are merely great apes. Ignoring this fact allows us to shackle our sense of self to institutions, possessions, social identities, groups and personalities—all of which are only descriptions of aspects and behaviors of the great apes that we fundamentally are.

We do not know what or why the universe is, and neither did our ancestors. Yet we can experience a sense of connection with everything around us—even with the universe as a whole—which we cannot explain. We are a life form that has recently woken up from the anesthesia of unconsciousness, a species suffering from amnesia. We have slowly discovered what, where, when and how we are. We might as well make this way station between birth and death as good as it can be for all beings that can experience pleasure and pain. We are all in the same situation. Some people are just not fully aware of it. It is time we developed a culture that can motivate us to achieve a fully rational goal, as apes. It is time to become loyal, not to groups, nations, or religions—but simply to the truth.

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