Evolution & the Bible

In response to:

The Bible and the Perils of ‘Evolution’ from the October 27, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Professor G.W. Bowersock summarily dismissed our book The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible, in which we seek the triggers for the beliefs found in the Scriptures [NYR, October 27]. Unfortunately, he criticized a gross caricature of our book. Here we briefly explain what our book really said, and highlight the underlying difference in approaches that led to Bowersock’s reflexive rejection.

Our point of departure is the view, based in natural science, that humans are the product of both biological and cultural evolution, in which culture evolves in interaction with human nature, innovations, and external events. We synthesize the extensive recent research on paleoanthropology, archaeology, and quantitative ethnography to reconstruct the deep history that shaped our mind. Over the past two million years, our ancestors gradually perfected foraging: a nomadic lifestyle involving hunting and gathering and built on interdependence. Because natural selection for a lifestyle actually involves selection on particular underlying psychological and cognitive mechanisms, our ancestors evolved a preference for egalitarianism, fairness, and justice, an obsession with reputation, and a predilection to collaborate with trusted others—along with the ability to forgo these preferences if profitable opportunities arise.

So, when around 12,000 years ago, deliberate food production emerged in the fertile crescent, the people there were not really prepared for its consequences: deadly new diseases, floods, and droughts, and the men’s need to defend property and pass it on to their sons, which led to increased social inequality and the oppression of women. Nor were they prepared, after cities and states emerged, for the ensuing anonymity, violence, and tyranny. But because people also came, and still come, equipped with a set of cognitive biases that shape our perception and our attempts to make sense of unexpected events, they responded to these new problems with predictable cultural solutions. In the special case of the Hebrews, the use of the one God as an explanatory model permitted a remarkably rational analysis that produced a plethora of commandments and prohibitions to protect them from looming disaster.

Read against this background, the five books of Moses yield to a surprisingly straightforward and parsimonious interpretation. We can also make sense of previously mysterious facts, such as God’s wrath or the career of the devil in later parts of the Bible. Our approach therefore produces a transparent narrative of cultural evolution that does justice to both our biological heritage and our capacity for cultural evolution, and tries to chart the interactions between these two components in response to extreme external events. The same approach also helps to make sense of subsequent changes in the contents of these religious beliefs in the face of reality.

Finally, we must also correct some of Professor Bowersock’s assertions. Nomadic foragers will have had very limited opportunities for bestiality: wild animals are not usually that cooperative. Sedentary foraging is not a long-standing lifestyle, but first appeared only a few thousand years before agriculture arose. Long-distance trade among nomadic foragers began in the African Middle Stone Age, if not earlier. And any reader of the New Testament can verify that Jesus did add more egalitarian, conciliatory, and antipatriarchal elements to the contemporary religion. This realignment toward human nature may partly explain Christianity’s success.

Carel van Schaik
Professor, Director
Department of Anthropology and Anthropological Museum
University of Zurich
Zurich, Switzerland

Kai Michel
Zurich, Switzerland

G.W. Bowersock replies:

I am glad that the authors of The Good Book of Human Nature have written this letter, because both its style and its substance convey exactly the same impression as their book. Their attempt to explain the evolution of biblical texts on the basis of biological and cultural change invokes ongoing evolutionary arguments but without precision. They do not know the languages of the Bible, and they show no knowledge of current scientific work on ice cores, tree rings, and genomes. Their title reflects a point of view that emphasizes the “big picture,” but the big picture requires knowledge of the details from which that picture is constructed, as Fernand Braudel famously demonstrated. His example has served as a model for others ever since. But not for the two authors of the book I reviewed.

Readers of the authors’ letter may well wonder how they know so much about our hunter-gatherer ancestors, who allegedly cultivated egalitarianism, fairness, and justice. No doubt it made a difference when these ancestors became sedentary, but in what ways it made a difference cannot be extracted from the Pentateuch, for which they claim to have provided a “straightforward and parsimonious interpretation.” Nor am I clear about what a parsimonious interpretation of the books of Moses might be.

The authors observe that a sedentary people confronted “unexpected events,” but if so it is hard to understand how they can speak of “predictable cultural solutions.” If the events are unexpected, how can solutions to them be predictable, whatever the “cognitive biases” of the people? The authors claim that they have produced “a transparent narrative of cultural evolution,” but this is hardly justified in their letter, which can easily be seen to have the same murkiness as their book. I may add that my remark on bestiality, to which they take exception, took its inspiration from pages in their book with the heading, “Fidelity in the Age of Bestiality.”