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Monday, November 24, 2008

Dispatch From the AAA Annual Meeting

FROM BARBARA KING, PROFESSOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY AT THE COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY: Along with thousands of other anthropologists, I was in San Francisco this past weekend for the American Anthropological Association conference. These annual meetings are always an edge-of-chaos experience of chimpanzee-style fission-fusion reunions, intense talk punctuated by debates and collegial provocations, and visits to the ever-popular exhibits room (where I bought, this year, not only books but also merchandise like a bumper sticker that says “Honk if you understand punctuated equilibria!”)
My own session occurred Saturday morning. Organized by Michael Winkelman of Arizona State University and Carol Weingarten of the University of Pennsylvania, it was called "Religion in Evolutionary Perspective."
Dwight Read of UCLA kicked things off by focusing on humans’ tendency to assign agency to beings in our world, including nonmaterial beings. He asked whether the kind of neural apparatus that underwrites this tendency could possibly exist in the absence of the development of some sort of religious thought—and answered with a "no." While chimpanzees, Read said, have an understanding of causal connections, what’s different with hominid ancestors is that our schema allowed not just outcomes but consciously desired outcomes. Humans, in other words, invoke schema (“if I do x, y will result”) for consistently linking to certain outcomes over and over again, and sometimes do so by incorporating “unseen agents” into their calculus.
Interestingly enough, I found myself speaking after Read, who had wedded himself heavily to mental representations and evolved cognitive structures. At the start of my talk, I noted two papers published last month in our alpha-tier science journals (one in Science, the other in Nature) that converged on a central role for agency-detecting cognitive capacities in the evolution of religion. This focus on thought and cognition seems to be all the rage, but I wished to offer a different vision, a return to an anthropological perspective rooted in emotional ritual. I discussed the evidence in prehistory for emotional relationality and for symbolic ritual oriented toward the supernatural—and, of course, also for belongingness, the concept at the heart of my Evolving God book. Plainly said, I think that reducing religion to cognitive agency-detection misses an awful lot, primarily about how we evolved to co-create meaning through cognitive empathy (and even through a failure of cognitive empathy at times) with those around us.
Feeling this way, I took splendid enjoyment in the next paper. Weingarten and James Chisholm of the University of Western Australia described what it means for “Durkheim to meet Bowlby”—that is, for a focus on “exultation and joy, an overabundance of forces, on effervescence” in religion to meet a focus on attachment. Chisholm (who presented the paper) rooted their points in really deep evolutionary time, pegging the origins of the attachment process to 350 million years ago. For reptiles and nonsocial mammals, attachment is to territory (a specific location in space); for most social mammals, attachment is to the flock or herd. And for humans, attachment is to the cooperative social group. In other words, home for us is the cooperative social group. The origins of religion, then, may in part be traced to the human capacity for attachment—first to the mother, then to other emotionally close individuals, then to groups, then to leaders, then to religious leaders, and eventually to God.
I have a lot more to learn about bringing together Durkheim and Bowlby—in 15 minutes, each of us speakers could only whet others’ appetites. Chisholm and Weingarten’s search for phylogenetic precursors to complex human behaviors was carried forward in a novel way by Winkelman, who spoke next. Winkelman sees the displays of chimpanzees as rituals; in fact, the phylogenetic origin of human shamanism is, for him, in ape display behavior. What bridges the gap from ape displays to human religiosity? Altered states of consciousness. Compared to chimpanzees, “humans evolved to more efficiently process psychedelic drugs.” (Comparative primatology meets the ‘60s?!) Winkelman links some spiritual experiences to extreme neural activation (through dance and even long-distance running as much as through drugs). With co-author John Baker of Moorpark College, he has a new book called Supernatural as Natural that elaborates on these views.
Kathleen Gibson of the University of Texas had the daunting job of trying to tie these wildly divergent papers together, and proved more than up to the job. She was fair and gently provocative. (Thanks to Gibson, I realize I can sound too warm and fuzzy about religion, sometimes, when I mean to focus on evolved violence and failed belongingness as much as on harmony and empathy.) Her spirited support of developmental models was particularly effective in countering what I, too, see as an unwarranted love affair with specific innate modules in the expression of human behavior. In Gibson’s words (or at worst a close paraphrase), “the transformation of rearing”—that is, how a human or an ape is raised by parents or caretakers—can “change brain function.” The social, the emotional, and the cognitive thus come together. A great and fit ending to this set of papers!


Jason said...

Just wanted to thank you for posting this panel review. I wanted to come but was unable to make it, so this is quite helpful.

Barbara said...

That's good to hear, Jason. It'd be great to see a regular "conference dispatch" feature on the site - from AAR (American Academy of Religion), AAAS (American Assoc. for Advancement of Science), AAA, and I'm sure there's many more related to science and religion... Barbara