Beyond God: Evolution and the Future of Religion

Beyond God: Evolution and the Future of Religion

by Kenneth V. Kardong



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591026822
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 02/28/2010
Pages: 294
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Kenneth V. Kardong (Pullman, WA) is professor of biology in the School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University and the author of the textbooks An Introduction to Biological Evolution and Vertebrates, plus numerous scientific papers. His research centers on the evolution of complex systems within vertebrate organisms.

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Kenneth V. Kardong
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-682-2

Chapter One


Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness. -John Wesley (1703-1791)

Germs in dirty places cause disease, so health is the gift of cleanliness. The term germ is a catchall word for any pathogenic microorganism, an infectious agent that causes disease. Clean up germs, and good health is your reward-a simple recipe with tacit results. Today, cleanliness is often an ingrained habit with practical benefits because we know the risks from hidden pathogens. Yet remarkably, the idea that germs cause disease is little more than a century old. Before then, disease was often thought to be caused not by germs but by a malicious spirit or crafty enemy bent on revenge or retribution.

In the ancient world, members of the priestly class commonly presided over the sick. Herbs and natural remedies might be applied, but much of the medical effort was focused on driving out the demons or devils through the administration of religious chants and exorcisms to eliminate the root cause. The Old Testament serves up much of this philosophy. The wrath of God or the malice of Satan caused the afflictions of Miriam and Uzziah (leprosy), Job (boils), Jehoram(dysentery), and Asa (fatal illness). The idea that an evil occult was behind bodily ills was present early in these ancient civilizations of Egypt, India, China, and Europe. Superstitions and fetishes were marshaled against disease. Five hundred years before Christ, Hippocrates broke with this tradition and developed in Greece a more scientific approach to the prevention and treatment of disease. Through the centuries, others would follow his lead but risked being charged as sorcerers and agents of Satan. Near the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Lateran Council of the Christian Church warned physicians, under pain of excommunication, not to administer medical treatment without ecclesiastical consultation. Saint Bernard declared it offensive to religion for monks to take medicine.

In medieval Europe, local pagan superstitions and Christian magic often combined in a theological strategy designed to disgust the demon tormenting the body and drive it out. Foul odors and mixtures were swallowed or applied to the hapless patient. These "medicines" were made from toad livers, the blood of frogs or rats, fragments of the hangman's rope, and even from body parts cut from hanged criminals. It got worse, including even ranker concoctions, but I only go so far as to mention that these included saliva and animal droppings. You can imagine the rest.

Attributing disease to supernatural sources continued to stymie emergence of scientific theories of medical treatment. There was the threat of imprisonment or burning at the stake on conviction for sorcery or witchcraft. The Salem witch trials of the late seventeenth century in New England illustrate how ready people were to believe that afflictions of the body were caused by a human culprit, an agent of the devil. Even in a more tolerant late nineteenth century, the "germ theory" of disease was slow in winning favor against the backdrop of embedded superstitions. Today, thousands swear by herbal remedies that show no medical evidence of efficacy but apparently bring placebo pleasures-feel-good psychology. Humans are reluctant to relinquish their faith in hunches and "natural" remedies.

But more than entrenched superstition and ecclesiastical threats impeded medical progress. Science itself lagged. In fact, it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. Germs lurk in fetid places, but unseen microorganisms do not announce their presence and so do not betray their threat. To verify their presence, instruments of science are needed-microscopes and chemical markers. To verify their role in a disease, microorganisms need to be clearly implicated. The instruments and techniques for doing this were finally developed in the nineteenth century. One of the first to use these tools of modern medical science discovered the source of one of history's great scourges: the bubonic plague.

The scientist was Alexandre Yersin. He demonstrated in the late nineteenth century what only a few had guessed. The bubonic plague involved a bacterium that, in due scientific honor, bears his name and its history, Yersinia pestis. Of Swiss background, Yersin trained as medical doctor in Paris at the Pasteur Institute. Seized by adventure, he left this all behind to travel in Southeast Asia. Working as a mapmaker plotting remote areas for the French government, he heard of local outbreaks of the plague. In 1894, an outbreak occurred in the Chinese city of Canton (Guangzhou), killing up to one hundred thousand people. It spread to Hong Kong, where Yersin traveled to study it. Earlier, Robert Koch, working in Germany, had set down the rules to verify the causative agent of a disease. Yersin followed them. First, he collected fluid from the ruptured buboes, tender swellings of lymph nodes, of victims with the disease. Second, he isolated the bacterium using techniques he learned in Paris and formed a pure strain of the suspected pathogen. Third, he inoculated samples of this pure strain back into a healthy host. Fourth, the host became sick, showing characteristic signs of the bubonic plague, thereby confirming the initial bacterial identification. Even at such an early stage in formative medical research, the use of humans in steps 3 and 4 was then, and still is, clearly unethical. Yersin used animals, rats in particular. When they exhibited signs of the disease, Yersin had found and confirmed the agent of the disease.

Before the advent of these techniques, before the germ theory of disease, and before the perfection of scientific methods and scientific tools, even serious medical practice was encumbered by lack of scientific tools and techniques. Treatment of disease more usually fell to religious prescriptions. But even these religious practices, wrapped in superstition and misinformation, can guide the faithful to safer personal hygiene. Let's consider some examples that illustrate the biological benefits of simple practices. These examples also illustrate how easy it is to be satisfied with superficial explanations and to miss the deep adaptive advantages that nurtured the practices in the first place.

Holy Hygiene

Cleanliness is often served by religious observance. For most adults in developed countries, personal hygiene is second nature. Advertisements for consumer products promise to remove dirt rings from shirt collars to bathtubs; to freshen the scent of feet, armpits, and private parts; and to manicure front lawns and clean windows through which to view them. Certainly, some of this striving for cleanliness has become a modern fetish, but cleanliness is not frivolous nor is it an invention of modern societies. It can be commonly found among primitive societies and back into ancient times. Almost always, religion provides the sanction and pretext for the practice of cleanliness.

The Fore, a highland people of New Guinea, raise pigs, as do other aboriginal populations in the region. In addition to various advantages of pig raising in tropical regions, pigs are also waste disposal units. Rotten food, garbage, and even human feces are eaten by pigs, thereby removing potential sources of contamination or disease. The Fore people believe that evil sorcerers can cause sickness or death if they have access to a victim's detritus (hair, old clothes, or feces). Thus, any fecal material is carefully disposed of, and even the droppings of young children are quickly cleaned up by parents or by older brothers and sisters. Ostensibly, this keeps the sorcerer from gaining control over the individual. That is what inspires the Fore. But from the outside looking in, we recognize the practical benefits. The superstition promotes personal hygiene and good public health.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus, in the first part of his life, traveled throughout the ancient world and wrote about the people and their customs. He recorded in his History that the Egyptians, at least those of and associated with the priestly office, were scrupulous in personal hygiene. Linen garments were freshly washed, drinking cups were scoured each day without exception, and priests shaved their bodies every other day and bathed four times daily. The Egyptians observed these customs for spiritual reasons, to keep "clean" in a holy, sacred sense. However, a modern knowledge of communicable diseases provides a different perspective. At least we can intuitively understand how these practices might have evolved to promote personal health and well-being. Washing drinking cups and bodies decreased the chances of receiving, passing, or harboring diseases. Shaving the body meant that disease-carrying lice found a less hospitable environment in which to hide, and they were more easily discovered and removed. Circumcision was practiced, but it was forbidden to use a knife, caldron, or other cutlery of foreigners. Oxen were reportedly sacrificed, but only after an elaborate ceremony that included close inspection of body hair and tongue. Attention to, even preoccupation with, hygiene habits has surfaced in many human societies, ancient and modern. The practice serves more than to placate fastidious gods. Consider the case of the pig.

Pigs-Barnyard or Bible?

Few animals possess such a distinguished reputation for foulness and filth as do pigs. The ancient Egyptians regarded the pig as an unclean animal. Anyone even accidentally touching a pig was required by strict religious dictates to immediately dash to the river and plunge in, robes and all. Taboos against pig meat were and still are observed in Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, and some Christian religions. In these religions, the pig is an unclean animal, both in its actual groveling habits and figuratively in its debauched spiritual character. However, this reputation is undeserved, or at least out of proportion to the offense. Many other domestic animals have habits of hygiene that should earn them equally tainted reputations. The smell of an unattended henhouse can be nauseating. Cows, dogs, cats, and goats will eat all sorts of disgusting substances from excrement to rats and human garbage. There is good reason to hold them, like pigs, in low regard. Yet they are not treated with equal contempt. In fact, in Hindu religion the cow is actually worshipped and tended with deep love and respect.

Pigs lost esteem not for their barnyard deportment, but because of bad press. From biblical writings and custom comes the slander on the pig's reputation and taboos against eating pork. There is little doubt what Yahweh and his staff of prophets thought about swine. Moses, divinely briefed in these matters, received clear instructions from this official celestial source. Swine (and certain other beasts) "ye shall not eat," because their flesh is unclean, an abomination. Clear instructions; no doubt about it. These instructions left little room for uncertainty or dissension, although the curious might wonder at the stated reasons. Swine, it seems, joined selected other animals on this divine taboo list because they "cheweth not the cud." Although not intellectually very deep, it was enough to relegate the poor beast to a second-class status. Never mind whether the stated reason strained credibility-the Lord spake it and that was that. Yet whatever the public reasons, taboos on pork make, as we shall soon see, good medical and biological sense whether anyone grasped that or not. In fact, few appreciated the practical benefits the taboo bestowed. The children of Israel knew the Lord's laws, not nature's. Pigs defiled, thus the Lord required his chosen people to avoid this forbidden flesh and so sanctify themselves and be holy because he was holy. For the faithful, that constituted sufficient justification. Pigs were shunned.

Pigs could be found on almost any scriptural list of outlawed animals among peoples of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries. Swine were "unclean," a word serving double duty. It implied that swine fouled both the body as well as the soul. The term unclean applied to pig flesh is deliberately vague and so chosen because it conveniently and simultaneously condemns the pig for physical and spiritual offenses. Such a distinction has little consequence for the role of this pig taboo among religious circles-a point to which I shall return later. For the faithful, whether swine brought physical or spiritual contamination mattered little. Either or both were sufficient to discourage the raising or eating of pigs. And that is the point. The scriptural prohibitions served to eliminate pork from the diet of the devout. The Old Testament set firmly into written words what was probably an ancient custom that grew up earlier in this Middle Eastern environment. But why this custom? Why were pigs, likely demeaned first in oral tradition and later in written scripture, a forbidden flesh? Not until the nineteenth century was a biologically sound answer discovered.

Swine-A Little Worm

The culprit, although virtually invisible to the unaided eye, was not spiritual in form. What improved nineteenth-century microscopes, clinical medicine, and laboratory sciences discovered was that some pork contained heavy infestations of thousands of tiny encapsulated parasites, christened trichinae. Where pigs were raised, this was a potential scourge. Passed from pigs to humans in lightly cooked meat, these trichinae parasites could be ravaging, although not immediately. Weeks might pass before symptoms first appeared. These symptoms could be mild, flu-like in character, or in severe cases, deadly. The parasites lodged usually in muscles and might live there within a person for many years.

Trichinae parasites were first discovered in the early 1830s during an anatomical dissection of an Italian man who had died of an unrelated disease. Microscopic examination of his muscles showed parasitic worms in a curled up, encysted state. This was reported in the medical literature. Discoveries quickened thereafter in other medical cases, and the causes of several European epidemics were traced, for the first time, to this parasite in pig meat. By 1864 the Smithsonian Institution was able to report that most enlightened Germans had "adopted the Law of Moses, and avoided pork in any form."

Once science had exposed the culprit and its life cycle, the parasitic disease could be broken and defeated. This was done by implementing protective practices of pig management and food preparation that prevented the parasite from passing through its cycle and into humans. Pigs were not fed raw garbage potentially contaminated with parasites; pork was thoroughly cooked before human consumption, thereby killing any encysted larvae in the meat. But, before enlightened safeguards, custom dictated abstinence. The discovery of the trichina parasite proved to be uncomfortable news for the faithful. Although not generally making the connection between pigs and ill health, the Hebrew and Muslim religions developing in parts of the world where trichinosis was found had unconsciously adopted into daily practice, and even into scripture, prohibitions that made good medical sense. The disturbing implication to rabbis and mullahs was that these religious taboos on pork developed not out of divine inspiration, but for practical reasons. Of course, God could be both practical as well as divine, and others saw this as just part of the workings of his wisdom. Perhaps so.

Swine-No Work, No Wool, No Milk

Pigs can cause more trouble than just health problems. The present-day Jewish prohibitions on pork reach back over three or four millennia to the ancient Hebrews. They lived a nomadic existence in areas of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were then-and are now-rugged, dry regions. The domestic animals most suited to such a relatively dry habitat are cattle, sheep, and goats. These are ruminants. They possess a specialized digestive system that is especially efficient in processing high-cellulose materials of fibrous, dry-land plants. Pigs are not ruminants, and are ill suited to the wanderings of a nomadic people through arid regions. Grass is essentially indigestible for humans. But ruminants survive on grass and convert it into meat or milk, nourishing forms humans can use. However, pigs cannot subsist on grass alone. They do best on grains and tubers, and so vie directly for the foods humans can eat without conversion.


Excerpted from BEYOND GOD by KENNETH V. KARDONG Copyright © 2010 by Kenneth V. Kardong. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface 7

Introduction 13

Part I God-Sized Hole 31

Chapter 1 The Clean, the Sacred, and the Pure 33

Chapter 2 Evolution in Action: Sweet Potatoes to Warfare 53

Chapter 3 Adapting to Cycles and Uncertainties 81

Chapter 4 Religion as a Survival Kit 97

Chapter 5 Biological Role of a Religious System 119

Part II Religious Fundamentals 135

Chapter 6 Beyond the Long Arm of the Law 137

Chapter 7 Building Behaviors 149

Part III Implications 173

Chapter 8 Origin of Dogmatism 175

Chapter 9 Religion and Rationality: The Mind Divided 187

Chapter 10 From Novelty to Tradition 203

Chapter 11 Religion-Out of America 223

Chapter 12 The Religious Character: Evolution's Handiwork 249

Chapter 13 The Religious Imperative: The Beast Within 271

Chapter 14 Our Future, Ours Alone 285

References 289

Index 293

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