The pope and E.O. Wilson


By Dr. Jim Penman - Contributing Columnist



Pope Francis has become a media superstar over the past two years, and his visit was a very big event. His message of compassion, his concern for the poor and his personal humility have struck a chord with millions of people. But how much relevance do his 2,000 year-old ideas have to the modern world? Especially given that traditional Catholic teaching on homosexuality, abortion and divorce are increasingly under attack.

Many would go even further and say that religion is an entirely negative force and responsible for most of the violence and warfare in the world. The John Lennon song ‘Imagine’ is an example of such thinking. If there were no religions, the whole world would be a peaceful, harmonious brotherhood.

Many scientists have bought into this argument, portraying Christianity as not only damaging but unscientific, the superstitious remnant of a more primitive age. An example of such thinking can be found in the writings of E.O. Wilson, who has achieved world-wide fame for his work on ants and termites. Wilson is a great man and a truly great scientist, so it is all the more striking that his views on religion are so ill-considered and unscientific, reflecting intellectual prejudice rather than careful thought.

In his most recent book, ‘The Meaning of Human Existence,’ he argues that the true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, and to this statement he brings all the prestige and force of his scientific reputation. But, as anyone who has carefully studied history will know, it is completely wrong.

The very idea that peace is of value in itself was largely unknown in Europe before the rise of Christianity. The Romans were almost continuously at war and considered it right and proper that they should be so. Julius Caesar was responsible for the deaths of at least a million people in his conquest of Gaul, a campaign that made him so popular he was able to seize power in Rome.

Even later when wars were fought in the name of religion, it is unclear whether religious differences caused wars or were merely an excuse for them. The Medieval Church spent far more effort in trying to prevent wars than in provoking them. Even the Crusades were at least in part an effort to get quarrelsome barons to take their violence elsewhere.

We might also ask whether societies with advanced religious systems are more or less than those without, such as the Yanomamo of the Amazon rain forest. In fact, recent research shows that pre-literate people were far more likely to die from violence.

This is only one of Wilson’s arguments. He also attacks religious belief in that creation stories such as in Genesis are contradicted by evidence for evolution, in which he keeps company with writers such as Richard Dawkins. But, of course, religion is far more than creation stories. Many believers, not least of them the Pope, are entirely comfortable with the Big Bang and a 14 billion-year-old universe. Doubt about creation stories is a feeble excuse for atheism.

The moral teachings of Christianity are even more out of favor in the modern world. More and more children are born out of wedlock, and gay marriage is the great cause of the age. And yet, careful scientific inquiry presents a very different picture.

It has been clear since the 1930s, from cross-cultural evidence, that civilized societies are far more likely to restrict sexual activity. What is more, societies that abandon their traditions tend to decline and collapse. An obvious example is that of ancient Rome. The argument against this is a ‘decadent’ society may flourish for a while, as happened in Rome and has been the case with us for the past half century.

But the new science of epigenetics, which deals with the effect of environment on the genes, shows how such effects can be very long-lasting. The full impact of changing sexual behavior may not be felt for several generations. A paper soon to be published by my research team shows how the life experiences of male rats have immense effects on their offspring, even though they have never met.

Early sexual activity is known to have a large and permanent effect on testosterone levels, which explains why adolescents restricting their sexual activity are more successful in education and career. There is also evidence that such traditional Christian practices as fasting, Sabbath keeping and the discipline of children have important and long-lasting psychological benefits.

What Wilson and others have done is to dignify conventional anti-religious sentiment by wrapping it in the language of science. This does no service to religion, but it is even more damaging to science. Pope Francis represents an ancient tradition which is of immense value to the modern world. Science, properly conducted, can do much to make this clear.

Dr. Penman, author of Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West, has devoted his life to the scientific understanding of social change.

By Dr. Jim Penman

Contributing Columnist

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