Thursday, February 25, 2010

#64. Ritual's Biological Roots

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This is the sixth in a series of posts about the connections between religious ritual and evolution; it's also the second of three posts dealing with ritual's psychological, biological and cosmic roots.


From an evolutionary perspective, it makes good sense that religious ritual should have roots in the human psyche which has been developing over the past several million years. But it's far less obvious, as I said in the previous post, that it also has roots in the living things of the Earth that existed long before we humans appeared.

Our knowledge about ritual's biological roots comes from two areas of modern science: the name of one is familiar, neurology; the name of the other, ethology, is not.

Neurology is, of course, the study of the brain and nervous system. 

Not just of humans, however. Neuro-science also includes the brains of primates, mammals and the less complex animals such as insects and mollusks. Even worms have a nervous system.

Most of us are familiar with this area of science, probably from high school or college biology courses, and perhaps also from relatives and friends who may have brain injuries or nervous disorders. 

Neurology began as a branch of medicine and the term "neurologist" still refers first to a medical doctor who specializes in brain and nervous system problems.

While the name ethology is much less familiar to most of us, its findings are quite familiar-- thanks to wonderful TV programs such as Planet Earth and NOVA.

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. Who hasn't watched in awe at pictures of male penguins sitting for months on their mate's eggs, or of female lions taking care of their young, or of the adventures of a humpback whale in its first year of life.


Even though we know something about these scientific areas of neurology and ethology, we rarely make any connections between them and religious ritual. The still-strong rationalistic and anthropocentric biases in our culture keeps us from relating religious ritual to information about the brains and behavior of animals.

But there's one inter-disciplinary science area which does gives attention to those connections: Biogenetic Structuralism. I've mentioned it frequently in these posts.

To the best of my knowledge, the pioneering efforts of these scientists-- described in books such as Brain, Symbol and Experience (1990), and the earlier The Spectrum of Ritual (1979)-- still remain on the growing edge of the integration of science and religion.

If Biogenetic Structuralism is new to you, you might like to look at some of my early posts about it. I offer a background to it in post #8 and an overview in post #10.


With its combination of insights from anthropology, neurology and ethology, the Biogenetic Structuralist understanding of ritual's biological roots is an especially significant contribution to the evolutionary perspectives of the New Cosmology.

As we move away from the static worldview of the past-- with its patriarchal rationalism and religious dualism-- and into the evolutionary perspectives of the New Cosmology-- where the emphasis is on our creative participation in the cosmic process-- we need a clear understanding of ritual's biological roots. It is ritual that empowers our participation in that evolutionary process.

In what follows, I hope to share enough of what I know about contemporary neurological and ethological findings to provide a basic understanding of ritual's biological roots. This post is a bit longer than most because the material is complicated, but it's easy enough to follow if you take your time reading it.


Some thoughts about neurology first. As the study of the brain and nervous system, neurology helps us to understand just how human consciousness results from the workings of the brain. Here, it's important to keep in mind that even animals who lack a brain and nervous system have some degree of consciousness.

Several readers asked recently whether I thought animals are conscious. There's no doubt that they are-- although they obviously don't have that specific kind of consciousness, an awareness of their awareness, which we humans have.

Even single-celled animals have awareness. Amoebas, for example, are able to detect a damaging foreign substance in their liquid environment and move away from it.

They have no brain or nervous system, of course-- they have no organs at all-- but they obviously have an internal ability to be sensitive and responsive to their external environment.

Biologists call that internal self-organization "a within," but the non-scientific name for it is simply life.

Every living thing has a "within" by which it is to some extent both independent of, and yet sensitive and responsive to, its environment. That's what "alive" means.

Some will find it disconcerting that I'm using "consciousness" and "life" as synonyms. This shows how anthropocentric we still are-- that we're not yet comfortable with the thought that even one-celled animals have a "within."

We can be much less anthropocentric when we recognize that words like "sensitive and responsive," "alive," "aware" and "conscious" are all terms for the same internal self-organization-- for that "within"-- which defines any living thing.

It also helps to see that our human consciousness isn't so much different from animal consciousness as it is an especially complex version of it. While the idea may sound unfamiliar, it's helpful to think of humans as having more "self-organization"-- more "within," more "awareness"-- than our animal relations.


Especially important to keep in mind here is the idea that the most fundamental aspect of the evolutionary process is the drive toward increasing material complexity. And that that drive results at every level of the process in the emergence of new characteristics.

From amoebas to humans, consciousness emerges from the complex organization of a living thing's physical, chemical and biological components.

We can get some idea of why human consciousness is so special when we realize that, while our brain is made up of living cells much like those of the one-celled amoeba, it's made of billions of them. And they're all inter-connected.

If one-celled amoebas can be conscious, imagine what a billion inter-connected cells all working together can be. That's the human brain.

It's more complex than the brains of any other living things we know of. But we really don't need to imagine it (as I just suggested). We know what it's like-- from our personal experience of it.


The findings of neurological science help us understand that experience of being aware of being aware.

In animal brains generally, sense-data is received into the brain and dealt with by being compared to information already present in the brain's structures.

In non-human animals, this happens in somewhat specific parts of the brain called association areas. And in the more complex human brain, even those association areas themselves are inter-connected and working together.

It's this great complexity-- so great that it is difficult to imagine-- which allows us not only to be more sensitive and responsive to our environment than any other animals, but also allows us to be aware of things not present in our environment.

I described these ideas in a very early post: #12 (The Cognitive Extension of Prehension). Their main point about the uniqueness of human consciousness is that, unlike other conscious creatures, we are not totally dependent on sense-data coming into our brain from the external world. We are aware of our own "within."


That's what makes us human. In philosophical terms, it's described as "open-ness" or "transcendence." In psychological terms, we call it "freedom" or "autonomy." And in religious contexts we use the familiar words, "spirit" and "soul."

One especially significant idea about this neurological understanding of human consciousness is that it allows us to see that we don't need to interpret our human uniqueness in dualistic terms. For many centuries, the human "spirit" was thought to indicate that we are aliens on the Earth and that we really belong some place else.

It's understandable that 0ur ability to be aware of material things even in their absence-- and also to be aware, as well, of our own "within"-- was attributed to something other than the matter of the universe, in earlier times.

People just didn't know in those days about the evolutionary process. And so they had no way to understand that conscious awareness emerges from the complexity of the physical structures of our brains.

Today, neurological science allows us to see that the human "spirit"-- the fact that we have a "soul"-- doesn't separate us from the rest of the biological and physical world. Indeed, it helps us to better understand our place in that world.

We have come a long way in the last half-century in our self-understanding! I often mention in these posts our need for a bigger picture. We regard to our self-awareness, we've got it.


When we look at that big picture, what we see is life on Earth extending back about 3.5 billion years, and we see that a "within"-- self-organization or consciousness-- was present in the earliest ancestors of contemporary living things.

Those earliest life-forms are our ancestors, too. We owe our human spirit-- our inner awareness-- to them.

You may be thinking, Well, yes, that is indeed a pretty big picture of consciousness. But what's it got to do with ritual?


This is where ethology comes in. To have a good understanding of ritual's biological roots we need to know not just about the brains of our animal ancestors but also about what results from the workings of their brains: their behavior.

As I mentioned above, it's thanks to the various TV shows about nature that we generally know much more about ethology than we do about neurology.

And those nature programs do such a good job showing animal behavior! We watch them in awe, sometimes puzzled, but often delighted-- especially at things like the mating rituals of birds.

And sometimes, if we're lucky, we see similar mating rituals in nature.

However, even though we use the same word in both cases, we usually don't make a connection between the ritual behavior of animals and our own religious rituals.

You may be asking whether you are understanding me correctly. Am I'm saying that things like Tibetan monks chanting in a mountain monastery or a family celebrating the Passover Seder have their roots in the behavior of birds and animals?

Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying.


Human speech has its biological roots in the same kind of brain activities as bird calls, the barking of dogs and the roar of a lion; they are information-transmitting sounds made by animals. Ritual is like that; its roots, too, are in the kind of brain activities that result in animal behavior which conveys information.

We need to keep in mind that the over-all purpose of animal behavior is simply the survival and continuation of individuals and the species. And that's the purpose of ritual behavior, too: the survival of life.

The key here is the idea that ritual activity generates cooperative behavior.

It's most obvious in mating rituals. Male birds act out plumage displays, for example, to get the females' attention and convey the information that they are well-qualified for producing young with high survival qualities.

The point is that just as the ritual behavior of a robin empowers it to participate in the cosmic process at a robin-level of awareness, so our religious ritual similarly empowers us to participate in the evolutionary process at our level of awareness.


To tie these thoughts together we need to look back at neurology once again.

When a female robin becomes conscious of good survival qualities in a potential mate, what's going on in her brain is described in the neurology perspective as the recognition of information in terms of previous experience.

That experience is said by the neuro-scientists to be stored in the association areas of the brain, and her experience has what they call "an affective component." To put it simply: If the female robin doesn't feel good about what's being communicated to her, she says, "No, thank you." Otherwise, the mating process proceeds.

This understanding makes it fairly easy to see that ritual behavior in animals is oriented to cooperative activity on behalf of the survival and thrival of life.

But it's less easy to see, at least at first, that the same thing is going on in the human brain during our religious rituals; our brains, too, have an "affective component" oriented toward social cooperation for life's survival and thrival.


To understand this well, it's important to remember that the human brain isn't totally dependent on sense data coming in from the external environment. Our consciousness is less stimulus-bound, more open, more free.

And because of that openness, we can be conscious of new things. We can be aware of future possibilities, of what is not yet. Our human "within" generates novelty.

The name for this newness-generating ability is, of course, creativity. I shared some thoughts about its connections with ritual in posts #59 and #61.

It's our understanding of creativity that lets us put all these thoughts about the biological roots of ritual together. Creativity is the very essence of the evolutionary process. And the very purpose of our religious rituals is to empower us for creative participation in that process.

Our understanding of creativity also helps us to see that religious ritual is not about myth or story-telling, as it's sometimes said to be; it's not about education in any sense. In practical terms, ritual is simply physical activity.


Two summary thoughts:

From ethology we can see that just as the robin's mating behavior empowers it to participate in the cosmic process at a robin's level of awareness, so in the same way human religious ritual empowers us to participate in the evolutionary process at our more much complex-- and creative-- level of awareness.

From neurology we can see that just as the purpose of ritual behavior in animals is to generate cooperative behavior for the individuals' and species' survival, so too is our ritual behavior concerned with the survival-- and the flourishing-- of life.


A closing observation:

We now understand what "survival" involves much better than we did in even the recent past. Ecological awareness has dawned on global humanity, and-- in a way people could not, previously-- we know that "survival" means ecological sustainability.

We are also coming to see, although somewhat more slowly, that environmental sustainability isn't something different from what in past times was called social justice. With our bigger picture, we easily recognize that peace, justice and equality are rooted in the 
Earth itself. And so we can see, as never before, that the environmental degradation of the planet results from a lack of social justice for the peoples of the Earth.

As I see it, the greatest value of knowing about the biological roots of ritual is that it so wonderfully clarifies our creative role in the cosmic process.

PS. For a fascinating bit of information about the contemporary importance of awe, see The New York Times article FINDINGS from Feb 9, 2010.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.