The Dominant Animal

A review of The Dominant Animal by Rob Mason

In the Dominant Animal Paul and Anne Ehrlich offer a vivid and unique exploration of our origins, our evolution, and our future.

Belief Systems – edited extract from ‘The Dominant Animal’

Clearly there isn’t a one-for-one correspondence between “what’s out there” and what we perceive because our perceptions are an interaction between the external world and the evolved characteristics of the human nervous system; we miss a great deal that is detectable by other organisms.  Our brains are also programmed to let us see what we expect to see: a point of view which holds that one's experience of things is about how they appear to that person, not about those things as they are in and of themselves. In other words we see objects or things based on our sense perception.

However we perceive the world all human beings establish a body of ideas they accept emotionally as true – a belief system, a set of convictions about how the world works.  We all share with one another and with many animals a most important conviction that is, that effects have causes.  Indeed perhaps the most important discovery is that a concept of ‘cause and effect’ seems to be programmed into our brains (innate) early in the course of development, quite possibly as part of the genetic-evolution of major features.  Children as young as two can make the association: every change has its cause in another change immediately preceding it. If something happens, in other words, if a new state or condition appears, that is to say, if something changes, then something else must have changed just previously, and so on backwards to infinity; for a first cause is as impossible to conceive as is a begining of time or a limit of space.  
Our early ancestors also must have spent much time association or trying to associate effects with causes even when those causes could not have been transparent.  Why does the sun travel across the sky? What causes rain to fall? Why do conical mountains erupt and blow their tops. Why did a member of the clan suddenly stop breathing - small wonder that with their powerful brains our ancestors invented belief systems that featured a pantheon of supernatural agents to play the part of causes? Those agents could be mischievous, evil, weird or benign spirits with limited powers dwelling in rocks, trees, or other individuals or a diversity of more powerful gods with various domains. While spirits and gods are attributed different powers and characteristics, many of them are clearly themselves and loaded with human motives - earth goddesses who are “mothers” chief gods who are “fathers” jealous gods and forgiving gods.  For many, if not most Homo sapiens the existence of death was puzzling and frightening and there can be little doubt that anxiety about death spurred early people to build religious constructs.  It seems reasonable to assume that as human thinking powers increased in the course of evolution people would begin to invent causes of other observed inexplicable effects if for no other reason than to quell the anxiety that the mysterious and the fearsome elicit.
Whenever religions arose, despite their likely early appearance and diversity, it seems reasonable to assume that they had the same two roles they serve today. One is explanatory and manipulative: designating forces as the source of events  perceived in the world that seems mysterious and trying to influence them. The other is integrative and controlling: organizing groups to deal with those forces, dictating appropriate behaviour and justifying power gained by some individuals over others within those groups.
People have often taken sensory inputs that are beyond their limits of rational explanation and woven them into stories that they believe are accurate and explain their origins, aspects of their existence and fundamental truths about their nature. Those stories we call myths, help to shape people’s view of themselves and their environment and justify their norms and behaviours.  They become part of their belief system.
Many of the myths of Western culture, including its creation myth and the story of Noah, have clear predecessors in Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths. That is beautifully exemplified by the story of a humanity-destroying flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
One reason for the persistence of religion is that some religions at least, especially orthodox ones, provide structure and an array of rules, prohibitions rituals and demands that many people find reassuring. Although religion has long been considered irrational by some, a convincing case can be made that the consumers of religious practices and doctrines feel they get their money’s worth. The behaviour of people in the arena of religion seems as rational as human behaviour in other areas.
Like various other cultural traditions, religion today can be seen in the invention of “intelligent design” by a right wing think tank to give political advantage to conservatives.