Atheism, the Amity-Enmity Complex, and the Clouded Crystal Ball

Forgive me if I sound like the Pharisee in Luke 18.11, but sometimes I just have to shake my head. I just had one of those “shake my head” moments while reading some of the stuff Sully’s guest bloggers have been putting up. It’s not them I have a problem with. Bless their hearts for linking to posts on something other than Sarah Palin or Obamacare. No, this time its the stuff in the links that set me off. First, there’s this about chimpanzee behavior. Here’s what Sully would call the “money quote.”

[C]ooperation in chimpanzees is highly constrained. Chimpanzees will cooperate only with familiar group members, with whom they normally share food. If they don’t know or like a potential partner, they won’t cooperate no matter how much food is at stake. Humans, however, make a living collaborating, even when it’s with people they don’t know and in many cases don’t particularly like. (Do you have a boss?) This high level of social tolerance is likely one of the building blocks of the unique forms of cooperation seen in humans. So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills.

In looking through the article itself, one finds similar stuff, such as,

So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees’ developing more flexible cooperative skills. But humans have another closest relative, one who is usually forgotten and may be more like us than we know.

It turns out this little known relative is the bonobo. Apparently these creatures have not only all the ideal characteristics of the noble savage, but have up-to-date politically correct features that Rousseau never dreamed of, such as freewheeling sex lives including both hetero- and homosexual relationships. According to the article,

In contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male-dominated societies with infanticidal tendencies and other forms of lethal aggression, bonobos live in societies that are highly tolerant and peaceful thanks to female dominance, which maintains group cohesion and regulates tensions through sexual behavior.

Ah, yes, I’d almost forgotten, female dominance. It just gets better and better, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more:

So what we have are chimps who cooperate but aren’t very tolerant, and bonobos who are very tolerant but don’t really cooperate in the wild. What probably happened six million years ago, when hominids split from the ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we became very tolerant, and this allowed us to cooperate in entirely new ways. Without this heightened tolerance, we would not be the species we are today.

So, in other words, even though our “tolerant” history is one long, unbroken series of violent conflicts and wars, and virtually every tribal group we’ve ever studied or encountered exhibits anything but “tolerance” towards neighboring tribes, we are perfect candidates for whatever Brave New World the idealists among us care to come up with because, after all, some of us get along with our bosses.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but when they claim to be experts in animal and human behavior but have apparently never even heard of something as elementary as the Amity – Enmity Complex, and speak of human beings as all warm, fuzzy, and tolerant as if it were so palpably obvious that one couldn’t possibly think otherwise, well… I have to shake my head. What can you say? Murmur, “Hey, whatever fits the narrative,” and just move on.

As an interesting aside, back in the days when Ardrey was writing, the behavior of the poor unoffending chimpanzees was adjusted to fit the narrative from the opposite end. For example, in this piece, written back in 1973 by one of Ashley Montagu’s behaviorist pals, after trivializing Ardrey’s work as the “Killer Ape Theory,” the author tells us that,

The balance of Ardrey’s 357-page book is taken up with indirect suggestive evidence and descriptions of territorial and aggressive behavior among animals far removed from man’s line of evolution. Curiously, Ardrey discounts behavioral studies of man’s two closest living relatives, the gorilla and the chimpanzee both of which are remarkably amicable and non-combative animals.

And you thought these latest revelations about how the “remarkably amicable and non-combative” chimpanzees really behave vindicated Ardrey. Wrong! If the chimpanzees won’t cooperate, one can always pull a bonobo out of ones hat. Again, whatever fits the narrative.

Moving right along, there’s this about fundamentalism and atheism. Again, here’s the “money quote,”

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.

Other than the gross historical ignorance implicit in the claim that Lenin and Mao are somehow the quintessential representatives of “Enlightenment values,” and the notion that it’s somehow OK to lump anyone who doesn’t believe in God in with the most rabid, fanatical true believers in history because, after all, they’re all “secular,” does it never occur to people who make such statements that, after all, the truth matters?

If it is true that there is no God, your need for a purpose won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your belief that one is necessary if human beings are to act morally won’t magically create one. If it is true that there is no God, your personal inability to understand the physical universe without a divine “first mover” won’t magically create one. Similarly, if it is true there is no God, you will not magically create one by virtue of the fact that you’ve somehow convinced yourself that because a equals b and b equals c, therefore atheists are responsible for every crime in recorded history.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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