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Wednesday, June 27, 2007Science Of The Soul
In 1950, in a letter to bishops, Pope Pius XII took up the issue of evolution. The Roman Catholic Church does not necessarily object to the study of evolution as far as it relates to physical traits, he wrote in the encyclical, Humani Generis.” But he added, “Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”
Pope John Paul II made much the same point in 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an advisory group to the Vatican. Although he noted that in the intervening years evolution had become “more than a hypothesis,” he added that considering the mind as emerging merely from physical phenomena was “incompatible with the truth about man.”
But as evolutionary biologists and cognitive neuroscientists peer ever deeper into the brain, they are discovering more and more genes, brain structures and other physical correlates to feelings like empathy, disgust and joy. That is, they are discovering physical bases for the feelings from which moral sense emerges — not just in people but in other animals as well.
The result is perhaps the strongest challenge yet to the worldview summed up by Descartes, the 17th-century philosopher who divided the creatures of the world between humanity and everything else. As biologists turn up evidence that animals can exhibit emotions and patterns of cognition once thought of as strictly human, Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” loses its force.
For many scientists, the evidence that moral reasoning is a result of physical traits that evolve along with everything else is just more evidence against the existence of the soul, or of a God to imbue humans with souls. For many believers, particularly in the United States, the findings show the error, even wickedness, of viewing the world in strictly material terms. And they provide for theologians a growing impetus to reconcile the existence of the soul with the growing evidence that humans are not, physically or even mentally, in a class by themselves.
The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is “unassailable fact,” the journal Nature said this month in an editorial on new findings on the physical basis of moral thought. A headline on the editorial drove the point home: “With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”
Or as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.
For people like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, talk of the soul is of a piece with the rest of the palaver of religious faith, which he has likened to a disease. And among evolutionary psychologists, religious faith is nothing but an evolutionary artifact, a predilection that evolved because shared belief increased group solidarity and other traits that contribute to survival and reproduction.
Nevertheless, the idea of a divinely inspired soul will not be put aside. To cite just one example, when 10 Republican presidential candidates were asked at a debate last month if there was anyone among them who did not believe in evolution, 3 raised their hands. One of them, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, explained later in an op-ed article in this newspaper that he did not reject all evolutionary theory. But he added, “Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order.”
That is the nub of the issue, according to Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary who has written widely on science, religion and the soul. Challenges to the uniqueness of humanity in creation are just as alarming as the Copernican assertion that Earth is not the center of the universe, she writes in her book “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?” (Cambridge, 2006). Just as Copernicus knocked Earth off its celestial pedestal, she said, the new findings on cognition have displaced people from their “strategic location” in creation.
Another theologian who has written widely on the issue, John F. Haught of Georgetown University, said in an interview that “for many Americans the only way to preserve the discontinuity that’s implied in the notion of a soul, a distinct soul, is to deny evolution,” which he said was “unfortunate.”
There is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the diversity and complexity of life on earth.
For Dr. Murphy and Dr. Haught, though, people make a mistake when they assume that people can be “ensouled” only if other creatures are soulless.
Texas man scheduled to be executed on Tuesday wants to die laughing.
Patrick Knight, 39, has been soliciting jokes on the Internet and plans to tell one of them before receiving a lethal injection, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said on Monday.
"He says he wants to keep his execution light," she said.
Knight was sentenced to die for the August 1991 murder of his two elderly neighbors in Amarillo, Texas.
Lyons said a friend of Knight's set up a page on the social networking Web site MySpace.com to solicit jokes, and "hundreds" of suggestions have arrived in the mail.
"I'll be enjoying my last days on Earth," Knight wrote on the Web site. "I'm not asking for pen pals, but I'm asking you to spread the word that I am holding a contest. I want people to send me their best jokes, and to keep me and others with (execution) dates laughing."
Texas leads the nation with 396 executions. None of those put to death have ever joked about it, Lyons said.
"We've certainly had some people who have recited a poem or a Bible verse, some people who have asked forgiveness or who pray," she said. "This is, to my knowledge, the first time anybody has told a joke as their last words."
While she says Knight will be allowed to tell his joke, none of his executioners in the state death chamber at the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, Texas will be laughing, Lyons said.
"Everybody who is there takes it very seriously and will not be participating in the joke," she said. "So knock-knock jokes are out."
One of the most distinctive evolutionary changes as humans parted company from their fellow apes was their loss of body hair. But why and when human body hair disappeared, together with the matter of when people first started to wear clothes, are questions that have long lain beyond the reach of archaeology and paleontology.
Ingenious solutions to both issues have now been proposed, independently, by two research groups analyzing changes in DNA. The result, if the dates are accurate, is something of an embarrassment. It implies we were naked for more than a million years before we started wearing clothes.
Dr. Alan R. Rogers, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah, has figured out when humans lost their hair by an indirect method depending on the gene that determines skin color. Dr. Mark Stoneking of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, believes he has established when humans first wore clothes. His method too is indirect: it involves dating the evolution of the human body louse, which infests only clothes.
Meanwhile a third group of researchers, resurrecting a suggestion of Darwin, has come up with a novel explanation of why humans lost their body hair in the first place.
Mammals need body hair to keep warm, and lose it only for special evolutionary reasons. Whales and walruses shed their hair to improve speed in their new medium, the sea. Elephants and rhinoceroses have specially thick skins and are too bulky to lose much heat on cold nights. But why did humans, the only hairless primates, lose their body hair?
One theory holds that the hominid line went through a semi-aquatic phase -- witness the slight webbing on our hands. A better suggestion is that loss of body hair helped our distant ancestors keep cool when they first ventured beyond the forest's shade and across the hot African savannah. But loss of hair is not an unmixed blessing in regulating body temperature because the naked skin absorbs more energy in the heat of the day and loses more in the cold of the night.
Dr. Mark Pagel of the University of Reading in England and Dr. Walter Bodmer of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford have proposed a different solution to the mystery and their idea, if true, goes far toward explaining contemporary attitudes about hirsuteness. Humans lost their body hair, they say, to free themselves of external parasites that infest fur -- blood-sucking lice, fleas and ticks and the diseases they spread.
Once hairlessness had evolved through natural selection, Dr. Pagel and Dr. Bodmer suggest, it then became subject to sexual selection, the development of features in one sex that appeal to the other. Among the newly furless humans, bare skin would have served, like the peacock's tail, as a signal of fitness. The pains women take to keep their bodies free of hair -- joined now by some men -- may be no mere fashion statement but the latest echo of an ancient instinct. Dr. Pagel's and Dr. Bodmer's article appeared in a recent issue of The Proceedings of the Royal Society.
Dr. Pagel said he had noticed recently that advertisements for women's clothing often included a model showing a large expanse of bare back. ''We have thought of showing off skin as a secondary sexual characteristic but maybe it's simpler than that -- just a billboard for healthy skin,'' he said.