In a fascinating essay published in The Atlantic in 1998, Edward O. Wilson digs into us to try to understand — The Biological Basis of Morality — and he leavens our understanding of faith and facts by pitting religious transcendentalism against scientific empiricism.  Wilson argues, in a thought-provoking and wide-ranging article, that the fate of the human condition rests in tempering a harmony between those opposite, and irreconcilable, philosophies.

I am most fascinated by Wilson’s connection of the hierarchy of the animal world and aggressive, evolutionary, human behavior.

Wilson argues we have an undeniable animal instinct to obey power and to also fight for control — and those of us that understand those coded, animalistic rhythms, can exploit our embedded, involuntary, twitch responses for their success and our failure:

Modern human beings are unlikely to have erased the old mammalian genetic programs and devised other means of distributing power. All the evidence suggests that they have not. True to their primate heritage, people are easily seduced by confident, charismatic leaders, especially males. That predisposition is strong in religious organizations. Cults form around such leaders. Their power grows if they can persuasively claim special access to the supremely dominant, typically male figure of God. As cults evolve into religions, the image of the Supreme Being is reinforced by myth and liturgy. In time the authority of the founders and their successors is graven in sacred texts. Unruly subordinates, known as “blasphemers,” are squashed.The symbol-forming human mind, however, never remains satisfied with raw, apish feeling in any emotional realm. It strives to build cultures that are maximally rewarding in every dimension. Ritual and prayer permit religious believers to be in direct touch with the Supreme Being; consolation from coreligionists softens otherwise unbearable grief; the unexplainable is explained; and an oceanic sense of communion with the larger whole is made possible.

Communion is the key, and hope rising from it is eternal; out of the dark night of the soul arises the prospect of a spiritual journey to the light. For a special few the journey can be taken in this life. The mind reflects in certain ways in order to reach ever higher levels of enlightenment, until finally, when no further progress is possible, it enters a mystical union with the whole. Within the great religions such enlightenment is expressed by Hindu samadhi, Buddhist Zen satori, Sufi fana, and Pentecostal Christian rebirth. Something like it is also experienced by hallucinating preliterate shamans. What all these celebrants evidently feel (as I felt once, to some degree, as a reborn evangelical) is hard to put in words, but Willa Cather came as close as possible in a single sentence. In My Antonia her fictional narrator says, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

In a previous article — Primate Morality and Shared Values:  Are We Aping Them? — I wrote about the cross-cultural connections we share with apes, including the ideas of “reciprocity, punishment, peace-making, empathy and setting rules with punishments.”

Now I wonder if science will ever reveal the mysteries of religious dedication and morality and if religion can ever provide undeniable proof that even science requires an unbending faith that can never be understood or mapped for dissection — because the moment the belief is cleaved by cold fact, both religious transcendentalism and scientific empiricism dissolve into nothingness — never to be touched by human hand or mandated by godhead again.


  1. Hi David,
    Thanks for the great read and thanks for referring the awesome article by Edward O. Wilson!
    It’s absolutely mesmerizing.
    What a dilemma to think about – it is surely overwhelming to hold these elusive concept together because we, always try to frame any idea in a black or a white frame – it’s tough to visualize as gray.

  2. Hi Katha!
    Yes, the article makes it clear that we have black and white distinctions, but the moment we try to turn them grey through force of analysis — they crumble — but he also argues we need to turn them grey in order not to kill each other.
    So, what’s the answer? How do we find a way out of the disconnect? It’s a mesmerizing conundrum for which there may never be an answer… unless we’ll only find resolution in the extinction of humankind.

  3. Would be great if science and religion would leave each other alone but it will never happen. Someone has to be right. So they’ll keep tearing each other apart.

  4. I think you may be right about that, Anne. Hegel said the ultimate human tragedy was having two opposite, but equal, viewpoints that could never be reconciled — and we’re getting more and more of those uncrossable canyons each day we live. We’re going the wrong way.

  5. Hi David,
    Unless we learn to accept and accomodate the intangible – it can never be done.
    Hard try – no doubt but worth it!
    Being religious needs a strong belief, so is being agnostic or atheist – being none of them means hovering in an uncharted territory…

  6. Yes, Katha, it seems being unaffiliated is the greatest danger here because if you aren’t on one side or the other, you’re nullified in the firestorm.

  7. One of the reasons that I love my religion is that it does not put a gap between itself and science. Science too is part of the holy Torah and can be found throughout it. You don’t see too many web sites like Torah Science for other “right wing” religions and that gives me a chuckle. 🙂

  8. Truly fascinating and refreshing article, David! It took a few sittings though, so i’m wondering is it a sign of my own shortening attention span or is it just because i needed the breaks to contemplate what i’d read because the work is intense and profound.

  9. That’s interesting, Dananjay. At first blush, the reason it took you awhile to get the whole story might be to an expectation for built-in brain breaks.

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