Ageing and the Angels

Amongst all animal species, human beings are unique in knowing that they will eventually die. Even young children are aware that elderly relatives do not have long to live, and that when they die they will not see them again. This realization has had enormous cultural and social consequences.

Nowadays, individuals are expected to reach an advanced age, but this was not the case during the early evolution of man. Annual mortality was such that few people reached natural old age. We saw in Chapter 8 that in early human populations the expectation of life at birth is less than 20 years, and about 3% of individuals would be expected to reach the age of 45 years. In a society such as this, death would be a common phenomenon, but these deaths would be predominantly due to starvation, disease or predators. Death from "natural old age" would be a rare event.

It is probable that these hunter-gatherer societies consisted of an extended family, or a few families living together. The community was very important in food gathering, hunting and also in protecting itself against danger. As communication skills developed, children would be taught the importance of altruistic behaviour. Such behaviour increased the changes of survival and reduced the likelihood of death. In contrast, selfish or acquisitive behaviours would, at best, only have a short term advantage in increasing survival. Under these circumstances, it is fairly easy to see that a basic moral code would develop. To increase the chances of one's own and one's relative's survival, it became important to contribute to beneficial group activities, such as food gathering, hunting and defence. Since the groups contained many genetically related individuals, kin survival was an important component of group behaviour, and this of course resulted in kin-selection.

It is fairly easy to envisage the form this moral teaching might take. It could be one of the roles of the more experienced members of the community, as well as being undertaken by the parents of children. It would be evident to all that the environment was overtly, or potentially, hostile and stressful. The benefits of successful hunting and the hard work of food gathering would be explained, as would the hazards of predators. Also, the danger of being alone would be stressed, since the safety and survival of community depended in very large part on co-operative activities. The danger of the unknown in a hostile environment would be very important. This is in part built into our sensory system, since a substantial part of the retina is particularly sensitive to movement in our peripheral vision, which is just what is needed to detect danger approaching. It would not be surprising if the teachers in the society warned of unknown enemies, evil spirits and so on, which everyone must be made aware of. Such dangerous imaginary beings may well have been the first non-material creations in those early human societies.

The moral code was important for survival, because those who followed the teachings would be much more likely to survive than those that did not. In those early societies, the major reward would be a relatively long life, with the opportunity to raise a family oneself. Old age and natural death would still be an uncommon, possibly a very uncommon, event. Indeed, it is possible that members of such communities were taught that they might survive indefinitely, if they were skilled and also lucky enough to avoid the many hazards inherent in their environment and life-style.

This period of human pre-history lasted a long time, with populations remaining fairly small. As time went on, human skills gradually improved, particularly in communication and tool-making. This lead to a somewhat lower annual mortality, a reduction in risk level, and as a consequence a gradual increase in population size. This provided the driving force for migration from Africa to Europe and Asia, and many believe there were successive waves of such migration, involving various hominid sub-species.

The success of human adaptation to the environment increased inexorably, and eventually lead to the means to control the environment itself. This was seen particularly in the development of agriculture. Instead of a nomadic existence, or one based on habitation in caves, humans began to plant, tend and harvest crops, at least for one part of the year. The advantage, most obviously, was a more reliable food supply. Associated changes would be the building of semi-permanent or permanent shelters, and an increased size of each community. In addition, there would be division of labour within each community, for example, tool-makers, farmers and hunters, albeit no doubt with much overlap between them.

These trends would have had very profound effects on the existing moral codes of behaviour. For the first time, the reduced mortality would result in the survival of some individuals to old age. The reward for hard-work and altruistic behaviour would not be indefinite survival, as the community elders had previously taught, but senility and decrepitude. Individuals who survived into old age would feel cheated, because it became all too clear that adult life could not be prolonged by altruism and community spirit. This, I believe, provides the key to the origin of one of the commonest features of human religion. The social solution to the problem of senescence, old age and death, is simply to invoke an afterlife. The existing moral codes would remain in place, but the eventual reward for virtue would be changed. Instead of the benefits of an increased likelihood of survival in a normal human community, the emphasis would be shifted to the benefits of survival in a non-material afterworld. In this context, immortality, paradise, reunion with long deceased relatives or friends become added incentives. Once the concept of an afterlife came into being, it would also be possible to relate the quality of that afterlife, to behaviour in the real world. Thus, individuals who followed the accepted moral codes would be rewarded with a favourable afterlife, whereas those who did not have the appropriate community spirit, and instead adapted selfish behaviour, would be faced with the prospect of a hellish afterlife.

This does not mean that one or more individuals consciously devised a social solution to the "problem" of old age. It would have been gradually realised that the strength of the moral teaching was being undermined by the dire consequences of growing old. It would have been simple wish-fulfillment to invoke other worlds inhabited by the souls or spirits of mortals. It is obvious from the contemporary world that people continually draw comfort from their belief in an afterlife. It would have been so many thousands of years ago as well, where humans had already evolved most of their intellectual and emotional capacities. Those who first suggested the possibility of an afterworld wanted to believe in it themselves. Religious faith was born. Individuals who promulgated this new faith also believed they had God-given powers, and their success in persuading others that these powers were real could over-ride normal experience and expectations. Most religious prophets back up their teaching and authority by the claim that they are in direct contact with an all-powerful deity.

In this new context, the child became much more aware of death following old age. The answer to the question "why do we die?" can be dressed up within the context of any of several supernatural God-given or God-driven worlds. Previously, children were told that relatives died because they got ill, were killed by predators, or starved. Indeed, if they were spared all these causes of death, and others, they might well live on this earth forever. This would have been a great comfort to them, but one, unfortunately, that became demonstrably false. It was necessary for parents and elders to provide new answers to the child's question.

Speculation about the exact form of any particular form of early religion is not very helpful. Social anthropologists have documented the diverse beliefs of many different cultures. From a sociobiological standpoint, it is sufficient to define the basic characteristics of a religion which had a clear social function. First, the religion would be based on a set of beliefs, formulated as dogmas that were not to be questioned. These would be a uniform set of dogmas with any one community and it would also be transmitted from generation to generation. Second, there would be a specific function for priests or priest-like members of society. They would be responsible for teaching the beliefs to the rest of the community, and they would be endowed with authority by being in contact with whatever Gods were invoked. Third, the existence of omnipotent deities provides a framework which answers the questions any conscious being might ask. Who created the world or universe? Who created man? Why do men and women grow old and die? In all cases the answer is the deity, who is responsible for creation and defining the course of life and death. Although a belief in human "freewill" (for example, the ability to choose between good and evil) may be a component of religion, a strong belief is an ordained predetermined fate is also very common. Fourth, the religion would be closely related to the moral values that had probably predated the religion itself. Thus, worthy altruistic behaviours would be rewarded, and acquisitive, selfish or antisocial behaviour would be punished. This punishment might occur within the society itself, or it might become associated with the threat of a hellish afterlife, or re-incarnation to a lesser species. The invoking of evil spirits, unknown dangers and so on, might well be related to this aspect of religion, in order to deter antisocial behaviour. Fifth, the whole religious edifice would be built around a series of myths, about the origin of gods and humans, as well as visual symbolism. Instantly recognisable images of gods, or other mythical figures, would be essential components in gaining social acceptance, as would ceremonies and ceremonial events with individuals in elaborate dress. Many of these activities became intimately associated with art and music, and particularly, later on, with architecture.

These five features of early religious faith are not at all isolated one from the other. There would be much overlap and interaction between them. The links between mortal beings and immortal gods would be variable between different religions. Mortals can become god-like, and gods can enter normal communities. We know the potential power of one man, the prophet, is enormous. Yet this occurrence is likely to be rare, and for every successful prophet who founded a whole religion, there are probably thousands of cult figures who would themselves like to found their own particular religion by impressing their own beliefs on others. The complexity of modern contemporary society does not appear to have reduced the frequency of cults. Successful religion must have permanence in a particular community, or set of communities. Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, used the word "meme" to describe a belief, concept or idea (among other things), which is transmitted from generation to generation, and he cited Judaistic memes as examples of some of the longest surviving ones. However, the time scale of memes is minute compared to the time scale of genes.

In this Chapter and Chapter 8, I have attempted to explain both the evolution of human longevity, and the social consequences of the increased awareness of natural death from old age. Darwinism successfully challenged the authority of contemporary religions. Although socio-biologists such as Edward Wilson have provided speculations about the evolution of human religions, I believe that one can go further and provide a much more rational explanation of origins of religion.

Religion has been the dominant force over most of human social evolution, but only at the end of the twentieth century does it become possible to understand why this was the case. We no longer need mythical explanations for the inevitability of old age and death, because we now have rational scientific ones. Of course, only a minute fraction of humanity at present has this knowledge and awareness, and most will continue with beliefs little altered from the past. Those that reject these ancient views have accepted the scientific facts, namely, that human individuals on this planet have finite survival time and that there is no non-material afterlife. This realistic view of ourselves and the world we live in is not just a rejection of faiths, but encompasses the very strong belief that all human problems must be solved by human beings themselves. Human beings alone have knowledge and reason, and must act accordingly in the environment they find themselves, to face up to and solve their own problems. A belief in Gods, angels or other mythical beings, as well as a belief in fate, will simply make these problems harder to solve in the end.

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