Thursday, 22 February 2007

War Dance, It's a Sin

According to World Science, playing video games makes for good surgeons (which we already knew from watching Scrubs); archaeologists are rethinking how important the Clovis people were in Native American history; birds plan what they're going to eat (or at least scrubs do); and there's a new genetic link to autism (again). Oh, and we found some wild chimps who came up with the idea on their own of making and using spears to hunt other animals.

That's kind of big, actually. It used to be we were the only ones who made plans as a species (those scrub jays proved us wrong there). It used to be we were the only ones who built homes (bowerbirds). We were the only ones who used language- except for animals too numerous to mention. But at least, please God, we are the only ones who develop our own weapons of warfare? Please, at least we are unique in this respect?

No, looks like others can do this too.
Pan troglodytes has been found doing the nasty, finding new and inventive ways to kill others. They appear to have figured this out without any human help (although room must be given for the possibility of them observing humans). This particular tribe of chimps cuts off branches, sharpens them with their teeth, and then goes on hunting parties, which are at least occasionally successful, having killed a bushbaby, a relative of the chimp. They don't just go after rats or pigs, they even attack their own relatives. Just like us. Next thing you'll know they'll be writing their own blogs.

The article discusses how this has far-reaching implication for how we understand our own evolution. Tool use has been thought to be limited to the genus Homo, based on archeological evidence. But if Pongidae can use tools, then perhaps tool use was far earlier, with Australopithecus. After all, all fossil evidence is very limited, and tells an incomplete story. Additionally this particular chimp tribe was composed primarily of adolescent and young adult spear-hunters, whereas most chimp hunters are older adults, bolstering the idea that innovative ideas are learned quicker by the younger generations. And the spear-hunters are mixed gender, unlike most chimp hunters who are exclusively male, indicating that perhaps the first tool inventors were of both genders, as other evidence also indicates.

But besides this being a blow to our ego in uniqueness, this discovery also might have something to say about the nature of evil and warfare. In the Genesis myth the humans are cast out of the garden for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It had a long name, and justifiably so. But we usually truncate that name, wanting to call it the Tree of Evil. I think there is a valuable point in the long name. It was when we humans were able to distinguish good and evil, as God makes a point of later in the story, that we also were capable of sin. And the ability to distinguish good and evil requires a certain higher reasoning, a certain cognitive development. To know that this or that action is absolutely wrong, or absolutely right, means I have to have a certain level of thought. Before that point, the action is morally neutral.

It might be argued that a dog knows if it's done something wrong. But the dog knows it's master believes something is wrong, or right, and learns to internalize that. Don't eat the master's children. That's bad. Doesn't matter that my wolf ancestors might have done that, if I do it, I don't get food, I sleep outside, or I get killed. It learns new rules. But the dog is simply incapable of understanding the more abstract notion of an absolute right or wrong.

If I lack a certain level of thought, I can plop my children in another live being and have them eat that other being alive as much as I want. I am not sinning. I simply don't know right from wrong. I can have sex with my sister while still inside the womb, and then die, and my children do this over and over again. It's not wrong- there's no brain, and certainly no higher thought involved.

But the moment I reach that point, that magical level of thought, be that in the Upper Neolithic, or the beginnings of Homo sapiens, or when Hominidae first arrived on the scene- whenever that happened- I knew good from evil. The moment we were this aware, we sinned. Sadly, simply on this level of reality, intelligence could not be divorced from sin. For we were aware of the difference between the two, and we always end up choosing, at some point, no matter how insignificant, sin. We choose to miss the mark and turn from God and good.

The chimpanzees invented spears. They're hunting another species, but another primate. In all the millenia of chimpanzee evolution, odds are they've done this before, if they came up with the idea now. It's not necessarily a new idea with humans. The chimpanzee might use the new invention on each other, as we once did. After all, there are attacks and infanticide and matricide and all kinds of killing among wild chimpanzees- including clan warfare. Spears would just give an edge. But there is a difference. When we do it, we know good from evil, even if we've forgotten. When we invent gigantic spears that can fly across the Atlantic and impale hundreds of thousands in a single flash, we know what the evil is, and what the good would be. The chimpanzees don't. They operate out of forethought, and a certain degree of intelligence, but they have not learned the difference between good and evil. Likely the ability to invent spears was there before we reached this cognitive development point. Likely we even invented spears and attacked other clans with them. But at the point when we first learned enough to know good and evil, we also learned it was wrong, and it became wrong.

And likely the same moment when we could reason well enough, when we reached the ability to sin, is when we also were designated in the image of God, capable of fully cognitively worshipping the Creator.


Barsawad said...

Between we men and women, who do you think plan more and further? I think we men do. I have raised pidgeons for long, and they DO plan. Plan well indeed.

@bdul muHib said...

Good thoughts. I'd say firstly, that men and women don't plan more or further. I find that to simply be a matter of personality- those who are more "J" in Meyers-Briggs terms plan better than those who are more "P", or in other language, I've known women who are very poor planners and women who are great planners, and the same with the other gender.

Secondly, as regards gender in this post, I'm pointing out that the warfare, hunting, and tool invention was something of both genders, if our close relatives are any indication, and not an exclusively male domain, as has been traditionally construed.

Lastly, I'd say, yes, there certainly is foresight and planning in many species. But at one point it was popular to locate human uniqueness in our planning, and claiming that other animals did it to only a limited extent.

This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.