Convergent Evolution

Back when my opinion mattered—in higher education, you must realize, a scholar’s outlook only matters when s/he has a teaching post, no matter how abysmal the school. Once that post is gone you just become another guy with an opinion—I was invited to a conference. This is quite an honor for someone consigned to the bargain basement of academia, and for my paper I read from a burgeoning book that died a sudden death along with my academic career. In that stillborn tome I argued that many aspects of ancient mythology—including some in the Bible—made better sense in the light of science. I suggested that some of the infelicities in ancient texts might be the signs of continuing evolution of the human brain. Ancient people were able to believe what we find troubling. By the end of the conference many respectable scholars were looking askance at me when I stepped into the room. Honestly. I heard the word “Wiggins” uttered as if it were an archaic curse. Shortly after that I found myself working out of some guy’s basement for a salary fit for a knave.

Imagine my delight, then, at finding a reputable scholar who argued that the human brain indeed continues to evolve. In fact, it has speeded up the pace as new challenges have emerged. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade was recommended to me by my brother-in-law. As I was updating myself this week on how we became human, I was surprised to see Wade suggesting what I had suggested in my paper—the patterns of human behavior (we both have an interest in religion, it seems) are tied to the evolutionary state of our brains. Sitting on a bus next to many other drones commuting like ants to New York City, I felt strangely vindicated. I had an idea scorned by my colleagues that is being suggested by science. Not that everyone will accept Wade’s conclusions. Many scholars of ancient religions will never even read them. When I explained my thesis to a colleague after losing my academic status, he said, “I don’t give much credibility to science.”

Convergence is the phenomenon of two species evolving an adaptation independently. Often it is difficult for people to believe that a trait shared by two populations is simply nature’s way of trial and error that happened to work twice, in different situations. Nicholas Wade and I experienced convergence on this point. He, of course, is a famous writer and I am nobody. Nevertheless, my unpublished idea was presented at a conference the year his book must have been in production. We had both been reading about evolution and wondering what its effect on religion might have been. I will comment more on Wade’s specific ideas about religion in the book in another post. He, of course, went on to write The Faith Instinct, which was widely acclaimed. At that time I was struggling to find work and it seemed that natural selection hadn’t selected me at all. I am glad, however, that my idea made it into print, even if it was evolved by someone else who is far more fit for survival.

4 thoughts on “Convergent Evolution

    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Norm! I read it a few years back myself. In fact, at the conference I mentioned several people suggested I was following Jaynes’ thesis. There have been some interesting updates on his way of understanding consciousness. His basic idea, however, that it has changed over the centuries, is sound, I believe.


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