Dead Sea, Live See

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Nothing fascinates quite like the Dead Sea Scrolls. That is, unless you’re a disgruntled Ugaritologist. Mention the Dead Sea Scrolls and the journalists will form a queue. Never mind the relative importance of Ugarit. But I digress. There is something quite dramatic about the discovery and recovery of the scrolls. It involves science and sculduggery and that utterly captivating name “Dead Sea.” This past week the scrolls were in the news again as a new technology was used to read an illegible roll. The New York Times story by Nicholas Wade describes how something like a CT scan can be used to find the ink on an unrolled scroll and software can be devised that associates the ink to its nearest surface. A little virtual unrolling and you have a legible document that has no visible letters that the naked eye can see. Turns out this one happens to come from Leviticus. Figures.

You might think this would lead to joyful leaping on the part of someone who used to make a living reading ancient documents, but such are the times in which we live that even silver linings turn to lead. Years ago I learned about Van Eck phreaking from Neal Stephenson. I thought it was sci-fi, but in fact it is a legitimate—or illegitimate—method of reading a person’s electronic device without being able to see the screen. Since so few people are eager to read my blog, I can’t think anyone would be wanting to spy on my laptop. Nevertheless, with the advent of new technology that can—think about it—read a closed book, I have to wonder about the implications. Reading some dead scribe’s Dead Sea Scroll is one thing. Your sister’s locked diary can be quite another.

Being more of a clay-and-stick man, I was pleased when it was discovered that rapid flashes of light around the circumference of a clay tablet could lead to a virtual computer model that could be rotated 360 degrees with illumination from any angle. The technology had other applications as well, of course. (It certainly wasn’t developed to read forgettable texts.) With a clay tablet we can be reasonably certain that nothing too private was being impressed. But then that’s what you’d expect an Ugaritologist to say. It seems that my days of reading ancient documents are a closed book anyway. But that’s just the problem. Not even a closed book is safe any more. If I were in any danger, I’m sure it would show in my stats before anyone bothered to park a nondescript van outside my door and scan through all the countless tomes with which I surround myself daily. But I do wonder.

After Before the Dawn

Apropos of reading Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, as a sometime scholar of religion a number of points struck me. According to both material artifacts and DNA, several changes took place among human beings some 50,000 years ago. Having just read P. W. Singer’s Wired for War as well, the early coalescence of war and religion in human history was unavoidable. Wade ties the emergence of both with the development of language. It is only when we can speak that we can begin to express our theological speculations and, as history continues to teach us, despise those who disagree with us. It becomes clear quite early in the tome that Wade has an interest in explaining religion. Like many science writers he struggles with the issue of why religion persists, despite the explanatory value of science. We know how multiple aspects of our world work, yet we still defer to a divine that no one has ever seen or registered in any empirically verifiable way.

Not only does this tendency stretch back to our distant, distant relatives. The Natufians, about whom I generally lectured my students (itself ancient history), are marked as well by the dual achievements of religion and war. Wade is one of the few scholars I’ve discovered who concurs with my assessment that religion was among the earliest of human behaviors. In my mind, it is tied to consciousness and its evolution. Once we begin to realize that we are not in control of our destiny, we start to seek explanations from above, and hope that God loves us. Otherwise the picture isn’t so pretty. Indeed, Wade suggests that religion evolved as a socially cohesive force. Tying the concept to ethics and trust, he suggests early people had to learn to get along with strangers and religion cemented that bond.

I’m not a scientist, so I cannot assess whether this explains religion or not. It does seem clear, however, that if Wade is right religion itself has evolved into a more aggressive beast. Sure, religions still serve to bind people together—but only so far. As populations separated, their various religions evolved and led them to distrust one another. Instead of bonding humans together, religion began to put them into competition for the truth. Here, Wade’s analysis is sadly true—religion and war evolve together. Our small planet is yet too big for everyone to get along, to know and trust the stranger. Religion had helped us at the critical stage when we needed social bonding, and now it has naturally evolved into the opposite—a socially divisive force of orthodoxy and heresy. If Wade is correct, we all need religion to take on its most ancient role and bring people together instead of giving us excuses for war.

Waiting for the dawn

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.