Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Machiavelli & Moses
The second question Ms. Flint presents is this:
If we are really looking at natural selection, I still maintain that the signals had the opposite effect – at least for the Jews. Over and over, their devotion to their rituals leads others to persecute them. The Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Germans. The signals they sent through sacrifice and circumcision were disadvantages in terms of survival. The Jews did have other, less painful traditions and traits that would have made them attractive partners for trade and commerce - Reading and writing, for instance, but these things would not send the signals of adherence to God’s laws that you spoke of earlier.
The question here is whether costly religious rituals like circumcision and other examples of sacrifices have a social function. I am persuaded by costly signaling theory that they do.
Most human beings (like our cousins, the chimpanzees) require the protection of a group to have a chance to survive and mate at all, let alone to do so in some measure of comfort and security. For most males in either species, across long periods of time, this meant staying within the group in which they were born. Conversion was not an option. The survival of the group, then, was a paramount problem that had to be constantly solved.
Human beings are extraordinarily capable of cooperation, something that explains the success of our species. That means that individuals within the group must be able to trust one another. This is one of the primary drivers of the evolution of morality.
What we do know from looking at existing human societies as well as records of earlier ones is that costly signaling is one of the mechanisms that support group cohesion. Yes, as Ms. Flint points out, what binds one group together may well make enemies of other groups. That is precisely the point. Solidarity with is both necessary and possible because it is solidarity against.
The dress and language of Hutterites keeps that population of Anabaptists distinct from the surround population, as the aversion to technology does for the Amish. These costly rituals certainly do arouse the ire of the larger, stronger peoples among which they dwell. Is it not obvious that it is also essential to their survival as a group? Yes, the Jews might have reduced the friction between themselves and the Greeks, Romans, Germans, etc., by dropping circumcision, the dietary laws, ritual prayers, etc. In every generation, some Jews made that choice. We cannot say what happened to them for they ceased to be Jews. The Jews are still in Hebron because some Jews in every generation stubbornly refused to assimilate. It seems to me obvious that the cost of their rituals is the key factor in their survival.
I think that the general point is evident in the Biblical text and here I return to Machiavelli. He pointed out in The Prince that it is possible to look at Moses as a political leader with the same problems and the same solutions as other founding fathers. Somewhere in The Discourses he directs our attention to a famous scene in Exodus.
This scene is presented in that great film, The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston in his robes and magnificent beard comes down from the mountain with God’s tablets, only to find that his people have gone funny. In anger he hurls the tablets to the ground. They break and God’s lightening comes out, burning the lewd revels with a fiery wrath.
That’s not how it happens in Exodus 32.25.
Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
It wasn’t God’s fire, precisely, that allowed Moses to regain control of his people. It was iron in the hands of the sons of Levi. Moses restored order by ordering the death of three thousand of his own people!
Why did this work? It put the fear of God into the hearts of everyone who survived the slaughter and it bound the Levites to Moses. After all, if his leadership fails, their asses are oatmeal. Lots of folks will remember and want revenge. So we see that costly signaling can be costly indeed and that it not only makes enemies of other people but can also involve terrible costs within the group.
It did work. Moses maintained control and the Levites went on to become the priestly class. Think about that and look at a picture of Machiavelli.
I hold that this story is very true. It has astonishing and multidimensional depth. Its roots are deep in both secular and religious history. It has roots also in biological history. Human beings are more than animals precisely because we are at least animals. Religion and the sacrifices it always entails would not be ubiquitous among human beings if it had not solid biological foundations.