Violence—deliberate, organized, and systematic—is the price humanity has paid through long millennia for the blessings of civilization. Whether this is an inescapable dynamic or whether there is a way to break the Faustian bargain between progress and mass killing is an open question, but the record of our past at least is clear: basic order, economic prosperity, and social cohesion have all been the harvest of what Karen Armstrong calls “fields of blood”. And religion, having played a vital role in civilization, has been implicated in the bloodshed from the beginning.
Ms. Armstrong’s point (in FIELDS OF BLOOD: Religion and the History of Violence) is that religion can no more be singled out for blame when it comes to human violence than can any number of other factors: ambition, politics, economics, urbanization, nationalism, ethnic conflicts, mimetic rivalries, science, technology, etc. Religion is simply one more thing that human beings do, a cultural tool that can be, and is, both used and misused; it’s a force that gives us meaning, a force that brings us together, and a force that can tear us apart. Our problem, Ms. Armstrong reminds us, isn’t religion: it’s us.
That said, I was particularly struck by Ms. Armstrong’s quick (and not entirely accurate) tutorial in neuroanatomy. “Each of us,” she explains, “has not one but three brains that coexist uneasily.” Our evolved brains include, first, the “’old brain’ that we inherited from the reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime 500 million years ago…” This oldest part of our brain was (and is) a brute survival mechanism “with absolutely no altruistic instincts…urging [us] to feed, fight, flee (when necessary) and reproduce.” This is the “reptilian brain,” the “core brain” that allowed pre-human and proto-human creatures “to compete mercilessly for food, ward off any threat, dominate territory, and seek safety…” Creatures that succeeded in doing those things reproduced and passed along their genes, “so these self-centered impulses could only intensify.”
The story continues: “But sometime after the mammals appeared, they evolved what neuroscientists call the limbic system, perhaps about 120 million years ago. Formed over the core brain derived from the reptiles, the limbic system motivated all sorts of new behaviors, including the protection and nurture of young as well as the formation of allinaces with other individuals that were invaluable in the struggle to survive. And so, for the first time, sentient beings possessed the capacity to cherish and care for creatures other than themselves.” 1
And then, the third part of our tripartite brain evolved: “About twenty thousand 2 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age, human beings evolved a ‘new brain,’ the neocortex, home of the reasoning powers and self-awareness that enable us to stand back from the instinctive, primitive passions. Humans thus became roughly as they are today, subject to the conflicting impulses of their three distinct brains.”
The late Arthur Koestler suggested that the rapid (in evolutionary terms) development of the human cerebrum/neocortex made our brain something of an unstable mutation, and one to which we still have not become accustomed: in other words, as a species we have gotten much too smart much too quickly for our own good, which is why we employ so much of our intelligence in aggressive, destructive, and self-destructive ways.
There is much evidence for Mr. Koestler’s contention; we call that evidence “history” and you can, as the saying goes, look it up.3 Humans are not merely “trousered apes,” as C.S. Lewis said; we are also freakishly smart cold-blooded killers, reptilian survival machines armed with increasingly advanced weaponry. And that, it seems to me, much more than religion, is at the heart of our struggles with violence.
1 Ms. Armstrong adds, “Although these limbic emotions would never be as strong as the ‘me first’ drives still issuing from our reptilian core, we humans have evolved a substantial hard-wiring for empathy for other creatures, and especially for our fellow humans.” Consider that: even after 120 million years or more (see footnote #2 below), our less selfish and more expansive limbic emotions are still not as strong as our much older reptilian survival instincts. That’s not a very impressive learning curve.
2 Ms. Armstrong does not note her source for this claim, but her “twenty thousand years” seems off by a factor of, oh, 5000 to 10,000. Every source I’ve checked says that the human neocortex came into existence between 100 million and 200 million years ago; it is indisputably the newest part of our brain, but it is nowhere as recent as Ms. Armstrong claims--twenty thousand years ago isn't even "yesterday" in evolutionary terms, it's more like "two seconds ago". Armstrong is also, I believe, incorrect on the development of the limbic brain, which dates not to 120 million years ago but to something like 250 million years ago. Those numerical errors (if such they are) do not, of course, change the main point about brain structure or about the larger picture of brain evolution.
3 The distinguished scientist Steven Pinker makes the contrary argument in his book BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE in which he reprises, at great length, the Beatles’ jaunty I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time…