RELIGION, HYPNOSIS, AND MUSIC!
Good morning and welcome back to my church!
Answers to these and to thousands of other equally puzzling questions have, from 1859 onward, formed a part of the enduring legacy left by the great British naturalist who by plowing under the "Garden of Eden," completed the work begun by Copernicus when he pulled down the "heavenly firmament."
Although the scientific answers to these and similar questions had been familiar to me since high school days, there were other questions which appeared to me to be unanswerable in Darwinian terms, questions which required many years and much thought before I could reconcile them with Darwin's theory.
Take religion, for instance. If religion is all a pack of lies - a muddle of myths - why would natural selection allow religion to survive? How could natural selection allow behavior that has nothing at all to do with the real world to develop in the first place? Could Survival of the Falsest be a corollary derivable from Survival of the Fittest?
And then there is the puzzle of hypnosis. Why are many people and some animals hypnotizable? Where is the fitness in being susceptible to hypnotic suggestion and manipulation? After having experimented with hypnosis for many years, and after having performed a great variety of experiments with both humans and animals, I was shocked to discover that hypnotizability is not simply a "weakness" in the sense that a person is lacking in physical or mental strength. Many of the most brilliant and physically fit persons I have known have proven to be highly hypnotizable, whereas certain psychotics and mentally retarded individuals have been, for all practical purposes, unhypnotizable.
Without regard to race, sex, or IQ, three out of every five people one meets on the street are hypnotizable. Why would such seeming vulnerability slip through the screen of natural selection and take up residence in the nervous system of the most powerful animal the planet has known?
My third evolutionary puzzle was music. Why should humans have invented music? While music and musical ability are not in any obvious way harmful (and, therefore, not characters likely to be eliminated by Natural selection), neither are these traits obviously useful in the sense that they increase human fitness for survival. Consequently, there would appear to be no good reason for them to have evolved.
Human music is not the equivalent of bird song. It does not function as a means of marking territory, and it is of little more that marginal value in attracting mates. No matter to what height of esthetic triumph Beethoven may transport us with his Ninth Symphony, it is not easy to see any obvious way in which fugues and four-part choruses can have helped us climb the great phylogenetic tree to reach our present perch.
After pondering these three questions for many years, I gradually came to the realization that they were closely interrelated. All three shared a common explanation. All could be explained in terms of what biologists call group fitness.
Unlike individual fitness - that bundle of qualities which affects the survivability of individual plants or animals - group fitness affects the survivability of small or medium-sized groups of closely related individuals. Such groups often are little more than greatly extended families, and they tend to be genetically quite homogenous.
Whether we like it or not, there was a long time ago when religion was actually a "good" thing. That is to say, religion increased group fitness. Let me try to explain.
In the course of human evolution, the accumulation of genetic mutations proved to be too slow a process for the shaping of the adaptive behaviors needed to cope with environmental changes. That is to say, instinct - behavior largely determined by heredity - was not good enough to give primitive hominids the behavioral repertoires needed in their increasingly complex and confusing world. By means too complicated to discuss here, our ancestors all but abandoned the instinct-driven behavior of their brutish brethren and created, as its substitute, culture.
By means of culture, very complex patterns of behavior can be created. They can be created to deal with infinitely varied environmental challenges, and they can be created quickly. Although we may often bemoan the seeming snail-pace at which our own culture abandons what we now consider maladaptive behaviors, there is no doubt that cultural change is many orders of magnitude faster than genetic change.
Back to religion, How does religion fit into all this talk about tribes and culture? Quite simply. Religion in small groups may be very effective in increasing group cohesion. It may help to mark the boundaries between in-group and out-group, the line between us and them. As Jerry Falwell and the Ayatollah Khomeini have shown, religion deftly applied can convert individually weak little insects into a mighty hoard of army ants. It can fuse individual organisms into a sort of Nietzchean super-organism.
At the tribal stage of human social evolution, religion helped to create group behaviors which enhanced the survival potential of the in-group at the expense of out-groups. Consider the dietary taboos of the so-called Old Testament.
We read in Deut. , "Ye shall not eat of anything that dieth of itself: Thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou mayest sell it unto an alien." Since a animal dying by itself is likely to be diseased, we shouldn't eat it. Give it - better yet, sell it - to one of THEM. With luck, there may soon be one less of THEM, and our group will have gained a numerical advantage of one more unit!
This truly "old time religion" developed at the end of the last Ice Age, when the tribe was the largest human grouping maintaining any degree of coherence. The religion of the Old Testament is a cultural fossil held over from the Pleistocene Epoch, and it reflects an atmosphere of intense intergroup competition. Petrified like the bones in a paleontologist's cabinet, the greatest ideas of the Ice Age still can be found on display between Genesis and Malachi!
Humans are gregarious creatures. They and their ancestors for a very long time have been herd animals. Like all herd animals, they must be sensitive to the moves and signals of their fellow flock-members. Just as a buffalo defensive stampede would be useless if only one animal stampeded, so too our hominid ancestors had to be able to act in concert against threats from predators and other enemies.
To do this, they had to be able to perceive and internalize the desires and motivations of their fellows in the pack. Not yet in possession of language to effect such communication, our ancestors had to be suggestible. In our ancestors, as is generally the case with herd animals today, the emotions and intentions of the leaders of the herd were communicated to the rest of the flock by "body language," and by the power of nonverbal suggestion.
Suggestion, whether verbal or not, is, of course, the foundation of hypnosis.
Hypnotism had been the tool of shamans and medicine men from the very beginning. The ability to be hypnotized, i.e. suggestibility, was part of our heritage as gregarious animals. All the priests had to do was harness it and, therewith, harness the entire tribe at once. Once hypnotized, the entire tribe could be sent out to do battle as though it were a super-organism, as if the individuals were but individual cells in a great body - sharing a common gene pool and governed by a single head.
And battle they did - and still do. "And the Lord said unto him, 'Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man'." [Judges ] "Kill a commie for Christ!" "Stop that wicked woman who has expelled our god from the classrooms!"
If my readers think the term "hypnosis" can be applied to religion only in the metaphorical sense, they should hasten to the nearest tabernacular, faith-healing, full-gospel-assembly, fire-baptized, holy-rolling revival meeting. They will see hypnosis in action, replete with people falling on the ground, jerking and twitching and babbling. They will be able to observe how the contagion spreads from the leaders to the followers. They will observe the anesthetic power of hypnosis, as real cripples - not just the shills - throw down their crutches and prance around to the tune of crunching bone-joints.
Make no mistake about it. The hypnosis used by preachers is real hypnosis. The priests were the first to control it, and to this day they and their politician brethren are the most skilled practitioners of the art.
How do they do it? there are many different ways of inducing a hypnotic state of consciousness, and generally the fakirs use many methods simultaneously. For neurochemical reasons which are still not entirely clear, fasting is a useful means of preconditioning the nervous system to make it more malleable and suggestible. Although lowering of blood sugar probably has much to do with it, it is likely that hormone-like substances known as endogenous opioids are also involved. As the name implies, these chemicals are internally produced opiate-like substances which resemble morphine in their action.
Although Karl Marx was speaking metaphorically when he wrote that "Religion is the opiate of the masses," his words may prove to be literally true as well. There is considerable evidence that hypnosis and "transcendental" meditation can increase the production of certain of these opioids by the brain. The hallucinations so often accompanying religious experiences may very well be a result of opioid intoxication and verbal suggestions implanted by the "guru" guiding the religious "trip."
Another method of inducing hypnosis is long repeated prayer. When people pray for "a sign," they repeat over and over what it is they want to see or hear. Sooner or later, if their nervous systems are even slightly normal, they should be able to generate vivid experiences fulfilling their wishes. Only wealthy men who say god speaks to them are frauds. Poor people who say this are simply self-deluded.
Although we are accustomed to think of prayer as a type of cosmic begging, it is likely that this type of prayer was a late evolutionary development. The original purpose of prayer, I believe, was to induce trance and, thereby, to effect hallucinatory communication with the "spirit world."
Many faith-healing practitioners of hypnosis induce trance-like receptiveness in their prey by physically stunning them. They "lay on hands." Starting with their hands on the crown of the victim's head, they utter their hypnotic suggestions (i.e. "prayers") while gradually moving their hands down the side of the person's head. Finally, when their hands are on the person's neck and ears, they will suddenly put pressure on the nerve-rich cavity behind the ear and on the carotid sinus farther down the neck. This stuns and disorients the victim, and he or she becomes very imprintable. The verbal suggestions of the healer become implanted within as little as two or three seconds.
Of course, this does not always work. If the person being "healed" has a weak cardiovascular system, or if the "healer" presses on the carotid sinus too long, cardiac arrest may result and god cheats the evangelist out of the poor bloke's money. At least one notorious faith healer of our day has given up the practice because of this embarrassing and expensive side-effect. The reader must realize, this method of inducing hypnosis is extremely dangerous, and no competent practitioner will employ it. Only religionists still flirt with it.
But there is a much safer way than nerve-pinching to reduce the faithful to submission: music. Carefully selected hymns can be incredibly powerful tools with which to induce trance. Perhaps the most infamous of these hymns is the one called Just As I Am. By the time Billy Graham and his ilk have brought the crowd to the point of singing this war-horse, the resistance of the audience has already been worn down considerably. And by the time that everyone locks arms and starts singing "I come… I come," only a few can resist the call to rush forth and shoot up on Jesus.
The evolutionary roots of music can be seen very clearly in such phenomena as American Indian war dances and religious chants. Music did not begin with harmony and stringed instruments. It began with rhythm, with monotonously repeated, rhythmic words and sounds. Drumming surely represents the beginning of instrumental music, and to this day the most primitive forms of music emphasize drums. So too, singing grew out of chanting - the rhythmic repetition of magic words and phrases.
How does music relate to evolutionary fitness?
Consider the Indian war dance. The drumming, chanting, and dancing produce a sensory environment suitable for the induction of hypnotic trance. Once all the warriors are hypnotized, they can act in concert (no pun intended) to rush forth and wipe out the genetic competition.
They will not know fear; they will not hesitate; and they will give without hesitation their last full measure to the enterprise. Perhaps the most important part of all this is that all will follow orders reflexively, and there will be a minimum of disorder. The competitive advantages of such behavior are obvious.
Thus, music evolved as a means of inducing hypnotic trance. Hypnotic susceptibility, although older than the human species itself, was elaborated by natural selection as a means of increasing intragroup cohesion and as a means of producing highly ordered, efficient competitive behavior at the intergroup level. As cultural transmission of learned behavior replaced genetic transmission of instinctive behavior, religion emerged as the system deciding the ends for which hypnosis would be applied.
The actual mythical content of the individual religions probably did not make much difference: Zeus and Yahweh and Baal are all imaginary, and there is no obvious reason to recommend one over another. However the structure of the cultural organizations behind the various deities was of great importance. It is obvious that the wizards who pulled the strings in the
Approaching the end of our story, we see that religion, hypnosis, and music are intimately and unexpectedly interrelated in their evolutionary origins. The three originated together, and all three were critically important factors in making us the creatures we are today. All three are "natural" phenomena, and can be reconciled with the theory of evolution as we understand it today.
We must remember, however, that things are not automatically to be adjudged good or desirable simply because they are "natural." To do so is to fall into the "natural law" fallacy so dear to the Catholic Church. To say that something is "natural" implies nothing more than "that's the way things are at the moment." It does not say we have to keep things that way. In many cases we are free to decide to travel "unnatural," newly created paths.
Religion is like the human appendix: although it was functional in our distant ancestors, it is of no use today. Just as the appendix today is a focus of physical disease, so too religion today is a focus of social disease. Although religion was a force accelerating human evolution during the Ice Ages, it is now an atavism of negative value.
Religion still promotes tribal divisions, even though we must recognize that all "tribes" must henceforth work together for a common cause or all shall surely perish together. No single tribe will survive unless all tribes survive. The divisions created by religions must be eliminated.
The disappearance of religion will be as great a tragedy as the disappearance of smallpox. We will all survive its passing without difficulty and without tears.
But what of music and hypnosis? are they also atavisms? Are they now tainted because of their former religious associations? I think not.
Music clearly has emerged from its religious cradle and has transported us all to a realm of human emotion and esthetic fulfillment more "heavenly" than any heaven imagined by the creators of that celestial hunk of real estate!
Music has been set free of its fetters. It may now soar with the human intellect into any esthetic empyrean that intellect may choose to create. The finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony can help us to feel more intensely the universal brotherhood of mankind as we hurtle along on the cosmic journey of this spaceship we call earth.
And what of hypnosis? Is it only a tool of unethical control? Must it be forsworn because Hitler and Jim Jones used it?
Unlike the case concerning music, the answer to this question is not quite as easy to formulate. We cannot deny that even today hypnotic suggestion can be used for evil purposes. But to be forewarned is to be fore-armed. We must always keep in mind that as suggestible creatures we are potentially vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous persons. But we should not forget that many of the features that most deeply define our humanity derive from the same neuronal circuitry that makes us suggestible.
For what are sympathy and empathy, if not elaborations of our suggestibility? Because we are suggestible, because our emotions are contagious, we can walk into the funeral of a total stranger and quickly feel the same sense of grief and loss as the mourners. We can also see a strange child take its first steps in a public park and feel the same excitement and exhilaration as do its parents.
Because we are suggestible, we can feel sympathy. Because we can feel the same pains as our fellow beings, we will not be uncaring of their plight. We will avoid causing pain in others because our suggestible natures make possible the reflection of that pain back upon us. We are happiest when making others happy, and we do not need mythic systems to make us do good and eschew evil: our nervous systems are hard-wired by evolution to help us do that.
Because our individual happiness is so sensitive to the emotional milieu in which we find ourselves, enlightened self-interest is all we need. With that we shall create an ethical system more true to our natures. We shall strive to cast off the irrelevant totems and taboos of our religious past, that we may emerge into a satisfying new world of ethical fulfillment.
Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com