God’s Brain (2010), by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire


In God’s Brain, Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire, respectively a famous anthropologist and a prominent professor of psychiatry, show themselves in an up-to-date late-breaking book to be groundbreaking newsmen for the lay reader; and yet they, scientific tidings bearers from lab experiments and field observations, fall far short of dragonslayer Saint George. To switch metaphors: they correctly (or is it timidly?) stick strictly to a safe-and-sane travel agency itinerary, never leaving the smooth pavement to take beckoning, diverging, but dangerously rutted, still-ill-charted, uphill paths. Their road is the Closed Road.

You wouldn’t know it when their jungle-fit Land Rover first pulls out on a bright morning.

Their announced subject is the nature of religion. Their ensconced subject is the nature of Homo sapiens. The first they render as a daydream. The second they enter as a bad dream.

Their travel agency is staffed by: (1) the publisher and its framing of the book (just look at that title!) for publicity-mongering defaming/defanging of several “rancorous” current prominent atheists, namely, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and the late Hitchens, plus relying on the sure Pavlovian startle of most of their readers–including the probably 80% who have never heard of that nonbeliever foursome–at anything about “religion”; (2) many fellow anthropologists with their normal furor–their formal horror–over the shifting boundaries of their discipline and their reactionary demurring of incursions beyond the official borders of the moment (but thank goodness, say I, for those frequent disorders on the borders; jump out of the box, ambitious anthropologists, and incur to plunder other “disciplines” asunder, and to those of you who do, more power to you!); and (3) the usual fearfuls waiting on a bench below while the stauncher adventurers are braving the wrench of the rollercoasters.

Declaring that until now the nature of religion hasn’t been delved far enough scientifically–that prominent nonbeliever foursome and all their theological and antitheological forbears have been seeking the nature of religion in all the wrong places–Tiger and McGuire in their lab coats entreat us with impeccable politeness and scientific humility to trace the nature of religion to the human brain and only to the human brain (and lose the fulminating, bitterly ill-willed, often deadly middle-distance impressionism central to history’s countless religious spats-to-wars): yes, the late-breaking scientific fact, they say, is this: our human primate selves, standing on the biological scaffolding above the chimps swinging and muttering on rungs not too far below, and we desperately adaptive human primates ever stressfully afflicted in this inscrutable, astonishing, and perilous world with danger, uncertainty and, since our human brains have “evolved to act rather than to think,” that worst curse, ambiguity, we humans naturally crave in our survivalist character frequent “brainsoothing.”  It is an irrepressible, above all indispensably adaptive, human urge–this imperative brainsoothing.

Brainsoothing is the new explanation for religion, say the authors, for religion gives us–well, anyway, 80% of us billions distributed among some 4,200 religious sects globally–just what we need to satisfy our perennial hierarchical primate needs for belief, socialization and ritual and hence for survival-fitness–with specifically the crucial brainsoothing (and here, I imagine, Tiger the anthropologist of human social behavior hands the baton to McGuire, the brain scientist of every gray-matter electro-chemical neighbor) finally arising entirely from the complex dynamics of serotonin, dopamine and much more brain chemistry and electrical activity we’re discovering more about daily; religion being, in short, and though the authors wince but still evince, at bottom, after all the considerable theological awe and holy wars and awful burning of heretics and sacking of libraries and strapping-on of bomb belts down the centuries, basically a serotonin fix. (The wince is, I believe, a smug stage wince.)

I.e., the religious sum of the centuries: Grace = serotonin.

But not to get ahead of ourselves: Religion = brainsoothing. Brainsoothing = pleasant, crucially saving brain chemistry: Be Happy, Don’t Worry (at least for the Sunday service or the daily prayers). And so: Here we have the true human calendar: BC = brain chemistry; AD = anthropological development.

A laboratory experiment with chimps not so many years ago conducted at UCLA, we’re told, pounded a proverbial nail in the coffin of the old theology and its history from cloister to raised swords and scimitars since it steadfastly revealed, despite every conceivable lab challenge mounted to it, that there is only one calendar: BCAD: Dominant male chimps have now and likely have always had higher serotonin levels induced by cues of submission and awe these dominant prominents see from their submissive pack members, members who in turn get soothed by being dominated though there are also ample ceremonies of egalitarianism for them in the religious scheme of things; and, moving up the scaffolding to humans, the afterlife is after all open to all, high and low. Re the literal brain chemical drain in “religion”: Think of the cueing as inside-to-outside but likewise outside-to-inside. Religious brainsoothing arises from activity outside as well as from activity inside. We humans are mostly more advanced than chimps, of course (though to survive, chimps in their short-term memory recall six hundred plants and each’s season and we don’t because to do so we have no reason), and the inside-outside/outside-inside principle applies uniquely prolifically to humans.

Certainly we’ve understood since the beginning of awareness that by definition the outside world affects the inside swirl of the brain. But we’ve done so at the middle distance: savvy, not science: for example, the passed-down tricks of magicians and con artists and fire-and-brimstone preachers and game show hosts and many, many other showbiz types as well as the tactics of propagandizers, advertisers and the lot–what works, what sways, what deceives, what “brainwashes”; but the principles of that  breakthrough in the laboratory with chimps has of late braced focus groups, pollsters, TV and movie ratings businesses and, truly, the whole current industry of relentless, ubiquitous persuasion here in Advancedville. Yes, now there is brain science that underscores the manipulating of electrochemical processes that are, we’ve known deeply, addictive, Marx’s opiate; and, say Tiger and McGuire, balm for prevailing on a tough and avid globe and therefore A Good Thing because it is species-adaptive.

Yes, we know more and more about characteristic primate behaviors that facilitate soothing us as we face uncertainty, isolation and dread ambiguity: it’s a matter of squishy brains–not squishy Theology–from whence all religion comes and where God resides: in fact He owns this brain, His throne, His possession, while owning nothing Outside in the external world, not even one sparrow; and, God’s Brain would seem to say, religion evidently is still the most predominant human brainsoothing behavior (though, you might ask, Is the pursuing masked and caped Super[Secular]man, the Vanity Fair serotonin pro, gaining?).

Well, no matter who wins such a race, say the authors, now we come to the nub, the rub, the hub: Belief.

We’re the primate whose imagination towers over that of other primates, as evidenced in our great religions. Chimps do, we are told by the authors, sometimes gather in quiet, vaulted jungle clearings which may well be natural cathedrals, and they appear to do so for respite, rest, peace; something, perhaps, of a religious retreat that brings brainsoothing. But we humans build actual cathedrals. More importantly, we have religious stories–scriptures, doctrines, dogmas–and even though they have no scientifically based literal existence in the factual world, or so a growing many, including Tiger and McGuire, think, we behave as though these artifacts were as real as a rock, a drop of rain, the sound of a tree falling; indeed, they are often treated as truths superior to those merely observed. In anthropology, this process of a kind of realization of the imaginary is called attribution. Here, we might well think less of attribution and more of “realization” in the sense that Henry James speaks of literature: the evocation of a reality from mere words–one way of getting at what essentially happens in art.

However, the authors focus on mysterious attribution as limited to soothing brain activity. Simultaneously, it seems to me, they wished to write a narrow book that immediately gains play from “God” and “religion” and “atheism”–rides the constant public current of that clash–and yet stay within the confines, dicey as they may be, of anthropology. So they do not adventure. They do not go off-route. And so they are caught in a familiar trap, as the following apology, made elsewhere in other forms in God’s Brain, shows:

“We have not said that believers are crazy and suffer from delusions and mental deficits. Since, as we have observed, nearly all human societies indulge in some sort of religion and belief, this perspective would commit the entire species to insanity, a difficult position for naturalists, which, however,  few have sought to sustain.”

No surprise!

Here is the same wriggling in the same trap but outside “religion,” this time by Dorothy Rabinowitz in a Wall Street Journal piece on the theme of political correctness:

“Reporters ran with the theme in part because the media’s appetite for victim stories of any kind is inexhaustible.”

In Example One, Tiger and McGuire, after seemingly doing everything but coming out and saying that the 80% of humanity belonging to one or more of the approximately 4,200 religious sects are practicing attribution entirely because it provides a serotonin fix and in turn is valid as a species survival response but that the objects of attribution–the “soothing” imaginings–have no scientific basis for being realistic, i.e., existing in the real world–that the centuries-old drama of theology is itself simply part of the attribution, e.g., the number of angels that can stand on the point of a needle–try nevertheless, do these two anxious authors, to avoid, and if need be insistently deny, that obvious conclusion: The Great Unspoken. In Example Two, Rabinowitz follows the same rule–never forget about the Great Unspoken–and here, in a somewhat more secular context, she puts the blame for victimology on the media’s appetite for it and, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal (have you gotten the envelope with the discount for renewing early?), she must, I confidently surmise, not have enthusiasm for talking about the readers’ appetite to which the sanctimonious media, whose business is, after all, business, is surely responding in its relentless and lamentable presentation of victim stories. Give ’em what they want, but never call ’em out: the customer is always right.

It’s killing a mouse with a bazooka, I guess, but perhaps a good thing to do every few years is to rent Triumph of the Will and, after watching it, think about the polite correctness and scrupulous “fairness” of the focus in thinking such as that in God’s Brain and where such thinking does not want to go.

Doubtless, the science and continuous practice of the serotonin fix is something concerning to ponder.

But there are a precious few bright spots in History, triumphs of sanity, which on reflection can curb your anthropology to the good; and perhaps that anthropology also can be redeemed by some secular narratives–imaginary works–which don’t leave you ever quite innocent (including violently innocent) and which are realistic in a special mimetic sense, one which escapes the designation of mere “attribution.” They can be experiences which birth a second version of you less innocent than the original and which looks down providentially from a small height at the original and what that original is doing, especially what it’s believing. Call it the Guardian Angel’s Brain.

So: let’s have some
of that serotonin
I’ll recommend some:
Hester Prynne
Huck Finn
His friend, Jim
Ahab, Captain
Henry at Walden
Hobgoblin Emerson
Emily Dickinson
“Myself’s” Whitman
Clemons, Sam
The Fenimore Mohican
From Baltimore, Edgar’s Nevermore Raven
Thomas Sutpen
Gatsby vs. Tom Buchanan
Papa Hem
Capote, Truman
Pollack, Jackson
Moriarty, Dean
(in that ’49 V-8 Hudson)
Caulfield, Holden
Humbert Hum-
Ralph Ellison
Toni Morison
George Gershwin
Copland, Aaron
Chandler, Raymond
Benny Goodman
Art Tatum
Duke Ellington
Miller, Glenn
Basie, William
Charlie Parker always anon
Arthur Rubinstein
Leonard Bernstein
Rabbit Angstrom
Thomas Pynchon
Joan Didion
DeLillo, Don
Herzog on Avenue Michigan
Father Urban
(traveling Chicagoan)
Crazy Zuckerman
Oscar Wao, the Dominican
And These from filmdom:
Scottie Ferguson
Shane, gunman
Kubrick, Stan-
Harry of the Magnum
Ryan Bingham
Jake of Chinatown
Brockovich, Erin
Spielberg, Steven
Rockford, Jim
Doyle, Jim-
Welles, Orson
John Huston
Mason Chasin’
And Sister Aloysius, the nun

Hope this was fun
via your serotonin
for it was fun
in person
and now I’m done.