Sinners, repent! How our natural self-bias got us into this mess
This interview originally appeared in the Last Word on Nothing.
Dearest readers, we hope you had a gluttonous, slothful, greedy, and lustful holiday, with only the tiniest touches of wrath. My compatriots and I at the Last Word on Nothing are celebrating the season with a series of posts on the Seven Deadly Sins. I got things started with a conversation with conservation biologist Michael Soule, the founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and The Wildlands Network and a professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. In recent years, in pursuit of an ultimate explanation for human reluctance to protect biodiversity, Soule has turned his attention to the seven deadlies, examining their history and evolution as both a scientist and a longtime Buddhist practitioner. I spoke with Soule at his home in western Colorado.
Q. From a biologist’s perspective, what is sin?
A. Sin is about the most primitive emotional elements of survival and reproduction. If you look at the seven deadly sins, you see that each of them concerns a major component of fitness — how we survive, and how we succeed in courtship and reproduction.
So in that sense, there’s nothing biologically bad about any of the sins. All of them are necessary for survival and reproduction.
Q. So the reproductive purpose of lust is obvious. What about the other sins?
A. Well, let’s start with greed, which evolutionarily is by far the oldest sin — as old as life itself. All organisms have to seek resources, and in our species this desire for energy leads to the sin of greed, because our awareness of selfishness lets us choose to be greedy or not. Competition for resources is also ancient, and with competition comes aversion, or anger, toward one’s competitors. So the second-oldest vice is anger.
Then you have the ancient visceral impulses, those that arise from the animal needs to sleep, eat, and mate: In humans these become sloth, gluttony, and lust. Gluttony is just the inherited desire to eat when food is available, because it’s never certain when the next meal is going to show up. Sloth is simply the need to rest. Lust is clearly essential for sexual reproduction. These five sins are all in the limbic system — they’re primitive.
The two remaining sins are envy and pride, the only so-called sins that are nearly uniquely human. They’re by far the most recent ones, located in the young neocortex, according to functional MRI scans. They require theory of mind — the capacity to understand that other people have minds — and they can only exist in highly social animals. Envy motivates a person to get more stuff, status, or sex. Pride is based on ego, which can be attractive to potential mates and friends.
Q. Does every culture have a concept of sin?
A. Every major spiritual tradition does. The Torah, the five books of Moses, doesn’t talk about sins, but it talks about behaviors and impulses that are bad for the group. It’s a different typology, but it overlaps a lot with sin. As far as I know, sin — the concept of the seven deadly sins — was invented by Horace. The seven sins were adopted by the early Christians as a typology for explaining the obstacles to becoming one with Jesus.
In Buddhism, you have the three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance. So different spiritual traditions have different typologies of sin, but they all end up being about self: too much self, too much me and my cognition.
Q. Have these concepts changed over millennia?
A. The emphasis has changed. For example, the major sin in early Christianity was greed. Then Pope Gregory — St. Gregory, the fifth Pope in the Roman tradition — decided that pride was the mother of all sins. He decided that self-centeredness, self-bias,
was the root of all of our sins, just as the Buddha had believed. It’s a wonderful convergence.
Q. Do you see us shifting that emphasis once again, or even developing new sins or a new set of sins?
A. In the modern world, I think the ranking of the sins is shifting again. Greed is such an overt factor in the destruction of the world. I mean, greed is killing nature, and causing global warming. It’s bringing us down, that’s essentially what Occupy Wall Street is about. So I think that over time, we will shift the ranking of greed and pride again. On the other hand, greed has of course
come to be perceived as a virtue. We certainly reward people who are conspicuous consumers in this society.
Q. We’re all really good at justifying our sins, right?
A. Yes. And that gets back to your other question about modern sins, whether there are any sins that are left out of the old typology. I think there are a lot of them, but my favorite is denial, which in a way is a form of mental sloth.
Denial is really an example of an immature mind. We’re the youngest species of mammal I know about, and we’re just so capable of deluding ourselves, so good at not thinking about things that make us a bit uncomfortable.
When I go to a restaurant with people, I often say, “There’s not much I can eat here,” because it’s all factory-farmed meat, or kinds of seafood that are ecologically problematic. So my companions say, “Well, why don’t you get the shrimp?” I say, “Do you want to know why?” and I go into this elaborate story about all the ecological harm caused by shrimp collecting. I’m a professor, so of course I go on and on. And I get about halfway through my lecture, and people say, “Okay, that’s enough.”
And then they tell the server, “I’ll have the shrimp.”
Q. Is that denial, or rebellion?
A. I don’t know. But rebellion is also denial, I think. We’re capable of infinite levels and degrees of denial.
Q. You said earlier that from a biologist’s perspective there’s nothing wrong with sin, but of course we’ve evolved all these ways to help people resist sin — systems of confessing, systems of making people feel ashamed. Why do cultures try to control our sinful behavior if there’s nothing particularly wrong with it biologically?
A. Everything changed with civilization. Instincts and impulses that were adaptive for an individual or a family have, when expressed on a large scale, become highly nonadaptive for the world, the climate, and even civilization as a whole. Anger, for instance, comes out of the need to compete and reproduce. But anger, when it’s magnified by civilization and war and the kinds of weapons we have now, destroys the planet.
Also, excessive self-bias is harmful to the group, and we’re a social species. The efficient functioning of a social group, whether it’s a war party, a Girl Scout troop, or a town, requires a certain amount of self-control. It’s often believed, and quite often true, that religion is a way of limiting the harm people do to the group.
Q. You’ve said that neuroscience is changing the way we understand sin. Can you tell me about that?
A. Sin was kind of a mystery behaviorally and biologically until about the last 20 years, when people started looking at human behavior under the lens of functional magnetic resonance and electroencephalography and other forms of visualizing what the brain is doing when it is feeling or thinking about certain things, or when the person is behaving in certain ways.
Almost all of the sins have been looked at and been located in the brain. It’s pretty crude at the moment. But still, we know the sins are in the brain, which means that the biological basis is clear. We’re hard-wired to behave in self-biased ways.
Over the last several hundred thousand years, we’ve also become hard-wired to behave in a social way. Which means that the self has to submit to the group in some way, to subordinate its greed and envy and gluttony and so forth to what the group needs to survive. Because we depend on our groups to survive and prosper.
Q. I want to ask you about E.O. Wilson’s recent comment about virtue and sin in The Atlantic. He says that group selection brings about virtue, and individual selection creates sin, and that in a nutshell is an explanation of the human condition. How do you respond to that?
A. I think he’s more or less correct about sin, that sins are self-biased behaviors. But the virtues are also probably sexually selected. That is, they’re about looking good in the context of a highly social group, or actually elevating your status in the group.
Patience, tolerance, and compassion are things that make you attractive as a mate. So the virtues are not just good for the group, they’re good for the individual, too, indirectly.
The virtues, to me, are no different than the sins. They’re just another way of benefiting the individual.
Q. Okay, so where does that leave us? If we’re so hard-wired for self-bias, but yet self-bias is causing other people and other things so much suffering, is there a solution?
A. We’re in deep doo-doo. That’s why we’re destroying the world. That’s why we’re wiping out life on this planet, and why we can’t deal with big problems like climate change. Our self-interest gets in the way. That’s why I’m so pessimistic.
But like all human beings, I’m an optimist at the same time. I just started this new initiative through the Wildlands Network, a National Corridors Campaign, to protect corridors between wildlife habitats and create potential for movement of flora and fauna as the climate changes from Mexico to Canada.
Q. So where did your motivation for that initiative come from?
A. (Laughs) From being an alpha male. Being an alpha-type person, I want recognition, I want to be known as somebody with vision and big ideas, so there’s greed and all that stuff wrapped up in my work. But religious and spiritual practice helps me dampen those motivations a little bit, helps me identify them so you can buffer and moderate them. People on spiritual paths generally know when they’re fucking up.
Q. How else has thinking about sin helped you, on a personal level, contend with your own sins?
A. A lot. It’s subtle, but understanding yourself is the key to growth. The spiritual path, to me, has been really important in tempering and moderating my sinfulness, and reminding me to focus on what is needed for the world, for society, not just for me. Unless you are truly a saint, you really can’t overcome your greed and anger and ignorance. But you can file off the sharp edges, and focus your ambition on projects that are good for society and the world. You can change ambition into aspiration — sometimes.