Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution implies that the most common traits in a population are those that have best helped the organisms to adapt to their environments in the past. Edward O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology says that social forms, which include culture and mythology, evolve according to the same rules as organisms. Given that most humans, both past and present, subscribe to some form of mythology, the species as a whole has apparently evolved to fabricate fictitious world-views in the absence of accurate and comprehensive knowledge. That they do so with such consistency implies that mythology, in whatever form, must have been important to human survival since the species’ emergence.
Humans of the distant past invented and relied upon fictional accounts of their world to fill the voids in their imaginations, for though they had the facility to reason, they did not have the benefit of a comprehensive body of recorded knowledge from which they might infer truths about their world. While social evolution responds much faster to changing conditions than does biological evolution, it still proceeds slowly in terms of individual lifetimes. The characteristics of organisms only change in response to changed conditions, and the conditions under which the trait of free thought might spread among large numbers of humans have only emerged within the past few generations. Many, perhaps most, modern humans are at least aware that a substantial body of knowledge has accumulated over the past two millennia, but only a relative few use that knowledge to free their minds of belief in myths.
In addition to the inertia of social change, another impediment to the widespread appreciation of accumulated knowledge is seen in the measure of human’s mental capacity. Many do not have the mental facilities to ‘connect the dots’ among the accumulated ideas. Were they to learn the basic ideas that lead to free thought, many humans could only trust what they were taught on the authority of the teacher, and only then if it was socially important for them to do so. They would base their world-views on imposed belief rather than on freely analyzed knowledge and fail to appreciate the myriad connections among knowledge, the “Concilience” which Wilson defined in his eponymous book.
Some humans, past and present, have escaped the mental confines of socially evolved mythology to explore the truths discovered by those who have preceded them, and to form their own truthful view of the world. These freethinking humans are a minority today as they probably have been throughout the species’ development, for free thought was almost certainly a severe social liability until very recent times. Many of the so-called heretics of the Spanish Inquisition were no doubt freethinking humans. It is an easy interpolation to go from relatively recent persecutions of freethinkers by myth-believers back in time to the persecution of freethinkers within prehistoric tribes of humans.
Such is not idle speculation. In the distant past, it was more important for humans to organize into (small) cohesive groups than it was for them to be accurate in their introspective thinking about the world around them. In Darwin’s terms, freethinking was selected against in favor of social cohesiveness. While intelligence and open-mindedness convey advantage to individuals, these traits can be at odds with the groupthink of social cohesiveness. For most human ancestors, clear thinking about their universe would have to wait until they and their descendents solved the immediate survival problems of their day.
It took the advent of civilized society that embraced the rights of individuals for humans to gain the social freedom to plumb the depths of their own existence. In civilized societies, especially those with robust economies, humans now have the opportunity to escape the restrictive social conditions under which the species developed, and to allow their minds a full and truthful understanding of the world. That only a few choose to do so is a reflection of the weight of evolved social instinct, and of an inequitable distribution of cognative characteristics that allow some to comprehend, even to independently infer, what others cannot.
Humanists have in common the divergent characteristic of freethinking, and so we must appreciate the times in which we live. The emergence of tolerant society and of robust economies, both recent conditions of our species’ environments, have given us a reprieve from past pressures of natural selection that would have crushed our divergent traits had we lived in earlier times. We are fortunate to live in these times but we must maintain the conditions that have allowed us to flourish: civilized societies, robust economies, and the rights of individuals. In short, we must continue being humanists.