Interning in November

In 1959, the renowned physicist and novelist, C. P. Snow, delivered an address entitled The Two Cultures in which he bemoaned the unfathomable gulf between scientific and humanistic literacy. Each enterprise was just too narrowly focused to bridge the difficult policy decisions of the modern world which, he felt, required an integration of scientific methodology with the insights into the human condition furnished only by an artistic or literary understanding of the expressive life. I am not sure that we have overcome this divide in the half-century since his lecture, but many liberal religions, such as Unitarian Universalism, pay lip service to their reconciliation in sermons and in religious education.

C. P. Snow, however, was not so acquainted with certain social sciences–particularly from North America–that from their inception have attempted such an integration. I’m thinking, most particularly, of anthropology and archaeology which ever since the 1960s have sought a scientific approach to interpreting cultural phenomena.

Recently, a couple of fascinating reports from these fields have the capability of transforming our biased views about religion and ethics. The first is a study conducted by the anthropologist Dean Snow (no relation, I presume) from Penn State. He analyzed a large set of Paleolithic cave paintings from Spain and France such as those made famous in Werner Herzog’s 2010 surreal documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Received opinion concluded that the uncannily representational drawings of bison and bears and horses were drawn by men–male hunters who represented these animals as a form of sympathetic magic to facilitate their kill. Dean Snow, rather conclusively showed that the adjoining hand prints to these cave paintings were female hands, based on the ratio of digit lengths, index to middle fingers. Since the 1800s, we have often heard that religion and art were invented by men for the purpose of facilitating hunting; Snow’s results leave us in a quandary of interpretive mud. What were cave women doing when they painted wild animals. Could we be witnessing the rudiments of eco-theology? A harmonizing of the human with the wild?

Another study conducted by the primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University found that the odd species of chimps, the bonobos, whose hierarchies are based on affectional rather than aggressive behavior, exhibit empathy toward orphaned bonobos through hugging and other forms of close physical contact. The Ancient Near Eastern religions, Mesopotamian and Israelite, frequently dictate an ethical concern for orphans and widows. Could we have inherited such a specific empathic concern? Could our God, as well as our primate behavioral genetics prime us to console those who are underprivileged or lost–an inchoate liberation theology among bonobos? Perhaps science and religion are mutually reflecting enterprises, if we delve deeply enough.

Shanti, Roy