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Atheistic Anthropology Has Lost Its Mind

August 22, AD 2013 23 Comments

Does anything about this title of a paper from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) give you pause?

Anthropologists Study the Genesis of Reciprocity in Food Sharing

“Scientists who study mankind” have studied the “origin” of why humans share food. It’s a report on the work of evolutionary biologists who conducted a meta-analysis on the behavior of primates — humans, monkeys, and apes. Guess what they found?

They found that primates share food. 

“The meta-analysis clearly established that there is reciprocity in sharing both among humans and among other primates that remained significant even after controlling for other factors such as kinship, dominance relationships, and spatial proximity,” said Jaeggi, a postdoctoral student in anthropology at UCSB. “Based on our meta-analysis of existing studies, we were able to find no significant differences between humans, monkeys, and apes.”

Where does the “genesis” part come it? No, it’s not Biblical, the idea is called “reciprocal altruism”. It says that sharing is an evolved behavior in animals to benefit their own species.

“Our findings support the idea that actions that benefit another individual tend to, ultimately, also benefit the giver –– either because the recipient is genetically related to the giver or will eventually return the favor,” Jaeggi said. “Of course, the giver doesn’t have to be consciously aware of the return benefits.”

Through natural selection, humans have evolved to form emotional attachments to others and engage in long-term relationships within which reciprocity benefits everyone involved. “This is supported by research showing that reciprocity in many species develops over long periods of time –– much more so than on an immediate tit-for-tat basis,” said Jaeggi.

I’m not saying that there is no evolutionary basis for this theory among animals. There are plenty of examples of reciprocal altruism in nature. For example, female bats live in colonies. To eat, they must leave the roost and find a mammal with blood, but finding a large mammal only happens sporadically. If they did not share food, they would all die because they cannot all leave the roost and find their own food often enough to survive. Since a single bat can drink almost one-third her body weight, some leave and drink a whole bunch of blood and share with the others tending the roost. Evolutionary theory holds that this behavior is genetic, thus, the bats with the food-sharing and eat-a-whole-bunch-at-once genes survived to reproduce, and those genes were passed on. The theory holds if the behavior is purely genetic. In bats, it may be.

But if this theory is extended to humans, then it implies that all our behavior is a function of our genes and instincts too, a theory that by necessity rules out that humans are made in the image of God and have intelligent minds and free will.

If you want to know why I share food, just ask me. Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that I’m genetically predisposed to instinctively share food, I’m not saying there’s nothing true at all about the theory, but I also could have a million other relevant reasons for sharing too, many of which have some basis in the practice of virtue. There’s more to human behavior than genetics and brain machinery.

Seems obvious, right?

Well, no, not to everyone, and that’s my point. An atheistic mindset in science is precisely what underlies the asking of such questions about the “genesis of reciprocity in food sharing,” and then leads people to expend capital and resources to gather data to answer them. These are the “fictitious theories” of atheism that Pope Pius XII warned about in Humani generis 63 years ago (§32). If it is assumed that there is no God and that Christ is only a myth, then the logical conclusion of that assumption is that mankind evolved as a series of naturally selected genetic mutations from a primordial soup, that no man or woman has a soul, and that humans have no free intellectual power. It’s Darwinism. All that separates us from apes is evolutionary progress.

It’s not just this study, but entire research programs have grown from these “fictitious theories”. Read this from The Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UCSB, the university whose researchers conducted this study. (The whole essay is worth reading if only to understand the nuances of the theory.) Note, the theory requires that the mind is defined as something material.

In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.


In the final pages of the Origin of Species, after he had presented the theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin made a bold prediction: “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” Thirty years later, William James tried to do just that in his seminal book, Principles of Psychology, one of the founding works of experimental psychology (James, 1890). In Principles, James talked a lot of “instincts”. This term was used to refer (roughly) to specialized neural circuits that are common to every member of a species and are the product of that species’ evolutionary history. Taken together, such circuits constitute (in our own species) what one can think of as “human nature”.

It was (and is) common to think that other animals are ruled by “instinct” whereas humans lost their instincts and are ruled by “reason”, and that this is why we are so much more flexibly intelligent than other animals. William James took the opposite view. He argued that human behavior is more flexibly intelligent than that of other animals because we have more instincts than they do, not fewer. We tend to be blind to the existence of these instincts, however, precisely because they work so well — because they process information so effortlessly and automatically. They structure our thought so powerfully, he argued, that it can be difficult to imagine how things could be otherwise. As a result, we take “normal” behavior for granted. We do not realize that “normal” behavior needs to be explained at all. This “instinct blindness” makes the study of psychology difficult. To get past this problem, James suggested that we try to make the “natural seem strange.”

In other words, if we think we can explain why we do anything, it is only because our instincts have fooled us to think we are actually able to offer an intelligent answer (to be sure, a self-defeating premise for a scientist to entertain).

That’s all kind of academic, but this ideology has real consequences. A soulless approach to psychology will never adequately address the whole human person, and therefore it will fail to treat the whole human person. That’s reason enough to care about these issues in science, which is why I write about it. If you have a loved one in need of psychological help, how much help will he or she get from a professional that views humans as machines instead of persons, body and soul?



Hello, and thank you for reading. I am a wife, mother of seven, and joyful convert to Catholicism. I write from my office in a 100-year-old restored Adirondack mountain lodge. Read more about me here, with pictures. Find me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter. "Like" my Facebook page Science Was Born of Christianity to follow updates about my book. God bless you!

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  • Jeff_McLeod

    This is generous, even-handed, and well done.

    I don’t have any problem from a methodological viewpoint with what the researchers are trying to do. I’m an expert in meta-analysis, and I give their work my official blessing! The statistics I’m sure are what the researchers say they are.

    Their problem, as you say — and you need to keep on saying it — is twofold. First, they purge the conceptual apparatus of science of a certain quality of thought, a certain mental act called understanding. This they do by reducing the concept of intelligence to a bundle of instincts, which no matter how many of them there are have far fewer degrees of freedom than Aristotle’s or St. Thomas’ concept of understanding (Latin=intellectum).

    Second, the researchers then use the very mental act that they deny.

    It would be like mom saying “hey kids you can’t have that ice cream sandwich, it’ll rot your teeth.” They say, “um, mom you just ate one.” You say. “Now you hush, I’m a scientist, I make the rules, I don’t follow them.”

    Question for the researchers: does a primate identify the concept of reciprocity and altruism in humans in the same way that humans identify the concept of reciprocity and altruism in animals?

    By that I mean, could a primate write a scientific paper in which they recognize the fully fleshed out abstract concept of reciprocity as a quality that humans can possess?

    The answer is, of course not.

    Wittgenstein used to say, if you were to say that a bird had a concept of triangle, you might be within your rights to make such a statement, but it would be a very strange concept of triangle you’re talking about. A bird does not conceive a triangle in the way a human can.

    I took that quip to mean that a falcon might swoop down along a hypotenuse to grab a mouse from the ground, but he sure as heck doesn’t know the pythagorean theorem. He has a little bird sense of what to do, what St. Thomas calls the “estimative sense”. He cannot have it because he does not have an intellect which grasps things from their universal, non-temporal, and necessary aspect. A bird knows only the practical, not the “true.” A bird’s swooping has nothing to do with pythagoreas, unless you, the research reduce the concept of a triangle to such a flimsy and impoverished thing that even a stick might in some sense possess knowledge of the pythagorean theorem.

    That’s the error any time evolutionary-whatever tries to play psychology. It’s a shell game. Let me switch around what I mean by reciprocity and voila! Primates have reciprocity!!!

    Uh huh.

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Jeff, I think I understand now why you once (a long time ago) said that Descartes’ use of “cogito” in Cogito ergo sum was devastating. It does away with intellect, and implies that the human mind has no powers of understanding/judging/reason, but only the sensitive powers to which animals are restricted of perceiving/remembering/imagining. A super smart animal could be self-aware, but not enough to understand or reason about it. He demolished the doctrine of imago Dei, didn’t he?


      I remember now reading Mortimer Adler’s book on angels too. He called Descartes’ philosophy an angelic fallacy. It separates the body and the mind, so if “cogito” is ever is to be “intellectus” it must separate from the body and be like the angels, which is impossible. Our intelligence is “discursive” or obtained incrementally over time because we gain it through our senses and by reasoning about that data, whereas angels have knowledge/understanding immediately because they have no bodies.

      It seems that if you put both your observation together with Adler’s then it’s a double whammy against Descartes. It destroys what it means to be human, it separates us from God, and then separates us from our bodies, and leaves something absurd like a Godless spirit, which tada implies that man can become god.

      • SmithGreg


        Descartes’ “cogito” was a disaster for the reasons you state and others (it conceded the separation of awareness from sensory data, the body, even genuine reason). The starting point of philosophy was no longer real things, it was ME. It baked narcissism into the philosophical cake.

        Descartes sadly led to Berkeley, and then to Hume. Despite Kant’s weak protestations, it eventually led to the deconstruction not only the human person but the comical deconstruction of language itself. So tenured professors got paid to write books arguing that their own arguments were pointless.

        The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas reached upward to the Prime Mover, to nature of law and justice and art. They reasoned about the sciences and sex and the spinning of the planets and the relationship between elements and accidents.

        On the other hand, the intellectual heirs of what Descartes wrought are the postmodern writers of a TV show like “Lost,” in which nothing is real beyond dopey delusions and dream sequences.

  • Howard

    Now we have a can of worms.

    I am reading With God in Russia the autobiography of Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.
    in which he describes his life in Soviet gulags.

    The food sharing worm seems to have been over-ridden by the food partial-denial worm inhabiting the camp policy makers. If the guards did not genetically own this worm they had another variety of worm that made them adopt the features of this partial-denial worm. However, food sharing did occur among some prisoners…except….those who seem to have inherited a food sharing worm that specifies “only with fellow thieves, steal from others.”

    Of course this complexity can be explained simply by invoking your “how to explain everything” worm and say, “science will eventually come up with a material answer to this problem.”

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Really insightful.

      The trick will be, researchers will study “cruelty as an animal behavior” and will define the concept in such a way that most aggression will fall under it.

      We know that it takes an intellect and an ideology to view a human being as deserving of death for who they are.

      • Howard

        It does get funny.

        I call this approach “Compartmentalize and Conquer [understanding]” or in the case of a university, “Departmentalize and Conquer” (no offense intended).

        During the uprisings in the camps of Siberia Fr. Ciszek said, “Then one of the Commissioners stood up and smiled. He assured us that since Stalin’s death the whole question of prison camps was under review, especially as regarded political prisoners.”

        Review? An awful short time for a different gene to be naturally selected to dominate Soviet leadership.

  • LevelUpPlease

    Hi, Stacy. This is Chris C. I have to use my Disquss handle here.

    I don’t think anthropology has lost its mind. It think it is important to find out how the “normal” human mind works, mainly because it can up us aid those who brains do not function “normally”. Those with mental illnesses or impairments cannot have their issues addressed by faith alone. This sort of science definitely has its place.

    • Mary C. Tillotson

      I don’t think Stacy is arguing for a faith-alone approach to healing mental illnesses. I think she is arguing against a soul-less approach. An accurate understanding of who we are and how we work is the best place to start when trying to heal someone with any kind of illness or injury. A doctor who doesn’t believe in bones will be no help when I come to him/her with a knee injury. Likewise, a psychologist who doesn’t believe in souls, or who doesn’t believe in brain chemicals, is going to be of little real help with a mental illness.

      If we do in fact have souls, we don’t do anyone any favors by denying their existence. A better way would be to consider honestly whether we have souls and, if so, what part they play in our overall physical and psychological makeup. A more thorough understanding of the human person would give psychologists a better place to start.

      I’m still unclear as to why the existence of souls (and anything supernatural, for that matter) has to be assumed false; I am not aware (although maybe someone else is) of a study that actually asked whether we have souls or whether the supernatural could exist. The denial seems more ideological than scientific.

      • LevelUpPlease

        The soul is not a factor your can account for/control in this study. Even if a person believes in the soul, different people and relgions have different takes on the soul and the role it plays. What about the lesser souls of animals, which many believe in? How do you account for it?

        That’s not to say we shouldn’t study souls and there have been several that have attempted to “map” it and have observed it “leave” the brain soon after death. But, in studies like this one, it is unfair to say anthopologists have lost their minds when they exclude the soul from a study that would not have benefited from its inclusion.

        • Stacy Trasancos

          The point in this article was to use one study as an example of an entire approach to anthropology and thus, psychology. The entire approach fundamentally assumes there is no soul, and that fundamental assumption is what led to this study about why we share. This really isn’t a question for science.

      • Stacy Trasancos

        You’re right Mary. Science cannot say whether immaterial beings (such as the soul, angels, or God) exists since science is limited to the material realm. Want a fun Summa Theologicae assignment? Browse through Part I, Questions 75-83. He dealt with those questions philosophically and theologically. I have no idea how much you’ve read the ST, so forgive me if you don’t need the advice, but when I “browse” a part of the Summa, I read the question titles, and only the “On the contrary” and “I answer that” parts. To really grasp it a detailed answer to a specific question, once I find it, then I study just that part, but it usually leads you to studying the surrounding questions too. The ST (in my opinion) is one of those writings you will always gain from whether you browse, or intensely study it. I think that’s why people reference it so often.

        Great analogy with the bones!!!

    • Stacy Trasancos

      Hi Chris! I agree with you there, but we need to clarify what we mean by “mind”. Anyone who studies it or thinks about it has to define that word. I use it to mean the intellectual power of the soul, so when you say it is important to find out “how the ‘normal’ mind” works”, it matters whether you are assuming the normal mind is body and soul, or only body (brain). If you mean that “mind” = “brain” then you’ll never even consider the affects the soul has on the mind.

  • SmithGreg

    I think this chapter from “Everlasting Man” addresses this issue:

    Chesterton argues that to assume that because we need food and drink that we are driven by food and drink, that the economics of existence are the sum or point of our existence is absurd. In fact, much/most of the human story has always been doing things that don’t make sense when understood from a purely evolutionary or economic basis. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter:

    “The materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing…Cows may be purely economic, in the sense that we cannot see that they do much beyond grazing and seeking better grazing grounds…But so far from the movements that make up the story of man being economic, we may say that the story only begins where the motive of the cows and sheep leaves off. It will be hard to maintain that the Crusaders went from their homes into a howling wilderness because cows go from a wilderness to a more comfortable grazing-grounds. It will be hard to maintain that the Arctic explorers went north with the same material motive that made the swallows go south. And if you leave things like all the religious wars and all the merely adventurous explorations out of the human story, it will not only cease to be human at all but cease to be a story at all. The outline of history is made of these decisive curves and angles determined by the will of man.”

    • Jeff_McLeod

      Wonderful! If only every school child could memorize the quotation you gave, and then learn over the course of many years WHY it is utterly true.

      If St. Thomas Aquinas could see this quote by Chesterton (I’m sure he can) he would rejoice. He would pound the table with his fist and say, finally someone knows how to teach me again!

      Chesterton is possibly the most insightful interpreter of St. Thomas in the modern age. One of the most eminent scholarly Thomistic interpreters of our time, M. Etienne Gilson, after reading Chesterton’s short book on Aquinas, said he wished he had written it because it was the most penetrating analysis of Aquinas he had ever seen.

      What Chesterton said in your quotation is a flawless lesson on the psychology of St. Thomas, stated in a way that modern people can understand.

      • SmithGreg


        You’re right: Chesterton is applied Thomism.

        Relevant to Stacy’s original post for this thread, that book, “The Everlasting Man,” has several interesting things to say. It begins with a long description of the cave paintings at Altamira in Spain. He points out that the first time mankind appears on the stage of pre-history, he appears as a Man, one capable of art. In spite of the stupid assertion we have all heard a thousand times, put a thousand monkeys in front of a thousand typewriters for a thousand years and they will not, in fact, produce Shakespeare. As Chesterton points out in that opening chapter, no animal has ever stepped back and painted itself in the midst of the hunt, capturing story and movement. And what animal, obeying merely economic or evolutionary imperatives, took the time and resources away from survival to go down in a cave and create art.

        The second half of the book talks about the ideal (Plato’s “form?”) Man, who is Christ. Created in his image, we are creators. We think and will and act for motives that are not strictly mechanically or biologically imperative.

        As Stacy said in the original post, if you want to know why she shares her food, ask her. She is a human, who can think and explain for herself.

        All of this is, of course, Thomistic. As Prof. Kirk says in “Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe,” what do they teach them in the schools these days? We know the answer to that is, sadly, that man has been deconstructed, reduced to an animal. One of the core ideas of Thomistic thinking is the notion of “purpose” or “ens.” What was a thing made for? What is it supposed to be?

        We are created in God’s image, to think, create, love, will, and act.

        • Robbe Sebesta

          I just have to interject here and say that while I do have much more to say about this fascinating topic, because it’s so early on a Monday morning, I’m reminded of what the “genius?” comedian George Carlin said in reference to Darwinism – “If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why are there still monkeys and apes??” ha ha!! (Sorry, just had to throw that in there)….

    • Stacy Trasancos

      All are expressions of economics? I’ve never heard it put like that, neither have I read much Chesterton. I plan to! Thank you for this. It’s an explanation anyone could understand, and no one could refute. That’s why he was brilliant, isn’t it?

  • Paul Rimmer


    I thought it interesting when you said:

    In other words, if we think we can explain why we do anything, it is only because our instincts have fooled us to think we are actually able to offer an intelligent answer (to be sure, a self-defeating premise for a scientist to entertain).

    Because I got mostly the opposite interpretation from the quote you provided.

    [Instincts] structure our thought so powerfully, he argued, that it can be difficult to imagine how things could be otherwise. As a result, we take “normal” behavior for granted. We do not realize that “normal” behavior needs to be explained at all.

    Here they seem to say rather that everything has an explanation. The quote isn’t trying to explain away theology or mathematics or evolutionary psychology as a bunch of instincts.

    All behavior “needs to be explained”, and behavior that cannot be rationally justified will still have a rational explanation: they may be due to instinct!

    This doesn’t seem very scientific. How do you test this? When someone tries to explain his own irrational behavior, how can he trust his own explanation?

    But it doesn’t seem self-defeating. Some of our behavior is rational and some of it isn’t rational. And even our irrational behavior has a rational explanation. This isn’t even subversive or all that profound or enlightening. It seems about as obvious as the results of their paper:

    that primates share food.

    • Stacy Trasancos


      That’s why I quoted more than just that part. The premise is that our intellect is a matter of neural circuitry that became more complex with evolution. They are saying that all our intelligence can be explained by neural circuits, i.e. instincts. That’s why they even did a study of apes and monkeys to try to learn why human share food. Those animals are assumed to be just lower than man (less complex circuitry) and therefore can reveal the “genesis” of food sharing.

      Their approach can be said to be scientific in that it only seeks to deal with matter. My point is that the metaphysical assumption that all that exists is matter since that’s all science can study — is flawed. Anthropology and psychology should take into account both our physical bodies and our immaterial souls.

      • Paul Rimmer

        I think you’re right about people’s minds not being computers. But I don’t think that the logical implications of evolutionary psychology as envisioned by USCB are self-defeating or even materialistic. Computers have software, and I don’t think materialism can adequately explain the software, for the same reason materialism doesn’t deal well with math.

        But the mind seems to be more than a computer. Even so, I think that their research could be productive.

        I think that there is something more than the material, but it seems to me that whatever it is, we and apes both have it. Apes just seem to have it to a lesser degree (if it works that way).

  • SteveP

    An ice cream sandwich for three tokens? Wonderful hagglers you have there! Thank you—that was a blessed conclusion to a penetrating essay.

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