Friday, July 24, 2009

Part II, Traditional Society, a short definition

The following passage from John Reader's Africa: Biography of a Continent set me to thinking:

The generally hostile and unpredictable environment of sub-Saharan Africa inspired a highly conservative approach to the business of making a living. Sustaining existing levels of population was difficult enough, and the communities which endured were those that directed available energies primarily towards minimizing the risk of failure, not maximizing returns. For them, innovation and change were unacceptable risks. (p. 263) [emphasis added]

That makes this passage particularly relevant is the blunt recognition that error whether through carelessness or otherwise would likely lead to disaster. The conservatism as described in this passage means like frogs doing those things that have already been show not to lead to bad ends. Looking at the Christian myths of Heaven, Hell, and the Last Judgment through this prism shows the essential conservatism in Christianity: it is a matter of eternal torment and torture to make the wrong choice. But I run ahead of myself.

Watching my younger daughter at times emphatically imitate her older sister strongly suggested to me that there is a genetic predisposition to this kind of conservatism in the human genome. The rationale is straightforward enough: those that have come before are still here, therefore they are doing things mostly right. Following those that have come before is a viable survival strategy.

As I teased yesterday about frogs, instinctual, meaning genetically predisposed behavior will be conservative in the same sense as in the above passage from John Reader.

But this inborn predisposition to conservatism is hardly sufficient to explain religion. The strong objection is simply the fact of innovation in human history. If there were also not a capacity to innovate human beings would still be using stone tools. As a thought experiment, if there is the twin necessities of conservatism AND innovation, then how is the innovation to be accommodated in a strictly conservative and traditional society?

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