This Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) hasn't been embraced by the anthropology community, but it's not down and out either.
Either way, it illustrates one of the big differences between religion and science. In science, when there's an outlandish hypothesis (that is, outlandish compared to the accepted science), the advocates of that hypothesis are expected to provide extraordinary evidence to support their claims. It's not sufficient for them to just say, "It could be true, you can't prove it's not." The strength of a hypothesis rests on its explanatory power and on direct evidence that supports it.
The AAH has a great deal of explanatory power, but little direct evidence to support it. For example, if archaeologists discovered human remains by a sea shore with great piles of sea-urchin shells and other marine species that could only be gathered by swimming and diving, that would be strong direct evidence. Lacking such direct evidence, the proponents of the AAH can only offer indirect evidence, such as the fact that we're mostly hairless, we're good swimmers, and we love water even as babies.
The debate about AAH started in earnest in the 1960's and has continued ever since, but it's fair to say that AAH proponents have not met the standard of providing unusually strong evidence for their "outlandish" theory. Even Dawkins chimed in to say that the theory deserves some respect, but the mainstream anthropology community isn't convinced.
What does this have to do with religion? Well, I was really frustrated this week by a long and convoluted discussion in the comments section of my blog, a quasi-debate between me and several other atheists versus several Mormons. I say "quasi-debate" because it quickly devolved into mild-to-medium strength insults and a lot of smoke and mirrors, with little real substance.
During this debate I was particularly struck by how religion isn't held to the same high standards of proof that science is. A religious person can make a claim that in any other context would be considered outlandish or at least revolutionary, but nobody expects them to provide extraordinary evidence to back it up. In fact, just the opposite: there's a tacit understanding in societies around the world that it's rude to challenge someone's beliefs, however outlandish they are.
Take the origins of the Book of Mormon as an example. There are two competing explanations:
- Joseph Smith found gold plates inscribe with ancient Egyptian text in his back yard in Manchester, New York after an angel told him where to look. He found a magic rock that he could put in his hat, and when he buried his face in his hat, he could translate the ancient hieroglyphs.
- Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself, partly by plagiarizing from other sources and oral stories he'd heard, and partly by making it up. There were no gold plates or magic rock, and the other witnesses who claimed to have seen the plates were known to be shady characters.
But Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet, so all caution is thrown out the window, all scholarship is discarded, and all principles of scientific merit are ignored. His word is all it takes.
Why is it that religion escapes the scrutiny that every other scholarly endeavor must endure? Why do millions of people believe that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and had a magic rock in his hat that made him able to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs?
Then a close friend asked me, "Isn't that why you wrote The Religion Virus? You of all people should understand this phenomenon." And it's true. I remembered in just a few seconds all of the things I discovered while writing the book, about memetic evolution, about the inexorable battle of religious ideas that makes only the very best of the best survive, and how incredibly infectious these ideas become. I remembered that people really want to believe these things, because it makes them feel better about life, death, tragedy, happiness, and the unknown. The survival of an idea (a meme) in the "battle of the fittest" of ideas as they're passed across society and down through history has far less to do with truth than we'd like to think. Ideas that are appealing survive – that's it.
People need religion. It fills a void in their lives. It makes life more tolerable. It really does bring contentment. But it also means that religion escapes the scrutiny that helps us to weed out truth from fiction, reality from fairy tales.
Mormonism is built on a two-thousand-year-old memeplex (Christianity), that in turn was built on top of much older religions (Judaism and paganism). These ideas have been evolving and improving for over ten thousand years, and it shouldn't surprise us, and me especially, that people really want to believe them. And the corollary is that they'll defend these ideas to the extreme when challenged.
Religion is incredibly infectious. I guess the only thing to do is to slog on with my work, writing and blogging and tweeting.