In January 2000, a young psychology graduate student named Jesse Bering moved back to South Florida to watch his mother die. Seven years earlier, Alice Bering had been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, and now her struggle with the aggressive disease was nearing its final phase.
Jesse Bering spent as much time as he could at his mother's bedside, watching as she went through "a really painful, awful death," he says. But there were times when Alice wasn't in so much pain, and she and her son had long talks. She wanted to talk about the afterlife, for example.
Bering says his mother had never been a religious person. Though a lifelong believer in a vague sense of "something" beyond our world, she put little stock in such things as heaven, a soul surviving death, or a grand plan for the universe. She was a skeptic, and being near her own death didn't change that, he remembers.
But that disbelief would falter in moments of intense pain. "If you were to ask her why this illness happened," Bering says now, five years later, "she wouldn't talk about a god. But nevertheless, when she was suffering..." he trails off.
In those moments, she found herself pleading with God, asking for relief. Afterward, she would question herself for doing so. "She caught herself asking 'Why me?' one particularly bad day, then immediately recognized the illogical nature of the question and corrected herself," Bering says.
The wrenching episode made a deep impression on the young scientist, who studies the evolution of the human mind. It was plain to him that his mother wasn't having what some term a "deathbed conversion," because in her good moments, she would recover her skepticism. Bering had a hunch that something else was going on something he suspected came from the very nature of the brain itself, a product of millions of years of primate evolution. That insight soon became his consuming passion.
He was fortunate that the adviser to his PhD program at Florida Atlantic University, David Bjorklund, had himself become interested in how evolution shapes the human mind, and he agreed to help Bering design an experiment. Together, they set out to investigate whether evolution has given humans a tendency to believe in an afterlife.
The work fed Bering's deep need to understand his mother's existential flip-flopping. "These are just questions I can't ignore," he says. "I get really ravenous about them." As a scientist, he says, his way of coping was to examine, weigh, and measure. "I want to get them into a lab," he says of his concerns. "Obviously, my defense mechanism of choice is to intellectualize."
By the time Alice Bering died on January 19, 2001, Bering and Bjorklund's study was already well under way. Its findings are now being cited by other scientists working in an obscure but growing field that seeks to prove a radical notion: that God himself is a product of evolution.
Since the 2004 publication of their experiments, Bering and Bjorklund have been ignored by all but a small group of theorists and experimental psychologists. And talking to Bjorklund, the more cautious of the two, you'd never think that their findings are any threat at all to traditional religion. "Humans have evolved this tendency to look for explanations, to look for causes," he says in a characteristically dispassionate way. "This ends up giving meaning to life. It forms how we think about the world. Religion and spirituality emanate from it."
But Bering, now a professor in his own right at the University of Arkansas, sounds ready to burn down a cathedral. His hunger for the answers to his mother's questions barely sated, his goal is nothing less than to prove to the world, once and for all, that God is a "cognitive illusion" a figment of our imaginations.
"My meaning in life is to illustrate that there really is no meaning," he says matter-of-factly from his cabin in the Ozark mountains. "I feel that, for the first time in the history of science, we've been able to answer these questions.
"We've got God by the throat, and I'm not going to stop until one of us is dead."
Bering and Bjorklund are a rarity, coming along about a century since science was openly in the God-killing business.
In the 19th Century, scientific revelations about the age of the Earth and the development of animal species (and humans) led to the loss of faith of many intellectuals. But the 20th Century had a different legacy. While the technological sciences flourished, the end of the century saw science itself increasingly under attack by religious movements, business interests, and, in this country, at least, an antagonistic presidential administration.
In a nation where most Americans don't accept evolution at all, science has been under an all-out onslaught. Battle lines have been drawn around stem-cell research and global warming, but the teaching of evolution is most visibly under siege. Initially under attack by creationists, evolution was granted a reprieve when the U.S. Supreme Court ended attempts to insert literal biblical interpretations into science classes. But creationists regrouped and struck back with the stealthier strategy of "intelligent design." At the center of the highly coordinated, PR-driven ID agenda: to make biology sound as if it were in disarray, as if science itself were in high retreat.
That's proved a brilliant tactic, resonating with millions of Americans who seem to relish the idea of scientists' having second thoughts about Charles Darwin's historic insight. The thing is, it isn't true. Biological evolution is as strongly held, and experimentally and observationally supported, as ever. There is no retreat from evolution, despite what ID adherents desperately want school boards around the country to believe.
But strangely, scientists themselves appear to have little taste for fighting back. Instead, for the past couple of decades, high-profile biologists and other scientists have gone out of their way to assure the public that their studies are no threat to God or religion. It has become fashionable for scientists to proclaim that they are churchgoing Christians or Jews, and Time and Newsweek can't seem to put out enough "Science finds God" special issues. Well-known figures like Stephen Jay Gould (Rock of Ages) and Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin's God) have assured the public that science and religion describe different spheres and that there is nothing wrong with believing two seemingly contradictory ideas: that God created the planet and its species as the Bible says and that natural selection, over billions of years, produced the amazing variety of life on Earth.
Some scientists, however, can't reconcile the two. For the past 20 years, a small cadre has been working on explaining religion as a product of evolution itself. These anthropologists and psychologists wonder if the nearly universal human tendency to believe in gods is a kind of programming that resulted from natural selection. Until recently, the field had an unwritten rule: Focus your work on the beliefs and spirits of little-known "primitive" societies in far-off lands.
But hands off Jehovah.
"It is worthy of serious scientific investigation," Bjorklund says. "It's something that serious behavior scientists should consider. Religion is not just for anthropologists anymore."
A tall, ruddy man with a square jaw, the professor is from a small-town Massachusetts family with Swedish roots. He says he didn't foresee a Florida future in which he'd take God to the mat.
As he stands at the front of a morning class at FAU, fiddling with a malfunctioning projector, he appears for all the world to be an unremarkable, kindly college professor. With a self-deprecating laugh, he says that his career is an accident.
At FAU since 1976, much of Bjorklund's work has examined the way children learn and remember. Through the 1980s, Bjorklund says he was a mainstream developmental psychologist, making "narrow and arcane" advances in a large field. His interests were wide-ranging he studied the emergence of homosexuality in children as well as the best methods of disciplining unruly kids. His most influential work showed that what children know influences how they remember.
But increasingly, he says, he found himself drawn to a new discipline: evolutionary psychology. The newish field has suffered from comparisons to its earlier, controversial incarnation as sociobiology, a 1970s phenomenon tarnished by its tendency to justify, for example, gender inequalities in the workplace as natural byproducts of evolution. But the field is gaining adherents and a pop culture sheen in part for its newer reliance on experimentation. Resurrected by a University of California at Santa Barbara husband-wife professor duo in the early 1990s, the field attempts to show that human behaviors, just like bones, organs, and blood vessels, could be seen as evolutionary adaptations.
Bjorklund realized that the way the field described the evolution of the human mind seemed similar to his own ideas about how a child's mind works. "I saw this and thought they could be talking about development," he says.
He began to wonder if childhood itself could be seen as an adaptive trait that there was some evolutionary advantage to the long maturation period of human beings. Some of his experiments showed that immature behavior may be adaptively beneficial such as, for example, when an immature child overestimates his ability to solve a problem, making him more likely to tackle it optimistically and with a higher rate of success. Bjorklund co-wrote a paper suggesting as much in 1992. "I was sort of challenging the conventional wisdom that immaturity is something one must get over," he says.
But the science world is skeptical. His books have received a lukewarm welcome, and Bjorklund admits that he's somewhat discouraged. "When I first got into this, I thought you could meld [the two disciplines] together," he says. "I was wrong."
Still, he hopes for a synthesis, and a new book on his ideas about childhood as an evolutionary adaptation, Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young, will soon be released. He hopes it will become his legacy.
Fifty-six years old and at the peak of his career, Bjorklund is hardly a scientific radical, making him the perfect counterbalance to Bering, a young hothead who is determined to shake Western society to its core.
When Bjorklund first met Bering, the younger man was a wide-eyed college student in love with chimpanzees. The son of a transient glue salesman, Bering was a religious and shy child afraid of ghosts, specifically the ghost of the prophet Elijah that is said to enter the house on Passover. The discovery at 15 that he was an insulin-dependent diabetic convinced Bering that he would die young, adding a sense of urgency to his curiosity about the supernatural.
After moving frequently, Bering followed his mother to Florida, landing at Florida Atlantic University as an apathetic English major. But a Miami Herald article about chimpanzees being temporarily housed at Parrot Jungle in Miami sparked in Bering a passion for anthropology and evolution. He called the director of the Orangutan and Chimpanzee Conservation Center and offered to volunteer. Soon, he was spending several days a week and every weekend in Miami, babysitting and changing the diapers of baby chimps. He attributes his curiosity about evolution to holding a chimp's hand in his own and noticing their similarities.
At FAU, Bering hunted for faculty members who would indulge his interest in chimps and found Bjorklund, who immediately hit it off with the precocious undergraduate. "He made me an offer I could not refuse," Bjorklund remembers of Bering's request that the two of them professor and undergraduate collaborate on a study on the minds of chimps. Soon, they were regularly driving from Boca Raton to Miami to test the ability of human-reared chimpanzees to imitate their human handlers. This work, which suggested that chimps might actually be able to learn some of what are considered uniquely human abilities, had big implications for the scientific debate about nature versus nurture and attracted the attention of the PBS show Scientific American in 2001. During filming, Bjorklund enjoyed the spotlight, while Bering, still shy, stayed in the background away from the camera.
After graduating in 1997, Bering earned a master's degree in experimental psychology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Then he got the news that his mother had only months to live. Returning to FAU to pursue his doctorate with his old adviser while tending to his mother became an obvious choice.
Bjorklund remembers Bering approaching him with the idea for a study on the science of belief in the afterlife and realized that it was a logical next step for his own work in evolutionary psychology. And besides, he says, "Jesse would have done something like this anyway."
For Bjorklund, given his background, there was a natural way to test their new ideas on children.
To find out if human beings come into the world with afterlife beliefs (pre-installed, as it were, by evolution), Bjorklund and Bering knew they'd have to ask kids about their concepts of souls and death. At any time, that would be a tricky proposition. But this was shortly after 9/11, and the scientists knew they'd have to be especially sensitive.
Hoping to avoid the words die and kill when speaking with their young test subjects, they decided the best way to do it was to represent death in a puppet show. Specifically, a predator's taking of prey, something Bjorklund and Bering figured kids witness on television frequently.
They chose a predator that Florida schoolchildren would be sure to know: an alligator. Choosing a mouse as the prey, they say, was more or less random.
Finding the children was easy: FAU's on-campus laboratory schools the Karen Slatterly Early Child Care Center and the Alexander D. Henderson University School agreed to participate, and no one, they say, raised concerns about the nature of the experiment.
Bering and several undergraduate research assistants showed their puppet show to almost 200 children ranging in age from 4 to 12. (To provide an adult perspective, 20 undergraduates at FAU were also tested.) The experimenter, a puppet on each hand, would introduce a child to the mouse and the alligator, mentioning that mice just happened to be the alligator's favorite food. Then the show would begin.
The mouse strolled across a small puppet theater made up with a plastic tree and artificial grass, where the alligator hid. The mouse explained his woes: He was lost, sick, sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. After the mouse's brief soliloquy, Mr. Alligator emerged perfunctorily and ate the mouse. The end.
The script called for a quick and painless murder: "Uh-oh! Mr. Alligator sees Brown Mouse and is coming to get him!" the experimenter would say as his alligator hand puppet devoured the hapless rodent. "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator. Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."
After each child had absorbed the mini-drama (no children seemed disturbed by the mouse's untimely demise, Bering says), the experimenter then got to the heart of the matter: After making sure that the child understood the concept that the mouse was no longer alive, he or she was asked a series of questions.
Will the mouse ever need to eat food again? Will he ever grow up to be an old mouse? Will he ever need to drink water again? Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Can he still hear the birds singing? Can he still smell the flowers? Does he still want to go home? Is he still scared of the alligator?
Between ten and two dozen questions were asked in several different experiments, with a structured progression. Early questions were about bodily processes (Does his brain still work?), while later questions concerned sensory perceptions (Can he still taste the yucky grass he ate?) and emotions (Does he still love his mom?).
Even the youngest children, they found, understood the physiological concept of death. Nearly all of the 4- to 6-year-olds, for example, understood that a dead mouse no longer needed to eat or drink and would never grow old and that his brain no longer worked. Older kids were just as clear on the concept. But on perceptual and emotional issues, the children of different ages diverged. Older children were much more skeptical that a dead mouse could continue to perceive and care about things.
For example, while kindergarten-age kids were in high agreement (88 percent) that the dead mouse's brain no longer worked, only a small number (24 percent) didn't think he'd still want to go home. Older kids (10 to 12 years old) were also in agreement about the first question (81 percent), but a larger number (46 percent) were skeptical about the mouse's continued desire to go home. The same pattern repeated throughout the experiment and over different groups of children younger kids understood the physical reality of death but were more apt to believe that sensory perceptions and feelings existed after life ceased.
Bjorklund and Bering argue that if ideas about an afterlife were solely a cultural phenomenon, the opposite would be true: Younger children would be less likely to believe, not more. If humans are blank slates when it comes to religious belief, then the exposure to society's ideas about souls and heaven would influence young skeptics to take on these ideas and become believers as they aged. Instead, the data shows that older kids are more skeptical.
Anticipating that some might question the effect of living in a secular South Florida culture, the scientists later repeated the experiment with a group of children in a parochial school in Spain who would be immersed in religious belief in and outside of school. Again, the same results: The children grew more skeptical of afterlife effects over time.
To Bjorklund and Bering, the findings were clear: children come into the world with a strong tendency to believe in a soul that survives death. The children responded, in other words, exactly the way they would if there were systems already in their brains that prevented them from thinking that intentions, thoughts, and feelings ceased after death.
"This is precisely the opposite of the pattern that one would expect to find if the origins of such beliefs could be traced exclusively to cultural indoctrination," Bering wrote recently.
What the scientists don't know is whether this propensity to believe in an afterlife is an adaptation a useful trait that somehow helps humans survive or merely an accident, a byproduct of the way our minds were shaped by evolution. While Bjorklund holds the prevailing view that religious beliefs are accidental, Bering thinks that a belief in the supernatural might have helped proto-humans survive on the savanna. "If you think you're being monitored, your behavior will be enhanced in a fitness-enhancing fashion," Bering says. In other words, believing that a God was watching might have made our ancestors more likely to survive.
"God is a way of thinking that was rendered permanent by natural selection."
That's the bomb Jesse Bering dropped in January into the middle of what the scientific establishment considers its most exclusive clubhouse: Edge.com, a science website where scientists and thinkers gather annually to answer a provocative question chosen by a prominent thinker. This year, the question was, "What is your dangerous idea?"
"God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, nor an 'opiate of the masses' or any such thing," Bering wrote in his contribution to the discussion. Instead, belief in the supernatural is something wired into the brain itself, the result of evolution.
Bjorklund watched his protégé nervously "I was a little concerned about my scientific peers saying, 'Why are you going into this "soft science?" This is highly speculative,'" he confides.
He needn't have worried; nobody has accused Bjorklund and Bering of being flaky. In fact, nobody has accused them of much of anything. Despite their efforts in the best scholarly publications, they've received little attention. Even when their afterlife study was featured prominently in a recent Atlantic Monthly article written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, and titled provocatively "Is God an Accident?," there was scant response.
"I tell you, a couple of years ago, there was a science article on a dog, Rico, that could obey verbal commands," Bloom tells New Times. "That got me ten times more angry e-mails than this. Souls and gods are one thing, but people care a lot about their dogs. So my rule is: I can write about God but not dogs."
Bjorklund was surprised at the lack of outrage. He didn't expect that his classes would be picketed, but he thought Bering's might. "In a way, I've been surprised that other people haven't picked up on this and been offended," he says. "Given the controversy we're having about the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, these would seem to be topics that could be hot."
But Bering has been frustrated at how little other scientists are paying attention. NPR's OpenSource radio show devoted an episode to Edge.com's "Dangerous Idea" discussion, featuring Steven Pinker, a renowned Harvard professor and well-known evolutionary psychologist, as commentator, and Bering as a guest. But when Bering explained his ideas about evolution being responsible for God, he says Pinker misunderstood and glossed over the implications of the study. Pinker languidly disagreed with Bering ("He said religious beliefs were really plummeting, which isn't really true," Bering says), while NPR's promotional material for the broadcast got Bering's idea backward, saying he believed that "God is in our genes."
"I would never say anything that simplistic or that stupid," Bering says. "That's an entirely different line of work."
Some scientists, Bering explains, looking for a so-called "God gene" study individuals to see if people more prone to religiosity share certain genes in other words, if chemistry in the brain might be associated with people who feel more "spiritual." Bering and Bjorklund are looking at something more universal, a mental "programming" that makes humans around the globe more likely to believe in gods and heavens.
But Bering is lucky if his audience even cares enough to misunderstand him. Most people simply tune out. He remembers one student's response to a lecture: "He told me, 'It's all good in theory, and maybe it does explain religion, but I can't see what it has to do with my belief in God,'" Bering says.
Even the anti-science crowd hasn't noticed Bjorklund and Bering, despite some of the grenades the latter has been throwing their way. In Spiked, an online publication published in London, Bering wrote: "Skepticism is not going to remain in the privileged chapels of scientists and other scholars. It is going to dry up even the most verdant suburban landscapes, and leave spiritual leaders with their tongues out, dying for a drop of faith."
So far, to Bering's chagrin, this is wishful thinking. Bjorklund, who is reluctant to enter the God-versus-science culture wars, is not surprised. "I don't see the work we're doing to be necessarily at odds with religious or theistic interpretations," he says. "It doesn't say that there is a god or there isn't a god or that there's any one particular type of god merely that children develop these ways of seeing the world."
Evolutionist Kenneth Miller, a main advocate of the God-and-science-can-live-together, anti-intelligent-design movement, explains religion's lack of response another way.
"They're not upset because they think evolution is a bunch of crap anyway," he says.
He's right; South Florida's local creationists are only amused at the suggestion that an FAU science experiment could prove that God was an accident of Darwinian dimensions.
Tom DeRosa, executive director and founder of the Creation Studies Institute, is the most visible face of Fort Lauderdale creationism. He shrugs off Bering and Bjorklund's study. "I deal with science," DeRosa says, "and we're getting into psychology. But I think that the bottom line is that when you look at the complexity of a cell, there's an obvious conclusion that there's a creator, an intelligent designer."
Dr. Kent Hovind, head of Creation Science Evangelism in Pensacola, Florida's most bombastic anti-evolutionist organization, isn't fazed either. "Good observations, wrong conclusion," he booms in a preacher's chocolatey baritone. "To note that every culture has an afterlife and innate belief in a higher power is a good observation but that we created the god is the wrong conclusion to conclude. I would say God designed it into us."
Although he's disappointed that no men of the cloth are taking the bait, Bering isn't surprised creationists have credited God for scientific phenomena since the dawn of Darwinism. "You can never get around God designing our mind to believe these things," Bering says. Just as some creationists believe that God purposely buried dinosaur fossils so that we would find them, so too it's easy for such a mind to think that God would bury a fossil representing himself in our brains.
But that concept can also be turned on its head. Just as some creationists believe that scientists are deluding themselves about the bones they dig up that seemingly confirm evolution, Bjorklund and Bering believe that their work shows that creationists are operating under their own delusions.
They can't help believing in creationism. After all, evolution made them that way.
Bjorklund calls creationism the "species default." "The notion of creationism is intellectually easier to understand," he says. "It's been only very recently that we get to understand how things emerge without a creator, and it's hard to really live that way. Our minds did not evolve for this."
As famous biologist Richard Dawkins suggests, "It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism and to find it hard to believe."
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Bering agrees. "It is clear that when it comes to the big questions in life, our brains have evolved so that science eludes us but religion comes naturally," he writes in American Scientist.
And Bering is the first to admit that this is true even for scientists. "Even for me, it's inescapable. Life may very well be purposeless. All the evidence at this point suggests that these are cognitive illusions."
The irony is, Bjorklund and Bering know that even if they are right, we are all hardwired to disbelieve their results. "There will never be a day when God does not speak for the majority," Bering wrote recently. "As scientists, we must toil and labor and toil again to silence God, but ultimately this is like cutting off our ears to hear more clearly. God too is a biological appendage."
Sort of like the appendix, apparently. But even if it's hopeless, Bering says he'll continue to experiment and to write about his dangerous idea: that evolution created God, and not the other way around. It's a struggle he plans to fight to the end, by God.