Stories Science Tells: Defining the Human Quest

by Philip Hefner

Philip Hefner is professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, codirector of the Chicago Center for Religion and Science, and editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. His book The Human Factor (Fortress) is a theological discussion of themes in this article.

This article appeared in The Christian Century issue of May 10, 1995, pp. 508 – 513. Information about The Christian Century may be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


Science explains the world and the self better than any predecessor method, “and yet it has preserved our sense of awe and mystery.”

Near the end of PBS's recent series The Human Quest, we look over a Southwestern Chaco Canyon landscape that contains the ruins of the extinct civilization of the Anasazi while listening to Nobel physicist Murray Cell-Mann, director of the Santa Fe Institute, comment on this 12th-century culture as a failed adaptive system. As the camera moves to a long shot of the valley and the soundtrack fills with the beat of drums, the mournful music of a flute and the hum of insects, a muscular young man in shorts appears rapidly advancing toward us - a long-distance runner. The narrator speaks: "It's easy to assume that evolution has peaked with the creation of humans, as if we've broken some imaginary winner's tape. But evolution is an ongoing process, the race is never won. We're always being judged by the forces of natural selection, and we have no more guarantees than the people whose ghosts haunt the ruins of Chaco."

This scene captures the view of human being that gives coherence to The Human Quest: scientific understanding is both exciting and necessary; human cultures are vulnerable systems whose survival is threatened, in the face of which threat we seek moral values embedded within our scientific knowledge. The interweaving of the scientific quest with the search for moral resources that will help us confront threats to human survival makes this four-hour series more than just a glimpse of cuffing-edge research. The science is presented with breathtaking appeal; the moral concern is uttered with breathless earnestness. But it is the daring with which the interweaving is carried out that gives the series a sense of weight and urgency.

The gaping holes that appear in the final woven fabric remind us of how far we have yet to go in integrating knowledge and values. These holes bear even more telling witness to the absence of religious faith from our society's struggle to enlist both science and moral wisdom in efforts to resolve today's most pressing issues.

The science examined in the program occurs at the dauntingly complex intersection of the neurosciences, psychology, human behavioral ecology (sometimes called "sociobiology"), linguistics, human development, anthropology, the sciences of complexity and chaos, and the philosophy that attempts to interpret these disciplines. Roger Bingham, creator and host of the venture, is an experienced guide. One of his earlier television efforts, The Addicted Brain, was an exceptionally well-done piece that also brought together science and social commentary in a way that spurred deeper reflection.

The Quest's social commentary and moral concern are elicited by several recent developments: Cultural diversity threatens the human community with disintegration. Violence disrupts social cohesion, and cultural systems are frequently dysfunctional in their interactions with larger environments, including natural ecosystems. Beyond all these developments, though, is the challenge presented to our understanding of self and its place in the world by the cognitive sciences. This challenge impinges immediately upon our understanding of the mind and spirituality. If nothing else, The Human Quest provides a checklist of some of the most urgent questions of the day.

Let us return to the highly evolved runner amid the Anasazi ruins and the question of natural selection. The key to this view of human being lies in what Bingham calls the "second Darwinian revolution," through which we have learned that evolution shapes not only our bodies but also our minds. Important concepts are at work here that rely heavily on an emerging new interdisciplinary science that goes under the name evolutionary psychology, among whose leading thinkers are Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (they edited, along with John Barkow, The Adapted Mind, an important text for the field). Robert Wright popularized this new science in his 1994 book The Moral Animal. Combined with sociobiology, the explanatory potential of evolutionary psychology is enormous. It provides the foundation for the now widely accepted hypothesis that human development can be viewed in terms of biocultural evolution.

Adaptation is a key concept for Bingham's evolutionary scenario, and the term has a distinct meaning: adaptation is a survival strategy. It is actually a bundle of such strategies -- behavioral responses that serve the survival of culture and which are transmitted via the evolutionary process. Growing specific foods in certain ways and preparing them in certain ways are examples of adaptations that are selected for and possibly bequeathed to later generations.

These adaptations are cultural phenomena, and hence they are significant activities of the brain. The brain maps the world and makes the connections out of which adaptations emerge and take form. The most important cultural adaptations were forged in the preagricultural Stone Age, the Pleistocene (extending from 10,000 to 1.5 million years ago). Our brains were "road-tested in the Stone Age," quips the narrator.

This view, dubbed by its critics "Pleistocentrism," is the basis for two of the most important ideas advanced in the series, both of which illustrate Bingharn's skill in blending science, social commentary and moral sensitivity. The first is expressed in two hon mots: we "live in the space age with Stone-Age brains"; and we are "hunter-gatherers in pinstripe suits" Both sayings affirm that we were not designed to be alone, our brains evolved as social brains; but at the same time they indicate that this social brain still bears traces of having evolved in the context of surviving in a Stone Age world. It was in this period that our culture started developing as an evolutionary "fast track" that loosens our ties with the physical environment in the sense that we become able to shape the environment to our wishes.

Half a century ago, before others were speaking of such things, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin understood this to be a central dilemma of our existence (and he even traced it back to the Stone Age). For Teilhard the problem was not simply that technological development outstrips our philosophical understanding and moral codes. More significantly, our mind's repertoire of responses to the world consists of leftover adaptations to worlds that no longer exist. In order for humans to cope with the space age -- Stone Age gap, an inner reorientation is required. According to Bingham, scientific understandings will empower this reorientation. Science is, in his turn of phrase, "the owner's manual for the social brain in post -- Stone Age suburbia."

The series' second major idea is that the Stone Age adaptations bequeathed to us a shared human nature that is fundamental to both our scientific understanding and our sense of moral challenge. The idea of a universal, shared human nature receives more attention in The Human Quest than does any other. It is passi6nately elaborated in some of the program's most moving segments, and is also the subject of its most fervent homilies. Indeed, what might in current philosophical jargon be termed an (outdated) Enlightenment justification of universals appears in Quest as the centerpiece of a postmodern cognitive scientific understanding of the brain. According to the postmodern perspective, the brain is a congeries of computation patterns constructed by evolution; in turn the brain constructs its world in ways that require a sense of complexity and chaos if it is to be properly understood. Perhaps only a postmodern sensibility that routinely takes apparent contradictions in stride can appreciate how a thoroughly constructivist brain is grounded in the universals of human nature.

What makes the appearance of universals in a socially constructed post -- Stone Age world so notable? The short answer is human conflict, violence and our habit of dividing our worlds into the realms of"us" and "them."

In a characteristically earnest segment, Emory University anthropologist Melvin Konner articulates what is perhaps the central thesis, of the series when he speaks of the interplay of universals and particulars. Both are basic building-blocks of human nature, but it is in universals that human cooperation and solidarity are grounded. Fashioned in the adaptations of our Pleistocene forebears, these universals include the development of language, mother-infant relationships, object permanence, altruism, formations of us-versus-them coalitions, facial expressiveness, and a great deal more. Konner challenges us to recognize that this common human nature is truly "us," and that it possesses both the adaptations that can destroy us and those that can serve as the basis for cooperation. Our task is to recognize weaknesses bequeathed to us from the past and to minimize them, and conversely to maximize the strengths that are our legacy from the Stone Age. We must turn down adaptations that make for violence, while building up those that enable us to be altruistic.

Konner maintains that the traditions in U.S. society tend to focus on openness -- limitless possibilities -- so much that commonly shared constraints are largely ignored. Until now, it is true, we have been able to get by, and quite well too, without taking seriously the Darwinian truth about constraints to human nature. We have reached the time, however, when "we must deal with Darwin," according to Konner. Aggression and reciprocity are equally etched in our brains, but scientifically informed moral sensitivity can reprogram useless or harmful adaptations for cooperation rather than violence.

Science, in other words, tells stories that make sense, just as ancient myths did. These scientific stories have the potential to transform our view of ourselves and of our world, and in this transformation, Konner believes, lie the seeds of any constructive response to moral challenges that may determine whether our species survives.

A third basic idea Bingham presents is an intricate concept of consciousness and the self. He spells out the neuroscientific view of our brains as a dynamic network of 100 billion neurons capable of 100 trillion different connections -- a number larger than that of the elementary particles in the universe. The brain's neurons, in this fantastic, complex process of computation, put together representations that we call images and "real things," whether they be tastes, smells, sights, faces or whatever. Our brain is a bundle of computational patterns. Patricia Churchland, one of the leading (and most reductionistic) neurophilosophers at work today, makes an analogy to electricity -- electrons dancing along a wire. For Churchland, consciousness and our representations of the world are "patterns of activity across a population of neurons" -- the patterns being those computations carried out within our brain.

Areas that were once consigned to "metaphysics" are subsumed within activities of the brain. People of all times and places have reported states of consciousness that transcend ordinary experience, in which past and future disappear into a constant "now." These experiences constitute the "farther reaches of human nature," and have prompted us to use religious-philosophical terms like soul and immortality in an attempt to account for them. Churchland speaks of how we used ideas of demon-possession in earlier eras to account for what we now know to be infections by pathogenic germs. Just as Galileo's scientific breakthroughs displaced geocentric cosmology, so, she believes, the neurosciences will displace our traditional ways of accounting for consciousness, and these sciences will bring us "face to face with ourselves."

The ambiguity of Bingham's project is most evident when it moves into regions traditionally associated with philosophy and theology. The scientific description and interpretation are exciting and, for the most part accurate. This care and accuracy in one area goes hand in hand, however with simplism and downright sloppiness in others. The material I have just described, from transcendent states of consciousness to Galileo, appears in a continuous series of discussions lasting five minutes. Nowhere does Bingham give careful attention to how soul and immortality have actually been used by religious communities, nor does he admit explicitly that Churchland's remarks on germs versus demons and the pitting of Ptolemy against Galileo amounts to saying that religious terms are comparable to pre-Copernican astronomical theories. But viewers are certainly invited to draw such conclusions.

By invoking the memory of Galileo's struggle with the church in the same breath with the "revolutions in science" associated with Newton, Darwin and Einstein and the claim that science transforms our self-understanding, the writers fall into a stereotype about the warfare between science and religious faith and they exhibit a 19th-century common belief that science will displace religion. When Bingham intones these views in the mellow voice of a devoted father reading bedtime stories the effect is really quite pernicious, even though one suspects that the errors are born principally of naivety.

In The Quest's final segment, science and myth are introduced as alternative ways in which our brain seeks explanations. The lineage of scientific explanations discussed in the episode runs from Newton through Darwin, Einstein, chaos theory and, most recently, Murray Cell-Mann, whose Santa Fe Institute devotes itself to the sciences of complexity. The Institute's proximity to the ruins of the Anasazi civilization provides an appropriate setting for the program's serious and admiring reflection on the successes of past societies to function as complex adaptive systems within their environments.

Commentators readily admit that what were once called "primitive" societies frequently were able to adapt in ways that surpass modern technology-driven social planning. Balinese rice farmers governed crop cultivation by the wisdom of the traditional water-temple system. When innovations of modern planned agriculture threatened to ruin the rice farmers, anthropologists came to understand that at work implicitly within traditional wisdom were chaos theories and complex adaptive systems. The program's lesson is clear: unless societies prove to be adequate complex adaptive systems vis-vis their actual environments, the societies will become as extinct as the Anasan.

Laudably, and perhaps surprising to some, the makers of this documentary understand that a key factor in any society's struggle to maintain adequate complex adaptive systems, ours included, is the stories that we tell. Myth may have produced the stories of yore, but science can give us new and, according to The Human Quest, presumably better stories. Evolution may not have engineered our brains to know everything, but science has widened our knowledge through its stories -- Big Bang cosmology writes the scientific story of creation, chemistry writes the story of origins, biology writes the evolutionary epic, neuroscience provides the tales of the mind, and complexity sciences are producing still newer stories that cross traditional disciplinary lines.

In a strange cut by the editor, a conversation with philosopher Philip Kitchner is inserted in the middle of this set of reflections. He asserts that since cultural diversity is to be welcomed and each culture's gifts are to be acknowledged, our Western culture should be given credit for representing the world accurately "in a way that no other culture has ever come close to." Sometimes there are "right answers, and sometimes certain groups of people in the world achieve those right answers." To deny this quality of science is to "lapse into know-nothing relativism," Kitchner insists. This monologue is skillfully written, and even though it may have been conceived with political correctness in mind, it makes a very important and discussable point. Its context within the series, however, tends to paint it with the shades of sheer Western cultural chauvinism.

No single culture is superior to any other, Kitchner asserts, but the different cultures make different universally adequate contributions. Western culture's contribution is the right answers of science. "We have better stories now," Bingham intones against a musical background that includes "Hallelujah" chorales. "Science is not an assault on the human spirit, but an expression of the human spirit. " Science explains the world and the self better than any predecessor method, "and yet it has preserved our sense of awe and mystery."

Once again, a group of runners appears on the screen through overlays depicting awesome natural scenes. "To explain is not to explain away." Science preserves a kind of "workaday holiness" that leads some scientists to speak of God in Einstein's Spinozistic overtones. Bingham tells viewers that Einstein saw God in the order and harmony of nature. Before we turn off the lights and go to sleep, Bingham's final soothing words tell us that Einstein's insight offers the best definition of science: the "search for the order and harmony of what exists," and "perhaps that is the ultimate human quest." If we recall Kitchner's hortatory words spoken just five minutes before, we can go to our dreams knowing that this is what our very own culture does better than any other -- it defines the ultimate human quest.

This video series represents some of the best and most sensitive popular discussion of cutting-edge science available. I cannot imagine anyone who would not be enriched and challenged by this documentary. I would go further to say that this series provides a benchmark of the minimal scientific knowledge all informed persons should possess. Even more, these programs describe what I think are the single most relevant set of current scientific ideas for understanding human life and interpreting religious faith today.

Although I have underscored some of the spongier moments in The Human Quest, the series includes a number of hard-headed discussions that are unusual in broaching and taking stands on extremely controversial matters. I've already alluded to the most striking: that universals are as important as particulars; that there is a common human nature, and it is a precious treasure bequeathed to us by evolution; that peace and cooperation are grounded in this commonality; that scientific stories about human nature that appear to be reductionistic do not demean the human spirit; that science does provide nontrivial "right answers" to a number of questions, and they ought not be sacrificed on the altar of relativism and multiculturalism; that the particular cultures that contributed these scientific answers should be acknowledged within the multicultural human community. Underlying the entire presentation is the well-placed assumption that the "is" described by science coexists very snugly with the "ought" that ethics describes and morality lives by.

The largest hole in this wholistic interpretation of the human situation is the absence of any attention to the moral and religious traditions that have emerged, died away or persisted within the very evolutionary process that the series purports to describe. Bingham is on target in arguing that culture constitutes the fast track of evolutionary development -- a track governed by basic evolutionary dynamics, including the "nature bats last" factor of natural selection. He is equally incisive in realizing that the engine of culture is driven on its evolutionary track by the stories that human beings construct. It's strange that such an insightful commentator should also be simplistic and careless. In this Bingham also represents the dilemma of many of culture's brightest intellectuals.

It is easiest to critique Bingham by chiding him for ignoring the great stories that have been told over the millennia by Socrates and Aristotle, Moses and Jesus, Muhammad and Siddhartha, the Gitas and the Tao -- all of which have nontrivial implications for the process of cultural evolution. Furthermore, religious communities and theologians, although they are often not up to Bingham's level of discourse, have not remained utterly silent on the issues he raises. The Common Creation Story offered by the sciences is an object of intense scrutiny by theologians as diverse as Gordon Kaufman, Sallie McFague, Wolfhart Pannenherg, Langdon Gilkey, Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Nancey Murphy, Robert John Russell and John Polkinghorne, to mention only the most prominent names. Symposia have been presented at the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for ten years running on the intersection of cultural evolution and religion. At least two academic journals, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science and the Bulletin of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at Berkeley, give regular attention to the kinds of questions that interest Bingham in this series. Bingham and his producers should know this.

One might also mention that Ralph Wendell Burhoe was awarded the 1980 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion for his theological interpretation of precisely the concepts of culture and its consequences discussed by Bingham, including the issues of cooperation in the face of the us-versus-them tendency, even though Burhoe's work antedated the emergence of the sciences of chaos and complexity. Burhoe's point is that if cultural evolution is the subject for discussion, then the religious traditions whose wisdom has survived millennia of selective pressures can be left out of the discussion only at the cost of scientific adequacy and competency.

The Human Quest seems to rest on the slightly veiled assumption that religious traditions are among those human adaptations that, according to science, the evolutionary process has selected against. This is clearly not the case. Religious stories continue to be powerful engines of meaning for billions of persons around the world, as they have been for millennia. Those who produced The Human Quest should have been challenged to include an explanation from the cognitive and neurosciences of how and why this is so.

Is the story of the long-distance runner eternally running culture's fast track (or at least until our star reaches the end of its evolutionary run) in the quest for greater order and harmony the most adequate one available? It is indeed a noble story, reminiscent of ancient Stoicism and of Buddhism, although more optimistic than both, and it calls to mind Aristotle as well. The series, in effect, is an argument in favor of these stories, albeit on different grounds -- scientific rather than religious or philosophical -- though Bingham appears not to know this. Is science the only source of adequate stories? Others exist. Jews and Christians have just observed Passover and Good Friday and Easter -- different stories that also deserve to be tested in the discussion of evolutionary psychology and complexity. If the human quest is reduced to electrons dancing along wires and computational patterns crossing a population of neurons, does such a "story" justify even caring whether our society attains the success of a complex adaptive system? Does anything about the story of the running track and the computational machine compel us to conclude that the track and the machine should survive as long as possible? Traditional concepts of "soul" and "immortality" have more to do with these sorts of "big questions" than Bingham is willing to admit. (For Bingham the traditional concepts of religion are principally about subjective experience -- and ecstatic experience at that.)

And I suppose at this point I must point out what should be common knowledge: If secular thinkers believe they can take the measure of traditional moral and religious concepts with the callow judgment that they are comparable to geocentrism, they are simply mistaken. To be ignorant of this is as serious as being ignorant of basic neuroscience.

The flip side of such questions presents challenges to religious and theological communities. What is it about our stories that should be taken seriously by those who advance theories of moral behavior as a product of evolution, or those who regard consciousness and selfhood as congeries of computational patterns constructed by neurons? What is it about our theology or our preaching that would give Bingham the idea that religious stories count for something that is significant for a creature that aims at adaptation and survival? How often are religious stories interpreted with a view to the conceptual and moral ambience that marks The Human Quest?

Certainly the message of Christianity, as well as the world's other religions, aims to make a difference for the Stone Age people who inhabit our space-age pews and the streets beyond. Ignorance of the space-age world in which the message takes shape is not justified by the low religious-knowledge quotient of commentators such as Roger Bingham. Nor can religious communities justifiably resist the reinterpretation of basic doctrines that may be required if the power and freshness of their message is to grow in the soil of new scientific understandings.

Bingham and most religious communities do share one basic attitude toward their stories -- that they are equivalent to "right answers." How do both parties respond to a postmodern temper that may well embrace both science and traditional religion while denying that either offers us right answers? We would do well to listen to voices like that of Northwestern University anthropologist William Irons, a friendly critic of paleocentrism, who looks for a dramatic reconceptualizing of both science and religion under the impact of current ways of thinking.

Bingham and his PBS series represent the best and brightest of Western scientific intelligence today. His challenge to communities of religious faith is to acknowledge and take the measure of that intelligence, while at the same time fashioning a constructive critique that can raise the standards by which we assess what qualifies as the best and brightest.