We haven’t mentioned Bob May for a while. Here he is, talking to BBC R4’s World at One presenter Martha Kearney today about… oh, you know, everything. [Listen again – UK Only]
MK: The issue of climate change is being addressed tonight by the president of the British Science Association, Lord May. He’s the former president of Britain’s leading science academy, the Royal Society and the former government Chief Scientific Advisor. He’s making his speech at the British Science Festival tonight and takes as his starting point the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. And Lord May, you’re going to outline what you see as a set of interlocking set of problems which in fact threaten our existence on the planet.
BM: Yes. I’m going to begin with the very different world of Darwin’s time, which is exactly coincident with the foundations of the British Association for the Advancement of science. And I’m going to point out that in Darwin’s own time there were lots of problems like for example in the physics of that day, Earth couldn’t have been nearly long enough for the, err, what the geological record tries to tell us. Nearly all those problems have been swept away by advances in science in the subsequent 150 years or so, except for how evolution managed to create and sustain cooperative behaviour in large aggregates of unrelated people. Small when we were hunter-gatherers, small groups we were all, the people in the group were all related. But today we still don’t really properly understand the origins of the stability of the ties that bind us in big societies.
MK: And those ties are vital, you believe, people do need to cooperate when it comes to the problems of tackling climate change, population growth, food and water supplies?
BM: And indeed the two things you’ve just had: those two programmes are beautiful small examples, the one before, immediately preceding a sketch of climate change and before that, legalistic tensions between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. More generally we’ve got a concatenation of problems that we seem to have difficulty focusing on other than one at a time. But they’re all interlinked.
MK: And you…
BM: Half as many again by the middle of the century. Need to feed them. Water supplies. Demand crossing supplies. And climate change.
MK: And you believe that in the past, religion, mythology, the idea of a deity as a punisher was what actually helped bind people together.
BM: Well, there’s a huge academic growth industry in trying, playing artificial little games as metaphors for cooperation, always with the temptation for a seeming advantage of cheating. And what they’re tending to tell us is that carrots are much more effective than sticks. But if you’ve only got carrots, there… there… the benefit of cheating is not suppressed. And what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get. And that poses the question… the punisher is often penalised for punishing. How much better to invent a supernatural entity that is all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful and arguably there’s quite a lot of speculation that the origins of religion lie as a mechanism with the wish of the deity or pantheon interpreted by a hierarchy… it’s a mechanism for bringing people together to cooperate in the norms of the society under the non… not the… fear, if you like… ummm… of punishment, if not here then in the hereafter.
MK: Well, interesting, but undoubtedly controversial ideas. I’m sure many people of faith will disagree with you. Lord May, thanks very much indeed for joining us.
So here’s what we understand from the interview.
In the beginning, there were little groups of hunter-gathering people who didn’t know people from other little groups of hunter gatherers. And we don’t know how these people co-operated, except for being scared by a god. But then a man called Darwin came along and said that the Earth was older than the hunter-gathering god-fearing people said it was. So people stopped being terrified of the god, and therefore stopped co-operating with each other. But now, using special games based on Darwin’s ideas, scientists have worked out that people need to have carrots and sticks to make them co-operate.
In short: No sooner has science proved that religion is nonsense than it proves that we need it after all to save the planet and our own souls. For May, religion is not true, but it is a convenient untruth. He seems to think that religion, the tenets and authority of which science challenged centuries ago, was a good idea because it brought people together so that they obeyed norms. He wants us to believe in a god that he knows doesn’t exist to save us from armageddon, which he knows exists. We need this new religion, because we’re too stupid to behave properly, except through being steered by ‘carrots and sticks’. We’re just a bunch of feckless donkeys.
Is evolutionary theory – the science which played no small part in toppling the illegitimate rule of the church – being used to construct a false religion that coerces us with reward and punishment?
Maybe it’s too soon to say. We’re just a bunch of donkeys, after all.
Meanwhile, perhaps a more simple question to answer concerns Bob May and his ilk. Does he need a religion to create the possibility of a cooperative effort to solve a crisis, or does he need a crisis to create the basis for authority? As we argue often here on Climate Resistance, climate politics is prior to the science. Or perhaps that sort of chicken and egg problem is another one for the evolutionary biologists?