In 1974, just before I left the WCG, I picked up a book called “EarthWalk” by Philip Slater. I had never had such an eye opening experience before that time. “EarthWalk” was one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.
This article by Ralph Haulk is from 2011, and is being republished here.
Recently, I was reading from his blog, http://philipslater.wordpress.com and discovered the essay on the trap of purity. It is related to much we have discovered when we left the CoGs. A part of that is quoted below:
“But all cultures have safety valves that help release the tensions created by this twisting of our genetic makeup. Cultures survive only when they’re impure–when they accumulate inconsistencies and contradictions like lichen on a rock.
Medieval Europe, for example, had a Feast of Fools, during which nobles and peasants exchanged roles, priests were the butt of practical jokes, and all the usual taboos and rules of deference to one’s superiors were abolished for a day. Similarly, the Japanese have a tradition that anything said while drunk must have no repercussions in their daily lives. Since people are more complex than any system of ideas, these contradictions and inconsistencies are necessary for a culture to survive. As Mumford put it:
‘This tendency toward laxity, corruption, and disorder is the only thing that enables a system to escape self-asphyxiation.’ Some early Christian leaders, like Paul, portrayed celibacy as the highest good. But if this principle had been enforced for everyone the Catholic Church would have disappeared like the Shakers, who never reproduced themselves. Mumford attributes the longevity of the Catholic Church to its ability to absorb contradictory traditions:
“It is not the purity of Roman Catholic doctrine that has kept that Church alive and enabled it to flourish even in a scientific age but just the opposite.”
It survived, he says, because of the many ideas and practices ‘seeping in from other systems of thought and other cultures,’ especially that of the Greeks, and later, of science. Not to mention the pagan elements (Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs) incorporated into the Christian religion as it swept through Europe.”
Slater’s description above opens up the idea that cultures cannot survive by being totally “pure”. By focusing exclusively on perfect obedience to a set of rules or laws, they eventually go extinct from lack of adaptation. Slater brings out a parallel to this idea in “EarthWalk”:
“There is a cybernetic law that states that the more probable a message is, the less information it provides. The information contained in a message, for example, decreases with its repetition”.
What we see, then, is a comparison between the “probability” of a message, and the “purity” of a message. By emphasizing the purity of a message, that is, the “truth” of an unchanging nature, we increase its probability, but we reduce the information it contains for useful adaptation to the world around us. If any “message(Catholicism, Mormonism, any ‘ism’)” is repeated to the point that we cannot accept variation, we will lose our ability to adapt to necessary change.
If you compare this to my last essay regarding genes and the “Cambrian Explosion”, you will notice a parallel between the action of genes and the need for “purity” in any social system.
What Richard Dawkins calls the “genetic replicative algorithm” is an action by which genes perfectly copy themselves from generation to generation by controlling as much of their environment as possible, to avoid change. That is, the genes select a process of “purity” to ensure that no alterations occur in their replicative process. If the “memes” of a culture are extensions of the genes, then we can easily see the evolutionary connection between a culture seeking “purity” and the gene pool seeking to avoid change and thus control its replicative environment.
What we see in both the culture or religion, and the process of genetic replication, is that “information”, that which lacks predictability, is a threat to both genes and cultures. This means that cultures, as extension of the genes, will seek to minimize choice, or options that threaten the reproductive integrity of the culture.
What is immediately realized from this is that religion is a process developed naturally in evolution, and, while it serves purposes of survival in environments with little change, it threatens the life of species in environments with what economist/futurist Robert Theobald called the “Rapids of Change”.
Religion, as generally recognized, is nothing more than a cultural evolutionary strategy to reduce stress within a culture by reducing its options. The more “purity” maintained in a culture, the less uncertainty it experiences, and therefore less stress.
Slater has shown a link between genetic replication and the strategy by which cultures avoid uncertainty, by pointing out the basic law of information theory. The more probable a message, the less information it contains. The more “religious” a person is, therefore, the more adept he or she becomes at strategies that avoid constant change. This suggests that religion is merely a useful evolutionary strategy. Once we become aligned with a “universal truth”, we are inclined to seek out those who agree with that truth. “Purity” can only succeed if it proselytizes. Slater continues below:
“Cultural systems force living things into boxes. Inconsistencies create air-holes that allow these living things to breathe. Every cultural system must have contradictions in order for its participants to remain human, because human beings are inconsistent and have contradictory needs. We’re active and passive, organized and impulsive, aggressive and gentle, cooperative and competitive. Yet every cultural system tends to suppress some part of that complex humanity.
So when a culture changes, it eases the process if parts of the older tradition survive, even when–especially when–they contradict the values of the new one. Vestiges of the joyful celebrations of life and nature that characterized pagan cultures softened the impact of the death-oriented, otherworldly Christianity that was imposed on Europeans during the Dark Ages. Easter eggs, a pagan fertility symbol, helped Christians feel that there might, after all, be something to be said for life here on earth.
Healthy cultures are packrats. They don’t throw away anything. They keep odds and ends of customs that contradict their dominant values.”
Slater has again pointed out another parallel of cultures and genes. Once a culture is “informed” with inconsistencies and aberrations, it isolates them often by putting them in jail, placing them in therapy, putting them in mental institutions, or ways that isolate the aberration, but maintains the “information” provided by the aberration or inconsistency. Organisms have this same tendency by incorporating what used to be called “junk DNA”, which, as Dr Sharon Moalem points out, are actually former viral DNA, which the organism uses for future reference. This DNA provides a kind of “database” which the organism can use in many ways, from “jumping genes” that randomly populate newly formed brains, allowing greater individuality, to reference of the viral DNA to create defenses against new viral infections.
In that same sense, cultures act as “packrats”, storing inconsistencies and aberrations as a “database” to study and identify the nature of each behavior, just as the immune system “tags’ and identifies each new viral invader and neutralizes it in the body.
Slater then makes comparisons to more modern cultures:
“Communist bureaucracies could not have functioned at all without the system of official bribery carried over from Czarist days, and capitalists who are most dogmatic about free markets are the first to seek government subsidies and try to control prices through collusion. Ceremonious Brits adore making fun of pomposity, and materialistic Americans are addicted to sentimental movies proclaiming that the best things in life are free. In 1635 the intensely utilitarian Dutch went mad over tulips–the most useless of plants–paying astronomical sums for a single bloom and almost destroying their economy. And while the early 1950s were notoriously obsessed with planning for future success, the most popular song was “Che Sera, Sera.”
When an old cultural system begins to give way to a new one its inconsistencies come under attack. There is an increase in fundamentalism–a call for ideological purity. These are seen as attempts to shore up the old system, but they actually weaken it further.”
In Jewish history, the Jews were faced with this same problem. They were allegedly commanded to obey the laws of God perfectly, and avoid the “leavening” of other nations. That is, they were not to be “informed” by the inconsistencies and paganism which other nations offered. How could the Jews successfully live among other cultures if they were not permitted to conquer and control those cultures? If they truly had the covenant with God at Sinai, why wouldn’t God have led them to victory over all other cultures, so they could enforce their truth on the world?
The reason, assuming there was a God who did so, is stated above. Had Israel been successful and enforced “God’s law” all over the earth, the very purity by which Israel was forced to live would actually destroy the evolutionary ability to adapt and grow with their environment! Israel’s “success” could not have depended on the conquest of other nations and a world ruling kingdom, since that very success would have doomed them to eventual extinction!
The Jews, therefore, offered an interesting solution: while maintaining the “purity” of their holy text, the Torah, they began to record a system of rules and laws(Mishna, Gemora, and Talmud) which allowed them to adapt to the cultures and societies around them, even incorporating various ideas from those cultures, while maintaining the “purity” of the Torah only by giving it “lip service”, the very thing which Jesus had allegedly condemned in his ministry. “Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men(Mark 7:7)”.
In genetic systems, there are the “germ cells” which maintain the “purity” of sexual reproduction. These cells are not altered by viruses. The basic information necessary for sexual reproduction is passed on, and the organism maintains its identity in a species. The somatic cells, however, are influenced by viruses, and can be altered by the “information” provided by viral DNA. The Jews had maintained the “germ cell” purity of the Torah, but had created an adaptive “somatic cell” system composed of the Talmud, which allowed them to adapt to the “cultural DNA” of other civilizations.
Christianity and Islam followed much the same model, by creating a “DNA” of print, allowed by Gutenberg’s printing press, which passed on the basic replicative information of the “germ cell”, while allowing for the constant speciation and splintering of interpretation of various religions, until we have thousands of religions that provide for constant adaptability in the West today.
The main difference, however, is that individuals can read either Bible or Koran for themselves, creating even more individualist diversity for competition and adaptation among systems. Notice what Slater proposes as a result of this “informing” process:
“The Protestant Reformation in Europe was an attempt to ‘purify’ the Catholic Church of its contradictions and compromises with paganism. It sought to suppress the cult of the Virgin Mary and reestablish the supremacy of the Father–to make Christianity a more perfectly patriarchal religion and de-sacralize ‘Mother’ Nature.
The result of this new purity was to weaken popular commitment to Christianity altogether. Atheism and secular humanism grew rapidly, and European churches never again held the sway over public life they’d once had.
The power of kings, which in medieval times was limited by the nobles and hedged about by custom, reached a peak under the reign of France’s Louis XIV, who detached the nobles from their land base and brought them to Versailles. As continued by Louis XV and Louis XVI, it was the purest form of monarchy that ever existed in Western Europe, and for that very reason was the beginning of the end.
Centralized power achieved an even purer form in the 20th century dictator. The dictator had no limitations at all–no concerns about legitimacy, no traditional obligations attached to the role, no restrictions based on custom. The dictator was authoritarian power at its absolute purest, and hence an unmistakable symptom of its decadence. Nazi Germany’s Third Reich–the purest and most perfect expression of Control Culture that ever existed–lasted only twelve years. And today the former Axis powers are three of the most vital democracies in the world.
The purest forms of a social system always appear as it decays. Often, when a system is ailing, its believers try to strip away its contradictions, leaving a system that is more pure, more rigid, and hence more fragile. Mao Zedong couldn’t tolerate the “laxity, corruption, and disorder” in Chinese communism. By launching the Cultural Revolution–trying to strip away all traditional values and entrepreneurism–he smothered the system and opened the door to capitalistic and democratic reforms.
In a viable culture, customs, ideas, and myths may fall into disuse, but they’re never thrown out. Cleaning out the cultural attic means junking the counterpoise that keeps the whole structure from getting too one-sided and collapsing.
The ‘purification’ efforts of fundamentalist ideologues are symptomatic of terminal illness. Radical leftists in the past have often crippled themselves through the same egoistic devotion to ideological purity, preferring to go down with the ship singing “nearer to the left than thee” rather than share a lifeboat with conservatives and compromising liberals.
Mumford’s “laxity, corruption, and disorder” is an ironic phrase, but it’s the way contradictions are viewed by ideologues. Purists believe they’re trying to ‘revive’ or ‘revitalize’ a system when they call for a return to ‘basic values’ or ‘fundamental principles’, but since it’s the “laxity, corruption, and disorder” that protect a system from self-asphyxiation, they’re in effect smothering it. They’re more committed to the idea of the system than the compromised reality. They’re not only willing to go down with the ship, they’re willing to sink it to prove their devotion.
Slater has correctly analyzed the problem, but the “neoconservatives” and the evangelicals are trying desperately to “return” to a purity which the United States never possessed, nor was it born of such ideas. The “original intent” of the founders was basic to the paradigm examined above: for those who chose, the Bible could be used as the “germ cell” of future security, but the nation grew and prospered on its “laxity and disorder”.