Pearl Theory

600dpi_crop_Pearl Theory, 10, 2012, oil and gesso on linen, 72 x 74 inches copy

Pearl Theory, 10, 2012


If the Martians can’t make any of these theories fit the facts, they should consider a default theory of sorts that we may call the pearl theory: religion is simply a beautiful by-product. It is created by a genetically controlled mechanism or family of mechanisms that are meant (by Mother Nature, by evolution) to respond to irritations or intrusions of one sort or another. These mechanisms were designed by evolution for certain purposes, but then, one day, along comes something novel, or a novel convergence of different factors, something never before encountered and of course never foreseen by evolution, that happens to trigger the activities that generate this amazing artifact. According to pearl theories, religion isn’t for anything, from the point of view of biology; it doesn’t benefit any gene, or individual, or group, or cultural symbiont. But once it exists, it can be an objet trouve, something that happens to captivate us human agents, who have an indefinitely expandable capacity for delighting in novelties and curiosities. A pearl begins with a meaningless speck of foreign matter (or, more likely, a parasite), and once the oyster has added layer after beautiful layer, it can become something of coincidental value to members of a species who just happen to prize such things, whether or not this coveting is wise from the point of view of biological fitness. There are other standards of value that emerge, for reasons good or bad, free-floating or highly articulated. In much the way the oyster responds to the initial irritant and then incessantly responds to the results of its first response and then to the results of that response and so on, human beings may be unable to leave off reacting to their own reactions, incorporating ever more elaborate layers into a production that then takes on shapes and features unimaginable from its modest beginnings.” 

Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, 2006








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