Mar 16

Do Chimpanzees Go To Church?

(No I am not talking about that one guy. Shame on you.)

A recent study has come to light discussing the seeming ritual behavior of chimpanzees in the wild. (Or if you prefer the full academic version go here.) Basically, chimps are observed slamming rocks into trees and building small mounds of them around certain trees. This behavior does not seem to have any relationship to normal survival behaviors of eating, mating, or protecting territory. Thus, it is being categorized as "ritual" behavior. Apparently biologist are taking a page from the archaeologist's hand book: Don't know what it is? Must have "religious significance."

Nor are chimpanzees the only creatures with decent brain to body ratios that engage in seemingly ritual behavior.
This clip from the BBC over humanizes the actions of elephants, but it is clear that the elephants engage with their dead in a very specific way:

We have discussed the possibility of non-human ritual behavior before.

But, motivation for these behaviors is impossible to determine. Just because we do not know the reason for these instincts does not mean that biological factors do not drive them.

A bigger question, however, occurs. A more troubling one.

If religious behavior does occur in the animal world, is all religious behavior a function of biology? Or, is the reverse true? Is there something ineffable that is so prevalent that even animals seem to understand it?

Of course, those are two extremes. Just because some ritual behavior is biologically encoded, that does not mean all such behavior is.

To further muddy these waters, we can consider the behavior of those suffering OCD. OCD behavior is very ritualistic. Certain things must be done a certain number of times and in certain ways. Why? Because the actor experiences a sense of dread or lack of wholeness when the ritual is not performed.

However, sense all members of our species do not display this behavior, we identify these people as abnormal and now have the science to study their brain chemistry and architecture and alter it to conform to what we view as "normal".

We can put forth reasonable answers for the behavior of animals with but a little thought. But there is a deeper well here to be plumed when it comes to how religious behavior and belief relates to biology. While to so called "God Gene" has never been proven - nor even adequately described - we are left wondering if there is some genetic component to faith. If there is does it cause faith, in the same way altered brain chemistry caused OCD, or does it allow perceptions that are not common to most humans, the way some people have Tetrachromacy (about 2-3% of women in the world) and can see vastly more colors than the rest of us?

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