Birds do the nuttiest things.
In a flock, some of the birds will voluntarily serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which has less time to search for food and, in issuing a warning call, is more likely to be spotted by the predator.
Why do they do it, then? And how, if Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds, does a sentry gene get passed on if in fact many of the sentries wind up sacrificing their lives for the greater good of the group? This was one of the questions raised in an intriguing article that appeared a few years back in The New York Times Magazine, which has little to do with birds but a lot to do with human beings… and with contemporary Jewish communities in particular.
The article, “Darwin’s god” by Robin Marantz Henig, tries to understand why virtually every human culture across the globe has a religious component. Is this God’s will expressed through multiple manifestations, Henig asks, or the process of evolution? On the eve of Yom Kippur, when God is never far from center stage in the holiday prayer book, it seems an appropriate topic for introspection.
Henig focuses on how the human brain developed a tendency towards religious behavior… whether God exists or not. In the process, she provides clues to understanding how religious practice and community in the 21st century can be a good thing, even for those who don’t subscribe to religion’s basic tenets.
Two main theories occupy most of the scientific community’s attention, Henig says. In one, human beings developed religious thinking as a genetic byproduct.
For example, early humans may have found it advantageous to interpret unknown sounds and movements as having meaning. A rustle in the bush might mean danger… or a possible food source. Recognizing this would give those humans endowed with this sensitivity an advantage over those without.
With time, that same genetic makeup might extend to perceiving other events outside the body, not just food and danger, as having meaning, opening up the possibility for religious experience.
The other theory addresses adaptation.
Here’s where the bird analogy comes into play: Like our feathered friends, working together as a community or tribe would give certain groups of humans a survival advantage over those who acted more as free agents.
Any behaviors that enhanced the cohesion of community – and there are none more cohesive than religious ritual – would be naturally selected, reinforcing the behaviors in the resulting societies.
Returning to the birds, Henig writes that “if there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, three or four of the sentries might be sacrificed.
But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other six or seven sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.”
If we move beyond birds and early humans, how does this type of genetic or adaptive group behavior fit with the world we now live in, where expressing one’s individuality has become a core value? Is group membership and identity still relevant? And for Jews: Is it important anymore to be, or stay actively involved, in the Jewish tribe? Many would claim that it isn’t. Enlightened citizens of the world should be able to do what they want, without the baggage of history holding them back. Eva Illouz, writing in Haaretz on “The six commandments of secularity” just before Rosh Hashana, argued that secular culture is inherently forward- thinking, always anticipating advances in human knowledge and understanding – in contrast to religion, which takes a more retro perspective, where “truth” is necessarily closer to some revelation in the distant past. Isn’t clinging to ancient tribal models archaic at best, then, the source of sectarian violence and hatred at worst? My own experience says no. Belonging to and participating in a community provides the individual member with a closeness that human beings crave. All you have to do is imagine moving to a new city alone and having no group with which to affiliate. Today’s tribes also provide us with protection – whether that’s physically through the police and army, or via legislation intended to maintain order or funding designed to promote cultural activities that in turn guard against isolation.
Even the most disconnected of individuals belongs at least to the tribe of one’s birthplace – their nation. Of course you can always change locations, thus choosing a new tribe in which to live (and pay taxes). If so, why not apply that same ease of mobility to picking your religious tribe, choosing between spiritual paths as you would a country, sports team or book club? On one level, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. As long as the tribe is not violent or extreme, or impinges on others’ rights, you should do fine.
But what about your tribe of origin? If all the sentry birds in the example above decided to defect to join the tiger or bear tribe (assuming the tigers and bears accepted them), the individual birds wouldn’t be harmed. But the original flock would now be without its sentries.
If other birds with different roles in the flock did the same, pretty soon there’d be no flock at all.
Maybe that means the flock or tribe didn’t deserve to continue in the first place. Here’s where a leap of faith may be required. I take as a starting point that my Jewish tribe, the one I was born into, with its rich history, culture and wisdom, is worth preserving.
Biologist E.O. Wilson suggests there may be a scientific explanation for this seemingly illogical bias. “The tendency to form groups, and then to favor ingroups [that is, the group you’re already in], has the earmarks of instinct,” he says. “People are prone to ethnocentrism.”
Author Amos Oz once wrote that his definition of a Jew is someone who is engaged with Jewish tradition and subject matter – whether positively (“I’m proud of what the Jewish people have achieved”) or negatively (“I’m so ashamed of what the Jewish people have done or are doing”). The important thing, Oz says, is the desire for engagement with the Jewish community.
Returning to our opening example: Who are the Jewish sentry birds? It would seem that if the flock is the Jewish people as a whole, the sentries are those Jews who strive to maintain an even moderately committed Jewish lifestyle against the strong pull of contemporary assimilationist culture. This includes those Jews who live in Israel – perhaps the strongest public display of Judaism, even if its members would define their adherence more in nationalist than religious terms.
The definition can be extended even further to Jews of all stripes who are not afraid to be identified as such, and who demonstrate some Jewish engagement that goes beyond the 42 percent in the 2013 Pew study who say having a good sense of humor is part of what it means to be Jewish.
If that makes those overtly identified Jews and Israelis a bit like the sentry birds, forced to give up some of their personal freedom of choice for the good of the group, it seems a choice well worth making – whether seen as a manifestation of God’s will, or the result of evolutionary forces anchored firmly in science.
■ The author is a freelance writer who helps companies, brands and organizations become their own publishers in order to rank higher in social media and search engines. More at www.bluminteractivemedia.com