Members of a wolf pack who are hunting prey with sharp horns don't stop and think, "Damn, if I keep chasing those animals, I could freaking die!"
Early humans did. Because we have self-awareness, while animals, almost certainly, simply are aware.
Meaning, a human can anticipate his or her death, even when the threat of that happening isn't imminent. Other animals also fear death, but only when their lives are immediately threatened.
This is a huge difference. An important difference. A difference that makes all the difference between us and other species.
It also is a central theme of a fascinating book I'm a few chapters into, "The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life" by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszcyynski.
The authors are psychology professors who have engaged in a lot of research involving attitudes toward death and how people cope with knowledge of their own inevitable demise. This makes their book different from purely philosophical discussions of death.
They tie together psychological studies, anthropological findings, evolutionary theories, and other scientific/quasi-scientific information in a thoughtful, readable fashion.
I'm getting fresh insights into familiar ideas.
It seems obvious that myths about the afterlife are one way humans cope with the consequence of our unique ability to anticipate the future. This is a positive when alternative action scenarios are being pondered, but a drawback when a fear of death interferes with normal functioning.
Here's some passages from a chapter I read this morning, Homo Mortalis: From Primate to Human.
Symbolization, self-consciousness, and the capacity to contemplate the future were extremely helpful to our ancestors. But these highly adaptive cognitive abilities also gave rise to an ever-present potential for mortal terror. What happened when a life-form, crafted by billions of years of evolution to strive to survive at almost any cost, recognized that it was destined to lose that war?
...Our ancestors consequently used their imagination and ingenuity to stifle their existential dread. They were already employing their sophisticated intellectual abilities to ask and answer questions about how the world worked. But solving the practical problems of living was of little use or solace to them in the face of death.
...People terrified by the prospect of their own demise would be less likely to take risks in hunting to increase the odds of landing big game, to compete effectively for mates, or to provide good care for their offspring. So our ancestors made a supremely adaptive, ingenious, and imaginative leap: they created a supernatural world, one in which death was not inevitable or irrevocable.
The groups of early humans who fabricated the most compelling tales could best manage mortal terror. As a result, they would have been the most capable of functioning effectively in their environment and thereby most likely to perpetuate their genes into future generations.
So afterlife myths sprang up. Along with rituals that acted out those myths.
Eventually full-blown religions came to be, sophisticated myths that reassure people afraid of dying and not existing... forever. Interestingly, the authors point out that embracing a supernatural unreality can be a good thing when it enables people to function better in natural reality.
Like ritual, art helped to make the incredible credible by offering concrete signs of a supernatural world. "Without art," mused George Bernard Shaw, "the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable." Art depicting the supernatural, a feature of every known culture, is fundamental to constructing and maintaining supernatural death-transcending conceptions of reality.
...Ritual, art, myth, and religion thus play a much more significant role in human affairs than it is currently fashionable to acknowledge. Many evolutionary theorists view art and religion as superfluous by-products of other cognitive adaptations that have no adaptive significance or enduring value.
This view is simply wrong. These products of human ingenuity and imagination were essential for early humans to cope with a uniquely human problem: the awareness of death. The striving for immortality -- universal to all cultures -- forestalls terror and despair.
Consequently, humans do not have agriculture, technology, and science despite ritual, art, myth, and religion; rather, humans developed agriculture, technology, and science because of them.
Although "in their developed forms, phantasy-thinking and reality-thinking are distinct mental processes," wrote psychoanalyst Susan Issacs, "reality-thinking cannot operate without concurrent and supporting... phantasies." We might not have calculus without grave goods, or dentistry without the tooth fairy.
Religious beliefs in an afterlife are false. But these illusions are useful. Or at least, they have been.
I'll be interested to see how, in later chapters, the authors look upon modern myths of eternal life, especially when these are tied to anti-scientific ideas about reality. I can understand how supernatural myths are a positive cultural force when they enable humans to better live their lives.
However, in this 21st century we're seeing the downside of religious myth-making.
Many people in this country, for example, refuse to believe in the reality of global warming because they feel that God is looking out for the Earth and wouldn't do anything to seriously screw the habitability of our planet.
So at this point in my reading of the book, I'm willing to accept the argument that afterlife myths were generally beneficial for early humans. I'm dubious, though, about the benefits religiosity is bringing to modern Homo sapiens.
Sure, individuals feel better when they think they're going to live on after they die. But if this myth helps contribute to the demise of civilization as we know it, I don't see how this can be a good thing.