I thought I would post on something slightly off the beaten track for a change and write about something I have read recently that intrigued me.

In the April 2008 edition of National Geographic magazine there was a remarkable and touching article on Anthropological studies on Chimp culture in their own environment. In particular it was focusing on how Chimps are using spears to hunt, but also how the environment in which certain colonies such as the Fongoli live in (non-rain forested) has forced them to adapt and adopt new behaviours. Naturally enough this research intrigues those who are studying the evolution of man, and the subtitle to the article “Almost Human” reflects this.

In the article there was a chart listing variations in Chimp culture across different regions of Africa, an observation that initially astounded scientists but which is now common currency, after all human culture has a great many variations (chopsticks or forks?). One practise intrigued me immensely, and this is that the Fongoli, Bossou, Gombe and Tai chimp communities have been observed performing both individual and social rain dances.

A storm can provoke chimps in most groups to show off with a frenetic or rhythmic display.

And the Tai community has been observed going one better, performing a rain dance prior to a downpour. And research suggests this is not mere coincidence, these communities seem to consistantly perform these dances before major storms.

I am intrigued, as are the anthropologists studying them, at the seemingly religious nature of the behaviour.

You’re in awe when you see this… The chimpanzees go into a quasi-trance, dancing even when they’re alone, with no spectators, as if they were ritually celebrating the rainstorm. Pascal Gagneux – University of California at San Diego

Other researchers have noted a sense of appreciation or even “reverence” for nature exhibited in Chimpanzee behaviour. And this is extraordinary (in my opinion) as any anthropologist or primatologist studying the behaviour and culture of our closest specieal relatives would be cautious in the extreme not to allow anthropomorphic intepretations to spoil their observations. And this is obvious by the measured use of simile in their descriptions – “as if they were” – rather than “they were”. But this cautious approach does not make the observations any less remarkable, and as Wittgenstein said a simile (to be meaningful) must be meaningful when the simile is dropped. Thus one may suggest that what has been witnessed is ritual behaviour very similar to that performed by human cultures, though one may not state that as a definitive claim just yet.

So what does all this mean, and why do I find it interesting? Well it seems to me to suggest (and this is my intepretation of the material) that there is reasonable grounds to propose that ritual and religious behaviours are natural cultural phenomenon. And if one accepts that proposition then we can start to entertain the challenging and in some quarters unfashionable perspective that religious behaviour (and religion) may be useful.

Let me add a philosophical/theological caveat to this. I am by no means proposing that the existence of a natural religion or natural religious urge is in any way indicative of a God, gods, spirits and the whole panoply of metaphysical beliefs that are advanced by one religion or another. Indeed I would argue (whilst not wearing my religious hat) that if one could demonstrate an innate religiousity as being a cultural phenomenon shared with (and possibly inherited from) our closest specieal relatives then we can begin to analyse metaphysics as the “fairy-tales” by which our ancestors sought to suppliment and explain these traits.

I am therefore content to settle with the theory that religious culture has natural origins, and that it serves (or served or may come to serve) some sort of important social function. And along with such Postmodernist theologions as Don Cupitt I could be motivated to suggest that religion has a healthy future if it were to detach itself from certain metaphysical doctrines.

Two final notes. The uncanny ability of these Chimps to perform the raindance prior to the actual rain (though we have no reason to believe they perform the dance with such intent) reminds me of various Shamanic cultures where raindances are performed. Most likely as with the Chimps an awareness of meteorology is at play, and the dance is performed at such a time as it is most likely to be successful. But is it not possible that like the Chimps this meteorological awareness is perhaps a subconscious reaction to the elements? It is said that prior to an electrical storm the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. If the raindance has deep unconscious roots, then even though we think we know better, should we not tolerate the claim that the raindance makes the rain come? It may be a false-causality from our perspective but it seems to work for those cultures who cherish it still. And lets be fair- if among our number somebody claimed to be able to do something marvellous and yet when pressed to perform the feat was consistently unable to do so surely eventually we would tire of his boasts, and yet medicine men and ritual specialists abound accross the worlds many cultures, indicative perhaps that they have a reasonably balanced expectation to performance ratio. In other words, they seem to be able to do what they claim to be able to do. And finally I wish to reiterate that the innate religiousity that it is claimed is being observed in nature is a very different kind of religion from institutions and heirarchies and metaphysics. I really think the operative word that connects the observations of Chimp behaviour with human religious urges is “reverence” and I would be content to leave it all at that. Richard Dawkins famed secularist and atheist by means of a reductio once pointed out how awesome the universe is – and how much he enjoys revelling in it – without inferring design, purpose, divinity etc. I don’t know whether he would appreciate the suggestion, but I can’t help but feel that he in his encounter with the natural world exhibits a certain deal of “reverence”. And that reverence above anything else is the definitive essence of what religion is (and perhaps should) be.

NGM article (again) here.

Short NYTimes article here.

Short interview with a Chimp Observer for the Jane Goodall Institute here.