Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life by Lee M. Silver. HarperCollins, New York

In Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture,
Volume 2 No 4 pp 524-527, 2008

NB. This review was published as part of a “Review Forum”. The version here is that originally submitted and it may have been edited for publication.

In Challenging Nature Lee Silver tries to undermine all reverence and respect for the human soul.

With a series of lively stories he first describes the ubiquity of belief in spirits: a Balinese family mummify a body before releasing its soul through fire; an old Hindu woman is taken to die by the Ganges to gain a favourable reincarnation; a Rabbi sits over coffee in Starbucks and tells Silver that God gives a human being its soul at the first breath after birth.

Silver goes on to outline the way in which spiritual beliefs emerge early in childhood, and explains how religious and spiritual experiences depend on brain function. For example, specific brain areas have been found which, when stimulated, give rise to out-of-body experiences, mystical experiences or visions. More controversially, he argues that spiritual beliefs are deeply embedded in the human mind because they once served the evolutionary function of increasing the sense of community among some tribes rather than others. This appeal to what sounds like group selection needs a lot more evidence but Silver does at least admit that this part of his argument is “evolutionary speculation” (p 69).

So is this widespread belief in a spirit or soul either valid or helpful to us now? No, it is neither, claims Silver, as he takes his readers through a series of bizarre and grippingly creepy examples of nature’s creations. A teratoma is a rare benign growth sometimes found on a new born baby. Often referred to as ‘dermoid (skin covered) cysts’, a better name for these growths would be ‘monster clones’. They are usually genetically identical to the person carrying them, and inside may contain a cluster of human body parts, including muscle, bone, teeth, heart, and even a whole eye or electrically active neurons. It may be easy to think of these as mere lumps of tissue, rightly to be thrown in the bin, until you know how they are formed. In fact they originate as the baby’s embryonic twin but never develop into a whole body. So teratomas really lie at one end of a continuum that leads all the way through to the least tightly bound of conjoined twins; twins who are treated as, and think of themselves as, two complete persons. Where on this continuum do freaks of nature end and real human beings begin? Where can we draw a line between one person with a growth and two people accidentally joined together? If you believe in souls you have decide which of these gets given a soul and which does not.

What amazes me is that anyone can contemplate these, or any of the many other extraordinary examples in this book, and go on believing in souls, let alone that these souls are given to us by a benign (or even compassionate) God. Yet people do go on believing. As Silver explains, the tendency to such belief is very deep rooted indeed, and people fear – quite unnecessarily – that human love, compassion or respect are impossible without it.

Perhaps if the harm done by such beliefs were only that they cripple people’s understanding of the world then it wouldn’t matter very much, but the harm goes much further than that. Silver argues that such underlying beliefs as the sanctity of life, the preference for ‘natural’ over ‘artificial’, or the fear of tampering with God’s creations have led people in “post-Christian” nations to reject GM foods, embrace harmful agricultural practices because they are deemed ‘natural’, waste huge amounts of money on unnecessary vitamin supplements, and risk ill-health by relying on ineffective and even harmful ‘alternative medicines’. All these idiocies, he claims, can be traced back to the natural tendency to believe that nature is essentially the harmonious, God-given backdrop against which human dramas are played out. The truth that people don’t want to hear, he says, is that “Mother Nature can be a nasty bitch”.

Challenging Nature is very much an American book for American readers. The students Silver talks about are mostly religious, have high levels of spiritual belief and think he’s irreverent towards human embryos, quite unlike most British students. He describes intellectual battles in a country with a powerful Christian right and pro-life lobby, where experimentation on human embryos raises deep fears, where ‘intelligent design’ gets a serious hearing, and where most people are religious. These issues play out quite differently in other parts of the world where religion has less power but, as he rightly points out, people all over the world cling to false beliefs and rely on pseudoscience.

While Silver does a great job of exposing the dangers of belief in the soul, in the end he is not entirely immune to the temptation himself. When it comes to consciousness he, like so many others, seems to fall back into dualist talk, implying some kind of inner conscious self. He describes the cerebral cortex as “the seat of consciousness”, and the frontal lobes as “the location of our conscious existence”. So is there an ‘us’ who lives in this location, or sits in the mental seat? Perhaps this is just another example of the almost irresistible tendency to invent selves and souls of one kind or another. Rooting out the myth really is as hard as Silver tells us, but this book will surely help, and I remain optimistic that he’s wrong when he says that “spiritual beliefs are fundamentally ineradicable from humankind” (p 79).