Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Evolution of Delusion (a Thanksgiving Day Message)

Today is Thanksgiving. But it is also the fortieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s seppuku.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese writer who sometimes wrote feel-good novels (e.g. The Sound of the Waves) and very rarely even humor (e.g. the short story Tamago, or Eggs). But he was most famous for writing fiction with angst, much of which was focused on the loss of the spirit of Japan (Yamato damashii). As I understand it, his mind was in the grip of a delusion that Japan had a glorious samurai past, where warriors had total honor and would rather commit ritual suicide than to submit to any loss of face. The ritual suicide was, of course, seppuku, which is the same as harakiri—the former is the fancy, the latter the ordinary, way of saying it in Japanese. He had a small cult of young men who followed him, like a band of samurai, or perhaps like ronin, the wandering samurai who had no home after Japan entered the modern world in the nineteenth century. But this was post-World-War-II Japan, with no room for either samurai or seppuku.

To Mishima, Japan’s defeat in World War II was an intolerable loss of face. And quite possibly he was influenced by his own cowardice during World War II: when he was drafted, he told the doctors at his physical exam that he had tuberculosis, and he was relieved from Army duty. It was not until 1967 that he joined the postwar version of the Japanese army (the Self Defense force; Japan’s constitution, written by the United States, forbade an army capable of international expansion). He considered this army to not be patriotic enough, so he formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society) in 1968, which upheld bushido (the way of the warrior) and swore to uphold the Emperor. However, he did not think that even Emperor Hirohito was patriotic enough, because Hirohito had renounced his own divinity at the end of World War II.

Mishima was one of the last holdouts of the delusions that were widespread in Japan before and during World War II. Such delusions can, as the Hakko Ichiu principle (Japanese world dominion) did, grip an entire nation. But even this was not enough for Mishima and his followers. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his Tatanokai visited the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Self-Defense Force. Once inside, they barricaded the office and tied the commandant to his hair. Then Mishima stood on a balcony and delivered a prepared speech, about returning Japan to its glory, to the soliders who had gathered below. He asked the soldiers to join him in a coup d’etat, but they just jeered him. He finished his speech, went into the commandant’s office, and committed harakiri. After he had partially disemboweled himself, one of his assistants was supposed to behead him, in the traditional manner; but this assistant was unable to do so, and another assistant had to finish the job for him. It is now generally believed that Mishima had not intended the coup to be successful, but had planned his ritual suicide for years, and he had made sure his legal affairs, including money for the legal defense of the remaining Tatenokai members, were in order before his final battle.

Delusions can completely determine what a person considers to be reality. Every piece of sensory information is interpreted as a reinforcement of the delusion. This might seem to be an imperfection of the brain that evolution would have gotten rid of. But delusions can sometimes provide evolutionary advantages to the people who have them and to the societies in which these people live. If you have two tribes, one of which has delusions of being God’s chosen conquerors of the world and the other of which values reason over emotion, guess which one will win the war. If a delusional tribe wins territory and resources, its individual members, to varying degrees, will have greater evolutionary fitness. The human mind is capable of intense delusion, and this is the product of natural selection.

Well, I have tied this story in with evolution and religion. Let me finally tie it in with Thanksgiving. Americans have a delusion, even if only mildly held, that the Pilgrims were heroic pioneers who came to the New World from England for religious freedom. But after leaving England, they mad moved to the Netherlands, where they had religious freedom—but so did everyone else. The Pilgrims wanted the “freedom” to enforce their religion, so they had to form their own colony, in Massachusetts. When they got there, they nearly starved, but were rescued by the welfare provided to them by a socialistic Native American tribe. Later, they showed their gratitude by carrying out genocide against this tribe. Pilgrim leader William Bradford describes the way the colonists surrounded a Pequot village at sunrise. They set it ablaze and killed anyone who fled. Bradford wrote, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the colonists] gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully.” They were able to ignore the suffering that they inflicted on their fellow humans because their brains were deluded with the idea that they were God’s chosen people upon the face of the Earth and had the right, even the responsibility, to slaughter anyone (at least any Indian) who questioned their delusion.

But let me end with something to be thankful for on this day. Evolution has given our species the ability to create, in our minds, a beautiful world based upon the sensory information that those minds receive—brilliant color, wonderful scents of food, beautiful music. They are illusory creations of our minds, but let us enjoy them anyway. They are more beauty than we, the products of natural selection, have any right to have expected.


  1. So, religion has a utilitarian purpose after all: and organic solidarity and group cohesion necessity that grew out of a need for tribal self-preservation.

    I think that the people who claim that theirs is "not a religion, but a relationship" with God are on the right track of trying to separate their beliefs from those which justified the actions of the authoritarians such as the Pilgrims and the European churches. They are deluded in thinking that non-denominational churches are independent of dogma, of course, and that even though their own church was never directly responsible for murder and torture, they are carrying on a fine tradition of "othering."

    Finding a scientific explanation for the existence of religion does nothing to approach the topic of the existence of (a) god(s), of course.

  2. Thanks for reading this blog. I agree, and there is a chapter about religion in my upcoming book Life of Earth, which develops the themes you have mentioned.