Holy elephants vs. atheist mammoths: Why do elephants have big ears and mammoths small ears? And might the answer suggest something about the evolution of religion and irreligion?

Mammoths have small ears.

Why is that?

In a science section article today, the New York Times offers the following explanation:

Mammoths, despite their association with the frozen north, originated in the tropics when they split apart from elephants some seven million years ago. To adapt to the cold of northern latitudes, they developed smaller ears, a thick fur coat and glands in their skin to keep the fur well oiled.

This got me to thinking about the evolution of religion. There are some social environments—such as, say, a charismatic megachurch—in which you are rewarded for having big spiritual ears—senses highly attuned to “hearing God”—and where you are praised for “knowledge” obtained by inner communication with the Holy Spirit. Think of the big-eared elephant in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who:  you claim to hear voices that others can’t independently verify. In such environments, you exercise your brain’s intuitional areas, and are encouraged to do so. In fact, you gain esteem in your community for being a “sensitive” and possessing “spiritual gifts.”

But there are other, emotionally colder, environments—such as the science lab—in which big-ear spirituality is not rewarded, and other parts of the human brain must be exercised: the areas responsible for objectivity, deep theorizing, and carefully evaluating claims that appeal to reason, logic, and evidence.

Which parts of your brain are you exercising? And will the brains of human beings, generations hence, evolve, under social pressures, in the direction of big-round-eared “Horton spirituality” or Mr. Spock-like pointy-eared intellectual prickliness?

Are elephants v. mammoths apt symbolic mascots for theism v. atheism?

Check out that mammoth’s shrinking ear. Use it or lose it.

File:Mammoth Mammut model.JPG

Image source: Wikipedia Commons

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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