This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
FIND tvol:
Saved by Evolution: How A Prison Inmate Turned Science Into A Meaning System
Image credit: Flickr/Tiago Pinheiro
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

Earlier this year I received a letter from an inmate of Arizona’s prison system named Gary Shepherd. He appeared to be a self-taught scholar who had become interested in evolution. Somehow my book The Neighborhood Project had found its way behind bars and into his hands. He wondered if I could send him more material along the same lines.

The correction officer who transmitted the letter to me seemed to think highly of Mr. Shepherd. Evidently he had started a counseling program for other inmates called “B-Free” that was quite successful. Perhaps that’s why he resonated to The Neighborhood Project, which chronicles my initial attempts to improve the quality of life in my home city of Binghamton, New York. We were both trying to make a difference where we stood.

I wrote an encouraging reply and soon we were conversing with each other, first by letters and then, after I had applied for and received authorization, by phone. Internet access, including email, was forbidden for inmates in Gary’s prison.

Sign up for our newsletters

I wish to receive updates from:
Newsletter



I quickly learned that Gary was much more than a self-taught scholar. He had actually been saved by science, in the same way that many people are saved by religion. Unlike religious conversions, which are assisted by Priests, Pastors, Rabbis and Imams eager to add to their flocks, Gary had saved himself and was gathering a small flock of his own.

What does it mean to be saved by religion? People who need to be saved are behaving in ways that are destructive for themselves and others. Being saved means adopting new beliefs that have a transformative effect on their behavior, from a downward spiral to an upward spiral.

Religions have an admirable ability to save people, but they also have a way of departing from factual reality that lovers of science find not so admirable. Science, by definition, holds factual reality in the highest regard, but it seldom saves people in the same way that religions do, especially people who lack education and are thoroughly down and out.

The failure of science to act in the same capacity as religion is not for lack of trying. The 19th Century French philosopher Auguste Comte, who played an outsized role in defining the sciences, attempted to create a “Religion of Humanity” that went nowhere. So did his British contemporary Herbert Spencer, who had a giant reputation in his day but now is almost totally forgotten. Humanism might be called a modern religion of humanity, but if so it is pretty darned wimpy and confined mostly to intellectuals living in safety and security.

Here is something that you (but not Gary Shepherd) can do to convince yourself on this point. Type “Humanism” into Google images and look at the people who are featured. Almost all of them are affluent looking white people. Now look at the number of people in each image containing people. The modal number is one and it’s hard to find a group of more than ten. Now do the same thing for the word “Evangelical”. The people are much more diverse with respect to race and class, many more of the images are of large groups, and the people are often looking, well, saved.

Against this background, Gary Shepherd’s story is worth the attention of all of us–and no one can tell it better than he can. Here is the transcript of an interview that I conducted with him over the phone in late October 2016.

David Sloan Wilson: Please tell us about your early life and what caused you to enter the prison system in the first place.

Gary Shepherd: All right. Originally I am from Illinois and my family came out here to Arizona when I was about 8 years old. I liked it a lot because it was warm out here. When you’re a kid, it’s a lot nicer to stay out more, catching the desert animals and then getting into dirt bikes and things of that nature. But here in Arizona, some of the influences I had involved drugs and criminality. When I was around that, my mentality toward law enforcement changed. Then I started using drugs, starting with marijuana and progressing quite quickly until I tried all different kinds of drugs at a young age. After that, I was getting in trouble and staying out; then my Mother left Arizona and went back to live in Illinois. A few times I went to live with her but I always wanted to come back to Arizona because my friends that I had grown up with were here. Then I would get in trouble and get sent back. She moved to Indiana and I lived with her there and got in trouble again. I went to the juvenile facility over there. When I got out I moved to Alaska, thinking things would change because it was far away and marijuana was decriminalized at that time. But before long I was getting in trouble in Alaska also, so I came back to Tucson where I had grown up.

When I got to Tucson, I got a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken but it wasn’t long before I was getting in trouble, getting high, and doing different things, and not coming home to my stepfather. I was eighteen years old. He didn’t want me to stay there anymore so I was basically kicked out of the house and became homeless. At that point I started to do a few burglaries and stuff like that to get by and got in trouble for that.

DSW: Right!

GS: After that happened, I spent nine months in jail and four months in a prison boot camp, getting out on an intense probation. I was doing pretty good, but I got caught sneaking girls into the halfway house and they were going to revoke my probation, so I took off and started getting into trouble and getting wasted again. I was actually in a mall when my probation officers went to arrest me. I started running from them and as I was running I pulled out a gun and shot it at the ground, which created enough of a commotion for me to get away. I took off and got arrested in the LA airport. Obviously I didn’t know at the time, but that carried a mandatory life sentence because I was on probation and committed a violent offense with a dangerous weapon. I proved in trial that I shot at the ground. I used their weapons expert to prove that the bullet holes were in the ground where I was standing, but that was irrelevant. If I had killed the probation officers, both of them, it would have been the same life sentence. So that was a really bizarre situation for me and my family. We couldn’t believe it. My mom was living in Florida at that time so I didn’t have anybody here to be of support for me. When I went to sentencing for the original theft and burglary charge that I went to the prison boot camp for, they maxed it out because of how I violated that probation. They gave me 24 years for those first offenses. Then they wouldn’t offer me a plea so when I went to trial I got life consecutive to the 24 years for the aggravated assault.

DSW: Wow.

GS: That’s how I ended up with so much time. I would say that before this had occurred I was a very criminally minded person. I looked at life to have fun and do my thing. I looked at authority figures as an us-and-them type situation. When this happened to me, it had a strong impact because I didn’t feel it was justified first of all, but also there were instances even in my case where the authorities were lying and things were made up. I was thinking “I’m supposed to be the criminal!” It seemed very strange that I was the one telling exactly how things happened and yet they were the ones that were telling these lies. So, it completely changed me. Obviously, I had no trust or belief in the system at that point. Extremely so, I would say. But one thing it did do was to have a strong impact on my desire to understand what had happened. That was a powerful moment in my life, as would be for a lot of people, and I didn’t completely straighten up at that point, but I would say that I was on the path because I never did get high on any kind of substance or alcohol again from that date forward.

DSW: Huh!

GS: It was almost like, look—it was a crazy experience and I had no one to really help me. It was like I’m at war, and I’m alone, so I’ll stay sober. I felt like I was at war with the world. I remember one of the officers who had known me asked “What are you going to do now?” I remember—and this is a really important concept—I said “I don’t know what happened in my life or what went wrong, and I don’t know what’s wrong with the government, if anything at all, but I’m going to figure it out before it’s all over with. That’s what I’m going to do” (laughs). From that point on all I did was searching, questioning, within myself and I actually started studying and never stopped. I started studying a number of different subjects and one of those was anthropology. At the same time they were showing a lot of different programs on PBS on evolution and they’d show different hominids, different stages of hominid evolution. At that point, when I had seen all that, I remember the first time when I read one of those anthropology books, I didn’t sleep all night because it changed my whole world. I knew right then that it was actually true and that’s where we came from. It opened up a whole world on the possibilities of…it all made sense to me.

DSW: I know from our previous conversations that as a young student you were fine but after a while school had no point and that you were no kind of student. Is that right?

GS: Yeah, when I was younger I was a straight A student. I didn’t really have to participate. I just very easily did it and was bored with that. Know what I mean? Once I reached a certain age and started getting high, then I didn’t even want to go to school or anything. That’s basically the whole situation with school and that started happening right around Junior High.

DSW: Right. Did you finish high school?

GS: No, I didn’t. I went to 9th and then they pushed me through to 10th grade. Then at the Indiana Boy’s school, which was the juvenile facility in Indiana, I got my GED.

DSW: OK. So now you’re struck by anthropology. What happened next?

GS: I continued to search and devour anthropology, history, biology, philosophy. I’m just going through the different subjects and putting all the different things together and trying to search out all the different areas that I can. It was very quickly that I found a vision of the purpose of life. I started to sense this feeling that we’re here to be a part of an ongoing evolutionary process. It gave me a sense of purpose in why I’m here and what I’m doing with my life as a part of that process. In the situations that I was dealing with in the prison system, it almost gave me a faith, like to just do the best I could, be the smartest I could, and face these situations. If I lived or died, I did the best I could and put my best foot forward. I would just have to call it at that.

DSW: A lot of people discover religion in this situation, but you discovered science, so tell me a little about that. Was religion appealing to you? Evidently not. You took this other turn.

GS: Right. One thing about my personality that really helped all of this, is that I question everything in everybody. That’s a little bit of my personality. So, obviously, I questioned authority (laughs). I wasn’t much on listening to instructions from my parents. I was just going to do what I felt was the right thing to do. Obviously, that can be a very destructive thing as a kid. Then when I got to the prison system it was the same way. I would question the authorities, I questioned the prison gangs, I would challenge and question everybody. When I look back, I can see that mentality got me into a lot of trouble, but it’s also the thing that allowed me to question and challenge everything and everybody, which means I would on my own have to keep digging and digging. I think that was a really important factor, especially when I didn’t have anybody to teach me, to allow me to keep searching and digging for truth and not just taking other people’s word for it.

DSW: So, you did not find this in religion, which required taking a lot on faith, but in science you did find it. The stuff you were being told in anthropology and so on—you had a sense that it was true. Is that right?

GS: Yeah, absolutely. It completely changed my whole view of the world because not only did I believe that we had evolved, but by understanding the ongoing process of evolution, I almost felt that I was an instrument of that evolution and of the universe seeking to become more conscious through the process [note: this theme was developed by the French paleontologist and Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which Gary had read and I updated from a modern evolutionary perspective in The Neighborhood Project. Go here and here for more]. Even the things I encountered I regarded as part of this becoming process, this ongoing situation. I just devoured everything I could. Even with the little bit of money I would have, I would try to spend half of it on books to keep trying to learn and study. It wasn’t even until recently that I even knew…Although I had heard some peripheral people that had brought up some of these ideas, I felt that I had to try to work to create more of an advanced understanding of some of this. That’s what I was trying to do when I by chance began to find that there were other people doing the same thing. I kept searching, searching, searching until I found you, which I felt was the most advanced and educated on the subject and that’s why I contacted you (laughs).

DSW: That’s a great compliment. There are two things that I find remarkable about you, at least two. One is that a lot of people know the science and all that, but it doesn’t become what I call a meaning system—something that gives a purpose in life…

GS: Right…

DSW: …a purpose in life under very adverse circumstances. So you seem to have taken this and turned it into a meaning system for yourself. That’s the first thing I want to explore, although you have already described it a little bit. The second thing you did was to turn it into a meaning system for others. You created a program around it. So let’s first make sure that we have said as much as we want to about how you turned this into a meaning system for yourself.

GS: Before we go there, I want to explain another situation that I encountered here in the prison system. Because of some of my behaviors, I was placed in the most dangerous areas of the prison and one of the things that I found there was that because of my education, I understood a lot of different subjects and areas and realms. So even though I had the personality quality where I would stand up for what I would believe and was assertive about that, it gave me a sense of moral understanding and authority when it came to powerful groups or gangs because they knew that I understood a lot of different things. [My attitude was]— don’t come to me like that. I would explain to them that their gang doctrine was not supported by history or science and furthermore their drug use and promotion was completely contrary to what they claim to represent. You know what I mean? So, even among extremely violent and criminal gangs, it was almost like a sense of moral power because I would know the difference between truth and make believe, so it would be better not to even engage me in that.

DSW: They would respect you for that?

GS: Oh yeah, they respected me. There were certain instances where I would go to save someone’s life—even then it wouldn’t be taken personally, even if I was unsuccessful I would have lost my life. I still realized that I wasn’t just out here taking advantage of people, and that was another thing. There are a lot of things about prison that people don’t understand, but it was like a highly structured society, or culture, where there were all these rules and values, and I understood them and lived by them and even explained certain necessities to the point where they respected that very highly. Even in here—that’s the strangest thing—you have people who will try to be free-riders and take advantage, and the consequences can be very deadly in this environment. But it was the same thing because in here we encounter the same sort of behaviors, where people might steal from other people, or try to take advantage, or pull little shenanigans. All these things that they do in the normal world, and in here they had different ways of taking care of it, all these different elaborate strategies to try to eliminate it. At some point I’ll go into more detail and write it down because I think you’ll find it very interesting.

DSW: What you’re saying, I think, is that it’s a moral system within the prison.

GS: Yeah—very moral. I haven’t studied some of the material that you have, but I remember saying “I am surrounded by…” At one point they put me in for like six or seven years with nothing but mainly gang members and the most violent criminals in the whole prison system. I remember looking around at how highly structured it was and how everything was so settled and hardly anybody was committing any crimes in that environment (laughs). I thought, how is it that they can function in this society and not take advantage of one another, but in the general society they’re completely doing so. It led me to believe that there is a way for them to, or at least a large portion of them to be able to act in a community in a successful way.

DSW: That’s great. That’s really awesome. So let’s keep on talking, working our way toward how you developed this into a program for others.

GS: OK. As time went by, I would try to teach and explain some of these things to certain people. I had a few people here and there who would take to it to certain degrees. Never did I find someone at the same level as me as far as dedication, but I would find a few people. Basically I searched around trying to find people with certain character traits and desire to learn, you know what I mean? That was how it progressed from the beginning. But then the CDC had a grant to teach us here in prison, through the board of health, about disease prevention and the prevention of hepatitis, HIV, and things of this nature. So I got certified and became a teacher of that. Then the grant ran out and the prison system carried it on for a few years. Then they stopped and we actually took over and redeveloped what’s called the peer education/mentorship program.

DSW: Who is we?

GS: Me and two other friends in the prison system. One has since gotten out of prison and is doing well in the Tucson area. The other one is in minimum about to get out in a year or two.

DSW
: OK.

GS: So while doing that, we redid the program to not only include education with disease prevention but also to include release planning, substance abuse rehabilitation treatment, and different things like that, which the prisoners actually needed. We tried to do that based on our own understanding. We created little mechanisms for training them and teaching them; protocols and rules. We set all of that up. I was going to send you some of that material, because its funny—we speak about this, but a lot of these mechanisms actually were designed to keep everyone in line and on the same page, understanding the purpose of the group and all that [convergent with material that I was sending him to read]. So we kept expanding and working on it. Within that model, as I would find certain individuals I would go over some of these things, but I was also looking deep within myself to try to find different ways of expressing it and continuing to grow as a person. I started studying yoga and mindfulness at the same time. Then, I started teaching the Break Free program, once I felt I had enough of it together. I would teach different subjects and how they flowed together. We started with the Big Bang. We’d go through quantum realms, then certain instances of symbiogenesis and bacterial evolution. Some evolutionary concepts leading up to hominid evolution. Once we went through hominid evolution, we’d go through and speak more about our natural inclinations to find happiness, as opposed to the things we were doing before we got here, which was seeking out drugs and immediate gratification. We would go over some of the things that the science said led to long-term happiness. I would try to apply all of these things to put them down the road of basically a whole new creation story that we can understand based on science, but also leading them to a more happy and fulfilling life. For those who didn’t have an actual religious belief system, we felt that there was a science that’s going to come at some point and start to fill that role. Not in a removed way, but as a way where there is actually a belief behind it and essence of believing in a purpose and direction that evolution is moving and we are all part of that.

DSW: Wow. So, I’m trying to imagine you telling this to the folks there in prison. Some people probably don’t get it, but others do evidently. You seem to be quite successful at communicating this.

GS: Yeah, and I think a lot of it is that now that I’ve been in prison about 26 years, the prison has changed some. I’m in a different type of a yard, so you’ve got to remember that there is also a place, especially in the prison system where I’ve been, where most people here have not been. So some of those places I spoke to you about, there’s not anyone here I know about that’s been there and actually survived or isn’t locked in an isolation cell for the rest of their lives. So they respect that I know what I’m talking about. In this setting they respect somebody who can understand this world but also start to explain a larger purpose, rather than just typical prison lingo.

DSW: Yeah, right. You’ve walked the walk. Are there religious people that are threatened because of their faith?

GS: In some respects there are. I’ve had to deal with that a little bit. Mainly they might not like it. I have to find different ways of getting around that. I’ll explain that I respect whatever faith they believe. Some of them take a more assertive role about it and I just try to avoid them in some instances. For the most part, there is a sense of respect. They might disagree but there is usually not a problem about it.

DSW: This is an amazing story, which brings us up to the present. Tell us what you have going now and how you look to the future, both your future within the prison system and your prospects for leaving the prison system.

GS: All right. As of now, I was really happy to find out that there are other people thinking the same thing. Not only thinking it, but expanding the understanding and the science in so many different directions. It’s a great feeling. Not only did it give me a sense that I was on the right path, but it was so uncanny on even the things I study, on some of the ideas and concepts going through my mind on what I believed. That has been really rewarding for me, to continue to learn and go further down that path from all the different materials that you’ve been sending me. It’s been a great joy for me. I want to continue to use some of those tools, like teaching the Matrix, the PROSOCIAL teachings, the cultural evolutionary ideas also put them together with my own experience in the prison, combined with some of the things that I have a unique understanding of and most people aren’t privy to, even within the prison system. I thought it would be good for you guys out there to become aware of some of this information and give me your opinions on it. So those are some of the things that I want to work on. Here in the prison system I’m working on trying to get the peer education program a little bit remodeled. I had a little but of a problem with some prior staff, so I had to fade into the background for a while, which created some problems for me and allowed for some serious troublemakers to come out of the woodwork. So I’m working on fixing some of those instances. And continuing to push forward with some of these new ideas and concepts and I just want to see where that leads.

On a personal level, there’s been some attorneys, at least lately, that have taken a look at the situations with my case, simply because I got so much time for the things that I did, that they don’t really encounter too many people that got that huge an amount of time. There have been about four or five law changes since I got sentenced that if they were in existence before I wouldn’t have gotten much time. But there is a tendency not to make things retroactive. They’re looking into some different things that would change things for me personally but also for a few other people in the prison system to see if there is anything that can be done. But if that is unsuccessful, I go up for parole in about 11 years.

DSW: Oh, man! That’s amazing.

GS: Right. But I will say this—no matter what, I will continue to educate myself. The strange thing is, from the very beginning, one of the freedoms I did have is that I thought there wasn’t a very high likelihood that I would survive prison, so it almost gave me a sense of freedom. I didn’t live for getting out of prison. I lived to try to create what I had found within myself and what I felt was becoming the new understanding in the world. Also, what I felt was a purpose and something that others needed to understand, and alternately–especially after going through what I had experienced–I felt that it was those understandings that would lead to the ultimate solution to a lot of these problems that are in all different areas of life. That has been my driving goal and actually gave me a sense of even why everything happened to me. It is through the chaos and calamity of what happened that has urged me to educate, learn, and find something within myself that didn’t know. I had seen little glimpses of it when I was a kid, but I didn’t know how highly altruistic I could actually be until I was placed in this situation. Then it brought it out of me. I guess you could say that the destruction and chaos I’ve experienced forced me to evolve or, dare I say, be reborn (laughs)!

DSW: That’s a perfect place to end, Gary. A story I look forward to publicizing.

Letters to Gary can be sent to:

Gary Shepherd
ADC# 083752
Florence East Dorm 3-5
PO Box 5000
Florence, AZ 85132

Join the TVOL1000

3 Comments

Join the discussion

3 Comments

  1. Dennis Schneider says:

    The whole world, not just people in prison, need more people like Gary. If he can change people on the inside maybe there is hope for us on the outside.

  2. Rory Short says:

    From reading this it would seem that Gary is free in the only true sense in that is, what he feels. This brings to my mind some oft quoted words of Jesus from John’s gospel, ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’.

    These words are often quoted because if you think about it, it is simply not possible to have a genuine inner sense of freedom in your life if you are personally ignorant of how life works. If on the other hand you know for yourself how life works what greater sense of freedom could there possibly be.

    I was reared in a Christian context which put a very particular meaning on the above quote, it was that the truth being referred to was that, Jesus was the only son of God, and if you did not accept and believe in that particular statement then there was no future for you, you were doomed to go to hell.

    This particular interpretation of the quote is founded on ignorance of what our brains are working with. The raw material that our brains work with, we think of it as thoughts, is nothing but representations. Now a representation can be of somethng real or of nothing, because it is quite possible to have a thought which has nothing to represent. Thoughts are true wnen they are representing something real otherwise they are false.

    Looking at the interpretation of the quote, accepting that Jesus existed the Jesus thought is true, the God thought however is false. There are no repeatable experiments that show there is something for the God thought to represent, so the ‘only son’ phrase is also false making the whole sentence false. The ‘doomed to go to hell’ punishment is also false for two reasons. Firstly is it honest to punish some one for not believing a false statement even if it claims to be true in that it is a belief, beliefs are just thoughts set in emotional concrete and as such must still be tested to see if they are representing anything real. Secondly the punishment posits a destination ‘hell’ which thought has nothing to represent so the sentence is false.

    Now to investigate the quote itself from this understanding, firstly ‘Ye shall know the truth’. The truth can only be comprised of thoughts that represent reality so the thoughts making up the truth must be about reality if the second part of the quote the ‘truth shall make you free’ is to happen. Thus the thoughts that Gary has developed through his interest in evolution and evolutionary theory must be true, i.e. must represent reality, otherwise he would not have been saved into freedom by them.

    As my knowledge of evolution has Increased I too have felt more and more free.

    • Bill Burge says:

      I agree, Jesus was real and as such suffered with real human physiology and psychology.

      There are many ways people die after being nailed upright, including starvation (within 30 days) and dehydration (within 3 days). But even quicker than dehydration is inadequate blood flow to the brain. This can happen within 3 hours or less, as anyone who’s ever stood at prolonged attention can tell you.

      Prolonged standing without flexing the muscles of your legs results in cerebral hypoperfusion due to much of the body’s blood pooling in the lower extremity venous system. The capillaries diffuse systolic pressure. The veins get it back to the heart only by gravity (notice the veins in your hand disappear as you raise your hand to heart level) or by nearby muscles periodically compressing the veins along with valves in the lower extremity veins that prevent back-flow (varicose veins occur when these valves are inadequate).

      So Jesus is nailed upright one Friday morning before the holiday of Pesakh along with a couple of other guys. The rabbinical authorities of the day declared that no one was to be nailed to a tree (specifically prohibited in the Torah) after sundown on Shabbat, much less Pesakh. Therefore, all three were removed within 12 hours at the most.

      At least one gospel describes the other two crucified fellows getting their legs broken before being taken down. We can now understand how this would assure their death – all that blood pooled in their lower extremities is now prevented from ever returning.

      But Jesus seemed dead, so his legs were spared after he failed to respond to a spear being poked in his side. He become syncopal. The worst thing you can do when someone passes out is to keep them upright. If he was removed in time, it’s easy to see how he survived.

      All four gospels describe a devout Jew, named Joseph, paying for Jesus’ removal and burial in a respectable tomb. Interesting, that the gospel writers also named Jesus’ father Joseph.