Evolutionary psychology

MercatorNet: Can evolution explain religion?

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Here’s my MercatorNet column (10 December 2009),

Evolutionary psychologists offer two contradictory explanations for the existence of religion. They can’t both be right, but they can both be wrong.

In a recent issue of the leading journal Science , Elizabeth Culotta offers a variety of speculations in an article titled “On the Origin of Religion.” Explaining religion without God is quite the growth industry these days among evolutionary psychologists. Some argue that religion exists because it increases evolutionary fitness (survival of the fittest). Others argue that it makes no difference to fitness. It is merely a glitch in our thinking that doesn’t kill us off.

They can’t both be right, but they could both be wrong. Let’s see.

For the rest, go here.

Also, just up at Mindful Hack, my blog on neuroscience, spirituality, and related issues:

Neuroscience and society: Emotional harm?

Neuroscience and society: Hate Area of Brain Identified?

11 Replies to “MercatorNet: Can evolution explain religion?

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    Can evolution explain religion?

    I guess it depends on what you’re willing to accept as an explanation.

    But it’s really quite vacuous to speak of “religion” as capable of any single explanation. What is “religion”?

    So let’s get at the real issue:

    Can evolutionary theory explain any of our beliefs? Can evolutionary theory explain the beliefs of evolutionary theory?

    We’re left with two options:

    For any given belief, we have that belief because it was adaptive.

    For any given belief, we have that belief as an accidental by-product unrelated to the adaptedness of the content of that belief.

    If one accepts even the possibility of the second option, then there is no reason to believe that any of our beliefs are true.

    I was going to start a post called “Spandrels of the Mind” on this very issue.

    So as an explanation, the second option is incoherent. And if the first option even allows the possibility of the second, it too seems incoherent.

    So no one should accept any evolutionary “explanation” of religion, or any other belief.

  2. 2
    jerry says:

    Someday evolutionary psychologists will explain how evolutionary psychology is supposed to have happened. Since humans left Africa about 45,000 years ago or maybe 10,000 years earlier it would be impossible for any trait or characteristic to permeate the species after they left since this is one of the most widely dispersed species on earth.

    So when did religion develop? It had to develop in Africa before the diaspora. So these plains hunter gathers who wandered in small groups developed religion as they wandered around the plains of Africa. But what physical evidence do we have that there was religion with homo sapiens that early? How long would it have to take for some genes to be fixed into the genome for such a population? I am sure there are many other issues but I always thought the timing was critical because once they left Africa all bets are off for the species to develop the same traits, characteristics or tendencies.

    Also once they left Africa and many sub populations developed there should have been many other behavioral characteristics that would have developed in individual sub populations that are genetically based and we should be able to see them today. So the question is, do we see anything? We certainly see physical differences but do we see behavioral differences based on genetics?

  3. 3
    Clive Hayden says:

    I agree with you Mung, once we attribute any belief to evolution, they all go down with it, including the belief in evolution.

  4. 4
    Clive Hayden says:

    From Denyse’s second link:

    Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Religion exploits only ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents.

    Belief in Evolution is not an evolutionary adaptation per se, but a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions. Belief in Evolution exploits only ordinary cognitive processes to passionately display costly devotion to counterintuitive worlds governed by sub-natural agents.

    What these writers fail to realize is that our world is counterintuitive, no less than the next world. If someone thinks dawn and death and the particle/wave duality and floating in an infinite space to be intuitive, well, I don’t have anything to say to that them, because these things certainly aren’t intuitive to me. We cannot judge Heaven because we live in the universe when the universe is just as counterintuitive as Heaven. Intuition, itself, when considering the natural world, never even rises to the level of a real basis for an argument. This is all very unintellectual. It takes all of the wild and shocking frenzy we call our cosmos and tries to make it all seem obvious, when it is anything but obvious.

    “In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then,
    that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

    I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.

    This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”

    G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

    http://www.cse.dmu.ac.uk/~mwar.....rtho14.txt

  5. 5
    O'Leary says:

    In my view, it is impossible to know how or when religion got started, because all we have is suggestive artifacts and burials that suggest that the mourners expected the dead to rise again (= grave gifts like tools, for example, that might be useful on the other side.)

    But religion might be way older than we suppose.

    By the time Ahkenaton (father-in-law of King Tut) was establishing a monotheistic religion in Egypt three millennia ago – against the great opposition of the polytheistic priesthood – we can say religion was in full swing. But we have records from then; that’s how we know, more or less, what was going on.

    There is no way of stating definitively whether religion in general helps or doesn’t help a group’s survival because that depends on the propositional content of the religion.

    So, unless we are talking about a specific group, whose religion’s propositional content we actually know, no true assessment can be made, and free-floating speculation is all we can hope for.

    I don’t see the point of paying much attention to the speculation, but if lots of people are doing just that, I feel I must say something.

  6. 6
    jerry says:

    Denyse,

    To me evolutionary psychology is psycho babble if it is based on genetics. The timing does not make sense as all evolutionary psychology effects had to take place prior to the hunter gathers wandering out of Africa. If it is based on cultural heritage, then it might be interesting but then ti would have nothing really to do with evolution as we understand the concept and the debate.

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    In my view, it is impossible to know how or when religion got started…

    It’s also impossible to know how or when masquitatiousness got started too, but not for the reasons you seem to think.

    But religion might be way older than we suppose.

    Masquitatiousness as well is surely way older than we suppose, unless it isn’t.

    So, unless we are talking about a specific group, whose religion’s propositional content we actually know, no true assessment can be made, and free-floating speculation is all we can hope for.

    I’m pretty sure the religion of Darwinism started circa 1859.

    Why is it we continue to insist on using this meaningless term “religion”?

    We should call people out for such foolishness and expose it for what it is rather than engaging in the same behaviour.

    Let me give an example. Let’s define “religion” as “a belief in the supernatural.”

    I sincerely doubt that such a concept as “supernatural” existed more than a few hundred years ago. So let’s not read out modern categories back into past cultures.

    So what is religion?

    And if it isn’t defined, obviously any attempt to “explain” it is absurd.

    Any attempt to trace it’s “age” is absurd.

    Any attempt to trace it’s development is absurd.

    For no one knows what “it” is.

    Evolution cannot even explain the belief in an objective reality. So how on earth can it conceivably explain “religion.”

  8. 8
    Mung says:

    I agree with you Mung, once we attribute any belief to evolution, they all go down with it, including the belief in evolution.

    Precisely. Whatever it is they believe, especially what it is they believe about “religion” and “science” and “explanations of religion” needs to be subjected to the same “logic” they use to explain religion.

    The most common (in my experience) argument that our beliefs track with reality are based upon adaptation.

    True beliefs = beneficial
    False beliefs = deleterious

    Add a little “natural” selection, and viola!

    But one you allow that our beliefs, are any one of our beliefs, might be a “spandrel of the mind” …

    Now if evolutionary theory is permitted the “spandrel” explanation for any non-mental aspect of living organisms, how do we keep “spandrels” out of the mind?

    And once we permit spandrels into the mind, what then becomes of evolutionary theory?

    And this is “consensus science.”

  9. 9
    cottreau says:

    Mung,

    You say:

    “For any given belief, we have that belief as an accidental by-product unrelated to the adaptedness of the content of that belief.

    If one accepts even the possibility of the second option, then there is no reason to believe that any of our beliefs are true.”

    You seem to forget that we can test beliefs. If it wasn’t possible to test beliefs, then yes, what you are saying is completely true and any belief would be equal to any other.

    As it is, what you are saying is silly.

    Interestingly enough, we have examples of things like religion evolving in different places at different times – that’s why you have Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc.. etc..

    Saying that religion didn’t evolve means a couple of things:

    1. Did God create multiple religions on purpose?
    2. Are there other Gods or other divine beings creating religions elsewhere?
    3. Is God just playing a cruel joke on us ignorant humans?
    4. Did other things, like culture, language, morals etc.. etc.. evolve or were they also placed there by some divine being. AND, if that’s the case, why are there many variants of these and not just one?

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    You seem to forget that we can test beliefs.
    No, I did not forget this at all :).

    How is it that we can test beliefs?
    What is it that we are testing for? Truth? Quantity of offspring relative to others who do not believe as we do?

    Given that all our beliefs are the result of a blind, purposeless, process which did not have us in mind, how does it come to be that we can test our beliefs? What are we testing them against?

    If it wasn’t possible to test beliefs, then yes, what you are saying is completely true and any belief would be equal to any other.

    But what if I am not claiming that it is not possible to test beliefs?

    What if I am claiming that such tests of our beliefs have nothing to do with whether they are true or false?

    Such a test could favor a false belief as readily as it could favor a true belief.

    Given that any belief in anything is at best a 50/50 proposition that it is true, why should anyone believe that the belief is true rather than false?

  11. 11
    neetchah says:

    O’Leary

    You stated:

    “In my view, it is impossible to know how or when religion got started, because all we have is suggestive artifacts and burials that suggest that the mourners expected the dead to rise again (= grave gifts like tools, for example, that might be useful on the other side.)”

    We have prehistoric graves that contain tokens. Researchers and other people have imposed the suggestion that those tokens suggest a belief in an afterlife. However, like most aspects of prehistory, that is a modern explanation imposed on ancient activity that cannot be defined or explained.

    Many modern people place tokens in caskets as tokens of affection, to maintain some link to the deceased, not because they think their loved on will use it in an afterlife.

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