Posted by: Lister | August 7, 2007

Dawkins and Sloan

From E-Skeptic. Sloan is an evolutionist who studies anthropology. From the point of view of those who study religion scientifically, I think he makes a good point:

Engineering principles dictate that a religion designed to benefit the whole group will be different from one designed to benefit some individuals (presumably the leaders) at the expense of others within the same group, which in turn will be different from a cultural disease organism designed to benefit itself at the expense of both individuals and groups, which in turn will be different from a religion for which the term “design” is inappropriate. It would be odd indeed if such different conceptions of religion could not be distinguished on the basis of carefully gathered descriptive information.

Probably best to read the whole thing. But here are some more quotes from the article:

[…] Dawkins argued on behalf of adaptationism in his debates with Gould and would probably agree with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.

As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection.

Consider genetic evolution by itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the same group, resulting in one group that is very different from the other groups in the total population. This is one way that culture can radically shift the balance between levels of selection in favor of group selection. Add to this the ability to monitor the behavior of others, communicate social transgressions through gossip, and easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers, and it becomes clear that human evolution represents a whole new ball game as far as group selection is concerned.

In this context, the human major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage, resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. As the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville commented long ago in Democracy in America, “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.” As the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony, our lineage was able to eliminate less groupish competitors. The ability to acquire and socially transmit new behaviors enabled our ancestors to spread over the globe, occupying hundreds of ecological niches. Then the invention of agriculture enabled group sizes to increase by many orders of magnitude, but only through the cultural evolution of mechanisms that enable groups to hang together at such a large scale. Defining, motivating, coordinating, and policing groups is not easy at any scale. It requires an elaborate system of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the “social physiology” of the human group organism? Other than briefly acknowledging the abstract possibility that memes can form “memeplexes,” this possibility does not appear in Dawkins’ analysis.

One of my projects is a collaboration with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced shick-sent-me-hi), who is best known among general readers for his books on peak psychological experience, such as Flow and The Evolving Self. Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) which involves signaling people at random times during the day, prompting them to record their external and internal experience — where they are, who they are with, what they are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling on a checklist of numerical scales. The ESM is like an invisible observer, following people around as they go about their daily lives. It is as close as psychological research gets to the careful field studies that evolutionary biologists are accustomed to performing on non-human species, which is why I teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to analyze some of his past studies from an evolutionary perspective.

These studies were performed on such a massive scale and with so much background information that we can compare the psychological experience of religious believers vs. nonbelievers on a moment-by-moment basis. We can even compare members of conservative vs. liberal protestant denominations, when they are alone vs. in the company of other people. On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited. Some of these differences remain even when religious and non-religious believers are matched for their degree of prosociality. More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal vs. conservative protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone. Religions are diverse, in the same way that species in ecosystems are diverse. Rather than issuing monolithic statements about religion, evolutionists need to explain religious diversity in the same way that they explain biological diversity.

These results raise as many questions as they answer. We did not evolve to feel good but rather to survive and reproduce. Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve. As a more subtle point, people pass back and forth between the categories of “nonbeliever” and “believer” as they lose and regain faith. Perhaps some nonbelievers are psychologically impaired because they are the recent casualties of religious belief. Only more scientific legwork can resolve these issues, but one thing is sure: Dawkins’ armchair speculation about the guilt-inducing effects of religion doesn’t even get him to first base.

Natural Historians of Religion
Hypothesis testing does not always require quantification and the other trappings of modern science. Darwin established his entire theory on the basis of descriptive information carefully gathered by the naturalists of his day, most of whom thought that they were studying the hand of God. This kind of information exists in abundance for religions around the world and throughout history, which should be regarded as a fossil record of cultural evolution so detailed that it puts the biological fossil record to shame. It should be possible to use this information to evaluate the major evolutionary hypotheses, which after all represent radically different conceptions of religion. Engineering principles dictate that a religion designed to benefit the whole group will be different from one designed to benefit some individuals (presumably the leaders) at the expense of others within the same group, which in turn will be different from a cultural disease organism designed to benefit itself at the expense of both individuals and groups, which in turn will be different from a religion for which the term “design” is inappropriate. It would be odd indeed if such different conceptions of religion could not be distinguished on the basis of carefully gathered descriptive information.

Of course, it is necessary to gather the information systematically rather than picking and choosing examples that fit one’s pet theory. In Darwin’s Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great religious scholar Mircia Eliade. The results are described in an article titled “Testing Major Evolutionary Hypotheses about Religion with a Random Sample,” which was published in the journal Human Nature and is available on my website. The beauty of random sampling is that, barring a freak sampling accident, valid conclusions for the sample apply to all of the religions in the encyclopedia from which the sample was taken.

By my assessment, the majority of religions in the sample are centered on practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups and the regulation of social interactions within and between groups. New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organizations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective — what they cause the religious believers to do. The best way to illustrate these points is by describing one of the religions in the sample — Jainism — which initially appeared the most challenging for the group-level adaptation hypothesis.

Jainism is one of the oldest and most ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe, the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing any creature no matter how small. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even fast themselves to death by taking a vow of “santhara” that is celebrated by the entire community. How could such a religion benefit either individuals or groups in a practical sense? It is easy to conclude from the sight of an emaciated Jain ascetic that the religion is indeed a cultural disease — until one reads the scholarly literature.

It turns out that Jain ascetics comprise a tiny fraction of the religion, whose lay members are among the wealthiest merchants in India. Throughout their long history, Jains have filled an economic niche similar to the Jews in Western Europe, Chinese in Southeast Asia, and other merchant societies. In all cases, trading over long distances and plying volatile markets such as the gem trade requires a high degree of trust among trading partners, which is provided by the religion. Even the most esoteric (to outsiders) elements of the religion are not superfluous byproducts but perform important practical work.

For example, the ascetics must obtain their food by begging but their religion includes so many food restrictions that they can only accept food from the most pious lay Jain households. Moreover, the principle of non-action dictates that they can only accept small amounts of food from each household that was not prepared with the ascetics in mind. When they enter a house, they inspect the premises and subject the occupants to sharp questions about their moral purity before accepting their food. It is a mark of great honor to be visited but of great shame if the ascetics leave without food. In effect, the food begging system of the ascetics functions as an important policing mechanism for the community. This is only one of many examples, as summarized by Jainism scholar James Laidlaw in a 1995 book whose title says it all: Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy, and Society Among the Jains.

[…] This example illustrates a phenomenon that I call the transformation of the obvious. Jainism appears obviously dysfunctional based on a little information, such as the sight of an emaciated acetic or beliefs that appear bizarre when taken out of context. The same religion becomes obviously functional based on more information. This is the kind of “natural history” information that enabled Darwin to build such a strong case for his theory of evolution, and it can be used to build an equally strong case for the group-functional nature of Jainism. As for Jainism, so also for most of the other enduring religions of the world.


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