[ExI] Ants for spike! Dawkins and Wilson

spike spike66 at att.net
Sun Nov 15 16:12:56 UTC 2009


> ... 
> Eugen Leitl
> Sent: Sunday, November 15, 2009 2:48 AM
> Subject: Re: [ExI] Ants for spike! Dawkins and Wilson
> On Sat, Nov 14, 2009 at 05:36:01PM -0800, spike wrote:
> > Agreed.  We have two different fields of chemistry: biochemistry 
> > (sometimes
> We have many fields of chemistry. Organic, inorganic, 
> metallorganic, physical, quantum, you name it.
> Eugen* Leitl 

Agreed, pardon my oversimplification.

Regarding our models of evolution, I keep thinking self consciousness, so
apparently absent in most species, will prevent us from successfully
applying evolutionary theory to humans.

Today's article in the New York Times on the God Gene is a good example.
Toward the end of the article, he deals briefly with group selection, and
offers a mechanism by which it would be analogous to altruism, which general
evolutionary theory might predict would go extinct.

I have half a mind to get Wade's book.  



The Evolution of the God Gene 
Nicholas Wade
IN the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, the archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent
Flannery have gained a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.

During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple
but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record
begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious
dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the
ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based
agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated,
astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.

This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one
that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at
every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has
the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was
favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our
neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its
African homeland. 

For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved
because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their
successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been
shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then
seem less likely. 

But the evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten
the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by
natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For
believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not
the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic
predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are
predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is
culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned. 

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have
conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals
emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through
the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of
exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve
quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living
hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without
chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound
people together, committing them to put their community's needs ahead of
their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed
rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also
emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups
fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked
it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have
become universal.

In natural selection, it is genes that enable their owners to leave more
surviving progeny that become more common. The idea that natural selection
can favor groups, instead of acting directly on individuals, is highly
controversial. Though Darwin proposed the idea, the traditional view among
biologists is that selection on individuals would stamp out altruistic
behavior (the altruists who spent time helping others would leave fewer
children of their own) far faster than group-level selection could favor it.

But group selection has recently gained two powerful champions, the
biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, who argued that two
special circumstances in recent human evolution would have given group
selection much more of an edge than usual. One is the highly egalitarian
nature of hunter-gatherer societies, which makes everyone behave alike and
gives individual altruists a better chance of passing on their genes. The
other is intense warfare between groups, which enhances group-level
selection in favor of community-benefiting behaviors such as altruism and

A propensity to learn the religion of one's community became so firmly
implanted in the human neural circuitry, according to this new view, that
religion was retained when hunter-gatherers, starting from 15,000 years ago,
began to settle in fixed communities. In the larger, hierarchical societies
made possible by settled living, rulers co-opted religion as their source of
authority. Roman emperors made themselves chief priest or even a living god,
though most had the taste to wait till after death for deification. "Drat, I
think I'm becoming a god!" Vespasian joked on his deathbed. 

Religion was also harnessed to vital practical tasks such as agriculture,
which in the first societies to practice it required quite unaccustomed
forms of labor and organization. Many religions bear traces of the spring
and autumn festivals that helped get crops planted and harvested at the
right time. Passover once marked the beginning of the barley festival;
Easter, linked to the date of Passover, is a spring festival.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some
kind of detente between religion and science? Biologists and many atheists
have a lot of respect for evolution and its workings, and if they regarded
religious behavior as an evolved instinct they might see religion more
favorably, or at least recognize its constructive roles. Religion is often
blamed for its spectacular excesses, whether in promoting persecution or
warfare, but gets less credit for its staple function of patching up the
moral fabric of society. But perhaps it doesn't deserve either blame or
credit. If religion is seen as a means of generating social cohesion, it is
a society and its leaders that put that cohesion to good or bad ends. 

Nicholas Wade, a science reporter for The New York Times, is the author of
"The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures."

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