[ExI] Rick Warren on religion

Stuart LaForge avant at sollegro.com
Tue Dec 11 18:41:12 UTC 2018

Keith Henson wrote:

> On Sun, Dec 9, 2018 at 9:47 AM "Stuart LaForge" <avant at sollegro.com>
> wrote:
>> In so far as the brain is our fastest evolving human organ, having
>> tripled in size in the last two million years, I would think that
>> evo-psych would be one of our fastest evolving traits.
> I can't parse that.  Please try again.

What I am saying is that in the last two million years our brain has
physically changed in size by a factor of 3. Assuming that behavioral
complexity is function of larger brains and more neurons, I would
therefore expect that our evolutionary psychology should have changed at
least as much in the same time period.

> I am not talking about religion, no matter how you want to define it.
> I am talking about the human *capacity* to have religions.  It is so
> widespread among human populations that, like capture-bonding, it is nearly
> universal.

How do you distinguish this capacity for religion from any other cultural
phenomena that allows memes and social constructs to override genes? It is
certainly more sophisticated in humans but it occurs across the spectrum
of social animals.

In wolves for example, typically only the dominant pair of alpha male and
female breed.

Why would the average (non-dominant) wolves in the pack allow this? Why
would these average wolves cooperatively hunt, protect, and help feed pups
that are unrelated to them effectively throwing their own genes under the

Sure one could argue that they are related so this is some kind of kin
selection going on but this is typically true only of the females who tend
to be siblings. The males are typically completely unrelated and randomly
get adopted into packs.

In social creatures with even mammal-level intelligence, there are
cultural factors that can override genetic interests.

> That is an indication that the capacity to have religions was
> under serious selection over a long time.  I agree with you that the
> capacity to have religions developed long before religions themselves.
> The most serious selection factor in those days
> was war between groups of people.

At some point our brains achieved enough size and complexity for cultural
evolution to supersede biological evolution. When that occurred  memes,
conscious intent, and learned behavior gained the ability to override
genes and instincts. Religion simply hitched a ride on a far more general
trait; that is social intelligence and the dominance hierarchies that such
intelligence enabled.

This capacity for learned social behavior was necessary not just for the
development of religion but also for pretty much every aspect of culture.

Some of these social adaptations coincided with the rational self-interest
of ones genes like every useful skill you ever learned. And others
conflicted greatly with ones genes like killing your siblings so that you
could become the alpha. But regardless at the end of the day culture,
memes, and rituals won out over genetics.

Also it is of note that we are not alone in this. Culture does not begin
or end with man. Other social animals tend to share many of these
characteristics. Observe these langurs grieve a fake camera monkey that
they think is a dead infant.


Does their body language strike you as familiar? It is funeral body
language. Recognizably intact over 55 million years of evolution (Langur
fossils are some of the oldest primate fossils).

> snip
>> But on the other hand, if you define religion as the copying of sacred
>> rituals from one generation to the next, well that is very old and there
>>  is likely a genetic component to that. Curiously chimpanzees and
>> elephants are known for performing rituals too.
> Perhaps you can explain how "performing rituals" or not doing so had a
> survival advantage to genes?

Rituals are largely bonding mechanisms to cement relationships within
groups of social animals. Sometimes these rituals perform a direct
survival function like social grooming among primates. Other times they
seem to provide no more than emotional support like monkey and elephant
funerals. Although sometimes elephant funerals are more like group
autopsies. In this video, I see just as much curiosity as grief.


>> War does not require religion  as attested to by the warring of apes
>> and ants but learning how to awaken the fire spirits inside wooden
>> sticks is vital for survival and that requires you to trust your elders.
> War, even among ants, is episodic.  Bonobos don't fight.  Chimps are
> hostile to other groups all time.  Human wars depend on the situation. I
> suspect that the mechanism that turns on wars between human groups is the
> same underlying psychological mechanisms that are behind our capacity to
> have religions.  This speculation will eventually be tested as the tools
> get better.

I think this recent paper in Nature will give you a lot of crunchy data to
chew on. It has to do with the phylogenetic analysis of "conspecific
violence" or murder/warfare across all mammals.



In the second link is a lot of data regarding the evolution of murder and
warfare in humans.

The upshot of the Nature article is that humans are about six times more
likely than the average mammal to die by the actions of a member of our
own species. Based upon paleontological and archaelogical evidence during
the Stone Age about 3.5% of humans died by the hand of another human. This
fluctuates throughout history, with a maximum during the middle ages where
approximately 12% of humans died by another's hand.

For comparison, in chimps about 4.5% die from attacks by another chimp
making them, humans, and baboons the bloodiest primates. But surprisingly
we are nowhere close to being the most murderous mammals.

That distinction goes to meerkats which are social weasels that live in
southern Africa with 20% of all meerkat deaths are attributable to other
meerkats. Usually in dominance disputes with meerkats in the same colony
or territorial wars with other meerkat colonies.

As a general rule, social mammals are more murderous than solitary mammals
and territorial mammals are more murderous than nomadic mammals. The most
murderous mammals of all are those which are both social and territorial.

So warfare among our hunter-gatherer ancestors was rarer than I had
assumed. It wasn't until we settled down and became territorial that
warfare truly became a human preoccupation.

>> Does the model account for the benefits of genetic out-breeding as a
>> result of war?
> No.  Do you have a way to put numbers on this benefit?

Unfortunately most of the hard numbers I can find are from recent wars:
The book GIs and Fräuleins, by Maria Hohn, documents 66,000 German
children born to fathers who were soldiers of Allied forces in the period

American parent: 36,334
French parent: 10,188
British parent: 8,397
Soviet parent: 3,105
Belgian parent: 1,767
Other/unknown: 6,829

>>> So you would expect genes to get this judgment for "a time for war"
>>> correct, and genes that get the tribe into "attack mode" when needed
>>> would be positively selected.
>>> The major religions where we know something of their historical
>>> origins seem to have started as a set of xenophobic memes.

Cultural identity may not be possible without some measure of xenophobia.
There cannot be a "self" without an "other".

>>> I have been thinking about ways to locate the genes and brain
>>> structures behind these traits.
>> What do you think of Dean Hamer's so-called God gene VMAT2?
>> From the Wiki article, support seems weak, but this is the kind of
> genetics that would lie behind the capacity to have religions at all.

Well as far as brain structures involved in religion go, try looking up
Koren and Persinger's research on the temporal lobe.

When they used a so-called God helmet to magnetically stimulate the
temporal lobes of experimental subjects, those subjects experienced out of
body experiences, sensed a spiritual presence in the room, and had all
manner of mystical experiences. Of note, the temporal lobe is a part of
the brain involved in distinguishing self from non-self. Therefore it is a
part of the brain heavily used in social interactions.

Stuart LaForge

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list