[Paleopsych] Plausible Futures: God, Religion and Tribal Conflict

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    PROMETHEUS BOUND There is now enough evidence that modern human
    society should be based on an understanding that as long as we are a
    tribalistic species, there will be more peace, more prosperity, and
    more happiness when nation-states can be formed by similar people.
    That is, the homogenous state is far more prone to be beneficial to
    human happiness than the discords found in multicultural and diverse
    states. This means a rejection of any political universals enforced by
    a world body except maybe the notion that to stop conflict, it is best
    to just separate the belligerents physically as much as possible. That
    is, promote non-aggressive, non-jingoistic nationalismwhere countries
    compete in the marketplace of commerce and ideas.

    Lately I have read several books on why humans have religion, why
    humans are basically irrational, why humans can't differentiate
    between what is instrumentally beneficial and what is emotionally
    destructive, etc. One thing that does jump out at me when I read these
    works dealing with our evolutionary past, is that books can vary in
    extremes from just-so stories to well documented hypotheses testing.
    Two recent books occupy these extremes: The God Gene: How Faith Is
    Hardwired into Our Genes by Dean Hamer (2004), and Genetic and
    Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Edited by Peter Hammerstein (2003).
    The God Gene is the just-so story, it has a lot of good information;
    however it jumps to some rather silly conclusions from the skimpy
    Hamer makes the case that religion is different from what he calls
    self-transcendence: religion is what is culturally transmitted, and
    one's leaning towards self-transcendence is primarily geneticno god or
    religion required; so even the title of the book is misleading. He
    does do a good job of showing that self-transcendence may be yet
    another behavioral trait that is independent of others that have been
    studied, but he does not show that it is independent of cooperation
    and/or ethnocentrism. More on this later.
    Hamer states that, "Self-transcendence provides a numerical measure of
    people's capacity to reach out beyond themselvesto see everything in
    the world as part of one great totality. If I were to describe it in a
    single word, it might be 'at-one-ness.'" That is, it includes losing
    oneself in a common good, feeling like part of something special,
    mysticism, etc. The problem with Hamer's perspective however is that
    he sees this as a universal goodpeople who are spiritual are somehow
    better than people that are more rational. In fact, this book could
    be, morally speaking, the flip side of Stanovich's The Robot's
    Rebellion, where he calls on people to be more rational and less
    He reiterates, "Self-transcendence is a term used to describe
    spiritual feelings that are independent of traditional religiousness.
    It is not based on belief in any particular God, frequency of prayer,
    or other orthodox religious doctrines or practices. Instead, it gets
    to the heart of spiritual belief: the nature of the universe and our
    place in it. Self-transcendent individuals tend to see everything,
    including themselves, as part of one great totality. They have a
    strong sense of 'at-one-ness'of the connections between people,
    places, and things. Non-self-transcendent people, on the other hand,
    tend to have a more self-centered viewpoint. They focus on differences
    and discrepancies between people, places, and things, rather than
    similarities and interrelationships."
    Hamer seems to be advocating, though I am not sure he is aware of it,
    for what I would merely call tribalism, ethnocentrism, cooperative
    human behavior, etc. versus the more independent behavioral types who
    are less tribal, more creative, more questioning, and perhaps more
    scientific and rational. There seems to be, in some way, a thread of
    connectedness between groupishness and independence, and it could be
    as easily argued that it is our human groupishness that gets us into
    trouble, not our more rational/scientific independence. I don't claim
    that there is a clear dichotomy between these two extremes, but
    research into altruism, mysticism, ethnocentrism, cooperation,
    etc.must be anchored in evolutionary adaptation (unless they are
    merely artifacts). In either case, they carry no intrinsic moral value
    either way.
    For example, Hamer states that:
    "These are some of the questions used to assess the second sub-scale
    of self-transcendence, known as transpersonal identification. The
    hallmark of this trait is a feeling of connectedness to the universe
    and everything in itanimate and inanimate, human and nonhuman,
    anything and everything that can be seen, heard, smelled, or otherwise
    sensed. People who score high for transpersonal identification can
    become deeply, emotionally attached to other people, animals, trees,
    flowers, streams, or mountains. Sometimes they feel that everything is
    part of one living organism.
    "Transpersonal identification can lead people to make personal
    sacrifices to help othersfor example, by fighting against war,
    poverty, or racism. It may inspire people to become environmentalists.
    Although there are no formal survey data, it is likely that members of
    the Sierra Club and Greenpeace score above average on this facet of
    self-transcendence. A drawback of transpersonal identification is that
    it can lead to fuzzy-headed idealism that actually hinders rather than
    helps the cause.
    "Individuals who score low on transpersonal identification feel less
    connected to the universe and therefore feel less responsible for what
    happens to the world and its inhabitants. They are more concerned
    about themselves than about others, more inclined to use nature than
    to appreciate it."
    Imbedded in the above remarks is an extreme bias for "fuzzy-headed"
    idealism as being more beneficial than rational discourse and action.
    He makes a wild leap that if a person does not feel connected to the
    universe, they are somehow not going to make rational choice decisions
    about what is good for themselves and other humans. Now if Hamer could
    link free-riders or psychopathic personalities with people who are low
    on self-transcendence, then he might have a case that one group may be
    more concerned about other people, but he does not do this. Islamic
    terrorists probably tend to be mystical rather than merely religious
    due to cultureit takes a whole lot of "connectedness" to blow oneself
    up over injustices perceived. And most progress when it comes to
    science, including all of the health improvements made possible by it,
    comes from the minds of the dedicated scientists, not the spiritual
    recluse chanting a prayer to reach nirvana. The Western mind, the mind
    that is responsible for most of what is science, is practical and less
    mystical, and it has reduced a great deal of suffering because of our
    scientific progress. I think Stanovich's prognosis of what ails
    humanity is far more grounded in facts than Hamer's moralizing.
    As Hamer states, people who score low on mysticism are, "more
    materialistic and objective. They see an unusual loaf of bread or an
    unexpected parking opportunity as nothing more than coincidence. They
    don't believe in things that can't be explained scientifically." That
    suites me just fine. The more rational humans can becomeeither through
    education, genetics, or boththe better we will be able to settle
    conflicts. Mysticism is a dead end to answering complex problems.
    Part of Hamer's interest in writing this book is to publicize his work
    in finding the so-called God-Gene, or VMAT2. This one gene has a
    significant impact on the degree of self-transcendence, but other
    genes are yet to be found. What interests me as a eugenicist is that
    we can now screen for this gene and eliminate it, whereas Hamer would
    most likely try to breed for it. In fact, he does go into a great deal
    of discussion with regards to assortative mating.
    Pointing out that while one's religion is cultural and
    self-transcendence is primarily genetic, he notes (as have many
    others) that people marry their own kind when it comes to personality
    types and chosen religion. In the past, humans typically married
    others with the same religion because humans up until recently have
    been very parochial. Now however, we are far more mobile and
    cosmopolitan, and it seems that rather than the human genome becoming
    a melting pot, we will increasingly be more selective in marrying
    those who are more like us in terms of intelligence and behavior.
    Increasingly, materialists will marry materialists, and spiritualists
    will marry spiritualists. Personally, that is one area where I would
    not suffer a mate who believed in magic, god, Gaia, or any other
    significant level of self-transcendenceit would just be too alien to
    Hamer also devotes a chapter to Jewish "cultural practices as genetic
    selective forces." I could not quite get a handle on where he was
    going with these examples of culturally defined breeding practices,
    but it does follow or parallels MacDonald's work on Judaism as a group
    evolutionary strategy. This surprised me because he makes no reference
    to MacDonald, as if he is unaware of his work. (MacDonald 1994, 1998a,
    He also devotes a great deal of time to healing, health, religion and
    spiritualism. Nevertheless, ultimately, the only message seems to be
    that almost any correlation can be found between how people are
    treated and how well they do in terms of health. These stories are as
    numerous as they are meaningless in the totality of things. Yes, make
    people feel better, more optimistic, less afraid, and they will
    probably have a better outcome when it comes to health and happiness.
    Alternatively, just get a pet dog or shoot your oppressive boss and
    get away with it. Almost anything has an impact on our inner state of
    beingunfortunately, most of us can do little to create a personally
    blissful life for ourselves without knocking heads with others trying
    to do the same. Embracing new age mysticism is not the answer to real
    problems that require empirical approaches. Prayer vigils to my
    knowledge have never stopped an execution by the state, nor prevented
    Hamer then discusses temporal lobe epilepsy, and shows that this
    particular form of epilepsy can lead to profound religious experiences
    in afflicted people. From this, he and others have extrapolated that
    the temporal lobe must be the seat of all mystical experience
    (hallucinations) and that even normal people sometimes have temporal
    lobe misfirings that cause them to experience miraculous events. This
    is an extreme stretch of logic that needs far more research to connect
    self-transcendence with a singular area of the brain. (For an
    excellent book on Islam and its founder, and the connection with
    epilepsy and self-transcendence that leads to terrorism, read The
    Sword of the Prophet: IslamHistory, Theology, Impact on the World by
    Serge Trifkovic, 2002.)
    Hamer tries to support this brain malfunction for spirituality theory:
    "Based on this experiment and other lines of evidence, Persinger
    believes that the biological basis of all spiritual and mystical
    experiences is due to spontaneous firing of the temporoparietal
    regionhighly focal microseizures without any obvious motor effects. He
    calls such episodes transients and theorizes that they occur in
    everybody to some extent. Exactly how often and how strongly is
    determined by a mix of genes, environment, and experience. The main
    effect of such transients is to increase communication between the
    right and left temporoparietal areas, leading to a brief confusion
    between the sense of self and the sense of others. The outcome, he
    says, is a 'sense of a presence' that people interpret as a God,
    spirit, or other mystical being."
    He does tell us that 60,000 years ago, there is evidence that
    Neanderthal man had religion. He then states, "I believe our genetic
    predisposition for faith is no accident. It provides us with a sense
    of purpose beyond ourselves and keeps us from being incapacitated by
    our dread of mortality. Our faith gives us the optimism to press on
    regardless of the hardships we face." This seems to be the sum total
    of his explanation for human irrationality and embracing of false
    He goes on to mention what decades of research by evolutionary
    psychologists now accept: that altruism, human cooperation, acceptance
    of group norms (like religion), disgust towards outsiders, blood lust,
    patriotism, ethnocentrism, and a host of other human tendencies are
    due to group evolutionary strategies. If the tribe were not united
    into a tight and cohesive unit, they would be killed or displaced by
    other tribes who were more aggressive and united, including a
    willingness to die for the group in intertribal warfare.
    Then he dismisses this research as impossible: "One popular concept is
    that religion helps societies organize and successfully compete
    against others. But if such group-level selection were the only
    selective force, God genes would probably die out or be limited to
    only certain parts of the world, since the necessary conditionshigh
    degree of kinship within the group and high degree of competition with
    outside groupsare limited to particular geographical areas and certain
    historical times. To be a universal facet of our evolution, there must
    be additional reasons to account for the persistence of God genes."
    The problem with this simplistic explanation is that there is massive
    amounts of data that group selection did take place over millions of
    years, and even if there were short periods where tribal conflict
    and/or tribal cooperation was absent or minimal, such periods were
    short in duration and were the exception. Evolution is slow, and such
    short respites from conflict and/or cooperation would not have altered
    human behavior (below I will discuss new research about tribal
    conflict leading to cooperative behaviors).
    Hamer finishes the book with a chapter on Jewish cultural practices,
    explains that Jews have maintained their racial separation, and today
    they continue to be closer genetically to Arabs. He claims that the
    racial separation between Jews and those they lived among was due to
    Jewish religious culture, which is what has been put forth by Kevin
    MacDonald and includes an analysis of Jewish genetic frequencies for
    xenophobia, high intelligence, as well as other behavioral traits
    (again gene-culture coevolution). However, he then claims that Jews
    were allowed to assimilate into the surrounding gentile cultures, but
    gentiles were not allowed into the Jewish faith, and this was due to
    Jews being discriminated against! Now that is a strange twist of
    logic, and a bit simplistic to say the least. Conflicts between Jews
    and gentiles have been a 3,000 year ordeal, it is complex, and it is
    ever changing. To dismiss assimilation because "people don't like us"
    seems rather sophomoric.
    Gene-Culture Coevolution In contrast to Hamer's book, Genetic and
    Cultural Evolution of Cooperation came out of the 90th Dahlem Workshop
    held in Berlin, Germany in 2002. I only stumbled upon two paragraphs
    that deviated from scientific objectivity. With contributions by
    numerous researchers in evolutionary psychology, had it been read by
    Hamer, his book would have been far more empirical with less utopian
    For decades, group selection has been downplayed, primarily because
    humans were lumped in with other organisms, and the model just did not
    work out. Simply stated, after further review, since humans have an
    evolved language, we have also evolved oddities like altruism and or
    cooperation, as well as religion and irrationality. With language came
    a host of evolutionary artifacts that other organisms do not have to
    deal with. In fact, the only explanation for such extreme forms of
    human behavior such as universal altruism, feeling one-with-the-earth,
    suicide bombers, and serial killers is to look at how language and
    culture coevolved to insert a great deal of human emotion into what
    makes us do what we do, even to our own detriment.
    One of the fundamental principles of evolutionary psychology (EP) is
    the assumption that during the environment of evolutionary adaptation
    (EEA), humans everywhere faced similar ecologies and therefore we all
    evolved in roughly the same way. On the other hand, behavior or
    quantitative genetics looks at the differences between people and
    between races, with the understanding that humans in different parts
    of the world and under varying degrees of ecological change and
    cultural differences, adapted in differing ways. This book seems to be
    just barely breaking through the simplistic EP assumption of a single
    universal human mind, though the evidence for diversity in behavior
    has been evident to even pre-scientific man.
    Now for the problem: people often act in a way that is harmful to them
    in order to fulfill some inner need or emotion. We have evolved to do
    the irrational. The list here is endless but includes giving spare
    change to beggars and blowing oneself up for a nation or religion.
    Humans can span the extremes from indifference to extreme outrage at
    transgressors of norms and/or values adopted by the group. Likewise,
    the group is very malleable and changingthough this was not the case
    10,000 years ago. The challenge is to try to fit together our
    irrational moral outrages of today with evolved human emotions from
    our commonand often racially uniquepasts.
    Daniel M.T. Fessler and Kevin J. Haley state that "We have suggested
    that guilt and righteousness facilitate the formation and preservation
    of cooperative relationships. However, not all cooperative
    relationships are worthwhile. In some cases, the benefits of defection
    exceed the benefits of cooperation. In a world without emotions that
    function to preserve cooperative relationships, steep time discounting
    alone would lead to high rates of defection. However, the existence of
    relationship-preserving emotions creates a situation in which it may
    be advantageous to mark explicitly individuals who have little of
    value to offer the actor. We suggest that contempt is the emotion
    accompanying exactly such an evaluation. By highlighting the low value
    of the other individual, contempt predisposes the actor to either (a)
    avoid establishing a relationship, (b) establish a relationship on
    highly unequal (i.e., exploitative) grounds, or (c) defect on an
    existing relationship. Consistent with the low valuation of the other,
    contempt seems to preclude the experience of prosocial emotions in the
    event that the actor is able to exploit the partner, apparently by
    framing the harm as merited."
    This is an interesting insight, and yet I doubt if the authors
    understand its universal implications. Just as individuals within
    groups may find others contemptible, it is even more prevalent in
    group conflicts. In diverse societies where different ethnic groups
    mingle, contempt for the other is rampant, even though most states
    take extraordinary measures reduce tensions. When groups react like
    individuals howeverinstituting avoidance, exploitation, or defectionit
    is seen as somehow immoral. In reality however, these are just
    emotions that any one individual can have from one extreme to the
    other. One person becomes an anti-racist (universal moralist) and
    attacks their own race in favor of another, while the race realist
    faces the certainty that benevolence towards others may not be
    reciprocated in kind.
    But I digress, as the point of this book is to explain the process of
    punishment coupled with cooperation. Ernst Fehr and Joseph Henrich
    state that, "Strong reciprocity means that people willingly repay
    gifts and punish the violation of cooperation and fairness norms even
    in anonymous one-shot encounters with genetically unrelated strangers.
    This chapter provides ethnographic and experimental evidence
    suggesting that ultimate theories of kin selection, reciprocal
    altruism, costly signaling, and indirect reciprocity do not provide
    satisfactory evolutionary explanations of strong reciprocity. The
    problem with these theories is that they can rationalize strong
    reciprocity only if it is viewed as maladaptive behavior, whereas the
    evidence suggests that it is an adaptive trait. Thus, alternative
    evolutionary approaches are needed to provide ultimate accounts of
    strong reciprocity."
    Strong reciprocators are the "do-gooders" or the "berserkers" both.
    That is whether I am a suicide bomber in Iraq, or a missionary healing
    the sick in Somalia, it is the same behavior that has to be explained.
    Why would anyone give up so much for so little in return, in terms of
    evolutionary fitness? That is, humans do very peculiar things when it
    comes to altruism, cooperation, taking revenge, etc. To really
    understand how this takes place and what it means, I think one has to
    play games with themselves on a rational level. I started slowly doing
    that years ago when I first came upon questions of rationality and
    It goes something like this: next time you eat at a diner where you
    will probably never return, how much of a tip will you leave? What
    organizations will you give to, any that you are really againstlike
    the United Way but the corporation pressures you to "participate?" If
    someone needs help, how do you react? I have found that by being
    rational I can modify some of my behavior but in other areas I prefer
    the feeling of "doing the right thing" or feeling "self righteous." I
    will over-tip the cabby; I will give large tips to movers who deliver
    my new stove; I will buy a ticket at an event from some pest at work
    just to keep the peace and my image in tact. At the same time, when
    asked by a Costco clerk if I would like to donate a dollar to a
    children's hospital I said no! He said "it was only a dollar and for a
    good cause," as I rebutted, "I do not like to be hustled by
    corporations trying to make themselves look good."
    To get inside of the extremes from self-serving behavior (bordering on
    psychopathy) to extreme kinship resource acquisition (families
    fighting over an uncle's inheritance), to universal moralism
    (missionaries and suicide bombers), to the passive individual that
    merely follows the rules but doesn't really take much notice of
    anything (I'd rather be fishing), we have to understand the complex
    emotions that evolved to drive us into behavioral niches. Virtually
    all humans are coalition builders, at least passively by getting along
    by going along with some groups while being antagonistic against
    others. But there are behavioral differences in the way that
    individuals react to group members.
    Some people are moral enforcers, and will take action to punish
    non-cooperators even at their own expense. Others will punish
    non-cooperators only when they need to, while yet others will shirk
    their duty to "act morally" within the group. As Ernst Fehr and Joseph
    Henrich put it, "Hence, within-group selection creates evolutionary
    pressures against strong reciprocity [moral enforcers] because strong
    reciprocators engage in individually costly behaviors that benefit the
    whole group. In contrast, between-group selection favors strong
    reciprocity because groups with disproportionately many strong
    reciprocators are better able to survive. The consequence of these two
    evolutionary forces is that in equilibrium, strong reciprocators and
    purely selfish humans coexist. This logic applies to genes, cultural
    traits, or both in an interactive process. Thus, this approach
    provides a logically rigorous argument as to why we observe
    heterogeneous responses in laboratory experiments."
    What is showing up over and over again in the behavioral sciences is
    the recognition that unlike most organisms, humans with their language
    ability can enforce group conforming behavior that sets up our
    in-group/out-group nature. We compete with each other within the
    group, but we also have a fiercely embraced sense of belonging to a
    group for protection from other groups as well as advancement for our
    group against other groups. Originally, this was only the tribal
    group, but humans have such a strong attachment to tribalistic
    affiliations that it can now be artificially created through
    indoctrination on almost any level, from patriotism to religious
    adherence, to terrorist cells.
    This may not seem like such an important observation, but only a few
    years ago group-level evolutionary selection was dismissed as
    impossible. As such, we could not come to grips with human behavior
    that was irrational in terms of selection pressures on only
    individuals and their genes. This meant that universals like racism,
    ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and social dominance were dismissed as
    social constructs that could just be adjudicated away by our wise
    leaders. (Our leaders still use the old paradigms that are rapidly
    being replaced in the behavioral sciences.)
    Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich state that
    "These successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until
    eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with
    distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked
    groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group
    rules. Mechanisms by which cultural institutions might exert forces
    tugging in this direction are not far to seek. People are likely to
    discriminate against genotypes that are incapable of conforming to
    cultural norms. People who cannot control their self-serving
    aggression ended up exiled or executed in small-scale societies and
    imprisoned in contemporary ones. People whose social skills embarrass
    their families will have a hard time attracting mates. Of course,
    selfish and nepotistic impulses were never entirely suppressed; our
    genetically transmitted evolved psychology shapes human cultures, and
    as a result cultural adaptations often still serve the ancient
    imperatives of inclusive genetic fitness. However, cultural evolution
    also creates new selective environments that build cultural
    imperatives into our genes."
    It is also now observed that our new advanced technological culture
    will push genetic changes in our behavioral and cognitive repertoires.
    50,000 years ago, humans lived in small tribes, only occasionally went
    to war with their neighbors, sometimes committing genocide while
    taking the women for mating. This fusion and fissuring of genotypes
    was slow compared to the options we have today for rapid changes in
    our genes. From preimplantation diagnostics to select against genetic
    disease, to mass extinction of whole nations from either conventional
    or nuclear weapons is now possible. From the turmoil of rapid social
    change will come rapid genetic change:
    "Contemporary human societies differ drastically from the societies in
    which our social instincts evolved. Pleistocene hunter-gatherer
    societies were comparatively small, egalitarian, and lacking in
    powerful institutionalized leadership. By contrast, modern societies
    are large, inegalitarian, and have coercive leadership institutions.
    If the social instincts hypothesis is correct, our innate social
    psychology furnishes the building blocks for the evolution of complex
    social systems, while simultaneously constraining the shape of these
    systems. To evolve large-scale, complex social systems, cultural
    evolutionary processes, driven by cultural group selection, take
    advantage of whatever support these instincts offer. For example,
    families willingly take on the essential roles of biological
    reproduction and primary socialization, reflecting the ancient and
    still powerful effects of selection at the individual and kin level.
    At the same time, cultural evolution must cope with a psychology
    evolved for life in quite different sorts of societies. Appropriate
    larger-scale institutions must regulate the constant pressure from
    smaller groups (coalitions, cabals, cliques) to subvert rules favoring
    large groups. To do this cultural evolution often makes use of
    'work-arounds.' It mobilizes the tribal instincts for new purposes.
    For example, large national and international (e.g., great religions)
    institutions develop ideologies of symbolically marked inclusion that
    often fairly successfully engage the tribal instincts on a much larger
    scale." (Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich)
    There is now enough evidence that modern human society should be based
    on an understanding that as long as we are a tribalistic species,
    there will be more peace, more prosperity, and more happiness when
    nation-states can be formed by similar people. That is, the homogenous
    state is far more prone to be beneficial to human happiness than the
    discords found in multicultural and diverse states. This means a
    rejection of any political universals enforced by a world body except
    maybe the notion that to stop conflict, it is best to just separate
    the belligerents physically as much as possible. That is, promote
    non-aggressive, non-jingoistic nationalismwhere countries compete in
    the marketplace of commerce and ideas.
    --- Matt Nuenke, December 2004.

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