Monday, August 07, 2006


Eyeing Religion

Were our ancestors hardwired by evolution to believe in God? That is the subject of an article entitled "Sight Unseen: Are we wired to serve God?" by Jeffrey Weiss in The Dallas Morning News that can be found here.

Refreshments are sold on the honor system in the break room at the University of Newcastle – people who get a cup of coffee or tea are supposed to leave money. Researchers found that when they added a picture of eyes above the payment box, more than twice as much money was deposited, compared with weeks when the eyes were replaced by a picture of flowers.

People were subconsciously triggered into acting more honestly, as if they were actually being watched, even though they knew the eyeballs were mere paper and ink.

The theory supposedly goes that a religion that had a "Supernatural Enforcer" was most successful at "prodding people into greater cooperation and honesty, which in turn helped their culture thrive."

In general, people are nicer than they need to be, experiments show. That's not to say some individuals aren't liars or cheats. But many of us show a bit of Good Samaritan, even when we don't know whom we're helping and seem to gain no benefit.

But that seems to contradict evolution theory, because successful individual cheaters should gain a Darwinian advantage. A prehistoric thief who swiped the equivalent of a cup of coffee would have been better off than the honest fellow who "paid" for it. And the thief, by gaining an advantage that improved his odds of survival, would have been more likely to pass on those "selfish" genes.

Essentially, this is the issue of the evolutionary explanation for altruism. The article gives only a rather garbled account of the issues but a good introduction to this difficult subject can be found in Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology by Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths. Suffice it to say that the above barely scratches the surface of the problem.
The hypothesis the article recounts supposedly posits two traits that came together to make humans predisposed to religion. First, (in a paraphrase of David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York):

Early humans who were attentive [to faces and acted more honestly when they thought they were watched] were less likely to get caught and punished for doing something wrong. That made them more likely to pass their genes along, said Dr. Wilson, whose book Darwin's Cathedral uses evolution to explain religion.

Additionally, humans "seem to have evolved to jump to conclusions [and] . . . often decide we know what's happening before we have all the evidence."

As Homo sapiens developed language and imagination, that gave our quick-triggered brain many more possibilities. If physical explanations weren't good enough, our ancestors' brains automatically, irresistibly came up with other alternatives: A sin explained leprosy. A virgin sacrifice kept the volcano quiet. A prayer brought the rain.

In other words, our ancestors' brains may have been biologically inclined to believe in the supernatural.

The dicey bit comes here:

What if a particular tribe had those tendencies so strongly that it developed a religion that told its believers that a power was always watching? Would the very notion of an unseen, powerful watcher prompt more cooperative, generous behavior in people who weren't actually being watched? ...

Call it the Santa Claus Effect: "He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." ...

Would believers in a Supernatural Enforcer have a leg up on other early humans? If so, their culture and their religion would have been more likely to survive.

This is the classic problem with evolutionary psychology and sociobiology (even apart from the clear whiff of the "just so story" to the whole exercise): where does the divide between a biological evolutionary account and a cultural one come in? Mr. Weiss seems dimly aware of the issue:

A few last-minute caveats: Every link in this chain is controversial. Behaviorists, psychologists and biologists have alternate theories about why humans cooperate and practice religion. Even those who agree on the broad outlines disagree about important details.

And even the most fervent proponents say this all adds up to a Darwinian nudge toward niceness, not a shove.

You might just as meaningfully say that evolution gave us a nudge toward religion because our remote ancestors evolved eyes enabling us to read religious texts and ears to hear sermons . . . at least on the evidence discussed here.

But the coffee room effect, now . . . that is interesting. Do you suppose we could sneak into the Discovery institute some night and plaster the walls with pictures of ol' Honest Abe's eyes?

Where did you find it? Interesting read » » »
I'm not sure what you're asking but the Dallas News article was here.
Where did you find it? Interesting read film editing schools
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