Saturday, June 28, 2008
PZ Myers for Pope!
Anthropologist James W. Dow, a professor emeritus at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, is studying what some neo-Darwinians find to be a puzzle:
Why ... would early humankind sacrifice valuable meat to an unseen god, or practice dangerous forms of ritual mutilation? It might be required by religious faith, but it's a risky way to spend limited time and resources.
Dow populated his simulated society with two groups of people: one that professed a belief in things unseen and unverifiable (think: spirits, gods, etc.), and another that did not. Dow assumes religious faith is a hereditary trait.
In the beginning of the simulation, the groups who talked about "unreal" things, as Dow terms it, died out every time. Bottom line: They weren't paying enough attention to their environment to survive.
Yet when the program was tweaked and realists began to help the imaginative, believers survived. In other words, a "realist" can provide vital information about the environment ("Hey, beware of the lion's den over there") to help the believers survive.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Dow's scientific claims:
Some scholars, such as Luther H. Martin of the University of Vermont, think religion is a byproduct of brain functions that evolved for other purposes.
If scholars can't even agree on what defines "religion," he says, it makes little sense to look for it in genes. "It's difficult to know what's evolving, what's being talked about," Martin says.
Georgetown University theologian John F. Haught says, "Dow's paper is one more attempt to provide a purely naturalistic explanation of religion."
"I accept Darwinian evolution," he says, "I have no doubt that religion can be adaptive, but that doesn't mean it's not true. Its truth lies at a level of depth that science cannot grasp."
The real question may be whether Western liberal civilization is a viable adaptation.