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.

In other words, on an adaptationist account of the evolution of religion, why would seemingly costly rituals that produce no reproductive benefit survive selection? Dow has devised a computer simulation called "evogod" that he thinks may answer the question:

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.

So people like PZ, who regularly ... and loudly ... remind believers of the facts of the real world around them, may actually be helping believers to reproduce more successfully. In return for this help, providing a job and a title would not be remiss.

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.

And, naturally, not everyone agrees that the question is amenable to science at all:

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."

Still, it might be amusing to see what uses PZ would put that shepherd's crook to.

I am very skeptical that religion (which is hardly a monolithic and uniform "trait" anyways) is either genetically heritable or individually adaptive. However, it appears to be highly heritable by cultural means (with family of origin being a strong determinant), and may also be adaptive for a whole society (in many but by no means all cases -- modern fundamentalism may well turn out to be extremely maladaptive for Western civilization).
I'm not impressed with evolutionary psychology either, though Dennett makes it seem somewhat plausible at times. It usually starts off with a plausible just-so story that then gets pushed way past any plausible application ... IMHO.

The real question may be whether Western liberal civilization is a viable adaptation.
Never mind the adaptations: who's going to give PZ the shepherd's crook? And we need to have someone there to film... this should be highly entertaining.
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