Saturday, October 04, 2008


Aping Religion

There is a semi-interview in the Toronto Star with Ara Norenzayan, a University of British Columbia psychologist and lead author of a review paper in Science on the role of religion in expanding social traits such as altruism and cooperation beyond kin groups.

The paper argues that social co-operation and altruism conferred an evolutionary advantage as populations grew larger, and that moralizing religions were key to creating large-scale cohesion. ...

Norenzayan says that familial co-operation is understandable because members of the same clans would posses many of the same genes.

"The idea here is that to the extent we are interacting with someone who is genetically related to us, we are going to be altruistic just because it will benefit our (shared) genes to help."

In smaller social groups, he continues, a sense of built-up trust between individuals would allow for longer survival – and better breeding opportunities – because an "I scratch your back, you scratch my back" existence can greatly ease life's burdens.

The puzzle has always been how a society that is not based on close kinship can maintain altruism and cooperation in the face of the incentive to cheat without the offsetting benefit of a kin relationship.

"There is a strong incentive for people ... to get the benefits of co-operation, but not return co-operation and do better than the co-operators," Norenzayan contends. "The best strategy is not to co-operate but pretend to co-operate." ...

"One explanation for why religions have had such a staying power throughout human history and human societies," he says, "is that they play a role in promoting altruistic tendencies in very large groups.

"This is something that is very hard to get."

Thus religious thought, while cultural in origin, meshed ideally with the evolutionary imperative for group co-operation, Norenzayan says.

"Of course it's not a genetic process; it's a cultural process," he says. "But it's feeding back into our evolutionary adaptation and then making possible co-operative tendencies in larger and larger groups."

University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson notes that the paper's linkage of growing group size and the emergence of moralizing deities is an important new concept in the field. Does that mean that a moralistic religion is necessary to maintain large societies?

[Norenzayan] suggests that other, secular mechanisms such as enlightenment-influenced laws, courts and effective policing can serve in place of severed religious regulations.

"There are other ways to be less selfish, more co-operative; you don't have to necessarily have religion to solve that problem."

Maybe so. But his work also suggests that the cultural trait may be very robust and that fluctuations in religious beliefs of the moralizing kind may be just that, fluctuations and/or changes in form. Certainly, without a countervailing social disadvantage to religious membership, there is no particular reason to suppose they will die out ... or turn into knitting societies ... on their own.

I've many problems with the way that the article sets out the arguments; it is possible that the original paper is clearer, but I would have to pay to read it.

My main concern is the statement that religions allow societies to behave in a more pro-social way. I have found no argument in the press articles to suggest that they have tested the arrow of causality. One could equally argue that in a society that behaves in a pro-social way, religion is used as a cultural check to reduce anti-social cheats. Religion could be an affect, not a cause.

Indeed looking at one of the possible evolutionary scenarios, the pro-social behaviours could have evolved in the 10 million years or so when humans and their ancestors lived in small troops - but how likely is it that religion 'evolved' in only a few thousand years?

And then the final quote:
"Some of the most cooperative modern societies are also the most secular," says Norenzayan. "People have found other ways to be cooperative – without God."
rather suggests that religion and other cheat challenging behaviours are byproducts of the evolutionary process, and not specifically embedded in our genomes.
... rather suggests that religion and other cheat challenging behaviours are byproducts of the evolutionary process, and not specifically embedded in our genomes.

Norenzayan is quite clear that he thinks religion is a cultural, and not a biological, trait (and I agree). But it is a cultural trait that enables humans to overcome/avoid a biological trait that limits further social development. Therefore, it, or some substitute, is very important to the functioning of societies at all levels. The question I was posing is why religionists would try to fix that which ain't broke ... from their perspective.
Sorry! I didn't make it clear that I was referring initially to the 'semi-interview' which carried this quote:
"Religion is a human universal," says Peterson, an expert in the biological basis of religious thought. "And the probability that a human universal didn't evolve? I think you have to assume that it evolved and prove the opposite. That isn't normally what happens when people are discussing religion."

I acknowledge that Norenzayan makes it quite clear that he believes religion to be cultural.
Yeah, I thought of including a mention of that quote and a comment on some people thinking religion was a biological phenomena but, on re-reading it, there was just enough ambiguity that I wasn't sure that was what Peterson meant. He might have been talking about cultural evolution (based in biology) as opposed to ... well ... wherever else people think it may have come from.
BTW, the abstract to the Science article in question appears to be here, in case you want to look up the article at your local library or something:
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