Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The adaptive origins of creationist mythology

«   Part 9 of the series, Genesis for the rest of us   »

The God DelusionThe impending publication of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion is as good an excuse as any other for reviving the slightly stalled Jurisdynamics series, Genesis for the rest of us. In addition, Kristi Bowman and Andrew Torrance have been writing at BioLaw about creationist pressure on science education and the legal system in general. It's time to rejoin the fray.

To recap: My most recent installment, Mother superior, explored the misogynistic nature of Genesis' second creation myth and the implications of that misogyny for contemporary environmental policy. Before diving into Genesis' third creation myth -- that of Noah, the ark, and the flood -- I believe that this series would benefit from an extended detour into an exploration of creationist mythology as an adaptive exercise in its own right. Strangely enough, the rise and persistence of creation myths can be construed as a backhanded way of weaving religion into a consilient overview of evolutionary theory.

Edge.Org dinner partyOne smart dinner party. These luminaries dined together in 2002, courtesy of Edge.Org. Standing: Steven Pinker, Jeff Bezos, John Brockman. Seated: Katinka Matson, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, W. Daniel Hillis. Photo credit: Edge.Org

The God Delusion and Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon pose the question as bluntly as it has ever been posed: Why would anyone believe in God? In a 2004 book by that name, Justin Barrett tried, thoughtfully and successfully, to answer that question. Barrett's answer, delivered much less confrontationally than Dennett's similarly reasoned conclusion, is that religion is a product of human adaptation, which itself is guided by the evolutionary process of natural selection. Barrett's conclusion, in turn, had been foreshadowed by earlier works such as Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001) and E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the Heart: Emotions, Belief, and the Environment (1996).

Stripped of all mystery, religion is human behavior. Accordingly, its origins and significance can be illuminated by evolutionary analysis. As Stewart Guthrie wrote in Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), "religion . . . is continuous with other systems of thought and action such as science, art, and common sense." On closer examination, religious belief appears to be adaptive. In other words, religion persists because at some point in the natural history of the human species, religious belief conferred an advantage at the margin. Believers lived and reproduced. Their counterparts fared less well.

Bump in the nightThanks to the adaptive instincts that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce more successfully at the margin, we humans systematically interpret ambiguous evidence as being caused by a living agent rather than an abiotic alternative. Put simply, we never wonder what went bump in the night, but who. This cognitive bias prompts proactive responses to threats to survival and to opportunities to reproduce.

In other words, the portion of the human brain dedicated to agency detection has taken sides in its own variant of Pascal’s wager. Unless the cost of a proactive response is prohibitive, humans do well to respond to ambiguous stimuli as if some sort of agent existed. Betting in favor of a living agent often spells the difference between survival and death. Or it might reveal a previously undetected reproductive opportunity.

On this account, religion condenses a wide range of unseen agents into a single anthropomorphic deity or a single group of anthropomorphic deities. A creationist account of origins, such as the sacred narrative shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, seems singularly appealing to the adapted mind. Rock-a-my-soul in the bosom of Abraham.

HellThis explanation seems far more persuasive than a frequently offered alternative: that religion appeals because it comforts the believer. Comfort? Like hell. Entire swaths of religious dogma are dedicated to scaring the bejesus out of adherents. Believers might try to persuade themselves that the reward of faith is a guarantee of eternal life. In evolutionary terms, the price of faith is eternal vigilance . . . which in turn might lead to a marginally longer life with enhanced reproductive prospects. But evolution makes no promises. Time and chance happen to them all.

Whatever the merits of his other ideas, Karl Marx totally misunderstood the origins of a belief in God and the impact of that belief on broader human society. Stay awake and watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour of the coming of the Lord. Religion is not the opiate of the masses, but rather the ephedrine.

Next in this series: Born to believe.


Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I agree with so much of what you write and post about Jim, it pains me to be so at odds with you when it comes to the topic of religion(s). I'll only scratch the surface here.

And Confucianism, Taoism, Vedic religion (Hinduism), Buddhism: how do these fit into this evolutionary account? Not all religions are of the Abrahamic/Semitic/monotheistic variety.

Incidentally, Jews throughout history have not fared well, comparatively speaking.

When those who have fought and died, i.e., engaged in acts of violence and war on behalf of their deity, how does this confer an evolutionary advantage? Of course an ex post facto functionalism can always look back and confer evolutionary advantage to any behavior....

What Marx said just prior to the opium analogy is more revealing: 'Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.' I think this does well capture not a few truths about religions in general (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, wherein consolation is offered for those whose suffering is righteous, who suffer on behalf of the Kingdom of God, which is within one; and cf. too the Buddhist tradition which endeavors to deal first and foremost with the question of suffering; with good reason questions of theodicy often predominate in theology and philosophy of religion [theodicy as such cannot exist in a non-theistic religious milieu], although I don't subscribe to Marx's naturalism.

I am not at all persuaded by an evolutionary account of religion inosfar as it prejudges religious experience (accounts for it with a naturalist explanation). The kinds of metaphysical and existential questions addressed in religions are not nor can be addressed by science (as Stephen Jay Gould realized).

10/24/2006 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

In the 5th paragraph: 'religion [theodicy as such cannot exist in a non-theistic religious milieu]),

10/24/2006 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Former U of MN masters graduate (2001) weighs in on religion, law and ecology via a philosophy of science based on resonance.

Further details: http://drewhempel.gnn.tv and of course google.

10/25/2006 6:01 AM  
Blogger la Rana said...

I think the evolutionary explanation raises more questions than it answers. The largest of which is "why would magical beliefs benefit the believer in a competitive system?"

"Betting in favor of a living agent often spells the difference between survival and death," but not when the bet is that the sky is blue because an invisible man, who lives either everywhere or else in the sky, made it. At what point does this confer an advantage? You can't simply assert that it does, or by association infer that assuming the rustle the bush is a tiger instead of the wind is the same as assuming lightning means Zues is angry.

Due to a subsequent failure to explain any genetic coherency or comprehensive extinction pattern, you end up presenting and defending a meme (which you do at your peril).

Your diparaging of the 'comfort' thesis is equally dubious. As you said, religion is human behavior. Religion doesn't adopt anthropomorphic qualities to scare its adherents; other humans are behind that curtain as well. Explanations comfort the people, dogma ensures the status quo.

10/25/2006 3:20 PM  
Anonymous JKC said...

"I am not at all persuaded by an evolutionary account of religion inosfar as it prejudges religious experience"

I'm not so sure. An evolutionary narrative of religion doesn't have to discount the supernatural. You could look at the evolutionary account with an eye of faith as well. In that case, it would go something like this: since God (or the gods) bless and prospers those who believe in him/her/them, believers are more successful, die off less, and have a comparative advantage within the evolutionary system.

It might seem counterintuitive to blend a naturalistic paradigm with the supernatural like that, but I don't see why you can't do it. Sure you're beginning with a metaphysical assumption, but not trying to test or understand it, just its naturalistic effects.

Evolution in its simplest expression merely observes comparative advantage in action, it does not concern itself overly with the origins of that advantage.

Of course, as a proof of religious faith, this fails. It's circular. Faith does not need to and cannot be proven scientifically, but it can be examined scientifically to understand the way it interacts with the natural world.

10/26/2006 2:23 PM  
Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I'll concede that, in principle, this need not be the case. But I don't think those providing such evolutionary accounts to date, if I'm not mistaken, are going to or want to allow for the transcendent, for the supernatural, what have you (what I would christen a kind of nonpropostional truth). And again, with nontheistic religions, it's rather too anthropomorphic to imagine a supernatural power conferring evolutionary advantage, as Ames and Hall say in their commentary to Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching: 'nature [and by implication, the Tao] does not participate in a kind of human exceptionalism in which the human being is singled out for special treatment. Nature treats all things, human and otherwise, with the same degree of care.'

I don't think it's counterintuitive to blend the natural and supernatural in the way you suggest: after all, is not this what Deism does? God is responsible for creation, which of course then might evolve along Darwinian lines...(a spectator deity, mysterious and now utterly transcendent after having set things in motion as it were).

As to your last paragraph: I agree.

10/26/2006 11:01 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Farrand said...

Great piece! Thought you might like to see what I've written on the Pelasgian creation myth (or the next one, known as a Philosophical one).

11/20/2006 6:46 PM  

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