Is Religion an Extravagance?

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Discussion by: mitch

In God Delusion RD said, “Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the SMALLEST extravagance."

RD also said regarding religion, "[The child brain] is susceptible to and carries the down side of bad ideas, useless ideas, waste of time ideas like rain dances and other religious customs." And that human brain modules are “vulnerable to misfiring in the same kind of way as I suggest for childhood gullibility.”

Given that evolution eliminates waste and punishes the smallest extravagances, wouldn't have evolution selected against ubiquitous religion over tens of thousands of years if it was a useless, wasteful misfiring error of the brain rather than increasing fitness and being adaptive?

130 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a good question, and one that is tackled in the ‘God Delusion’, but not really totally explained. I think it is a point that could do with some real research.

    I think the strongest idea is that religion is a misapplication of the useful trait of following what your parents and elders say is true.
    If the elders say “Don’t eat the Zamia palm nut unless you have soaked it.”, you would be best to just believe it rather than try the experiment yourself.

    In evolutionary terms, learning from previous generations is a significant advantage. There is a balance between the usefulness of reason and of faith in evolutionary terms, which given modern science and technology, is very much in favour of reason as the adaptive advantage.

  2. Using your example of a rain dance, I wouldn’t say that all such customs are a complete waste of effort. Such dances don’t make it rain of course, but they probably enrich the lives of the community. Think about it, everyone working together on a creative project, performing , dressing up, possibly feasting. These would no doubt be highly enjoyable, team building exercises. If it did rain, all the better! Once the community decide to start making sacrifices to bring about the desired result the custom veers into a more problematic realm.

    I think you’ll find that it’s the cultural aspect of religion that have kept the faithful in the gene pool.

  3. Here is why I think humans evolved religion. In a primitive society, nearly always innovation is a nutty idea. The time honoured way of doing things is better. There is no systematic way of exploring science or systematically testing alternate hypotheses. You need a mechanism to discourage innovation, and command social cohesion, to pass cultural knowledge reliably from generation to generation.

    Religion does this. It allows a shamanic/priestly class to control the population and enforce the traditional knowledge and valued encoded in myths and stories. The priestly class often selects recruits for the next generation from the entire population.

    It long ago outgrew its usefulness. It stifles innovation. It fosters economic inequality and exploitation of the poor. It creates conflict when different religions rub shoulders (originally they were isolated).

  4. I do not know if there is literature on the evolution of religion. There must be evidence on why religions came into being. My guess it was a vehicle to control the behaviors of the masses. It is a way to govern societies of people. How were people made to, live together in peace and harmony? What stopped humans from killing one another without consequence or conscience. Who and how were things decided to be right or wrong. Religion is what I believe was created to provide a framework to guide the ethical and emotional side of human life. In this sense it was very necessary to,have religion.

  5. Anything parents are absolutely sure is true and important, they tell their kids as soon as they can talk. “Don’t play with lions”. “Don’t set your grandmother on fire”. These commands are like firmware, permanently burned in. It is almost impossible to change such beliefs.

    If somewhere along the line a command gets burned in, “Don’t do anything that would piss off Jehovah or he will torture you(us all) for eternity”. It will get passed as a prime directive to subsequent generations. It is like an intergenerational virus.

    This suggests the best way to rid the world of religion is to do as much as possible to stop religious brainwashing of children, or to get counter messages embedded as young as possible.

    Much of the apparent insanity of believers comes when they hold rational beliefs that counter these burned in ones. They can’t make sense!

  6. It seems fairly plausible that religious belief must provide benefits to at least some reproductive people. Though it’s also possible that it is some kind of parasitism that depends on the existence of large numbers of non-superstitious or indifferently superstitious hosts.

    Also it remains to be determined whether it is the religion itself that provides the benefit, or if religion is just a side effect of mental processes that inadvertently enable religion to occur. Religion may be negative or neutral, but the benefits of the existence of the relevant mental belief processes might more than outweigh the consequences of religious belief.

    That religious beliefs tend to centre around relatively harmless rituals indicates that it is more likely to be a side effect. Possibly associated with the ability to set aside one’s otherwise morbid fear of mortality. Religious beliefs and practices can evolve very rapidly, so it’s not clear that religious beliefs necessarily need to be untrue or detrimental to anyone. Though there are psychological mechanisms that pretty much require beliefs to actually be untrue, and to be reasonably easily falsified in normal life, in order for them to trigger the necessary cognitive dissonance that stimulates the neural entrenchment of religious ideas.

    Religion may even prove to be very important for the mental health of some people. i.e. Via regular social contact and the denial of reality that might otherwise lead to a malignant form of depression.

  7. Given that evolution eliminates waste and punishes the smallest extravagances, …

    Oversimplification. It depends on the niche. Sometimes there is extreme competition for scarce food that tends to lessen waste, but sometimes food is plentiful, but there is extreme competition for mates. In the latter case you get things like the peacock’s tail or the art work of the bowerbird. Also, religion is a complex of memes that relate to evolution as extended phenotype. The rules for optimization in extended phenotype are not the same as in simple genetic adaptations.

  8. Religion as a misfiring error of the brain. An interesting conjecture. Why not eliminated (by now)? One answer is that it’s early days yet, watch this space. Evolution is a work in progress, and we don’t need to be perfect in our niche, just better than anything else. So the misfiring lingers on, not yet selected out of existence.

    I’d like to focus on what it is that is misfiring. Altruism has been discussed, and it seems (in broad-brush summary) that altruism towards strangers can be viewed as a misfiring of altruism towards kin.

    I think I summarized Dr Dawkins more or less correctly there. Please leap in if I didn’t. (I know you will anyway, so I may as well invite.)

    Now, religion. I suggest that susceptibility to religion is a misfiring of an aptitude for technology. Our species diverged so dramatically from our nearest (surviving) relatives in the tree of life, not by being stronger, or more agile, or by having more hardy bodies better able to live in less hospitable environments. Our special feature appears to be technology, a product of our complex brains.

    Some dictionary definitions (via Google) to remind us what these words represent:

    • intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills
    • scientific knowledge: knowledge accumulated by systematic study and organized by general principles
    • technology: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes

    Technology advances as a few particularly intelligent (or lucky) individuals acquire some new knowledge or skill, and communicate this to others who are able to copy, apply, pass on, and sometimes innovate. New knowledge becomes common knowledge. Everything we know is passed from brain to brain down the generations. Much of the copying and passing on can be done by rote learning, without needing the additional intelligence to understand. So a lot of technology is passed on via people who do not understand it, they just know how to use it and/or retell it.

    I would highlight the technology of communication as being of key importance, as it is communication that enables all other technologies, and I suggest that all religions can be traced to misfirings of human responses to innovations in communication technology. Adapting Marshall McLuhan’s mantra “The Medium Is The Message”, I propose that The Medium is the Messiah.

    Is this a testable hypothesis? Let’s explore that. What should we expect to see, if it were true? A major religion founded on each major advance in communication technology. Here are a few I can think of, you may be able to identify more:

    • Language

    Before writing, when the spoken word and rote-learning was the only way of passing on vital technology (such as the astronomy needed to implement a workable agricultural calendar), robust error correction mechanisms arose, including rhymes, rituals, myths, personifications, legends, and stories. Maintaining the robustness of spoken teaching was essential to the preservation of our technology down the generations.

    Language, the spoken word, is maybe the oldest technology that has a direct association with religion. In the beginning was the Word. The Word of God. I give you my word. Magic words. Spells. Curses. Incantations. Prophets claiming to have heard the voice of god. The power of the spoken word, misunderstood, misapplied, misfiring to give rise to religious interpretations of teachings and rituals, and (of course) exploited by an elite who knew a good thing when they saw one.

    • Writing

    Writing as a tool for technology transfer is a major advance on relying on direct teaching by speech and example, and along with it we would expect a misfiring to apply religious significance to some special bits of writing. Scriptures. Sacred Texts, Holy Books. Now “the word of god” can be revealed by the seemingly magical trick of decoding marks on pages, or slabs of stone. Copying these Holy Books is a costly and highly specialized skill, apparently well suited to monasteries. Religions-of-the-manuscript would be highly centralized, with a limited supply of very expensive copies of the Holy Book, and a limited supply of the training to read and to copy them.

    • Printing

    Cheap, fast, accurate reproductions of a specific text changed the balance. Now copies of the Holy Book can be widely distributed, and reading skills would follow. There would be a move to cut out the middleman – the central church – and get the word of god directly from “source”, from the printed book. Interpretation of the book fell not to a member of a single strict heirachy, but could be done independently, and many diverging interpretations quickly arose.

    The Reformation can be seen as a direct consequence of the technological innovation that produced the printing press, as the monolithic Church of the Manuscript was challenged by multiple fragmented Churches of The Printed Volume, each using a copy of the same printed word, but interpreted in many different ways.

    • Amplification and Radio

    Speech-at-a-distance enabled by electricity did not (as far as I know) give rise to any new major religion, but it did enable the power-grab by fascist movements with their charismatic demagogues, able to pour their speech directly into the ears of large crowds and national populations, with horrific consequences.

    • Television, Video, Motion Pictures

    Televangelists. None really founding a completely new religion, just minor variants on the existing print based churches.

    • Next – Virtual Reality

    I predict a new religion will arise, predicated on the technology of computer gaming. In this new religion, life is but a simulation, a Game, death is “Game Over”, the white light is what you see as the headset comes off. Reincarnation happens when you put another coin in the slot. The Matrix movies explore this concept.

    So, when someone tries to interest me in a Religion of The Book, I can shrug it off as old technology. I’m waiting for the next big wave, the Religion of the Virtual.

    In summary, each religion is at its core an idolatry of a new and poorly understood technology, a misfiring of the intelligence that makes us able to bootstrap technology. I think we are probably stuck with it for a good while yet.

    Discuss?

  9. While I can hardly speak for RD, I wonder if he might reply (I think has replied) like this. That religion is a highly evolved phenomenon that is bound up with humans, but is an evolved parasite, whose evolution is successful in its terms, not its hosts.

    I mean that RD’s view is that religion should not be seen as part of human nature as such, but a feature that has become attached to us – he uses the metaphor of a virus. Maybe the most common ie ‘successful’ viruses are those which reproduce and then spread without often killing their hosts – colds and flu are more common than HIV. But viruses have no ‘purpose’, so strictly speaking cannot be ‘successful’, merely more common. Likewise, religion is a belief structure that has no ‘reason’ in itself and is inactive outside its host – human minds.

    Religion is thus seen as a virus-like structure of beliefs that becomes enters into and becomes integrated into its host – minds – and uses host, ie mental mechanisms, to ‘make’ those minds replicate the religion ‘virus’. ‘Successful’ religions (ie successful for replicating religious beliefs, not necessarily successful for the human hosts) will not only be more likely to enter into host minds and reproduce, but will, like cell viruses, have ways to resist rejection by the host. Religious variants (mutations) that lead to greater spread (replication) and more resilience will become more common, so over time surviving religions will have ‘evolved’ a number of successful ‘adaptations’. Conversely, religions that severely impair the success of hosts are unlikely to endure.

    So one can see features of faiths such as evangelism, early and systematic indoctrination, popular worship and formal priesthoods as successful ways for a religion virus to infect hosts and replicate. Written texts are a way to ensure preservation of essential features (in a way like DNA). Sanctions for heresy are ways to eliminate extreme variants. (Religions that did allow extreme variants would change, so while descendant faiths might endure, we would not see the original, except maybe in some marginal niche). Less successful religious tend to be displaced or made extinct by the more successful. So while there are some residual tribal beliefs in quiet corners of forests etc (echoing rare species in ecological niches), generally they are displaced by the more successful ‘mainstream’ faiths – though aspects of the older tribal beliefs may endure in some form. In the UK, think of how grey squirrels are displacing – or interbreeding with – red squirrels. There are explosive examples of religious viruses that do fail, in effect become extinct, through leading to the deaths of their host minds – remember Waco.

    Sadly, humans have yet to find and widely deploy a cheap and effective cure or vaccine to rid all humanity of the religion virus. Paralleling some biological infections (think HIV), active treatments are only commonly available in wealthier parts of the world – and even then are not always taken up. For broad spectrum anti-religion treatments – such as good education – are often expensive and there is no coordinated global campaign to eliminate religion viruses except in theological colleges – unlike the way mass vaccination mean that smallpox no longer exists outside laboratories.

    • In reply to #10 by steve_hopker:

      religion is an evolved parasite…

      Yes. That captures the essence well. A parasite that manifests itself in the extended phenotype of humanity, hijacking and diverting its host’s energy for its own benefit. Evolved by competition with other such mind-parasites, so the current forms are quite good at maintaining their existence, though prone to disruption when the environment changes, especially the environment of human communications technology. The recent changes may well be a serious threat to the current forms of the religion parasite, and we can probably expect to enjoy a few extinctions soon. But I suspect a new, more resilient strain will emerge to fill the niche.

    • In reply to #10 by steve_hopker:

      While I can hardly speak for RD, I wonder if he might reply (I think has replied) like this. That religion is a highly evolved phenomenon that is bound up with humans, but is an evolved parasite, whose evolution is successful in its terms, not its hosts.

      Hi Steve. RD has written about this, calling it ‘viruses of the mind’, which was expanded upon by Dr Darrell Ray’s book ‘The God Virus’, which is why it’s sold in the RDF Store. I’ve mentioned and recommended this book here at times – also the companion book ‘Sex and God’ – and it explains the analogy as well as others have for Dawkins’ cultural replicators ‘memes’.

      Religion viruses use memes and memeplexes to control people, for the benefit, fitness and propagation of the virus, not for the good of those infected. Religious memeplexes are very costly and harmful, and can be damaging or deadly to those not fully infected or immune, but are finely tuned and evolved to hold onto and control their victims, and to spread vertically and horizontally.

      I have never been infected by any religion viruses, but have been much affected by those who were, so understanding the ways they work is valuable to both infected insiders and affected outsiders.

      The reasons these faith viruses first appeared is covered in many books and in some of these Comments, but once the misfiring of evolved tendencies got going in cultures, the power-seeking virus shepherds took over, and look where it has ended up many thousands of years later…. 8-( Mac.

  10. I think this entire discussion, and some of the responses, are innately flawed.

    Religion has no benefits or disadvantages from an evolutionary perspective. It cannot be passed on through genes (and so cannot be selected for or against) and it hasn’t been around long enough to make much of a difference anyway as far as evolution is concerned.

    What we’re really discussing are the underlying neural structures, and in turn behaviors, that ALLOW for religion. These are what evolved, these are what can be selected for or against.

    These are; to err on the side of caution, run when you hear a rustling in the bushes because it ‘could’ be a tiger, to have ‘faith’ in what your peers and elders say because they’ve (in theory) already done the ‘learning’ and simply doing what they say is a shortcut in avoiding dangers, to work together as a coherent group and have power in numbers so the herd as a whole has a better chance of survival, and last but not least, the personification on inanimate forces, because like the tiger in the bushes, it’s better to assume something is out to kill you than to assume it’s benign.

    These traits served our ancestors very well for millions of years and so were selected for time and time again and ingrained deep into our instinctive behaviors. It’s only very recently, the last ten thousand years or so, that we have evolved the mental faculties to make more complex and accurate evaluations of our environment that makes these previously selected for traits somewhat redundant. Religion is merely a byproduct of these incredibly well-established traits, combined with our much newer and weaker ability to make more complex evaluations and come up with more intricate ideas.

    It has taken a lot and will take more time for these newer mental faculties to out-compete the older instincts on a psychological and memetic level, but it will take far, far longer for them to dominate on an evolutionary scale. That is presuming there is a selection against the older redundant instincts, which I wouldn’t hold my breath on. In addition human evolution has taken a very unpredictable turn in light of a worldwide civilization and improved healthcare, and our race is much more likely to be under the influence of somewhat-random genetic drift rather than survival of the fittest.

    In my opinion, we have evolved into a civilization that undermines the vast majority of evolutionary pressures and so we will stagnate as a gene pool. This is probably the peak of our natural evolution, and we can only progress further by taking our own evolution into our own hands, which of course comes with a myriad of ethical concerns. This means that religion will continue to flourish on these outdated and redundant survival instincts indefinitely.

    • In reply to #11 by Seraphor:

      I think this entire discussion, and some of the responses, are innately flawed.

      Religion has no benefits or disadvantages from an evolutionary perspective. It cannot be passed on through genes (and so cannot be selected for or against)

      This is not quite correct. Religion itself cannot be passed on via genes. However, religiosity could well be, and some selectable attributes may correspond more or correspond less with an aspect of a religion (the personality of a deity, for instance). This is not as certain and settled as you indicate.

      • In reply to #17 by PERSON:

        In reply to #11 by Seraphor:

        I think this entire discussion, and some of the responses, are innately flawed.

        Religion has no benefits or disadvantages from an evolutionary perspective. It cannot be passed on through genes (and so cannot be selected for or against)

        This is not quite correct. Relig…

        That’s pretty much what I said. What you call ‘religiosity’ is essentially what I’m referring to with these underlying though processes that enable religious thoughts or ‘prime’ people to believing in nonsense. The right (read ‘wrong’) ideas, external ideas perpetuated by the religious, feed off these instincts and ‘infect’ us with religion. We all have it in varying degrees, but it needs to be overcome or ‘vaccinated’ against on an intellectual level, not a biological one.

        As for the specifics, the ‘personalities’ of deities, these are largely cultural. Religions and fantastical ideas may and do themselves ‘evolve’, but as steve_hopker pointed out, are entirely separate from their hosts, us. What we provide on a neurological level is a fertile breeding ground, we are the fodder for religion, and our fodder is the result of millions of years of evolution, we haven’t evolved this specifically for religion, that was just a “happy” accident. If you’re implying that for the most part Muslims are neurologically suited to accommodate Allah and Christians are neurologically suited to accommodate Christ as a result of human, biological evolution, (with exceptions obviously or I’d say you were mad) we simply haven’t had the time or isolation to allow for a neurological evolution to accommodate specific religions, this is simply the ‘evolution’ of ideas, not human biological evolution.

        It would take at least a dozen generations to facilitate this kind of biological evolution, and that’s under the most extreme survival pressures. Human survival simply isn’t conditional on religion, it isn’t conditional on much in the way of human biological factors at all. People of various faiths reproduce with various other faiths, even in cultures where there is a predominant faith and this faith practice reproducing in great numbers, as they have this monopoly there is no selection process, their offspring are surviving regardless of their ‘religiosity’ and their indoctrination is reliant on intellectual factors, i.e. a lack of adequate education. These people are just as likely to convert to other religions or a lack there-of given the right information or ideas. Without a dire enough selection process and adequate isolation I don’t believe four or even six thousand years is enough to facilitate this kind of change.

  11. Could religion have survived because it’s positive elements have been selected for, such as how an individual benefits from social inclusion and support within a wider group? All the woo and nonsense is just an unfortunate by-poduct hitching a free ride!

  12. @OP – Given that evolution eliminates waste and punishes the smallest extravagances, wouldn’t have evolution selected against ubiquitous religion over tens of thousands of years

    Not if it had compensating economies.

    In many species resources are drawn from others. For example many desert animals get all their water from vegetation or prey.

    Living parasitically on slave species or individuals allows the survival of poorly performing but powerful individuals. An example of this is the genetic diseases such a haemophilia persisting in the royal households of Europe, which lived in wasteful luxury at the expense of starving peasants.

    Religious empires work on a similar hierarchy!

    I think we only have to look as far as a certain German bishop and the Vatican palaces to understand this!

    Manipulative power, and mental servility, can shift the negative selection on to others – until like voracious parasites or diseases, the hosts are killed (rather than simply being impoverished), and the empires collapses. Thousands have been killed in religious or politico-religious wars.

    Rapidly breeding replacement sheeples and proselytising for recruits to assimilate, will compensate for losses.

  13. Like CEOs’ pay, certain things like peacock’s tails, and likely brains, are not subject to efficiency optimisation (resource minimisation akin to Henry Ford’s minimum sufficient quality components mentioned in “The Blind Watchmaker”) but peer selection based on perception. This is because organisms are “selected” on their likelihood of reproducing. That can come through efficiency allowing survival on less resources, but it can also come via accentuation of something that helps survival or makes one more attractive (or in the CEOs’ case, by knowing the “right” people and having the “right” life experience to be chosen for the role over other equally capable people– a system reinforced by desire for prestige, and so perceived social status, something else subject to sexual selection by humans).

  14. Yes, of course religion is a self-perpetuating virus (of the mind). It does nothing for the host. I am a hobby beekeeper. I have to expain to many intelligent but ignorant people the difference between wasps and bees. I explain that bumblebees pollinate flowers, and honeybees both pollinate and produce honey, but wasps do neither of those things. Then some of them ask me, “Well, what good are they?” I patiently tell them, “They don’t do anything for flowers or people. They don’t have to. They are just good for themselves “

    • In reply to #18 by 78rpm:

      Yes, of course religion is a self-perpetuating virus (of the mind). It does nothing for the host. I am a hobby beekeeper. I have to expain to many intelligent but ignorant people the difference between wasps and bees. I explain that bumblebees pollinate flowers, and honeybees both pollinate and pr…

      I find it hard to believe there are intelligent people who don’t know the difference wasps and bees.

    • Wasps make paper.

      People had to get the idea of paper from somewhere. If it was from wasps then having provided this inspiration alone is worth more to humanity than any amount of honey.

      Wasps are also much more intelligent than bees. You can’t outrun them and you can’t hide from them. Fighting to the death is the only option. I’ve been hunted by wasps, and they can be fairly determined adversaries. (But not determined enough, score so far is at least 100 to nil on the ‘fight to the death’ toll.)

      In reply to #18 by 78rpm:

      Yes, of course religion is a self-perpetuating virus (of the mind). It does nothing for the host. I am a hobby beekeeper. I have to expain to many intelligent but ignorant people the difference between wasps and bees. I explain that bumblebees pollinate flowers, and honeybees both pollinate and pr…

  15. wouldn’t have evolution selected against ubiquitous religion over tens of thousands of years if it was a useless, wasteful misfiring error of the brain rather than increasing fitness and being adaptive?

    I think the first point everyone should be clear on is that it is possible to answer that question with a yes and still say that religion is wrong and serves no useful purpose for modern humans. Nature doesn’t always do things in the most optimal way. And even when it does just because something may make sense in nature doesn’t mean that it is consistent with what rational people decide modern morality should be.

    With that in mind I think the answer to the question is a qualified yes. The alternative view is that religion is one big meme virus — something that human brains are genetically susceptible to but that has never served a purpose at all. I think the evidence points to the first conclusion, that religion did serve some purpose for early humans.

    The most obvious is the reinforcement of social norms. Things like reciprocal altruism and kin selection can explain a lot but there are still aspects of human morality that can’t be explained that way. There are times where you can look at a game theory analysis and say “now if there were some mechanism to reward cooperators and punish cheaters then…” I think that is one way to look at religion. It establishes social norms that try to push us beyond what our genetic predisposition to altruism (to just kin or those that can benefit us) further toward being generally altruistic for the whole tribe.

    And I think that is the second, perhaps most important role religion performed for early humans. It helped them sort people into the good and bad people. The good people can be trusted, should be treated with altruism, etc. The bad people (those in the other tribe who don’t have the same religion) can not be trusted, can be exploited, killed, raped, and turned into slaves. For our ancestors that was probably a crucial aspect to how we went from just another species to being the alpha species of the planet, by forming tribes that worked together and religion probably provided a key part of the cognitive and social glue that helped tribes form and remain stable.

    • In reply to #20 by Red Dog:

      I think the evidence points to the conclusion, that religion did serve some purpose for early humans.

      I must disagree, mostly. The key feature of humanity is the aptitude for technology that we call “intelligence”. It is the aptitude to learn from and teach each other, as well as the ability to discover new facts and invent new techniques. Rote learning, rhyme and ritual are error-correction mechanisms that maintain the integrity of the teaching, down the generations. That would be the role and purpose of “religion”, in that the population benefits from respecting and following the teachings of the experts, who would mostly be the ones who have proved themselves by living long, and the younger ones that they mentor.

      Before the invention of writing, the oral tradition passed by the Elders would have contained the community’s entire body of scientific knowledge. Rhyme and ritual would have saved it from error, but also new innovations could be adopted and added to the body of knowledge. In other words, the elders, priests, teachers, shamans, whatever you call them, they were the scientists and technologists.

      The religion virus, or meme-parasite, is based on injecting some successful lies into the mix. Partly it could be a failure of the error-correction, in which a metaphor or story gets taken at face value (such as personifying the night sky to pass on astronomical knowledge, and finding that the none-too-attentive students remember only the made-up stories about gods, and forget the important stuff, like how to tell when exactly it is midwinter). It could also have been shepherded along by those who stood to gain, and I’d pick especially the ones who weren’t quite up to the challenges of the actual science (e.g. astronomy) but were better at bullying and bullshitting.

      The main beneficial function of the oral/religious tradition would have been the teaching and application of practical science and technology, and I’d include here some proto-social sciences about how to get along with each other.

      The divergence between religion as a parasite, for its own sake, and beneficial teaching and preservation of scientific knowledge, that came with the technology of writing. Once stuff got written down, it would be a lot harder to continue with the (very natural) scientific method, discovering things that contradict the old writings. That would not have been a problem with oral traditions, as these would not have been so immutable.

      After writing, it is easy to imagine the religion side fixing on The Book, the immutable word etc, in opposition to what had been a growing body of scientific knowledge. That is the point I nominate for the serious beginnings of the dangerous debilitating parasite we know as religion.

      Which brings us up to date. When the religious folk say that “science is just another religion”, they are once again getting it backwards. Religion is a failed, stalled, frozen relic of a poorly preserved record of science as it once was. I can then say that “religion is a failed version of science”.

      Concluding my disagreement with Red Dog: No, I don’t think religion (as opposed to scientific teaching) EVER served some purpose for anyone (other than the self-serving priest classes, the parasite-herders).

  16. The question does not extend to a wide enough historical timeframe. I think a better way of looking at the religion meme is “why (evolutionarily) did it arise? Then, how did it (evolutionarily) persist? And now, why is it going away? It is vestigial at this point.

    We could use exaptation, adaptive radiation, mutation, selection, survival, and ultimately the idea of vestigial organs in our discussion.

    We could start with the first freeloader who realized that claiming that stupid people had to please the orange thing in the sky and that the freeloader could determine what was pleasing to the orange thing in the sky and what was not pleasing. The freeloader figured out how to get a percentage of the crops and kills without doing anything to earn that percentage. Then we could extend to the clever power grabs and strategic keeping the followers pregnant and uneducated that allowed the meme to get a foothold and exist for a while. Then the growth and schisms and utility that it served the masses through much of recorded history, some religions dying out, some gaining popularity. And, now, a full return to many people realizing that the sun is the god in the sky and worshipping it or anything else is ridiculous and a time drain. Soon, extinction will be the theme.

    Look to current teenagers to see what will be the norm 40 years from now. BYE BYE religion.

    So, evolution DOES eliminate waste and punish small extravagances (but not all small extravagances) and, you are currently watching the process as it chugs along and wipes religion out.

  17. One more thing about my last point. If I am right about religion helping people divide into tribes it is one of the most ironic things IMO about the most extreme atheists who comment here. I’m referring to the people I sometimes call the Dawkiban, those who view religion as the ultimate test of a human’s worth, who view all religious people as immoral, stupid, and/or mentally ill. To me the terribly ironic thing about the Dawkiban is that they are actually still being religious. They still want to view religion as the ultimate test of whether people are in the tribe or out of the tribe. It’s just for them it is no longer a question of whether you believe in the trinity or in Allah but for them the test is do you not believe and only those who don’t are part of the in group.

    IMO, a proper understanding of religion says that it’s just not that important any more. It’s not even important enough for me to bother insulting and mocking people just because they aren’t religious. That is why I don’t want to be a Dawkiban, I don’t want a new religion based on atheism, I want to get beyond the whole notion that we divide the human race up into deserving people and evil people, I think that is one of the worst aspects of religion and it’s ironic that some atheists still want to cling to it.

    • In reply to #24 by Red Dog:

      One more thing about my last point. If I am right about religion helping people divide into tribes it is one of the most ironic things IMO about the most extreme atheists who comment here. I’m referring to the people I sometimes call the Dawkiban, those who view religion as the ultimate test of a hu…

      I get where you’re coming from, a religion based around atheism certainly would be the epitome of irony and entirely contradictory.

      However there’s a bit of a paradox here. If you claim (and I agree it would be the best possible outcome) that our next stage of social progression should be viewing religion as unimportant and inconsequential then that’s never going to happen, because only the irreligious see religion as unimportant. This does nothing to deter people who think religion SHOULD matter and carry on believing in faeries and insisting that you do too. It’s the whole being ‘tolerant of intolerance’ thing,

      I agree that religion shouldn’t matter, but the sad fact is that religion DOES matter to the religious, and as long as it matters to them they will perpetuate it and it will always matter.

      You cannot abolish intolerance without being intolerant of intolerance, and you cannot live in a world where religion doesn’t matter if religion matters and is allowed to proliferate. If you want to live in a world where religion doesn’t matter, you have to make the world irreligious.

      I’m not saying a hard line has to be drawn here, I have no disrespect for religious individuals for the most part. I’m simply pointing out the unavoidable paradox, that even the stance of religion as being inconsequential is untenable and is an exercise in narcissistic self righteousness, like the ‘hard’ agnostics, ten feet up the fence with a foot on both sides.

      • In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

        If you claim (and I agree it would be the best possible outcome) that our next stage of social progression should be viewing religion as unimportant and inconsequential then that’s never going to happen, because only the irreligious see religion as unimportant. This does nothing to deter people who think religion SHOULD matter and carry on believing in faeries and insisting that you do too. It’s the whole being ‘tolerant of intolerance’ thing,

        I agree that saying religion isn’t important isn’t going to change the minds of some people. But I certainly don’t think that mocking those people and calling them stupid or mentally ill will change their minds either. In fact when people do that they are actually playing right into the hands of the worst religious fundamentalists. Because those fundamentalists can say “ah ha see, atheism is just another thing people take on faith, they get as emotional and irrational about it as we do!”

        There are some people who are going to be almost impervious to any kind of argument, whether rational or otherwise. I can understand (and have given into many times myself) the desire to mock such people but my point is don’t think that by doing so you are serving any great cause. You are just venting your spleen and in doing so you are succumbing to the same negative qualities of religion that made it such a powerful meme in the first place.

        As for “being tolerant to intolerance” you are arguing that atheists have the right to be intolerant because theists are intolerant. That is the kind of argument a child makes to rationalize their bad behavior. It’s also similar to the arguments that black militants or radical feminists make (mostly used to make, for the most part those movements have grown up). Malcolm X saying all white people are devils.

        I even saw the argument when my daughter was studying to be an ASL interpreter. In the Deaf community there are people who almost preach separation from the evil hearing world. For example, they object to cochlear implants because they think being deaf is a good thing.

        By definition intolerance — judging someone based on some preconceived notion rather than on their actual behavior — is wrong. When you are advocating intolerance you are saying I should automatically hate, or have no respect for, or mock some person just because they are a theist. That person could be beautiful, creative, and very kind but if they are a theist according to the Dawkiban they are evil and it’s OK to say that because look at all the intolerant things that theists do to atheists. It’s just religious fundamentalism all over again only in this case the in group are the people whose religious choice is no religion.

        I take these arguments rather personally because — actually I heard Dawkins say this in his interview with Jon Stewart as well and I think he was serious and so am I — some of my best friends are theists.

        • In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

          By definition intolerance — judging someone based on some preconceived notion rather than on their actual behavior — is wrong.

          Red Dog,

          In my opinion the above definition you give for intolerance is flawed, and it is this that led you to (I believe) wildly misconstrue Seraphor’s meaning in post #25.

          Intolerance, properly definied, is an unwillingness to accept an opposing view or behavior. While it is a hard-line and unyielding stance, the connotation does not have to be negative. Contrary to what your definition suggests, intolerance does not require preconceptions based upon stereotypes. Rather, one can be intolerant toward an idea based on the merits of that idea.

          An intolerance of religious intolerance, therefore, as Seraphor was arguing for in his post, means to not put up with religious people’s complete aversion to rationality on so many issues. To tolerate their intransigence is felt by many as being complicit in allowing unreasonableness to win the day, fomenting the further spread of superstition.

          You, as I, condemn those among our ranks who direct their ire toward the believers themselves rather than the outmoded beliefs they prescribe to, but let us never hinder our own efforts of curtailing religious influence by being so overly worried about causing offense that we forgo even one opportunity to admonish religion’s injurious effects.

      • In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

        You cannot abolish intolerance without being intolerant of intolerance, and you cannot live in a world where religion doesn’t matter if religion matters and is allowed to proliferate. If you want to live in a world where religion doesn’t matter, you have to make the world irreligious.

        You can criticize religion without being “intolerant”. To me intolerant means you judge a person by some aspect of their life rather than on their behavior. So saying that a black man can’t be trusted or that a woman can’t do a certain job or that a theist is by definition mentally ill, all those things are intolerant.

        By no means am I saying that atheists need to be afraid to speak out for fear of hurting the feelings of theists. I’m just saying we should not be adopting the worst examples of theist behavior and that we can’t rationalize intolerance just because the other side did it first and does it more.

        • In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

          You cannot abolish intolerance without being intolerant of intolerance, and you cannot live in a world where religion doesn’t matter if religion matters and is allowed to proliferate. If you want to live in a world where religion doesn’t matter, you have to make the wor…

          “As for “being tolerant to intolerance” you are arguing that atheists have the right to be intolerant because theists are intolerant.”

          I think you’ve misunderstood me here.

          I’m not saying anyone has a right or should be intolerant to anyone else. I’m drawing a parallel with other social equality movements.
          For example, how do you prevent people being racist? Racist acts demand some form of reprisal, but this reprisal is often seen as a form of intolerance, intolerance against their perceived right to express racist views. You don’t go around provoking racist people and mocking them for their views, but you can’t allow them to continue being racist either.

          Ergo, the eradication of intolerance requires intolerance of intolerance. We cannot tolerate people to continue being intolerant.

          Likewise, if you want to live in a secular society in which religion is seen as irrelevant, then you need to have some form of reprisal for the expression of views to the contrary of that, which will undoubtedly be viewed as intolerance against religion.
          I agree that religious people should not be mocked, they’re people too, who only differ from us in one aspect, and therefore it is not religious people who are the problem, it is the notion of religion.

          As Dawkins himself also advocates, people should not be targets, but ideas should be criticized for all they’re worth. Religion is not a group of people, it is an idea, like racism or homophobia, and it’s more vicious and damaging aspects shouldn’t be tolerated.

          • In reply to #30 by Seraphor:

            In reply to #28 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

            You cannot abolish intolerance without being intolerant of intolerance, and you cannot live in a world where religion doesn’t matter if religion matters and is allowed to proliferate. If you want to live in a world where religion doesn’t mat…

            If you mean to say that at times theists will view an atheist expressing their opinion as intolerant and unjustly criticize us and that we shouldn’t let such fears deter us I agree.

            But that wasn’t what I was criticizing in the first place. I was criticizing the people that I see comment fairly regularly here with comments that I think actually are intolerant. Comments that say all religious people are mentally ill. Or that when you find a bible in a hotel room you should deface it or throw it in the trash. Or for example a commenter who said that Neil deGrasse Tyson was the equivalent of a holocaust denier because he said that creationists had constitutional rights to free speech. Several times in the last month I’ve seen people essentially advocate totalitarianism and fascism toward theists, that the government should just prohibit creationists from even publishing books or web sites because of the harm that their ideas cause.

            That is what I mean by intolerance and I don’t agree that that kind of behavior is in any way constructive toward anything. It’s just atheists being intolerant back to theists because it is emotionally gratifying to them.

  18. “Given that evolution eliminates waste and punishes the smallest extravagances”

    Given the O.P.’s above quote, I’d like to welcome him to RDFRS, a place where brains don’t misfire, and strong willed clever people, or unindoctrinated clever people repeatedly dispute the need for wizardry or religion.

    The final paragraph of OP’s post slides this one into the “too easy” bracket as ‘adaptive’ is used in a positive referral to religion. Any of the regular, thinking members of RDFRS will see ‘adaptive’ as merely religion’s pathetic stalking of 2013.

    Given that religious people have been too lazy or brainwashed to read about reality for thousands of years, how hard need we spank their minds to enable them to throw “what mum said” in the bin and earn planetary citizenship?

  19. Religion might be a side effect of our brains ability to discover patterns. Discovering a pattern in events is very useful as it allows one to predict the future to some extent. Good for catching animals and knowing when to start looking for fruits on trees. As a side effect the brain may also see patterns where there are none, and seeing “cause and effect” relationships that do not exist in reality.

  20. Several responders have stated what is a popular explanation of religion, which is that it’s a byproduct of other cognitive or adaptive features. Define what a byproduct is and give me some examples of byproducts in non-human animals, assuming a byproduct is based on biological science. And try to do better than the panda’s thumb or other Stephen J. Gould panglossian paradigms.

    • What’s panda’s thumb?

      For religion as a byproduct the idea of a byproduct comes from economics rather than biology, being something that has value (i.e. a ‘good’ rather than a ‘bad’) but which is not a negative or positive externality. This means that it is the property of the producer and has some kind of value, despite not being the intentional focus of economic activity.

      Generally any product is a good. Reason being that it takes energy and knowledge and time to create. i.e. consumes resources, even time being a precious and finite resource. It doesn’t make sense that systems would arise that would deliberately produce a bad. Religion is unlikely to be a ‘bad’ in the economic sense, because seriously bad byproducts would need to be outweighed by very seriously good primary products to prevent adverse selection. And evolution tends to work gradually with very minor changes and enhancements, and with minor detriments being naturally selected against. It may be too great an evolutionary step for something that’s very bad (or very good) to feasibly occur, yet still be passed on to subsequent generations and become established in the genome.

      I have no idea what might be a byproduct in non-human animals. Products in the sense of goods and bads are only relevant to trade and for externalities. Concepts which hare only relevant in communities of intelligent social organisms possessing human-like qualities of cooperation and division of labour etc.

      How religion might be a byproduct in humans is via the prolonged childhood and lifespan (potential that is) of humans. Which makes child-rearing, prolonged parenting, and grand-parenting as significant factor. Humans are genetically programmed to unquestionably accept information as valid when it’s presented by perceived credible authorities (combined with conditions of anxiety and uncertainty). Religious institutions conform in every respect to precisely those factors that trigger acute credibility in human children (e.g. impressive rituals and robes, symbols of torture and suffering, social proof, fear of hellfire and brimstone). The purpose being not so much to rely on triggering credibility to enable rapid and reliable transfer of important cultural information between generations, including skipping multiple generations via grand-parents and great grand-parents, but to trigger credibility purely in order to maintain the existence of the meme. i.e. memes that incorporate mechanisms to further their own existence tend to propagate and survive. Memes that don’t do this aren’t around for very long. Religion is ‘parasitical’ in that sense, and obviously depend on kids also unquestioningly accepting actual useful information along with the religious memes. E.g. Don’t lick your knife, look both ways before crossing the road, wash hands after toilet , say your prayers, etc.. But like most parasites, there is an evolutionary tendency to symbiotic relationships. So it is difficult to determine where any particular aspect of religion sits on the scale of parasitic to symbiotic.

      Religion may help to offset a morbidly depressing fear of death so may be extremely valuable psychologically for some people who might otherwise succumb to pointlessness and depression, and who lack the ability or knowledge to find a real sense of wonder and purpose in the natural world. Possibly this effect might be duplicated by pharmaceuticals. So in this sense it may be possible one day to find a cure for religion. But for now religion remains the cure for science. Because awareness of reality really can be depressing for some people. Best to plug them back into the matrix for now.

      In reply to #32 by mitch:

      Several responders have stated what is a popular explanation of religion, which is that it’s a byproduct of other cognitive or adaptive features. Define what a byproduct is and give me some examples of byproducts in non-human animals, assuming a byproduct is based on biological science. And try to d…

      • In reply to #55 by Pete H:

        What’s panda’s thumb?

        A book by Stephen J. Gould.

        For religion as a byproduct the idea of a byproduct comes from economics rather than biology.

        Exactly. The concept of a biological byproduct comes primarily from a paper by Gould and Lewontin called the Spandrels of San Marcos, which describes an architectural feature–spandrels–as the example of a byproduct. They then try to leverage this to biology, which they do with the most disingenuous and poorly supported logic. Byproducts may exist in many facets of our experience, but it doesn’t exist in a meaningful way in biology.

        I have no idea what might be a byproduct in non-human animals.

        That’s because biological byproduct is a contrived concept to account for human-specific phenomena like art and religion. Any time you have a biological formulation that is relevant to only one species, any critical thinker should be extremely suspicious. Yes, I’m talking about all you chest-thumping, pseudo-scientist, self-described rational thinkers. Put on your critical thinking caps and tell me what a biological byproduct is before you claim that religion is a byproduct. What’s absolutely amazing is that many reputable scientists have blithely adopted byproduct thinking for which there is virtually no definition and evidence in the rest of biology. C’mon folks, I know you can come up with some examples of non-human byproducts.

        • In reply to #62 by mitch:

          In reply to #55 by Pete H:

          What’s panda’s thumb?

          A book by Stephen J. Gould.

          For religion as a byproduct the idea of a byproduct comes from economics rather than biology.

          Exactly. The concept of a biological byproduct comes primarily from a paper by Gould and Lewontin called the Spandrels of San…

          Robert Kurzban in his book Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite used Gould as an example of how people can selectively ignore information that is blindingly obvious:

          “Stephen Jay Gould was an absolute master of this sort of thing. Anyone who read him could not doubt his intelligence . With his pen he wove tapestries of linguistic elegance of such texture and subtlety that the rest of us could only admire from afar, awash in despair , frowning in contemplation of the distant inferiority of our own works.

          Gould’s mind was, no doubt, a sharp one and, whenever he comes to mind , I can’t help but pack my sentences with metaphor. But he was strategically wrong in truly spectacular fashion. Gould, with Richard Lewontin, wrote a heavily cited paper published in 1979 in which they argued that natural selection resulted in not just adaptations— the complex organized functional parts of organisms— but also by-products, the side effects of adaptations. So, for example, belly buttons aren’t adaptations— they have no function—they’re side effects of umbilical cords, which do have functions. Using an architectural metaphor , Gould and Lewontin referred to by-products as “spandrels,” which are the triangle-shaped spaces where arches meet one another on the ceiling.

          To me they seem sort of like an arch’s armpit. Gould and Lewontin’s point was to illustrate that things with functions have nonfunctional parts. Gould continued to pound the table about this for decades . He wrote piece after piece insisting that biologists recognize that evolution leads to not just adaptations, but also by-products. As Gould became aware of my field , he insisted that we, too, acknowledge by-products, writing that one of our problems was “a failure to recognize that even the strictest operation of pure natural selection builds organisms full of nonadaptive parts and behaviors.” 71

          That’s all well and good, except that evolutionary psychologists already believed what Gould was trying to “persuade” them about. My favorite piece of evidence on this— and there are so many to chose from— is from a chapter by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, two of the main targets of Gould’s pen, who wrote , eight years before Gould’s chapter appeared, “In addition to adaptations, the evolutionary process commonly produces two other outcomes visible in the designs of organisms: (1) concomitants or byproducts of adaptations (recently nicknamed “spandrels”; Gould & Lewontin 1979); and (2) random effects.” 72 Not only is it clear that they think that there are by-products , but they cite Gould and Lewontin’spaper and even use their metaphorical term. 73

          I think it’s not that unlikely that Gould selectively read or skimmed the sources he was critiquing— I’m sure he was a busy guy—and the press secretary in his brain maintained a representation of the ignorance of his interlocutors that was “justified” by the limited information it received. He remained strategically wrong, and his reputation in the public never really seemed to suffer.”

          Kurzban, Robert (2011-01-03). Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (p. 124). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

        • Maybe byproducts, things with value to the animals that have them rather than just being waste products, are mostly mental phenomena.
          So you’d mostly find them in humans, where there’s more scope.

          Possibly similar effects happen in the minds of animals where intergenerational knowledge is transferred directly between minds. So you might find byproducts as features of mind that become active in immature animals but which wouldn’t be relevant to adults. Their presence in the mind of an adult is a waste product of that feature. It becomes a byproduct only when it acquires some adaptive value, possibly in response to environmental change.

          Maybe playfulness in adult mammals is a byproduct of juvenile minds that originally existed to facilitate learning from parents and others. Possibly becoming valuable to individuals in those species when selected for as humans began to domesticate various wild animals.

          I’ve heard that adult domestic cats will respond like kittens when clutched behind the neck, in the same as when a mother cat carries a kitten in its jaws. It may have made wild kittens easier for people to catch, eventually leading to the present day domestication of people by cats.

          The byproducts of domestication being the survival of some megafuana species while many others have become extinct.
          A byproduct of some animals having tasty and nutritious flesh being that their predator species likes to keep more of them around.

          In reply to #62 by mitch:

          In reply to #55 by Pete H:

          What’s panda’s thumb?

          A book by Stephen J. Gould.

          For religion as a byproduct the idea of a byproduct comes from economics rather than biology.

          Exactly. The concept of a biological byproduct comes primarily from a paper by Gould and Lewontin called the Spandrels of San…

  21. Religion is a con man figuring out how to fleece people and get a free ride for doing nothing. It arose because enough early folks were smart enough to employ it and enough were dumb enough to fall for it.

    This simple explanation explains a lot about religion, including why it vehemently opposes change and education (education outside the religion) and why many call for your death if you want to walk away (inner city gangs do the same thing). Keep the women pregnant and the men stupid. Say the mass in latin so that it is mysterious. Talk in tongues. Snake charm. Etc…etc…etc…..

    What if you could sell water and claim it had all sorts of mystical properties? What if you could claim that water had memory? Homeopathy has followed the same pattern as religion. Suckers who don’t know better getting taken in by people who are in it for profit.

    As a brief aside, Couldn’t the pope just bless all the water on the planet at once? WTF is Holy Water anyway?

  22. I guess I can be accused of cognitive dissonance in agreeing with Red Dog, Seaphor and Crookedshoes simultaneously. I don’t see the points as being mutually exclusive at all. I think it’s possible to be opposed to the scoundrels and charlatans, and the purveyors of fear and judgement without hating decent people trying to live their life to the best of their ability.

  23. Is natural selection really at work in the human race the past few thousand years?

    Perhaps religion just happened to rise when humans made advancements in agriculture, tools, etc. With these advancements, humans had an increasing population size which afforded ‘extravagances’.

      • In reply to #38 by mitch:

        In reply to #35 by The Jersey Devil:

        Is natural selection really at work in the human race the past few thousand years?

        Evolution doesn’t sleep. What you’re really asking is if the rate of change in gene frequencies is slowing in recent human populations. The answer is most likely no.

        Hi Mitch. In your link it refers to the past “10 to 20,000 years”, but particularly in the last 1000 years culture, agriculture, technology and medicine have greatly affected the ‘natural selection’ part of evolution, so I think that evolution by natural selection has been bypassed in big ways, since less fit humans have been ‘unnaturally’ kept alive long enough to reproduce by social systems assisting them all along the way, plus assisting their less fit offspring. There are a lot of genetically unfit humans thriving in societies that would otherwise have been unable to survive ‘naturally’ …. Mac.

        • In reply to #42 by CdnMacAtheist:

          In reply to #38 by mitch:

          … since less fit humans have been ‘unnaturally’ kept alive long enough to reproduce by social systems assisting them …

          What definition are you using for “fit” in your comment?

          • In reply to #43 by Quine:

            In reply to #42 by CdnMacAtheist:

            In reply to #38 by mitch:

            … since less fit humans have been ‘unnaturally’ kept alive long enough to reproduce by social systems assisting them …

            What definition are you using for “fit” in your comment?

            Hi Quine. I’m sure you’ll take me to task for my use of ‘less fit’, but as a non-biologist I meant that genetic mutations or combinations that in ‘natural’ circumstances would tend to make their vehicle less likely to survive past reproduction to successful parenting. My point is that culture, science, medicine and technology have enabled more of those genetic vehicles to survive and reproduce, thereby bypassing ‘natural selection’…. Mac.

          • In reply to #44 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi Quine. I’m sure you’ll t…

            I suspect you know it is a “hot” button in many public discussions of the Theory of Evolution, because the public takes it as short for something like “fit for battle” whereas in biology it is about fitting into an ecological niche (really, what is “fit” is whatever works, i.e. propagating descendants). The term Natural Selection was picked to contrast with artificial breeding programs that Darwin could show to produce physical changes over generations. But the selection that happens in a social living group of animals is still Natural Selection even when they are doing it based on special behaviors. The same was true of our ancestors, and you will be hard pressed to find a point where the selection stops being “natural” just because human society is shaping the niches (except rare cases when people owned other people and did force artificial selection). At some point we may start artificially selecting what genes we want to pass on. In some cases, some people do get genetic counseling re dangerous genes that some do not want to pass on. However, for the most part I would say that Natural Selection is still going strong, but that is because I don’t consider the way humans live together as predominately artificial, yet.

          • In reply to #45 by Quine:

            In reply to #44 by CdnMacAtheist:
            However, for the most part I would say that Natural Selection is still going strong, but that is because I don’t consider the way humans live together as predominately artificial, yet.

            Hi again. Take for example, eyesight, which is artificially enhanced in several ways by science and technology. My eyes degraded such that I had thick, ugly glasses from 20 years of age, and finding a mate was made less likely. Later the technology got better and much thinner, better-looking glasses helped me find a mate and have a son. I now have cool, lightweight, titanium, self-darkening, gradient trifocals…. 8-)

            In my career I needed very good vision, so without these artificial enhancements I wouldn’t have been able to support myself or a family, despite previously completing 5 years of specialized training and education.

            Without glasses I could not survive at all in the wild, and even in a kin group I’d be useless, so ‘natural selection’ would have seen me die without or before procreating. Look at all the humans that need glasses or eyesight correction at young ages and tell me that isn’t artificial….

            The same can be said for many diseases and serious illnesses that we can treat or operate on. I consider these things to be ‘cultural evolution’ rather than ‘natural evolution’. The gene mutations or combinations that generated these ‘less fit’ vehicles are being passed on rather than dying out, and the gene pool pool is being degraded.

            So, evolution by natural selection may still be taking place, but it isn’t improving fitness as much as it should… Mac.

          • In reply to #47 by CdnMacAtheist:

            evolution by natural selection may still be taking place, but it isn’t improving fitness as much as it should

            I think you have a mistaken view of what is “natural”. A termite without his airconditioned termite mound with basement fungus garden would not be “fit” to survive in the wild. The mound is part of the extended phenotyope of that kind of termite, and forms the most important part of its environment.

            Similarly, beaver dams, or human cities, with their flyovers and optometrists and all the rest of it, these are the natural habitat of a good chunk of humanity. The ones fit to survive in these circumstances are the ones who have offspring that survive. There is no other definition of “fit” in evolutionary terms. And if the ones who eat poorly, exercise seldom, get fat and have heart attacks at 50 are still breeding healthy-enough offspring, well, that’s what it means to be “fit enough”.

            Of course such modern humans would be hard put to survive in “the wild”, say somewhere in the middle of a rainforest, or in the Kalahari.

            And if circumstances change such that those are the most valuable survival skills, well, humanity may live on but hardly any descended from the current crop of successful westerners.

          • In reply to #49 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #47 by CdnMacAtheist:

            evolution by natural selection may still be taking place, but it isn’t improving fitness as much as it should

            I think you have a mistaken view of what is “natural”. A termite without his air-conditioned termite mound with basement fungus garden would not be “fit” to survive in the wild. The mound is part of the extended phenotype of that kind of termite, and forms the most important part of its environment. Similarly, beaver dams, or human cities, with their flyovers and optometrists and all the rest of it, these are the natural habitat of a good chunk of humanity.

            Hi OHooligan. I think the main difference for me is that in the case of termites and beaver dams, their extended phenotypes are evolved, non-directed, non-designed systems, and in the case of termites is a symbiotic relationship, developed over evolutionary time-scales.

            I don’t think that is the case for directed, designed tools and systems invented by human intelligence, like cities or eyeglasses, or deliberately modifying our genes or gene vehicles.

            The ones fit to survive in these circumstances are the ones who have offspring that survive. There is no other definition of “fit” in evolutionary terms. And if the ones who eat poorly, exercise seldom, get fat and have heart attacks at 50 are still breeding healthy-enough offspring, well, that’s what it means to be “fit enough”.

            True, but if the person takes medicine for diabetes, has a hole in the heart operation, is medicated to recover from some disease, or has gene therapy to resist a virus, then to me those aren’t subject to evolution by natural selection over the necessary time scales, which would normally cause those gene vehicles to die and leave zero or fewer offspring, whereas the folk assisted by invented tools can and do procreate, and pass on their ‘less fit’ genes into the gene pool for possible selection, over very short time scales that evolution by natural selection cannot really affect….

            Of course such modern humans would be hard put to survive in “the wild”, say somewhere in the middle of a rain forest, or in the Kalahari. And if circumstances change such that those are the most valuable survival skills, well, humanity may live on but hardly any descended from the current crop of successful westerners.

            I think that if somehow the world reverted to nature conditions of maybe 100,000 years ago, then there would be very few humans capable of surviving physically, mentally, or genetically…. Mac.

          • In reply to #50 by CdnMacAtheist:

            I don’t think that is the case for directed, designed tools and systems invented by human intelligence, like cities or eyeglasses

            Hi C’Mc’A, interesting discussion this one, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.

            I do understand your point about the “artificial” preservation of gene vehicles that should in the ordinary sense be expected to crash and burn long before they could reproduce. I’d have been crippled at 25 but for a clever knee operation, to cite just one example. And living with fresh filtered and/or chlorinated water no doubt makes us less able to cope with the kind of open sewers that pass for water supplies in much of the third world.

            It’s just that I disagree about the notion of “artificial”. Nothing we do is artificial in the sense of being “unnatural”. It’s a kind of species-centric arrogance that makes us think we are outside – and usually above – nature. Atomic bombs, mars rovers and the LHC are natural products of earth life, as surely as beaver dams and termite architecture. Products of our special kind of brain, intelligent and imaginative and able to communicate in complex abstractions, are nonetheless natural products, part of our species’ extended phenotype. Even if it comes to reaching in and actually editing our own DNA. Whether these products-of-the-mind will turn out to be long-term beneficial is by no means certain. I do hope we’re smart enough to choose to survive.

            One further thought, meandering off topic: the future of humans seems entirely bound up with our artificial manipulations of our environment. I’m thinking off-earth completely artificial habitats, whether on the moon, mars, asteroids or orbital colonies. Once there are humans who can’t return to earth, that would be the beginnings of a new species, I suppose. Evolution will continue anyway.

          • In reply to #53 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #50 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Hi C’Mc’A, interesting discussion this one, I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am. It’s just that I disagree about the notion of “artificial”. Nothing we do is artificial in the sense of being “unnatural”.

            Yes OHooligan, I’m having fun as usual, despite some folk here making me think real hard, and giving me brain strain, eh…. 8-) This natural vs artificial thing is difficult to sort out, maybe I could use evolved vs manufactured instead? Mac.

          • In reply to #57 by CdnMacAtheist:

            This natural vs artificial thing is difficult to sort out, maybe I could use evolved vs manufactured instead? Mac.

            The terminology doesn’t matter. Essential point from me is that it’s ALL natural, and evolved, including our extended phenotypes of manufactured stuff. We’re quite used to making the distinction, “man-made” vs “natural”, but in the Big Picture, “man-made” is a subset of “natural”. In many areas “man-made” has a long way to go to catch up with “non-human-natural”, such as animal fibres vs manufactured petroleum based fibres, and in other areas “man-made” has boldly gone where nothing else from earth has gone before.

          • In reply to #53 by OHooligan:

            It’s just that I disagree about the notion of “artificial”. Nothing we do is artificial in the sense of being “unnatural”. It’s a kind of species-centric arrogance that makes us think we are outside – and usually above – nature.

            I think I agree with where you are going with that, but the terminology can be difficult. The word “artificial” litterally means “man made.” On a bigger level, humans are a product of Nature that evolved by Natural Selection, so in that sense everything we do or make is too. The question that came up in this thread is about the action of Natural Selection in humans today, which I hold is mostly still going on because NS works within any given environment (where genes have differential probability for propagation). So, even if you make a completely artificial environment, NS will happen if you have not taken intentional control of breeding (i.e. as happens in, say, farming) or gene manipulation. Our environment, today, is what’s left of the natural world plus all our culture (memes) and our machines and pollution and each other. Natural Selection is still happening, in that not so natural environment.

          • In reply to #68 by Quine:

            The word “artificial” litterally means “man made.”

            My apologies for failing to check the definition. Slack of me. Thanks for the correction.

          • I don’t know if there’s much research on this topic of eyesight.

            I’m intrigued by the Sydney Centre for Vision Research’s work with child nutrition and the impact on retinal vascular dimensions for predicting future heart disease. This is something which can be easily photographed and automatically analysed by software and the used to effectively predict whether any particular child will experience a heart attack later in life. At present I believe this technique is extremely reliable in predicting future cardio vascular health outcomes in adults. Time will tell if this is also effective for kids – need to wait until some of them get old enough to die of heart attacks – hopefully some will be dying off around age 35 (in about 15 years time – so not long to wait for confirmation). Basically the correlation is with dietary sugar and carbohydrate consumption.

            I have had myopia and astigmatism since mid to late teens. So I’m interested in the claim that modern technology such as optometry and dentistry make such a huge difference to our quality of life. I’d be a major beneficiary. I’ve always thought that it’s a bit of a bummer that I’d have been ‘naturally selected’ out of Darwinian reproductive contention fairly early on in the Pleistocene. Luckily for me I’m alive now instead of back then.

            From what I’ve learned recently there just isn’t much real study on this stuff. There is evidence that most prehistoric human remains don’t exhibit significant dental problems – though this has been ‘explained’ as a consequence of the average prehistoric human lifespan being extremely nasty, brutish, and short. Our ancestors with bad eyesight wouldn’t have even had a look in.

            It is possible that modern nutrition fashions are the underlying cause of problems with eyesight, and other strange stuff including dental caries, damaged knee cartilage, arthritis, and various kinds of backache, all being related consequences. Stresses like reading too much in dim light, and getting too much exercise or sedentary inactivity are the cause of hip replacements, osteoporosis, cataracts etc. But it may be nutritional factors that create the susceptibility to these problems.

            It is possible that this stuff like bad eyesight has nothing whatsoever to do with genetics. Some people might be a little more genetically susceptible than others, but if you remove the underlying cause then the detrimental outcomes disappear for pretty much everyone. The genetic factors being pretty marginal for most people. So I don’t think bad eyesight, say as occurs at a much higher incidence in Singapore, is really an evolutionary issue.

            In reply to #47 by CdnMacAtheist:

            In reply to #45 by Quine:

            In reply to #44 by CdnMacAtheist:
            However, for the most part I would say that Natural Selection is still going strong, but that is because I don’t consider the way humans live together as predominately artificial, yet.

            Hi again. Take for example, eyesight, which is artif…

          • In reply to #47 by CdnMacAtheist:

            Without glasses I could not survive at all in the wild, and even in a kin group I’d be useless, so ‘natural selection’ would have seen me die without or before procreating.

            If your position is that Natural Selection, today, is not selecting for all the same traits that it did in our species 200k years ago, then you can make a case. However, that does not mean that Natural Selection is not still selecting for what works today. Also, a great deal of NS is going on at the cell biochemistry level that you would never notice, but does impact such things as the resistance to chemicals in the environment, especially in the very complex and sensitive early development stages that determine if one gets started at all.

            Again, please remember that “fitness” has a special and specific definition in the field of gene frequency distribution in a population.

        • In reply to #42 by CdnMacAtheist:

          in the last 1000 years culture, agriculture, technology and medicine have greatly affected the ‘natural selection’ part of evolution, so I think that evolution by natural selection has been bypassed in big ways

          You are correct, sir. Some people with deleterious genes are living to reproduce who wouldn’t have without modern medical interventions. That, however, doesn’t mean that natural selection isn’t taking place. Some examples are the genes responsible for sickle-cell anemia that provide resistance to malaria and the CCR5 gene, delta 32 that is believed to provide resistance to bubonic plague and perhaps even to HIV. The gene frequency of the CCR5 delta 32 allele increased dramatically in Europe in the Middle Ages because people without it died from plague.

  24. Take religion back to its core and try and understand what needs it fulfils and then try to see if there is an evolutionary benefit. Or alternatively see religion as an artefact of useful things we’ve evolved.

    It fulfils several human needs in one way. Alleviates grief, your loved ones die you either enter a trough of depression and possible die from lack of hunting for food or develop a belief in an after life. Especially usefull in a time when life was short and tough. Religion is still strongest where despair and grief and hopelessness are rife. Where folk have nothing else.

    The need for justice. Someone who hurts you may get away with it but if there is karma, or a hell or reincarnation as a slug then you have your justice.

    Or consider the skills we require to survive. See patterns, see cause and effect. Why should that skill disappear when someone does a rain dance and coincidentally it rains. Why not try again and why risk not trying?

    Or seeing patterns. We need that to survive. So why would that skill disappear just because its a god like thing in a cloud or the wind sounds like voices.

    • Isn’t that what I said? Oh, no i just said it was bullshit!!! Damn I am inarticulate sometimes (most, no all of the time!)

      In reply to #36 by PG:

      Take religion back to its core and try and understand what needs it fulfils and then try to see if there is an evolutionary benefit. Or alternatively see religion as an artefact of useful things we’ve evolved.

      It fulfils several human needs in one way. Alleviates grief, your loved ones die you eith…

    • In reply to #36 by PG:

      Take religion back to its core and try and understand what needs it fulfils and then try to see if there is an evolutionary benefit. Or alternatively see religion as an artefact of useful things we’ve evolved.

      It fulfils several human needs in one way. Alleviates grief, your loved ones die you eith…

      Yes, but I think that fits with the religion as virus (meme) theory. As noted biological viruses that don’t often kill their host will probably be more common than those that do (there are I think a lot more colds than rabies cases). Now I’m not sure of any examples of biological viruses that are of any active benefit to hosts, but a kind of commensal relationship could be imagined (not properly commensal as one partner, the virus, is not itself alive). But a meme that resulted in more carrier individuals/hosts would tend to lead to the meme being more common.

      While some religions require celibacy in their priests, prohibition of contraception and same sex behaviour, and encouragement of large families are evident in two very common (‘successful’) religion-memes, Catholicism and Islam. The link between fertility and religion meme success of course depends on the religion meme characteristic of treating children as if they were ‘born Catholic’ (etc) and religion being linked to child rearing within close family power structures.

      Perhaps one can also see some memes beliefs (hence behaviours) that favour host prosperity and and thus greater overall reproductive success, such as the ‘Protestant work ethic’. Again, memes could lead to a feeling well being associated with stable and reproductively successful units, families. Or the likelihood of adoption of the meme (‘infection’) by at least short term post-conversion (post-infection) well being, even euphoria. (One could note another euphoriant meme, one showing stubborn resistance to very strong attempts at eradication, namely narcotic addiction. This might be a much more common (‘successful’) meme if hosts (addicts) did not on average have such a markedly reduced long term survival).

      But none of these possible routes to increase host numbers by reproductive behaviour or by increasing prosperity in any way show that religion is morally ‘good’ or ‘right’, merely effective, in the sense that religions (memes) with a pattern of beliefs (and associated behaviours) that lead to greater host numbers will be likely to be more common.

  25. J. Anderson Thomson Jr who is a medical doctor has written a terrific book on this subject called “Why we believe in gods”. I highly recommend this book for you as it deals exactly with these questions. If I remember correctly Dawkins contributed with a foreword.

  26. We have imaginations, and memories it seems clear to me we probably do so, so that we can imagine into the future which has advantages in being able to plan likely outcomes strategies etc. We also have the ability to read emotional intent into our peers to imagine what the likely outcome is of me doing this, what will person X think of this? Will it impact negatively on person Y and if person Y is aligned to person X how will this play out for me and so on. Imagination also allows us to invent things like more effective spears, arrows, and so on onto cars, planes etc. So evolution seems to favour imagination. Now as a side effect we can also invent things that aren’t real, this does give some benefits, fiction for one, but also gives us the ability to invent religion which can be used by some to exploit others. All of this is completely consistent with both evolution and religion. From evolutions point of view more imagination is better than less but it comes with consequences.

  27. Religious ideas can be good for their own replication without being good for their hosts.

    But I think it’s more trivial than that. Before science, medicine, philosophy and even before religions, as intelligent brains evolved, it soon became unbearable to find out that the world was crap, and only those who felt irrational love and hope didn’t let themselves die of despair.

  28. I think with the invention of abstract, animistic & anthropomorphic deities(or similar), religion developed as a response to the paranoia caused through believing in those deities. In tandem with that, religion also possibly developed to ease other stresses that dis-empowered people in life. So religion, while rooted in false premises and error(our brains are prone to making errors when trying to make sense of the world even when religion has been discarded), wasn’t useless: it empowered and made people feel at ease and in control. Paradoxically, because of the incentives, fears and ideas involved in the religion and god belief, it dis-empowered people too. It became a circular and addictive system of empowerment and dis-empowerment. This is partly why it survives.

    Once people wake up from the error of religion and god belief, just like you may wake up from the error of a conspiracy theory that you once believed and helped spread, it ceases to be useful. The junk gets discarded and actively correcting the error becomes just as empowering as spreading the error. Correcting the error becomes useful.

    If you remove religion from your question, you are really asking if we should be evolving in a direction where we aren’t prone to wasteful(although sometimes useful) errors. Maybe the answer to that is we have evolved to a degree where we are capable of recognising and correcting errors, but it will never be perfect because we aren’t capable of having complete and accurate information at all times. A few other things, like our emotions and the fear of death, may get in the way too.

  29. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Caesarian birth as an example of a medical intervention that as enabled an otherwise self limiting genetic trait to be passed on.It is widely practised in developed countries so a large number of babies with slightly larger skulls are living to reproduce themselves. Ultrasound technology has also allowed babies to be born who would have most likely not lived to pass on their genes. Eventually these technologies could alter the gene pool.

  30. Red Dog, thanks for clarifying this by-product business, although what happened to post #62? So what do you think “concomitants or byproducts of adaptations” means? Is any of this functional or is it more like a characteristic like bone is white because it contains lots of calcium?

    • In reply to #65 by rainmac:

      Red Dog, thanks for clarifying this by-product business, although what happened to post #62?

      I think it got wished into the cornfield. I don’t see it so most likely a moderator removed it for being off topic or spam. Although, it could be a glitch in the comment system as well.

      So what do you think “concomitants or byproducts of adaptations” means? Is any of this functional or is it more like a characteristic like bone is white because it contains lots of calcium?

      I actually haven’t read much biology, except for the evolutionary psychology stuff which I’m devouring lately, so I’m not the best person to ask. Still not knowing never stops me from having an opinion. From what I know I think the whole “it’s a spandrel” argument is sort of a worst case scenario, i.e., it’s not very compelling argument and it’s what we have to resort to when we don’t have a better explanation. As for religion, I definitely don’t think its just a byproduct, not at all.

      I think I’ve stated this in other comments but — and this is a gross over simplification — from what I’ve read so far I think religion serves, or rather served two main functions for early humans:

      1) It helped solidify and identify who was part of the tribe and who wasn’t.

      2) It provided the extra incentive for altruism within the group that things like reciprocal altruism and kin selection don’t provide.

      More than once I’ve had discussions with people who to my surprise don’t get the basic argument against group selection that Dawkins lays out in The Selfish Gene. That genes for a “cheater” will always emerge. People are always using arguments like “X behavior will be better for the group so…” I think it shows the intuitive appeal to believe that altruism isn’t just about doing things so you will get benefit later or helping your kin but rather that the whole group will be better if everyone practices altruism. And since the genes can’t get us there, it seems to me a logical hypothesis that cultural memes arose that would do the extra work, that would establish norms, rituals, etc. to reward cooperators and punish cheaters and that is a big reason why we find religion in virtually all primitive cultures that we know of.

      • In reply to #69 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #65 by rainmac:

        I think religion serves, or rather served two main functions for early humans:

        1) It helped solidify and identify who was part of the tribe and who wasn’t.

        2) It provided the extra incentive for altruism within the group that things like reciprocal altruism and kin selection don’t provide.

        Yeah, I’m with you that religion isn’t a by-product. I’m just not seeing any solid evidence for it. You offer the common view that religion is adaptive as a kind of social cohesion function. Question: Given that 1000s of social animal species have (presumably) adequate mechanisms for social cohesion without religion, why do you suppose people needed the additional feature of religion for this purpose?

        • In reply to #78 by rainmac:

          In reply to #69 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #65 by rainmac:

          I think religion serves, or rather served two main functions for early humans:

          1) It helped solidify and identify who was part of the tribe and who wasn’t.

          2) It provided the extra incentive for altruism within the group that things like re…

          I’d argue that just about any fashionable nonsense can, unintentionally, bind like-minded people and provide extra, or some, incentive for altruism. The binding and the altruism are unintentional consequences of identifying with the fashionable nonsense; making them by-products. I’d also argue that fear, paranoia and the ensuing dis-empowerment caused by the unknown or imaged agency, can do the same. Religions are by-products that later serve to counter and control.

          • In reply to #82 by Bruiser40:

            I’d argue that just about any fashionable nonsense can, unintentionally, bind like-minded people and provide extra, or some, incentive for altruism.

            And I would argue that when you see a pattern in the kind of “fashionable nonsense” that humans have used for centuries to define and enforce social conventions then that pattern is scientifically interesting and worth studying. And once you stop spending all your energy on hating religion and finding ways to call it stupid and you look at the problem objectively you will see that there are indeed amazing regularities in religious belief across very divergent geographies and peoples. And the reason it’s potentially interesting is that it may tell us something interesting about the human mind to understand why particular types of nonsense are so much more appealing as religious dogma than others. Which btw doesn’t mean it’s still not nonsense, I agree it is, I just want to look at it as a scientist would and if you are a scientist it’s a waste of time (and not being objective) to spend your time mocking the thing you are trying to understand.

          • In reply to #84 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #82 by Bruiser40:

            I’d argue that just about any fashionable nonsense can, unintentionally, bind like-minded people and provide extra, or some, incentive for altruism.

            And I would argue that when you see a pattern in the kind of “fashionable nonsense” that humans have used for centuries…

            Oh dear. I think you’ve misunderstood. I wasn’t calling religion fashionable nonsense, I was saying that any fashionable nonsense can, unintentionally, bind and provide incentive for altruism in the same way religion can. So simply just having a belief or identity in common – whether it’s a flawed belief or not, or even it’s an entertaining activity or belief that people enjoy – can bring people together for a common goal. It binds people and encourages altruism.

            And once you stop spending all your energy on hating religion and finding ways to call it stupid and you look at the problem objectively you will see that there are indeed amazing regularities in religious belief across very divergent geographies and peoples.

            I haven’t called religion stupid and I no more hate religion than I do any other activity or beliefs that I may or may not enjoy or entertain. So I think you are jumping the gun a little.

            The majority of people worry or have concerns about things that may potentially cause harm or end their existence. Many of those things they have no or little control over. So it’s only natural they’d find ways to counter and control those problems. Religion is what came out of that. So of course there are regularities in religious belief across divergent geographies and peoples; it’s what you’d expect to see so it’s hardly amazing. We are the same species after all.

            People tend to see agency and flawed patterns where there are none. It’s why we have paranoid conspiracy theories involving governments or aliens. Spreading the conspiracy theory is an attempt to counter and control the problem. Religion is of the same making.

          • In reply to #85 by Bruiser40:

            In reply to #84 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #82 by Bruiser40:

            I’d argue that just about any fashionable nonsense can, unintentionally, bind like-minded people and provide extra, or some, incentive for altruism.

            And I would argue that when you see a pattern in the kind of “fashionable nonsense” that h…

            Sorry, I over reacted, I sometimes get a little frustrated with the endless religion bashing for no purpose that I think goes on here.

            But to return to the point, you are correct that people can unite over just about anything. In fact, it’s something that for once we can say there is fairly unambiguous data from the social sciences on. You can take college students and randomly assign them to team A and team B and you can measure various ways that the Team A people start to feel bonded to other As and hostile to the Bs.

            So I agree with that. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that if you look through recorded history certain kinds of nonsense have predominated. Scott Atran goes into this in detail in the beginning of his book The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. He summarizes what he finds by analyzing what anthropologists have found about religion this way:

            In every society known, there is: 1. widespread counterfactual belief in supernatural agents (gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.) 2. hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments to supernatural agents, that is, sacrifice (offerings of goods, time, other lives, one’s own life, etc.) 3. a central focus of supernatural agents on dealing with people’s existential anxieties (death, disease, catastrophe, pain, loneliness, injustice, want, loss, etc.) 4. ritualized and often rhythmic coordination of 1, 2, and 3, that is, communion (congregation, intimate fellowship, etc.)

            Atran, Scott (2002-11-14). In Gods We Trust:The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition) (p. 13). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

            To me that is an interesting starting point, it shows that it’s not just any nonsense that has turned out to be fashionable but a very specific kind of nonsense and Atran and others think that understanding why this kind of nonsense is appealing to humans may help tell us more about human cognition and morality.

          • In reply to #86 by Red Dog:

            So I agree with that. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that if you look through recorded history certain kinds of nonsense have predominated. Scott Atran goes into this in detail in the beginning of his book The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. He summarizes what he finds by analyzing what anthropologists have found about religion this way:

            In every society known, there is: 1. widespread counterfactual belief in supernatural agents (gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.) 2. hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments to supernatural agents, that is, sacrifice (offerings of goods, time, other lives, one’s own life, etc.) 3. a central focus of supernatural agents on dealing with people’s existential anxieties (death, disease, catastrophe, pain, loneliness, injustice, want, loss, etc.) 4. ritualized and often rhythmic coordination of 1, 2, and 3, that is, communion (congregation, intimate fellowship, etc.)

            Atran, Scott (2002-11-14). In Gods We Trust:The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition) (p. 13). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

            To me that is an interesting starting point, it shows that it’s not just any nonsense that has turned out to be fashionable but a very specific kind of nonsense and Atran and others think that understanding why this kind of nonsense is appealing to humans may help tell us more about human cognition and morality.

            Yes, but what you’ve pointed out, and the fact that religion has been around for a length of time, doesn’t really make religion any more special than a contemporary conspiracy theory where a group of people believe more worldly or material agents – governments, secretive societies or non-supernatural agents like aliens – become responsible for worrisome events. The only real difference between religion and a CT is the premise it starts from. They both give rise to, and are caused by existential worries and they both find ways to counter those worries. And they can both influence group behaviour(not always for the good). Religions have simply had more time, in times of extreme ignorance, to grip society.

            Religions(CT) are mainly the by-product of ignorance(and I don’t mean that in a bad way) and dis-empowerment. And they all seem to evolve out of a paranoia that revolves around a flawed premise(deities, aliens, government or team B) being responsible for world events.

          • In reply to #86 by Red Dog:

            I sometimes get a little frustrated with the endless religion bashing for no purpose that I think goes on here.

            I totally agree with Red Dog on this one. Less of the braying, please, everyone. It even turns up on the science items. There’s much more interesting stuff to discuss.

          • In reply to #89 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #86 by Red Dog:

            I sometimes get a little frustrated with the endless religion bashing for no purpose that I think goes on here.

            I totally agree with Red Dog on this one. Less of the braying, please, everyone. It even turns up on the science items. There’s much more interesting stuff…

            Why? If one happens to think religion is a particularly vile meme, why wouldn’t it need to be constantly bashed?

          • In reply to #85 by Bruiser40:

            It’s why we have paranoid conspiracy theories involving governments or aliens

            I can’t comment about the aliens, but I’m fairly sure that governments really do exist. Or am I being paranoid?

          • In reply to #88 by OHooligan:

            In reply to #85 by Bruiser40:

            It’s why we have paranoid conspiracy theories involving governments or aliens

            I can’t comment about the aliens, but I’m fairly sure that governments really do exist. Or am I being paranoid?

            Governments obviously exist; they can also be very secretive, corrupt and sometimes they don’t always have people’s best interests at heart. Edit: Governments, being controlling agencies, often make people make people feel dis-empowered and paranoid. Conspiracy theories can and do easily develop.

        • In reply to #78 by rainmac:

          You offer the common view that religion is adaptive as a kind of social cohesion function. Question: Given that 1000s of social animal species have (presumably) adequate mechanisms for social cohesion without religion, why do you suppose people needed the additional feature of religion for this purpose?

          That’s an easy question to answer. The answer is that the other species actually don’t need the extra explanation. You can adequately explain the altruistic behavior of any other species using reciprocal altruism or kin selection. You can still find some examples in the animal world that may take a bit of work to explain that way but you won’t find the kind of altruism you see regularly in humans in any other animal.

          As an example of what I mean consider holocaust rescue. Humans risked their lives to save strangers that they did not know and that they knew had no chance to repay the help. And in so doing the rescuers also risked being ostracized from their community. Here is a talk by someone who explains why holocaust rescue can’t be explained by reciprocal altruism or kin selection

          You just don’t see that kind of behavior in other animals. Or to be more precise, the only other animals where you see similar behavior, where animals will risk or sacrifice their lives not for some eventual benefit but just for the good of the group, the only other animals where that happens are animals where the entire group is highly related, e.g. termites, and the altruism in those cases is an example of kin selection since everyone in the colony shares so much DNA.

  31. In reply to #66 by Smill:

    In reply to Nitya, post 61. I wonder if your comment ignores the effects of poverty and the resultant need for medical intervention. I am unsure whether Western C-sections are mainly performed for genuine cephalopelvic disproportion; what do the statistics suggest? I wonder if most women who have…

    I can answer that one. There are a lot of C sections done in the US and the vast majority of them are NOT done because of cephalopelvic disproportion, in fact the vast majority of them could be done the natural way but the doctors often urge the mothers to use a C section. There is a fair amount of controversy on this. The proponents of natural child birth say that the doctors urge C sections because it makes their schedules a lot more predictable, it takes them less time, etc. The doctors would say that C sections are less painful and easier for the mother and there are fewer things that could go wrong. The natural childbirth advocates think C sections are bad because the drugs used to anesthetize the mother also end up in the fetus and also they claim other benefits for natural childbirth.

    From what I know (which is mainly from seeing an excellent documentary and from a good friend whose sister is a midwife) the natural child birth people have a point and C sections are over used. Then again if I had a vagina and ever had to worry about squeezing a child through it I might rethink that.

    • In reply to #67 by Red Dog:

      In reply to #66 by Smill:

      In reply to Nitya, post 61. I wonder if your comment ignores the effects of poverty and the resultant need for medical intervention. I am unsure whether Western C-sections are mainly performed for genuine cephalopelvic disproportion; what do the statistics suggest?

      Hi Red, I remember reading that because of our recently evolved very large skulls, and despite our skulls being soft and distorted at birth, human mothers go through by far the highest risks of all placental-birth species…. Mac.

      • In reply to #70 by CdnMacAtheist:

        In reply to #67 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #66 by Smill:

        In reply to Nitya, post 61. I wonder if your comment ignores the effects of poverty and the resultant need for medical intervention. I am unsure whether Western C-sections are mainly performed for genuine cephalopelvic disproportion; what do…

        From what I remember that is one of the justifications used by people who advocate C sections, that it eliminates those kinds of risks. The natural childbirth people would say in response though that even though that is a risk the number of cases where it actually happens is still very small. The movie I saw is called The Business of Being Born. Its can be streamed at Netflix The movie definitely supports the natural childbirth viewpoint but I still thought it was pretty balanced in presenting both sides of the issue.

  32. In reply to #66 by Smill:

    In reply to Nitya, post 61. I wonder if your comment ignores the effects of poverty and the resultant need for medical intervention. I am unsure whether Western C-sections are mainly performed for genuine cephalopelvic disproportion; what do the statistics suggest? I wonder if most women who have…

    I reply to your comment and that of Red Dog #67, I’m not disputing the fact that many C Sections are done for reasons other than the size of the baby’s head. They’ve become a routine procedure for many privately insured mothers and appeals to first time mothers over 30 ( now in the majority over here). The term “too posh to push” has been added to our vocabulary, as the practice has become so popular with older, cashed-up first time mothers. However it could also be true that many of these mothers would die if they were giving birth in Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa.

    We are not putting selection pressures to the test in the same way that NS is applied in other living organisms. The size of the human brain no longer has to face the limitations of the process of a natural delivery. If these few bigger-brained babies are successful, and have greater reproductive success it could alter the species in the long term. Just a thought.

  33. In reply to #63 by Quine:

    In reply to #47 by CdnMacAtheist: However, that does not mean that Natural Selection is not still selecting for what works today.

    I didn’t say that NS wasn’t in action, I said I thought it was less ‘efficient’ now because of all our artificial interference in who is staying alive and able to procreate, thus passing on some ‘flawed’ genes into the gene pool, which wouldn’t happen in ‘natural’ conditions where the person died childless.

    Again, please remember that “fitness” has a special and specific definition in the field of gene frequency distribution in a population.

    Did I get that wrong in my explanation #44 to your question #43 to me about my definition of fitness? If so, my apology for any confusion that I caused…. Mac.

    • In reply to #76 by CdnMacAtheist:

      I didn’t say that NS wasn’t in action, I said I thought it was less ‘efficient’ now because of all our artificial interference in who is staying alive and able to procreate, thus passing on some ‘flawed’ genes into the gene pool, which wouldn’t happen in ‘natural’ conditions where the person died childless.

      Mac, I don’t want to sound like I am picking on you about this, it is just that there are some traditional trigger words involved that have been problematic in getting to public understanding of the mechanisms involved. When you use a word like “flawed” you may be bringing along a value judgement of which you are not aware. For example, in humans a gene necessary to produce vitamin C no longer works. You can reasonably assert that gene is “flawed” because it has a predecessor that did a useful job that it no longer does. However, for humans living in an environment that supplies sufficient vitamin C in the food supply, there is no selection pressure that makes a difference, so no “flaw.” Along the same lines, if you attribute some ability to run particularly fast to a set of genes, and then environment changes so that running that fast does not make much difference, but mutations in some of those same genes make individuals more sexually attractive so as to get more mating opportunities, you would have to conclude that the faster running genes were “flawed.” Natural Selection does not make value judgements about isolated qualities, just what works for propagation overall.

      The other problem is with “natural.” I do suspect that what you mean by that is in the context of the kind of environment that our ancestors lived in prior to any form of civilization. However, what natural? The natural environment of the Rift Valley of Africa is not the same as the natural environment of North Europe or the Outback of Australia. Selection goes by whatever the conditions are in any given ecology. People also die childless in modern cities, and if genes impact the probability of doing so, the frequency of those genes in the population will be subject to selection pressure.

      I don’t think you can validly attach the concept of “efficiency” to NS. NS does what it does, but it does not have a job to do that it can accomplish more or less “efficiently.” One of those “hot button” public issues is the mistaken idea that Evolution is directed to producing better (“more evolved”) and more capable and smarter organisms, and that our civilization is interfering with that destiny. That concept was used in support of eugenics. Perhaps you were thinking about the rate of phenotypic change in the average individual rather than the efficiency of NS?

      Did I get that wrong in my explanation #44 to your question #43 to me about my definition of fitness? If so, my apology for any confusion that I caused…. Mac

      I think you got it very close in #44, with the exception of the word “natural” as I have explained above. I hope you see my replies as not just picking nits for the sake of picking nits, but rather at getting at some deeper issues that are so often misunderstood by the public going simply on “survival of the fittest.”

      -Q

      • In reply to #77 by Quine:

        In reply to #76 by CdnMacAtheist:
        Mac, I don’t want to sound like I am picking on you about this, it is just that there are some traditional trigger words involved that have been problematic in getting to public understanding of the mechanisms involved.

        Quine, I have much respect for your well constructed comments, and you have rightly challenged me at times, educating me in many areas, which is why I’m here…. 8-)

        Since I’m not a scientist or biologist, these nuances and misuses of words and the implications don’t jump out at me as I struggle at more superficial levels of discussion. I’ve had to ‘think real hard’, as I said in #57 to OHooligan, while I stayed up all night exercising my brain muscles and trying to be rational and coherent in areas I knew almost nothing about a few years ago.

        I was also commenting elsewhere, plus discussing motor sport stuff with a top rally driver who lodges here at times, so a long, busy night, eh…. 8-)

        The education and challenges to myself I’ve found here since 2010 have been some of my most satisfying life experiences, and I thank all those who come here to share their knowledge, feelings and opinions with others around the world…. Mac.

  34. I’d like to summarize where this discussion has led me to (including some of the notions I had been incubating already)

    • religion(s) are parasites, self perpetuating meme complexes that can survive even to the detriment of their human hosts
    • the parasite exploits human intelligence, including pattern recognition erring on the side of caution (seeing pattern where none exists), and the ability of our young to learn so much from their elders.
    • the parasite has hijacked the pre-existing mechanism in humans for accumulating and passing on scientific and technological knowledge (farming, the calendar, which mushrooms are edible, etc) and now uses this to pass on memes that sustain the parasite itself
    • the parasite may have taken hold so well because initially it assisted, or at least did not contradict, the passing on of genuine knowledge and the cohesion of a human community
    • the parasite has always been nurtured and promoted by those who stood to gain, the freeloaders who got a decent living out of it. Grandfathers are the prime suspects, getting by on BS once they ran out of real information to teach.
    • contradiction between the propagation of religion (parasite promoting memes) and the propagation of genuine technology-enabling knowledge (science) emerged when the religion memes got “set in stone”, written down.
    • the parasite’s intimate dependency on human communications technology is revealed when a major innovation in that technology is followed by new mutated strains of the parasite. Specifically, Scripture (manuscripts), and The Book.
    • just as many species have reached an apparent stale-mate with some parasite, so religion, though wasteful of human resources, is not bound to die out any time soon.

    I take a harsher view of religion than Red Dog, in that it seems to me that ALL the benefits claimed by religion are things that pre-existed the religion parasite, and were part of the pre-religious communication of all scientific knowledge and technology. The good stuff, we already had that. Religion did not add it.

  35. It’s interesting that there’s no posts about the inherent contradiction in the OP. RD is clearly contradicting himself, yet no one seems bothered by that. At least for those who can find a benefit in religion such as helping in-group cooperation, they can come to terms with their own justifications, but that still doesn’t justify RD’s position. For those who agree with RD about religion being a viral meme, parasite, or byproduct of ignorance or whatever, how does this jive with RD’s position on evolutionary principles, which presumably most of us adhere to, that evolution is a miserly accountant punishing the smallest extravagances? How can both be true?

    • In reply to #93 by rainmac:

      … how does this jive with RD’s position on evolutionary principles, which presumably most of us adhere to, that evolution is a miserly accountant punishing the smallest extravagances? How can both be true?

      Asked and answered. Read the thread.

      • In reply to #94 by Quine:

        In reply to #93 by rainmac:

        … how does this jive with RD’s position on evolutionary principles, which presumably most of us adhere to, that evolution is a miserly accountant punishing the smallest extravagances? How can both be true?

        Asked and answered. Read the thread.

        Sorry, I must be dense. What I’ve seen is a lot of people criticizing the stupidity of believing in and practicing religion. If religious behavior is an enormous waste of energy and resources, then it’s inconsistent with evolution according to Dawkins. Now there has been some discussion about whether or not humans are susceptible to natural selection. Is that the answer? There has been some suggestion that technology shields some people in recent history, but religion has existed for way longer. Anyway, when I read God Delusion, I don’t recall RD saying humans were exceptions to evolutionary rules. Beyond that, I don’t understand how this question has been answered here.

        • In reply to #95 by rainmac:

          If religious behavior is an enormous waste of energy and resources, then it’s inconsistent with evolution according to Dawkins.

          No, that’s not necessarily true. In fact Dawkins explicitly says that is not the case. That was why he invented the idea of a meme, because he recognized that the theories that explain a lot of animal behavior, while they also explain a lot of human behavior probably won’t be sufficient for explaining all of human behavior and he specifically had in mind things like culture and religion.

          Now there has been some discussion about whether or not humans are susceptible to natural selection. Is that the answer?

          Not sure what you are referring to specifically but speaking for myself when I talk about altruism, yes absolutely I think that humans are susceptible to natural selection and that principles that explain altruism using natural selection in animals explain a lot of human altruistic behavior as well. My point was that in humans altruistic behavior can’t be completely described using principles from natural selection and that other concepts (memes, modular minds, group selection) are needed.

          Beyond that, I don’t understand how this question has been answered here.

          The whole question of the relation between religion and natural selection has many unsolved questions that people are actively working on. That presentation I linked to a while back about holocaust rescue describes some of the interesting issues. So it would be surprising if we could completely answer the question here.

          • In reply to #97 by Red Dog:

            in humans altruistic behavior can’t be completely described using principles from natural selection and that other concepts are needed

            Thanks Red Dog for so concisely stating a point where I disagree with you. I agree with most things you write, so it’s good to see clearly where we differ.

            I know of nothing in the strict selfish-gene-centric viewpoint that rules out the kind of (occasionally) over-generous altruism of the kind we humans hold in such high regard. The fact that we notice and celebrate such occasions is clear evidence that it’s not all that commonplace. Being a bit more altruistic than the “selfish gene optimal” level is not penalized enough to eliminate it. Perhaps being a bit less than optimal is penalized more. Anyway, I don’t agree that other concepts are needed.

          • In reply to #98 by OHooligan:

            Thanks Red Dog for so concisely stating a point where I disagree with you. I agree with most things you write, so it’s good to see clearly where we differ.

            One of these days I’m going to go back and re-read The Selfish Gene because I could have sworn that even when I read it I came across parts that implied Dawkins agrees with me on this. But it’s been a while and I’m not sure if I’m selectively remembering or perhaps as I was reading I was making my own interpretation.

            But anyway, even without looking back at The Selfish Gene I have an example of what I’m talking about. When I saw this presentation, I noted it because it was such an excellent discussion of the issue that I see but that others here don’t seem to:

            Prof. Craig Palmer: Portrayals of Holocaust Rescue and the Puzzle of Human Altruism

            You have to get into the presentation a bit but he has an excellent discussion of why neither reciprocal altruism nor kin selection can explain this kind of behavior.

            I know of nothing in the strict selfish-gene-centric viewpoint that rules out the kind of (occasionally) over-generous altruism of the kind we humans hold in such high regard.

            Watch the lecture. This isn’t an example of someone being “over generous” it’s an example of people making an absolutely terrible decision from the standpoint of selfish genes. There is absolutely no way this can be justified by the selfish gene theories.

            The fact that we notice and celebrate such occasions is clear evidence that it’s not all that commonplace.

            Palmer deals with that argument as well. The fact that we celebrate and praise this kind of behavior is evidence that there is something else at work here besides selfish genes because if the behavior was driven by our genes then we would be appalled at behavior like holocaust rescue the way we are appalled at incest or eating excrement. Yet not only are we not appalled by it but we hold up such behavior as some of the best example of what humanity can strive for.

          • In reply to #99 by Red Dog:

            Prof. Craig Palmer: Portrayals of Holocaust Rescue and the Puzzle of Human Altruism

            You have to get into the presentation a bit but he has an excellent discussion of why neither reciprocal altruism nor kin selection can explain this kind of behavior.

            Thanks for the link. It was a bit lengthy, and I’m not all the way through yet, but these thoughts came to mind while watching:

            (A) – and so strongly it made me cringe – the Freudian Slip of saying “non-person”. He caught himself and made a laugh out of it, but it certainly sent a shiver down the spine of this non-person.

            (B) and related to the above, I wonder about making such an enormously big deal about a “non-person” doing what they have termed “holocaust rescue”, as if it was – in genetic survival terms – tantamount to suicide. Are the “persons” (as opposed to non-persons) actually a different species, like our Lizard Overlords? No? Didn’t think so. Are they telling us that, actually, the nazis had it right, and anyone who hampered their efforts was acting against the best interests of their own genes? I sincerely hope not.

            Now, back in the real world, the reason put forward and immediately dismissed was this – such rescue behaviour was rare enough that it doesn’t need to be explained. It’s an outlier on the spectrum of behaviour, and humans in aggregate behave with just enough altruism to fit the conventional model of kin-selection and (indirect) reciprocal altruism. Outliers exist on the other side too, and we consider them extremely bad: those who won’t even help their own immediate kin.

            We are left with is the question of why we consider one kind of outlier good and the other one bad. Well, a species, or society, that reversed these opinions wouldn’t last long, I imagine. Good to be an utterly selfish pig and sell your own children, bad to help a stranger in trouble, and totally insane to help anybody at all if it puts yourself at even the slightest risk, or inconvenience. Oh, wait, that’s the Tea Party, isn’t it?

            Part of the gene complex “for altruism” seems to me to be our tendency to hold acts of altruism in high esteem, and especially the outliers. No further explanation required, there’s enough here to make a convincing case, IMHO.

          • In reply to #108 by OHooligan:

            We are left with is the question of why we consider one kind of outlier good and the other one bad.

            First of all, I never consider the explanation “the data are just outliers” to be a very good one. In fact science history has examples of errors that were at first dismissed as errors in measurements or just outliers that in fact turned out to be extremely important, they were clues to problems with a theory. For example the orbit of Mercury had an error that people for a long time assumed was just due to imprecise measurement but it turned out to be one of the first measurable effects of the theory of relativity.

            I feel the same way about the “Spandrel” argument, yes sure there will be Spandrels but just jumping to the outlier or Spandrel explanation without considering other alternatives seems like bad science to me.

            Well, a species, or society, that reversed these opinions wouldn’t last long,

            It seems to me that by saying that you are actually contradicting your own point. I agree as a species it would be very beneficial if we had these kinds of emotions, emotions to praise justice and altruism, that is really my point, that intuitively I can see why people like Wilson want to believe in group selection. And if you are saying “the reasons holocaust rescue happens is because to not have those kind of outliers would be bad for the species” you are essentially admitting there is something more than kin selection or reciprocal altruism going on because we know that those things work only at the individual level not at the species level.

            I do have to admit though I don’t consider my argument definitive. I admit it is possible that once we learn more about reciprocal altruism and kin selection and perhaps the way humans are inclined to make errors in applying them that will tell us all we need to know about altruism, period. I just don’t think so and I think some very smart people (Wilson for sure I think perhaps even Dawkins) would agree with me.

          • In reply to #109 by Red Dog:

            I don’t think I explained myself very well, but we do continue to disagree on the significance of “outliers”.

            I’m not promoting species or group selection. But the “genes for” altruism are only explained in evolutionary theory (as I read it) by their effect – the extent to which members of the species, on aggregate, act altruistically. It does not explain the mechanism, how an individual “decides” to perform an altrustic act. I assume it just “feels like the right thing to do” in the circumstances, strongly enough to overcome the instinct for immediate personal preservation, often expressed as fear.

            Genes guide behaviour in a very long and wiggly chain of causality, plenty of slack in the connections, and there will doubtless be a wide spread of response. “Feeling it is the right thing to do, despite the fear” goes well with admiring others who do these things.

            I still don’t see any need to go beyond the selfish (but smart) gene explanation.

          • In reply to #110 by OHooligan:

            I’m not promoting species or group selection.

            Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I knew that. I just mentioned group selection because IMO the reason smart people like Wilson refuse to let it go is that he agrees with me, that RA and Kin Selection don’t completely explain human altruism and that something else is needed. Actually, I don’t think we disagree on that question, I think where we disagree is what is that something? You think it is just better models of RA and Kin Selection and I think it probably will require some other concept like memes or even group selection. I read a paper from a guy at USC a while ago that still supported a version of group selection and he dealt with the issue of cheaters. Some of it was over my head but I thought it was fascinating.

            But the “genes for” altruism are only explained in evolutionary theory (as I read it) by their effect – the extent to which members of the species, on aggregate, act altruistically. It does not explain the mechanism, how an individual “decides” to perform an altrustic act. I assume it just “feels like the right thing to do” in the circumstances, strongly enough to overcome the instinct for immediate personal preservation, often expressed as fear.

            Right and the question is why do things like Holocaust Rescue “feel” like the right answer? Why is it when we hear of people who do that we don’t just scoff and say “what morons!” but rather we (or at least some of us) hold up such behavior as exemplary and encourage our children to admire such examples?

            I still don’t see any need to go beyond the selfish (but smart) gene explanation.

            I didn’t expect to change your mind. I don’t think we disagree that much, I think we both agree it’s an open question and really no way to be certain what the answer is yet, we just have different intuitions about how interesting a question it is and where the ultimate answer will come from.

          • In reply to #111 by Red Dog:

            I think we both agree it’s an open question and really no way to be certain what the answer is yet, we just have different intuitions about how interesting a question it is and where the ultimate answer will come from.

            Well said. It’s been interesting, that’s for sure. I do appreciate that you picked up on Holocaust Rescue as an example that couldn’t be dismissed as obvious manipulation of kin-selection (unlike the “brothers-in-arms” situations, where soldiers learn to regard their immediate comrades as if they were close kin).

            BTW I must add, I don’t hold the notion that self-sacrificing acts are simply “stupid”, misfires of a selfish-gene mechanism. I admire them as much as anyone, but I think that admiration in itself is an aspect of carrying some “genes for altruism”, it’s a kind of internal training, or rehearsal, in case I am put in the position of having to decide – or not – on a dangerous altruistic act.

            Another topic discussed the process of conscious decision-making, and somewhere I read the suggestion that our conscious minds are not so much making decisions as making up justifications and explanations for the decisions after the fact. That would fit well with a (possibly impulsive) act of altruism. Ask someone who did an altruistic act (and survived), and he’ll probably say things along these lines: “It was the right thing to do”, or “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t”, or “this is how I am. I wouldn’t want to be otherwise”. Along with “anyone would have done it”, even when, clearly, they wouldn’t.

            Along with faith-meme-related explanations, of course. My intuition – as you put it – is that the altruistic act comes first, and the explanation/justification (morality, religion) comes after. And that the act is triggered, via a very long and wiggly chain of connection, with plenty of room for slack, by the gene-complex that we term “altruistic”, and that has evolved to (more-or-less, in aggregate) match up with the level of altruism that would be predicted if there existed a way for computing the precise optimal level of kin-selection and indirect-reciprocal-altruism.

            “Clever” genes, “Decent” genes maybe, but still selfish.

            But if – like in your analogy about Mercury – another mechanism is discovered and verified, I’d be very interested to know about it.

          • In reply to #116 by OHooligan:

            Another topic discussed the process of conscious decision-making, and somewhere I read the suggestion that our conscious minds are not so much making decisions as making up justifications and explanations for the decisions after the fact.

            Yes, that is something that the more I read the more evidence I see. You’ve probably heard this example already but if not I just love it — the patients that have a comisurectome (severing the connections between left half and right half of the brain) essentially have two brains that you can measure how they communicate and what kind of info they share and more importantly don’t share. So if you show one side pictures and then ask the patient to say the answer to a question she will say one thing but if you ask her to point to the picture that is the answer she will give a different answer.

            But the coolest example is they give the patient instructions to do something like get up and leave the room (to the non verbal part of the brain). Then they ask the verbal part “why did you do that?” And the verbal part comes up with all sorts of reasons (e.g. I left the room to get a Coke not I left the room because that is what the card said to do) to justify behavior that are pulled totally out of thin air but the person absolutely believes them to be true.

          • In reply to #110 by OHooligan:

            We’ve probably talked this to death but I just wanted to make one more point. I chose the example of holocaust rescue because it is IMO such a clear example of human behavior that can’t be easily explained by existing altruism theories. But I don’t think that the problem with existing altruism theories is limited to just that kind of behavior, it was just the most obvious example that clearly doesn’t fit those theories. I (and I think other people like Wilson) think that even if you look at things like the morality we teach our children or the teachings of the major religions (if we can get beyond scoffing at them and look at them as data) it is clear that they advocate a morality that is not just about doing good because people will do good back to you and helping your Kin.

            Another example would be soldiers who make amazing sacrifices for their fellow soldiers and to a lesser extent for their nations, religions, ethnic groups, etc. Or Kant’s categorical imperative: do unto others, that’s not really about reciprocity. Now it could be that all those things are just examples of humans being really dumb at applying RA and KS. But I just don’t think so. I admit though I could be wrong.

          • In reply to #97 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #95 by rainmac:

            If religious behavior is an enormous waste of energy and resources, then it’s inconsistent with evolution according to Dawkins.

            [Dawkins] recognized that the theories that explain a lot of animal behavior, while they also explain a lot of human behavior probably won’t be sufficient for explaining all of human behavior and he specifically had in mind things like culture and religion.

            It’s interesting that RD elevates humans to a special level by invoking different explanations to account for “unique” features that don’t exist in other animals. It reminds me of how the religious folks invoke their doctrines to claim that humans are created in the image of their deity, which similarly elevates humans to a special niche. Ultimately, when RD looks outside biological evolution by natural selection to explain human behavior, he does a disservice to evolutionary science by saying it’s insufficient to describe all biological systems. I don’t think that’s right, but I understand it’s the general consensus. Oh well.

          • In reply to #101 by rainmac:

            It’s interesting that RD elevates humans to a special level by invoking different explanations to account for “unique” features that don’t exist in other animals.

            Any scientist who wants to study human behavior has to start by admitting there are going to be different explanations for humans than other animals because humans are rather unique in the animal world. To start with no other animal can use language the way humans do. No other animal has written language.

            It reminds me of how the religious folks invoke their doctrines to claim that humans are created in the image of their deity, which similarly elevates humans to a special niche.

            Except what I’m saying is not at all the same. I’m not claiming that because humans are different they are in some abstract sense “better” than other animals, I’m just stating an obvious empirical fact that needs to be accounted for.

            Ultimately, when RD looks outside biological evolution by natural selection to explain human behavior, he does a disservice to evolutionary science by saying it’s insufficient to describe all biological systems.

            A dis-service? So what is evolutionary science insulted? Does chemistry do a dis-service to physics? Does biology do a dis-service to chemistry? Does psychology do a dis-service to biology? All I’m saying is that the concepts that work for other animals are obviously not sufficient. That’s not a dis-service it’s just good science, to recognize where a theory isn’t complete and where it needs to be extended or there is a need for a new theory.

          • In reply to #102 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #101 by rainmac:

            [Dawkins] recognized that the theories that explain a lot of animal behavior, while they also explain a lot of human behavior probably won’t be sufficient for explaining all of human behavior

            It’s interesting that RD elevates humans to a special level by invoking different explanations to account for “unique” features that don’t exist in other animals.

            A dis-service? So what is evolutionary science insulted?

            It’s been so long since I read Selfish Gene, I don’t remember if a meme is considered the result of NS or is, itself, separate and not subject to evolutionary pressures. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you said existing theories are insufficient to explain all human behavior, does that mean we’re thinking outside Darwinian evolution or inside it? I was assuming I was reading outside, but we know what happens when we assume…The disservice is potentially to the theory of evolution itself, which is already under attack from religious fanatics, which is why I made that made in the image of God analogy. If a meme is explained inside evolution, perhaps it’s byproduct theory that you mean when you refer to alternative theories to explain human behavior. I’ve been looking at the Cosmides and Tooby stuff you cited in #64. Thanks for that. I’m a big C&T fan, and I love the way they beat up on Gould. As you pointed out byproduct theory is part of the overall evolutionary landscape, so that wouldn’t be an alternative explanation, or would it?

          • In reply to #113 by rainmac:

            … Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you said existing theories are insufficient to explain all human behavior, does that mean we’re thinking outside Darwinian evolution or inside it?

            You can have a big pile of documents that completely show how your computer was built and all its mechanical and electronic workings, however, that is still insufficient to explain all its behavior because that behavior is also dependent on internal state which is changed by input from the outside world (including things like downloaded apps, dictionaries, viruses and the odd Nigerian Prince Scam). Simple Darwinian theory works well for how bodies get their capabilities developed, but when you get to complex behavior (not just an urge or drive) that is primarily extended phenotype, then internal state information, influenced by environment, becomes inseparable.

          • In reply to #115 by Quine:

            In reply to #113 by rainmac:

            … Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you said existing theories are insufficient to explain all human behavior, does that mean we’re thinking outside Darwinian evolution or inside it?

            that is still insufficient to explain all its behavior

            So if I understand you correctly, we need to look outside the laws of electricity and electronics to understand all the behaviors of a computer. And of course a computer is designed to accommodate inputs and outputs, which is taken into consideration in its design.

            complex behavior (not just an urge or drive) that is primarily extended phenotype, then internal state information, influenced by environment, becomes inseparable.

            And similarly you’re saying complex behavior influenced by the environment (learning?) cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. Does that include complex learning behavior in other mammals or just humans? If just humans, did something change in our biological construction that makes us separate and unique in the animal kingdom?

          • In reply to #122 by rainmac:

            And similarly you’re saying complex behavior influenced by the environment (learning?) cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. Does that include complex learning behavior in other mammals or just humans? If just humans, did something change in our biological construction that makes us separate and unique in the animal kingdom?

            So IMO we can explain most if not all non-human animal behavior by the stimulus-response theories that B.F. Skinner and others developed. (Together of course with understanding that certain behaviors, e.g. the dance of bees, are hard coded in animal genes)

            So how do we know that stimulus-response theories can’t just work for humans as well? (And keep in mind for a long time the dominant paradigm in psychology was that they could). One way we know that is by looking at language. Consider the two sentences:

            1) Green ideas sleep interactively.

            2) Interactively sleep ideas green.

            A native English speaker will identify 1 as grammatical but not 2 even though neither sentence makes any sense. That is the problem with stimulus response. There is no way that we can expect any English speaker to have come across those two sentences or anything even close to those two sentences before, yet there is obviously a competence that English speakers all have. So there must be some other paradigm at work here, namely that they have a model of grammar in their minds and that model can handle things that no system developed through stimulus and response could. It can determine the grammatical correctness of sentences it has never seen before and handle things like recursion.

          • In reply to #123 by Red Dog:

            we can explain most if not all non-human animal behavior by the stimulus-response theories that B.F. Skinner and others developed.

            This thread is going in some weird directions. In #64 you invoked Cosmides and Tooby whose work encompasses Skinnerian behaviorism and innate behavior. They denounce the nature-nurture dichotomy and show how all these forces interrelate and are interdependent. Learning and stimulus-response conditioning rely on genetically derived brain structures being in place and inborn predilections that anticipate environmental input to complete the expected development. But I think we’re more or less in agreement based on #120 where you said, “I think whatever answers we come up with such as memes has to be consistent with evolution.”

          • In reply to #128 by rainmac:

            Cosmides and Tooby whose work encompasses Skinnerian behaviorism and innate behavior.

            The part in my previous comment that talked about Cosmides and Tooby was a quote from a book but I have come across their names a lot and from what I know they have done very interesting work. I’m a little surprised to hear they are behaviorists since all the people that I respect think behaviorism is dead as a model for human behavior. But saying that doesn’t mean we just throw out Skinner and Operant Conditioning altogether. On the contrary, it’s a very powerful model for describing animal behavior and a lot of human behavior. The problem with behaviorism was that it just wanted to stop at Operant Conditioning. The behaviorists were so appalled by Freudianism that they went to the extreme of saying any psychological theory that talked about internal mental representations, i.e., things like language or rules, was not scientific. For reasons I’ve touched on in previous comments and that Chomsky describes in detail here eliminating such internal representations from psychology makes no sense.

            They denounce the nature-nurture dichotomy and show how all these forces interrelate and are interdependent.

            Can you say more about what that means? Because I don’t understand what you mean there. I don’t see how you can “denounce” the nature-nurture dichotomy. Clearly nature (genetics) and nurture (experience, learning) play a role in human behavior. I don’t know of any serious modern researcher who would deny that, even the Blank Slate proponents that Pinker refutes in his book of the same name didn’t go so far as to claim nature had absolutely no role in behavior. The controversy is how much of a role does nature play vs nurture. The Blank Slate people claim that all the interesting behavior is driven by nurture, people like Pinker think that a very significant portion is driven by nature, but even he is clear that nature sets the boundaries and determines the tendencies but nurture still plays a critical role.

          • In reply to #130 by Red Dog:

            Cosmides and Tooby: I’m a little surprised to hear they are behaviorists.

            Far from it. It’s just that they try to be inclusive by incorporating Skinnerian conditioning into their evolutionary psychology theories. And as you, me, and Chomsky agree, such psychological internal representations need to be accounted for by evolutionary science. As C&T say, “Studying psychology and neuroscience without the analytical tools offered by evolutionary theory is like attempting to do physics without using mathematics.” (Tooby, J., Cosmides, L. & Barrett, H. C. (2005). Resolving the debate on innate ideas: Learnability constraints and the evolved interpenetration of motivational and conceptual functions. In Carruthers, P., Laurence, S. & Stich, S. (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Structure and Content. NY: Oxford University Press.)

            As you know, there has been a historical debate between the tabula rasa behaviorists and the nature/innate folks represented by the sociobiologists and Pinker, but it’s a false dichotomy. There isn’t one without the other, and C&T denounce this false dichotomy. This all started with the idea that we have to look outside evolutionary science to understand all aspects of human behavior, but C&T and I disagree. There is no empirically valid alternative to evolution at this time to explain behavior, human or otherwise.

          • In reply to #131 by rainmac:

            In reply to #130 by Red Dog:

            Cosmides and Tooby: I’m a little surprised to hear they are behaviorists.

            Far from it. It’s just that they try to be inclusive by incorporating Skinnerian conditioning into their evolutionary psychology theories. And as you, me, and Chomsky agree, such psychological in…

            Now I understand what you mean by the false dichotomy, yes I agree absolutely.

            FYI, I just started reading an excellent paper by Toby and Cosmides, I wrote a comment on it at this new rd.net article on divinity degrees

          • In reply to #132 by Red Dog:

            Now I understand what you mean by the false dichotomy, yes I agree absolutely.

            You might be interested in this novel, scientifically-based Theory of Religion that borrows heavily from an article by T&C. It’s a bit long but worth a look.

          • In reply to #122 by rainmac:

            So if I understand you correctly, we need to look outside the laws of electricity and electronics to understand all the behaviors of a computer. And of course a computer is designed to accommodate inputs and outputs, which is taken into consideration in its design.

            Yes, I am talking about the difference between behavior and structure. The designers had a set of behaviors in mind, but the cardinality of the state space of your computer is 2 raised to the number of bits it can store (billions). True, the vast majority of those states produce no behavior, and we would consider “noise” but the size of the space is so large that speculating on behaviors is unbounded.

            Here is an example; in his excellent book, “The Pattern on the Stone,” Daniel Hillis explains writing a genetic algorithm for card sorting that produced a nearly optimal program, the internal behavior of which he, himself, could not understand. He knew all the laws of electronics that made his computer run, but the behavior being run was not explained at the electronic level. It’s the same level of explanation problem that prevents being able to explain a hurricane by the properties of water and air molecules.

            And similarly you’re saying complex behavior influenced by the environment (learning?) cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution.

            Darwin set out to explain the origin of species, not necessarily the behavior of species. You need more than Darwinian evolution to explain why my neighbor down the street can speak Chinese and I cannot (or why the Chinese language exists, at all).

            Does that include complex learning behavior in other mammals or just humans? If just humans, did something change in our biological construction that makes us separate and unique in the animal kingdom?

            It is going to be the case anywhere behavior modifying information is passed on outside of the genes, as is under study in other species.

          • In reply to #122 by rainmac:

            So if I understand you correctly, we need to look outside the laws of electricity and electronics to understand all the behaviors of a computer.

            That’s an interesting question. You can in theory predict everything about a computer using just the laws of electronics. However, to do that in reality would be impossible. You have multiple layers of abstraction between the actual bits and processor that manipulates the bits and the behavior we see on the screen. So to really “understand” a computer (to have a model that has some useful predictive power) you need to talk in terms of abstractions such as programming languages, objects, systems, etc.

          • In reply to #113 by rainmac:

            It’s been so long since I read Selfish Gene, I don’t remember if a meme is considered the result of NS or is, itself, separate and not subject to evolutionary pressures. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you said existing theories are insufficient to explain all human behavior, does that mean we’re thinking outside Darwinian evolution or inside it?

            Definitely “inside it” to the extent that anything we say has to be consistent with evolution. As to how much it will be within the existing paradigms of biology, I think it’s an open question. However, to some extent I think it’s not really that important a question. I would rephrase your question like this:

            When we have a science of psychology or sociology that is actually worthy of being called science, will it just be an extension of biology or will it be a whole new discipline?

            As an analogy consider the relation between physics and chemistry. Are they separate disciplines or really just sub-disciplines of natural science? Does it really matter and is there a test we could make to determine the answer? I think questions like that are mostly a holdover of our university system where we have the need to pigeon hole problems and answers but in the actual world of science people usually don’t worry about those things that much.

            In the evolutionary psychology books that I’ve been reading there are findings from anthropology, computer science, psychology, biology, game theory, etc. What topic is it really? Don’t know and don’t really care, what matters are the questions and the possible answers.

            Getting back to natural selection, I think whatever answers we come up with such as memes has to be consistent with evolution. How much it will actually rely on the concepts and methods of biology as opposed to other sciences such as computer science or anthropology I think is something we figure out as we go. I would actually love to hear what Dawkins would say on this question.

        • In reply to #95 by rainmac:

          What I’ve seen is a lot of people criticizing the stupidity of believing in and practicing religion. If religious behavior is an enormous waste of energy and resources, then it’s inconsistent with evolution according to Dawkins.

          Hi rainmac. I think I would replace your use of “stupidity of” and replace it with “susceptibility to”. Religious behavior – the belief in the supernatural – as has been discussed here, is a misfiring of some evolved tendencies, such as ‘obey your parents’, and our ‘hyper active agent detection’, as well as curiosity about – and fear of – various natural phenomena.

          Now there has been some discussion about whether or not humans are susceptible to natural selection. Is that the answer? There has been some suggestion that technology shields some people in recent history, but religion has existed for way longer.

          All life forms are subject to natural selection, but humans have in various ways ‘diluted’ the process by using our societies, intelligence and tools.

          Anyway, when I read God Delusion, I don’t recall RD saying humans were exceptions to evolutionary rules.

          Have you read RD’s other books, which are about science, all 11 of which I have, or just The God Delusion? In those you would find much information on this complex interplay between nature and culture, and your question would be clearly answered in many different ways…. Mac.

    • In reply to #93 by rainmac:

      How can both be true?

      You’re asking how parasites in general can exist? Why detrimental parasites haven’t gone extinct, possibly along with their hosts? Or evolved into a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with the host. Evolution isn’t over, it’s a continuing process.

  36. In reply to #100 by Smill:

    In reply to Nitya, post 71. Well, thanks for the heads up, literally. I’ll sure keep a look out for the big-headed babies. You are aware that early marriage and malnourishment and other correlates of poverty are the reasons most likely behind obstructed labours in the regions you refer to?

    Hi Smill,

    Here is a good explanation on birthing difficulties in humans, due to our very large brains and pelvises evolved for bi-pedaling, and its effects on early cultural cooperation, which likely had large accumulative social effects, including early ‘religious’ rites…. Mac.

    http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/277

  37. In reply to #100 by Smill:

    In reply to Nitya, post 71. Well, thanks for the heads up, literally. I’ll sure keep a look out for the big-headed babies. You are aware that early marriage and malnourishment and other correlates of poverty are the reasons most likely behind obstructed labours in the regions you refer to? It’s p…

    I normally just bow out when I know that I’m defeated, but this time I think I’ll just keep on regardless. I agree that the custom of early marriage, poverty, and lack of medical assistance all play their part in infant mortality. I also agree that the incidence of a C-section can be a matter of personal choice and affluence, but the fact that there is even one living baby with a ‘big head’ when it would not happen without medical intervention means that we’re now in a position to change the destiny of our genes. There are other examples where children would have not have made it to adulthood unless medical intervention had occurred. Such children live on and are able to pass on their genetic legacy. I’m not making a value judgement, I’m just saying that it’s becoming more and more possible.

    • In reply to #106 by Nitya:

      On big brains and C-section births: Here’s a possible species-division in the making. A C-sect-dependent humanity with baby skulls too big for mother’s pelvis, and the natural-birthing humanity, with something like the current trade-off between brain size and the difficulties of birth. Given long enough they’d be unable to interbreed. (In one direction at least). Especially if the C-sect-dependent side were to become isolated from the others, perhaps by choice, as in the movie Elysium.

      • In reply to #118 by OHooligan:

        In reply to #106 by Nitya:

        On big brains and C-section births: Here’s a possible species-division in the making. A C-sect-dependent humanity with baby skulls too big for mother’s pelvis, and the natural-birthing humanity, with something like the current trade-off between brain size and the diffic…

        That’s not to say that bigger heads necessarily result in higher intelligence either….they could just have big heads.
        I started following this train of thought after watching an excellent documentary called “What Makes Us Human”. Dr Alice Roberts mentioned, during the course of the program, that the size of the opening in the pelvis was a limiting factor in the size of the human head. I began to wonder about the impact of technological advances in this area over the long term.

        Caesarians have been performed for many years now, though that’s a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. I’m still not completely satisfied with the alternative arguments being offered. As I have no medical experience at all, arguments to the contrary will need to be couched in fairly simple terms.

  38. In reply to #105 by Smill:

    In reply to CdnMacAtheist, post 103. Hello and thank you for the article you referred to, which is a nice explanation, I agree. Thinking about the cranial capacity of hominids I found this very interesting, you may already be familiar with it(?) http://www.academia.edu/1347942/Themassofthehumanbrainisitaspandrel...

    Hello again.

    I had a brief look at this paper, but it’s too technical for my level of competence, plus I’m a bit shy of anything with ‘spandrel’ in it after reading Dawkins’ critique of Gould & Lewontin’s ‘spandrels’ in one of RD’s books….

    http://faculty.washington.edu/lynnhank/GouldLewontin.pdf

    http://oikosjournal.wordpress.com/2011/08/26/why-the-spandrels-of-san-marco-isnt-a-good-paper/

    The link to the WHO paper doesn’t work for some reason, and ‘Metabolic hypothesis for human altriciality” is too esoteric for my level of education or interest, unlike the explanation I linked to in #103, which I found after a quick browse…. Mac.

    • In reply to #107 by CdnMacAtheist:

      I’m a bit shy of anything with ‘spandrel’ in it after reading Dawkins’ critique of Gould & Lewontin’s ‘spandrels’

      I never could understand Gould. I read a couple of his books, but I never grasped what point(s) he was trying to make, if any. Unlike “The Selfish Gene”, which I found lucid and convincing.

      • In reply to #117 by OHooligan:

        In reply to #107 by CdnMacAtheist:
        I never could understand Gould. I read a couple of his books, but I never grasped what point(s) he was trying to make, if any. Unlike “The Selfish Gene”, which I found lucid and convincing.

        I haven’t had difficulty following or comprehending any of RD’s books or talks, even at my low level of formal scientific education.

        After reading various excerpts and critiques of Gould’s work, including NOMA, Punctuated Equilibrium and Spandrels, I haven’t bought any of his books – even though he has done good stuff. I think that his work has been well covered by others, and he had too much influence in the USA – as one of their own – plus his NOMA and PE views have created confusion among laypersons and scientists, and given much ammunition for religions to misuse…. Mac.

        • In reply to #126 by CdnMacAtheist:

          …I think that his work has been well covered by others, and he had too much influence in the USA – as one of their own – plus his NOMA and PE views have created confusion among laypersons and scientists, and given much ammunition for religions to misuse….

          Sadly, too true.

  39. Religion is for people with too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to do something interesting with it. So, yes, it’s definitely an extravagance. If you’re starving to death, you use instinct to try to survive, and not Bible quotes.

  40. Religion is an extravagance once we start building it outside ourselves. If religion is indeed spiritual…it is an inner state of mental revolution and evolution. Cut all the gimmicks. It’s all an inside job.

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