Questionable Motives

February 5, 2010

Is there evidence for a ‘god’ gene?

Filed under: belief,Faith,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 2:02 pm

Excerpts from an article by neurobiologist Jeff Schweitzer The Fallacy of the God Gene over at HuffPo:

The New York Times published “The Evolution of the God Gene” by Nicholas Wade in which we are told that, “religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning it exists because it was favored by natural selection.” We are further informed that religion is “universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”

Both claims are wrong. But they are made so frequently as to have become conventional wisdom, like the canard that we only use 10 percent of our brains. Such folklore is a powerful force so these claims largely go unchallenged no matter how false.

From these incorrect assertions, the author makes an incredible leap from innocuous myth to something more dangerous: “For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.”

First, religion did not evolve through the mechanisms of natural selection. The idea of god perpetuates itself through cultural transmission. Second, atheists as a rule do not claim that religion is “useless” at all, fully recognizing that an appeal to an unseen force had benefits to early human societies unschooled in the sciences. Third, even if the absurd claim were true that religion evolved through natural selection, that would in no way challenge the tenet that god is nothing but a silly myth. The “evolution” of religion would simply mean that perpetuating a ridiculous myth had a selective advantage, nothing more, and would certainly not lend credence to the myth itself.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept “I don’t know,” because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don’t know.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of détente between religion and science? No. The two seek fundamentally different answers asking completely different questions using incompatible methods of inquiry. Religion seeks to search for and understand purpose; science does not. Science is a tool of rationalism, which seeks an objective truth that can be verified with reproducible data. The two ideas cannot be reconciled.



  1. Being religious may improve your chances of survival when living in group – but it could equally be a disadvantage to your survival – take the Jews during WWII.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 5, 2010 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

    • There is a school of evolutionary thinking that treats groups as if they were separate ‘thingies’ that evolve. This is a category mistake in thinking.

      Evolution is about change within species that is then translated into what is called historical community ecology or lineage to account for both adaptation and unity of type. That’s why evolution is a theory… an explanation… whereas religious belief is best described as a meme, a cultural idea… an hypothesis.

      Apples and oranges.

      So whenever someone asserts that there is some kind of evolutionary genetic component to religious thinking, then one knows that the person misunderstands what evolution means.

      Now for my little rant.

      The study of groups -as if they were real thingies rather than properly understood to be representative mental constructs that assume the general characteristics of the majority of individuals that make up the group – tends to fall under the purview of the ‘social’ sciences (and sometimes the humanities). That’s why these ‘other’ sciences are often home to some really terrible science and so often legitimately criticized by other scientists who grasp how tenuous is the link between good science and bad. Sociology is at the head of this pack and is usually informed by borrowings from other legitimate areas of study (like psychology and anthropology), common sense, or lies. Its an area of study that relies mostly on terminology, as if by labeling a general behaviour with a new term it therefore becomes meaningful. It usually isn’t. This kind of group thinking is very popular and difficult to dispel. It relies on people who mistake muddled thinking for legitimate.

      As a typical example, one hears that boys are better at, let’s say, spacial tasks than girls, which comes from studies that show that 51% of boys are more spatially able than 49% of girls. That means that nearly half of all girls are better at spacial abilities than almost half of boys. It does not mean that boys as a group are better at spacial ability than girls as a group. Yet the overarching generality extracted from such studies useful in terms of group behaviours lends false credence to the assertion that boys (that’s one group) are better at spacial tasks than girls (another group), and then this lie – because that is what this conclusion is – is translated into the real world where individual ability is prejudged on the basis of group gender. Such thinking is as dangerous as it is inaccurate, with real consequences.

      I find the same kind of group thinking associated with membership to either various religions or non belief, where the group membership is assumed to be a determining factor of individual attributes, whereas the truth is exactly the other way around. It’s important to remember the distinction.

      Group membership may indeed be seen as a benefit or a liability… but only insofar as others act in a way that empowers this membership to be meaningful. I think it is always a mistake to empower group membership as being meaningful in one’s perspective, a mistake that leads people into dividing how they see their world into false categories such as us/them camps, and the kind of thinking that allows and excuses further parsing of actual members away from understanding each one to be an individual that is real with rights and dignity into members of some artificial group that requires different rights and perhaps less dignity, as has been made so terribly evident by the actual results of the Holocaust.

      Religious thinking is often associated with group thinking, that ‘women’ have these rights and duties and obligations and men have these other ones, and that this parsing has been dictated by god to be ‘natural’. This is broken thinking from the start and causes all kind of real problems for real people. It has nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with poor thinking that warps and distorts our perceptions of the world we share.

      Comment by tildeb — February 5, 2010 @ 10:39 pm | Reply

  2. I agree, the evolution of memes is totally different branch of science than biology. I think humans evolved the ability to imitate and replicate ideas, as this gave us the evolutionary advantage at a basic level – for example one human can communicate to another human how to break a nut, but the idea itself (the meme) does not necessarily provide the evolutionary advantage – a poorly thought out meme breaking the nut with your teeth, would not provide a competitive advantage in the natural world, because your teeth would quickly blunt and your would stave to death.

    I think of memes as programming code that can be executed on the evolved brain. Our brain can execute many different memes and indeed does, at anytime. Our brain is quick to learn new tricks, and the advantages of learning those tricks. In fact our brains can assess the advantage before it chooses to execute the meme – it re-thinks the idea, and simulates it in our mind’s eye, to cost assess the outcome “will this idea help me”.

    For the meme to spread it does not need physical reproduction to be involved, where as true evolution does – and here (for me anyway) lies the difference. Religion is a meme, it is just a bit of programming code that executes, and spreads like a virus, and for some people it may indeed provide them with a social advantage, but for others it may not. People consciously decide to use religion, where as a truly evolved piece of biology such as the ‘appendix’ in our gut – we have no choice over, we can’t wish it away.

    True evolution deals with the infrastructure the ‘physical machine’ and its mechanical capability. Memes are programming code that run on it – thoughts.

    Arguably memes are a byproduct of conscious thought. Overall the ability to create and pass on memes provides us with an evolutionary advantage, our brains have a physical capability to do this for basic functions over time our society has evolved its thinking (memes) to take a advantage of this mechanism on a social scale, and it is one of the reasons we have built the modern world, this in turn has provided our species with a competitive advantage.

    The best example of a meme is the scientific method, education and learning – this has provided us with far more advantages than any other meme, therefore as a society we have embraced it and used it, but the biology is still the same, it is still the same computer that runs the code.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 6, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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