The Evolution of God 19 March 2006Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Science.
Although Western philosophers and scientists have been asking why human beings believe in God for a few hundred years, it's only been recently that scientists have begun actually testing hypotheses and seeking biological explanations for belief in the supernatural. It seems pretty clear at this point that we have evolved a capacity to believe in the supernatural; what is unclear is why and how.
One strand of thought is about the evolution of religion as culture. This is compelling as an idea, that religions "evolved" over time, but there are some drawbacks in the way this argument is being articulated at the moment. The foremost proponent of this approach, Daniel Dennett, whose new book Breaking the Spell is making the rounds, argues bascially that religion, like all phenomena, can be studied scientifically and should be evaluated based on its merits like any other cultural formation. So far so good. Where Dennett looses me, however, is in his reliance on an odd idea of the cultural "meme." Richard Dawkins proposed in the early 1980s that cultures might work in similar ways to genes, in discrete units of meaning which are, like genes, struggling to survive; and so cultures can be studied in the same way as organisms, using biological evolution as a metaphor.
While there are some interesting possibilities here, there are also some serious problems with this metaphor; unfortunately, many evolutionary biologists have seized hold of this metaphor and are making fundamentally flawed arguments. Here is a perfect example of where scientists of different orders need to take each other's research seriously. Cultural Anthropology and Sociology have been studying the formation of cultures and their changes over time for 150 years. But to read Dennett, it's as if none of that work exists. Dennett speaks of religious "memes" as acting independent of their "host organisms" in order to ensure their survival; cultural bledning is explained as these memes adapting to new conditions to survive. My two preliminary objects are 1) that cultures do not exist apart from or independent of human bodies or experience, and 2) cultures do not brachiate or evolve in a manner parallel to how organisms evolve. On the first objection, human cultures are embodied; they arise out of the experiences of embodied individuals in transaction with their environment, physical and social. Some aspects of culture are designed in such a way to shape perception and prevent their transformation; but the problem with Dennett's interpretation is that cultures do transform. Human beings "trip" over things in their environment constantly, which forces them to a) change their environment, b) change their belief, or c) a combination of the two.
On my second objection, bits and pieces of human cultures move around and among various cultures based on the social, cultural, and personal desires of the "hosts." While some of these desires may be shaped by certain cultural expectations, they can also be agentively contradicted, reformulated, rejected. Sometimes, humans even create new beliefs out of whole cloth to deal with new experiences, completely laying aside without warning previous beliefs. Human brains are incredibly plastic and curious, and they readily adopt cultural bits from each other that "work" for them. In short, cultural blending occurs through human transaction with their environment (broadly defined) and with each other.
I do not mean to overstate my objection—I agree with Dennett that some cultures are structured in a way to encourage their survival. But I disagree on how those beliefs come to be structured, how they change, and how they blend. For the study of the the evolution of religion, biologists and biological philosophers need to team up with scientists who actually study culture (anthropologists and sociologists) to work this out in more complex, accurate and satisfying terms.
More compelling and ultimately, to me, more interesting are several studies in Cognitive Science, which are now looking at the brain structures of religious belief. These hypotheses take several related forms. On one hand, the idea is that religion evolved by accident as a by-product of our cognitive evolution, the development of our brains. This is explained in two ways. First, our brains are set up to make distinctions between our bodies and the "outside" world. Through studying babies, researchers have found (in sharp distinction to Jean Piaget's theories, which have until recently been taken as gospel) that human babies as young as 6 months impute intention to other humans but not to objects (they even understand gravity!). This means that babies make a distinction between minds with intentions and inanimate objects. By 1 year old, a baby can follow the gaze of another human being and understand emotional facial expressions. Babies, then, understand both the physical, obdurate world and the social world of humans. Cognitive scientists are now hypothesizing that these two brain processes—interpreting the physical world and interpreting the social world—overlap in our brains. The physical world interpretation seems to be more primitive and is shared by many other animal species, whereas the social interpretation seems to be a more recent evolution and is shared only with other primates, if at all. The hypothesis is that the ability to see the physical world as separate from mind allows us to envision mindless bodies and bodiless minds. A second hypothesis is that our social interpretation system "overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist." In this view, the mind-body dualism as envisioned by everyone from ancient Chinese ancestor worshippers to Plato and everyone in between and since arose not out of faulty culture and perception of reality, nor out of Freudian wishfulfillment. Rather, it is a natural (if somewhat maladaptive) result of the overlapping systems of sensory interpretation: The benefits of being able to see the physical world as separate from our minds and of being able to interpret the intentions and desires of others around us have enabled the dominance of our species. Religion is an accidental by-product, or as evolutionary scientists call it, a spandrel.
On the other hand, some cognitive scientists are hypothesizing that the religious impulse may itself be adaptive. But I'm waiting to hear more of this research, before I decide what I think of this hypothesis. In any case, one proponent of this view, Jesse Bering, has found that even avowed atheists resort to supernatural thinking, often unknowingly, when they are asked about the desires and emotions of dead people (that is, there is a discontinuity between responses about biology of the dead and responses about emotion of the dead). His research demonstrates that our minds are exceptionally susceptible to what he calls "ghost stories," or stories that impute intention and desire to dead individuals. In Berring's view, belief in the afterlife and the supernatural may give social advantage by structuring social interaction by minimizing selfish behavior, thereby increasing the possibility of survival of the group. Right now, I personally find this hypothesis less plausible because of the work that has been done on human altruism lately, which seems to arise quite naturlaly by itself out of, again, the development of the human social brain.
Ultimately, I agree with Dennett's moral philosophical position: 1) religions are natural parts of our evolution, 2) many religious belief systems are maladaptive and immoral in the world we actually live in; and 3) religions must be examined, evaluated, modified or rejected accordingly.
 Dennett is doing the interview circuit to promote his book, and if you don't have time to read the rather dense book, have a go at one of these: KQED's Forum and Point of Inquiry.
 A much better explanation of how human cultures evolve in parallel with their biological evolution and, more to the point, with their experience in the enviornment can be found in the work of Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Briefly, Boyd and Richerson have discovered using statistical modeling that human beings tend to function on a balance between innovation and conservatism. Conservatism is adaptive in an environment where the variables are known and where survival is assured. But when the environment changes, the species must also have individuals who are innovators and creative thinkers, who can adapt to the new environmental conditions. This includes both physical environment and social environmental pressures. A third aspect has to be added in, that of the human capacity to learn and transmit knowledge from generation to generation, not just of simple tools (like chimpanzees do), but complex and detailed knowledge of how to survive in particular environments. The miracle of human cognition and culture is the incredible capacity and plasticity of human beings to learn from each other, innovate and conserve.
 I'm taking this summary from Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident" in The Atlantic, December 2005, 105-112.
 See Jesse M. Bering, "The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural" in American Scientist, March-April 2006, 142-149.
 This is in contradiction to Stephen J. Gould's famous argument that science and religion occupy two separate "magisteria," which do not overlap and describe different aspects of life. I have come to reject this notion, and now find that all human knowledge is overlapping and related, and that no aspect of human life is beyond scrutiny from any direction.