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The Evolution of God 19 March 2006

Posted 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.[1] 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.[2]

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."[3] 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.[4] 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[5], 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.

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] I'm taking this summary from Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident" in The Atlantic, December 2005, 105-112.
[4] See Jesse M. Bering, "The Cognitive Psychology of Belief in the Supernatural" in American Scientist, March-April 2006, 142-149.
[5] 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.



1. Equality - 19 March 2006

I have nothing intelligent to add so will just say this is very interesting stuff, Todd.

2. mattblack - 19 March 2006

It’s somewhat intimidating to jump into a debate like this that is obviously ongoing and involves experts in psychology, anthropology, biology, etc. So perhaps just a question. The debate seems to be built on an underlying foundation of positivism (as I understand it), by which I mean the metaphysical possibilities are thrown out precisely because they are metaphysical. In other words, by saying that religion finds its source in either biological, social or psychological processes (and that the result may even be maladaptive) there seems to be an already assumed position that religion cannot be even vaguely what it claims to be which is a response to some sort of spiritual reality.

I suppose I’m not quite ready to concede the impossibility of a world beyond the understanding of the human mind (not to say that I disagree with your last statement that “no aspect of human life is beyond scrutiny from any direction”). I just wonder if there is anyone in this debate that doesn’t throw out the possibility that religion is trying to describe something that might be real.

3. Todd - 19 March 2006


Over the past 10 years, I have kind of swung between the poles, regarding the relationship of science and religion. Right now, I’m falling more to the science side (but talk to me again in a year). Let me just take some of your points and give you my present response.

First, “positivism” is a difficult word to pin down because of it’s varied history since it was coined by Compte in the late 18th century. But in general, positivism is a kind of empiricism, which states in the simplist of terms that knowledge comes from experience. This is the basic foundations of scientific thinking, but isn’t the whole story. Newtonian scientific method (and for that matter, Compte’s) insists on the synthesis of experience (sensory input) and reason (mental process). A pure positivism without reason leads you no where, because the very nature of the human mind and the process of knowledge-production requires the interpretation of the sensory data.

On the other hand, metaphysics are equally tricky because of its various meanings, but it was basically an idea that goes back to Aristotle and generally means the study of the true, or deep nature of things, things which aren’t directly sensible/observable, but which are nonetheless true. Historically, metaphysics have relied solely on reason to produce knowledge. And so you got things like Plato’s allegory of the cave, where only the philosopher could see what is beyond the physical world; or like Aritotle’s metaphysics of trying to figure out how imperfect things exist in a universe of forms. In Western culture, these metaphysics were blended with religion to form Christian theology.

The question becomes, are there realities not observable which are nonetheless knowable?

It isn’t true that the science rests on the assumption that religious claims are false; rather, it is proving proving that religion is something other than what it claims to be. However, science does not claim that there realities outside of our experience don’t exist; instead, science claims that we can’t know of realities that aren’t observable.

The organic theory of knowledge (John Dewey) posits that all knowledge is experiential. That is, that all knowledge arises out of a complex interaction of an organism’s experience of its environment. That includes experiences of our minds, which in turn includes religious experiences. Some cool research has been done about the feeling states of our minds (Antonio Damasio) and the interaction of our embodied experience and our knowledge, which includes our knowledge influencing our minds to experience things that our bodies aren’t directly experiencing. The implication, here, is that our religious experiences are real and that we devise religious cultures to explain them.

Stephen J. Gould was trying to set up a system where religion is treating a different reality or a different truth. There are many who make this argument. But for me, all human knowledge, religious and scientific, both arise out of that embodied experience. What scientists often deny (or miss) is that the meaningful parts of human knowledge (the humanities, arts, religion, philosophy) are participating in their scientific endeavors, by supplying value systems that determine the significance and meaning and implications of data. Scientific findings are not produced in, nor do they exist in cultural vacuums.

4. Todd - 20 March 2006

Apologies for horrendous grammar and spelling mistakes above. The comment GUI doesn’t allow for editing, so hopefully you’ll be able to discern my meanings without renting a Urim and Thumim.

5. mattblack - 20 March 2006

I’ll look up some of Antonio Damasio’s work. It sounds interesting.
You write, “The question becomes, are there realities not observable which are nonetheless knowable?”
Good question. And of course the next question follows, how then will we know them? It’s interesting because the responses I have to the question tend to be religious. I think… “through a glass darkly” and “man’s ways are not God’s ways” etc., etc… But I also think about Kurt Gödel.
I’m currently reading a book about Kurt Gödel called Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein. Gödel, of course, is famous in mathematics for his Incompleteness Theorems which show that there are true but unprovable arithmetical propositions, and that formal systems that contain arithmetic cannot prove their own consistency. There seems to be all number of people that like to quote Gödel when trying to prove the rather sophomoric notion that “nothing is provable therefore nothing is true” but what interests me about Gödel is that he himself takes the exact opposite approach. Goldstein describes him as a Platonist who was committed to the “objective existence of mathematical reality.” In other words, the things that we know (in this case mathematics) do not arise out of an embodied experience but exist independent of the human mind. 1+1=2 even if humans don’t exist and even if it can’t be proven without some fundamental intuitions about the nature of 1.
I’ll stop short of pledging my allegiance to Plato (or Gödel for that matter), but I do think that it would be interesting if those that came down on the side of religion in the current religion vs. science debate would stand up for the idea of a rational mysticism instead of pretending that they could prove metaphysical principles as if they were as solid as observable facts. Also, while I think “science” may not rest “on the assumption that religious claims are false” certainly a good number of scientists do. Which, I suppose, is the whole point of your original post–people have been talking about these issues intelligently for not just years but generations and just because biologists (among others) are new to the debate, they shouldn’t act as if the last 6,000 years of inquiry don’t exist.

6. GDTeacher - 12 April 2006

I came late, but came from your link on NOM. This is very interesting stuff. I’d have to agree with Equality. I’m not sure I can add much, but it has given me new things to consider and work into my thinking.

7. bob mccue - 12 April 2006


I really enjoyed your blog entry, and am on pretty much the same page as you across the board. I like Dennett, except for his meme analysis, in particular.

GD Teacher (at NOM – http://www.aimoo.com/forum/postview.cfm?id=319220&CategoryID=11365&ThreadID=2496116&start=1) was referring to some research I cited that indicates how religious people tend to be more healthy, better adjusted, etc. As my thinking on this subject has evolved, I have come to the view that being connected to group used to be much more important to our survival than it now is, and that while it was critically important the religious impulse was likely used as part of what held the group together. This was particularly so in cultures were it was essential that members of other groups be killed while in competition for scarce resources. A strong religious cult would strengthen insider – outsider lines, and enable the dehumanizing of the enemy required to justify killing other humans. Hence, while many aspects of the religious impulse may now be a harmful spandrel, I don’t think that it likely was while it was being woven into our dna.

Religion’s tribalistic very tendency is part of what Dennett indicates as organized religion’s downside. And I agree with that. However, most of us still seem to do better when we are members of a cohesive group or community than otherwise. Many such communities still have religious orientations. I think that as time passes, other cohesive groups will evolve around yoga, art, long term community and ecological issues, etc. However, I see nothing wrong with groups that derive their identity from a religious tradition. I correspond regularly with David Oler (see http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/23479/format/html/displaystory.html) and spent a week with him last summer. He leads a 40 synagogue group of secular humanist (ie. atheist) Jews who value their tradition, its rituals and many of its values but have secular humanists beliefs. I attended Lentan services at a large Anglican church in Ottawa a week ago where most of the congregants hold similar views, while loving their tradition and in particular its liturgy. Over half of the congregants are gay persons. My friend there is a gay many who is a professor of music and a local university and runs the entire music and liturgical function for the group. He was at one time the assistant organist in the SLC Tab. I spent the evening before the Lentan service talking religion in general with him, and hours after the service trying to grasp what he was doing with the liturgy, how liturgy touches us, how it is likely to evolve (or can be cause by people like him to evolve) as a tool to build bridges over troubled cultural waters, etc. Wonderful time.

I think combinations like these will become more common because of our need for intimate communal association based on shared values, and in particular, shared ritual.

I would be interested to hear what you think about this.



8. Todd’s Hammer » Blog Archive » The Root of All Evil?: Part 2—The Virus of Faith (Review) - 5 July 2006

[…] Whereas when I watched the first one, I found myself wishing Dawkins could be more social scientific in his analysis of religion, watching the second installment I just found myself wishing he would slap some of these people, which is evidence of my own growing impatience with the power of religion in American society and of Dawkins’ equanimity (at least on film). Overall, I would say that Part 2 is far superior to Part 1, and would highly recommend it, even for showing to religious believers. My online acquaintance Bob McCue (who has posted thoughtful and detailed responses on this blog on the evolution of religion, here and here), has argued recently that the problem with the documentary as a whole is that it is basically preaching to the choir, that believers would not be swayed or moved to consider critically their beliefs by watching the film, and in fact might probably be turned away from the film by Dawkins’ apparent strident atheism. I find that to be especially true of Part 1, but perhaps less so of Part 2 for a couple of reasons. […]

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