Dawkins speaks!
September 3, 2004 8:11 PM   Subscribe

Richard Dawkins discusses religion with a Darwinian outlook. RD: Could religion be a recent phenomenon, sprung up since our genes underwent most of their natural selection? Its ubiquity argues against any simple version of this idea. Nevertheless, there is a version of it that I want to advocate. The propensity that was naturally selected in our ancestors was not religion per se. It had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself today as religious behavior.
posted by skallas (35 comments total)

That hardly explains cathedrals. He has given no conditions under which some ideas (viruses) propagate better than others. If Dawkins really wants to understand religion, he would do well to study the following analogy:

Dawkins=high priest
Secular Humanism=religion
Proselytizing articles=sermons
Skallas=faithful acolyte

What is it about people that makes them so eager to inflict their ideas upon others? Most people arrive at their conclusion through some circuitious route and only then, before it threatens to collapse, try to construct hasty scaffolding.

I just read "Curious incident of the dog in the nighttime" which I didnt like very much but the protagonist, the autistic boy, did make me think how presumptuos it is to think that everyone thinks like us, and that we, having arrived at some Truth must foist it upon others.
posted by vacapinta at 8:45 PM on September 3, 2004

>Secular Humanism=religion

Actually, that can't be true as religion requires faith. As far as Dawkins motivation, I think its pretty clear that religion is an odd thing at best, differs from culture to culture/time to time, and trying to make heads or tails of it is a worthy pursuit. If it ends up being false (as religious claims tend to fail all practical tests) so be it, no need to take it personally.
posted by skallas at 8:54 PM on September 3, 2004

Dawkins is wrong in his first paragraph. Nature is as shitty an "accountant" as it is with everything else. The second paragraph just continues the fault in the first. I'm giving up at the third paragraph because that's where his arguement starts. It's like he hasn't even read his own books.

I love the illustrations though.
posted by wobh at 9:18 PM on September 3, 2004

Good article, if a bit pedantic. Dawkins spirals back to memetics in the end, sort of (like a moth to a flame? heh.). But the religion propogation mechanism (which he makes a point of saying he's mostly using as an illustration) seems wildly simplistic; to me, at least.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:21 PM on September 3, 2004

Obviously if a process doesn't confer any survival benefit, then its presumably a side-effect of another process whose benefits outweigh the original process' detriments. However, I really doubt anyone can really tell if religion is evolutionary advantageous or not (a calculation where everything is guestimated on orders of magnitude). A counterpart to his reasoning is that although a lot of people believe when they are young, a lot of people really don't find faith until they are old -- and his mechanism doesn't seem to really work in th at case at all.

On a side note, the column is so seeped in arrogance, it undermines its point. I'm agnostic, but seriously, there are definitely others examples he could have used and suggesting religion is obviously false, is rather silly thing to say for such a smart person.
posted by nads at 9:21 PM on September 3, 2004

What is it about people that makes them so eager to inflict their ideas upon others?

Well, let's see: Since you seem intent on doing that very thing, tell us what motivates *you*?
posted by Ayn Marx at 9:22 PM on September 3, 2004

this is probably very bad news for jesus christ.
posted by quonsar at 9:22 PM on September 3, 2004

Fair enough but I still think his argument is rather shoddy. Religion as a random belief riding upon valid beliefs (not unlike a parasite I would think) doesnt explain what makes Religion so powerful and so ecstatic for many. True and strong human emotions like Valor, Love, a belief in something bigger than yourself, a willingness to die bravely do exist outside religion. They exist in the concepts of fighting for your country (Nationalism), fighting for and loving your family and close kin (Tribalism)

We all seek to be a part of something bigger and when we have this feeling that is when we are happiest and most fulfilled. Scientists seek the ultimate nature of reality and the best scientists seek it with a hunger. We all seek to be part of a community and to be respected within that community and, further, to feel that the community we are part of is in some form "the best."

When all these feelings are channeled into something like sports, or civic pride, or pride in family then they are considered good qualities, healthy qualities. Religion, is in many ways an extension of these feelings, in many ways an exaggeration of all these feelings. When these feelings are channeled and controlled they have led to great Art and Music and Cathedrals - for an urge to achieve a higher sense of Nobility. When they are uncontrolled and loosed, they lead to xenophobia and war and petty provincialism.

All these things I have said are in many ways obvious to me and perhaps to others. I only point them out to make clear that when I read an essay by Dawkins or a book by Steven Pinker what I most feel is that they *dont* understand any of this and so are just trying to work it out for themselves the only way they know how - by constructing logical models.

Again, going back to the autistic child. He couldnt read facial expressions so his teacher made him drawings of peoples faces that corresponded to when someone is happy or sad. That is all well and good for him but we all understand that his mental models are limited in some way and so he strikes me at least, as being somewhat impoverished.

I hope this doesnt come across as arrogant.I'm just trying to understand Dawkins' compulsion. I'm not trying to persuade anyone of anything. Hopefully, this marks the difference between sharing and inflicting.
posted by vacapinta at 9:35 PM on September 3, 2004

hm, ida no if you could argue that Dawkins is a religionist in re "secular humanism" (and, c'mon, skallas, you can come up with a less hackneyed phrase in your sleep). But his tireless efforts to promote neo-Darwinian (Dawkinsian?) views of things come close to qualifying as displays of faith.
posted by mwhybark at 9:36 PM on September 3, 2004

Oh, and for what its worth, I do not consider myself religious. Most organized religion gives me the creeps though I do like to believe I am in my own way, deeply spiritual. That said, these Affirmations of Humanism on that linked site give me that same sense of "this is an organization that doesnt trust people to think for themselves" I mean, I agree with many of those, but I have an instinct against having tenets handed to me on a platter.
posted by vacapinta at 9:53 PM on September 3, 2004

What is it about people that makes them so eager to inflict their ideas upon others?


I'm just trying to understand Dawkins' compulsion.

"Inflict their ideas." "Compulsion." Do you feel this way about all teachers, professors, writers (and MeFi posters)? Or just the ones you disagree with? This sort of discourse is a very ordinary thing, and more than ordinary, it is fundamental to the way we live. Why do you find it so extraordinary in this particular case? Does the very fact of teaching or putting forth an idea become some sort of offense when you don't like what's being taught?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:10 PM on September 3, 2004

It's pretty well established that people will undergo a cost to themselves to punish an enemy. It's called "altruistic punishment," and it works because a gene for punishing your enemy at a non-rational cost will keep your enemy from gaming what cost you're willing to pay. It's observable in experiment.

The same principle could be applied to things like honor, courage, anger. Emotions cause us to act beyond an reasonable accounting of costs to ourselves, because in certain scenarios, our reasonable accounting might leave us vulnerable to being gamed by a calculating opponent. Think war faces, berzerkers, etc.

I think it's pretty clear why Dawkins finds this a suitable subject for consideration. If you are committed to looking at the world from a strictly scientistic point of view, faith is a powerful and baffling force of nature, sometimes very destructive and almost completely ubiquitous. It demands scrutiny by the curious mind.

And as for "That hardly explains cathedrals?" Well, no one ever said reason for something has to be as pretty and mysterious as the result. Vaulting partially explains their architecture, but it could be explained to you by a medieval hunchbacked stonemason in 10 minutes. The pertinent question from a scientific view is not which explanation is entirely satisfying, but which explanation is most parsimonious and elegant.

And as for "Darwinism is just another religion"... both sides of that argument are exercises in logical masturbation, and it's not going to get resolved in this or any thread.
posted by condour75 at 10:13 PM on September 3, 2004

He couldnt read facial expressions so his teacher made him drawings of peoples faces that corresponded to when someone is happy or sad. That is all well and good for him but we all understand that his mental models are limited in some way and so he strikes me at least, as being somewhat impoverished.

Which seems to me a perfect analogy for people who rely upon religion as a basis for their morality or their sense of self.
posted by rushmc at 10:23 PM on September 3, 2004

Also, as for the "arrogance": Dawkins presumes that his reader is an atheist, or at least an agnostic comfortable with the idea that faith has a physiological component. By this point in his career, that's probably saved him hundreds of pages of tepid palliatives.
posted by condour75 at 10:41 PM on September 3, 2004

This essay is an interesting intellectual exercise as far as understanding how certain ideas propagate from generation to generation. However, his treatment of religion is rather simplistic and doesn't address the question that I think is on most people's minds-- why do people have religious feelings and experiences, and can it be explained from an evolutionary point of view? Dawkins misses the experience of religion all together and focuses on a simplified exercise about memetics.
posted by deanc at 10:48 PM on September 3, 2004

The Religious Success Story
posted by homunculus at 10:49 PM on September 3, 2004

woop, my bad! I meant vacapinta, not skallas!

Sorry! No beef with the link even if I'm not a big Dawkins fan.
posted by mwhybark at 10:59 PM on September 3, 2004

It had some other benefit, and it only incidentally manifests itself today as religious behavior.

Ah. So it's like my appendix, or my tonsils, right?

Actually, that can't be true as religion requires faith.

Secular humanism requires a great deal of faith, although I suspect you will disagree because you probably see faith as belief in the face of contradiction by fact, rather than belief before facts are given or shaped. But taking the later definition, and given that secular humanism apparently subscribes to the idea that its epistemology can uncover most things worth knowing or at least knowable....

Maybe it will turn out to be true. Or maybe it will go the way of David Hilbert's program.
posted by weston at 11:01 PM on September 3, 2004

what a ridiculous thought that religion ISN'T darwinian. obviously the impulse to religion IS darwinian and serves some purpose or purposes that we may or may not understand. how could it be otherwise?
posted by muppetboy at 11:40 PM on September 3, 2004

Ah. So it's like my appendix, or my tonsils, right?

More like pornography. It doesn't actually serve to further your genes. It just tricks another stimulus/response system which generally IS helpful to reproduction. But as long as the original stimulus/response system is more effective than its absense, (like the moth's navigation system), the pornography gets a free ride.

I think, looking at the way most creation stories begin, it's entirely plausible that the system is derived from the ability to mentally track and record ancestors' lives and life experience. Anthropologists believe that humans live as long as they do because there's a survival advantage to having elders. It's also thought that keeping track of kinship groups and intermarriages may have been a critical factor in the development of human intelligence. If both are true, it would stand to reason that such a system would place high value on stories of what happened to the tribe before anyone present was alive.

I'm also not sure any of this discussion should devalue the actual qualia of a mystical experience. Should it really matter if you get a sudden rush of oneness with the universe because your parietal lobes are being suppressed, or whether it's some fat guy with a beard who lives in space?

Some more links of note:
Brain imagery and religious experience.

The philosophical debate between qualia as irreducible, non-physical entities, versus functionalism.
posted by condour75 at 2:05 AM on September 4, 2004

unnoted by any of you is the interesting assumption that after a mere 100,000 years, humans are actually evolutionarily successful

one could also argue that the idea of heirarchy has other side effects besides that of religion ... and that many religious texts, actions and thoughts have actually been subversive to the pecking order ... the sermon on the mount comes to mind ... in fact, monotheistic religions seem to produce more democratic cultures where the idea of a strict heirarchy is weakened ... which indicates to me that there may be another reason

but dawkins is oversimplifying a lot of things ... religion isn't one meme, it's a galaxy of memes that interact in complex and often contradictory ways ... and the thought that aspects of culture among intelligent species have an evolutionary benefit for the species itself is questionable ... aren't things like art, literature, poetry, religion, hula hoops, etc. luxuries as opposed to necessities for survival? ... and it remains to be seen whether we are evolutionarily successful, doesn't it?
posted by pyramid termite at 5:33 AM on September 4, 2004

The diff between Dawkins (science) and religion is that an idea that uses science can be tested and if need be revised; religion is taken on faith and nothing else.

We have always needed to know (or were curious about) three things: ;Where did we come from. Why are we here. Where do we go after we die...religions of all kinds offer answers. Darwinian evolution does too but is hardly as comforting for those who are about to die or who mourn a loved one.
posted by Postroad at 5:56 AM on September 4, 2004

One of my frequent frustrations with Dawkins is how he keeps trying to frame things in terms of neo-Darwinism, or neo-Darwinist analogies, leading to rather flawed applications when he jumps out of Biology and into Psychology and Sociology. Part of it comes from the feeling that he is trying to "pull rank," in trying to tell social scientists their business. On the other hand, I think that his grasping for a neo-Darwinian analogy is fundamentally flawed in that just because the behavior of gene frequencies can be modeled in terms of information theory, does not mean that other branches of information theory can be modeled in terms of neo-Darwinian genetics.

I think the fatal flaw in his argument is the assumption that religious ideas are "plainly false." They are only plainly false after humanity has spent a large chunk of its time and energy discovering that what had seemed arbitrary to past generations is in fact, made necessary because of how the universe works. I would argue that to a large degree, religion comes from the fact that humans are curious about the universe and want to understand why it works in order to better control one's relationship with it. Having an answer, even if it is wrong, causes less cognitive dissonance than an answer that is right.

I do think that Dawkins is on the right track when he suggests that the Darwinian question needs to be rephrased, in terms of value to the individual for religious behavior rather than group selection. However, he seems to go right into his hobbyhorse of memetics. I would argue that the answer is a bit more simple. Conformists are in a better position to benefit from others than iconoclasts.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:14 AM on September 4, 2004

From September 15th 2001, still the best thing written on its subject.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2004

Having an answer, even if it is wrong, causes less cognitive dissonance than an answer that is right.

posted by rushmc at 9:51 AM on September 4, 2004

you might check out kevin kelly's thots on lamarkian evolution, or like howard bloom :D
[S]elective pressures for biological change have run rampant since the days when men first invented the temptation of the city. Most of these pressures are of the sort most likely to shape brain physiology and lead to the creation of "mental modules" oriented toward large-scale social integration. The slice of mankind which pioneered the use of cities in the late Stone Age steeped itself in an urban environment for a good 5,000 years before the more famous cities like Ur, Babylon, and Thebes kicked off the later phases of the metropolitan experience. During that pre-Ur stage, the remains of Catal Huyuk make it clear that social differentiation was strong. It appears that wealth was shuttled massively toward those who specialized in the perpetuation and regeneration of large-scale social dynamics. Priests, for example, are specialists in social cohesion. The work of anthropologist Mary Douglas hints that religious rituals may be practice for the routines which pin together a society. [51] Rituals inculcate obedience to authority, and act as calisthenics for the sort of simultaneous, coordinated activities—complete with selfless sacrifice--which make massive social structures tick. Confucius would have agreed. To him, the constant exercise of ritual was an indispensable social need. Try thinking of it this way: civility is a set of habits, habits of cooperation and habits of self-restraint. To attain these civilized disciplines, one needs a strong prefrontal cortex—home of the executive functions that rein our more chaotic impulses in. One also needs practice—practice repeated nearly every day. Regular rehearsal keeps the habits of self-control vigorously alive. Religious rituals are calisthenics for the habits indispensable to large-scale social enterprise.

Religion also keeps our ancestors chorusing inside of us, inculcating wisdom garnered long before we were born. It links us to the data base of generations which have come before. Supercomputers of the late ‘90s pulled off superhuman feats with a mere dozen processing units hooked up as a team. If a group of 50 humans makes up its mind by parallel processing, that’s 50 processors in the neural net at any given time. But add the memory stores of 50 generations, and you’ve plugged vestiges of output from 24,950 modules more into your processing line.

Ancestor worship and respect for ancient authority are among the few things which separate man from beasts. They link us in a chain of wisdom which transcends the centuries. In Catal Huyuk, those who ran the rituals and vivified the myths behind them were the city’s priests. So heavily did Catal Huyuk rely on the social glue of priestly ritual that one room in every three was a holy sanctuary. For their services priests were given larger living spaces, more generous allotments of food, and numerous other luxuries. If disaster struck, priests were among the best placed to survive. So were other experts in social connectivity—political leaders like kings, judges, and military chiefs able to settle disagreements with a minimum of friction, to boost consensus, to give men confidence in times which made them tremble, to advance a city’s interests, and to help it dodge catastrophe...
posted by kliuless at 11:15 AM on September 4, 2004

Metafilter: exercises in logical masturbation
posted by semmi at 11:21 AM on September 4, 2004

On that note kliuless, there's also the related issue of the "Baldwin Effect", which states that seemingly Lamarckian effects can come from a fitness landscape which rewards learned behaviors. If one organism in a group stumbles upon fire, suddenly the fitness landscape sharply changes, rewarding people who can quickly copy his fire-building technique.

posted by condour75 at 11:35 AM on September 4, 2004

rushmc: Pfft, I know I shouldn't type before finishing my second cup of coffee.

I should have said "having a theory, even if it is not a very good theory, causes less cognative dissonance than no theory at all."

Humans are control junkies. They want to have some sort of a theory that imposes some sort of order to the universe. That theory could be wrong, unreliable, and no better than chance, but we gotta have something there.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on September 4, 2004

I just read the rest of the article and I am reminded of this this quote:

"Dear Mrs. Chown, Ignore your son's attempts to teach you physics. Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is. Best wishes, Richard Feynman."
posted by wobh at 1:22 PM on September 4, 2004

is there a god?
posted by mcsweetie at 2:50 PM on September 4, 2004

That theory could be wrong, unreliable, and no better than chance, but we gotta have something there.

I understand where you're coming from with this, but I think it is false, or rather, I think this attitude is itself a function of ignorance. The more one understands the less one tends to feel totally helpless and adrift and is therefore less likely to grasp at the first straw presented. "I wonder but I don't know" is not only a perfectly acceptable answer, it is often the most appropriate one.
posted by rushmc at 6:13 PM on September 4, 2004

This probably isn't the best link, but Julian Jaynes was a name I kept expecting to see come up in Dawkin's essay as well as this thread. Like a moth to a flame, here is that expected link.

Perhaps everybody's already heard of it. Perhaps not. If not, do give "The Origin of Consciousness In the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" a look.
posted by crasspastor at 8:06 PM on September 4, 2004

rushmc: "The more one understands the less one tends to feel totally helpless and adrift and is therefore less likely to grasp at the first straw presented."

Well, that is the key phrase. The more one understands! How is a person in a neolithic culture where the next continent might as well be another planet supposed to understand that the Earth is in fact, a spinning ball of rock filled with molten rock that is flying at an inconcievable rate of speed around the sun than obviously passes overhead once a day? How is a neolithic person who has never traveled more than 200 miles from the place of her birth supposed to understand the meterology of thunderstorms or the hydrodynamics of 100 year floods?

A large part of science works by analogies. To a citizen of Old Kingdom Egypt, the theory that the sun travels the heavens in a boat, and then is carried undeground to the East makes perfect sense because he understands how boats and underground chambers work. To a bronze age Greek, volcanos as the smithies of the gods is perfectly understandable because of how bronze is smelted and shaped. To a farmer in Babylon, the tall tale of all the world covered in water is only a small stretch from the unpredictable 100 year flood that covered everything she knew in water.

"I wonder but don't know," is cold comfort to most people. It is acceptable now that we see the heavens as ruled by gravity (and are no longer quite as dependent on our priests to calculate the most probable start of the seasons.) It is acceptable now that vulcanism is known to be a function of radioactive decay and plate techtonics, and we are on the virge of predicting the next big eruptions. It is acceptable now that we can crack open a paper and see weather predictions for an entire continent. We know now that what appears arbitrary when you look at what goes on in small pockets of humanity becomes necessary and inevitable when you look at entire planets, continents and watersheds.

So lacking global, continental or even regional views of what is going on, how would the neolithic people faced with the arbitrary, inexplicable, and perhaps even spiteful behavior of nature supposed to UNDERSTAND what goes on? Well, humans can be arbitrary, inexplicable and sometimes spiteful. So why not think of the forces of nature as being ruled by some kinds of human conflicts we are barely aware of?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:45 PM on September 4, 2004

I'm not suggesting that people in primitive societies should have somehow intuited the workings of the natural world! I'm simply pointing to a progression from simplistic to sophisticated that is highly correlated with an increase in knowledge (analogous to the progression we observe as an individual grows from a child to an adult).

"I wonder but don't know," is cold comfort to most people.

Perhaps because their expectations are childlike and unreasonable?
posted by rushmc at 7:38 AM on September 5, 2004

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