The God Gene Redux

Darwinists of all stripes can hardly refrain from evolutionary storytelling when it comes to human psychology.  Not surprisingly, they focus largely on their opponents–those who have faith in God.  The recent work by archeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery seems to follow the familiar template.1  Start with an actual study, then speculate wildly about how natural selection brought about the observed results.

During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated, astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.

This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.

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.

For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.

In case you missed it before, I think John Cleese’s work in this area is as good or better than any other Darwinist speculating in this area.


5 Responses

  1. Gene, Gene, The Dancing Machine;)

    I think there’s a gene (I can make it up just like anyone else can!), based on observable behavior in others (let’s call it the “god-of-this-world gene”), that has always blinded (made lame, stupid and corrupted) a small percentage of people, throughout time, atheists/agnostics/Darwinians, etc, to the truth that is right in front of their turned-up-“intellectual” noses and near-sighted eyes.

    This corrupted gene (it has been observed by the many) has always been the cause of a peculiar form of arrested development, in this “we’ll scream bloody murder until you stop ignoring us” minority, which leads to immature, impudent and arrogant story telling, or, if truth be told, bald-face fairy tales (lies): the “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing of anything except that which I can make up from the material world around me” folks.

    In this retro-grade inversion of life (if you want to call it life?), there never is any end to speculation, nor does anything ever really get resolved! The whole of this life is spent in making-it-up-as-they-go scenarios (“theories”) which only lead to more misunderstanding, strife and error: silly, infantile, scenarios that have nothing of the TRUTH in them. And, thus, this never-ending, sad parade of fairy tales simply lead to more confusion, darkness and decay.

    And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4)

    Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

    14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. 16 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2)

    The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”

  2. P.S.

    Loved the Cleese podcast!

  3. This would of course imply that atheists are religious too. Or do they mean to imply atheists are more evolved and theists have been selected for extinction? Or the the reverse?

    I used to read lots of New Age mumbo jumbo back in my naive, occult years. This Marcus & Flannery stuff is right on par with any of it.

  4. Perhaps atheism, like homosexuality, is just a variant which persists at relatively low levels in the population. (Assuming that there is a genetic basis for religion at all, which I tend to doubt.)

    I was intrigued by Wade’s next paragraph:

    But the evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side. That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods. For believers, if one accepts that evolution has shaped the human body, why not the mind too? What evolution has done is to endow people with a genetic predisposition to learn the religion of their community, just as they are predisposed to learn its language. With both religion and language, it is culture, not genetics, that then supplies the content of what is learned.

    I don’t disagree with this, but Wade misses an opportunity to make a crucial point: evolutionary accounts of religion give as little support to skeptics as they do to people of faith. Here’s why: for any extant species, behaviors that persist in the population will generally be sufficiently adaptive for the species to avoid extinction. Now, Wade shows his hands by assuming that religion is adaptive because it promotes group cohesion. But this seems quite misguided, because Wade does not so much as hint at the following possibility:

    Consider vision. We know that, from a strictly physical standpoint, objects are not really colored. Objects have various physical properties, ultimately due to their molecular components, as a result of which one will get colors if one adds (i) photons of a specific frequency; (ii) a relatively transparent medium; (iii) an organism with pigments in its retinas. What it means is that our capacity to perceive colors is a way for us to make use of properties that really do exist in the objects in our environment.

    Likewise, our capacity to perceive spiritual beings may be like our capacity to perceive colors: there may be good reasons to believe that such things do not exist in the naive way that we take them do, but that doesn’t mean that we are not perceiving something that is fundamentally real, and it doesn’t mean that our efforts to give voice to the religious experience in the diversity of languages and traditions across the millennia are empty and false.

  5. Carl: “Perhaps atheism, like homosexuality, is just a variant which persists at relatively low levels in the population. (Assuming that there is a genetic basis for religion at all, which I tend to doubt.)”

    Carl, I think you and John Cleese are imputing too much to genetics. There are genes (or, more usually) conurbations of genes for brown hair or for wiring a portion of the brain in certain ways. Wiring the brain in certain ways (or more usually) in combinations of ways may produce or influence certain simple or complex types of behaviors–such as Tourette Syndrome. Certain types of behaviors (or more usually) combinations of behaviors, especially when coupled with memories from individual environmental experiences, may produce or influence certain simple or complex belief systems.

    That is, although the complex phenomenon of religion, say, may ultimately have some genetic component, the connection is very far from the concept of a gene for religion. Even when a behavior or belief system robustly follows from a certain genetic pattern, the connection is rarely simple. This is what makes evolutionary psychology both frustrating and interesting. Creationists, of course, have a much less complex—and boring—explanation for religion.

    In my spare time, I’ve been auditing a course in mathematical complexity theory. My graduate education in systems theory is almost half a century old, and progress in just the past few years has made it totally obsolete. The connection here is that emergent behavior from self-organization in complex systems can be completely unpredictable (“strong emergence”) and even bizarre from a reductionist analysis of the system’s components. At the same time, such behavior can be robust against changes and injuries.

    Religion seems to be one of those behaviors. We may find genetic underpinnings for the constituent behaviors underpinning religion. However, the more fruitful evolutionary study of religion seems to me more fruitfully carried out on the level of an emergence in the human system, rather than attempting to predict it from its genetic components, whatever they may turn out to be.

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