Darwin’s God (part 2)

This is part two of the intriguing article from the New York Times Magazine called “Darwin’s God” (for part one, click here please). As the title suggests, it is about the scientific attempts to explain the existence of God, or rather our need for the existence of God.

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And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, �Rocks.� This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called �minimally counterintuitive�: weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.

Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most �religious.� The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.

It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people’s belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. �If your emotions are involved, then that’s the time when you’re most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe,� Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.

In John Updike’s celebrated early short story �Pigeon Feathers,� 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. �Don’t you see,� he cries to his mother, �if when we die there’s nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It’s just an ocean of horror.�

The story ends with David’s tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother’s barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds’ feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, �designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture.� And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a �slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.�

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. �The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear,� wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in �Religion Explained,� which came out a year before Atran’s book. �Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long.�

Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? �Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,� the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in �Tragic Sense of Life.� �The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.�

Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. �Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator,� the narrator says at the end. �Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.�

Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be �not alive anymore.� Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse’s body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.

�Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways,� says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. �In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence.�

It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it’s natural for it to continue much as before after the other person’s death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.

Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. �We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none,� he says. �It’s natural; it’s how our minds work.�

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with �a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.�

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. �Organisms are a product of natural selection,� he wrote in �Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,� which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran’s book, and staked out the adaptationist view. �Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.�

Wilson’s father was Sloan Wilson, author of �The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,� an emblem of mid-’50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, �A Summer Place,� became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.

�I knew I couldn’t be a novelist,� said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, �so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science.� He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: �I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark.� He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father’s literary leanings and the field required a novelist’s attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist’s flair for narrative.

Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. �I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big,� he recalled. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that �religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.�

Dawkins once called Wilson’s defense of group selection �sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity.� Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it �mind blind� for essentially ignoring the role of the brain’s mental machinery. The adaptationists �cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief,� Atran wrote. �They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be.�

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

�The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,� Wilson wrote in �Darwin’s Cathedral.� It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, �a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.� For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have �highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems� than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that �what seems to be an adversarial relationship� between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that �keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.�

Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.

�Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation,� Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals �generate greater belief and commitment� because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are �beyond the possibility of examination,� he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis’s view, deeper and more long-lasting.

Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion’s core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. �By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun,� Sosis wrote, �ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: �Hey! Look, I’m a haredi’ — or extremely pious — �Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?’ � These �signaling� rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.

In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel’s religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country’s kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. �The net of science covers the empirical universe,� he wrote. �The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.� Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging �respectful discourse� and �mutual humility.� He called the demarcation �nonoverlapping magisteria� from the Latin magister, meaning �canon.�

Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. �Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths,� he wrote in �The God Delusion.� �Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?�

The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. �Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does,� says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), �that doesn’t mean science can’t study what religion does. It just means science can’t do what religion does.�

The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren’t entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.

And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in �an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,� as he wrote in an e-mail message. �I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.�

At first blush, Barrett’s faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

�Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,� Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. �Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?� Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. �Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?�

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the �God of the gaps� view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

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  • http://www.whitehanky.blogspot.com White Hanky

    Baquia: fascinating and thought provoking – perhaps the Divine inserted the ‘longing for the Creator’ as part of our DNA?
    I was reminded of a couple of quotes while reading the articles:
    First :”There are Universes begging for Gods, yet he hangs around this one looking for work. Philip Jose Farmer
    and the second:
    A myth is a religion that no one any longer believes. James Fiebleman
    Blessings on the Approach of NawRuz and the Vernal Equinox

  • http://www.whitehanky.blogspot.com White Hanky

    Baquia: fascinating and thought provoking – perhaps the Divine inserted the ‘longing for the Creator’ as part of our DNA?
    I was reminded of a couple of quotes while reading the articles:
    First :”There are Universes begging for Gods, yet he hangs around this one looking for work. Philip Jose Farmer
    and the second:
    A myth is a religion that no one any longer believes. James Fiebleman
    Blessings on the Approach of NawRuz and the Vernal Equinox