Thursday, March 08, 2007

Religious Belief An Evolutionary Perspective

Darwin's God (By ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG) is the title of the article on the cover of the New York Times magazine published on March 4th 2007.

If any of you have the patience or the desire to read the piece, it takes about 30-45 mins to read it. This is not quite a review, I just loved it so much and thought I would share it with you, and try to capture the essence of the arguments in my post.

What I loved about this article was how the author talks about the evolution of religious belief and of those that study it using what the author called a “Darwinian approach” . i.e. Could religious belief have served an evolutionary purpose? To those of you curious about the origins of physical, cultural, and the social customs and belief systems of humanity this may be a fun read.

To quote from the piece
“what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?”
The debate as it rages within the scientific community has a few disagreements (surprise..surprise!) with the common thread being that “religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history”. The two main schools of thought to explain this happen to fall in to a) belief being adaptive or a b) byproduct of the evolutionary processes.

A good example of these two schools of thought, are seen in the traits found in blood cells. As the article says “Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood’s being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.”

The Byproductionists

A very interesting analogy to explain religious belief evolving as a byproduct of evolution is a spandrel. A spandrel is an architectural term for the V shaped space that is formed when 2 arches align, the space is there, it serves no real purpose just that it has formed as a byproduct of arches aligning. So if religious belief is a spandrel, what is it a byproduct of? Could be some of the things below?

Humans faced hardships during early life and that favored the development of cognitive tools such as agent detection (organisms that can cause you harm), causal reasoning (causal narrative for natural events) and theory of mind (other folks have their own belief, desire and intentions). The article provides examples of how these tools make it easy to have belief in the supernatural such as it being easy to believe that for a contemporary woman that her cancer treatment worked despite 10:1 odds to be either a reward for a prayer, a miracle rather than a lucky roll of the dice.

The other interesting example for theory of mind that I found attractive was that, once you posit the existence of minds then it is a short jump from there to suppose that the mind and the body can be decoupled, thus explaining that despite the dead, decaying physical body, one finds it easier to believe in the existence of the soul that can feel and then in the existence of a transcendent god.

The Adaptationists

Scott Atran an anthropologist, who is often quoted in the Sunday magazine uses the term folkpsychology for things such as the theory of mind, intentional stance and social cognition. We then learn about its obvious advantages from an adaptive point of view. Early humans used this to rapidly distinguish between good guys and bad guys. But if the byproduct theory folks are right and these beliefs are of little use in finding food and procreating, why do they persist? They could, as the article says because evolution always produces something that works for the purpose it was designed for and then there is no control for however it may be used for another purpose.

Other interesting arguments include assertions like humans being hardwired for belief, somewhat like we are for language and that the language we learn depends on the cultural environment we grow up in as do the environments that dictate ones religious beliefs

Adaptationists talk about how religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the scared, while the spandrelists counter saying that the existence of comforting beliefs does not offer and adaptive advantage.

Belief in an afterlife is easier as one of the ways we make sense of other people is by trying to be in their shoes, but tying to comprehend something as radical as “not being there” or not existing is akin to running in to a “cognitive wall”. This made it easier to believe that there is an afterlife as it is hard to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones.

Adaptationists also bring out an argument which sort of makes some logical sense in that religion may have offered advantages at the individual level (feel better, more focused on the future, obedience, morality) and at the group level (cohesive, sharing resources and preparing for war).

The article quotes several heavy hitters such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Scott Atran, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and a few others.

In closing, I have no answers about where I fall on this issue, but purely from an anthropological perspective, this article educated, informed, stimulated and made me think. For me therein lies its success. I loved the last 2 paragraphs from the article which are quoted below, as you might have guessed the first one appealed to me a lot.
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.


Aditi said...

Seems like an interesting article will try and read it.
I think humans believe in a higher power because its easier to think that there is someone who always listens, is always there when ppl arent. There is someone who will watch out over us if things go terribly wrong (that is a comfort) and just that someone bigger then us exists.. who might help should we appeal really hard

deepsat said...

very interesting post sanjay!!

i always believe in the power being inside us. the reality is that we look at someone at a higher power for inspiration & support!


meno said...

I am going out to my recycle bin right now and digging out last Sunday's NY Times. I love reading that kind of stuff because i often wonder about the purpose and the pervasiveness of religion. Thanks for the recommendation.

patches said...

Thanks for the reference Sanjay. I'm always intrigued by the different things people believe in and why. I WILL sit down and read the article in its entirety when I get a little time.

Sanjay said...

@Aditi.. sure, it may seem rather dry reading, but it depends on where you are coming from.

@Deepsat. Thanks.

@Meno. welcome, hope it ain't a very long read.

@Patches.yep, time is what you will need when you read this one. I have read it 3 times already.

Carrie said...

Hmmm...very interesting. I'll have to get this for Adam.

Maggie said...

Sanjay, a mentally provocative post and quite interesting. I will bookmark the link. Thanks.

I too wonder about religion's ability to endure even as science explores the universe.

Sanjay said...

@Carrie. It can be a bit of a dry read, but it is very fascinating stuff.

@Maggie..Thanks. I wonder about that too, but I think religion will continue to endure. Given that the human species is so diverse with their thoughts and beliefs, it is hard to say how all of this play out over time.

Paparazzi said...

I tend to think of religious beliefs as the natural anti-thesis to thought evolution. Evolution of thought is about thinking greater and broader, questioning old beliefs and understanding the universe better. Clearly religious dogma & beliefs go the opposite way. I cannot accept that simply as spandrel - this is an opposing force. However there is really no such thing as de-evolution - since birds that could fly once and cannot anymore but still have wings are not really examples of de-evolution, but just that they no longer needed to fly. So if we are evolving towards more dogma/religious belief (sometimes I feel mankind is in the past few decades at least), maybe it is indicative that is a natural adaptation. Shudder.

Sanjay said...

@paparazzi.. I think spandrel is being used more as a metaphor. And none of the scientists are using the term de-evolution.

It may be true that we may be moving towards dogma or religious beliefs appear to be adaptive like you say.
But I take heart from observations that say that if humans are hardwired for things usch as language and beliefs, then they are in a way akin to canvases that remain to be painted upon.
Just as a person may learn any language based on what environ they are in, their belief systems sould also be similarly influenced by their environs.
I think there are lot of cultures around the world and within each there are mosaics and they are allprotean, and I would not say that they are all generally moving towards dogma.
This whole process may be some sort of combination of adaption and evolutionary byproducts.
Thank you for your comment I enjoyed reading about your point of view.

Asha said...

I don't think there is anybody sitting up watching us all.I believe in Evolution.
GOD is a universal concept.Believe; he is there.Don't; he is not!!That's what I tell tell my kids.Don't hate me now people!;P

Lotus Reads said...

Sanjay, this really is a great post, thank you. It has got me thinking about what I believe wrt religion and why I believe as I do. I wish I had more time to articulate my thoughts into a response here...perhaps I can come back and do so later? For now, I just wanted to let you know that this made for very,very interesting reading, thank you!

starry nights said...

A very interesting post Sanjay. "J" and me have many discussions about this. Right now he is reading The God Delusion By Richard Dawkins. I may read it after he does. I watch the science and discovery channels a lot and it is hard not to believe in evolution. I think it is just easier to believe there is a God up there who looks out for us. I sometimes am disillusioned with God when I see all the things that are hapenning in this world. How can he sit up there and not intervene. I don't know.

Sanjay said...

@Lotus..Thank you for your comment and very kind words. When I was reading this article and wrote up this post, I thought of you and your interest in anthropology. I thought this post would surely interest you. I am truly happy you liked it.

I would love to hear what you have to say, please do come back and comment when you have more time. :-)

Sanjay said...

@Starry. I hear you. I have to read the Dawkins book, maybe in the spring.
Thank you for your comment.

Beach Bum said...

Sorry for chiming in so late but the IT Nazis at work are making things hard.

Adaptationists also bring out an argument which sort of makes some logical sense in that religion may have offered advantages at the individual level (feel better, more focused on the future, obedience, morality) and at the group level (cohesive, sharing resources and preparing for war).

Raised like I was I saw this very effect many times. When bad things happen having the comfort that a strong faith gives can carry a person or even group along to until things get better. The best example I can offer was when one of my uncles passed away at the age of 37. The support that my grandparents received from the church did much to cushion their loss along with the rest of the family. On a purely human level I do think this comfort does aid survival in that after the loss of someone important to the family or group having faith in something greater can push the group to carry on as opposed to giving up and dieing.
As for my personal beliefs I do believe in God. But my beliefs are very fuzzy to just about all Christians in my are my area, for one example I believe in evolution. But curiously enough I always tick the rationalists off for even my fuzzy Christianity such as a college chemistry professor married to my wife's best friend. Sometimes your damned if you and damned if you don't.

moegirl said...

Sounds fascinating. I would like to give it a read. Sometimes I feel religion stems from people needing to feel and feeling that people are more than their physical body, and there is something enduring about their essence.

Viewer said...

I always have felt that mosts of the religion and beliefs has some hidden meaning / reason behind.

Enjoy ur weekend :)

Sanjay said...

@Beach..Don't worry about chiming in late. I usually try to go back and read the comments.
I certainly agree with you about how organized religion can help you at times like you mention.

I am surprised the prof though. I would not condemn someone just cuz they believed or did not believe. I guess I just like being left alone and not being demonized when the only people affected by my faith are me and me alone.
Thank you for your comment.

@Moegirl.. Thank you :) I agree with you.

@Viewer.. Thanks you have a good one too.

Beloved Dreamer said...

Sanjay, a wonderful and thought provoking post. I have no problem believing in both evolution and my deep and abiding belief in God. I think both can exist together. Those that think that It must be one or the other, well I keep those thoughts to my self. Yes, this was a great post. It's a big world out there and to all alone would be sad.
Also thanks for your comments, they are always welcomed.


Sanjay said...

@BD. Thanks, Like you I know quite a few ppl who are religious and believe in evolution as well.
You are right it sucks to be alone.

DaNCer said...

I look at atheism being as much of a belief system as theism. That is, the assertion that there is no God, seems just as much a belief to me as it's complement. I don't think the atheist necessarily works harder than the theist. Agnosticism and skepticism seem more scientific to me. It seems that an active skepticism would be a good deal more work than the acceptance of any beliefs, "facts", etc.

And yet the assertion and adoption of explanations is essential to science also. Such are hypotheses, theories, etc. Although true scientists may remain ever skeptical, the temporary or tentative adoption of explanations that withstand testing, which then serve as foundations and building blocks for other explanations is the essense of science.

These explanations ("facts" or beliefs) and their utility are the essential benefit to us of science. The ability to remain skeptical, and to modify or replace old explanations when they no longer meet our needs is also essential to science's ongoing utility.