Saturday, January 21, 2006

Evolution, religion and psychology   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2006 06:38:00 AM

As some of you might know, Intelligent Design and evolution are becoming issues in Utah. Before we move on, this from Ron Numbers The Creationists might be instructive: 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormons' Brigham Young University denied that human beings have been "created in a process of evolution from lower life forms." By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81 percent....

What's going on here? First, you have to know that the Mormon Church has taken different views in regards to evolution and there isn't a strict stance on the issue. This article in Deseret News makes the diversity clear. For one prominent Mormon perspective, see Orscon Scott Card's recent essay (I won't try to rebut and respond to his meanderings). But in light of the recent Vactican restatement supporting1 evolutionary theory what's going on in regards in this tango between Darwin and God?

In regards to the Mormon numbers one hypothesis that I think is plausible is that the shift in BYU students' perceptions of the theory of evolution is a function of Mormons tracking the conservative Christian subculture in the United States. Though Mormons lay outside conventional Christianity in terms of theological orthodoxy, their mores and non-theological beliefs have tended to be aligned with the conservative end of the sociocultural spectrum, and so they have absorbed a concomitant dose of Creationism from the zeitgeist.2

Recently I read several entries of interest from The Oxford Companion to the Bible and I noted that only a faction of Protestants adhere to a literalist stance in regards to the text of scripture. This is reflected in the historical literature where Roman Catholic apologists argued against Reformation literalists during the debates the 16th century. But the the variance in belief is rather high in Protestantism, so just as there are fundamentalists, there are also groups like Congregationalists (in the United States) who are apt to take an even more allegorical tack on the scripture than Roman Catholics. In any case, the key point is that defenders of the viability of evolutionary theory are empirically correct when they commonly assert that most Christian denominations have no problem with accommodating descent with modification and an old earth. And yet half of the American public has rejected evolutionary theory in all its forms for decades, and there is often a tacit assumption that "genuine" Christianity necessarily rejects evolutionary theory.

Even though Roman Catholics tend to be far cooler to Creationist and quasi-Creationist narratives than Protestants in the United States, a substantial minority still adhere to a Creationist model.3 As a young adult I actually entered in conversations with many individuals who professed Roman Catholicism and Creationism, and here are the flavors I encountered:

  • A subset asserted that Creationism was a necessary implication of their religious beliefs, and some averred that it was Church teaching.

  • A subset didn't know what the Church taught about evolution (if it taught anything at all) and simply expressed their intuition that "Creation made sense."

The first position was easy to rebut in light of the statements on evolution going back to the 1950s by the Pope. Even in the pre-internet era they weren't hard for me to reference and point too. If the individuals in question did do the follow up reference check they were discomfited but would usually reluctantly switch their position, and least assume a more agnostic stance. This suggests to me that a proportion of the deviation from the American norm by Roman Catholics in regards to belief in evolution is a function of Church teaching, and perhaps even the imprimatur of religious respectibility given to it when it is taught in parochial schools. But where did these individuals get the idea that the Church taught something it didn't? I think the answer likes in the interface between psychology and culture. In Searching for Memory psychologist Daniel Schacter recounts how people often do not model the past appropriately in regards to the beliefs they claim to have held, e.g. southerners whose views on racial issues were surveyed in both 1970 and 1984 had changed a great deal. But, when asked what their views were in 1970 in 1984, the individuals simply asserted that they'd held the same views as they had in 1984 even though the researchers could see that they hadn't (they'd recorded their answers). This isn't a function of pathological deception, memory reshapes itself. Similarly, in hindsight I am now no longer sure that the Roman Catholics who claimed they Church taught that Creationism was valid were stupid or lying to me. The town I grew up in was very conservative and there were many evangelical and fundamentalist churches. My hunch is that these individuals somehow encountered literature and tracts from these churches and conflated them in their minds with Roman Catholic doctrine as it was normative in that small town for religious people to reject evolutionary theory.

As for the second subset, they rarely, if ever, followed up my references because these beliefs weren't a major part of their worldview, and they weren't even very religious people. Just as the first group absorbed particular biases and assumptions from their milieu I believe something similar happened here too. But at this point, we have to move beyond culture, as many of these individuals weren't the types to need to conform to the conservative religious subculture. Why were they Creationists, or at least tepid ones? I suspect the answer lay in psychology, the default model of the world that our brains come preloaded with tends to be strongly biased toward Creationism of a sort. Creationism just "makes sense," just like astrology and holistic medicine, it is not embedded in an arcane social model and a esoteric system of abstraction which is removed from human experience and common sense.

Which brings me back to the Mormons. Often people have a perception that culture is an all-powerful force in reshaping how you view the world, but I think that this is fallacious, the mind has biases and structural impediments to paradigm perception. Sometimes, as in the God concepts, people simply square the circle of contradiction between culture and psychology by operating on two levels, the conscious-verbal-reflective and the reflexive subconscious level of intuitive mental representation. Certainly the tendency of Mormons to sympathize with the social priorities of conservative Protestants, and their free exchange with that subculture (at least from their perspective, for example they lionize conservative Anglican C.S. Lewis), is a plausible explanation for why they would be biased toward accepting Creationist accounts even if their Church never made an explicit push in this direction. But I think the psychology is important as well, not only were the cultural variables aligned, the psychological system was already loaded and ready to go. A given psychology may not be a sufficient condition for a particular set of beliefs, but they are often a necessary condition.

This of course moves me to to question of why are there international variations in acceptance of evolutionary theory if Creationist accounts are intuitive? Let me remind you that children raised in non-Creationist households still tend to prefer Creationist explanations when young, so something happens later in life. Culture obviously does matter in this regard, but, I think it matters in the way that many form explicit "beliefs" about God. The vast majority of the world's Christians accept the Athanasian Creed, and can express a relatively cogent belief in a Trinitarian God, but they can not truly conceive of intuitively in a Trintarian God, it is a verbal token and affirmation. And so I think a similar process is at work in evolutionary theory, the vast majority of people, and this even includes most biologists I suspect, are making a verbal affirmation of a concept that they don't intuitively understand. The fact is, even if you have reasonable fluency with The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, which at least offers a precise and analytic theoretical framework, I am skeptical that you (and I of course) truly conceive of the timescales required for much of evolution to work its "magic" in the same way we can imagine last year, last decade, or even last century. We have to have faith in the scientific system, and trust the theories and data which are one or many removes from our intuitional preconceptions.

Of course, most people have a weak grasp of Newtonian physics, and they don't go around rejecting it. So cultural dynamics are important, my overall point is simply that neglect of psychological substrate allows you to miss the totality of the system. It isn't that many Americans accept a model because they are stupid, it is that they refuse to move beyond their default assumptions or at least give a tacit nod to elite-specialist knowledge.

1 - Or at least the perception, again, I think that these releases need to be understood in the context of a Thomistic worldview, but that gets left out.

2 - Though the academic expositers of Intelligent Design disavow Creationism in its crass form, my impression from conversation and the literature is that the populist support for Intelligent Design is actually just a proxy support for Creationism. This was on display in the Dover case.

3 - This is not heresy obviously, as in many ways evolutionary theory is orthogonal to Roman Catholic points of faith and doctrine.