Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Did iatrogenic harm select for supernatural beliefs?   posted by agnostic @ 9/16/2009 08:10:00 PM

Toward the end of this episode of EconTalk, Nassim Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan) talks about religion and the history of medicine. He notes that one of the benefits of adhering to religious practices was that you probably avoided going to a doctor when you were in trouble -- you prayed to a god or whatever other supernatural entity your religion said would help you out. Why was this a benefit? Because before roughly 50 to 100 years ago, going to the doctor was worse than doing nothing. He bled you, gave your wife a disease by not washing his hands while delivering her baby, etc.

Basically, before very recent times, doctors were parasites. They did not specialize in healing you, but in conning you into thinking that they could heal you -- for a small fee -- all while making you worse, on average. This makes me think: there would have been a selection pressure on human beings to be skeptical of materialist claims about the world -- or at least about the nature of ourselves -- and thus, by default, to be naturally inclined toward supernatural beliefs. Of course, praying to Zeus might not have done an awful lot of good -- but at least it wouldn't have given you new infections like a hospital would, and at least it wouldn't have bled you dry. (And there may have been some benefit from all the social interactions that you got by attending religious services regularly vs. being socially isolated.)

Natural selection operates on the tiniest differences in relative fitness, and for most of human existence there must have been more than a little difference in fitness between those who eagerly sought out the help of a medicine man / doctor and those who just went to church (or wherever) and prayed to the spirits instead. This may be an original hypothesis, but I don't claim so since I haven't read much on the various theories of why religion is part of human nature. Taleb came pretty close to saying so, but not explicitly. Most economists talk about what's rational or utility-maximizing, without making that final link to evolutionary fitness. To its credit, the idea has a pretty solid basis for the necessary differences in relative fitness between believers and non-believers.

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