Saturday, November 14, 2009

Faith as an adaptation   posted by Razib @ 11/14/2009 06:11:00 PM

Nicholas Wade has an article up in The New York Times, The God Gene, which serves as a precis of the central arguments of The Faith Instinct, his new book. The title is catchy, but it should really be "The God Phene." Depending on how you measure it, religiosity is a heritable trait, with its variance being controlled by variance across many genes. There is as likely to be a "God Gene" as a "Smart Gene" or "Height Gene." In other words, not too likely.

I have been putting off putting up a review of The Faith Instinct because there's a lot of ground to cover. The portions which emphasized the role of common belief, "imagistic arousal" and ritual in cementing common bonds among men and allowing for maximal force of collective action were persuasive to me. As someone who has never served in the military I am not personally familiar with the "band of bothers" dynamic, but the role of chanting, posing and synchronous mindfulness & action in sport is obvious. It's no coincidence that high stakes athletics and religion tend to go hand & hand. Wade's references to William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History were very intriguing, and I have to check that book out at some point.

Though it is clear to me that there is utility in tribal gods binding a deme together to engage in collective action, I am more skeptical of the central function which Wade places upon religion as a driver of the cognitive biases which are likely to predict religion. Women are more religious than men. One plausible explanation for this is more men than women are socially retarded, and it is social retards who find supernatural agents less intuitively plausible, and are also liable to admit to this belief and not conform with the modal norms of society. The thesis in The Faith Instinct is that group level selection, on the level of tribal units, selected for those demes where religiosity was more pronounced, as those groups could engage in more effective collective action. Much of the argument is derived from Samuel Bowles from what I can tell. The problem of course is that the sex engaged in the warfare which is the specific manifestation of intergroup competition and subject to natural selection, males, seem to be less predisposed to belief in supernatural agents. Of course sex differences should be slow to evolve, so it suggests that if selection was operative upon religion as a trait it hasn't swept away all the various cobwebs of evolutionary history in terms of the lower-level traits which come together to form the religious phenotype.

An alternative model for why religion is universal in humans from the adaptationist one is that it is a byproduct of various other cognitive traits which are useful, just as heat is produced during work. More specifically, in books like Religion Explained & In Gods We Trust cognitive anthropologists Pascal Boyer & Scott Atran argue that basic intuitions which naturally lead one to supernatural inferences derive from extremely useful cognitive features; agency detection, theory of mind, and flavors of folk psychology. Supernatural intuitions don't constitute religion, and Wade et al. are not suggesting that it is simply theism which confers a selective benefit, but rather the entire cultural package of religious belief & practice, the "integrative" as well as the supernatural aspect. The problem that seems to emerge from these overlapping models is that I do not see why group selection dynamics operating upon biological traits are necessary to explain religious instincts as we see them today. Religion just doesn't seem that tightly integrated of a feature, but a more diffuse phenotype (as evident by the novel fusion of philosophy with religion which occurred during the Axial Age). Rather, it seems a cultural adaptation which hooks into previously extant and ubiquitous psychological intuitions.

But a fuller review at ScienceBlogs soon.

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