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May 08, 2004

Why religion?

Mike over at 2 blowhards has a post up where he muses upon religion, religious feeling, and traditional vs. "quasi-religion" (economism, scientism, etc.). I have read a lot of books on religion in the context of psychology, sociology and biology in the past year. Here are the general viewpoints that I found:

  • Religion as a byproduct of the interaction of specialized cognitive domains. This is the sort of idea expressed in Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust and Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. There are other other prominent thinkers, like Steven Pinker, who also support this position. This explanation tends to highlight the importance of universals, that is, the common religious sentiments of all human populations, and builds up from first principles, and can explain much of the "mystical" and "emotional" impact of religion.
  • Religion as a functionally oriented social adaptation. This is the argument behind Darwin's Cathedral, by David Sloan Wilson. Wilson's ideas owe a lot to early 20th century thinkers like Emille Durkheim who emphasized the utility of religion to society, and even wondered if religion was not an expression of the society itself. This sort of thinking emphasizes the importance of social constraints and internal regulators in shaping religious life, through ritual & dogma. Because Wilson's ideas are often set in the context of "group selection," he can explain the differences between cultures (as religions are "selected"), but tends to look at each human as a "black box," and so neglects internal dynamics in a society caused by variation from person to person.
  • Religion as a set set of supernatural goods & services. This is Rodney Stark's position, elaborated in A Theory of Religion, and suffusing his numerous popular books. Stark uses "rational choice theory," and posits the existence of religious "firms" who compete for "clients" (believers) by offering supernatural goods and services (afterlife, absolution from sin, etc.). There are various types of firms, for instance, those who aim toward individual transactions, like many magical religions that emphasize the priest-believer interaction, or those who focus on "collective action," such as congregational faiths. Stark's thesis explains the dynamics within a society as well as between societies. Stark uses an individualist paradigm, and though he does not elaborate on the psychological factors in detail like Atran, he takes for granted similar motives and underpinning factors, though ultimately, like Wilson, he might view religious feeling as a "black box" where only the consequences matter. Stark also implicitly integrates the idea of a social organism like Wilson when talking of faiths that eliminate the "free rider" problem through social constraints and tit-for-tat behavior.
Of course, there are many other theories, though not as fully fleshed out in my opinion. Jared Diamond for example seems to express the opinion that organized religion is a property of hierarchical societies where the elite uses faith to mainpulate the masses. Some believe religion is a psychopathology, or at least, an unconventional psychological state that humans need to explain or systematize. And so on. Another common idea is that religion is a pre-science, a way of explaining the world.

As time passes, I am moving toward a synthetic view. Atran & co. have convinced me that religion is "normal," that is it an emergent property of various cognitive domains, so there is no "God module," nor is there a particular gene that causes the "abnormal" mental states that might characterize religion (I believe mystical ecstatic experience is probably atypical, no matter the charisma these individuals accrue to themselves). Stark's thesis works in the context of places like the United States where horizontal change, that is, conversion, is rife, and people are relatively free of social constraints or stigma when switching religions. Wilson's ideas are more appropriate to organically integrated societies like India, or with minorities that are insulated by social distance from the majority, like Jews. Diamond's idea that religion is used by the elite to manipulate the masses is obviously true, but it seems likely religious feeling pre-dated complex societies, and I see no evidence that more stratified societies are "more religious" than hunter-gather peoples, unless you define religion has having to do with temples, priests and complex theological dogmas. There is some truth to all the above viewpoints, and I think one thing that they indicate is that some things that might be considered "religion" or fillling the "religion-shaped-hole" don't really fall under that umbrella.

For example, I have often wondered if Communism could be thought of as a "religion." Diamond and Wilson might not object, in that it basically seems to be a system that the elite uses to manipulate the masses. There is collective action and sacralization of founding fathers. It does have "religion like" tendencies. But, it seems that after the fall of Communism as the dominant political ideology in places like the former Sovient Union, it had few adherents. Where Stark would say that Communism could not provide "supernatural goods and services," Atran would say it does not satisfy the need for "collective identity" solidified by a "counter-intuitive supernatural agent." I think Stark and Atran are basically right, if we look at humans as "black boxes," rather than their psychological motives and needs, Communism seems like a religion, but it mimics certain aspects of large organized religions, rather than being rooted in religious instincts.

The "theories of religion" might be less important for a positive evaluation of what is a religion, and how religions interact, than in eliminating pretenders to the throne, and excluding certain theoretical models.

Posted by razib at 01:54 PM | | TrackBack

Judge Orders Couple Not to Have Children

CNN reports "Judge Orders Couple Not to Have Children". Amazing.

Monroe County Family Court Judge Marilyn O'Connor ruled March 31 that both parents "should not have yet another child which must be cared for at public expense."

"The facts of this case and the reality of parenthood cry out for family planning education," she ruled. "This court believes the constitutional right to have children is overcome when society must bear the financial and everyday burden of care." [ emphasis added ]

When I was working on Unnatural Selection, I ruled out this sort of government action as politically impossible.

Attorney Chris Affronti, who chairs the family law section of the Monroe County Bar Association, said he's not sure how the ruling could be enforced. "I think what the judge is trying to do is kind of have a wake-up call for society," he said.

Wake up call? Let's hope so. I know people will comment that one of this couple's children could be the next Mozart, but let's be realistic; isn't it statistically far more likely that this couple's children will end up just like them, having lots of kids which have to be raised by society...

GNXPers - comments?

Posted by ole at 12:03 PM | | TrackBack

A Question on Migration and Assimilation

Hi! I'm Randy McDonald, a long-time GNXP reader whose writings have occasionally been linked to from GNXP. I'd like to thank Razib for giving me this guest account.

I'm interested in the dynamics of migration and assimilation, in a variety of settings, historical and contemporary, Western and non-Western, on their own terms and. GNXP readers are a well-read and well-educated lot, and it's always interesting to get feedback and comments from them, as I did here.

I'd like to ask GNXP readers a question in two parts.

1. How do they think current immigration waves in North America and Europe differ from previous waves (gastarbeiter in Europe, the turn-of-the-century wave in North America)?

2. What do they think are the particular dangers or problems of the current waves?

Posted by randy at 10:21 AM | | TrackBack

Evolutionarily Stable Strategies and the Strategy Set

I see that the selection of major terms in evolutionary biology (right side of the home page) now includes an introduction to the concept of the Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). This is useful as far as it goes, but like many brief accounts of ESS theory I think it is unclear on one important point...

In evolutionary game theory, like game theory generally, a game is defined primarily by the set of available strategies and payoffs. (Other important aspects are the number of players, whether plays are single or repeated, and the state of knowledge of the players.)

A strategy is essentially an option available to a player. It may either prescribe a single action (a pure strategy) or more than one action, each to be played with a certain probability (a mixed strategy). The set of strategies available to the players is the strategy set of the game in question. For every possible combination of strategies the players may adopt, there is a definite payoff for each player. If the strategy set or payoffs are altered, this is not a move in the game but a change of the game.

As usually defined, an ESS is a strategy such that, if all the members of a population adopt it, no mutant strategy can invade (John Maynard Smith, Evolution and the Theory of Games, p. 204). What is not always clearly stated (even by JMS) is that the mutant strategy must be selected from the strategy set. For game theorists this may be taken for granted, but for the non-expert it may lead to misunderstandings.

For example, suppose the ‘game’ is a contest between two stags, and the strategy set (based on observation of stag behaviour) contains two pure strategies: (A) lock antlers and push, or (B) try to stab the opponent in the neck. The strategy set also contains the mixed strategies consisting of actions (A) and (B) to be performed with probabilities p and (1 - p), for any p from 0 to 1. Payoffs for the matrix of pure strategies are estimated from observations. It may then be calculated that there is one or more ESS, e.g. there may be an ESS with a mixed strategy of performing (A) with probability .6 and (B) with probability .4. This means that the population will be in evolutionary equilibrium if all stags have genes inducing them to adopt this mixed strategy. If this is the case, any mutation which causes a stag to adopt some other strategy in the available strategy set (e.g. performing (A) with probability .7 and (B) with probability .3) will be selected against. In this sense the population cannot be ‘invaded’ by any mutant gene.

This does not mean that no conceivable mutant could invade. For example, a mutation which improved the efficiency of technique (B) would change the payoffs of the game, which might well invalidate the previous ESS. Or there might be a mutation for a completely different fighting technique, such as biting or kicking. If these proved more effective than (A) and (B), the mutant gene would rapidly invade the population.

The essential point is that the ESS is always relative to a given strategy set and payoffs. For game theorists this may be so obvious as hardly to need stating, but for the rest of us it may be worth emphasising.

Posted by David B at 05:08 AM | | TrackBack

May 07, 2004

"Diversity training"

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. thinks that multiculturalism is "bunk" and that immigrants should assimilate to their new surroundings by learning to speak English. The presentation may be a bit brusque, but the general sentiments span the political spectrum. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has spoken in more measured tones to the same effect. Personally, I suspect that many persons who do not wish to be "insensitive" on both the Left and Right are also the very same people who would argue for reinstitution of the draft to unify American culture and breakdown the barriers between the citizenry. They must realize the cross-purposes that they work toward now and then.

But, I have made my opinion on this topic clear many a time, I believe that assimilation is the path to national survival, etc. etc. etc. Now I want to focus on the topic of "diversity training," something that a state representative believes that the governor of Maryland needs to go through. Nevermind the Maoist strain of thinking this suggests, that people need to be "re-educated." How about really teaching diversity? There is a lot of ethnological diversity out there. I have talked to way too many Argentines who have been presented with burritos as a dinner to remind them of their homeland when they are being hosted as exchange students. Hindus asked about whether they worship Muhammed and Muslims asked whether they worship cows. Japanese who are assumed to be experts on Feng-Shui and Frenchmen who are asked about their king.

"Diversity training" as it is implemented in this day and age is all about the substance of style, words like "ignorance" are flung about, but very little is done to enlighten anyone. America is not a reflection of the diversity of the world, rather, it is a very peculiar re-interpretation of the true diversity. "Asians" from India to Hokkadio become "Asian-American," Mayan peasants and German Argentines become "Hispanic," while African Americans construct a mythical "Mother Africa" that exists as a unitary whole, fractured only by the intrustion of European colonialism...the dream goes on....

Posted by razib at 11:16 PM | | TrackBack

The Draft is a Stupid Idea

From Abiola:

Anyone who advocates a return of the draft, under any conditions short of grave and imminent national peril, is at best a misguided idiot, and at worst a totalitarian thug.

Couldn't agree more. Sending people off to die against their will in the name of egalitarianism is one of the worst ideas I can think of. Not that risking a draft by insisting that we install democracy in Iraq as ideological neoconservatives do is a good idea either...

Abiola also makes a very good point here:

Appeals for the reinstatement of the draft are symptomatic of what it is I find least attractive about liberalism, the attitude that not only should the state treat all its citizens as equals before the law (an unexceptionable notion), but that all individuals are interchangeable for any purpose whatsoever, like pawns on a checkers board.

Read Abiola's full post here.

Posted by bb at 08:40 AM | | TrackBack


Just saw the first episode of Spartans tonight, a three part series that will trace the rise and apogee of the militaristic city-state. In some ways, Sparta might be envisaged as the original proposition nation, built around abstract values that the whole society worked toward, and was defined by. Spartans were anti-materialistic, socially and sexually egalitarian, and yet they terrorized and bestialized the majority helot population so they could extract their labor to free themselves for battle to such an extreme extent that the term helot is synonymous with serf.

Oh, and the presenter is kind of cute, she seems to be a Michael Wood with breasts in a red dress.

Update: OK, so this was blogged last year, that is, Bettany's virtues.

Posted by razib at 01:24 AM | | TrackBack

May 06, 2004

The Moral Animal (part n)
Posted by razib at 09:07 PM | | TrackBack

Adaptive sexual selection

Check out this article about this research that indicates that "curvy" women (that is, those with large breasts and a narrow waist) are more fertile.

From The Economist piece:

In the case of progesterone, both groups of narrow-waisted women had high hormone levels. In that of 17-b-oestrodiol, those with narrow waists and large breasts had elevated levels—and that level was particularly high at the time of ovulation...such women are three times as likely as the others to become pregnant on any given occasion.

Don't blame tits-men for their shallowness, blame evolution!

Of course, that begs the question, why do any women have small breasts or wider waists? There is some evidence that women with higher waist-to-hip ratios have more sons than daughters, so there might be evolutionarily stable strategies at play. That might explain the anecdotal impression that many people have that average body shapes differ by population.

Update: FuturePundit points me to this article, where the researcher seems to be limiting the relevance of the finding to Europeans.

Posted by razib at 08:09 PM | | TrackBack

May 04, 2004

If you don't agree with my political agenda, you're a racist!

President Bush is now calling those who are skeptical of the idea that democracy will magically crop up in Iraq in the next couple of years racist. (via Steve Sailer):

There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily -- are a different color than white can self-govern.

Bush's statement not only uses the tactics of the hard left, but is utterly ridiculous. First of all, Bush assumes that everyone MUST be the same and that to believe otherwise is racist. But he makes another assumption--that the nonexistence of any racial differences means that Iraq can (fairly) easily become a democracy. That is utter nonsense as well. It took hundreds of years for European countries to go from medieval hellholes to quasi-democracies.

The examples of Germany and Japan that neocons like to bring up are also fallacious. Germany was already a Western country and one that had had a democratic system under the Weimar Republic. Even Japan had begun adopting some Western ideas as early as the late 19th century, and it certainly didn't hurt either that Japan's emporer-worship was thoroughly discredited when it was defeated in WWII. However, there is absolutely no Western or democratic tradition in today's Iraq, and the radical Islam that dominates Iraq today is not going to be discredited there anytime soon.

Importantly, no country with Iraq's per capita GDP has become a democracy. The idea that Iraq can become a democracy anytime soon is foolish, and it seems to me that Bush is trying to cover up his mindless idealism with charges of racism.

Update: I would also recommend this article by George Will (also linked from Sailer's site).

Posted by bb at 03:39 PM | | TrackBack

May 03, 2004

IQ vs. Gore voting?

Matthew Yglesias points me to this interesting table that plots IQ, income and Gore/Bush voting of each state. I don't have time to comment in detail on this, but if you read The Almanac of American Politics, you'll note that it's a long time observation that the Democratic party has a bimodal educational distribution, while Republicans tend to have one mode in the center of the spectrum. A few years back I trolled through exit polls on CNN's AllPolitics site and found weird things like that John Kerry did better among the higher income brackets against William Weld (the popular liberal Republican governor of Mass. in the 1990s) when the latter challenged Kerry for his Senate seat. In contrast, in places like Alabama, there was an extremely strong skew toward the Republicans as one moved up the income quartiles. The moral is that be cautious of national generalities in a polity of ~300 million.

Update: As suggested by some readers, the above table is a hoax. From Steve Sailer:

Somebody probably got the idea from Lynn & Vanhanen's book and made up some numbers by starting with the income table (that's why the correlation with IQ is so high). The goal, obviously, was to make Democrats feel superior.

The funny thing is that this hoax will be the first time that any liberals will have ever heard of IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which is probably the most important book published in this century.

Update II: Steve Sailer has some real data that is topical.

Posted by razib at 05:00 PM | | TrackBack

Who is going schizo?

A review of research of the incidence of schizophrenia is available over at BioMed Central (you can read the whole study in PDF).

Conclusions (wrapped up in a thousand caveats):
1) Men are more likely to be schizophrenic.
2) Urbanites are more likely to be schizophrenic.
3) Migrants are more likely to be schizophrenic.

Posted by razib at 04:52 PM | | TrackBack

Music & the universal man

Over at The World on PRI there was a story (audio file!) about the fact that some of the lyrics on the Enigma song Return to Innocence were sampled from a Taiwanese aboriginal in the 1970s. Now, I'm tone deaf, and pretty unmusical (in contrast to most of my family), but I've always found that much of the music produced by "primitive" people struck me as mellifluous as that of "modern" music. The story notes that many Western artists are looking through archives of "tribal" music to find "new sounds."

Which gets me back to my post about religion where Pascal Boyer made an analogy with music-that not everyone displays the same fondness or facility for the behavior, but everyone recognizes it, and within certain parameters, we all (humans) can distinguish it from more random nosies. There is likely no "music" module, rather, it is an emergent property of the interaction between various universal congitive domains, and the parameters set by these domains result in a common channel of musicality. Also, like language, but unlike say mathematics, we probably aren't going to "improve" on what "primitive" peoples have been creating for thousands of years, rather, we will simply build more complex overlays upon the basic substrate. And so, when humans listen to bards singing songs from alien cultures, the beauty of it (if not the information content) resonates, because we share the same aesthetic bedrock, even if the details are different, just as religious devotion has similarities, invariant of the god being idolized.

Posted by razib at 04:39 PM | | TrackBack

New server

My webhost moved the site to a new box overnight (that explains why I lost 3 entries). In any case, the site should be somewhat faster to load from now on.

Posted by razib at 01:59 PM | | TrackBack

Things that make you say, hhhmmm....

From page 63 of IQ and Wealth of Nations (thanks to Amazon):

"The IQ of 94 in Israel is higher than the IQs in the remainder of this group of nations. The explanation for this is that Israel is an ethnically diverse nation with about equal numbers of Western (European) and Eastern (Asian) Jews. Western Jews have an IQ 12 points higher than Easters Jews (Lieblich, Ninio, and Kuglemass, 1972; Zeidner, 1987). The IQ of Eastern Jews in Israel is aproximately 88 and is closely simlar to the IQs of the neighboring South Asian populations like Turkey (90), Lebanon (86), Iraq (87), and Iran (84). The IQ of Western Jews in Israel is aproximately 100, which is about the same as that of other Northern and Western European populations, although Jews in the United States and Britain have substantially higher IQs averaging 110 or even 115 (Hernstein and Murray 1994; MacDonald, 1994)...."

Three cheers for the Anglosphere's salubrious affect on Jewish intelligence!

Posted by razib at 01:15 PM | | TrackBack

The problem with "memeplexes"

Dienekes points me this programme over at the BBC titled "A Muslim in the Family" that profiles Western converts to Islam. This woman in particular intrigued me:

Yvonne Ridley was the journalist captured by the Taliban while reporting undercover in Afghanistan, soon after 9/11.

Held on spying charges, she feared she would be stoned. Instead, she was treated with respect.

She promised her captors that, after her release, she would study Islam.

She read the Koran looking for an explanation of the Taliban's treatment of women, only to find there wasn't any. "It's a magna carta for women!"

Another illustration of the reality that humans can re-work almost anything in their own image. The idea of "memeplexes" is problematic for me when a complex of ideas, "A," can imply beliefs B or C or D or E or F...and so forth.

Posted by razib at 12:33 PM | | TrackBack

Religious revival?

With an evangelical in the White House and the strength of social conservatism over the past general in the United States, it is a common truism that there is a religious revival, a "Great Awakening," going on in the United States. Below is some data that suggests this might not be so:

Of course, the American public can be a bit confusing sometimes, for a the past 50 years, about half of the population has also rejected evolutionary theory in the context of humans beings, and a majority have supported the teaching of "Creation Science" in the public schools.

Posted by razib at 12:32 PM | | TrackBack

US losing its dominance in science?

Is the US losing its dominance in science? A few points:

  • A relative decline is inevitable.
  • European science was dominant before 1950, so its resurgence across the Atlantic is just a reversion to type.
  • Since ~50% of humans are Asian, and the prominence of Asian civilization, especially China, is a persistent fact of human history, a larger contribution to science from that region is also not surprising as economic parity is achieved.
  • But: I am skeptical that Asian culture is as conducive to risky heterodox thinkers as American culture. A lesser process might occur in Europe, and the demands of the welfare state might in the long term siphon money away from basic research throughout the EU.

So, I suspect that America will still be in a class above its weight because of a steady migration of innovative thinkers who want more freedom to take risks.

Posted by razib at 12:28 PM | | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Sex in the City (Chicago)

This column by David Brooks reports on recently published book about sexual networks (and habits) in Chicago (read chapter 1 online). Nothing too surprising, people stay with "their own kind" and don't venture into unfamiliar territory.

But that go me wondering, has anyone done research about the preferences that people express on online "personals" databases? When people use these services, they are usually "matched" with people who fit their selected preferences, which means the normal person never gets to see a good cross-section.

Posted by razib at 01:08 PM | | TrackBack

the Meme Machine

the Meme Machine by Susan BlackmoreI'm going to have more to say about this later, but for now let me recommend The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore.  This is an important book.  Any book recommended by Richard Dawkins is going to be good, but in addition to being interesting and entertaining, this book paves new ground in a very productive direction.  Armed with this new hammer, all sorts of things start looking like nails.  I've recently found myself explaining the behavior of people, business strategy, even my own emotions in terms of memetics.

One might even suggest - and I hereby do so - that blogging is essentially driven by memes' desire for reproduction.  After the evolution of the human brain, the Internet has been the best thing ever to happen for memes...

Very apropos, razib discussed a gene for controlling brain size.  Part of Blackmore's argument is that evolution of our big brains was driven by memetic selection, essentially driving genetic selection (in much the same way that peacock's have evolved huge ungainly tails).

Some overt memetic sexual selection: the NYTimes reports on Different Sizes for Different Regions.  Why evolve attractive physical characteristics when you can simply modify yourself?  People are reshaping themselves, poking holes and branding themselves, even changing their gender, all for what?  Genetic fulfillment?  No.  Memetic fulfillment.

This is the best answer, by the way, to the question of why homosexuality doesn't simply die out, since most gay people don't have children.  It isn't selected for genetically, it is selected memetically.  And from that standpoint, it is a very competitive replicator.

These days, memes rule.

And the fallout is just beginning.  FuturePundit wonders Aging Or Sex Ratio Bigger Demographic Problem For China?  In the near future, China will become much older, and much more male.  These are both memetic effects which will have far-reaching societal consequences.  Remember, China has five times the population of the U.S. 

The post excerpts a book by Valerie Hudson: "In 2020 it may seem to China that it would be worth it to have a very bloody battle in which a lot of their young men could die in some glorious cause."  Entirely plausible, and therefore quite scary.

There are equally profound demographic changes taking place in India, which by 2020 will be more populous than China.

If this seems like weird disconnected stuff, please stay tuned.  I plan to discuss memetics in more detail...

Posted by ole at 01:18 AM | | TrackBack