Chris Mooney has done it again: he has rationalized a piece of the conventional wisdom to support the status quo and to make it harder to break the creationist habit. He has an article on Mother Jones titled
Seven Evolutionary Reasons People Deny Evolution, and I gakked at every word, from the linkbait in the first word to the presumption of the second to the obvious promise of self-justification in the third.
And I let it go.
It’s Mooney, after all. But then Larry Moran is getting on his case, and Hemant Mehta has been hoodwinked into accepting this nonsense, so I feel compelled to dig into it. One interesting thing about the article, though, is that Mooney is unself-consciously practicing the same delusions he claims are natural in putting his argument together — you’d think he’d be a little bit aware…but no.
Let us begin with the last and work backwards through the essay. It’s his conclusion that pissed me off the most.
In any event, the evidence is clear that both our cognitive architecture, and also our emotional dispositions, make it difficult or unnatural for many people to accept evolution. “Natural selection is like quantum physics…we might intellectually grasp it, with considerable effort, but it will never feel right to us,” writes the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. Often, people express surprise that in an age so suffused with science, science causes so much angst and resistance.
I was brought up Lutheran, and got the full weekly dose of church and Sunday School; I was also a zealous reader from an early age, and discovered the science section of my local library when I was probably in first or second grade. I was exposed to both religion and science from an early age, and guess which one I found difficult and unnatural to grasp? That’s right. Somehow, these people think recognizing natural causes in the world around us, something we experience every moment of our lives, is difficult, while accepting the existence of magical, supernatural forces that we never ever see is “natural”.
Yet there I am at 8 years old, given a choice between a book about Noah’s Ark and Jesus, or one of Asimov’s collections of science essays, and there’s no question, no doubt in my mind, no niggling worries or hesitation — I choose Asimov every time, hands down. If I do read the Ark book (because I was bored and eventually devoured everything), it’s with arched brow and child-like incredulousness, because the story is so goddamned stupid.
And now, as an adult, I not only intellectually grasp what we know about evolution, it feels right to me.
That either makes me a super-powered mutant, or that someone has got everything all wrong in their attempt to make the argument that religion is natural and evolved, and perhaps I’m just a mundane, ordinary guy who had a freedom to explore ideas not usually granted to most people, and that all the barriers to the acceptance of evolution are artificial, cultural, and recently imposed.
I assume most of my readers here also accept the idea of evolution. So which is it? Are we all special little flowers, the shining brilliant lucky recipients of a wisdom-bestowing mutation, while hoi polloi are dullard turds lacking in our biologically glorious powers, or do essentially all humans have capable, plastic brains capable of responding to the environment in reasonable (if limited) ways? I rather lean towards the latter view, as flattering as the former might be. I’m pushed even further towards that view by the bad arguments Mooney gives.
But first, let’s dismiss a standard rhetorical trick: before you give your grand conclusion, bring out a couple of caveats that you can dismiss. It gives the appearance that you’ve carefully weighed the evidence and have examined the opposition position. Mooney does not fail. He dredges up two irrelevant counter-arguments.
First, this doesn’t mean science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The conflict may run very deep indeed, but nevertheless, some individuals can and do find a way to retain their religious beliefs and also accept evolution—including the aforementioned biology textbook author Kenneth Miller of Brown University, a Catholic.
You cannot know how much I despise the Ken Miller Argument. Not Miller himself, of course, but this weird happy relief people seem to find in dragging him out and gleefully pointing at his Catholicism and his science credentials. They are irrelevant to the point that science and religion are incompatible — people are complex and embody all kinds of contradictions. You simply cannot point to a single human being as a test for the logical incompatibility of two ideas. That presupposes that we’re capable of nothing but rational thought, and that our brains contain flawless logic circuits that do not allow clashing ideas to exist in our heads.
What would be interesting and relevant would be to ask Miller, or any scientist no matter what their religious beliefs, whether they found evolutionary thinking difficult or unnatural. Mooney does not do this, despite the fact that it is the only question relevant to his premise. He does raise a second irrelevant caveat, though.
Second, while there are many reasons to think that the traits above [his list of properties that predispose us to religion --pzm] comprise a core part of who we are, it doesn’t automatically follow that religion is the direct result of evolution by natural selection. It is also possible that religion arises as a byproduct of more basic traits that were, in turn, selected for because they conferred greater fitness (such as agency detection). This “byproduct” view is defended by Steven Pinker here.
I personally think the byproduct explanation is the best one I’ve heard, but so what? It says that religion exploits properties of the mind that evolved for other reasons. We could say exactly the same thing of mathematics: we didn’t evolve to solve calculus problems, there has never been significant selection pressure for people whose expertise is specifically in calculus, but we do have some properties — a surplus of capacity, perhaps, or general flexibility — that could be reworked by experience to enable the exercise of mathematics. Is math natural or unnatural?
But when you actually think about it, it is a killer argument against Mooney’s thesis…it’s too bad that he doesn’t think about it much at all. What does it even mean to talk about “natural” or “evolved” cognitive traits, like religion or science? Mooney is blithely talking about a “core part of who we are”, while describing culturally conditioned superficial myths held by a tribe of talking apes, all while ignoring the fact that his core traits are not universal.
Let’s consider his list of natural core.
Fear and the Need for Certainty. Finally, there appears to be something about fear and doubt that impels religiosity and dispels acceptance of evolution. “People seem to take more comfort from a stance that says, someone designed the world with good intentions, instead of that the world is just an intention-less, random place,” says Norenzayan. “This is especially true when we feel a sense of threat, or a feeling of not being in control.”
Fear and uncertainty are real — even us self-confident happy atheists have to deal with them. Every one of us has felt loss and grief, and we know that these are also great tools to use to manipulate people. But take it a step further. Fear is a universal, but how we cope with it is variable. This person Norenzayan is making an assertion that religious thinking is an evolved coping strategy for dealing with fear, but none of the evidence given supports that claim. It does support the idea that people with religious concepts stuck in their head tend to reinforce those concepts when stressed.
But that statement by Norenzayan is ridiculous. You’re in a difficult situation: which is more reassuring, the idea that a) it’s an accident of chance, or b) there really is a super-powerful being who is doing this on purpose to you? If you’re just looking for a good way to deal with your troubles, I find (a) immensely more comforting than (b). And when I have experienced stress and suffering, I don’t find myself suddenly looking for a supernatural agent out to get me. That view is a product of long cultural conditioning.
Turn this view on Mooney: he lives in a world full of superstitious people. How to explain this uncomfortable situation? Why, there must be an external agency, evolution, that has shaped them to be inimical to science.
Group Morality and Tribalism. All of these cognitive factors seem to make evolution hard to grasp, even as they render religion (or creationist ideas) simpler and more natural to us. But beyond these cognitive factors, there are also emotional reasons why a lot of people don’t want to believe in evolution. When we see resistance to its teaching, after all, it is usually because a religious community fears that this body of science will undermine a belief system—in the US, usually fundamentalist Christianity—deemed to serve as the foundation for shared values and understanding. In other words, evolution is resisted because it is perceived as a threat to the group.
Again, tribalism is real, and we apes do turn to our friendly support groups all the time, and we need our social glue to live happily. Nothing in this predisposes people to think religiously rather than scientifically, however. That we allow and encourage our fellow apes to cultivate their own peculiar rituals and behaviors to forge coherence actually says that those individual sets of rules are arbitrary, not determined. We can make subtribes within the human community that are bound together by religion, by atheism, by science (yes, science certainly does have its quaint bonding practices), or by such things as anime fandom.
Place the blame where it belongs. Not on human tribalism, but on the fact that a huge, successful, widespread binding factor, religion, also frequently imposes absurdly anti-scientific views on its members. And even there, the blame must be apportioned to historical contingencies, not fixed inevitabilities.
Turn this view on Mooney: he’s arguing for a tribe that cannot grasp basic principles of science for biological reasons. Yet I suspect that he does not place himself in the category of a person doomed to struggle against the unnatural weirdness of science. It’s always comforting to separate the other, the Creationists, from ourselves, the Scientists, isn’t it? But I can tell you that they’re just as smart and capable as we are — just that their intelligence is shunted off in unproductive directions.
Inability to Comprehend Vast Time Scales. According to Norenzayan, there’s one more basic cognitive factor that prevents us from easily understanding evolution. Evolution occurred due to the accumulation of many small changes over vast time periods—which means that it is unlike anything we’ve experienced. So even thinking about it isn’t very easy. “The only way you can appreciate the process of evolution is in an abstract way,” says Norenzayan. “Over millions of years, small changes accumulate, but it’s not intuitive. There’s nothing in our brain that says that’s true. We have to override our incredulity.”
I will give him this: I cannot imagine the magnitude of millions of years. Billions are right out. Heck, even a thousand years is a strain.
But I find it bizarre to argue that visualizing the accumulation of small changes is not intuitive — it’s actually imbedded deeply in the human experience. Every child knows that once they were a baby, and talks about growing up; Mom and Dad make a pencil mark on the door jamb for our height every year; we go through that awkward transition at puberty, and then we spend the rest of our life aging, feeling every creak and every fading ability. Old people rail against this new generation and praise the previous one. We live lives full of change, and usually spend our time complaining about it.
“Once things were different” is such a natural and easy sentiment that it is perverse to suddenly claim that no one thinks that way. That we have a hard time appreciating the magnitude of time over which changes occur is one thing; but inability to perceive change? Pfft.
Turn this view on Mooney: One thing I often find irritating in discussions of creationism are all these people who think the creationism of the last 60 years is the way religion has always been. Go back a century, and you might be surprised: deeply religious people were struggling to reconcile faith and science, and you don’t typically find that the depth of the geological record was a serious obstacle. You don’t find that change was a problem: the book of Genesis is all about a rather abrupt change, and of course theologians are dab hands at rationalizing and accepting the grand changes we see in the shift from the Old Testament to the New. Young Earth Creationism, as practiced in America today, is a relatively new and odd phenomenon.
Dualism. Yet another apparent feature of our cognitive architecture is the tendency to think that minds (or the “self” and the “soul”) are somehow separate from brains. Once again, this inclination has been found in young children, suggesting that it emerges early in human development. “Preschool children will claim that the brain is responsible for some aspects of mental life, typically those involving deliberative mental work, such as solving math problems,” write Yale psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. “But preschoolers will also claim that the brain is not involved in a host of other activities, such as pretending to be a kangaroo, loving one’s brother, or brushing one’s teeth.”
This is another one that I will grant to Mooney, to a degree. Consciousness is a ubiquitous illusion, and it is all about taking a material substrate, the brain, and generating a perception of a self-aware monitor floating above it all. It’s a hardware/software distinction, in many ways, and it’s natural to interpret others’ behavior with a theory of mind.
But I gotta love studies that rely on the perspectives of pre-schoolers. Babies love to play peek-a-boo, and are endlessly surprised when you open your hands and…and there you are! Giggle and coo! But you know, when we get older, we would consider it grossly unnatural if an individual failed to acquire the concept of object permanence. Did you know that human minds mature over time? Inclinations in young children are not necessarily likely to be held by adults.
Also, creationists and religious people are not children, nor do they have child-like brains. Give ‘em some credit, they can learn and adapt and grow just like us Grown-Up-Sciencey-Types.
Turn this view on Mooney: Grow up.
Overactive Agency Detection. But how do you know the designer is “God”? That too may be the result of a default brain setting.
Another trait, closely related to teleological thinking, is our tendency to treat any number of inanimate objects as if they have minds and intentions. Examples of faulty agency detection, explains University of British Columbia origins of religion scholar Ara Norenzayan, range from seeing “faces in the clouds” to “getting really angry at your computer when it starts to malfunction.” People engage in such “anthropomorphizing” all the time; it seems to come naturally. And it’s a short step to religion: “When people anthropomorphize gods, they are inferring mental states,” says Norenzayan.
Yes? Isn’t that what we were just talking about under Dualism? The logic of listicles is always reinforced when you use a magic number like 7 or 10, isn’t it?
It is true, I have been known to snarl at the TV (especially on, say, Sunday morning, when the pundits are babbling, or when I accidentally flip through Fox News), even though it is an inanimate object that is not responsible for the idiocy displayed on it. But you know, my mind is slightly less literal-minded than the story makes it out to be: even when my irrational side is getting tickled by the provocation of the noises from the magic box on the wall or the shapes of clouds, I’m quite able to draw myself up short and recognize reality. I know that turning the television off does not make the annoying people disappear, and that the bunny hopping about in the sky is no threat to my salad. While we recognize that the brain contains fallible perception generators, could we please also recognize that the brain also has more sophisticated processors to interpret those phenomena? And guess what — creationists and religious people also have them!
Where I object is that “short step to religion”. Fine; we can see that it’s an easy first step. But when I take a step, I try to keep on walking. What’s unnatural is take a step and then just stop when there’s a wide open path ahead of me. Why assume that those Religious Others are incapable of thinking beyond first impressions? Why not assume that they are just as capable of going on beyond that preliminary, primitive perception?
Turn this view on Mooney: It’s always tempting to find that first confirming impression and stop. No need to think further, we’ve already got the answer. It’s particularly tempting when we’ve got a thesis that we want affirmed, and there it is: by golly, I have grumbled at my computer, therefore, GOD is an entirely reasonable conclusion. Keep on walking, Mooney, there are more steps beyond the first.
Teleological Thinking. Essentialism is just one basic cognitive trait, observed in young children, that seems to hinder evolutionary thinking. Another is “teleology,” or the tendency to ascribe purposes to things and objects so as to assume they exist to serve some goal.
Recent research suggests that 4 and 5 year old children are highly teleological in their thinking, tending to opine, for instance, that clouds are “for raining” and that the purpose of lions is “to go in the zoo.” The same tendency has been observed in 7 and 8 year olds who, when asked why “prehistoric rocks are pointy,” offered answers like “so that animals could scratch on them when they got itchy” and “so that animals wouldn’t sit on them and smash them.”
Oh, jebus, more kiddie minds. Could we stop this please? Religious people aren’t primitive children. A lot of religious thinking is abstract, convoluted, elaborate, and sophisticated — it’s also deeply flawed, but let’s not pretend that we can find the roots of Catholic or Jewish theology in the simplistic thinking of seven year olds. The Summa Theologica, the Talmud, and the Hadiths are not one-off guesses produced by some kids on the playground at the prompting of psychologists. They are highly unnatural (in the sense that Mooney is using the word) products of exquisitely higher order thinking on the part of thousands of people deeply imbedded in an elaborate cultural tradition.
Simplistic biases like those we see in those kids are easily overcome. I’m an example, so is Mooney, so is Ken Miller, so is every scientist brought up in a Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu society. That isn’t the problem. The problem lies in very detailed rationalizations assembled by scholars and leaders and influential social messengers that might play on intrinsic biases in our thinking, but I would say that that is also true of science. Shall we argue that Newtonian laws are built on our childlike appreciation of “funny man falls down” slapstick? That would be just as naive.
Turn this view on Mooney: You’re looking for intent and purpose in the pervasiveness of religious thought; you’re seeking simple causal agents behind a presumed bias towards religion. Have you considered the possibility that you’re engaging in the same teleological thinking that you’re labeling as a foundation for religion?
Biological Essentialism. First, we seem to have a deep tendency to think about biology in a way that is “essentialist”—in other words, assuming that each separate kind of animal species has a fundamental, unique nature that unites all members of that species, and that is inviolate. Fish have gills, birds have wings, fish make more fish, birds make more birds, and that’s how it all works. Essentialist thinking has been demonstrated in young children. “Little kids as young as my 2 and a half year old granddaughter are quite clear that puppies don’t have ponies for mommies and daddies,” explains McCauley.
“we seem to have a deep tendency to think about biology”…stop right there. We do? People think deeply about biology? Really?
Biologists think deeply about biology, and thinking deeply about biology seems to have produced the theory of evolution. Thinking superficially about the causes and origins of species, treating them as merely descriptive categories of convenience, seems to have produced creationism. Again with the little kids — are we seriously going to consider that 2½ year old kids have been “thinking deeply” about biology?
There are other people who think deeply about biology — hunters, for instance, or farmers. And they come up with schemes that also group animals and plants in patterns, but they generally aren’t trying to explain origins, but behavior. It’s when you actually think about where things come from that the assumptions of pre-schoolers begin to readily fall apart.
Turn this view on Mooney: Mooney has long been an opponent of “data dump” science, the idea that merely educating people about science is sufficient to persuade them to abandon religion. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that myself; it does take more than just hammering with facts to get an idea accepted. But I would also suggest that one major problem with Mooney’s argument is that he is so willing to assume that the first impressions of children represent deep thoughts — that he doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of data and evidence in shaping how people think. This stuff matters. I am not the boy I was who first stepped into a library. Learning is actually central to the human experience.
Our cognitive architecture and emotional dispositions are certainly natural and biological, but they can equally well incline us to accept natural explanations as well as supernatural ones — we are shaped by our experiences as well as crude preliminary suppositions. The argument that religion is more “natural” than science is a bow to the naturalistic fallacy and a nod towards the status quo. Do not try to tell me that my mode of thinking, as easy and simply as I fell into it (and as readily as many in the scientific community similarly find it) is somehow weird, unnatural, inhuman, or in defiance of my evolved instincts. It is not. Every person has the capacity to think scientifically or religiously or even both, and there are modes of thought that are not limited by the presumptions of our particular culture as well.
It is a logical failure to assume that what is is what must be, or that the currently dominant elements of our culture are representative of how the human mind must work.