Proud to be a mutant, then


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.

Oh, really?

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.

Comments

  1. says

    “Are we all special little flowers, the shining brilliant lucky recipients of a wisdom-bestowing mutation”
    I’d go with that hypothesis, especially since in the next phrase you didn’t mention *the hoi polloi ( as you saunter to the Automatic ATM Machine).

  2. Dhorvath, OM says

    I am a mutant too. In fact, I don’t think I can turn off my evolution acceptance: change happens.

  3. says

    Oh, jebus, more kiddie minds. Could we stop this please? Religious people aren’t primitive children.

    Hmm. Never had someone whose behavior, and their justifications for it, leave you thinking, “Maybe there needs to be a ‘mental age’ requirement to allow someone to do that.”? I have, when looking at everyone from some of the bloody politicians we are dealing with, to members of my own family. I would love to argue that their justifications are more adult, but most of the time they are merely extremely elaborate, and even children can invent alternate realities, which, while perhaps less internally consistent, are never the less quite complex, to justify what ever they did, want, or think is going on. And, again.. looking closely at some of the “adult” arguments made for some ideas… ‘mature, informed, consistent, and not self contradictory’, isn’t exactly always on the list of things that one can ascribe to the arguments. So.. I have to say that being an adult is a “learned trait”, and that excessive exposure to the sort of thinking, bad arguments, and general silliness of some ideas not only a) doesn’t result in an ‘adult mind’ in some cases, just automatically, but b) it tend to then spill over into how they think about damn near everything else.

    Not everyone is a highly skilled, scientific minded, person, who has simply learned to shove some bit of silly madness into a corner of their mind, and think very strangely, and illogically, about things in that category. Most people.. tend to let that stuff spill over into ***everything***. So, not sure I buy the idea that an adult brain can’t be, as a result of failing to learn effective logic, rather childish in its interpretations of the world, or that, by the same token, small children, with some clear developmental exceptions, can’t be, ironically, far more rational than many adults, if they learn how.

  4. Dhorvath, OM says

    And things like this make me wonder how many people who find evolution doesn’t fit their mental mold also think they are the same person they were when they first encountered the idea.

  5. chigau (違う) says

    From the article
    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.
    The question is so stupid the 7 and 8 year olds who answered were pulling the questioner’s leg.

  6. says

    “Religious people aren’t primitive children”
    Though I can’r escape this weird feeling that the sub-Abrahamic religions’ attitude towards women has something of the 10-year-old boy’s “Ewwwwww girls have cooties!”

  7. Cuttlefish says

    We have a tough time comprehending vast time scales, so something like evolution is clearly at a disadvantage.

    So we turn to something that is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent… each of which is literally impossible for a human to grasp (how do we know it isn’t just a little smarter, stronger, widespread and good than we ourselves are? How could we possibly discriminate that from the omni-critter?), because reasons?

  8. says

    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.

    Has somebody introduced these people to a place called Europe? Because the overwhelming majorities here have zero problem with accepting evolution. Actually, I never knew and was quite shocked when I found out that there are people with access to education who believe in creation when I first encountered them somewhere in my twenties

  9. David Wilford says

    Some years ago when my stepson told me he didn’t get the theory of evolution, I was a bit surprised but after talking with him learned he couldn’t understand how forms (i.e. phenotypes) changed. It’s a complicated subject that his high school biology class didn’t cover in much depth as it turned out. My stepson isn’t religious and doesn’t have that baggage confusing him at least, and I did manage to communicate enough about how changes in genes can result in phenotype changes, and that over enough time such changes add up to the point where you get the great variety of lifeforms we see on Earth today. I didn’t see evidence that my stepson was somehow evolutionarily unable to get evolution though, and I don’t agree with Mooney’s premise here.

  10. says

    “we seem to have a deep tendency to think about biology”…stop right there. We do? People think deeply about biology? Really?

    While I liked just about all of your article, this seems unfair. Mooney is clearly referring to the tendency as being deep (as in, difficult to root out), not the thinking. He’s still wrong, of course.

  11. davidrichardson says

    I’m so happy I live in a secular, European country when I read about nuts like these too. They seem to feel that Tinkerbell is a sort of role model when it comes to religion – you have to believe, or she’ll die! We tend not to believe in Tinkerbell over here too.

  12. says

    To expand on my previous comment:
    I think this is post hoc rationalisation and a weird form of the naturalistic fallacy:
    There are many people in their culture who don’t accept evolution, therefore there must be something that makes it hard for people to accept evolution.
    Which is, as mentioned above, complete bullshit and easily disproved by the existence of societies where creationism is a fringe phenomenon.

  13. dogfightwithdogma says

    chigau @5:

    The question is so stupid the 7 and 8 year olds who answered were pulling the questioner’s leg.

    The question may strike a very rational, logical adult-mind as stupid, but I don’t agree it is a stupid question to a 7 or 8 year old. Furthermore, I don’t agree that these 7 or 8 year-0ld children were pulling the questioner’s leg. I have no doubt that these children responded too the question not as a a joke but rather as a legitimate question and proceeded to give an answer they thought to be a reasonable explanation, at least as reasonable as can be constructed by the mind of a 7 or 8 year old child.

  14. says

    I’m with Giliell – I was very surprised when I encountered people who seriously didn’t believe in evolution. I was in university already. I knew plenty of quite religious people growing up, some of them my friends, but none of them ever admitted to creationist beliefs, to my knowledge. But the talibangelical strain is nowhere near as strong here in Soviet Canuckistan. They exist, absolutely, and they’re a pest to society, but it was long after our PM came to power that I heard anything much about his religious beliefs. Most of the people I’ve voted for, I’ve had no idea what their religion was, or if they had one. It’s just not part of the culture around politics, for the most part.

    I don’t have any difficulty in understanding or accepting evolution as a mechanism. While I can’t really grasp millions of years, I can see dogs every single day that prove unequivocally that small changes over time can lead to huge morphological differences (viz., the bull mastiff and the teacup poodle – nominally the same species, and theoretically interfertile, allowing for, ahem, physical considerations).

    The single best thing I’ve ever found for demonstrating evolution to kids, though, is the finches. The whole beaky-adaptationy thing.

  15. says

    I’m of two minds on this.

    I can more-or-less grant Mooney’s list, with some caveats and emendations (as does PZ, to some extent). I think we do have these cognitive shortcuts and mental biases. For example: realizing some years ago, the extent to which we anthropomorphize inanimate entities, even when we *know* they’re not agents, was a step along the road to atheism for me — it suddenly seemed obvious that the gods were born of that error. But that and the rest really only tells us that the invention of religion was inevitable, sometime back in the Paleolithic. But once it got started, cultural evolution took over, and what we have today has millenia of cultural accretion and political hijacking layered on top of it. I doubt it much resembles the primordial proto-religion. (If there are any surviving exemplars of that, I suppose it would be whatever is practiced by the few remaining foraging peoples). So it’s a bit of a leap to maintain that the religions of modern civilization are maintained by the same quirks as gave rise to their remote cultural ancestors.

    In any case, so far this is only anti-evolution to the extent that it’s pro-religion (but it’s nice of Mooney to grant that the latter is the main problem).

    But a lot of items on that list aren’t about religion at all; they’re more about the barriers to understanding scientific concepts, and engaging in a scientific way of thinking. Timescales (ie. difficulty in comprehending), essentialism, yeah — heck, lots of people don’t grok Newtonian physics (let alone relativity and QM), and we even run across people with STEM educations who hold confused and superficial ideas about science. I have to believe we’re all educable, but it obviously comes more easily to some than to others, and I think PZ underestimates the work it can require to disabuse oneself of folk-physics and folk-biology and folk-epistemology and so forth and replace it with a more accurate picture of the world.

  16. says

    “Religious people aren’t primitive children” True, but indoctrination at an early age can make it a lot harder to “grow up”. Associating one’s sense of identity, and the need to be accepted by family and society, with a religious belief, can build a solid emotional wall that separates you from rational thinking.

  17. vaiyt says

    Hemant is aware there is a world beyond the borders of the US, right?

    Same thing I thought. Here in THIS corner of the world, creationism was never an issue until very recently, when American-backed evangelical churches started gaining ground.

  18. carylj says

    I think people are religious because throughout history there have been charismatic storytellers. These people realized that they could get people to follow them through the use of words. These storytellers could appeal their vanities, exploit their fears and weaknesses, and ultimately control them. The stories formed the basis of the first religions. Scientists are just not charismatic. If we could find a way to tell people how the evolutionary explanation makes humans important, special, and unique in the universe; what freedom and power it gives to individuals; how our bodies are built from the dust of the universe and our cells burn and create heat with the power of the sun. We scientists need to figure out how to make our message appealing to the masses.

  19. says

    Carylj:

    Scientists are just not charismatic.

    Oh now, that’s not true at all. Never has been. This really isn’t about the storytellers as much as it is the story. Science isn’t about telling pretty lies.

  20. Akira MacKenzie says

    I’m still waiting for Mooney to use psychology and cognitive science to excuse why Republicans can’t bring themselves to accept AGW.

    I guess climate change denial is not a concern of his masters at the Templeton Foundation.

  21. gussnarp says

    I think if you set aside the determinism and the evopsych, as Hemant did in his video, these are actually things that play a role in people not accepting evolution, and they’re things that ought to be considered and countered if one is to convince people of evolution.

  22. says

    There is some truth to what Mooney’s saying, but the thing is, all of those things could just as easily be given as reasons why it’s difficult to grasp the idea that lightning isn’t hurled by a sky god, but is a natural result of physical processes. And it’s very rare to come across people who still believe that lightning is a sky god’s toy. We (most human beings) are given a natural explanation from the start and we have no problem accepting it. We have no problem believing that the earth is spinning, that it’s revolving around the sun, that many diseases are caused by microbes too small to be seen with the naked eye, that everything is made up of tiny particles–all, at a glance, counter-intuitive. Evolution is easier to “get” than, say, gravity. The problem is that religion indoctrinates people early in order to bolster all of those natural perceptual mistakes like dualism or essentialism, and then you’re not fighting just the mundane cognitive errors that lead us to think the sun rises and sets, and that there is a self other than our bodies, but you’re fighting all the crap that goes along with indoctrination: confirmation bias, fear of being shunned, feelings of superiority and being one of the chosen, and so on.

    That’s why it takes both gentle diplomatic as well as aggressive hostile tactics to break through to people. Some people will just go wherever the evidence leads–they just need some polite, thorough explanation, whereas some people need to have their doctrines mocked in order to shake them out of their complacency.

  23. brendan says

    Hi. Longtime reader (and admirer), first time commenter. This post, though, as did Larry Moran’s, rubbed me the wrong way. While there are some fair points, I think it misses more than it sees. Let me try to explain why.
    I attended a Christian school with mediocre science education. While I never doubted the truth of evolution, I also didn’t realize how poorly I understood it until years later, after a largely humanities-based higher education. Even now, when it seems to me that I understand it fairly well for a layperson, it still seems counterintuitive to me. I have to constantly reset my default patterns of thought and remind myself of how it really works. I would never argue earnestly that people who grasp it naturally are “mutants,” but I would also never argue that they represent a norm. This should come as no surprise to us: for some people, math is intuitively easy to understand. For others, it is a continual challenge. I can think of almost no subject or endeavor of which this is not the case.
    I found Mooney’s article interesting. It did not seem to me at all that he was trying to excuse anything, or that he was committing the naturalistic fallacy, or that he was somehow propping up the status quo. He was making a claim that, to me, has been obvious from experience for years: religion makes more intuitive sense for some of us than evolution does, not only because of how we’re raised but how we’re wired. Unless I am misreading something (which is always a possibility), the amount of anger this claim seems to have generated is jarring.
    For many of us, religion appeals more readily to certain predispositions and biases, whether or not we were raised religiously. Hearing what those predispositions and biases might be can be extremely helpful in helping us get perspective on our own minds. It may indeed be true that young-earth creationism is a new and freakish phenomenon, but it is also true that it is on the rise in certain parts of the world, and understanding why – all other things being equal – a religious explanation might appeal to people more than a scientific one is important. Education can be a process of manipulating cognitive biases as much as it can be a process of overcoming them, and while it can overcome them, it is important to remember that it does not take too much effort to manipulate them either – because we were not made to think well with ease, at least not all the time.
    A few, somewhat disconnected points:
    While it’s true that children mature mentally, it’s also true that our earliest attempts to explain the world can have a lasting impact on our later psychology. (This is why we secularists attempt to instill the value of questioning and reasoning in our children as early as possible.) Cognitive capabilities emerge gradually, over a long period of time, and the earliest ones to emerge are worthy topics of study. It does no good to simply point at remarks from children and say that we are “relying on quotes from pre-schoolers.” That’s a mischaracterization of the argument. (And he is not suggesting that religious people are children.) If it is natural to us to default to intentional or dualistic explanations at an early age, perhaps that suggests that we are still likely to do so at a later age, unless the right kind of education weans us away from the habit. Maybe it is not so: but complaining about “inclinations in young children” as though they mean nothing is unhelpful.
    Regarding fear and the need for certainty, you write: “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.”
    You seem to be unfairly extrapolating from your own experience. Many people find chance terrifying (our brains sometimes reel at purposelessness), and what they oppose to it is not “a super-powerful being is trying to harm me,” but “a super-powerful being who knows more than I do is in control of this situation” – which is extremely comforting to some people. Just because it does not appeal to you does not mean it does not appeal to others. And the view that looking to a supernatural agent for explanation is a product of cultural conditioning? That seems to be a far-from-obvious claim. Wouldn’t we have to discard whole chapters in Dawkins and Dennett if that is the case? Certainly, culture plays a large role, but not the only one.
    Finally – and then I have to get back to work: “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.”
    After numerous lessons in how badly I can be fooled by my senses and my intuition, I have no problem with thinking of scientific thinking as somehow “unnatural” or “in defiance of [some of] my evolved instincts,” even as it is in conformity with some others. We spent hundreds of thousands of years, at least, explaining the world in religious as well as scientific terms. Only now are we arguing for the complete elimination of the religious terms. But that doesn’t suggest that perhaps we have to go against certain aspects of our own nature to do so?
    Anyway, this comment is long enough. I gather that Mooney has pissed people off before – I don’t know who he is and have not looked him up – and perhaps I would have been less open to his arguments had I known more about his past work. Still, (some of) the refutations seemed misplaced.

  24. Nick Gotts says

    Hemant is aware there is a world beyond the borders of the US, right? – WithinThisMind@12

    Well, it’s a thing a lot of Americans seem to have a problem with (American Pharyngulites largely excepted). I’m sure the British had a corresponding problem in the 19th century. But while most Europeans accept the basic fact of evolution, I doubt whether many grasp that it’s completely non-teleological – that natural selection is in no sense agent-like. Historically, Darwin convinced most biologists of the reality of common descent (and of course the idea of an old earth, and reasonably well-articulated evolutionary ideas, had been around decades before he wrote); but broad scientific acceptance that natural selection was its main mechanism, and that there was no teleology involved, took until the 1930s.

    I cannot imagine the magnitude of millions of years. Billions are right out. Heck, even a thousand years is a strain. – pzm

    I really don’t get that at all. You know from personal experience what a year is like. Find a meter rule with millimeters marked on it, and tag each millimeter with a year. Now imagine a square, with such a rule along each side, and parallel lines extending from each mark to the opposite side of the square. The big square will consist of a million little squares, so tag each of them with a year. Now imagine a cube, with such a square for each face, and planes through the cube from each line across a face. The big cube contains a billion little cubes. Tag each one with a year. Where’s the problem?

  25. says

    Oh, I have tools to help visualize long spans of time: just putting into scientific notation makes it manageable. But actually grokking it viscerally? That’s a different matter.

  26. stevem says

    TL;DR (entirely), but I will say that Mooney’s error is trying to use his “list” as proof of anything. What I read sounds perfectly accurate as a DESCRIPTION of why Religion is so popular, but to extrapolate that that is so because of Evolution is totally wrong. And the reason he keeps using children as examples is to imitate the use of unbiased samples to prove something. I.E. kids too young to have become corrupted by the establishment are the only source of valid examples of the pure brain resulting from only evolution. A lot of what he is saying what I see all the time from religiots: everything has a cause, big-bang had to have been caused by something, qed god.
    I get back to an old comment of mine that the concept of God is just a transformation of the childlike dependance on Daddy to protect one from danger, science (thinking) is too hard, goddidit is so much easier, etc., etc. What I read of Mooney is, he is just fancifying my simple thoughts to try to sell himself as the solver of everything that bothers everybody. Ho knows he can’t just point at evolution and say it is guilty, he has to back it it many words to sound smart and confuse everyone who reads it, where they just shrug and yield, “if you say so”, will be the response he is aiming for.

  27. says

    [T]hat all the barriers to the acceptance of evolution are artificial, cultural, and recently imposed.

    Seems correct in my own personal anecdote. I had minimal exposure to religion growing – I never attended a church service (minus once with an ex who was trying to convert me). I did attend some denomination’s preschool, but for non-religious reasons (there weren’t secular pre-schools around). Outside of that, it’s just what I got from classmates and public schooling (either there was none, or it flew over my head).

    My mind was never tainted with creation, so evolution, to me, is seems much, much more likely.

  28. colnago80 says

    I think that Larry Moran has put his finger on what the real problem with Mooney is. Basically, Mooney believes that we must bend over backwards not to offend the tender feelings of the faithful. This means downplaying atheism and taking the position that evolution and faith are not incompatible. Of course, as Darwin himself pointed out, who could believe in a deity who chose a wasteful and cruel mechanism like natural selection to drive the diversity of life.

  29. says

    PZ wrote: “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.”

    Thanks for not despising me, PZ! And I get a little tired of seeing my name used that way, too.

  30. anchor says

    “Oh, I have tools to help visualize long spans of time: just putting into scientific notation makes it manageable. But actually grokking it viscerally? That’s a different matter.”

    It’s just as hard to grasp a single second of time when considered in 10^-43 Planck time units. The point is that it is in fact possible to ‘grok it’ with the appropriate auxiliary tools that service the intellect. The hard part is the hugeness of numbers involved, and then we exhibit emotional amazement or wonderment of a reality that not only exists independently of our minds, but that we can actually resonate with any of it in the way of an understanding. That response is itself denied to those who will not proceed on the path of learning.

    BTW, this was one heck of a terrific read! Brilliant!

  31. mnb0 says

    “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”
    Then I suppose there is something wrong with my cognitive architecture and my emotional dispositions, because evolution was easy and natural to accept as long as I can remember. Sure, the first time I was confronted with Quantum Mechanics my jaw dropped, but I also immediately realized that it opened an entirely new and exciting path to explore.

  32. says

    Chris Mooney sold out a while back. Since he made his…bargain with Templeton, he’s been determined to show that reactionary positions are natural and extraordinarily difficult to extirpate. All that remains at this point for him to unweave all of his previous good work is a few articles about the inevitability (bravery, rebelliousness,…) of AGW denial.

    The argument entirely misses that at the heart of creationism is speciesism. Evolution isn’t any more difficult to get than any other theory, but it’s resisted by many who can’t bear to think humans aren’t a “special creation” or teleologically destined to appear or dominate. The (wonderful) reality that we’re fully animals is unacceptable,* especially in a world in which we subjugate, exploit, and kill billions of our fellow animals. It’s even difficult for evolutionary biologists.

    Evolution-denying or -diluting visions, including Miller’s, are ideology: attempts to prop up a system of oppression. That, and not intrinsic psychological propensities, is the source of their social power.

  33. smike says

    Religious fundamentalists choose to live in a world of darkness to pray ever fervently for the light.

  34. unclefrogy says

    you for me it was always trying to make the story of creation fit with the science and the natural world I knew. deep time I always found interesting. It was easy to look at things from the perspective of a rock or a river or a tree not just my own personal short time span life.
    the Chris Money just sounds like he is just trying to rationalize willful ignorance and give it an excuse for not trying to understand reality. It is just a little bit condescending and probably insulting to boot.
    uncle frogy

  35. says

    Has it ever occurred to Mooney that many, if not most, people in Western Europe don’t have an inbuilt need to believe in God and reject evolution? My English working-class family is totally indifferent to religion. My parents weren’t churchgoers, my grandparents weren’t churchgoers, and I’d be very surprised if any of my great-grandparents were churchgoers. Yet religious education is compulsory is English schools, and I remember sitting through the lessons and thinking what utter nonsense it all was – it felt WRONG, which is exactly the same reaction Mooney thinks people (or at least Americans) have towards evolution…

  36. says

    Either Nick Gotts@32 is smarter than me and PZ (could be, but….;-)) or he fails to, um, grok the problem.

    I put it thusly: I find that my internal visualization of numbers goes quasi-logarithmic pretty quickly. The subjective distance from 1000 to 10000 seems not that much bigger than the distance from 100 to 1000, and the distance from one billion to one trillion seems (believe it or not) less than that. It’s not even log(N); more like log(log(N)). And a similar effect seems to apply going to very small numbers.

    I can visualize a meter stick AND the individual millimeter markings (because I have one), but extend that distance much further and the millimeters quickly disappear — there’s a point beyond which the mind can’t grasp both the large number AND the “ones” of which it is composed. This affects our appreciation both of geological timescales and astronomical distances. It means that one’s first reaction to the idea of say, the Cambrian Explosion, might be that 10Mya isn’t enough time for all the basic body plans to arise, because subjectively it doesn’t “look” much greater than the time from the Roman Empire to us. Which is stupid, but our spontaneous thought patterns are often stupid.

    We can work with numbers at any scale using no more than middle school math, but turning that into an intuitive appreciation requires mental training, and maybe a whack or two upside the head.

  37. torwolf says

    I fail to see why Mooney’s article has tied such a knot in PZ’s undergarments. His use of evolutionary logic and reference of child psychological studies is fine by me. The conclusion that it is extremely difficult for human minds to grasp evolutionary science and logic is justified given that it is preposterous to suppose that the multiplicity of religions and sheer mass of religiously-minded humans is >50% determined by culture. The human mind is primed to believe what it is told, and primed to draw conclusions based on unverifiable evidence. Our minds – capable of questioning the world around us and wondering why things have occurred – readily turn to a higher power as a means of explaining the world around us (“God wants it this way”) to pacify the horrible emotions that most of us must deal with when shit hits the fan (death of a loved one, starvation, suffering). It takes a hell of a lot more cultural conditioning in terms of time and energy to get a human to think critically and understand science than to get a human to believe in nonsense to feel better. Somehow this logic completely alludes PZ.

    “Developmental plasticity is all” – PZ Myers