The origin of religion-9: Real and fictive kinship

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the strategies that religions use to both grow and retain their members. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion suggest that the growth of religion could have been aided by the idea of ‘fictive kinship’. To understand this, we need to bear in mind that what evolution selects for are individual genes, not the full organism. The full organism (a human or chimpanzee or bird or plant) is simply a vehicle for carrying and reproducing genes.

The early research of W. D. Hamilton and R. Trivers showed how it can be evolutionary advantageous for a gene for the organism that contains it to nurture, protect, and even sacrifice itself for a relative because of its shared genes, and that this could form the basis for what we call altruism. As the mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied when asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins”, which reflects when the number of his own genes that he loses by dying breaks even with the ones he saves in others.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57, and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27, 1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a clear summary of the research on how evolution can provide an explanation of the biological basis of altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

This drive to perpetuate a gene by aiding the survival and reproductive success of those who share that same gene, our ‘kin’, is evolutionarily advantageous and is thus likely deeply embedded in our primal brain.

Farmers know this and take advantage of this altruism towards actual kin by tricking animals into creating a false sense of genetic connection, a ‘fictive kinship’, in order to make an animal help another not related to it. For example, sheep and lambs can die during the birthing process and although it would help the farmer if an ewe that had lost its own lamb allowed an orphaned lamb to suckle it, ewes are reluctant to allow a lamb not its own to do so. This is understandable behavior in Darwinian terms because the ewe’s genes do not benefit from spending its resources on an unrelated animal. But by skinning the dead lamb of an ewe and using it to cover the body of a lamb whose mother has died, the ewe can be fooled into thinking that the lamb is her own and allow it to suckle.

Cornwell and Thomson suggest that the perpetuation and growth of religion is aided by this idea of fictive kinship. In primitive societies, we recognized as kin those who lived with us or very close to us. As societies grew larger and more complex, other devices had to be created to keep track of who was kin and who was not. Family names were one such device but in even larger groups we find ways to trick people into thinking in terms of kin by using labels such as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘motherland’, and so on. These terms are targeted to appeal to the primal brain that has evolved to instinctively rally to help kin, and are exploited by armies and religions and politicians in order to get people to band together as fictive families to fight against other fictive families.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, exploits the fictive kinship aspects extensively. It speaks of ‘god the father’ and ‘Mother Mary’, their priests are referred to as father or brother, their nuns as sister or mother, and the liturgy constantly invokes the idea of the congregants as brothers and sisters.

Another explanation for the origin of religion is the idea that belief in an afterlife is a precursor to belief in god. This view suggests that in primitive societies, older adults may have found it advantageous to themselves to initiate and propagate the idea that there is an afterlife in which they still wielded influence over events in this life. It enabled them to command respect and good treatment from the young in this life even when they were old and decrepit and of little practical use. It is not a big step from believing in a world of the afterlife to believe in some sort of hierarchy existing there, with the ruler of that after-world transmuting into a god-concept.

It is unlikely that we will definitively answer questions about the origins of religion since those events lie in deep evolutionary time and beliefs don’t leave fossil remains or their imprint in DNA.

Those of us who wonder why religions still exist in the face of modern understanding of how the world works tend to underestimate the determination of believers to hold on to their beliefs. A Pew poll finds that while the public may say that they respect and understand science, “much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.”

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers. (my italics)

But whether we treat religion as a mental illness (as argued by Albert Ellis) or understand its origins and presence in any number of other ways, we clearly have our work cut out in trying to expose it because of its deep evolutionary origins that can make people choose to believe in illusions over reality.

But the big weakness of religion, the one that works against it and will ultimately lead to its demise, is that it is a false belief with zero evidentiary support and such beliefs, however strongly held, eventually crumble.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to discredit science to preserve religion

Following up on the above Pew poll, you can see the comical lengths that religious people will go to in their attempt to show that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Incidentally, the creationist Kent Hovind (aka ‘Dr. Dino’) who is featured in the video is now serving a ten year prison sentence for tax fraud.

The origin of religion-8: Religious observance as obsessive-compulsive behavior

In the previous post in this series, I discussed neurologist Robert Sapolsky’s theory that the charismatic founders of religious cults had schizotypal personalities. He then goes further and tries to identify what traits might be at work amongst the followers of religion. What is it that makes them adopt ritualistic practices that serve no useful purpose? He suggests that the conscientious observance of time-wasting rituals that characterize devout followers of religions is a milder manifestation of what we now call obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD).

There’s a remarkable parallelism between religious ritualism and the ritualism of OCD. In OCD, the most common rituals are the rituals of self-cleansing, of food preparation, of entering and leaving holy places of emotional significance, and rituals of numerology. You look in every major religion, and those are the four most common ritual forms that you see.

You could look at any of these organized religions — though we’re very accustomed by now that, when we think of religion, it’s often interspersed with good works or a sense of community — and see that religion in its orthodoxy is about rules: how you do every single thing all throughout the day. You look at orthodox versions of any of these religions, and there are rules for which direction you face after you defecate, which hand you wash, how many swallowings of water, which nostril you breathe in with, which nostril you breathe out — these are all rules that Brahmans have in order to get into heaven. Numerological rules: how many times you have to say a certain prayer in a lifetime.

Orthodox Judaism has this amazing set of rules: every day there’s a bunch of strictures of things you’re supposed to do, a bunch you’re not supposed to do, and the number you’re supposed to do is the same number as the number of bones in the body. The number that you’re not supposed to do is the same number as the number of days in the year. The amazing thing is, nobody knows what the rules are! Talmudic rabbis have been scratching each others’ eyes out for centuries arguing over which rules go into the 613. The numbers are more important than the content. It is sheer numerology.

Then, obviously getting closer to home for most people here, there is the realm of the number of rosaries and the number of Hail Mary’s. Religious ritualism is shot through with the exact same obsessive qualities.

Once again, these rules are time wasting and maladaptive for most people. But not for all, because if so they would have disappeared over time. They work to the benefit of those who make the rules. Sapolsky suggests that religious rituals originate with people who have OCD-type symptoms because it provides them with a livelihood. The rabbis and imams whose job is to perform the rituals that ensure that animals are slaughtered correctly, the priests who hear confessions and conduct services, the pope, are all people would have to get real jobs if there weren’t these structures that provided a perfect match, a socially approved outlet, that allows them to benefit from what is essentially a disability. As Sapolsky says, “Outside of the realm of religion, OCD destroys people’s lives. It is incompatible with functioning. Not only can you function with those rituals in the religious context: you can make a living doing it. People make a living doing rituals ritualistically in the context of religion.”

So according to Sapolsky, schizotypals are the kinds of people who originate religions and people with OCDs make up the ritualistic rules that surround them and are its most ardent followers, who form the core fundamentalists who take the magical claims of the originators literally.

But protecting them and their beliefs are those with milder versions of this trait, the average person in the church, synagogue, mosque, and temple who are more modernist believers who kinda-sorta believe and kinda-sorta obey the rituals but not ‘religiously’. (It is interesting that the metaphor of doing something religiously is used to characterize someone who never fails to perform a specific action at the requisite time and place.) Such people construct a protective belt of metaphor and obfuscating language to create the illusion that the beliefs make sense and that the rituals have a rational basis. They deflect attention away from the fact that at it core, the beliefs are factually false and unsupportable. The need for the existence of this group to allow religion to flourish ties in with the computer modeling work of James Dow that I wrote about earlier in this series.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

So perhaps the schizotypal personalities of Jesus and Mohammed and other cult leaders have features that attract even non-believers (many atheists have nice things to say about Jesus and Buddha as persons, Mohammed and Joseph Smith not so much), and this is sufficient to give the unreal message they propagate survival value.

People constantly ask why we new/unapologetic atheists argue against all religion and not just ‘bad’ religion consisting of the extremists, the fundamentalists, and the blatantly crazy and murderous. In this passage from an audio clip that I linked to recently, comedian Marcus Brigstocke explains why he thinks all religion is bad. After listing the crazy things that religious extremists do, he says:

I know that most religious folk are moderate and nice and reasonable and wear tidy jumpers and eat cheese like real people. And on hearing this, they’ll mainly feel pity for me rather than issue a death sentence. But they have to accept that they are the power base for the nutters. Without their passive support the loonies in charge of these faiths would just be loonies safely locked away and medicated, somewhere nice, you know with a view of some trees, where they can claim they have a direct channel to god between sessions making tapestry drinks coasters, watching Teletubbies, and talking about their days in the Hitler youth. The ordinary faithful make these vicious tyrannical thugs what they are… Without the audience to prop it up… fundamentalist religious fanaticism goes away. (my italics)

I am not sure if Brigstocke is familiar with the work of Sapolsky, Dow, and others about the neurological bases of religious leaders and their followers, but his words do seem to be perfectly consistent with it.

We will not be able to get rid of religious extremists as long as ‘moderate’ religion continues to exist.

Next: Strategies used by religions to grow.

POST SCRIPT: Marcus Brigstocke on living according to the Bible

The origin of religion-7: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

What has been discussed so far is the origin of prototypical religions, the early forms that consist of vague beliefs in supernatural forces and the afterlife. At various points in time, these became crystallized into concrete religions some of which are still extant, each distinguished from the others by their rituals and the specific forms that their beliefs take. This post will look at the originators of those religions. What distinguishes those who create specific religions (and those who follow them) from the rest of us?
Religions like Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, and Buddhism all seem to have had charismatic leaders, as do the more modern cults. This suggests that an important factor in the creation of relatively modern religions (by which I mean those that originated within the last three or four thousand years) lies in the qualities of the founders and this is the angle that neurologist Robert Sapolsky has investigated. He looks at the people who started these religions and what made them so effective at convincing others to adopt and propagate their ideas. He takes a Darwinian view and suggests that religious leaders had traits that enabled them to succeed that arose as a byproduct of selection for other features. It also explains why even now we have charismatic cult leaders regularly springing up (like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson are some names that immediately come to mind) who are able to persuade others to follow them even to death.

Sapolsky thinks that charismatic religious leaders may have evolved traits over time that, despite their evolutionary disadvantages, survived due to other factors. This process can be understood by comparing it to diseases like sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs, all of which, in a naïve Darwinian view, should have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason they persist is that even though the full-blown form of the disease is disastrous to the bearer, a partial or milder version of the disease actually confers advantages, and this more than compensates for the destructiveness of the full disease. Sickle cell anemia in its mild form, for example, confers protection against malaria.

So what might be the trait that the founders of religion could have had that can provide benefits in a milder form while in its full-blown destructive form it should have been selected against to extinction? Sapolsky thinks it is schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia has a genetic component and the full-blown disease creates “disordered thought, disconnected socialization, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, a 50% rate of attempted suicide”. It is clearly evolutionarily maladaptive and by itself should die out. So why is it still around?

It turns out that there is a milder version of schizophrenia called a ‘schizotypal personality’ that is found among the relatives of schizophrenics (though not in all of them). Sapolsky suggests that the originators of our religions (and many of their followers) seem to display all the signs of being schizotypal. In a talk he gave on the subject, Sapolsky describes the identifying traits:

What is schizotypal? It’s a more subtle version of schizophrenia. This is not somebody who’s completely socially crippled; they’re just solitary, detached: these are the lighthouse keepers, the projectionists in the movie theaters. These are not people who are thought-disordered to the point of being completely nonfunctional; these are people who just believe in kinda strange stuff. They are into their Star Trek conventions. They’re into their astrology, they’re into their telepathy and their paranormal beliefs, they’re into — and you can see now where I’m heading [laughter] — very, very literal, concrete interpretations of religious events.

What you find with schizotypals is what is called metamagical thinking, a very strong interest in new-age beliefs, science fiction, fantasy, religion, but in a very concrete, literal form, a very fundamentalist style. Somebody walking on water is not a metaphor. Somebody rising from the dead is not a metaphor; this is reported, literal fact.

Now we have to ask our evolutionary question: “Who are the schizotypals throughout 99% of human history?” And in the 1930s, decades before the word “schizotypal” even existed, anthropologists already had the answer.

It’s the shamans. It’s the medicine men. It’s the medicine women. It’s the witch doctors.

It’s the shamans who are moving separate from everyone else, living alone, who talk with the dead, who speak in tongues, who go out with the full moon and turn into a hyena overnight, and that sort of stuff. It’s the shamans who have all this metamagical thinking. When you look at traditional human society, they all have shamans. What’s very clear, though, is they all have a limit on the number of shamans. That is this classic sort of balanced selection of evolution. There is a need for this subtype — but not too many.

The critical thing with schizotypal shamanism is, it is not uncontrolled the way it is in the schizophrenic. This is not somebody babbling in tongues all the time in the middle of the hunt. This is someone babbling during the right ceremony. This is not somebody hearing voices all the time, this is somebody hearing voices only at the right point. It’s a milder, more controlled version.

Shamans are not evolutionarily unfit. Shamans are not leaving fewer copies of their genes. These are some of the most powerful, honored members of society. This is where the selection is coming from. What this shamanistic theory says is, it’s not schizophrenia that’s evolved, it’s schizotypal shamanism that’s evolved. In order to have a couple of shamans on hand in your group, you’re willing to put up with the occasional third cousin who’s schizophrenic. That’s the argument; and it’s a very convincing one.

Western religions, all the leading religions, have this schizotypalism shot through them from top to bottom. It’s that same exact principle: it’s great having one of these guys, but we sure wouldn’t want to have three of them in our tribe.

“[T]here are multiple deities”, “[T]here is but one god and he is Allah”, “I am who I am,” any version of this — is an awful lot like schizotypalism. Who is it that invented the notion that virgins can give birth? Who is it who first came in with the extremely psychiatrically suspect report about hearing a voice in a burning bush? In most of the cases we don’t know much about the psychiatric status of these folks. In the more recent historical cases, we certainly do, and schizotypalism is at the heart of non-Western and Westernized large theological systems.

But while this may describe the founders of religions, what is it that attracts people to these schizotypals among us, to become their disciples and proselytzers, and create the religious insitutions that we now have?

Next: What traits make people susceptible to becoming religious followers?

POST SCRIPT: If Jesus and his disciples lived in a frat house

The origin of religion-6: Religion as a by-product of evolution

As with other features in evolution, there are two possible ways that evolution can give rise to some phenomenon. One is that it is an adaptation that came about because it was directly advantageous in itself at some point in time. The other is that it is an accidental by-product of natural selection for some other trait that was advantageous. These two pathways are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that religion developed along both lines.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is largely the product of the second process. He thinks that asking what the survival value is for religion is the wrong question because it likely has none. His hypothesis is that belief in god and the afterlife is a by-product of a genetic pre-disposition to believe one’s parents. It is not hard to see why having the genes that tend to predispose one to obey one’s parents has a selective advantage over those that are either neutral or advocate disobeying them. Human infants in particular are very vulnerable and depend on the adults around them to enable them to grow to adulthood. Not listening to them could be disastrous, causing them to do life-threatening acts. But at the same time they lack the capacity to discriminate between the information fed to them. So young children believe both the useful and the useless, those supported by evidence and those that are simply unverifiable folklore, and over time the latter can morph into religious rituals and belief. As Dawkins says:

On this model, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs having no factual basis will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom such as the belief that manure is good for the crops. We should also expect that these nonfactual beliefs will evolve over generations, either by random drift or following some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, eventually showing a pattern of significant divergence from common ancestry. Languages drift apart from a common parent given sufficient time in geographical separation. The same is true of traditional beliefs and injunctions, handed down the generations, initially because of the programmability of the child brain.

This theory would explain why most children adopt the beliefs of their parents and dismiss as absurd and unbelievable other religions, even though they both have that same lack of any evidentiary support. Since children tend to be surrounded by similar believers, they hold on to those beliefs into adulthood. And once these beliefs are firmly entrenched, people are reluctant to let go of them. This is why now, despite their obvious disadvantages such as wasted time and effort and resources propitiating an imaginary figure, religion can still endure.

But this only explains why children are willing to believe their parents. But why did their parents develop their beliefs in the first place? In some ways, this is a chicken-and-egg problem, and the resolution in likely the same, that they both co-evolved.

As I said in a previous post, there is evidence to suggest that our brains are hardwired to believe in the magical. It is similar to the way that our brains are evolved for language. Language has many commonalities with religion. It is ubiquitous and universal. While there is a huge variety in the number of languages around the globe, at least superficially, at the same time, the deep grammatical structures of languages reveal common structures, which has led to the idea that our brains are hardwired for language and that the process of learning a particular language involves superimposing the local vocabulary and other superficial features onto a universal and common foundation. In other words, what a child learns from the speech of others are cues that throw certain switches in the pre-existing brain’s circuitry that corresponds to the local language structure.

It is known, for example, that if you put children together who do not speak a common language, or speak only pidgin versions of a language or, in the case of deaf children, do not speak at all, they will together spontaneously develop a creole language that has many of the grammatical features of ordinary language, suggesting that the ability for language is innate. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 24)

It is suggested that religion is like that. Due to evolution, we all have hardwired in our brains the propensity to see patterns that may not be there and to assign supernatural agency to natural events. What the many varieties of religions do is build upon this common base to create local religions, just the way local languages emerged around the globe while having a universal grammatical structure.

The suggestion has been made (but would be impossible to test) that if you put children who have no prior religious beliefs together for an extended period of time, they would spontaneously develop some form of religious belief that would have generic features that correspond to the kinds of religions that we see around us, because their brains have a similar predisposition to do so. If true, this would suggest that religion will always be with us, a sad future to contemplate.

But I am not so sure that this particular parallelism holds because there are key differences between language and religion. Language provides unquestionable benefits for any group of people and is always advantageous. While religion may have provided benefits in primitive societies, nowadays children are able to obtain scientific explanations for puzzling phenomena that were not available for their ancient ancestors, and so are less likely to build elaborate god-based theories. Few parents nowadays are likely to tell their children that thunder is a sign of god’s anger, even if they do not understand the science of it. Somewhat more people are likely to see god’s hand in major natural catastrophes (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods) and in disease epidemics but these will also surely decline. As the number of things that seem inexplicable shrink, the switches in the brain that trigger belief in the supernatural are less likely to be tripped.

At least, I hope so.

Next: Messiahs and prophets as schizotypal personalities

POST SCRIPT: Global warming or biblical Armageddon?

The Onion News Network reports that Kansas has decided that in the interests of fairness, both theories concerning the end of the world should be taught to school children.

Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

The origin of religion-5: The struggle between the primal and thinking brains

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks says:

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As [University of Oxford anthropologist Justin] Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. “Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability,” he says.

Useful as it is, common-sense dualism also appears to prime the brain for supernatural concepts such as life after death.

[Queens University, Belfast's Jesse] Bering considers a belief in some form of life apart from that experienced in the body to be the default setting of the human brain. Education and experience teach us to override it, but it never truly leaves us, he says. From there it is only a short step to conceptualising spirits, dead ancestors and, of course, gods, says Pascal Boyer, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Boyer points out that people expect their gods’ minds to work very much like human minds, suggesting they spring from the same brain system that enables us to think about absent or non-existent people. (my italics)

As Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson write in their article The Evolution of Religion:

A significant adaptation that guided the course of human evolution has been our capacity to view the world through the eyes of another — known as ‘theory of mind’. This ability, which allows us to attribute mental states such as beliefs and desires to others, and intentions that differ from our own, is so complex, it does not fully develop in children until around the age of four. While some scientists argue that our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, possess some abilities to perceive the intentions of others — it is humans who have honed this ability to a fine art.

What does this have to do with religion? As our ancestors developed a sensitivity to the thoughts of others as an aid to second-guessing their outward and visible behavior, they would have started to see an intelligent creative force wherever they looked. An individual watching another chip away at a flint would attribute to him a purpose, similar to his own when he created a tool. So too would he assume that lightning, rain, the sun, the stars, the moon must have had some sort of purposeful creative force behind them.

Here lie the very deepest roots of our religious beliefs.

The reason religion is so successful is that it taps into our primal-brains in much the same way that a Big Mac does — only more so. Religion gained its foothold by hijacking the need to give purpose at a time when humans had only their imagination — as opposed to the evidence and reason that we have today — to fathom their world. Spirits and demons were the explanation for illnesses that we now know are caused by bacterial diseases and genetic disorders. The whims of the gods were why earthquakes, volcanos, floods and droughts occurred. Our ancestors were driven to sacrifice everything from goats to one another to satisfy those gods.

To understand this propensity to believe in the supernatural, Cornwell and Thomson suggest that we have to look deep into our evolutionary history, in particular the fact that our powerful primal brain, which deals with our basic instincts of survival and reproduction developed earlier in evolutionary history than the frontal cortex that controls our reasoning capacity. This staggered development is mimicked even in the growth of a human brain now.

The brain configuration of a pre-adolescent child is far different from the one she will possess as an adult. It takes about 12 years or so for the frontal lobes to develop fully after reaching puberty. Our frontal lobes are key to social behavior, abstract thinking, planning and solving complex problems.

Let’s call our frontal lobes the ‘smart-self’ and the more archaic part of our brain the ‘primal-self’. Our smart-selves know that over-eating and under-exercising is bad for us, leading to heart disease, diabetes, and a shorter life-span. But our primal-selves are still primed for the risk of starvation, thus it simply cannot understand why the smart-self would deny you a nice Big Mac with a large order of fries and a chocolate shake… The smart-brain is just not designed to prevent the primal brain from taking over because the abundance of food most of us are surrounded by is a fairly new development in human history. Perhaps given another few thousand years, those individuals with the will-power to resist all that tasty fat, protein, sugar and salt will out-reproduce those that don’t.

The point is, that there is an instant conflict between what we know is good for us and what we feel we want — and we often fall victim to our more primal needs even when we know they are harmful.

Religion arises from the drives of the primal brain that is instinctual while science and reason is the product of the frontal cortex, the later brain, that controls thinking and reasoning. The catch is that the primal brain, the source of what we call instinct, tends to drive our behavior more than the frontal cortex. This is why children find it easy to accept uncritically the religious beliefs that their parents foist on them and why it takes effort to reject such beliefs even when they grow into adulthood. As Cornwell and Thomson say:

Much of the world’s population still believe in a god forged out of the fears of a desert people and, worse, fully believe not only that their view of god and his wishes are right, but that those who disagree must be converted or face eternal torment (sometimes even offering some help to get there). The primal fears instilled by religious fever act as impenetrable walls to reason. According to a recent Gallup poll, 66% of the US population agrees strongly with the statement ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years’. Given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, such obstinate belief should frighten any reasonable thinking person. It also is testimony to the wealthy and powerful religious organizations who spend billions of dollars on public relations, creating controversies where none exist and spewing lies about the evidence for evolution. But none of this would be possible without our brains being ready and available to take in the message they are delivering. It is easy enough for atheists and humanists to chuckle at the credulity of believers, but we do so at our own peril. (my italics)

Religion needs to be taken seriously. Understanding its roots, how it can seize command of our psychology and take control of our culture, may well be one of the most important endeavors we pursue. For even with all our grand technology, modern medical advances, and volumes of knowledge, if we do not stop our archaic past from overriding our modern reason we are surely doomed.

Current religious beliefs are a kind of parasitic system that latches onto the primal brain’s needs. As I will discuss in the next post, the primal brain dominates during early childhood, making children more susceptible to magical thinking. By the time more mature reasoning powers start to develop, the brain is already encumbered with religious thinking that it has to fight against.

POST SCRIPT: BP’s oil killing the gulf

This aerial video shows the scale of the damage caused by the BP oil spill and whales and dolphins and sharks trying to find clean water.

There are also still photos of animals and birds bathed in oil and they are heartbreaking.

The origin of religion-4: Religion as an evolutionary adaptation

While the growth and perpetuation of religious beliefs is an interesting question, we also need to explain how they originated in the first place. How did such unreal information arise at all?

Some have argued in favor of the direct adaptation model, based on Darwinian natural selection principles, that says that the tendency to assign causation and agency to natural events is an evolutionary advantageous strategy. In more primitive times, assigning a conscious agency to natural events may have provided survival benefits that did not accrue to those who did not, since the benefits of a false positive outweighs the disadvantages of a false negative. i.e., having genes that predisposed one to assume that lightning was caused by the anger of some powerful supernatural agency (aka ‘god’) and taking evasive action by cowering in shelters was better in terms of survival value than assuming that lightning was harmless and wandering around in the open, even if the reasoning behind it was faulty. It was only much later that we realized that lightning was dangerous for non-religious reasons and could avoid its hazards using mechanisms that did not involve rituals to appease an angry supernatural power.

In an article in The New Scientist titled Born believers: How your brain creates God (subscription required), Michael Brooks elaborates on this:

The ability to conceive of gods, however, is not sufficient to give rise to religion. The mind has another essential attribute: an overdeveloped sense of cause and effect which primes us to see purpose and design everywhere, even where there is none. “You see bushes rustle, you assume there’s somebody or something there,” [Yale psychologist Paul] Bloom says.

This over-attribution of cause and effect probably evolved for survival. If there are predators around, it is no good spotting them 9 times out of 10. Running away when you don’t have to is a small price to pay for avoiding danger when the threat is real.

Another report in the New Scientist (no subscription required for this one) about a computer model by James Dow provides some support for direct adaptation. (The original paper by Dow can be read here.)

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The interesting conclusion here is that believers in the unreal require the support of nonbelievers in order to have their numbers grow. In other words, the ‘respect for religion’ trope that says that we should treat with respect, and even admire, the faith of sincere religious people, is actually part of the problem. This conclusion supports the strategy of the new/unapologetic atheists who seek diligently to undermine false beliefs such as god and the afterlife.

Brooks also writes that the reason our brains are so susceptible to superstitions is that they are hardwired to do so, which suggests deep evolutionary origins.

It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world.

What psychologists have found is that during hard times or times when people feel they are losing control of their lives, they are more prone to adopt religious beliefs and superstitions. During the great depression of 1929, for instance, the most authoritarian churches saw a rise in attendance. If this hardwired aspect of the brain is true, then adopting religious beliefs uncritically is the path of least resistance. It takes conscious effort and will to resist religious beliefs, which explains why atheism is a harder sell than religion.

POST SCRIPT: Waiting for Elmo

Have I said how much I love the Muppets comedy sketches on Sesame Street?

The origin of religion-3: Do people have a ‘god gene’?

It seems clear that people want to believe in religious ideas or at last have a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena. Is religion a social belief that developed only after complex societies formed or is a predisposition towards religion hardwired in our brains? Those who argue the former think that religious beliefs emerged late in evolutionary history as a cultural artifact, a ‘meme’ if you will, that appeared only after language and social structures appeared, and spread widely because of its utility.

Others argue that the ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests (though does not conclusively establish) that they might have evolutionary advantages and that a propensity to believe in gods and the afterlife developed early on and became hardwired in our brains and spread throughout the species the same way (through natural selection) that other genetic features spread, thus providing us with what one might call a ‘religious gene’.

If so, then that raises two more questions. The first question concerns time. Did the hard-wired propensity to believe in supernatural agencies arise after the human species appeared or has it an even earlier genesis? Advocates of the former view suggest that religious beliefs are an evolutionary adaptation that appeared after humans and spread because they provide a survival advantage, by being a kind of glue that helped form tightly knit groups of early humans that provided greater success in hunting and foraging. This idea of properties selected for the benefits it confers on a group (known as ‘group selection’) is controversial because strictly speaking natural selection only works on the level of individual genes, not even a whole organism, except in so far as the organism is a vehicle that propagates the genes. Group selection seems to be possible only under very limited conditions. (See Evolution “for the Good of the Group”, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson, American Scientist, vol. 96, September-October 2008, p. 380-389.)

Supporters of the latter view of pre-human origins think that the origins of religion lie deep in our primal brains that originated long before humans appeared on the scene. The fact that we share the pattern-seeking quality with other species suggests that that feature at least goes back deep into our prehistory.

The second question deals with mechanism and involves the technical issue of whether the propensity to believe is an evolutionary adaptation (i.e., a property that provided a selection advantage that enabled it to grow and spread throughout the entire species) or whether it is a by-product of selection for another feature that did have a survival advantage. For an example of the latter, diseases like sickle cell anemia should, in a naïve Darwinian view, have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason that it persists is that sickle cell anemia in its mild form confers protection against malaria. So sickle cell anemia exists as a by-product of selection for malaria resistance.

Neurobiologist Jeff Schweitzer dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as a religion or god gene’ and argues that religion originated and was transmitted as a cultural artifact.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept “I don’t know,” because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don’t know.

The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature’s wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer, but rather from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate, and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature’s plans.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike most other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death’s certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one’s destiny, a desire for social cohesion, and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. Evolution and natural selection do not enter into this equation other than with the obvious fact that humans evolved large brains.

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch argues that religion originated along with the capacity to use our imaginations. If religion is a figment of the imagination, it thus probably originated around the time that humans developed the capacity to imagine things and beings that do not exist and which live on after they physically die. He thinks that this likely happened around “40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.”

Is belief in god a ‘meme’ (a unit of knowledge) that propagates like a gene, by spreading from person to person via cultural transmission instead of biological inheritance? The problem with cultural explanations is that one has to make the additional assumption that these cultural belief practices are plausible enough to have spread rapidly throughout the entire population. With evolutionary genetic adaptations, a single advantageous mutation can end up dominating an entire species.

While it is possible that belief in god is a purely social and cultural phenomenon, resulting from the need of early people and societies to find explanations for natural phenomena and to frighten people into obeying social norms, their similarities across wide geographical areas suggests that they may have some sort of biological origin. While it is true that the power of the state and the religious hierarchy has historically been used to enforce religious orthodoxy by severely punishing non-conformity, beliefs in gods seem to predate the existence of such organizations. And anything, like religion, that has features of universality immediately suggests that they have their origins in our distant evolutionary past, the way that the universality of the animal body structure of four limbs can be traced back to our fish-like ancestors.

Next: The case for the hardwiring of at least the propensity for religious beliefs

[UPDATE: Paul, the octopus prophet, picks Spain to win the World Cup.]

POST SCRIPT: Is the South African racist an endangered species?

Jon Oliver of The Daily Show investigates and finds one exceptional specimen.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Oliver – World Cup 2010: Into Africa – The Amazing Racists
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

The origin of religion-2: The power of religion and other superstitions

When investigating the origin of religion and other superstitions, an important fact to bear in mind is that it is not just humans that base their behavior on imputing meaning to meaningless correlations. There is evidence that even animals do this, suggesting that this instinct comes from a fairly primitive part of the brain, and developed early in our evolutionary history before we branched off from those species that share this trait. We all have heard of Pavlov’s experiments with conditioning responses in animals. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner did an interesting experiment with pigeons. After the usual ones where pigeons were trained to peck at a button in order to obtain a food reward, he then did an experiment where the rewards were given out randomly. What he found was that after awhile the pigeons started going through what seemed like rituals, specific repeated behaviors. It seemed as if they were trying to figure out which pattern of actions had caused the rewards to appear in the past and were repeating them in order to ’cause’ the rewards to appear.

What is extraordinary is that superstitious beliefs, although formed on the flimsiest of evidence that can easily be explained as coincidence, tend to be hard to shake off. What is more, superstitious people strongly resist any real test of their beliefs because that might ‘harm’ their lucky charm. Or they find some explanation to shrug off any failures.

I know Sri Lankans who will not put nail clippings in the trash but insist on flushing them down the toilet. Some don’t know why they feel they must do so, except that they were told as children that to do otherwise would bring bad luck. The practice likely originated from the belief that witch doctors could more easily put an evil spell on you if they had some piece of your body. Since nail clippings are among the easiest tissues to obtain unobtrusively, flushing them made it harder for your enemies to put spells on you.

Some superstitions and religious rituals, especially involving food, originated out of common sense health precautions during times when people were not as aware as they are now of the causes of disease. But over time, those sanitary practices evolved into rigid rules of religion or superstitions as people forgot the reasons for them. In the worst cases, these rules can be used in abusive ways but in others they are simply amusing. I recall a story of a woman who always used to trim the ends of the roast before putting it in the pan and into the oven. When her daughter asked her why she did this, she replied that she learned it from watching her mother and assumed it had some cooking benefit. Becoming curious, she asked her mother why she did it and her mother said that it was because her mother did it. When she asked her grandmother, her grandmother explained that it was because she had had a very small oven and oven pan, and usually had to trim the roast to make it fit in the pan.

Religious beliefs, like superstitions, continue because people do not bother to stop and question why they do something and whether it makes sense to continue the practice. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion reflect on the extraordinary hold that religious beliefs have on otherwise rational people.

Despite the illogic of believing that some great being in the heavens, capable of creating not only the laws of physics, the principles of evolution, and the vastness of time also cares a great deal about whether or not you use your left hand to clean up after defecating, eat a cracker while sinless, or not mix cheese with chicken, we still seem to sup it up like mother’s milk.

An acquaintance of mine is a cricket fanatic and during the last cricket World Cup I asked him if he had watched the final game live with other fans at a public screening. He said no, that he had watched it at home because then he could do ‘pujas’ (prayer rituals done by Hindus) at his home shrine in order to help the Sri Lankan side win. (Depressingly, this person is a faculty member in the medical field, showing that an education in science does not inoculate one against superstitions.) What was particularly interesting was that he told me this the day after Sri Lanka had lost convincingly to Australia, and yet he seemed unfazed by his god’s lack of action and to not draw the obvious conclusion from this that his pujas had not helped in the least. He will no doubt do his pujas again on future occasions, the way religious people pray for things despite overwhelming direct personal experience that their prayers will not be answered. And when his team wins, he will no doubt ascribe their success to his pujas.

(Note: The psychic octopus Paul’s prediction that Spain would upset Germany in the World Cup semi-final game came true, continuing his winning streak. Is the octopus really psychic? It seems like just a matter of time before people start worshipping Paul as a god, since he seems to be more successful than the existing gods. I personally think that Paul does not have any psychic powers at all and is merely an extremely knowledgeable and astute soccer fan. Even though he has apparently only predicted games so far in which Germany plays, it has been reported that if he is not too exhausted, he will pick the winner of the Spain-Netherlands final too.)

But while we can often find plausible reasons for many superstitions, the origins of religious beliefs lie far back in time, making their sources much harder to determine.

Next: Do people have a ‘religious gene’?

POST SCRIPT: The power of belief

In this clip, Richard Dawkins covers an experiment on dowsing that shows how strongly people want to believe in their superstitions and refuse to accept any evidence that goes against their beliefs. He also discusses Skinner’s pigeon experiment.

The origin of religion-1: Superstitions

I think we can all agree that, looked at objectively, religious beliefs result in a colossal consumption of time and resources that, to anyone outside that particular religion, seems like an enormous waste. As Richard Dawkins says:

As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches my attention is its profligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.

Religious behavior in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolized medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion.

Though the details differ across cultures, no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion.

So with all these disadvantages, and with science showing that most of the claims for religion are either false or lacking any evidentiary support, why do we still have religion? Why would such useless belief structures be so widespread and durable? Why are they able to command such a significant number of adherents? The ubiquity and longevity of religious practices cries out for explanation.

Since religious beliefs are supported by no empirical evidence, one has to look for other reasons to explain both their origin and continuation, and a good place to start is with superstitions, which are also irrational and yet they too are durable beliefs that can grab hold of people, spread widely quickly, and new ones appear all the time. So studying the origins of superstitions may give us clues as to the origin of religion.

Before every presidential election, for example, you find the media paying attention to some ‘predictor’ of the outcome. They will point to some state or county or precinct that has in the past always had a majority for the winning candidate and then focus on what that indicator might predict for the current contest. Sometimes the ‘predictors’ are something as unrelated as the winning team in the Super Bowl or stock market indices. Of course, rational people are aware that there can be no causal connection between the two events.

It is always possible to find, after the fact, some indicator that seems to correlate with some major event. For example, suppose I tell you that you should give me all your money to invest because I have an uncanny knack of predicting whether a given stock will go up or down the next day. You naturally will want some evidence of my predictive power before you give me your money. If I guarantee to do it correctly four times in a row, would you be willing to give me your money to invest? If you say yes, you are a sucker. The reason is that all I need is 16 people to agree to the same deal, each of whom does not know about the other 15. Then I give 8 of them a prediction that the stock will go up the next day and 8 that the stock will go down. I then forget about the eight who got the wrong prediction, and give four of the others the prediction that it will again go up, and the other four that it will go down. The next time, I deal with only the four who got both earlier predictions right and give two up and two down. This leaves me with two who got all three right predictions. I repeat the process and of those two, I will finally end up with one person who got all four predictions right and is now a believer that I have this amazing skill at picking stocks.

It is because of this tendency of people to not use their reasoning abilities or seek underlying mechanisms that causes superstitions to originate and conmen to flourish. When something unexpectedly good (or bad) happens, people tend to remember some of the circumstances surrounding that event. Then if another similar good (or bad) event occurs, and they recall that both occasions had some common feature, then that feature can become seen as an omen, as a good or bad luck talisman. Thus superstitious people end up wearing ‘lucky’ clothes or carrying some ‘lucky’ items or doing some ritual before an important event, based on whatever it was that happened to catch their notice. Athletes and sports fans can carry this to ridiculous extremes. Faith healers particularly exploit this to con people because people will note and remember their few alleged successes and ignore the vast number of failures.

People seem to be very susceptible to this kind of magical thinking. The latest superstition is the ‘psychic octopus‘ in Germany that has apparently picked the winner in every match involving Germany in the current soccer World Cup. (It predicted that Germany will lose to Spain today.) The need of people to seek out patterns and correlations, and think that they arise out of some underlying causal agency, seems to be innate. Because of it, it is extremely easy for superstitions to originate and for crooks to scam people into thinking that they have secret powers.

This tendency to ascribe causal relationships, and even a causal agency, to unrelated events is, as we will see in the next post, not simply a cultural trait developed in the last few thousand years in humans. It goes back quite far.

Next: The power of religion and other superstitions.

POST SCRIPT: Last word on flags

I received this cartoon from a reader following my post on the flag fetish and the next day’s photo album of celebrities wearing the flag design on bikinis and underwear.

Bizarro flag.gif

Another reader also reminded me of this Eddie Izzard sketch about flags.