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Jul 12 2012

Of female orgasms and religion

If that header doesn’t grab you, then you my friend have bigger problems than sex and religion can solve. Unfortunately, I may not deliver on the headline. It refers to a new book, Homo Mysterious by evolutionary psychologists Davd Barosh, that I have on order. Female sexuality is one of the topics the author writes about, but there is another graf in the review that caught my eye:

NS – Barash also takes on the weighty topics of religion, art and human intelligence. There is plenty here to inform and entertain, but he doesn’t always marshal his eclectic material effectively. The chapters on religion make particularly frustrating reading, often just noodling around the subject instead of asking why this particular primate and no other evolved strong tendencies to spiritual thinking. No distinction is drawn between traditional, small-scale religions and today’s predominant world religions. And Barash leaves a rather grudging explanation of evolutionary group selection until last, so that readers are not provided with a sufficient theoretical framework in which to assess some frankly iffy ideas from Freud and the like.

Maybe this is in the book, maybe it’s not — I don’t know because it hasn’t arrived yet. Let’s ponder the idea of belief in its most basic terms among early humans.

At its most simplistic, religion requires a propensity to suspect cause for an observed effect where the cause is not obvious. Can we all agree that correctly figuring out a subtle cause for an observed effect in the natural world could have adaptive value? And can we also assume for purposes of discussion that to arrive at that payoff, there has to be a motivation, i.e., for humans or prehumans, and one such motivation would be if the individual wants to know what the cause might be?

If those two things are reasonable assumptions, then it stand to reason evolution might furnish such a desire. Selection, being the fickle thing it is, acting on biology might produce individuals who range from mildly interested to innately curious to obsessed. What comes next?

Somewhere along the line people have to be able to model various ideas about the unseen cause. They have to think to themselves “Maybe the reason X is happening is because of Y.” I could see how that kind of thinking might pay off handsomely. In fact today we might call it the first glimmering of science. But without an empirical framework and a huge body of common knowledge we all take for granted, there’s not much to constrain the stone age hypothesis. “The liver of this animal will make you sick because it contains the animal’s anger at being killed” is just as adaptive as understanding toxins or viruses in liver tissue, provided you believe it, and so it’s not far from the beginning of a rich spiritualism. Maybe that simple process of trying to understand subtle cause and effect is the beginning of both science and mysticism. If so, all was well for millennia.

All it would take after that is breeding people to be credulous followers, and cull the outspoken skeptics, from the gene pool, and voila. You might end up with a planet of hominids wired to accept local religion almost as naturally as children acquire local language. Planet of the Credulous: people who eagerly glom onto supernatural beliefs at a young age and who might even feel like something deeply important is missing when they don’t get that experience. At least that’s one way to survive the culling. Another way would be if a person had no internal issues with pretending to believe whatever crazy shit the rich and powerful told them, and went on to cynically manipulate the true believers to his or her own ends. Which would make you and I, as outspoken atheists, a little more like our early anatomically modern ancestors, who existed before this cruel process realy got going, than we might think.

Well, don’t take this too seriously, this is just me blogg’in what pops into my knogg’in on a slow Thursday morning.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    maxdevlin

    I’m certainly not going to defend evo-psych buffoonery. But I will play devil’s advocate on this point:

    “Can we all agree that correctly figuring out a subtle cause for an observed effect in the natural world could have adaptive value?”

    No, we cannot. It is assuming your conclusion to use both the terms “correctly” and “adaptive”. You might as well just say “I dogmatically believe the human brain is adapted to do math.” It was not. Brains (self-aware ones, I mean) are not necessary for “doing math” (simple chemical interactions suffice throughout the biological world), only for being aware that you are doing math.

    So, no, assuming that being smarter is itself an adaptation is not acceptable, because it is that which you are attempting to investigate. It is quite possible (and will require ingenious and subtle means to test) that ‘correctly figuring out a subtle cause for an observed effect’ is entirely a side effect of the actual adaptation, which is inventing metaphysical reasons for things. We got along with being really stupid for hundreds of thousands of years. It is not a foregone conclusion that “the human wants to know what the cause is.” Observation of real world humans indicates we are far more interested in defending our beliefs and metaphysics than knowing the “real” cause of things. Assuming there is such a thing as a “real” cause.

    Aren’t you glad they kicked me off DKos after all? :-D

  2. 2
    Gretchen

    You might be interested in Jesse Bering’s article Theistic Percepts in Other Species: Can Chimpanzees Represent the Minds of Non-Natural Agents? I put it in Dropbox, so you can download it here.

  3. 3
    Brony

    Would not Religion have something to do with getting lots of people to do things with the minimum of yelling? Barring a system of scratches on trees and such (or analog) we have only had writing for a few thousands of years.

    The brain does process vision by Dorsal and Ventral streams. The Ventral stream has a bias towards meanings of things we see (face recognition for example). That stream runs right into the Primary Audio Cortex. The Ventral stream in contrast has to do with identifying “Where” in a larger sense.

    Organized religion thrives on groups of humans getting emotional in large groups. Throwing around meanings is involved. Lots of focusing of eyes on a person and hearing of logically simple messages…

    I wonder if that has a limbic system bias.

  4. 4
    Brony

    Crap!
    Dorsal: More Logical, Runs down the center of the back of your skull from the back of your head towards your forhead. The “Where” path.

    Venral: Runs down the sides of your head roughly speaking and eventually crashes into the Primary Audio Cortex. The “What” path.

    Your cerebral cortex is essentially where your consciousness is processed.

  5. 5
    Brony

    “Ventral” on the second. I’m giving up for now…

  6. 6
    Pierce R. Butler

    If you want to hear “Oh God!” uttered with utmost sincerity…

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