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.