Did religion evolve?

By Phil Plait | May 28, 2008 8:46 am

Some time ago, I took an internet blowhard to task for misunderstanding even the most basic aspects of how science works. Instead of being able to rebut me, he just blew harder, making light of the idea that ideas of justice and equality could evolve, though of course there was absolutely no substance to any of his dismissals.

It’s common among people like that to ask how evolution could possibly explain the rise of beliefs or non-physical concepts among humans, in particular religious belief. Evolutionary biologists have lots of answers to that, but an interesting new study indicates that religious belief isn’t that hard to evolve. They created a simple simulation, and the results were provocative:

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,” [evolutionary anthropologist James] Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

In the model, the attraction is undefined. It’s simply an attraction. If we are to extrapolate to real life, though, I can think of plenty of such attractions. In many religions (OK, almost all of them) non-believers are ostracized, marginalized, and sometimes actively discriminated against. That is a pretty good incentive in a society to shut up and keep your head down.

Another potential attraction is one many of us feel: the need to correct errors. Creationists, for example, are quite wrong in nearly everything they believe, and I’ve written a lot about that. So have hundreds, thousands of other people. That doesn’t necessarily translate to creationists propagating, but it is an attraction, if something of a paradoxical one.

Religion spawns art, music, writing, and all three of these can attract non-believers. I’m sure if you think about it you can come up with lots more.

So this simulation doesn’t overly surprise me, but I think it can point the way to more specific models of how a belief in religion can be selected by evolution. I’ll be very curious to see where this type of research goes.

Tip o’ the allele drift to Larry Klaes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff, Religion, Science

Comments (63)

  1. CWRU Guy

    Try “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer or any of Stephen Pinker’s later books on language and thought.

    Both subscribe to the Swiss-Army Knife model of the brain. That is the brain is a collection of “cognative gadgets” that solve various problems. Like anything else evolved, these gadgets aren’t perfect and are actually biased in predictable ways. For example, the “Agency” gadget which determines if something happened by chance or by cause is strongly tilted towards “Lion in the grass”, not “Wind in the grass.”

    Religion, in their view, exploits these biases to attribute agency (gos and spirits) were there isn’t any and other aspects of faith.

    Very insightful stuff.

  2. BigBadSis

    I’m still trying to get through the “discussion” between David Sloan Wilson and Richard Dawkins in the last issue of Skeptic Mag about evolution and religion. Interesting but tough stuff. Sounds like this new study will be easier reading!

  3. GreedyAlgorithm

    Ugh. Phil, please go back and read that article again, then think about it some, then edit your post with lots of strikethrough. Maybe the study was interesting and useful but the New Scientist article made it out to be bad, bad, bad evolutionary psychology.

  4. I can’t really tell, as I’ve not had a proper look at the code, but I can’t shake the feeling that the “gene for passing on unreal information” has no actual effect within the simulation until it is artificially defined as “attractive”. Hence, what this simulation really proves is that generic attractiveness is selected for, which is almost tautological. Why can’t we rename the test gene “the gene for having twelve heads” or “the gene for being on fire” and show that those traits would evolve if people fancied them?

  5. I think I will remain skeptical about the evolution of belief. I think everyone has the ability to believe from time to time but I also think we can all learn the skills to think about what we believe. Which might explain why beliefs change so often over time. I think that the resistance to change might come more from allegiance to our parents and a community than through genetic causes. I might be wrong though.

  6. DaveS

    Dawkins makes some very interesting statements about the development of religious thought, in “The God Delusion”. He refers to memes, as attractive propagating ideas, with behavior much like viruses.

    Nobody feels like a brain, right? We all feel like a viewpoint, a voice, right? It’s not a stretch to imagine that maybe this viewpoint is separate from the brain and body. If you hear someone use “soul” language, and speaks of the viewpoint lasting beyond the grave, it resonates with what you feel inside (evolutionarily provided, no doubt),
    and feels very comforting besides, you tend to repeat it, and support it, and those who seem to understand.

    Likewise, agency. Likewise, all-seeing-mom’n’dad (god), undeserved
    guilt, failed crops, etc.

    Science, or simply rationality, tends to make us back up and
    re-examine such convictions, for those of us lucky enough to
    value rationality over irrational faith.

  7. Iant

    Where this type of research goes? To the junk dumpster!

    Imagine there is a gene for just-so-stories. No, give the adaptationist storytellers some reproductive advantage. U-ha, they evolve! Adaptationists will take over the World!

    Sarcasm off: I think the “evolutionary psychologists” and “evolutionary human behaviourists” are really wrong. Gould and Lewontin have written on that kind of thinking.

    Iant

  8. CWRU Guy

    While this simulation might have been a bad test, the idea that religion can evolve naturally is still on pretty sound ground. (Not proven, yet. But certainly not obviously laughable.)

    The basic arguement is that proto-religions exploit cognative biases we all have, like the Agency biases I described above, the well-known Confirmation biase, etc.

    Because we all suffer from these biases to at least some degree, the proto-religious beliefs are already in a friendly environment. Selection takes over from there and wham, a few hundred thousand years later, you’ve got Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson.

    I can’t do the theory justice in a short comment. Read Boyer if you’re interested.

  9. Will. M

    Phil:
    I cannot believe (!) that a gene exists for acceptance of ideas which cannot be proven. I think such ideas are impressed upon one by the “evidence” of what others believe: parents, friends, a community, etc., and the consequences of not believing – ridicule, ostracism, and sometimes death at the hands of the “believers” for denying their “faith” – are very strong motivations for accepting the majority opinion. What can’t be tested is whether those who agree to agree with the “faithful” are doing so publicly but not in their private thoughts. If “religious faith” is necessarily an acceptance of an all-powerful being, then not believing in private would surely negate one’s “faith” and hence the ability to “pass on” such a gene.

    Over the centuries various “faiths” have maintained a hold on people’s imaginations by the most basic of means: death to the unbelievers. In my opinion, this is the only reason most religions are able to flourish.
    Will M.

  10. Boba Fett

    Of course religion evolved, but not from a gene – is what I believe. religion comes from the lack of understanding of the world around us, and attempts to explain things that one sees. One lone caveman, a million years ago, obviously came up with some idea that there’s somethign “bigger” out there. So what?
    it’s only unfortunate that religion evolved into what it is today: the main source of war in the world and the main source or oppression within our own country, posibly second to race, of course.

  11. ARP1234

    More than just the threat of death, Will M. – certain religions
    also threaten people with an afterlife of eternal suffering if they
    don’t follow the rules EXACTLY as their particular group has
    laid out – through the word and will of their deity, of course.

    On the other hand, other groups are also placated into
    submissive belief by the promise of a wonderful afterlife
    that is way better than anything they can get on Earth
    now – like 72 virgins and such.

    There was a Twlight Zone episode where a guy died and
    went to what he thought was Heaven, because everything he
    asked for he got with no apparent problems. When he got
    bored of always winning and such, he asked his “guide” if
    he could visit Hell for a little variety – to which his guide
    responded that that is exactly where he was!

  12. CQT

    I’ve been under the impression that ancient religions were just a form of obsolete science – a means of explaining the nature of the world at a time when the scientific method was articulated by stories of why the sun sets in west & rises in the east, or what’s on the other side of the world.

    Today religion does inspire, and it is a means of explaining the emotional aspects of who we are. Sometimes the rationality of science proves hollow when used to explain why a child may feel sorrow for losing his mom to cancer. Does that mean that we should say his Mom is in heaven, and leave it at that? No. But I would say that religion does provide a form of emotional comfort for those dealing with a world that’s not clear cut & rational. And for the record, I do believe in evolution.

  13. What’s interesting to note is the how the anti-evolution movement in the States has had to “evolve” after being struck down in court several times.

  14. Matt Garrett

    Well, what you see as evolution, the Christian would see as evidence of God’s hand in the human design. Aquinas referred to it as the “God shaped vacuum that we spend our entire lives trying to fill.”

  15. David D

    @BobaFett

    I agree with some of your points. And there is no doubt that religion and war have unfortunately gone great together (like PB and J). But . . .

    Are current “wars” religion based? Or is there a component of resource scarcity involved, or nationalism, or class perceptions? One could argue that the War on Terror is based on oil, and on economic perceptions, and is not strictly a Christianity vs. Islam thing.

    Do you have an example of religious oppression in this country? Are those FLDS in Texas oppressed? What do you consider oppression?

  16. Maybe I’m misunderstanding the very premise of the post but there is copious evidence that religions, any set of ideas for that matter, are subject to a similar set of evolutionary principles as organisms.

    Any system that manifests three traits: variation, reproduction and selection, will also manifest evolution. While we’re all familiar with the evolution of living things, the evolution of ideas, often called memetic evolution, is well documented.

    The best article on the subject was a cover story in “Skeptic” from several years ago.

    I do need to say, though, that theories of memetic evolution do not address human biology. The question at hand is how ideas evolve, not how humans evolved to propagate ideas.

  17. Celtic_Evolution

    @ Andrew

    I can’t really tell, as I’ve not had a proper look at the code, but I can’t shake the feeling that the “gene for passing on unreal information” has no actual effect within the simulation until it is artificially defined as “attractive”. Hence, what this simulation really proves is that generic attractiveness is selected for, which is almost tautological. Why can’t we rename the test gene “the gene for having twelve heads” or “the gene for being on fire” and show that those traits would evolve if people fancied them?

    It’s a fair point… but I think BA tries to give the “artificially defined effect” some context later in the post, using art, music and creative writing as common characterisitcs of religious persons that would be considered desirable traits. Given that as context, I could go along with the study’s premise… to a degree…

    Although I do think it’s still a bit too vague and under-defined to say anything definitive that would make feel like I could use it to support, unequivocally, an argument for religious evolution. And you might also be correct, Andrew, that you could replace those contextual examples with any random “attractive” trait and get the same results, based on this study. I can’t really argue that. I’ll need to read it again to understand the controls of the environment to fully develop an opinion on that.

  18. Irishman

    Where to begin?

    Some time ago, I took an internet blowhard to task for misunderstanding even the most basic aspects of how science works. Instead of being able to rebut me, he just blew harder, making light of the idea that ideas of justice and equality could evolve, though of course there was absolutely no substance to any of his dismissals.

    Apparently I missed that discussion the first time through. I read the linked article, didn’t make it through the whole comments thread, but it strikes me that you and he were not talking about the same thing.

    Vox day said: “Combined with [science’s] complete inapplicability to abstract concepts such as justice, equality and freedom,…”

    You took that to mean he was talking about evolution, but I don’t see that anywhere in the comment. Rather, I take those along the lines of art, value, worth, etc – things that science does not address. So I think you went off on a strawman.

    Now to the current post, I am in agreement with several of the prior commenters that this article and study are overhyped.

    If the intent of the study was to determine what kind of patterns would lead to the flourishing of “passing on unreal information”, then this study did the job of proving that if people without that inclination were “attracted to” people with that inclination then it would flourish. But somehow that doesn’t seem very informative or spectacular. And it doesn’t address why that trait would be attractive.

    Furthermore, it seems to apply a simplistic assumption about genetics, that behavior patterns are caused by a single gene. This seems incredibly simplistic and is totally unproven. It is much more likely that complex behavior patterns are the result of interactions of many genes.

    Then you state:

    In the model, the attraction is undefined. It’s simply an attraction. If we are to extrapolate to real life, though, I can think of plenty of such attractions. In many religions (OK, almost all of them) non-believers are ostracized, marginalized, and sometimes actively discriminated against. That is a pretty good incentive in a society to shut up and keep your head down.

    But your described patterns don’t seem to apply to the situation when religious belief was first developing. Why would the majority non-believers be ostracized, marginalized, and actively discriminated against when the religious belief was just starting out? That doesn’t make sense. Note the article itself states:

    But [Richard Sosis] notes that the forces that maintain religion in modern humans could be very different from those that promoted its emergence, thousands of years ago.

    Now I’m fairly certain that religion is the result of evolution, and I’m sure there is a genetic underpinning, but I don’t think the genetics is as simple as a gene (or allele of a gene) for belief, and I don’t think this study does anything to further the understanding of how religion came to be.

  19. Gnat

    I have to agree with Thomas. I thought the post was more about evolution of religion in the sense that “Look how Catholicism has changed in 2000 years”. Wouldn’t that have more to do with Social Darwinism?

  20. Creationists, for example, are quite wrong in nearly everything they believe

    Now, now… I’m sure there are plenty of things they “believe” in that are correct.

    I’m sure they “believe” that 1 plus 1 equals two. Many probably “believe” that the Earth orbits around the Sun. I’m sure they “believe” that if you pick up a bowling ball and release it, it will “fall down” towards the Earth. (Though I don’t know how many would “believe” that the Earth also “falls up” towards the bowling ball.)

    Now, as to their “beliefs” about science, well, that’s another matter.

  21. I disagree with Larry Moran on this. I don’t think it’s a Just So story. It doesn’t look to me that this was trying to find a religion gene or anything like that; it was a behavioral simulation. In a simulation like this, you’re not trying to find a specific trait or tie behavior to a specific mechanism; it’s simply to see what happens when you fiddle with parameters. Its design, it looks like to me, is to generate insight into a problem, not necessarily find a solution.

    In general I don’t like to link to things posted in New Scientist, as they have an unfortunate and common tendency to run away with little things and make them sound like the biggest discovery ever. But like I said in my own post, this is interesting.

  22. Celtic_Evolution

    @ Irishman

    Now I’m fairly certain that religion is the result of evolution, and I’m sure there is a genetic underpinning, but I don’t think the genetics is as simple as a gene (or allele of a gene) for belief, and I don’t think this study does anything to further the understanding of how religion came to be.

    Agreed. I too think that this study is a gross over-simplification of the issue. And I think that although the study may have some intrinsic value, the problem is really in the title of the article (Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests), and even perhaps in the title of BA’s post, which makes the same supposition but does it in the form of a question. I don’t think this simulation, by itself, actually answers that question or makes that case all that convincingly, IMHO. As has been pointed out here by a few already, some effects and conditions in the simulation are “undefined”, and forces the reader (even BA, in this case) to add his own context. I’m not sure that constitutes enough of a controlled environment on which to base any real definitive conclusions.

    And I agree with you in that I’m fairly certain that religion is a result of evolution, but not by anything that this simulation shows, in and of itself. Now, add this sim as another piece of the puzzle, along with human psychology and societal pressures and changes over the eons… and give it the proper context of desirable traits specific to, or at least common to, religion… then I could consider it as a part of the overall case.

  23. RL

    I think placing any credance on a software model like this borders on silly. If this really is science, it will be testable. I doubt this is. I think too many people accept software models as evidence. I fully expect religious folk to come out with their own software model that shows that their own brand of religion is the key to survival. Will that be provocative?

  24. Brango

    It’s not that hard to comprehend belief evolving. Like everything else it has a very simple origin – fear.

    A while back I was comforting my dog during a particularly noisy thunderstorm – she’s a collie (lassie type) and gets totally and completely petrified out of her wits with each thunder clap. No amount of comforting and reassurance will calm her down, and as I sat with her I wondered what she was thinking it was, and why she was so scared. I likened it to the purest form of a ‘fear of god’. She knew there was something much bigger than her own little comfort zone world, but her lack of capability to comprehend it left little else for her to do other than fear it.

    I knew right then that humans would have at one point in their evolution been through the same experience. Before we had language and basic communication, our lack of comprehension of the unknown led to fear, and since by nature we categorize and pidgeonhole everything, the great feared unknown was given a name – god.

    Those who appear to be able to appease god by calming the storm or bringing a fruitful harvest are respected and elevated in society, so their particular stories and methods are the ones that get adopted by the masses.

    Religion evolved from the concept of an all powerful god who ran the whole show and got angry at us for doing bad things.

    The problem now is that we have a considerably more advanced understanding of what thunder is, but the influence of religion is so ingrained in our cultures that even though it is outdated and unecessary, it’s still easier to believe that there is a guy who knows how to appease god, which unfortunately negates any need to know stuff.

    Oops, that got a bit rambly, sorry.

  25. yy2bggggs

    “Any system that manifests three traits: variation, reproduction and selection, will also manifest evolution.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by evolution here, but I’m pretty certain you’re either underspecifying or overspecifying. Technically, all you need for evolution is variation, since the word “evolution” simply means change. But in case you’re referring to something like Darwinian evolution, consider this system.

    We start with a box of 64 crayons. We pick the pretty ones from the batch and put them into a pile. We mate these pretty ones together randomly, using this procedure; two random “pretty” crayons are mated at a time, using a 100 watt light bulb until they melt. The liquid is molded, and they are cooled, creating two new crayons we can call “offspring”. We put the offspring back into the population.

    Variation–check (it’s not proper mutation, but it is certainly variation). Reproduction–check. Selection–check. Evolution? Depends on what you mean, but unless you like dingy gray, you’re not very likely to get pretty colors with this process. (Note: This system does, by chance, have a few Darwinian properties you didn’t mention, such as heritability).

    “While we’re all familiar with the evolution of living things, the evolution of ideas, often called memetic evolution, is well documented.”

    Memetics isn’t even (as far as I’m aware) established. One of the biggest issues with memetics is what exactly the analogy to the gene is. Memetics does work fairly well as an analogy, mind you, but it needs to tie solidly to something to become more than that. I think it may be more enlightening to focus not only on how similar the evolution of ideas is to Darwinian evolution, but on how different it is, and until there’s a really good reason to believe there are isomorphisms all along the line, it’s not prudent to treat it as any more than a loose analogy.

  26. Meh. I don’t think that “transmission of unverifiable information” is actually a good description of the way religion works — certainly not in earlier civilizations before organized science got going in its own right. After all, what have those religions left us except stories about why the world is the way it is? The Sun is a chariot pulled by fiery steeds, or it is pushed above the eastern horizon by a giant dung beetle; in Greece, plants die in winter because Demeter is mourning for Persephone, but in Egypt, the seasons are tied to the flooding of the Nile, which occurs when Hapi empties his water jugs. Suffering exists because we are being tested, or because we are being punished. Myths are, in part, explanations of the world in terms of the familiar, namely, human behavior. They only become “unverifiable” when you start looking in new places, taking a critical eye at the stories you’ve been told and finding out that your legends don’t tell you much anything useful about the new phenomena around the corner.

    Some claims made by religions are, to a modern observer, unverifiable, such as stories of what happens after death. However, believers often claim to have received evidence supporting these assertions — visions seen during prayer, or testimonies of near-death experiences. By now, we’ve learned that these aren’t reliable evidence, but we had to learn to set the bar high.

  27. My thoughts are that it is all much simpler. The tendency in humans is not necessarily to believe unreal things, but to believe the things you learn first – in otherwords, once a “belief” gets into your brain, it becomes difficult to dislodge it, even when confronted by concrete counterexamples. If the belief is reinforced by confirmation from other believers, it becomes even more entrenched.
    The belief does not need to be religious. When I teach science – physics in particluar – I like to do so by specifically targeting student misconceptions, and having them perform experiments that directly contradict their conceptions. This leads to cognitive dissonance, which can, if handled carefully, open them up to a firm conceptual grasp of the underlying physics. Occasionally, though, they will report the correct results, and state that the experiment must have gone wrong because the results were “not as expected”.
    Hitchens, among others, has suggested that indoctrinating children in relegious beliefs is tantamount to child abuse, because it entrenches the beliefs early and thoroughly, making them difficult and extremely uncomfortable to dislodge.
    I suppose one could argue that this leads to an evolution of a belief system, such as religion, but it is more like the evolution of a virus or parasite than a human trait.

  28. I don’t think the study makes a lot of sense. I can see that there are changes that happen to religion over time. But I don’t see that they are similar in any way to evolution.

    I don’t think the ideas about attraction “fit” in this case. I’d describe religion more in terms of food production models. The people who settled in location X used method Y of acquiring food. They farmed, or hunted/gathered because of the place/time that they were. Those actions provided for the group and allowed the members to eat and continue to survive. I think their beliefs offered similar “sustenance” (if you will allow the word in this context). But I don’t think their survival or continuation was contingent on the ideas being “attractive” in order to mate and continue through reproduction.

    I dig the blog. Keep up the good work.

  29. To “yy2bggggs”: I like your pseudonym. (Yes, I “get” it.)

    “yyuryyubicuryy4me” (Though I suppose “ii” can substitute for “yy” if needed. :-) )

  30. BruceGee

    I don’t think much of the idea that genes can predispose people to religion, but if you look at cultures as being in competition with one another just as biological populations are, then as any Civ player can tell you, it seems pretty clear that religion is likely to give an entire culture an advantage in competition against another culture that lacks it. Look at the Greeks and the Romans, for instance — the Romans could defeat the Greeks militarily, but Greek religion and culture was so much more highly developed that the Romans were pretty much assimilated by it wholesale.

    Most of the posts here seem to think that the main effects of religious belief are negative — if not at first, then at least in the modern era. But religion tends to encourage qualities like altruism and self-sacrifice, which can be very beneficial to any society whose members possess them. Not to dis the atheists currently serving our country, I think statistically atheists are somewhat less likely to get into the foxholes in the first place, because they can’t expect any “higher reward” if they get blown up before reproducing. And face it, any culture needs people who love its symobolism enough to get into foxholes if it is going to survive.

    Why has the Jewish culture survived with so many of its ancient features still intact, even after centuries of military defeat and constant persecution, while so many of its more militarily capable neighbors like the Assyrians and the Philistines have no trace remaining? Surely the only reasonable explanation is their religious identity that carries with it a resistance to being assimilated so strong that a whole sect at Massada will create mass suicide to reject it.

    My position is that the concept of religion evolved memetically, but like all our other evolved traits, it still confers more advantages than disadvantages. It will die out when it ceases to confer evolutionary advantages to the cultures that possess it, and not before.

  31. David 6

    Like Irishman and a few others, I was not impressed with the merit of the article (or at least its title).
    This piece reads more like the pseudo-experiments reported in the media that I am accustomed to reading Phil shoot down. So on this one, I am disappointed in the BA for posting some bad astronomy. It is his blog, and he can post what he wants. However, from previous posts I would have thought this article fell off his radar.

    Perhaps after staring into the abyss of ID silliness for so long, the abyss is beginning to stare back. Fight it Phil!

  32. Celtic_Evolution

    @ David 6 –

    I wouldn’t go that far… I could be way off here, and I don’t want to speak for him, but I don’t think Phil was necessarily promoting these findings as much as using the premise of the simulation and its basic findings as a platform to ask the question, and promote the discussion… a discussion which I think has been very interesting, and uncharacteristically calm and polite, given the subject matter… to this point anyhow. :)

  33. KC

    I can’t believe I’m doing this after departing several weeks ago (go ahead and snicker – I’ll wait), but it seems to me that everyone is missing the obvious: If the capacity for religion is evolved, then it must confer a survival advantage. No greater model than this is required. Some maybe be uncomfortable with that idea, but evolution cares not one whit about arts, music, or writing, and clearly atheists are just as inclined to such things as the religious.

    If the tendency toward religious belief was evolved, then it could well be that a religious society is in many ways more stable. Ben Franklin was horrified at his own behavior after becoming, in his words, “a thorough deist,” and became convinced that religious belief was vital to Western society.

    It may well be that there’s an advantage in religion in that it helps maintain the family unit. The decline of Christianity in Western Europe seems to have brought about a decline in the traditional family unit, where society’s values are typically passed on from one generation to the next. Muslims, however, are maintaining the family unit. If this hypothesis is correct, then Western Europe should become predominately Muslim in a few generations, perhaps as short as two or three.

    In my own unscientific observations, there is something in the human psyche that abhors a religious vacuum. True atheists are rare. Those dissatisfied with conventional religion turn to the non-conventional, or more frequently invent informal religions of their own. More than once I’ve seen casual agnostics wind up hip-deep in the most incredible woo-wooism. All anecdotal, mind you, but it makes one go “hmmm.” Some have postulated that the “mem” of an established religion insulates believers from those of the flash-in-the-pan variety. Which, of course, leads us to a frequent observation that humans seemed hard-wired for religion, which takes us right back to the fact that this must confer an evolutionary advantage.

    Or you could take the view that humans were deliberately built that way. The result is the same.

    None of which addresses the point of whether a particular religion is right or wrong. Nor does it do much to explain revealed religions such as Judaism or Christianity.

  34. If the capacity for religion is evolved, then it must confer a survival advantage.

    No. The mere presence of a trait in a population does not mean that aforesaid trait is adaptive. Neutral traits can spread via genetic drift, and phenomena which look at first glance to be adaptations can in fact be spandrels, byproducts of features which were once adaptive in other environments.

  35. Irishman

    Thomas said:
    > Maybe I’m misunderstanding the very premise of the post but there is copious evidence that religions, any set of ideas for that matter, are subject to a similar set of evolutionary principles as organisms.

    You have misunderstood. Neither the article nor Phil’s post address how religious beliefs change over time, but rather both address what you so nicely phrase “how humans evolved to propagate ideas.”

    Blake Stacey said:
    > Meh. I don’t think that “transmission of unverifiable information” is actually a good description of the way religion works.

    Thank you for reminding me. The study simplified “Religion” down to one arbitrary trait that religion exibits and treats that trait in isolation. There is no consideration of how that trait relates to the religious ideas as a whole. There is no evaluation of whether that trait is even an accurate description.

    The Bad Astronomer said:
    > In a simulation like this, you’re not trying to find a specific trait or tie behavior to a specific mechanism; it’s simply to see what happens when you fiddle with parameters. Its design, it looks like to me, is to generate insight into a problem, not necessarily find a solution.

    That’s what I tried to say earlier. If the intent of the study was to show what kind of pattern would be required for the trait of “passing along unverifiable information” to a community built of those who do not have that trait, then you can call it a success. The pattern required is that those who do not pass along unverifiable information must have some other reason to mate with the ones who do possess that trait. Otherwise, if that trait is genetically driven (as opposed to indirectly resulting from other drivers), it will not be absorbed into the population at large. But I don’t see how amazing or unexpected that result is.

    Sally said:
    > I don’t think the study makes a lot of sense. I can see that there are changes that happen to religion over time. But I don’t see that they are similar in any way to evolution.

    This study was not about how religious belief structures change over time, but rather how they came to be accepted by humans in the first place. It is trying to understand the evolutionary basis for religious belief.

    > I don’t think the ideas about attraction “fit” in this case. I’d describe religion more in terms of food production models… But I don’t think their survival or continuation was contingent on the ideas being “attractive” in order to mate and continue through reproduction.

    Again, we’re looking at the reason such thought processes arose and were successful, not any particular religious belief. Religious thought processes had to not be a turn off. If you thought the person expressing said statements was insane/deranged/mentally unfit, you would be unlikely to mate with said person. However, if you didn’t understand or agree with them but thought they had a different way of thinking and had some other redeemable traits, you might mate with them anyway. Sort of like a Republican and Democrat who get married.

    BruceGee said:
    > Look at the Greeks and the Romans, for instance — the Romans could defeat the Greeks militarily, but Greek religion and culture was so much more highly developed that the Romans were pretty much assimilated by it wholesale.

    Um, what? In what way did the Greeks assimilate the Romans?

    > I think statistically atheists are somewhat less likely to get into the foxholes in the first place, because they can’t expect any “higher reward” if they get blown up before reproducing. And face it, any culture needs people who love its symobolism enough to get into foxholes if it is going to survive.

    Then show me those statistics. “Higher reward” can be a strong motivator for behaviors like self-sacrifice, but it’s not the only motivator.

    > And face it, any culture needs people who love its symobolism enough to get into foxholes if it is going to survive.

    What a culture needs to survive is people who want to protect their lives, their families, their property, and their way of life.

  36. Irishman

    KC said:
    > If the capacity for religion is evolved, then it must confer a survival advantage.

    No evolutionist disagrees with that comment. The question is to find out what the advantages were, whether at the individual level or community level (or both), and how those tendencies were developed in the first place. If religious belief processes didn’t spring wholesale, they had to come from less complete processes developing over time. That is what we are trying to understand.

    I would also point out that there appears to be in this thread some confusion between religious belief processes and religious belief structures. The processes are the ways of thinking about the world and interpreting information, the structures are the formalized “religions” that use those processes. Both are lumped under the cummulative label “religion”.

  37. David 6

    @Celtic

    Seeing as Phil opens the piece with, “Some time ago, I took an internet blowhard to task for misunderstanding even the most basic aspects of how science works,” I would say my comment was par for the “tonal” course.

    If you are going to (rightfully) rail against someone for promogating faulty or weak ideas, don’t follow it up with an article that is weak.

    In Dow’s defense we are only reading a journalists exerpt of the the actual study. Perhaps if I understood the parameters of the model and research design, I wouldn’t find it so unscientific.

    However, I don’t retract my opinion that the piece was below average in terms of quality for this site. I am a fan of the blog (wouldn’t be posting during work if I wasn’t) and generally Phil’s enthusiasm and guts. It is line with respect for his defense of science that I objected to the article. Nothing personal and I apologize if the tone suggested otherwise.

  38. Celtic_Evolution

    @ David 6

    Yeah… I can see the disconnect given the lead-in Phil used. And I would agree that the body of the article might perhaps be too flimsy to bolster that lead-in.

    But I would still submit that the intent was to re-inforce the overall concept that many of us subscribe to, that religion is a result of evolution… an argument he refers to with his lead in… and uses this article as one piece of supporting evidence to further that assertion.

    I’m not saying I agree with the findings the way they were presented in the article, per se… but I understand the context of the post, and its lead-in given that context, and I would hesitate on being too critical of Phil’s use of it here. Although I do continue to disagree with assertion made by the article’s title, given the simulation’s “random variable”… as has been already discussed earlier in this thread.

  39. Joel

    Irishman… you inquired, “In what way did the Greeks assimilate the Romans?”

    the original poster said, “the Romans could defeat the Greeks militarily, but Greek religion and culture was so much more highly developed that the Romans were pretty much assimilated by it wholesale.”

    And he’s correct.

  40. BruceGee

    BruceGee said:
    > Look at the Greeks and the Romans, for instance — the Romans could defeat the Greeks militarily, but Greek religion and culture was so much more highly developed that the Romans were pretty much assimilated by it wholesale.

    Irishman said:
    Um, what? In what way did the Greeks assimilate the Romans?

    I didn’t say the Greeks assimilated the Romans, I said the Greek culture assimilated the Roman one. The most obvious way is in religion (same gods but different names, Ovid adapting the myths, etc.) Also there was quite a bit of adoption and adaptation of Greek philosophy, architecture, literature, and drama.

    Something similar happened in China, when various barbarian tribes conquered the country, but ended up adapting the culture as the newest dynasty. It’s an unusual reversal — as if the Spaniards were worshipping Quetzalcoatl and Tetzcatlipoca and building pyramids after they conquered the Aztecs.

    > I think statistically atheists are somewhat less likely to get into the foxholes in the first place, because they can’t expect any “higher reward” if they get blown up before reproducing. And face it, any culture needs people who love its symobolism enough to get into foxholes if it is going to survive.

    Irishman wrote:
    Then show me those statistics. “Higher reward” can be a strong motivator for behaviors like self-sacrifice, but it’s not the only motivator.

    I’m not sure there are good statistics for the prevelance of atheists in either the general population or the military. Here is some anecdotal evidence that the officership of the US military tends to be dominated by theists, though:
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20922106/

    As for other motivators — sure, authoritarians can try to motivate self-sacrificial behavior through fear or better treatment for their soldiers. But those cultures don’t seem to last as long as cultures with a strong shared ideology.

    > And face it, any culture needs people who love its symobolism enough to get into foxholes if it is going to survive.

    What a culture needs to survive is people who want to protect their lives, their families, their property, and their way of life.

    Agreed — yet, in the propaganda that leads up to most wars, there often seems to be more of “god is on our side” or “our enemies are evil” than there is “our enemies will change our way of life.” Anyway, most folks get their culture’s symbols (the flag, for instance) confused with the things they stand for anyway.

  41. Pisces

    I’d say religion originated with the necessity to survive,practically,in a neolithic environment. Early religion seemed to center around the need to hunt and gather (and later farm) successfully and around fertility.
    With the advent and success of city states and warfare, religion turned to the management of large populations. The gods became more human and less related to nature. Priests and rulers who associated themselves with the desires of a deity (and who could possibly claim to be one, or related to one) could control the people. Stories concerning how people should conduct themselves in times of peace and war were added to the practical info, eventually overshadowing it and becoming the main focus.
    In the beginning survival depended on practical, useful information provided by religion….and later on fitting into society by conforming to the beliefs of ones’ ruler and peers. In both cases it would be the believers who would prosper and survive to reproduce the most efficiently. Looks like humans and religion have both evolved as a result of the influence they have had on each other.

  42. Martin Moran

    I don’t really have an opinion on the above, guess it is not my thing. Not related I know but I had to share this anyway. Please see below a clip from another British ScFi series which you may not know, Hyperdrive not everyone seemed to enjoy this, but I found the sense of humour very funny. Old Agnostic Hymns this clip is excellent:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IF6KtO63T4

  43. Steve

    Maybe the study is false, and it’s attracting people itself!

  44. SourBlaze

    No offense, Phil, but you may as well have typed something like this:

    sjgdkl gfjdksl trankj renwljq I xser zixocvp reqw LOVE fdsjkuiw rueiwoqp afdgshjk SATAN!!!!

    Seriously. I should know because growing up as a kid I fell in line with creationism. Scientific arguments from actual scientists went over my head, and I dismissed them as worldly/Satanic/god-and-bible-hating/amoralistic/etc. I didn’t understand them, and was proud of it because at the time I thought it meant I wasn’t “biased” against “the Truth.”

    Creationists aren’t scientists, rather they are fear-driven folk who deliberately misunderstand the world they live in. How else can Hitler be equated with evolution? How else can Terri Schiavo be equated with abortion? How else can speaking on science trigger those kinds of responses out of them?

    Because it’s all part of that big bad, evil, socialist, relativist, high taxed, baby-killing, crime-ridden, nature-worshiping, evolutionist, materialist, pro-teen-sex, pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-god, anti-bible, anti-christian world, that’s why.

    I’m not joking. Everything they hate or don’t understand is “worldly” and “evil” and gets lumped together. They believe that they “think outside the box” but the “box” they live outside of is the world/reality itself. They are afraid of this big bad world.

    Unless they’re rich like George W. Bush. Then they get to rule over it. :(

  45. Darth Robo

    Fett, I have a job for you…

    :)

  46. kebsis

    Well I think some belief in the unreal could be beneficial to survival. For instance, if one caveman runs up to another and says ‘There is a saber tooth tiger coming this way!’, then the caveman he is talking to has a better chance of survival by running in the opposite direction, rather than asking, ‘What evidence do you have to support that claim?’

  47. Pat

    I would concur that the idea of this model is weak, given that the only premise for being religious is “communicating unverifiable information.” The conferring of information at all was magic when it first occurred, and “names” had power: speaking of a past event that others remember in a common parlance meant even greater power, and it might have been those that had great rote memory that first prospered. Rote memory is not necessarily an indicator of intellectual flexibility, and it doesn’t imply rigorous analysis. Part one.

    People and primates are social animals, and have an innate sense of fairness, of equity, and of “right” and “wrong.” Punishment is generally what is meted out according to the group by the dominant individual. The dominant individual reserves punishment of transgression as part of their power [cite]. Part two.

    Human societal response to punishment and reward has components of determining which was which, but also magnitude [cite]. It would make sense that “eternal” would be “greater” than “purgative” or scaled punishment, although it would be perceived as less fair. Part three.

    Human reasoning is the kind that will reason from effect to cause, and in the case of humans, misfortunes would be reasoned back to a punishment of some kind (part two and three) from some other deity. Individuals who could keep in mind all of the “rules” that people observed that, once transgressed, resulted in punishment, would be very valuable (to an extent) to otherwise risky endeavors. Want to go fishing (good reward/high risk)? Consult the keeper of the rules, and they could tell you the magnitude of your punishment if you transgressed, and what to do in propitiation. Fortunate events eventually resulted in other rules that one could use for eliciting reward behavior from the dominant individual that nobody saw but who punished severely if upset.

    So we could see how the development of inductive reasoning and observation, rote memorization, and risk aversion (which can be survival traits) could also give rise to religion. Paradoilia is a perversion of our face recognition software, in which errors can cause face blindness, and which operates somewhat independently of the visual cortex…and this complex itself is an elaboration of previous functions in other animals to a more social function.

    I just think these guys present to simple a picture, with no means of backing it up. Presenting unverifiable information is not really a hallmark of religiosity. It’s a conflict between interaction socially and inward thinking, something of a real brain feature [cite]. It just means that people that don’t think too much about what they know might be more “popular” not because of this, but because it is instead part of being outwardly social.

  48. Guinness Stout

    SourBlaze, you ran off a list of things that you claim are the motivations for Creationist beliefs. More or less, what you said was that they are driven by fear and intolerance. You also claim to be formerly one of “them”. I guess that was to give legitimacy to your claims. I have found that when people reject the religion and/or the traditions of their youth, they often tend to exaggerate the things they found fault with. I’m not a Creationist and I’m not an Atheist (although I used to be an Atheist). From my point of view, Creationists and religious people in general have no monopoly on the possibility of succumbing to fear and intolerance. I think everyone would benefit to remember that.

  49. Pat

    Guinness Stout:
    Well, one thing that does stick out to me, and that’s that humans have a tendency to reason backward from the resulting behavior in an individual (lack of belief in system X) to some “reason” which usually involves a trait in the individual, or a general trait in a group. If the behavior is seen as undesirable, or antisocial, the trait is negative (creationists are intolerant, scientists are atheists and immoral). Granted, this very supposition may follow this idea, but I’m guilty of it too, and I have to force myself to abandon these thoughts time to time: ascribing motivation without evidence.

    Such as, “(they) often tend to exaggerate the things they found fault with.”

  50. Seneca

    The original study, as presented, is really bad science.

    It rests on the assumption that the decisive characteristic of all religious belief–independent of time, place, and social context–is “a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others”.

    This assumption dooms the exercise from the outset, as it is fatally flawed.

    It is a cynical falsification (dare I say mystification?) of the personal motivation of each and every practitioner of religious leadership throughout human history.

    This is a fatal weakness that opens these weak opponents of religious obscurantism to ideological attack, and deservedly so.

    It is not necessary to set up computer models in order to gain an understanding that religious belief has played an important role in the development of human society. But one inescapable requirement is a scientific approach to the study of society’s development. We cannot let a rejection of religious thinking divert us from objective analysis, without risk of capture by even more ridiculous and less useful ideological outlooks.

    My studies have led me to view present-day religious institutions and religious belief as relics of the past which still perform key social functions–somewhat different from their origins–but occupying a front-row seat on the endangered list of social institutions. These face extinction, but similarly to the way the Victrola no longer occupies our living rooms. They will fade away when no longer needed, and will no longer occupy society.

    The fact that ever-growing, large numbers of people are able to escape the hold of religious thinking and yet function socially (quite well, for the most part) is evidence that the necessary conditions exist for building new social relations which will eliminate the need for this antiquated legacy. However, until those social relations are established for the mass of humanity, these relics will continue to provide solace for alienated and frightened people and continue to provide material for political demagogues in their propping up of the conditions which nurture backward modern religious belief.

  51. Tom Marking

    “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.”

    That certainly sounds like they tweaked their model by adding an arbitrary parameter because without it the model showed that religion died. I’m not sure what the significance of believer / nonbeliever attraction is since religions flourish through prosyletization – the conversion of nonbelief to belief. So the model is probably not very realistic to begin with.

    If evolution via natural selection can explain religion then doesn’t there have to be some evolutionary sequence, say animism to polytheism to monotheism or something like that? It’s not clear there is such a clear-cut sequence since polytheism in the form of Hinduism is still flourishing in India and animism is still flourishing in many parts of Africa.

  52. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Um.. about that study… http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/05/making-rudyard-kipling-proud.html

    While I agree with Phil that this was more of a proof of principle model work, and I agree with you that it overstated its claims, I will point out that “just so stories” can never the less be true and can be tested so. This is even more likely when they aren’t in fact completely ad hoc, but can be connected with a theory such as evolution.

    The problem is to draw out an independent prediction and test it.

    I think the “evolutionary psychologists” and “evolutionary human behaviourists” are really wrong.

    I find this very likely, as I don’t see that they have been able to do the necessary testing.

  53. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ yy2bggggs;

    “Any system that manifests three traits: variation, reproduction and selection, will also manifest evolution.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by evolution here, but I’m pretty certain you’re either underspecifying or overspecifying. Technically, all you need for evolution is variation, since the word “evolution” simply means change. But in case you’re referring to something like Darwinian evolution,

    That is very specifically Darwinian evolution, named after the mechanisms Darwin suggested (variation and selection). But more generally one can understand from this or the article’s context that what is meant is (biological) evolution. This is an observable process, so it is (of course) amenable for a definition.

    A minimal definition of evolution is:

    Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.

    Or, roughly, “common descent”.

    This is the same type of definition as is used when defining other natural processes, for example gravitation

    Gravitation is a process that results in acceleration in a mass.

    This will leave it up to a theory to specify exactly which mechanisms are responsible (a force between masses in Newtonian gravitation or space curvature from masses in general relativity), and how to quantitatively test it. Modern evolution theory have identified more mechanisms than the original darwinian mechanisms.

    One of the biggest issues with memetics is what exactly the analogy to the gene is.

    Exactly right, as I understand it, and another problem with some of these ideas. The type of hereditary process affects evolutionary characteristics.

    For example, quasispecies useful in HIV research, where the populations genome resides in an appreciable and fast evolving volume in genomic space, doesn’t describe a well defined and stable species.

    Likewise, if replication becomes less faithful the species or quasispecies will drop under the darwinian threshold, and ordinary evolution theory will not describe what happens.

    @ Blake Stacey:

    spandrels, byproducts of features which were once adaptive in other environments.

    Hmm. I thought spandrels were coincidental byproducts of traits, as the navel is often mentioned; it looks like a trait, but it is the umbilical cord that performs the function that is under evolution.

    I’m not sure why spandrels would be coupled to vestigial traits specifically?

  54. yy2bggggs

    Torbjörn:

    “That is very specifically Darwinian evolution, named after the mechanisms Darwin suggested (variation and selection).”

    But Thomas’s claim was both on the surface and in spirit a claim of sufficiency. This leads me to ask if those conditions are really sufficient to produce whatever he is calling evolution. I can certainly imagine systems that have those three traits that do not in any way mirror Darwinian systems (more specifically, do not have the key characteristics to allow for artificially introduced environmental pressures to shape adaptability to those pressures, coming from the perspective that Darwinian evolution, at its core, is an analogy (natural selection) to artificial selection).

  55. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ yy2bggggs:

    But Thomas’s claim was both on the surface and in spirit a claim of sufficiency. This leads me to ask if those conditions are really sufficient to produce whatever he is calling evolution.

    Let me see if I can clear up any remaining confusion, or if I will contribute. [Disclaimer: I’m not a biologist.] As we can (and should!) define biological evolution without specifying each and every mechanism, we can look at sufficient mechanisms.

    The hereditary mechanism can be taken as given above the darwinian threshold.

    Okay, now add variation. (From mechanisms such as mutation, recombination, et cetera, et cetera.) This is sufficient, as we can observe what is called near neutral drift when selection acts weakly, or genetic bottlenecks when populations momentarily becomes small.

    Both of which will likely eventually fix a specific allele (gene variation), find a balance against other alleles. (Often by excluding them.) Fixation is more or less necessary to observe changes in a whole population. But it is also the end state of the mechanism action on that particular allele.

    In the same manner you can add other mechanisms and test for sufficiency. For example selection can quickly result in fixation, but needs the previous mentioned variation to act on. There are quite a few evolutionary mechanisms observed.

    I can certainly imagine systems that have those three traits that do not in any way mirror Darwinian systems (more specifically, do not have the key characteristics to allow for artificially introduced environmental pressures to shape adaptability to those pressures, coming from the perspective that Darwinian evolution, at its core, is an analogy (natural selection) to artificial selection).

    I’m not sure why you restrict to Darwinian evolution (variation and selection), since the key factor if it is a evolving system according to the definition is the hereditary mechanism as I mentioned earlier. Here I think you made a fair assessment before of the problem with memes as analogues to genes.

    Btw, one could also say that artificial selection is a subset of natural selection, as treated by the theory. Darwin was inspired by the former, but wanted to emphasize the difference when naming the later. Today I don’t think that exclusive distinction is necessary.

  56. Kaleberg

    Religion may be false, but religious experience is real. It may be an artifact of our ability to anthropomorphize, an artifact of our ability to socialize, or just a brain defect, but large numbers of people are susceptible to having a religious experience. There are solid evolutionary advantages to our ability to impute agency, to predict behavior, to model emotions and so on. These skills can apply to both real and imagined entities. We can use these skills to organize large numbers of people into working societies. We can out think predators and prey. We can even use the same skills to outsmart chemical compounds, mechanical mechanisms and devil spawned computers, and bend them to our will.

    A religious experience is like music. Most people, not me, but most people, “get” music. It offers them something that others get from cathedrals, crystals, incense and mantras. I will admit that religion has a very bad moral record. Unlike music, which is generally regarded as an entertainment, religion has been used to justify evil upon evil. As an anti-moral force, it is exemplary.

    It is easy to dismiss religion as not being real, or as simply a form of evil. This is only partly true. Religion is based on stories, and stories have their own truth. Was Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father? Of course not, neither person existed. Still, Star Wars fans, and even those who loathed the stories, have to admit that there is some truth to that statement, if only in the context of the original story line.

    Religion is like masturbating. One seeks sexual arousal, generally by imagining one or more sexually desirable parties doing sexually pleasurable things. Do any of these entities exist? Perhaps some of them are based on real people. Are they actually doing those things? Of course not. If they were, you wouldn’t be masturbating, you’d be having sex. Is your arousal real? Is your orgasm, if you have one, real? Absolutely. If you are male, the sperm in your ejaculate are perfectly capable of conception if introduced to a fertile egg. As with masturbation and orgasm, we don’t need gods to have a religious experience, we just have to imagine them.

    Religion is not just about spreading false stories. Religion and politics have long been intertwined. Those false stories are spread for a variety of reasons, just as many real stories are. Is there a genetic component? There may be. Until very recently, human societies have been organized genetically. Kings were chosen as offspring or relatives of previous kings. Noble families were well aware of their bloodlines. Could our society be better organized? Definitely. We haven’t been having very good luck with our current George II.

    Of course, I’ll stick with the theory that the same skills that have led to so many of our species successes are the same skills that bring us the curse of religion.

  57. yy2bggggs

    “Okay, now add variation. (From mechanisms such as mutation, recombination, et cetera, et cetera.)”

    I don’t know what these “et cetera” that you refer to are though, because you didn’t mention them. I believe you’re simply hand waving–more on that later.

    The raison d’être of the matter at hand is to apply these sufficient criteria to alien systems, not biological ones, and to conclude based on the presence of some minimal list of fundamental traits that something interesting which we are calling “evolution” is going on.

    The reason I’m focusing on Darwinian evolution is to give some sort of possible coherency to the issue at hand.

    We’re talking about this specific claim:

    “Any system that manifests three traits: variation, reproduction and selection, will also manifest evolution.”

    …and as I pointed out before, this is already tautologically true in some sense (the word evolution in itself simply means change), so it’s really strange to even appeal to “reproduction” and “selection”. It’s as if you said: “Any system where you have reproduction, selection, and change, will be a changing system.” And I find it impossible to believe that this was what was being claimed.

    On the other hand, by evolution, we could be meaning something more specific. But what then is being claimed? If it’s not bound at all, you have a problem of the claim lacking a meaning. Any system that manifests reproduction, selection, and change will, well, change in some sort of particular way. But if I don’t know exactly what sort of particular way you’re claiming it would change, then this is no help. It doesn’t describe anything about the behavior of the system beyond what I started with (that it had those criteria) and what I would have to find out anyway, the hard way, by carrying out the implications of those traits. It’s a useless claim if evolution can mean anything.

    The reason then that I’m focusing on Darwinian evolution is that it’s at least something that will make the claim non-trivial; it adds the teeth of meaning to the claim. That’s not to say Thomas didn’t have in mind some other specific type of evolution, but my gut feeling (and only current reasonable interpretation) was that Thomas was trying to claim that memetics will naturally provide the type of richness you will find in biological systems due specifically to the fact that it has these traits. If I’m correct, then this only logically follows if it’s true that such systems are Darwinian. If he had something else specific in mind, he (or someone) should clarify it; otherwise we’ll never know (or I wouldn’t).

    Now, here is why I think you’re handwaving. You’re trying to pretend that certain unmentioned criteria (mutation and recombination namely) are already included in variation. That’s not only cheating, it’s false! Your inclusion of recombination betrays you. After all, Darwinian evolution occurs in asexually reproducing species which don’t exhibit much recombination, and applies perfectly well to such species (I do recognize that recombination actually occurs in some asexually reproducing populations, by the way). And yet, even in such systems, we have variation.

    Since variation does not require recombination, which you listed, it follows that it does not include it. Therefore, it’s cheating to claim you’ve already specified it. The reason this is important gets back to the original purpose–we’re looking at a completely alien system now, and we see it has variation, and we need to know if it is really going to act like we expect biological systems to act.

    I stand by my counterexample of my box-of-crayons being slowly mixed. It has variation, it has reproduction, and it has selection, and it will not behave like you expect biological systems to. The moral–if you want me to expect the same things you expect, you need to tell me both what it is you’re expecting, and why you’re expecting it.

  58. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ yy2bggggs:

    I don’t know what these “et cetera” that you refer to are though, because you didn’t mention them. I believe you’re simply hand waving–more on that later.

    Are you serious? I just meant there is a lot of them.

    If you are interested you can check up on any article on evolution. Here is Wikipedia’s list: adaptation, genetic drift, gene flow/migration, mutation, natural selection, speciation (several mechanisms; allopatry, peripatry, parapatry, sympatry), bottlenecks (several mechanisms; population loss, decreased migration, habitat expansion, population subdivision), horizontal gene transfer, sex/genetic recombination, hybridization.

    I’m sure some would add evo-devo and epigenetic effects, though those are new and contested AFAIU.

    the word evolution in itself simply means change

    We are not communicating. I have already explained why (biological) evolution can’t be defined as variation in this context. (And you yourself show why doesn’t make sense: “It’s as if you said: “Any system where you have reproduction, selection, and change, will be a changing system.””)

    You observe evolution as a process on a population, with heredity. And if you have that, you can use the population genetics and quantitative genetics that defines the modern evolutionary synthesis.

    The beauty of using a definition (instead of discussing what a colloquial term means) is that if you have made sure to make it mechanism-less, it will also be independent on the specific substrate observed. For example, such non-biological systems as genetic algorithms behaves the same and can be modeled by population genetics.

    Memetics will probably not behave the same, as it hasn’t a strict heredity. But I’ve already covered that at length.

    Now, here is why I think you’re handwaving. You’re trying to pretend that certain unmentioned criteria (mutation and recombination namely) are already included in variation.

    You like to claim handwaving, I see. Those aren’t criteria, those are mechanisms as I explicitly mentioned. As in, what makes the process tick. Several mechanisms contribute to variation. The link I gave you lists mutation and recombination explicitly under the heading “Variation”. Variation is a comprehensive term for the observed phenomena, and you need at least one specific mechanism to produce it.

    Really, I think you should read up on some evolution 101 before pontificating on others. If you can’t see the difference between mechanisms and criteria I believe you are philosophizing without considering the science. Ironically, that could be labeled “handwaving”.

    The reason this is important gets back to the original purpose–we’re looking at a completely alien system now, and we see it has variation, and we need to know if it is really going to act like we expect biological systems to act.

    Which is exactly how I used it, in the comprehensive way, which should be clear from a little reading. You are confusing mentioning mechanisms with specifying criteria.

    To sum up: evolution has a theory, and it is relatively easy to test by such specific predictions as phylogeny or its rigorous math parts if another system than a biological is described by it. Genetic algorithms could be an example.

    But for other systems we may find that other theories applies, that nevertheless would fit under the inclusive definition. Memetics could be an example. I’ll leave that for biologists to worry about.

  59. yy2bggggs

    “Are you serious? I just meant there is a lot of them.”

    And so do I, but what we have in Thomas’s quote above is a criteria and a claim, and a reference to evolution which is possibly Darwinian, but remains unbound. I repeated the quote in my last post.

    “We are not communicating.”

    I agree. I read your prior post as defending Thomas, while adding heredity, which was what my entire response was based on.

    “You are confusing mentioning mechanisms with specifying criteria.”

    I’m confusing this because you responded to me at all. Recall that my first post in this blog entry was correcting a criteria Thomas mentioned. And, yes, what Thomas mentioned was a criteria (what else do you call a short list with a necessary implication?)

    Under this context, in your first response addressing me, when you said:
    “That is very specifically Darwinian evolution, named after the mechanisms Darwin suggested (variation and selection).”
    …then I read this as a claim that Thomas’s criteria (and his was a criteria, since he’s reaching a necessary conclusion about any system having those traits) establishes Darwinian evolution. This simply has my interpretation of the antecedent of the word “That” in your quote as being Thomas’s criteria (and again, it is a criteria).

    The alternate interpretation that I saw, which I considered but didn’t think was likely, was that you were claiming that although Thomas was wrong about his criteria, he was talking specifically about Darwinian evolution because he used those terms. I didn’t think this was likely because it doesn’t follow (and furthermore, I don’t see why this is something I specifically would need to be “informed” of).

  60. Irishman

    Tom Marking said:
    > If evolution via natural selection can explain religion then doesn’t there have to be some evolutionary sequence, say animism to polytheism to monotheism or something like that? It’s not clear there is such a clear-cut sequence since polytheism in the form of Hinduism is still flourishing in India and animism is still flourishing in many parts of Africa.

    First off, there is a distinction between the ideas of religions evolving vs the experience of religion evolving. One is talking about how the ideas changed over time and space through different social and population groups, the other is how the capacity originally developed and became widespread in the species. Phil’s post and the quoted study supposedly address the latter, not the former.

    If you do wish to see how ideas can evolve from precursor (ancestor) ideas without destroying the precursors, just look at bacteria. We agree that evolutionarily, multicelled organisms arose from single-celled ones, but that doesn’t mean all the single-celled organisms are gone. Bacteria still rule the world.

    In fact, there is a school of thought that does postulate just such a sequence of religious development – animism to polytheism to monotheism.

    KC said:
    > If the capacity for religion is evolved, then it must confer a survival advantage.

    Irishman said:
    >No evolutionist disagrees with that comment.

    Blake Stacey said:
    >No. The mere presence of a trait in a population does not mean that aforesaid trait is adaptive. Neutral traits can spread via genetic drift, and phenomena which look at first glance to be adaptations can in fact be spandrels, byproducts of features which were once adaptive in other environments.

    Oops. I stand corrected. My thoughts along that line were more of the nature that even if it were a spandrel, what was the adaptive feature that left religion as a byproduct. And I’m hard pressed to consider religion “neutral”. ;-)

    Kaleberg, interesting example to demonstrate that the experience can be real even if the events of the experience are fantasy.

  61. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ yy2bggggs:

    And so do I, but what we have in Thomas’s quote above is a criteria and a claim, and a reference to evolution which is possibly Darwinian, but remains unbound.

    That doesn’t explain why you suddenly claimed I was handwaving, especially after I noted that I was going to try to define evolution vs Darwinian evolution more clearly, and did so. Twice.

    Recall that my first post in this blog entry was correcting a criteria Thomas mentioned.

    And I was pointing to biology sources which showed why your correction, while better, wasn’t precisely what scientists would describe it as. For the profit of yourself, and of course also Thomas.

    I gather you didn’t read them, as you thought I was supporting Thomas.

    I’m confusing this because you responded to me at all.

    Easy solution; I will stop.

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