The Garbage Gene
This piece by Nicholas Kristof encapsulates everything I don’t like about ‘evolutionary psychology’, particularly in its pop mode. Kristof makes the argument that the success of the religious right is due to a predisposition to religious belief grounded in supposed evolutionary advantages, supposedly reflected in a particular gene, referred to by its putative discoverer as ‘The God Gene’. This is pretty much a standard example of EP in action. Take a local, but vigorously contested, social norm, invent a ‘just so’ story and assert that you have discovered a genetically determined universal. Kristof doesn’t quite get to the point of asserting that there exists a gene for voting Republican, but it follows logically from his argument (Dawkins defends the idea of a gene for tying shoelaces, for example).
Where to begin on the problems of all this?
The obvious one is that a large proportion of the US population, and a much larger proportion of the population in other developed countries, appears to lack the necessary gene. If you are going to explain this kind of thing properly in an EP context, you can’t, as Kristof does, assert that believing in God has evolutionary advantages – otherwise atheists would be extinct. You need a stable mixed-strategy equilibrium. I’m sure I could generate half a dozen untestable Pleistocene scenarios for such an equilibrium if I put my mind to it for an hour, but Kristof doesn’t even bother.
Then there’s the problem that proportions of believers have changed radically in the space of a few generations. In the late 18th century, Dr Johnson plausibly asserted that there were not above a dozen outright atheists in the kingdom of England. Unless this tiny band of infidels was incredibly fecund, it’s hard to account for the millions who can be found there today. The contrast between the US and Europe today is even more striking, since the differences in living standards and lifestyles is small and the gene pools are fairly similar. Quite subtle differences in social conditions can generate huge differences in religious beliefs.
Third, there’s the definition of religion. Kristof makes much of Chinese drivers dangling pictures of Chairman Mao from their rear-view mirrors, but this is better described as superstition than religion. If he is saying that people haven’t evolved to be perfectly rational, and that superstition is one manifestation of this, then I won’t disagree, but I’ll bet my lucky T-shirt he wants to claim something stronger than this.
Coming back to the starting point, this kind of problem arises invariably with pop EP because it’s inherent in the applications. No doubt EP can be used, at least in principle, to explain genuine cultural universals (according to Pinker, ‘tickling’ is an example) but no one cares much about genuine cultural universals. If there were pro-tickling and anti-tickling factions, a great deal of effort would be expended on proving that tickling was natural, and a crucial part of training hunters to stay silent while tracking the great mammoth or whatever. Since, AFAIK, no-one much is against tickling, the issue doesn’t arise.