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The Garbage Gene

February 13th, 2005

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.

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  1. Andrew
    February 15th, 2005 at 21:07 | #1

    What a pity that thread crashed and burned. I was enjoying it.

  2. Irant
    February 15th, 2005 at 21:32 | #2

    Speaking of EP……….

    Note that someone has recently argued that markets are an extended phenotype.


  3. February 16th, 2005 at 14:32 | #3

    Why does this – ..test] – keep appearing on my Strocchi posts as run on Safari and IE for a Mac?

    Am I missing something? Something new, I mean..

  4. James Farrell
    February 16th, 2005 at 16:22 | #4

    I just took it as final proof that Jack is really a computer program, written by some genius hoaxer, that assembles and reassembles strings of semi-coherent argument about genetics and the blindnes thereto of the pee-cee left.

  5. February 17th, 2005 at 15:17 | #5

    Yes, but that’s risky. Someone once hooked up two different AI programs to each other and stood back and watched. Since the worst sort of lefty merely emulates an automaton, the same weird locked behaviour could emerge.

  6. February 18th, 2005 at 12:50 | #6

    James Farrell comment #54 16/2/2005 @ 4:22 pm perceives in my, admittedly choppy, reports of progress made in socio-bio genetics a mindless conspiracy to torment his beloved Cultural Left .
    No fair. I bring the scientifc tidings but I would prefer the Left to be glad rather than mad.
    It amazes me that the cultural theorists, and their ideological fellow travellers like James Farrell, seem blissfully unaware of the sci-tech tsunami that bids fare to sweep them away. Apparently they prefer to continue splashing about in the intellectual shallows. They dont seem to sense the danger – that the intellectual (and political) ground is shifting under their feet.
    No wonder the Wets keep getting beaten like a drum, at the polls and in labs. Apologies to Fyodor comment #49, but “with friends like [James Farrell], the Wets dont need enemies”.

  7. foucault focker
    February 18th, 2005 at 18:01 | #7

    Jack Gnocchi is a modernist Gnostic, awaiting the fulfilment of his Revelations, a Singularity in the glint of a test tube, the spiral of a DNA like his tangential discourse that drags in and strings up innocents even like James Farrell who have expressed an open mind but apparently not open enough to please Jack; his hyperlinks a substitute for thinking, he scans the pixels, beady eyed in prophecy, a hijacker of threads to his neo-eugenicist hosannas.

  8. November 1st, 2005 at 21:12 | #8

    Didn’t you mean the genes of God are transfering to human beings as long as the process of life goes?

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