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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. Tom Davies
    February 13th, 2005 at 13:18 | #1

    Dawkins doesn’t exactly defend a ‘gene for tying shoelaces’.
    If you mean in the article How do you wear you Genes, he says:

    “Gene for skill tying shoelaces” will show itself as such only in a culture where there are shoelaces to be tied.
    In another culture the same gene – which would really be responsible for a more general manual dexterity – might show itself as, say, a “gene for skills in making traditional fishing nets” or a “gene for making efficient rabbit snares”.

    (My emphasis.)
    The article closes with:

    It is worth bearing this in mind next time you read of a newly discovered “gene for X”. It will almost certainly be a much less momentous discovery than it sounds and it correspondingly should be less alarming – and less controversial.

  2. wpc
    February 13th, 2005 at 15:03 | #2

    I can’t remember who said it but I liked this (paraphrased) quote.

    “Saying that genes desribe life is a bit like saying the aplhabet describes the English language.”

  3. John Quiggin
    February 13th, 2005 at 15:11 | #3

    Quite correct, Tom, which explains my point that Kristof is asserting the existence of a gene for voting Republican (in context where genetic religiosioty is expressed in phenotypic Republicanism).

  4. February 13th, 2005 at 15:52 | #4

    Comment by wpc — 13/2/2005 @ 3:03 pm

    “Saying that genes desribe life is a bit like saying the aplhabet describes the English language.�

    ore accurate to say that the generic Roman lexicon conditions the various expressions of European lingua franca.
    Genes are ingredients in a recipe for life, which can be cooked in different ways. The cooking process is vitally dependent on environmental queues which include ingredients, baking times and kitchen facilities.
    Bascially genotypes set generic parameters or potentials for the phenotypic expression of several characters, which include both (objective)physiological appetites and attributes and (subjective) psychological attitudes and aptitudes.

  5. February 13th, 2005 at 16:13 | #5

    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.

    …test]
    Disbelievers may become extinct if they dont breed as much as believers.
    The god-botherers tend to have a higher breeding rate and reproductive frequency (more kids and sooner). Thus they will tend to out-breed the god-forsakers. (compare Palestine to Israel).
    This “demographic differential” is already occurring in Red State America, which partially accounts for the long term shift back towards cultural conservatism (Decline of the Wets) in the USA.
    It is not true that atheists lack spiritual belief. Atheism (faith in the absence of spiritual entities) is itself a metaphysical dogma, as anyone who has argued with a dyed in the wool atheist can attest. Most atheists have simply transferred the spiritual beliefs associated with the “god gene” to some secular character. Thus the phenomenon of the Cult of Personality in supposedly atheistic communist societies, which entailed more dogmatism and spiritual transcendence than most religions require.
    Agnosticism (faithlessness about any spiritual propositions) is the true antithesis of gnostic faiths, whether secular or sacred.
    But agnosticism may be self-destructive non-creed due to the fact that “the best lack all conviction, whereas the worst are full of a passionate intensity”. OBL is a case in point.

    In general, the socio-constructivism of Standard Social Science has a lot of trouble with the resurgence of identity politics – which it simultaneously denies and decries. Racism (or political nationalism) and Religionism (or cultural conservatism) have long been a problem for the secular progressives since they appear to be irrational and yet they continue to persist long after progress of science, universal literacy etc was supposed to have abolished them. A genetic (socio-biological rather than evo-psychological) explanation for the differential distribution of irrational belief is therefore indicated.

  6. observa
    February 13th, 2005 at 16:42 | #6

    It’s in the genes alright! Whether your name’s Jean or Gene.

    MrsO was commenting the other day, how having a mirror in the hallway is bad feng shui because it reflects good spirits away from the entrance, according to the book she was reading. Now she tells me, after pestering me years ago to pay an arm and a leg for an antique, Edwardian hall stand. The Observa’s mind wandered off on a track of its own as I pooh poohed feng shui and spoon-bending generally. Then I agreed feng shui might have some distinct possibilities in a gesture of harmonious goodwill. Yeah, the “Feng Shui Roller Shutter & Security Door Co” motto- ‘We keep the bad spirits out!’ Might have some distinct possibilities says I, to a rolling of the eyes from MrsO.

  7. February 13th, 2005 at 17:14 | #7

    JQ’s formulation was of necessity over brief. There are a number of other possibilities that square with genetic inputs:-

    - They don’t always work their way out directly, but can constitute a thumb on the scale of cultural transmission. Result: few religious fanatics by nature, but many religious people eventually once a culture settles to its religion equilibrium. (Don’t forget, the word “religion” started as an idea of cultural bonding.) We don’t have so many equilibrium situations these days, though, so evidence one way or the other is hard to find.

    - People who turn out opposite don’t have to reflect an equilibrium mix of competing strategies with genes each way. Divergences can reflect the effect of infectious agents or similar, effectively a separate process which is itself self sustaining but exogenous to the human genome.

  8. paul2
    February 13th, 2005 at 18:43 | #8

    Those who are able to sustain positive thinking (= keep trying) and suppress the hysterical despair created by fear, seem to be better at surviving prolonged high-stress situations (open boat, concentration camp, lost in the snow). But as to whether there is any correlation between that sort of ‘inspiration’ or ‘belief in one’s self’ and religiosity is another question. And even if the correlation was there, are those situations so general and frequent as to have conferred a survival benefit on ‘the religious’?
    You could say that anyone who is habitually a ‘tryer’ is more likely to get a feed and a partner, and be around long enough to produce surviving offspring. But there are tryers and losers in all cultures. To muddy the water further, your cool-headed agnostic (a recent and fairly confined breed) is likely to be upwardly mobile enough to generate and support lots of offspring, but is inclined not to want to.

  9. harry clarke
    February 13th, 2005 at 19:20 | #9

    Religious belief could conceivably provide relief from life’s stresses, ‘answers’ to life’s big existential issues and provide the basis for greater genetic fitness. So too might self-interested acumen or indeed tit-for-tat cooperation. Polymorphism is possible here so many phenotypes might survive. All these ideas are possible — difficult to test though they may be. But this in itself not so weird — evolutionary theory itself can’t readily be tested using standard Popperian refutation criteria.

  10. February 13th, 2005 at 20:31 | #10

    Religion is the result of social evolution, to keep the powerful in power and produce social conformity and standards.

    It is a result of the Nurture side of the nature vs nurture debate.

  11. February 13th, 2005 at 21:29 | #11

    The New Zealand historian Peter Munz has written extensively about evolutionary psychology and the second half of his recent book “Beyond Wittgenstein’s Poker: New Light on XXXX and Wittgenstein” is a critique of some American scholars who are making careers out of evolutionary psychology without, on his account, taking on board the full Darwinian account of the evolutionary process. This book is a sequel to “Wittgenstein’s Poker” by David Edmonds and John Eidinow who vividly described the background and the events at the showdown between Wittgenstein and XXXX at the meeting of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in 1946.
    In the first half of his book Munz re-wrote history, including an imaginary dialogue to suggest how the two expat Austrians might have worked through some of their differences and misunderstandings to reach a happy if grudging accommodation.
    Peter Munz has unparalleled qualifications for this assignment because he is the only person who was a student with both XXXX and Wittgenstein, moreover he is one of the few people still alive who witnessed the non-debate at Cambridge in 1946.
    Moving on to religious belief, Munz published a paper in a collection on evolutionary epistemology which is summarised on Catallaxy.
    http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=622
    His paper addressed the role of nonadaptive falsehoods as markers for religious groups. He began with the contention that a comprehensive theory of evolution must account both for the emergence of cultures and also their subsequent evolution. However he proposes that the notion of natural selection is probably misplaced in this context. To support this proposition he advanced the startling and counter-intuitive thesis that some institutions and modes of thought survive not by evolving and adapting to changing circumstances but rather by remaining static. He is especially concerned with religious beliefs and there is research to show that “true believers” in some religious cults who, for example, know that the second coming is due on a particular date, do not abandon their faith when the event fails to happen. Perversely, their faith and solidarity are likely to be reinforced. Munz suggests that “A nonadaptive falsehood is required in order to act as a foundation charter or catechism for a human society”. He wrote “We know from the history of the Christian liturgy that the shapes which prevailed over others were not the most efficient (the shapes most likely to get their practitioners into heaven) but the shapes sufficiently distinct as to be efficient exclusion principles, that is, capable of branding deviant practitioners as heretics”.
    Munz is not postulating anything like a gene for belief, rather a sociological dynamic to explain the persistence of certain kinds of beliefs and superstitions. He previously offered a rational and progressive way out of this problem, with the suggestion that a healthy culture will encourage experimentation and exploration at the risk of many false starts and dead ends. At the same time high standards of criticism will be maintained, though criticism needs to be optimal, not too strict or hasty. To maintain this precarious balance a theory of criticism is required that focuses on objects or ideas and not on the personality or motives of the critic. In addition, an advance in cultural evolution is also needed permitting people to communicate with one another despite major and perhaps even fundamental differences in their respective belief systems.
    For most of recorded history, Munz suggests the basis of social and cultural bonding has been shared belief systems that are exempt from criticism. ‘Where knowledge is used a social bond, people cannot afford the luxury of exposing it to criticism, lest their co-operation be endangered or cease’. Writing in “Our Knowledge of the Growth of Knowledge: XXXX or Wittgestein” (1986) he suggested that in certain places, a threshold has been crossed: some people; ‘…have managed to establish societies which are not dependent on the purity of any given cultural strain and which are bonded by criteria other than the adherence to any particular belief system and its rituals.’ The essential feature of such a society is that some aspects of its evolution can be regulated by critical discussion in a way that was previously not possible. However if this does not happen there may instead be further fragmentation, with the proliferation of self-contained and exclusive sub-cultures. These developments undermine the impulse to maintain communication and a sense of community between groups with diverse backgrounds.
    This latter process appears to be operating in the culture wars and to some extent in the political culture of the US, though it is mitigated by the existence of blogs like Catallaxy, Troppo and Quiggin where very different voices engage in dialogue.
    This text has been screened to eliminate names that give offence to our friend and colleague cs.

  12. Andrew
    February 13th, 2005 at 21:40 | #12

    I can’t believe Jack Strocchi threw out that old chestnut “Athiests are deeply religious because they say they don’t believe in any religion and that is a religious stance therefore they are religious.”

    Sorry Jack. I’m an athiest. Not a lapsed Christian or any other sort of rejectionist. I can no more believe in God than I believe Gandalf will save the world.

    I can think religion has produced wonderful philosophies, inspired marvellous architecture, writing, painting, music and so on and still think that the fundamental core of religion is as absurd as believing in a horoscope.

    If you wish to riposte with some version of “ha ha if he wasn’t religious he wouldn’t be so annoyed” then you may, but you would still be wrong.

    It’s as mindlessly annoying as somebody insisting that everybody deep down really loves Guy Sebastian’s music but is unwilling to admit for fear of looking uncool – and as likely to get a grumpy response.

  13. February 13th, 2005 at 22:47 | #13

    Rafe –

    “Peter Munz has unparalleled qualifications for this assignment because he is the only person who was a student with both XXXX and Wittgenstein, moreover he is one of the few people still alive who witnessed the non-debate at Cambridge in 1946.”

    I took the point of the book by Edmonds & Eidinow to be that, despite the presence at that meeting between Wittgenstein and Popper of so many eminent philosophers (including Russell), opinions differed markedly — then and subsequently — as to what actually took place. So Munz’s presence at the meeting may actually undermine his credibility on the matter (of the W-P meeting) rather than add to it, if you believe E&E.

    Witness unreliability is mother’s milk for lawyers, but seems to be a novel concept for philosophers. :-)

  14. February 14th, 2005 at 00:51 | #14

    Humans geneticly evolved from mammals and share the same tendency to follow Alpha-males ie top-dogs in the pack.
    They also have a generic tendency to seek paths to progress, including posthumous (ie spiritual rather than carnal) progress.
    Finally humans have a deep need for a caring or kindred cosmos, perhaps related to our long period of childhood development when we are dependent on parents.
    None of these tendencies is explicitly or necessarily supernatural or religious. But it is easy to see how they could become religious when combined with the sub-rational human tendency to seek simple and comforting explanations for the deep mysteries of the world.

  15. kyangadac
    February 14th, 2005 at 02:55 | #15

    The thing that people tend to forget about evolutionary theory, is that it depends upon what went on before. There is never a tabula rasa. So Rafe’s comments regarding Peter Munz makes sense. Sharks are ancient predators, who have, by not changing, affected the evolutionary fate of a lot of other sea-creatures, that have evolved in the mean time..

  16. Tom Davies
    February 14th, 2005 at 07:40 | #16

    Andrew, I think atheists give an impression of dogma when they say ‘I can no more believe in God than…’. Better to say ‘I no more and no less believe in God than that there is a teapot orbiting Uranus’ (or whatever unlikely but well-defined fact you choose—perhaps the teapot is a bad one, as I expect there will be teapot orbiting Uranus at some point in the future).

  17. February 14th, 2005 at 07:54 | #17

    The god-botherers tend to have a higher breeding rate and reproductive frequency (more kids and sooner). Thus they will tend to out-breed the god-forsakers. (compare Palestine to Israel).
    This “demographic differential� is already occurring in Red State America, which partially accounts for the long term shift back towards cultural conservatism (Decline of the Wets) in the USA.

    I’m putting my faith (the non-religious type) in the capacity of the young to be revoltin’.

  18. February 14th, 2005 at 09:28 | #18

    Andrew — 13/2/2005 @ 9:40 pm fabricates a “Jack Strocchi” suit out of whole cloth:

    I can’t believe Jack Strocchi threw out that old chestnut “Athiests are deeply religious because they say they don’t believe in any religion and that is a religious stance therefore they are religious.�

    …test]
    I said that atheism, like theism, is a “metaphysical dogma”. I did not say that atheism is a religion. No doubt it is less blatantly irrational than theism. But it is no more scientific since atheism is, like theism, an unfalsifiable proposition. One cannot prove a negative.
    In recent history most atheists have abnegated themselves to bureaucratic officials with more gusto than any theist has towards ecclesiastic authority. And it is hard to see most modern atheistic ideologies having much more intellectual value than, say, the theologies of St Augustine or St Thomas.
    And of course, modern ideological warfare, based on race nationalism or class socialism, has greatly exceeded in ferocity most sectarian warfare.

  19. James Farrell
    February 14th, 2005 at 10:23 | #19

    Jack at Comment 14 has it about right regarding the springs of religion in universal human instincts. Since traditional religions generally have specific doctrinal contents that clash with scientific discoveries, these religions are bound to lose adherents as people become more educated. The instincts are channeled elsewhere, whether to new age mumbo jumbo, demagoguic political leaders, pop stars, activist causes or whatever.

    What seems to me much more interesting is the question whether there is some significant discontinuous genetic variation that makes some, including highly educated, people subject to mystical experiences. It seems to me that an educated person who relies on reason and evidence for evidence for everything else, could only really believe in God if they had some personal experience that they couldn’t otherwise explain – voices, strange lights, an out-of-body episode, an unaccountable sense of joy, or something they could take to be evidence from God.

    A Compass program a few months back reported an experiment in which brain activity in response to certain ‘spiritual’ stimuli was much higher for one group of randomly selected subjects than another. The same group overwhelmingly identified themselves as religious. This prompted the hypothesis that the higher susceptibilty to mystical experience was associated with a specific gene allele. I wasn’t really qualified to judge in terms of scientific method, but I’d have to say I found this plausible.

  20. February 14th, 2005 at 10:34 | #20

    I wish I could say that religious people are mystically minded and areligious people are mechanically minded. That would clear the whole matter up by putting each side of the debate into a clearly marked seperate box.
    Unfortunately the division lies within, not between, the human mind. The greatest mechanics of all time (Newton, Bohr) managed to combine a fair bit of mysticism with mechanism in their outlook.
    The phenomenon of religious belief seems to be based on the dicordant aspects of our bi-cameral brain and the human ability to simultaneously hold contradictory propositions. This double-think allows us to believe in Big Brother at one time and then live without Him for the rest.
    Or it may be that some humans are gifted with a sixth or seventh sense which enables them to experience the supernatural. Psychic experience would contradict everything we know about physics but, who knows, it might be real.

  21. February 14th, 2005 at 10:46 | #21

    I would like, for once, to turn the intellectual blowtorch onto Pr Q. He seems to enjoy poking fun at his straw men or pop versions of Evo-Psycho, whilst studiously ignoring or misconstruing its more intellectually formidable Socio-Bio ancestor.(No pixils representing Pr Hamilton ever stain Pr Q’s blog.)
    If Pr Q thinks that the Research Programs of E-P, or S-B, are a crock can he tell us if he is a True Believer in the Socio-Constructivist philosophy. Does he believe that human attitudes and cognitive aptitudes are mostly socio-acquired rather than significantly bio-inherited?
    This unreconstructed constructivist philosophy seems to inform the recent pee-cee show-trial of Pr Larry Summers, which forced him to back-down in a most humiliating way. Is Pr Q on the intellectual side of his esteemed professional colleague or Pr S’s political inquisitors?

  22. February 14th, 2005 at 11:14 | #22

    From the Kristof article:

    Dr. Hamer even identifies a particular gene, VMAT2, that he says may be involved. People with one variant of that gene tend to be more spiritual, he found, and those with another variant to be less so….

    And how the hell would you measure “spiritual-ness�, anyway? Something like the Scientologist’s “e-meter�, perhaps?

    …There’s still plenty of reason to be skeptical because Dr. Hamer’s work hasn’t been replicated

    Gee, how surprising.

  23. James Farrell
    February 14th, 2005 at 11:32 | #23

    ‘…how the hell would you measure “spiritual-nessâ€?, anyway?’

    Helen, are you saying that identifying it or quantifying it is impossible even in principle? If you are at all curious about the matter, this sounds rather defeatist.

    I’ve just made reference to an experiment relating to brain activity, which I assume you can’t fake, and self-identification as religious. Maybe this particular experiment can be discredited, but no one has convinced me that the notion of some people being inherently spiritual in some sense is self-evidently ludicrous.

  24. John Quiggin
    February 14th, 2005 at 14:54 | #24

    Jack, I’ll respond if you’ll promise never again to write “pee-cee”!

  25. February 14th, 2005 at 15:40 | #25

    Taking up comment 19 by James, there are almost certainly personality types that are more likely to turn to religion than others (or to certain types of religion), and there is a massive literature on the topic, also on the topic of mystical experiences and the way they have been sought by meditation, rituals and ascetic practices including fasting and self flagellation, and more recently by the use of drugs. But none of that supports the notion that there is any kind of genetic basis to specific religous or political beliefs.
    This comment has been screened to eliminate names that give offence to cs.

  26. Andrew Reynolds
    February 14th, 2005 at 15:47 | #26

    If you believe in the theory of evolution (as I hasten to point out I do) how can the persistence of religious belief in human societies be accounted for except through some advantage it confers on the believers? If atheism (or agnosticism) was better then, surely, religious belief would have died out as it is inherently economically wasteful – building a church / mosque / synagogue feeds no-one.
    If the ‘gene’ or tendency to believe and therefore to waste time on non-productive activities was counter-productive it would have died out eons ago. Self-evidently, it has not. Logically, therefore, it must convey an advantage that more than counter-balances the negative economic effects. That could well be the tendency to have more children.
    Another question would be why, in the West and Middle East at least, has the number of Gods worshipped tended to decline over time? Polytheism has largely been wiped out for some considerable time throughout most of the area. Perhaps this is because the benefits of having a God (if we assume the previous argument to be correct) are maintained by only having a single God with the added benefit of only needing one set of worship infrastructure.

  27. February 14th, 2005 at 16:07 | #27

    Comment 24: John Quiggin — 14/2/2005 @ 2:54 pm drives a hard, but fair, bargain:

    Jack, I’ll respond if you’ll promise never again to write “pee-cee�!

    …test]
    I herewith forgo the right to use the annoying “pee-cee” expression if Pr Q stops being so coy about where he stands in relation to the Nature (bio-inheritive)/Nurture (socio-acquisitive) debate.
    PS Of course I continue to reserve the right to use assoicated multi-culti, po-mo and id-pol expressions where and when I see fit.

  28. February 14th, 2005 at 17:39 | #28

    Speaking as a champion of secular humanism in reply to Andrew at 26, the reason for the persistence of religion is a combination of (a) a human need for a broad metaphysical framework and (b) the religions got there first.
    I can envisage a change in this situation but to explain more would mean posting names that would give offence to cs. Also I have to take the dog for a walk.
    But for preliminary reading check out a paper by Radnitzky that I have put on line in Catallaxy.
    http://badanalysis.com/catallaxy/index.php?p=613
    Regrettably it has not been screened so I must warn cs that it is XXX rated, containing references to both XXXX and XXXXX.

  29. John Quiggin
    February 14th, 2005 at 17:59 | #29

    Ok, Jack, it’s a deal, though I’d be keen to kill off multi-culti as well.

    To start with, I think Hamilton makes a pretty good case against group selection (at least in its naive mode). I also think that the sociobiology research program has been fairly successful as applied to animals.

    The crucial reason for this success that does not imply similar potential for humans is that animals can normally be assumed to have evolved to fit their current environment. So, if a trait is asserted to be adaptive in particular circumstances arising in that environment, this assertion can in principle be tested. By contrast, the environment in which humans evolved is unknown and probably unknowable. What this means is that speculation about the evolutionary basis of particular behaviours is just that.

    Coming to the Nature-nurture debate, the obvious problem for me is that it is usually ill-posed. It’s often supposed that we are talking, in some sense, about how much of what we are is determined by genes and how much by environment.

    But most of the time, what we are talking about is how much of the difference between one person and another, or one group and another, is determined by nature and how much by nurture.
    This kind of question has no general answer, since it depends on how different the genetic endowment and the environments are, and how much this matters to the trait in question.

    From all the above, I hope you get the point that my main concerns are about methodology rather than about taking sides on a question that rarely makes sense.

  30. February 14th, 2005 at 19:00 | #30

    Jack, you say (post 20):

    “I wish I could say that religious people are mystically minded and areligious people are mechanically minded. That would clear the whole matter up by putting each side of the debate into a clearly marked seperate box.

    Unfortunately the division lies within, not between, the human mind. The greatest mechanics of all time (Newton, Bohr) managed to combine a fair bit of mysticism with mechanism in their outlook.”

    This expresses a basic misunderstanding of Newton’s mind and ethos. There was no internal division within his mind between the mystic and mechanistic. On the contrary, he was looking for the laws of Nature precisely because he thought these were the laws of God. It is not that the two sides were mixed up inside him; rather there was only one side.

    It is a peculiarly Western and perhaps also 20th century phenomenon to make a distinction between mysticism and mechanism. Newton certainly didn’t, and nor did his contemporaries. The pursuit of what we now call scientific knowledge was a religious activity for most of them.

  31. James Farrell
    February 14th, 2005 at 19:03 | #31

    Let’s have no fear or favour, John. What irritating practice can I offer to foreswear in exchange for your critique of my pet theory?

  32. Fyodor
    February 14th, 2005 at 19:55 | #32

    Agree with James F., JQ. You sold yourself short on that one.

    You could have wiped out such bloggobbledigook as “Nature (bio-inheritive)/Nurture (socio-acquisitive) debate” while you were at it.

    What was the opportunity cost on that?!!

  33. February 14th, 2005 at 20:49 | #33

    For those that believe religion is for the Nature side of the debate, i ask what of democracy.

    Is there a gene that encodes a desire for democracy? And another one for Communism? Perhaps there is a left wing and right wing gene.

    Or perhaps they are just basic desires, social constructs passed from generation to generation not by nature, but rather through education.

  34. Andrew
    February 14th, 2005 at 22:03 | #34

    There is a common unspoken assumption here that evolutionary theory applies to the cultural as well as the physical.

    Now evolution is a wonderful idea, but there is no good reason to suppose that evolution is the only developmental model possible on earth.

    Religion could well have developed because it is a way to get through a very hard life with full consciousness of death and unfairness and injustice, and still retain hope.

    It may provide absolutely no survival advantage and only exist to make human life more bearable.

    One could parallel the growth in the use of alcohol in the past 10 thousand years with the rise of religions, with both simply acting as a way to get out one’s skull.

  35. February 14th, 2005 at 22:30 | #35

    James Farrell’s right – how would you measure “spiritualness”? The big problem is that a cultural attribute is ascribed a biological cause when it’s clearly demonstrable that “religion” is in itself a construct peculier to Western thought. It’s also changed its meaning over the centuries – in Roman times it meant something like “keeping oaths” and until the Eighteenth century, kept the sense of a set of guidelines or rules for the faithful. Its present sense is really the result of the hardening of theological differences as a result of the Reformation and their rationalisation in response to Enlightenment challenges (though it’s more complex than that). The encounter with the “world religions” also helped generalise the notion.

    In the fifteenth century, for instance, for Europeans, everyone was Catholic. Just was, if they weren’t heretics. Islam wasn’t regarded as a religion at all in our sense, but as a heresy of demonic inspiration.

    Our vogue term of spirituality really also is of recent emergence – it’s a reaction to formalism in religion and a consequence of secularisation.

    Anyone who’s done any reading in the anthropology or sociology of religion would know that the concept is notoriously incapable of tight definition. I’ve posted a number of entries on Troppo on religion and atheism, if anyone wants to read a more extended discussion with references.

    Essentially, religion is a cultural construct. It’s not a cultural or anthropological universal, and its meaning is highly variant individually, culturally and over time. It seems to me a simple matter of logic to observe that such a concept cannot be the result of biological factors. To me, there’s a basic confusion in all this EP stuff. I think it’s just scientific and disciplinary imperialism – since science has taken a beating along with rationality generally over the last few decades, it seems like some scientists wish to restore people’s faith in natural science by colonising the social sciences, without a proper understanding of the latter. If there’d been a moment’s methodological or conceptual reflection, or any knowledge of the social scientific literature on religion, this argument couldn’t even get off the ground.

  36. Andrew
    February 14th, 2005 at 22:41 | #36

    That’s just what I was saying Mark, though I will admit that there was a little more elegance in your post. Alright, and logic and references.

    OTOH I’m quite proud of drawing an analogy between alcohol abuse and religion.

  37. February 14th, 2005 at 23:31 | #37

    Andrew, you might be interested in Aldous Huxley’s book Moksha in which he makes a similar point – the use of intoxicants and religion both appear to be attempts to transcend our limitations as well as our miseries. So it’s a good point!

  38. February 15th, 2005 at 01:24 | #38

    James Farrell — 14/2/2005 @ 7:03 pm records a revealing usage:

    Let’s have no fear or favour, John…in exchange for your critique of my pet theory?

    …test]
    Pet Theory? The Nature/Nurture dispute is not exactly “my pet theory”, since this debate has underlayed the great ideological battles within post-Enlightenment modernity. This is between those conservative-liberals who think that humans have a (mostly) natural identity that is biologically inheritable and those progressive-liberals who think that humans have a (mostly) nurtural identity that is sociologically acquired. Most sentient students of the debate (excluding poor old Fyodor of course) are aware of this dichotomy.
    What I find astounding is that progressive-liberals, during the past generations cultural revolution, managed to convince so many people that the socio-acquistive philosophy was both a true depiction of reality and a valid prescription for morality. Whilst meanwhile engaging in disgraceful ideological Mau-Mauing of eminent socio-biologists, such as Dawkins, EO Wilson, as rotten sexists, racists, militarists etc.
    To compound this ideological insult with intellectual injury the social progressives found time to engage in their po-mo wank – a philosophy which managed to claim truth and virtue whilst ignoring objective reality and denying absolute morality.
    Meanwhile, back in the real world, better theoretical formulations in biology (by Hamiltonian biologists) and accurate empirical observations in sociology (by original neo-conservative sociologists) made mincemeat of the Blank Slate ideology. Never has there been such a cringe-inducing disparity between elite ideology and elite sci-technology.
    Now the empirical results of the genetic engineering technology and genomic digitising science revolutions are coming in and the social-constructionist game is almost up. Those working at the cutting edge of the sci-tech coal face are showing that human biological nature is significantly heritable & diverse in both physiological and psychological attributes. This is obvious from both popular (New-Sci & Sci-Am) and scholarly (Nature & Science) journals, which I can quote chapter and verse for those willing to endure citational tedium.
    This Nature “Pet Theory” is nowadays not so easily tamed.

  39. February 15th, 2005 at 01:38 | #39

    Of course, now we all know how to get something out of JQ.

    Or will he cut this use of the term I’m putting here?

    (Just kidding. I didn’t put it.)

  40. James Farrell
    February 15th, 2005 at 07:58 | #40

    Jack, if you had read my earlier comments you would see that I have an entirely open mind on this one. You might work on increasing your listening-to-talking ratio. Mark quoted me approvingly but I was actually quoting Helen, whom I then went on to disagree with. And pet theory was the wrong expression: I really just meant favourite topic.

    What I do disagree with is the logic that makes ethnic conflict a biological issue, but let’s not go there again.

  41. February 15th, 2005 at 08:29 | #41

    James Farrell — 15/2/2005 @ 7:58 am berates me fairly.

    You might work on increasing your listening-to-talking ratio.

    test]
    OK, sorry about jumping down your throat. This subject matter is explosive and I have acquired an itchy trigger finger after one or two mischievous encounters.

    What I do disagree with is the logic that makes ethnic conflict a biological issue, but let’s not go there again. .

    …test]
    Lets go there. Ethnic groups are simply extended families of a certain scale and definition. They are partly biologically conserved and partly socially constructed. So ethnic conflict is partly a biological issue alright.
    I dont think ethnic group conflict is biologically inevitable. But it is sociologically more probable than non-ethnic group confict. Under zero-sum social set-ups different families are much more likely to cohere into antagonistic groups. Under positive-sum social set-ups ethnic groups are less likely to engage in race-based antagonism.
    Which is why ethnic politics are so deadly and must be discouraged at all costs by those who favor the Open Society. The aim of liberals, whether conservative or constructive, must be to encourage individualist co-operation and discourage collectivist confrontation ie citizenship rather than kinsmania.

  42. Fyodor
    February 15th, 2005 at 10:50 | #42

    “Lets go there. Ethnic groups are simply extended families of a certain scale and definition. They are partly biologically conserved and partly socially constructed. So ethnic conflict is partly a biological issue alright.”

    Wrong, Jack. Ethnicity is a social, cultural and linguistic construct. There’s some biological input, particularly for demographically isolated societies, but it has been overplayed in the past by persons with very dubious motives. You should be very careful where you’re going.

    I’m glad you’re reading Scientific American, BTW, as you should have come across Carl Zimmer’s article debunking the “science” behind Dean Hamer’s work.

    http://www.carlzimmer.com/articles/2004/articles_2004_hamer.html

    The following was the money quote for me:

    “The field of behavioral genetics is littered with failed links between particular genes and personality traits. These alleged associations at first seemed very strong. But as other researchers tried to replicate them, they faded away into statistical noise. In 1993, for example, a scientist reported a genetic link to male homosexuality in a region of the X chromosome. The report brought a huge media fanfare, but other scientists who tried to replicate the study failed. The scientist’s name was Dean Hamer.”

    I suspect Jack’s credulity is more acquired than genetic.

  43. February 15th, 2005 at 11:47 | #43

    Sorry, James, read the thread too quickly.

  44. James Farrell
    February 15th, 2005 at 12:05 | #44

    Ten Hail Marys, two Our Fathers, and a Glory Be.

  45. February 15th, 2005 at 12:58 | #45

    Benedicite te!

  46. Alex
    February 15th, 2005 at 13:50 | #46

    There may not be a religion gene, but there certainly are a number of successful religious memes – much to the chagrin of Dawkins, I imagine.

  47. February 15th, 2005 at 14:53 | #47

    Fyodor comment #42 posted 15/2/2005 @ 10:50 am shoots himself in the foot again, much to the mirth of this onlooker:

    Wrong, Jack. Ethnicity is a social, cultural and linguistic construct. There’s some biological input, particularly for demographically isolated societies.

    …test]
    Oops. There he goes again. Confirming my statements and then contradicting himself in the same breath. Can we spot the contradiction in Fyodor’s absurd criticism? “Ethncity is a social construct”…[but]…”There’s some biological input”. This is true enough – even banal – and seems to be consistent, almost identical, with my statement that “Ethnic groups are partly biologically conserved and partly socially constructed”. So whats the problem?
    None, just the usual suspect looking for self-love in all the wrong places and tying himself up into knots.
    Fyodor then lets his inner ideological bully come out to play (next he’ll be telling me that he knows where I live!) by adopting a menacing tone:

    [ethnicity] has been overplayed in the past by persons with very dubious motives. You should be very careful where you’re going.

    [test...test...test]
    In substance, this is the precise truth. Although the irony may be a little subtle for Fyodor to grasp. The ethnic lobbies and multiculturalists, with whom Fyodor seems to be such an enthusiastic Wet fellow traveller, have overplayed the politics of ethnicity which is why I am a dead-set against them. Most modern wars are civil wars between ethnic groups. So overplaying ethnicity is the last thing AUS needs if it wants to make a multi-ethnic society work.
    Fyodor then presumes to teach his socio-biological grandmother how to suck scientific eggs:

    you should have come across Carl Zimmer’s article debunking the “science� behind Dean Hamer’s work.

    [test...test...test]
    Fyodor’s ass must still be stinging from the whipping it got from me in the Decline of the Wets debate. So he should know better than to lecture me where I have a home ground advantage. I am well aware of the deficiencies of Hamer’s work. I am not invested in a belief in a “god gene” – and it was naughty of Fyodor to misconstruct my words in this way.
    FWIW, see comment # 14 Jack Strocchi — 14/2/2005 @ 12:51 am for my views on the subject of heritable tendencies for transcendental belief. We have, indubitably, a heritable tendency to believe what our parents/guardians, rotten ethnic con-familials that they are, tell us. They procreated us and have tended to protect us from danger, so this belief will tend to be biologically conserved (the imprinting instinct). It so happens that some of us have transferred our “This World” parental fidelity to faith in an “Other World” Big Parent in the sky who Created us & might save us from the ultimate danger – extinction. This is a comforting thought and, who knows, it might be true.
    It is not in dispute that spiritual belief generally encourages hope in the future and its evolutionary correlates: the will for survival longevity (“live to a ripe old age”) and sexual fecundity (“go forth and multiply”). So its not surprising that codes for it, in biologically generic & culturally specific form, will somehow be conserved. The behavioural force of these codes will weaken, or be co-opted, as technology supercedes theology as our putative saviour.

    The field of behavioral genetics is littered with failed links between particular genes and personality traits.

    …test]
    I share some of Zimmer’s, and Pr Q’s, skepticism about Evo-Psycho “just-so” stories. But I tend towards Socio-Bio approach, which concentrates on human diversities, not identities. So dont blame me.
    Its true that Behavioural Geneticists have overreached occasionally. But any nascent scientific endeavour is bound to have its share of flops. eg Einstein cosmological constant etc
    And it is also true that most genes posited for cognitive traits have not been identified & specifically located. The same charge of lack of reductive resolution could be levelled at the devisor of the orignial table of elements. But that did not stop Mendeleev from tabulating atomic weights and drawing conclusions about their chemical behaviour of the elements.
    Behavioural genetics does have some notable achievements to its credit, particularly the brilliant & pathbreaking work of Hamilton on reciprocal altruism. Is Fyodor saying that Hamilton, a “behavioural geneticist” specialising in ethnic relations alright, is a no-good scientist and rotten racist? This would come as news to Zimmer who has just written an ecnonomium to Hamilton. Perhaps Zimmer has a touch of the Fyodor disease!
    Moreover reductive resolution is on the way. It is false to deny the reality of significant gene-based ethnic diversity. The
    Human Genome Project, and associated molecular genetic studies, proves that human gene-based ethnic differences exist and have persisted through evolutionary eras. This is exactly what Darwinian theory would predict. A few hours perusing this data should be enough to bring Fyodor up to speed with the science of the day, or at least shut him up for a while.
    And the genetic data is yielding scientificly credible results about heritable behaviours.

    Individuals with one or two copies of the short allele of the 5-HT T promoter polymorphism exhibited more depressive symptoms, diagnosable depression, and suicidality in relation to stressful life events than individuals homozygous for the long allele. This epidemiological study thus provides evidence of a gene-by-environment interaction, in which an individual’s response to environmental insults is moderated by his or her genetic makeup.

    …test]
    Capice?
    It is also false to deny, as Fyodor seems to be doing, that ethnic groups do not have significant & systematic heritable differences in action and cognition. The studies on identical twins (ethnic confreres, ok?) prove that there is significant heritability of natural attitudes and aptitudes within breeding pools. There are countless articles using thiscomparative phenotypic methodology in the popular and scholarly journals. Does Fyodor really want to have his nose rubbed in this? And these studies refute Pr Q’s methodological nihilism, er…skepticism in regards to the, somewhat contrived, Nature/Nurture dispute.
    I am as keen to avoid ethnic conflict and promote good will and harmony amongst all men as the next man. But adopting a head in the sand attitude towards the biological reality of ethnic differences is not the way to go. Assuming that the Shiia lamb could lie down with the Suuni lion is what got us into the Iraqi mess. (mea culpa)
    The common factor in all of Fyodor’s criticisms is an overwhelming urge to ideologically moralise which trumps his duty to intellectually realise. I fear that Fyodor’s chronic logical absurdities, if not his empirical ignorance, points to congenital, rather than cultural, retardation. He should not, however, give up hope. No less an authority than the co-discoverer of DNA believes that a cure might be at hand. I refer Fyodor to the eminent
    Dr Watson’s comments on the duty of science to the stupid: “low intelligence is an inherited disorder and that molecular biologists have a duty to devise gene therapies or screening tests to tackle stupidity.”

  48. Fyodor
    February 15th, 2005 at 15:45 | #48

    Granny Jack,

    I always know I’ve beaten you when your response takes up more than a page of text and looks like a hyperactive child has taken hold of the bold button.

    Your response at #14 shows that you’re precisely the kind of credulous clown who accepts dubious theories because they satisfy your prejudice, not because they’ve been scientifically proven.

    As usual the links you’ve provided are:
    a) irrelevant to the argument;
    b) of dubious provenance; and/or
    c) inaccessible.

    Jon Entine’s book is a particularly stupid source for you to cite given he’s a sports journalist with no scientific training whatsoever. He’s clothed simplistic stereotypes with pathetic pop-science. You’re all over the shop on this topic, and embarassing yourself, yet again, with your voluminous “self-love”.

    Capite, buffone?

  49. February 15th, 2005 at 16:49 | #49

    Fyodor — 15/2/2005 @ 3:45 pm resorts to his infantile habit of unilaterally declaring victory rather than letting the facts speak for themselves:

    I always know I’ve beaten you when your response … looks like a hyperactive child has taken hold of the bold button.

    …test]
    Fyodor is projecting again – confusing the source’s intention with the destinations inattention. The bolding is there because Fyodor, in common with persons of a certain hair color, need to have the information punched in twice.
    Fyodor then reveals that his apparent comprehension problems seem to be a sly cover for a mendacious streak in his nature:

    Your response at #14 shows that you’re precisely the kind of credulous clown who accepts dubious theories because they satisfy your prejudice, not because they’ve been scientifically proven.

    t…test]
    I have repeatedly said that I do NOT accept the Hamer’s dubious “god gene” theory, as is. It is a blatant lie for Fyodor to maintain this, although it is apparently pointless to appeal to intellectual ethics where he is concerned.
    In comment #14 took the liberty of proposing my own socio-bio interpretation of the varying persistence of religious belief accross all places and through time. This is my “pet theory” which may or may not be true. But there is no harm in trying it out. What is Fyodor frightened of, a little intellectual free speech?
    Fyodor then promptly puts his foot right back into an orifice which generations of evolution have apparently designed it to fit:

    Jon Entine’s book is a particularly stupid source for you to cite given he’s a sports journalist with no scientific training whatsoever.

    …test]
    The Entine-related link that I provided, if Fyodor cared to read it, was to an article written by Vincent Sarich, one of the worlds foremost molecular biologists – not a sports journalist at all. Sarich would seem to have some “scientific training” alright, although it apparently requires a sharper man than Fyodor to tell. Fyodor’s blunder is actually quite labour saving, from my vindictive pov, since it is self-evidently empirically false and intellectually stupid.
    Fyodor then resorts to the classic gambit of a panicky loser on the run – put up a smokescreen and stall by spinning frivolous source complaints without specification or elaboration:

    As usual the links you’ve provided are:
    a) irrelevant to the argument;
    b) of dubious provenance; and/or
    c) inaccessible.

    …test]
    Lets take Fyodors dodges at face value:
    “a) of Dubious provenance”?
    This is arumentum ad…etc but in any case all sources I linked to were all reputable (what’s wrong with science, nytimes, newscientist, skeptic etc?). Fyodor should cite the dubious sources or retract. I am not holding my breath.
    “c) Inaccessible”?
    Tough. Fyodor should register to Science magazine. Its quick, free and he might learn something.
    “a) irrelevant to the argument;”?
    Here is the money quote from the Sarich article which I hoped to spare the casual reader and which explicitly states the reality of signficant gene-based ethnic differences within the human community:

    what is the degree of racial variation with respect to morphology in humans as compared to other taxa? I answered that question … as follows: “racial morphological distances within our species are, on the average, about equal to the distances among species within other genera of mammals, as, for example, between pygmy and common chimpanzees.
    I am not aware of any other mammalian species where the constituent races are as strongly marked as they are in ours.” To which I should have added “except those few races heavily modified by recent human selection; in particular, dogs.”
    I remain as unaware as I was then of any other mammalian species that exhibits such extensive variation, and I have come to think that there really aren’t any.

    t…test]
    Kind of relevant to the evo-psycho debate and shoots Fyodor’s “ethnicity is a social construct” theory down in flames doesn’t it? A more satisfying refutation it would be hard to dream up. It does not get any better than that.
    This would settle the debate for a person of normal intellectual capacities. But remember we are dealing with a person (Fyodor) who thinks Cultural Progressive personnel, parties & policies have not really suffered a signficant decline in electoral support in OECD states over the past decade (furing the Cultural Dry era of Le Pen, Hanson, Howard, Gingrich, who, according to Fyodor, are all closet Cultural Wets or maybe dont exist.)
    With friends like Fyodor, the Wets dont need enemies.

  50. February 15th, 2005 at 17:26 | #50

    Having re-read the Jack Strocchi’s comment #49, posted 15/2/2005 @ 4:49 pm, I feel that some parts of it were gratuitously nasty. So I retract the rude things I said, the aspersions cast about Fyodor’s character (mendacious etc).
    Of course my intellectual differences with him remain. But I sense that these are probably not as chasmic and cataclysimic as some of the more incendiary passages of our rhetorical exchanges seem to indicate.
    The moderator might want to referee contested points, but he has probably got a life beyond these tremendous trifles…

  51. Andrew
    February 15th, 2005 at 21:07 | #51

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

  52. Irant
    February 15th, 2005 at 21:32 | #52

    Speaking of EP……….

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

    http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000814.html

  53. February 16th, 2005 at 14:32 | #53

    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..

  54. James Farrell
    February 16th, 2005 at 16:22 | #54

    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.

  55. February 17th, 2005 at 15:17 | #55

    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.

  56. February 18th, 2005 at 12:50 | #56

    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”.

  57. foucault focker
    February 18th, 2005 at 18:01 | #57

    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.

  58. November 1st, 2005 at 21:12 | #58

    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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