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Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous? 
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Post Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Every once in a while the timing of something will knock me out. I was driving home from work today listening, as I aways do, to WAMU public radio and the next radio spot is introduced: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous? I know it is not exactly what Wright is talking about -- at least not as far as I've read -- but it is damn close. I found the the conclusions reached by the scientist interview very convincing.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/stor ... 6&ft=1&f=2



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Saffron wrote:
Every once in a while the timing of something will knock me out. I was driving home from work today listening, as I aways do, to WAMU public radio and the next radio spot is introduced: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous? I know it is not exactly what Wright is talking about -- at least not as far as I've read -- but it is damn close. I found the the conclusions reached by the scientist interview very convincing.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/stor ... 6&ft=1&f=2



Stop the press! I woke up this morning thinking about this radio spot and it occurred to me that the great apes cooperate, and in fact, many other animals live in groups and exhibit behaviors that imply a kind of cooperation. I better back up a step. The researcher in the piece conjectures that belief in an omnipresent presence (g/God) encourages people to follow rules, which facilitates cooperation. What I wonder is if humans really cooperate any better than the great apes. I don't think they believe in a god. :)



Tue Aug 31, 2010 6:02 am
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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
I think the researcher is positing that the amount of cooperation in the human world is on a larger scale than anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

It is an interesting article and an interesting idea. I don't know if I'm sold on it - I think that man, as his cognitive powers increased, his need for explanation also increased. Thus Gods were born to explain a complicated world that couldn't possibly be understood by early minds (and still largely isn't, I would say). However, I think he has some valid points. I have also shared that superstitious feeling of being watched (or thwarted) by some sort of presence. My logical brain then kicks on and gets all sulky, but definitely I've had that happen. Personally I chalk it up to a religious early childhood. But perhaps there is something to his claims. I would definitely be interested in hearing more as more studies are done.


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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
The concept of god invokes a mechanism we've evolved during tribal days, when our social group consisted of around 120ish people who we were acquainted with. The mechanism is the mixture of pride, shame, embarrassment, guilt, etc. that are feedback mechanisms for our behavior. Typically, an agent is needed to invoke these emotions. Such as your mother, your friend, or even anyone whom you're acquainted with.

In moving to larger groups of people, we're often left with only a few external influences that would invoke our emotions. Public humiliation at getting caught, of course. (We don't want our family to see us on the news), which means legal enforcement. Religion fills that need as well. Studies were done where people were placed in a position that allowed them to make a small moral decision. Such as how much money to tip a certain person. It was found that when the people were reminded that god was watching them, they acted more morally. Unfortunately, when they were reminded in some way of their mothers, they also acted more morally. I can search for the study if you'd like.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
I heard about the NPR segment last night and listened to it this morning. Saffron is right, it's very timely considering our discussion of TEoG. Robert Wright has helped to popularize evolutionary psychology, especially in The Moral Animal. He shows how what we loosely call morality developed through natural selection. But when it comes to religion, he doesn't go along with some of the evolutionary psychologists, who believe that religion itself, which would have been subsequent to morality, gave groups an advantage over others, which eventually led to an entire species that was attuned to a supernatural moral voice. Wright talks about the evolution of religion and God, but he doesn't believe that this evolution goes hand in hand with humans being able to thrive as a species. He just thinks that religion has evolved in a way analogous to how organisms evolve physically through natural selection. At the time when Wright picks up the human narrative, with the hunter-gatherer groups of the Neolithic, evolution is essentially over, he thinks; we have reached the stage of development we're at now, and it wasn't belief in the supernatural that helped us get there.

The psychologist in the radio piece thinks differently. If you listen to it, you'll see that he observes that the tendency to conceive of a moral judge somewhere outside of us is universal, so that even atheists, he says, have this sense of being judged. Freud would later invent the secular term "superego." This trait was selected until it became universal because it was a quite efficient way to keep people in line, more so than the old way of having a chief or somebody else mete out the punishment. God could do it instead, with less tendency for grudges to form on the part of the offenders. The trait was also great for increasing social cooperation between people who barely knew each other, essential when societies became agricultural and more complex. You acted in the proper manner because somebody up there was watching you.

It's interesting that Wright himself, in the Bill Moyers interview, mentioned having this feeling of being judged. He attributed it, though, to his past experience as a Baptist. Our psychologist would say that is simply the naturally selected trait that all of us now have, regardless of whether we've maintained a specific religion.



Last edited by DWill on Tue Aug 31, 2010 12:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
DWill wrote:
I heard about the NPR segment last night and listened to it this morning. Saffron is right, it's very timely considering our discussion of TEoG. Robert Wright has helped to popularize evolutionary psychology, especially in The Moral Animal. He shows how what we loosely call morality developed through natural selection. But when it comes to religion, he doesn't go along with some of the evolutionary psychologists, who believe that religion itself, which would have been subsequent to morality, gave groups an advantage over others, which eventually led to an entire species that was attuned to a supernatural moral voice. Wright talks about the evolution of religion and God, but he doesn't believe that this evolution goes hand in hand with humans being able to thrive as a species. He just thinks that religion has evolved in a way analogous to how organisms evolve physically through natural selection. At the time when Wright picks up the human narrative, with the hunter-gatherer groups of the Neolithic, evolution is essentially over, he thinks; we have reached the stage of development we're at now, and it wasn't belief in the supernatural that helped us get there.

The psychologist in the radio piece thinks differently. If you listen to it, you'll see that he observes that the tendency to conceive of a moral judge somewhere outside of us is universal, so that even atheists, he says, have this sense of being judged. Freud would later invent the secular term "superego." This trait was selected until it became universal because it was a quite efficient way to keep people in line, more so than the old way of having a chief or somebody else mete out the punishment. God could do it instead, with less tendency for grudges to form on the part of the offenders. The trait was also great for increasing social cooperation between people who barely knew each other, essential when societies became agricultural and more complex. You acted in the proper manner because somebody up there was watching you.

It's interesting that Wright himself, in the Bill Moyers interview, mentioned having this feeling of being judged. He attributed it, though, to his past experience as a Baptist. Our psychologist would say that is simply the naturally selected trait that all of us now have, regardless of whether we've maintained a specific religion.


Sorry I haven't been part of this discussion lately, but you know real life gets in the way sometimes. Likewise, I haven't heard this NPR show yet, but I will do so later. But it sounds like from what DWill is saying--in particular the bolded part--is what psychologist Bruce Hood calls a "Supersense," also the title of his book.

Hood explains: Plato first described it and Richard Dawkins points out such “essential thinking” as a major hurdle to understanding natural selection. These beliefs form part of our sense that there are hidden dimensions and forces operating in the natural world. It’s our “SuperSense.”

Where do such beliefs come from and why do most of us have them? I think that it’s partly to do with believing what we are told but I also think there is another more personal reason.

Humans are born with brains designed to make sense of the world and that sometimes leads to beliefs that go beyond any natural explanation. To be true they would have to be supernatural. With scientific education children can learn that such beliefs are irrational but because they operate at an intuitive level they can either be resistant to reason or lie dormant in otherwise sensible adults.

Therefore it is unlikely that any effort to get rid of supernatural beliefs, or the superstitious behaviors that accompany them, will be entirely successful. We are inclined from the start to think that there are unseen patterns, forces and essences inhabiting the world.


http://brucemhood.wordpress.com/about-supersense/

NOTE: Weird. The book used to be called Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. Now it's called The Science of Superstition.

Oh and back to topic, Hood believes that our Supersense, though not very rational, ultimately gives our lives meaning. It "shapes our intuitions and superstitions and is essential to the way we learn to understand the world and in binding us together as a society."

Don't know if that's evolutionarily advantageous or not. But I would argue that to know ourselves--an important part of critical thinking--we should at least be cognizant of the fact that our brains are wired, on an intuitive level, to accept the existence of an "unseen order."


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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
You've added a wrinkle to an increasingly interesting discussion (and nominated a book for us as well, I think). It appears to be a weird position natural selection has placed us in, if we can assume for the moment that Jesse Bering (the psychologist on the NPR segment) is correct and natural selection has given us this "supersense" of being watched over by a moral presence. It's weird because, if we also assume that such a presence is an illusion, natural selection has duped us, all so that we can pass on our silly genes--since according to Bering individuals who have the supersense are better at passing on those genes.

Wright is a materialist, but not a very doctrinaire one. He wants to acknowledge that although the history of God is the history of an illusion, in the sense of the particular character that all the different religions have given to their gods, the very existence of all this effort to describe the divinity might indicate that there is some kind of divinity! At least, it's pretty hard to rule it out. I take it that the supersense thesis would shut off the escape route that Wright leaves open. But I'm not entirely sure of understanding the implications of Hood's idea.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
DWill wrote:
You've added a wrinkle to an increasingly interesting discussion (and nominated a book for us as well, I think). It appears to be a weird position natural selection has placed us in, if we can assume for the moment that Jesse Bering (the psychologist on the NPR segment) is correct and natural selection has given us this "supersense" of being watched over by a moral presence. It's weird because, if we also assume that such a presence is an illusion, natural selection has duped us, all so that we can pass on our silly genes--since according to Bering individuals who have the supersense are better at passing on those genes.


It might make more sense from Dawkins' gene-centric perspective. If we are our genes' "survival machines," then it follows that our genes will do whatever they can to ensure their longevity through the generations. The very fact that we do have a genetic predisposition for belief in an external entity seems to indicate that this was evolutionarily advantageous at one time. But again, we should take into account the problem of time lag: that we are perfectly evolved creatures for conditions as they were some 10,000 or 20,000 years ago. We can very well question whether this inclination is still evolutionarily advantageous, especially when you consider the kinds of rapid change taking place in our world that moves much too fast for the forces of natural selection.

Quote:
Wright is a materialist, but not a very doctrinaire one. He wants to acknowledge that although the history of God is the history of an illusion, in the sense of the particular character that all the different religions have given to their gods, the very existence of all this effort to describe the divinity might indicate that there is some kind of divinity! At least, it's pretty hard to rule it out. I take it that the supersense thesis would shut off the escape route that Wright leaves open. But I'm not entirely sure of understanding the implications of Hood's idea.


Wright seems a bit wishy washy to me in this respect. In Ch. 1, he mentions H.L. Mencken and William James. Mencken sees religion as self-serving, saying that "its single function is to give man access to the powers which seem to control his destiny, and its single purpose is to induce these powers to be friendly with him . . ." while James writes that religion "consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

I was a bit surprised that Wright sees one premise of this book as being "a movement from Mencken to James." The problem I have here is that there is no evidence for James' "unseen order." On the contrary, evidence suggests that such a belief may very well be based solely on an adaptive trait and one that is probably past its due date. And so the idea of harmoniously adjusting ourselves to an "unseen order" is problematic at best. And at the worst it is delusional. How is it different than relying on a shaman to do a dance that makes bad spirits interfere with our enemies? Though clearly some folks derive meaning and comfort from the idea of an "unseen order", I don't think it's wise to pretend that our morality comes from such a nebulous place or that we can make important decisions based on such fanciful beliefs.

Wright says somewhere that religion has to change in order to continue being relevant to "intellectually-robust" people. And I do believe there is a reason for that clear separation between science and religion. Because there's the real world and then there's the "unseen order" whose existence rests solely on a belief.


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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
The main evolutionary advantage of believing in God is that it enables us to be a part of a bigger whole. If everyone in a community assents to the same idea, then that community will be more powerful and robust. Common assent enables trust, and also allows moral lessons to be distilled and conveyed without having to be learned again. Just as fish benefit by schooling, because isolated fish are vulnerable to predators, people benefit by accepting a common doctrine.

The problem now is that pre-scientific concepts of God have been shown to be empirically false, and so cannot command the same faith they did before the rise of science. Religion needs to evolve into a new form that enables a common sense of meaning, purpose and belonging in a way that is compatible with modern understanding of truth. The idea that we can simply dispense with religion is wrong, because religion meets deep emotional needs. These needs can either be met by claims that are true or by claims that are false. It is vastly more preferable to build community on a basis of truth, because delusion is harmful and unsustainable.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
The main evolutionary advantage of believing in God is that it enables us to be a part of a bigger whole.

In Wright's terms, this couldn't be an evolutionary advantage, since this belief in a unified sort of god didn't come about until after we had the cultural tools that made further physical evolution moot.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Which of Wright's terms? The entirety of the evolution of God has occurred in the blink of an eye in physical evolutionary terms. Human genes are basically the same now as they were before God was conceived. The evolution of God has been memetic, illustrating how memetic advantage follows the same principles as genetic advantage (eg herd behaviour).



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Which of Wright's terms? The entirety of the evolution of God has occurred in the blink of an eye in physical evolutionary terms. Human genes are basically the same now as they were before God was conceived. The evolution of God has been memetic, illustrating how memetic advantage follows the same principles as genetic advantage (eg herd behaviour).

I didn't realize that by "evolutionary" you weren't referring to natural selection, but to cultural evolution.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
DWill wrote:
I didn't realize that by "evolutionary" you weren't referring to natural selection, but to cultural evolution.
Are you suggesting that cultural evolution does not obey natural selection? Dawkins and Darwin rightly see natural selection as the universal law of life. Wright, including with the very title of his book, accepts this scientific premise. Culture is part of nature and obeys its laws. The evolution of God is memetic rather than genetic. It may seem that humans have escaped the confines of nature, but this is an illusion.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
DWill wrote:
I didn't realize that by "evolutionary" you weren't referring to natural selection, but to cultural evolution.
Are you suggesting that cultural evolution does not obey natural selection? Dawkins and Darwin rightly see natural selection as the universal law of life. Wright, including with the very title of his book, accepts this scientific premise. Culture is part of nature and obeys its laws. The evolution of God is memetic rather than genetic. It may seem that humans have escaped the confines of nature, but this is an illusion.

Robert, I do have a problem with the concept that culture evolves in the same way as natural selection. The whole idea of memes in the way that you present them is problematic for me. The way I have seen the idea of meme used is more of a descriptor of how an idea spreads -- very simular to how a virus spreads through a community or even the world. I just can not make the leap that you make, that memes are the method that culture replicates itself.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
It seems to me that cultural evolution is an offshoot of biological evolution and, more specifically, of language. Essentially we evolved the ability to culturally evolve. I can think of an example from the animal kingdom as well. Some dolphins off the coast of South Carolina have learned a technique known as "strand fishing." The dolphins chase fish into the shallows where they become easy prey. It is supposedly a learned behavior, thus cultural-based. Probably many if not most cooperative behaviors are cultural-based.

http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/N ... poise.aspx


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