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Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous? 
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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
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I just can not make the leap that you make, that memes are the method that culture replicates itself.


The darwinian algorithm is there. Culture doesn't replicate itself, we replicate it. But we didn't de-select misfits from our gene pool as cave men, our environment did. The idea of memes is an excellent one, but problematic. The environment that provides selection pressure is nothing less than the collective of participating human minds. Which is an environment that is impossible to fully understand. Therefore the concept of memetics will be impossible to fully study. But that does not mean the algorithm doesn't apply. Indeed, we can see and study many different cases of memetic spreading, but only the most obvious since the complexity of the 'environment' is a limiting factor.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
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I just can not make the leap that you make, that memes are the method that culture replicates itself.


The darwinian algorithm is there. Culture doesn't replicate itself, we replicate it. But we didn't de-select misfits from our gene pool as cave men, our environment did. The idea of memes is an excellent one, but problematic. The environment that provides selection pressure is nothing less than the collective of participating human minds. Which is an environment that is impossible to fully understand. Therefore the concept of memetics will be impossible to fully study. But that does not mean the algorithm doesn't apply. Indeed, we can see and study many different cases of memetic spreading, but only the most obvious since the complexity of the 'environment' is a limiting factor.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Saffron wrote:
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.


Hi Saffron, I think this issue of memes is at the nub of the radicality in Wright's thesis in The Evolution of God. He offers a materialist natural scientific explanation for religion. This is something that religious people who see religion as derived from divine revelation cannot accept on principle. For all his politeness, Wright is an atheist, explaining cognition in terms that are logically cognate with physics.

DWill and I have debated memes for several years. It is worth looking into the logical framework of the memetic thesis to investigate at what point people find it problematic. The two contrasting lines of attack are the religious argument that memes are unacceptable because culture transcends nature, and the scientific argument that memes are wrong because culture does not evolve by natural selection.

According to the index, Wright mentions memes on pages 15, 66 and 462-476. The first mention, in The Primordial Faith, says according to "cultural evolutionism ... 'memes' - rituals, beliefs and other basic elements of culture - spread by appealing to non-rational parts of human nature" (p15). I think Wright identifies himself as a cultural evolutionist, so he is endorsing the meme theory here.

My view is that part of why this idea is disturbing is that we naturally can and must assume that culture transcends nature as a basis of our freedom, but this assumption is ultimately wrong. When our culture takes off down a path that is in some way physically incompatible with our material survival, then eventually this cultural path will prove unsustainable and will stop. You cannot do things that are not possible. Natural selection exists as a correcting and regulating mechanism for culture.

Another feature of memetics that I find intuitively attractive is the evolutionary theme of cumulative adaptation as an explanation for cultural change. Evolution progresses by precedent, taking small steps which build upon what has gone before. Just as large mutations always fail, large cultural shifts are problematic. Cultural change is evolutionary, so any new idea must establish continuity if it is to succeed. This memetic view is still compatible with Hegel's theory of cultural evolution as proceeding by thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Ideas for change naturally produce a reaction, and then the idea and its opposite eventually combine in some way as a synthesis which becomes a new higher thesis.

The meme of God has proven extraordinarily adaptive over the last few thousand years as a strategy for cultural evolution, including by making people think they are above nature. The god meme produced the atheist antithesis, and we are now seeing emergence of a synthesis in natural explanations for the evolution of God.
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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Natural selection exists as a correcting and regulating mechanism for culture.


Until it doesn't.


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Wed Sep 01, 2010 6:54 pm
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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.

As I've opined before, culture definitely does not obey natural selection. We have to wall off a materialist theory--natural selection--from what would be a non-materialist application of it to the mutations of culture. We use words like "mutation" and "evolution" as common rather than as scientific words all the time, and I believe it's clear that's what Wright is doing in his title. His few references to memes don't change this, and wouldn't even if he actually relied on the term. Even Dawkins doesn't claim that memes are naturally selected. Don't know if you listened to the NPR segment I posted a link to, on what appears to be the current definition of meme. I can agree with the definition given because it makes the meme a discrete unit, in line with the original idea of its being the smallest unit of cultural transmission. But then there came to be constructions called "memeplexes," which frankly sounds like nonsense to me. Memes don't explain anything, anyway. The concept of an idea that spreads quickly and can be seen in retrospect to have been successful, was already present before the meme.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
I'd also like to thank everyone for joining in this discussion and DW twice for the post two up from this one!


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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
DWill wrote:
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.

As I've opined before, culture definitely does not obey natural selection. We have to wall off a materialist theory--natural selection--from what would be a non-materialist application of it to the mutations of culture. We use words like "mutation" and "evolution" as common rather than as scientific words all the time, and I believe it's clear that's what Wright is doing in his title. His few references to memes don't change this, and wouldn't even if he actually relied on the term. Even Dawkins doesn't claim that memes are naturally selected. Don't know if you listened to the NPR segment I posted a link to, on what appears to be the current definition of meme. I can agree with the definition given because it makes the meme a discrete unit, in line with the original idea of its being the smallest unit of cultural transmission. But then there came to be constructions called "memeplexes," which frankly sounds like nonsense to me. Memes don't explain anything, anyway. The concept of an idea that spreads quickly and can be seen in retrospect to have been successful, was already present before the meme.


Ah, but to make this postulate you assume that culture cannot be explained in material terms, that culture has what creationists call an "irreducible complexity". This argument that humanity transcends nature is central to religious concepts but is in direct conflict with science. The effort to make culture cognate with nature, to work towards a consistent and coherent vision of reality, must assume that universal processes governing nature also govern culture, because at the end of the day culture is part of nature. What this means is that the basic theory of life, natural selection, governs everything that is alive. The illusion that we can dominate or ignore nature may seem to be true for centuries or millennia, but the further we drift away from a path that adapts to nature the more likely we will become extinct. Natural selection is the 'unseen order' that James defined as governing religious experience. The reconciliation between human culture and natural selection is what Christians call Judgment Day.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Thu Sep 02, 2010 1:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Saffron wrote:
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.

That's what I wish I'd said long before this, that for me "meme" can be a descriptor but it has little resonance, no reach beyond that of some other common words we could substitute. I think that in the case of the word "gene," matters are different. We see the word and know that it trails a whole science behind it--even if we understand that science imperfectly. Those in Robert's camp have the same thing going on when the word "meme" comes up; they see it as containing a whole scientific context and therefore the word is more than a mere descriptor. But for me, alas, genetically means something, whereas memetically means nothing.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
Ah, but to make this postulate you assume that culture cannot be explained in material terms, that culture has what creationists call an "irreducible complexity". This argument that humanity transcends nature is central to religious concepts but is in direct conflict with science. The effort to make culture cognate with nature, to work towards a consistent and coherent vision of reality, must assume that universal processes governing nature also govern culture, because at the end of the day culture is part of nature. What this means is that the basic theory of life, natural selection, governs everything that is alive. The illusion that we can dominate or ignore nature may seem to be true for centuries or millennia, but the further we drift away from a path that adapts to nature the more likely we will become extinct. Natural selection is the 'unseen order' that James defined as governing religious experience.

But Robert, I have to object to the method here. There is no relationship whatsoever between my assertion that memes are half-baked science and the creationist belief called irreducible complexity, none. You're trumping up this debate by implying things I never said and don't believe, namely that humans are above nature and not subject to it. The unfolding process of history/culture--indeed the two are hard to separate--cannot be cohesively discussed in terms of neo-Darwinian natural selection. It's just an inadequate tool; it yields no enlightening or interesting answers or questions. For a simple illustration, think of the narrative of rabbit culture in Watership Down, I mean the story Adams tells about the rabbits' relationships and all the events that befall them. Yes, rabbits are creatures that have evolved under natural selection; they still live on the knife-edge of survival that natural selection set them on. But that is not their culture or their history. What happens to them--who they love or hate, accidents that occur, ideas they implement--is a thing, if not unaffected by the operation of natural selection, at least inside it and substantially independent of it. This doesn't mean they are beyond nature, any more than it means that for us. It just means that there are sub-operations that are not subject, at least partly, to any law of nature that we know about. It's not a question of "above" or "beyond' in the hubristic sense that you imply.



Last edited by DWill on Thu Sep 02, 2010 9:21 pm, edited 2 times in total.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
DWill wrote:
There is no relationship whatsoever between my assertion that memes are half-baked science and the creationist belief called irreducible complexity, none. You're trumping up this debate by implying things I never said and don't believe, namely that humans are above nature and not subject to it. The unfolding process of history/culture--indeed the two are hard to separate--cannot be cohesively discussed in terms of neo-Darwinian natural selection. It's just an inadequate tool; it yields no enlightening or interesting answers or questions.
What I am pointing out is the apparent contradiction between the acceptance that humans are within nature and the claim that Darwinism does not help to explain cultural evolution. If culture is entirely within natural processes that evolve by natural selection, then it makes sense to assume that culture evolves by natural selection. We do in fact see the operation of evolutionary principles in culture, for example technology progresses by cumulative adaptation.
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For a simple illustration, think of the narrative of rabbit culture in Watership Down, I mean the story Adams tells about the rabbits' relationships and all the events that befall them. Yes, rabbits are creatures that have evolved under natural selection; they still live on the knife-edge of survival that natural selection set them on. But that is not their culture or their history. What happens to them--who they love or hate, accidents that occur, ideas they implement--is a thing, if not unaffected by the operation of natural selection, at least inside it and substantially independent of it. This doesn't mean they are beyond nature, any more than it means that for us. It just means that there are sub-operations that are not subject, at least partly, to any law of nature that we know about. It's not a question of "above" or "beyond' in the hubristic sense that you imply.
Emotional instinct is not “independent” of nature. Our reactions are predisposed by our genes. Yes we are free to choose, but our freedom is constrained by the statistical probability of our genetic inheritance. The memetic inheritance of learned behaviour obviously changes far faster than genes, and draws from wider sources, but the causal processes are in principle the same. Memetics is a way to say that cause and effect in culture operates on the same template of evolutionary development as cause and effect in genetic reproduction.

When Wright describes the evolution of God, he sees the same natural principles of cumulative adaptation in operation as are described by Dawkins in his description of stability, fecundity and durability as the criteria for genetic success. Memes that are stable, fecund and durable (eg successful doctrines of God) are far more adaptive and widespread than alternatives that lack these qualities.

The emergence of Christian orthodoxy is a good example of a meme that outcompeted its rivals because it was well adapted to its context, regardless of any ultimate truth.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
A good definition of natural law is one that Kauffman got from the physicist Murray Gell-Mann: A compact description, available beforehand, of the regularities of a process. Can you say, in anything but the very general terms you've so far used, how the natural law works that governs culture/history? You have a belief, a conviction, but is that enough?



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
The differential selection of information is a phenomenon that happens no matter what term you use to describe the concept. That the differential selection of information occurs according to parameters makes it a phenomenon that is able to be studied. Such studies aren't currently able to get very far, since the parameters involve the complexities of the human mind. But that doesn't mean some progress can't be made.

We can consider the psychological triggers that cause us to react in different ways to different information. There are documented biases we've evolved that act as parameters to the differential selection of information when we communicate. It's like the weather, it's way too complex to fully understand, but that doesn't mean the process isn't natural.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Interbane wrote:
The differential selection of information is a phenomenon that happens no matter what term you use to describe the concept. That the differential selection of information occurs according to parameters makes it a phenomenon that is able to be studied. Such studies aren't currently able to get very far, since the parameters involve the complexities of the human mind. But that doesn't mean some progress can't be made.
We can consider the psychological triggers that cause us to react in different ways to different information. There are documented biases we've evolved that act as parameters to the differential selection of information when we communicate. It's like the weather, it's way too complex to fully understand, but that doesn't mean the process isn't natural.

Saying that a process is partly outside description by natural law doesn't deny the influence of nature. I guess the key word would be "law." And certainly study is still possible, science is still possible, regarding anything (if anything, granted) that doesn't occur by natural law. It's just a science that is not under what Kauffman calls the Galilean spell, the belief that all the universe unfolds according to natural law.

The parameters involve the complexities of the human mind considered individually, but also considered in mass, which exponentially increases the complexity of considering what the regularities of the process could be.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
The evolution of thought and ideas can be examined from first principles of logic. All thought has antecedents, emerging from a cultural context. Examples of this observation are Newton's statement that he stood on the shoulders of those who went before him in order to see further, and Keynes' observation that men of action tend unconsciously to implement the ideas of earlier theorists. We may seem free to think whatever we want, but the parameters of our thought are always conditioned by prevailing cultural trends. The emergence and evolution of such cultural trends is the study of memetics. It is intuitively reasonable to assume that the success of ideas is not separate from their natural context, but is largely a causal function of real material factors. This is not to reduce thought to an epiphenomenon of the material base in the manner of Marxist economics, but to recognise that the success of ideas follows the same causal physical principles observed in genetics, that ideas compete just as genes compete, mutating and evolving by gradual process, building on precedent through cumulative adaptation.

The concept of the viral meme can be analysed against this framework. It is often a mystery why one idea goes viral and another does not, just as it is a mystery why one song is popular and another is not. The argument is that in principle, there must necessarily be material causal factors, even if largely unknown, that set the parameters to determine why one cultural formation succeeds and another does not, why the times suit it. The alternative is to see culture as a random unfathomable and inexplicable thing that stands outside the universal natural process of cause and effect. Causality in culture is too complex for us to understand, but this does not imply there are no causal determining processes in operation. These causal processes of culture are what we can call memes. I would not argue that memes are utterly fatalistic in a way that pre-ordains all decisions, rather that memes incline but do not compel our decisions. A more adaptive meme is one that has greatest potential for success in its cultural context, while its less adaptive rival will tend to die out.

This memetic model for cultural evolution applies to technology, religion, philosophy, music, politics, etc. The memetic framework is a core assumption to explain why some ideas do better than others - they have a better fit for their actual context.

In The Evolution of God, Wright uses the memetic framework of natural selection of cultural formations to explain why religion evolved from animism through polytheism to monotheism. The evolutionary advantage of belief in God is primarily memetic, with those Gods that draw together a larger and more powerful community tending to prove more resilient. The larger communities, whether in Israel, Persia or Rome, all require a divine mandate that enables their rulers to assert a sacred basis for statecraft.



Last edited by Robert Tulip on Sat Sep 04, 2010 8:04 am, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Robert Tulip wrote:
It is often a mystery why one idea goes viral and another does not, just as it is a mystery why one song is popular and another is not. The argument is that in principle, there must necessarily be material causal factors, even if largely unknown, that set the parameters to determine why one cultural formation succeeds and another does not, why the times suit it.


It would be interesting to learn more about memes, how they promulgate and what makes certain memes or memeplexes more appealing than others. A fascinating offshoot of such a discussion would be advertising and the subversive methods use to get us to identify with certain brands and want to buy their products.

There are memes for almost everything we do. And, as Robert says, the parameters of thought are governed by cultural trends. There are memes for how we plant crops, and they vary from region to region just as the finches Darwin observed had physical traits that varied from region to region. I have noticed there are two distinct ways for cooking steel cut oats. One requires less water, but you have to cook with a top on the pan. The other requires more water, but you cook with no top. (I prefer the latter method myself.) It's aways fascinating to see how clothes styles and hairstyles change over time, sometimes even reverting to a past style--now retro.

I wish that the meme to commercialize Christmas hadn't come along, else Christmas might be so much more down to earth and less crass. And I also wish the meme on how Caesar salads are made could be amended to include tomatoes in the ingredients. Tomatoes are perfect on Caesar salads, but some idiot decided a Caesar shouldn't have tomatoes and the idea stuck.


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