The Magic Darwin Fairies

Regarding the theory that religion is an inherited characteristic, shaped by Darwinian natural selection, a reader writes in with this just-so story:

“Let us consider a paleolithic woman, who is part of a band of people who are hunter/gatherers. Over the years, you recognize that sometimes, it seems as though plants themselves grow so they are easy to harvest, and other times, they do not. The men talk about how sometimes, the game seems to fall right into their laps, almost as though it were led by an external force; other times, nothing is to be found. They begin to discuss ‘the spirit of the hunt’. You are thankful when it rains; it is not a large step to move from being thankful to thanking whatever spirits seems to give to you or to take away from you. You may think those spirits to be angry with you; no rain has fallen, so you burn some of your food, in the hope that you may appease that which you have angered. The rains then fall. You imagine these spirits to be like people, much as people today discuss machines and weather like people. (Cynics would say it was invented for the purpose of power: “the rain god is angry, and says you must give me food, or there will be no rain”)

If you are asking what biological development is necessary in the brain, evolutionarily speaking, to move to the point where one can invent an external personality–wherein one can anthropomorphize the natural world…I am not enough of a biologist to say. I know that recently, they discovered a part of the brain that when stimulated with electromagnetic fields induced feelings of being connected with the “divine”.

My comment:

If I understand your point, I am not sure we disagree.

You are giving an account of how a reasoning creature, such as a woman of the paleolithic, would come to make a false-to-facts account of the plentiful food some seasons and the scarcity in others, and she would come to believe an intelligent agency was behind the appearances of things — and the nature of such a belief is that is it not easy to disprove, and so it would tend to be taught and passed along the generations. Do I understand your idea?

My only comment is to say that, from a Darwinian point of view, this belief is not an inheritable characteristic. The only inheritable characteristic we are dealing with is reason, the human capacity for abstract thought, which is the ability to form beliefs.

What you are describing is a commonplace error in reasoning, post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is what gives rise to superstition.

From this, it is illegitimate to conclude that some of us (the theists) have a superstition gene that makes us superstitious, whereas others of us (the Brights) lack that gene. People who convert from atheism to theism do not gain a gene; people who convert from theism to atheism do not lose a gene, and if they did, then their atheism would be a matter of programming, not belief, a chemical thing that happens to their brains like being drug-intoxicated, not a conviction of their judgment nor a conclusion of their reasoning.

I suppose one could say that the theism gene imparts a tendency, in the same way the sexual impulse imparts a tendency, against which we can struggle with our willpower and character, in the same way a chaste character can oppose the sexual impulse. However, this does not change the three basic criticisms of the just-so story.

The first basic criticism is that any belief or conclusion of any kind whatsoever can be asserted to possibly be of some direct or indirect use to Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Being a Guelph could be due to a genetic inclination to support worldly authority figures like the Holy Roman Empire, because supporting authority figures like the tribal chief was a survival characteristic in the Paleolithic, since it helped group unity: and, of course, being a Ghibelline could be due to a genetic predisposition to suppose spiritual authority figures like the Pope, because supporting the tribal shaman was a survival characteristic the helped group unity in the Paleolithic too.

Likewise, being a Capitalist could be due to a genetic predisposition because selfishness is a survival characteristic; and being a Communist could be due to a genetic predisposition because unselfishness is also a survival characteristic.

Likewise, believing in the Steady State Theory could be due to a genetic predisposition of being able to imagine an infinite amount of time, and being able to contemplate eternity is a survival characteristic because hunter gatherers would get bored counting passing hours during long night watches in the Ice Age; and believing in the Big Bang theory could be due to a genetic predisposition to fear loud noises, a survival characteristic because loud noises often signal danger.

In other words, thanks to what I call “Magic Darwin Fairies” any characteristic of mind, body or soul can be said to be (1) an inheritable characteristic and (2) aid in the survival and reproduction of the species.

The second basic criticism is that the theory neither fits nor explains the facts. A man fighting his genetic predisposition to mate with young and nubile females, whether he decides to be as chaste as Galahad or as unchaste as Lancelot, is still aware of the allure of the female of the species. An atheist is not always trying and failing to pull his eyes away from the allure of Buddhist prayer wheels and Catholic rosaries. He does not hide a copy of the Bible in his sock drawer, sneaking it out when he parents are out of the house, yearning toward what his reason tells him is wrong, and ripping up the Bible in fury and self-disgust afterward. The atheists I know despise the things of religion, and are repelled by the mere mention. The impulse that drives men toward theism, at least at first glance, does not seem to be like the sexual impulse, or aggressive impulses, or selfish impulses, or anything else that arguably comes from a genetic predisposition. (Indeed, the religions of the world by and large are dead set against the natural impulses which might otherwise lead men to adultery and murder and theft, lust and wrath and covetousness.)

The third basic characteristic is that religion in and of itself is not a trait leading to the survival of the fittest and the spread of one’s genes through many offspring. Titus Livy speaks of a time in ancient Rome when the son of an aristocrat, in order to placate the gods of the underworld, in full armor and on horseback leaped into a pit of sulfur; Vestal Virgins were stoned to death if they had sex; the Carthaginians sacrificed their own children to the burning and brazen idols of Moloch — the argument that suicide, sexual abstinence, and the slaughter of offspring are characteristics tending to spread the selfish gene involved are, to say the least, counter-intuitive. If we admit that arguments about “unselfish Uncles” are valid, then any characteristic or habit, including things that directly end life, prevent reproduction, and destroy offspring can be said by such arguments to tend (somehow, thanks to Magic Darwin Fairies) to allow the group to out perform and out-breed any rival group that eschews these practices. Any argument that can just as easily prove itself as prove its opposite is not a valid argument: it is an arbitrary assertion.

The only conclusion legitimately reached giving the just-so story given above is that reason is an inheritable characteristic, and that there are uses and abuses of reason that are endemic to human nature.

The story assumes as one of its “facts”, of course, that prayer and supplication have no affect on hunt or harvest. I read this sentence in Chapter LVI of Machiavelli’s DISCOURSES, where he speaks of the omens that foretell the dooms of kings and the downfall of the great:

“It may be, however, as certain philosophers maintain, that the air is peopled with spirits who by their superior intelligence foresee future events and out of pity for mankind warn them by such signs so that they may prepare against the coming evils.”

If so pragmatic a man as Machiavelli allowed the possibility of supernatural intent behind natural appearances, the idea ought not be dismissed out of hand.

The idea of supernaturalism certainly cannot be used as the basis of a train of reasoning that says that since “x” is an inherited characteristic, therefore “x” is false, where “x” represents the supernatural.

It is a stronger argument to say that since, like the sexual impulse, the impulse to pray and supplicate the supernatural world is universal to human cultures, therefore the supernatural is real, as everyone knows aside from that small minority called atheists. The sexual impulse would be meaningless, would be something impossible to evolve, were we asexual beings like amoeba. The universality of supernaturalism needs some stronger argument, some argument that can be held up to proof and disproof, than the argument that all men aside from atheists are fools and dupes and troglodytes.

The other idea to be questioned is the alleged link between superstition and religion. While atheists make much of this link, and talk and pretend religion is superstition, the fact remains that major world religions inveigh against superstition and condemn it. Confucius, for example, condemned the consulting of oracles; the Magi of Zoroaster unambiguously condemned magicians; Buddha regarded inquiries into the spirit world as being contrary to the pursuit of right thinking and right action; the Biblical condemnation of witchcraft and of the peepings and mutterings of wizards is well known.

The superstitious link between prayer and ritual and favorable outcomes is indeed one that is explicitly condemned in the Book of Job, which some scholars opine to be the first book written in the Old Testament, which places it among the very oldest of surviving written works of mankind.

No matter what one’s opinion of religion, the link between religion and superstition is not a simple equivalence–which means that even if there were a gene or a genetic predisposition toward superstition or toward this particular informal logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc on this one topic, or a genetic predisposition toward anthropomorphism, this would not allow us to conclude that that predisposition is the cause of religion.

I can also speak from personal experience. My faith in God is very much against my inclinations and predispositions. No one eschewed religion as entirely as did I before my conversion; and I can hardly be called superstitious. I am not one of those atheists who secretly carried around a rabbits foot. Nor was my conversion for the sake of obtaining some promised good, like a good harvest or a good hunt, nor health nor well-being.

Thus, even if we become convinced that evolution prompts certain paleolithic hunter gatherers to make post hoc ergo propter hoc errors that incline them (and therefore the human race) toward anthropomorphism, some other explanation is needed to explain religious experiences.

Myself, I have never heard the “religion is a mental error that (thanks to Magic Darwin Fairies) is (1) inheritable and (2) creates an advantage in survival and reproductive strategies” theory advanced for any other purpose than to hold faith up to scorn: it is a theory too simplistic to account for the thing being described, albeit, of course, not too simplistic to mock the thing being described.

I am reminded of a line from a book on archeology by L. Sprague de Camp. Even though it had nothing to do with the topic of the book, he paused to give what i thought was a potent argument touching the Problem of Pain (if a perfect and benevolent God designed Man, and man is evil, either this is what God intended, in which case He is not benevolent, or His design is imperfect, in which case He is not perfect). He then went on to speculate that the original of all religion was from certain paleolithic men, unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality, had dreams of dead loved ones, and therefore falsely concluded that the dead are still alive in a spirit world. The contrast between the sharp logic in the first case, and the naivety in the second cannot be over-emphasized. L. Sprague de Camp is a perfectly intelligent and rational man, yet somehow he ascribes the entire religious life and tradition of all mankind to dream misinterpretation, and the assumption that primitive men are remarkably stupider than L. Sprague de Camp.

Ascribing the entire religious life and man to an inherited evolutionary weakness for logical errors in one area of life (but, not, apparently in others) strikes as being similarly weak. The explanation is not robust enough to explain all the phenomena involved. Why have prophecies and oracles? Why have rites and rituals? Why sacrifice cattle?

If we were the race that had sprung from the “just-so” story described above, we would all be immensely superstitious, all carry a rabbit’s foot, be afraid of black cats, and avoid the 13th floor of hotels, but none of us would put up Christmas trees nor give money to the poor, nor read Isaiah, nor go to Mass, nor mediate, nor practice Yoga, because all the “just-so” story above explains is the origin of anthropomorphism, ascribing human powers and motives to nonhuman things. It does not explain the other aspects and elements of human religious life and experience. We have to assume many more errors in logic than just anthropomorphism, and many more weaknesses in the human character, if all religious life is all false, and all forms of religious expression and activity come from genetic defects.

(I am not saying this more complex argument cannot be made, I am only saying that the argument “Magic Darwin Fairies make inheritable religious traits somehow more advantageous, even though false, than irreligious traits” is too simple to explain what it purports to explain, which is the origins of religion.)

One last note: The discovery that there is an evolved segment of the brain which, when stimulated, creates a sensation of divinity is evidence in favor of rather than against theism. Surely nature would not evolve the structures of an eyeball if we lived in a universe with no light? Likewise, if the brain structures mentioned above actually create a feeling of divine imminence rather than merely a genetic euphoric pleasure-sensation, the parsimony of nature should incline us to assume this brain structure serves some real purpose, and does not only serve an hallucinatory purpose.