An Instinct to Swarm - A Partial Explanation for Religion
Posted: 14 November 2007 10:28 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I found an article titled From Ants to People, an Instinct to Swarm in The NY Times.  Does it not support the belief that religion is, at least partially, founded upon herd behavior?  This article would suggest that we are “pre-wired” as such.

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Posted: 14 November 2007 11:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Interesting article.  There is a biological advantage to swarm.  What would be interesting is to contrast this with a study on animals that reject swarming and look for the biological factors involved with individuality or rejecting the swarm.  Then I would like to identify the geographical stresses affecting all of these cases and compare them to the stresses effecting human survival.

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Posted: 14 November 2007 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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If you are in fact interested in this line of inquiry then may I suggest the work of E. O. Wilson, particularly, The Ants - Sociobiology - On Human Nature. I would also suggest work by David Sloan Wilson (no relation), Darwin’s Cathedral, Unto Others and work on multi-level selection.

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Posted: 14 November 2007 11:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Interesting article, but I am highly skeptical that it has much explanatory power for cultural human institutions like religion. Apart form the obvious cognitive differences between humans and most typical swarming animals, the fact is that the creatures who live in large groups are often genetically related to one another in very different, and closer, ways than humans in large groups, so the selective envirvonment driving behavior, even if the behavior looks superficially similar, is very different. I think this is one of the major problems with applying sociobiological ideas derived from work with insects to humans.

The phenomena of how peopel sense and resp;ond to others in a group is an interesting and important area. No question we shape our behavior in response to others, and this happens in very dramatically different ways in small and large groups. A neat little essay on the topic showed up recently on Okham’s Razor about a boy with Asperger’s and the difference between how he responds to nonverbal cues and how “neurotypical” people do (“The Trouble with Harry”).

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Posted: 14 November 2007 12:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Mckenzievmd,

I am curious as to what avenue of inquiry you think is worthwhile regarding group behavior? In the ant model aren’t we looking at the varying roles of the ant’s also? Even though the ant’s share related genetic identity they form basis for behavior that seem to over ride the variation? Such as the worker ant’s etc. The swarming effect is layered with very identifiable roles that share in the survival of the group, this may be natural according to the signals given in the environment and the interpretation of a member. A kind of feedback loop that is both cognitive/genetic (or with ant’s, sensory and genetic) and reinforced by behavior.

[ Edited: 14 November 2007 12:48 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 14 November 2007 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Zarcus,

I think to understand human group behavior the place to look is humans, and poten tially our close relatives such as chimpanzees and bonobos. The social behavior we exhibit is a product of our natural history, selected for by environment and the social factors involved in the kinds of social systems our ancestors lived in. This is likely to be very different from the environmental and social selection pressures of group-living insects, so I think mathematically analyses of how the latter work cooperatively are unlikely to be usefully applied to human social institutions. The authors of the paper say repeatedly that we are “mediocre swarmers” at best, and I think even that overstates the case a bit. It’s just a question of choosing a model that shares salient characteristics with the system being modeled, and I don’t see insect group behavior as being a good model for human group behavior.


My point about the genetics of insects is that “altruistic” behaviors, such as stinging an enemy entering your hive and dying as a result, evolve much more readily in a community of sisters and otherwise closely-related indidividuals. The pressures on the genetic basis for behavior are very different when the underlying breeding system and genetic relatedness of the individuals involved is so different. It was just an example of one reason I think the model is probably not a good one for studying something like religion.

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Posted: 14 November 2007 02:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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mckenziemd,


As an example of the terminology and my reference to multi-level selection, let me offer a link to David Sloan Wilson’s , December 2007, essay from The Quarterly Review of Biology, along with a couple brief quotes.

Group selection is an important force in human evolution in part because cultural processes have a way of creating phenotypic variation among groups, even when they are composed of large numbers of unrelated individuals. If a new behavior arises by a genetic mutation, it remains at a low frequency within its group in the absence of clustering mechanisms such as associations among kin. If a new behavior arises by a cultural mutation, it can quickly become the most common behavior within the group and provide the decisive edge in between-group competition (Richerson and Boyd 2005). The importance of genetic and cultural group selection in human evolution enables our groupish nature to be explained at face value. Of course, within-group selection has only been suppressed, not entirely eliminated. Thus multilevel selection, not group selection alone, provides a comprehensive framework for understanding human sociality.

....

The rejection of group selection was based largely on theoretical plausibility arguments, which made it seem that between-group selection requires a delicate balance of parameter
values to prevail against within-group selection. These early models were published at a time when the desktop computing revolution, the study of complex interactions, and preciation of such things as social control (e.g., Ratnieks and Visscher 1989; Boyd and Richerson 1992) and gene-culture coevolution (Lumsden and E O Wilson 1981; Boyd and Richerson 1985; Richerson and Boyd 2005) were barely on the horizon. It should surprise no one that the initial assessment must be revised on the basis of four decades of subsequent research. All of the early models assumed that altruistic and selfish behaviors are caused directly by corresponding genes, which means that the only way for groups to vary behaviorally is for them to vary genetically. Hardly anyone regards such strict genetic determinism as biologically realistic, and this was assumed in the Yet, when more complex genotype-phenotype elationships are built into the models, the balance between levels of selection can be easily and dramatically altered. In other words, it is possible for modest amounts of genetic variation among groups to result in substantial amounts of heritable phenotypic variation among groups (D S Wilson 2004).

http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/resources/publications_resources/Rethinking sociobiology.pdf

[ Edited: 14 November 2007 09:54 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 14 November 2007 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Well, I think there is some logic to the notion of group selection you describe above, though I won’t claim to be current enough on evolutionary genetics to answer whether it is actually a mechanism we have demonstrated to occur or just a plausible possibility.

I also don’t personally believe religion to be adaptive in any meaningful sense, though again I won’t claim to be able to disprove the notion. I tend to follow more the “by-product” model of belief in the supernatural as a consequence of thought structures that are inherent and themselves adaptive, though imperfect. We attribute agency to non-living things, see cause/effect relationships and correlations too readily, revise our memories to be consistent with current understandings or beliefs. All of these are useful shorthands for the more laborious, and more accurate, epistemelogical processes of science. I think they work well enough for most purposes, but I think they often lead us astray, and that’s where I think we need science to compensate for the errors in our natural reasoning.

I don’t think this is entirely incompatible with the “meme” approach. I think the meme idea is a useful metaphor, though it’s language does lead to unecessary demonization if not used careful/ Dawkins likes to get a rise out of people. “Selfish,” “Delusion,” etc are examples of what I consider to be poor choices as labels for ideas which, nevertheless, have some usefulness. However, I think the metaphor of memes competing for space in minds as viruses comepet for space in bodies can be carried too far or overliteralized, and then it ceases to be so useful. As a biologist, though not a geneticist or evolutionary biologist, I’m more inclined to view religion as a cultural institution that derives from how our brains and behaviors are structured. It may have some adaptive value, though I am not convinced, but it certainly reflects how our minds work when dealing with the external environment, particularly the unknown. As such, I doubt we’ll ever be without it, but I hope that, as seems to have happened over the last few hundred years, at least some significant fraction of us will decide it’s not a great way to make real-world decisions when compared with science.

This avenue, anyway, seems a more useful one for looking at human group behavior, and religion specifically, than the “swarming” idea we started with.

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Posted: 14 November 2007 03:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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deleted by author with apologies.

[ Edited: 14 November 2007 06:18 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 14 November 2007 03:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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After some thought and starting to reacquaint myself to the research on this topic I realize that I am not interested in the discussion. This can get to easily side tracked. I’ll surely continue my interest, just not openly for a while.

[ Edited: 14 November 2007 06:19 PM by zarcus ]
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Posted: 15 November 2007 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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zarcus - 14 November 2007 11:30 AM

If you are in fact interested in this line of inquiry then may I suggest the work of E. O. Wilson, particularly, The Ants - Sociobiology - On Human Nature. I would also suggest work by David Sloan Wilson (no relation), Darwin’s Cathedral, Unto Others and work on multi-level selection.

Well, I take your recommendations to read E. O. Wilson’s The Ants - Sociobiology - On Human Nature and D. Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral to heart.  I couldn’t find i]The Ants - Sociobiology - On Human Nature at amazon.com but I found Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration.  Is that the same title?  The title of the second book, by David Wilson, has caught my eye in the bookshop and I have found it on amazon.com I won’t promise to read it promptly, but I will add it to my reading list on my browser’s bookmarks.

Thoughts on An Instinct to Swarm...

I don’t necessarily think that humans are innately programmed to swarm in a literal sense, but we are extremely social animals and often form complex political structures.  Religion is, in part, a social structure that assumes the necessity of a dominance hierarchy, and this is antithetical to the high value of individual autonomy that exists within humanism.  Perhaps this is one of the fundamental reasons why religious persons are so commonly “ahumanistic” and “anti-atheistic.”  Perhaps the monotheistic demand for polytheistic and non-theistic obedience is indicative of a desire for a clear cut pecking order.

I also wonder if the monotheistic demand for “respect” is really, in fact, a subtler and more modern manifestation of the traditional demand for obedience.  After all, genuine respect for the right to believe in a deity has never been questioned in America.  Just the right of religion to insist without respect for alternatives.

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Posted: 15 November 2007 08:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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My first inclination is to tell you to not bother. My next is to say don’t bother ... going backward for a foundation. I suggest starting from the more current research on multi-level selection as a start. Out of those books then would be, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society.

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Posted: 15 November 2007 10:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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