Biology of Religion
Posted: 28 April 2006 04:56 AM   [ Ignore ]
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This subject has come up a number of times on the forum, most recently here. Namely, does religion have a basis in biology? And if so, what could that be?

This is a topic that Dennett discusses in his recent book [i:10e655bdf7]Breaking the Spell[/i:10e655bdf7] and also David Sloan Wilson discussed in his book [i:10e655bdf7]Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society[/i:10e655bdf7].

I haven’t yet read either one, but from what I have heard about how they treat the subject, I have a feeling I’d prefer Wilson’s approach: that religion is adaptive in providing a sort of cohesive force in culture.

The two main ways that anthropologists distinguish cultures is by language and religion. It is very interesting to note the fineness of accent that we can distinguish, and how we are always using accent to determine someone’s culture or even place of birth.

Similarly, religion is often historically tied to place, with the notion that a culture is tied to that place. So Judaism is tied to Jerusalem. Christianity often to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Rome. Islam to Mecca. Hinduism to the Ganges river. And on and on. This is not the whole story, perhaps; not all religions necessarily look to "place" with the same fervency, but it is interesting.

My guess is that religion originates at its deepest level with our biologically attuned ability to recognize kin. We need that ability to know who has similar genes to us, as Dawkins showed, and so who to protect (and who not to have children with).

Humans share the ability to recognize kin with all sorts of animals and insects: we can think of the strong kin-groups with wolves, wild dogs, crows, ants, bees, and other primates. So this is [i:10e655bdf7]not[/i:10e655bdf7] some case of human special-pleading.

Then, with the rise of language, the ability to recognize kin became magnified into a general view of the world that involved a more abstracted view of "us" and "them", "in-groups" and "out-groups", and tribal alliances. Many of these later solidified into some of the earliest religions like Judaism, and the gods of the Greek, Roman and Norse myths. Nowadays we see the same role in issues of sports—which team we affiliate with—and nationalism—which city, state, country we affiliate with.

Religion is just a particularly long-lived, strong and pernicious example of this tendency, rooted in pre-human biology of kin-group recognition.

Or that’s one possible view, anyway ... discussion?

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Posted: 28 April 2006 04:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Biology of Religion

This subject has come up a number of times on the forum, most recently here . Namely, does religion have a basis in biology? And if so, what could that be?

This is a topic that Dennett discusses in his recent book Breaking the Spell and also David Sloan Wilson discussed in his book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society.

I haven’t yet read either one, but from what I have heard about how they treat the subject, I have a feeling I’d prefer Wilson’s approach: that religion is adaptive in providing a sort of cohesive force in culture.

The two main ways that anthropologists distinguish cultures is by language and religion. It is very interesting to note the fineness of accent that we can distinguish, and how we are always using accent to determine someone’s culture or even place of birth.

Similarly, religion is often historically tied to place, with the notion that a culture is tied to that place. So Judaism is tied to Jerusalem. Christianity often to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Rome. Islam to Mecca. Hinduism to the Ganges river. And on and on. This is not the whole story, perhaps; not all religions necessarily look to “place” with the same fervency, but it is interesting.

My guess is that religion originates at its deepest level with our biologically attuned ability to recognize kin. We need that ability to know who has similar genes to us, as Dawkins showed, and so who to protect (and who not to have children with).

Humans share the ability to recognize kin with all sorts of animals and insects: we can think of the strong kin-groups with wolves, wild dogs, crows, ants, bees, and other primates. So this is not some case of human special-pleading.

Then, with the rise of language, the ability to recognize kin became magnified into a general view of the world that involved a more abstracted view of “us” and “them”, “in-groups” and “out-groups”, and tribal alliances. Many of these later solidified into some of the earliest religions like Judaism, and the gods of the Greek, Roman and Norse myths. Nowadays we see the same role in issues of sports—which team we affiliate with—and nationalism—which city, state, country we affiliate with.

Religion is just a particularly long-lived, strong and pernicious example of this tendency, rooted in pre-human biology of kin-group recognition.

Or that’s one possible view, anyway ... discussion?

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Posted: 28 April 2006 09:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Interesting to say none the least.  But i dont concede or contradict.

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Posted: 28 April 2006 02:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Re: Biology of Religion

I may have once mentioned Edward O. Wilson’s “the Biological Basis of Morality.”  I think he’s asserting a parallel idea.  In essence, and in part, he argues that morality—and later, religion—-comes from an instinct to abstain from killing within a tribe. 

If one were aroused to anger and murdered another in that tribe, for example, that tribe would lose a hunter, gatherer, warrior, mother, shaman, etc., therefore possibly damning the whole tribe.  He compares it to wolf packs and…hmm…

It’s been a long time since I’ve read the piece or required my students to read it.  It’s truly an examination of transcendentalism vs. impericism that’s great to get into, and I always felt his assertion—like the one you’ve presented—has great merit.

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Posted: 28 April 2006 03:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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It would be interesting if Wilson also attempted a biological theory of religion. He was the founder of “Sociobiology”, so in a sense the father of the whole (modern) attempt to explain social phenomena in biological terms.

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Posted: 29 April 2006 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Maybe while he’s at it, Wilson could investigate the evolution of “impericism,” which has not-so-biological connections to “empiricism.”

Geez.  And I’m an English teacher.

:oops:

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Posted: 24 May 2006 04:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Hi Doug,

I think your answer is partly true. It is my opinion that there is
not one definite cause for religious belief but a range of causes.

You would experience the same problem if we had to define what is a
“game” or what constitutes a “human being”.

Certainly, there seem to be a biological reason why we have
religious belief but this reason does not seem to be all pervasive
like our need to eat food. I think it can be expressed by the fact
that evolutionary theory teaches us that as a species our “purpose” 
is to reproduce. However you will find many human beings not using
sex for the sole purpose of reproducing.

The problem with your biological assesment is that religion goes
further than merely identifying yourself with a group. Often a
religious person would murder his own fellowmen in this group if
his beliefs are ridiculed or opposed.


Like moral theory there is no one theory that explain why humans
are “moral” beings and it requires a combination of theories to
arrive at this fact.

Fayzal Mahamed

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Posted: 24 May 2006 04:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Hello Fayzal, and thanks for the commentary.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”] I think your answer is partly true. It is my opinion that there is not one definite cause for religious belief but a range of causes.

Absolutely. I’m sure it’s very complex.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”] Certainly, there seem to be a biological reason why we have religious belief but this reason does not seem to be all pervasive like our need to eat food. I think it can be expressed by the fact that evolutionary theory teaches us that as a species our “purpose”  is to reproduce. However you will find many human beings not using sex for the sole purpose of reproducing.

Right you are that at the level of the organism as a whole, biology can only tell us that our “purpose” or function is to reproduce. But if you deal with smaller biological mechanisms you can get more interesting results. For instance, the purpose (function) of the eye is to relay information about the surfaces and orientations of objects in the world.

Using this technique, we can also look to mental modules, for example, what Stephen Pinker calls “the language instinct” to get a feel for what the function of language might have been. Or modules for representing faces, or for hearing phonemes, or for anger, or, more controversially, for religious-type beliefs. What would their biological function have been? Not simply to reproduce—that’s the function of the whole organism. The function of the religion-module (such as it is) may have been something like “group cohesion”.

It’s probably better to say that there isn’t a specific “religion module”. But rather, religion’s existence depends on some mental modules that are used for things like kin-recognition and group cohesion. They have, to use a term from biology, been “exapted” for use as religion-generators. I am just speculating here.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”] The problem with your biological assesment is that religion goes further than merely identifying yourself with a group. Often a religious person would murder his own fellowmen in this group if his beliefs are ridiculed or opposed.

Yes, I think you are absolutely right that religion is more than just group identification. Dennett talks a bit more (at least in the public lectures I’ve heard) about the “supernatural” or “superstitious” aspects of religion: where we use religious beliefs to explain bumps in the night, lightning, and other unexplained phenomena.

We can speculate on the biological origins of those beliefs or belief-generating modules as well.

I am not so sure, though, that religious people would “often” murder their fellow believers if their beliefs were opposed. I think that would be a very rare event, and probably be taken as evidence of insanity or the like. Now, you may say that there are religious extremists who will murder religious moderates—that’s very true. But then I’d argue that the extremists see themselves as the “in group” opposed to the “out group” of moderates ... they aren’t the same group of believers at all.

Best,

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Posted: 24 May 2006 08:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Biology of religion.

Hi Doug, Thanks for the prompt reply.

I think your reply covers most of what I am trying to express.

What I want to emphasise is the point that to explain religion merely in terms of a “religious gene” would be wrong. It leads us to form patterns of behaviour such as group or kinship recognition which is normally the outcome of a biological approach, and yet religion defies such grouping.

I remember reading about how often in Iraq two neighbours who were ethnically from the same group living in harmony throughout their lives would turn into vultures to the extant of killing each other merely because one was a Sunni Muslim and one was a Shite Muslim.

Have you ever wondered why in the face of all evidence do religious people keep on defending impossible “miracles” such as walking on water, reviving the dead, stick changing to snakes etc.

Another incident to take note about is how does a person become an atheist if all humans are geared up towards some religious belief.

Its incidence like these that makes me think that the answer for why humans are generally religious, lies in the complexities of the mind.

Not that I am dismissing the religious gene. I think it plays a contributory part but as we accumulate more knowledge about how the mind works then I think you will see the real unravelling of religious belief.

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Posted: 25 May 2006 12:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Re: Biology of religion.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”]What I want to emphasise is the point that to explain religion merely in terms of a “religious gene” would be wrong. It leads us to form patterns of behaviour such as group or kinship recognition which is normally the outcome of a biological approach, and yet religion defies such grouping.

I remember reading about how often in Iraq two neighbours who were ethnically from the same group living in harmony throughout their lives would turn into vultures to the extant of killing each other merely because one was a Sunni Muslim and one was a Shite Muslim.

Hello Fayzal,

I certainly don’t think there’s anything like a “religious gene”. As you note, religion is too complex and varied for that. To take one example, there is all the difference in the world between the “religion” (or, better, spiritual beliefs and practices) of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon and, say, the beliefs and practices of a Catholic priest.

So it can’t be anything like a single gene. Rather, we have some mental modules (kin recognition, a tendency to ‘anthropomorphize’ the world) that lend themselves to creation of spiritual or superstitious beliefs. With the growth of complex cultural insitiutions (kings, courts, etc.) these religious beliefs and practices themselves became more complex too. After all, the priests (who in the simpler social orders would have been “medicine men”) needed more to do.

As for the Sunnis and Shiites killing one another, or the Hutus and Tutsis, or the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and during the reformation/counter-reformation in Europe, etc., think of it in terms of sports. I have often wondered at how putting colored jerseys on random people can change one’s view of whether the person is a “friend” or a “foe”. Now, it is true that rarely do sports events end in injury and death, but I would say it’s the same genetic components at work. There is no wonder that sports is one of the most popular and money-making activities in the world ... even though in the final analysis it is just a lot of irrational running around to no real purpose.

So: the mental modules that distinguish “in-group” from “out-group” (and which, I believe, are adapted from the kin-recognition modules, or maybe the modules that we use to punish “cheaters” from the in-group) can be triggered with nothing more than a piece of colored cloth! However it works, it must really be on a hair-trigger. In the right conditions, almost anything is capable of setting it off.

BTW, a lot of theoretical study has been done on issues of biological altruism and the fact that, for it to have evolved, there must have also evolved a mechanism for recognizing and punishing cheaters or shirkers.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”]Have you ever wondered why in the face of all evidence do religious people keep on defending impossible “miracles” such as walking on water, reviving the dead, stick changing to snakes etc.

A lot of that sort of thing, I think, began with crafty “medicine men” who wanted to demonstrate their supposed powers with sleight-of-hand tricks. Two thousand years ago, Uri Geller would probably have ended up a “holy man”, and we’d have been reading the “book of Geller”. :wink:

There are common tricks of “changing a stick into a snake”; apparently it can be done relatively easily. And if I recall correctly, in the Bible a number of people could do it.

Also, there is a lot of room for tall tales in myth and fantastic literature.

[quote author=“mfmahamed”]Another incident to take note about is how does a person become an atheist if all humans are geared up towards some religious belief.

Right, well, even if we have a biological propensity to certain sorts of irrational thinking or behavior, that doesn’t mean we are condemned to it. After all, we also have a rational, reasoning module that can overcome these faults if we let it.

But I think that these biological musings should (if true) lead us to the awareness that spiritual, superstitious thinking is very deeply rooted in human thinking. I do not expect it will ever be eradicated, much as I think it should.

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Posted: 31 May 2006 07:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Re: Biology of religion.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]BTW, a lot of theoretical study has been done on issues of biological altruism and the fact that, for it to have evolved, there must have also evolved a mechanism for recognizing and punishing cheaters or shirkers.

Heya,
I don’t see a neccesity for there to be a motivational ‘stick’ for every action.
The ‘carrots’ associated with being known to be altruistic could be enough to give one an edge over others. Most people like a nice-guy, and favours are often returned. Simply by _not_ being altruistic, people could be less favourable to you compared to those that are, putting yourself in a comparitivly less advantagious social situation.

Asides from that, (running the risk of letting the discussion get too emotive!) I sense similarities in the arguments around ‘why people are/are not religious’ and the arguments around ‘why people are/are not heterosexual’. Would there be merit in addressing the two issues at the same time?

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Posted: 31 May 2006 07:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Re: Biology of religion.

[quote author=“Akmenzies”]Heya,
I don’t see a neccesity for there to be a motivational ‘stick’ for every action.
The ‘carrots’ associated with being known to be altruistic could be enough to give one an edge over others. Most people like a nice-guy, and favours are often returned. Simply by _not_ being altruistic, people could be less favourable to you compared to those that are, putting yourself in a comparitivly less advantagious social situation.

Well, I am not going to be able to do this work the justice it deserves. But the basic idea is that it seems that altruism could never be biologically selected for. Why? Because the altruist gets no benefit for his acts ... usually he puts himself in some danger (like the bird who calls the warning: he makes himself conspicuous so is more likely to be eaten). Hence the fitter birds will always be those who “shirk” their duties and get free rides.

If there were no mechanism for recognizing and punishing free riders, we would all become free riders and whatever genetic purchase there were to being altruistic would be eliminated.

So altruism basically has to evolve in situations where there is a co-evolution of recognizing and punishing free-riders.

[quote author=“Barry”]Asides from that, (running the risk of letting the discussion get too emotive!) I sense similarities in the arguments around ‘why people are/are not religious’ and the arguments around ‘why people are/are not heterosexual’. Would there be merit in addressing the two issues at the same time?

Right, there are similarities. I think those might deserve their own thread. I will point out, however, that there are also differences. It appears that sexual orientation is largely a biological (genetic) phenomenon. We are compelled to find one sex attractive or the other (or for some people, both). Atheism is more of a belief system which you can be convinced of, or convinced out of.

This gets into issues of free will too, pretty quickly ...

:wink:

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Posted: 05 June 2006 02:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Re: Biology of religion.

[quote author=“Akmenzies”]In the given example the altruist protects the lives of it’s common genetic stock. Without it, several, if not all of it’s family could be killed. This could mean that through it’s actions the lives of it’s siblings with the same ‘altruistic gene’, or the genetic code that is the precursor to the ‘altruistic’ one has a better chance of survival than families that display no altruistic behaviour.
If the actions protect the species then there doesn’t need to be any recogntion of altruism (or lack of) for it to have a positive efect on the survival of the species.

You are very right, but in the particular example I didn’t say that the other birds were necessarily a kin-group. It’s true that for close kin, there are simple benefits to certain altruistic behaviors ... it is a cost/benefit calculation; the benefit is helping kin (= individuals with common genetic heritage) and the cost is that of the altruism. This can evolve without any mechanism for detecting freeloaders.

But if you see here for example, under the section marked “3. Reciprocal Altruism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma” you will see the sort of issue I am speaking about. Here are some salient quotes:

“Though much altruism in nature is kin-directed, not all is: there are also many examples of animals behaving altruistically towards non-relatives, and indeed towards members of other species. Kin selection theory cannot help us understand these behaviours. The theory of reciprocal altruism, developed by Trivers (1971), is one attempt to explain the evolution of altruism among non-kin. The basic idea is straightforward: it may benefit an animal to behave altruistically towards another, if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future. (‘If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’.)”

This only works, though, if you have a way to tell that your back has been scratched, and identify who scratched it. Otherwise you end up scratching a lot of backs and getting nothing in return. (And then the “freeloader” will have a higher fitness than you).

This kind of behavior is modeled in game theory, and in general is called the “iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma”, where a Prisoner’s Dilemma is a sort of competition between two isolated parties who may or may not trust one another ... It is explained many places, for example here .

More quotes:

“The relevance of this result for the evolution of reciprocal altruism is readily apparent. Co-operating in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game corresponds to behaving altruistically, while defecting corresponds to behaving selfishly. ... [B]ehaving altruistically may be selectively advantageous for an organism where there is an expectation of return benefit in the future. So long as organisms interact with each other on multiple occasions, and are capable of adjusting their behaviour depending on what other organisms have done in the past, reciprocal altruism can in principle evolve.”

Of course, an organism can only “adjust its behavior” usefully here if it can detect selfish behavior, or freeloading.

“Theoretical considerations therefore show that reciprocation of benefits is a possible mechanism for the spread of altruism, but what about the empirical evidence? A well-known study of blood-sharing among vampire bats by G. Wilkinson suggests that reciprocation does indeed play a role in the evolution of this behaviour (in addition to kinship) .... It is quite common for a vampire bat to fail to feed on a given night. This is potentially fatal, for bats die if they go without food for more than a couple of days. On any given night, bats donate blood (by regurgitation) to other members of their group who have failed to feed, thus saving them from starvation. Since vampire bats live in small groups and associate with each other over long periods of time, the preconditions for reciprocal altruism—multiple encounters and individual recognition—are likely to be met. Wilkinson’s study showed that bats tended to share food with their close associates, and were more likely to share with others that had recently shared with them. These findings provide a striking confirmation of reciprocal altruism theory.”

So altruism among non-kin can evolve when there is some ability to punish freeloaders. And this has been experimentally verified in a number of species, including vampire bats.

Best,

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