Religion and natural selection

Nov 24, 2013


Discussion by: TomRoberts

Religion and natural selection

On Radio 4's Start the Week I really enjoyed listening to Richard Dawkins, Lisa Randall and Rabbi Jonathan Sachs discuss their views on life, the universe and everything, a real privilege. It got me thinking about why they are so opposed and led me to ponder scientific links between religion and natural selection.

 

I’d love the opportunity to address my ideas directly to Richard Dawkins but instead I am going to indulge myself on this forum with three ideas; religion and niche, religion being naturally selected, and religion as an adaptation to do what genetics can’t do.  

Religion and niche

All species have a niche and these niches can include constructions that are inherited by successive generations that make the success of following generations more likely (a rabbit warren for example). As humans have evolved to be social animals and live in societies we have much more complex niche than other species, and enormous power to affect it, but the fact still remains that we create a niche and wish it to be inherited by successive generations.   

Our norms or mores of living and cooperating with each other are so different from any other species that they might appear to be supernatural. No other species takes care of its young to the degree we do, or looks after the sick or elderly, or builds art galleries and so on. These things humans have done for a long time and we view them as totally normal things to do.  As these ways of living together need to be persistent over time, attributing them to something that seemingly persists, a god or the sun, enables this behavior to be passed down from generation to generation.

Is religion therefore a behavioural way of protecting and sustaining our niche by making it more likely for the conditions in which humans flourish to be reproduced?

In some ways it makes no difference how that god is imagined to be, religion is as religion does and as long as it is believed in and persists the idea serves its purposes to society. An example of this might be aboriginal Australians whose dreamtime beliefs have persisted for 50,000 years.

Religion and natural selection

If religion is a shared value system and was created to maintain the social order and in that way stabilise our niche then it is a product of natural selection as it differentiated social groups ability to survive (be resilient).

How many different views about god or gods have ever existed in people’s minds? How much have these ideas been naturally selected? If we go back hundreds of thousands of years how much would one social group’s ability to survive be influenced by its ability to successfully organize itself?

Whatever the god or gods happened to be called or looked like makes no difference, but I think the way that religion expresses itself in social organization would. Are there laws that people were expected to obey, social duties? Were there religions that withered on the vine because their method of social organization was inefficient and unable to adapt and were replaced by other systems?

How much did early religious systems conflict with each other and were naturally selected by dint of being associated with failing social organization?

Religion did what genes couldn’t

In the program Richard Dawkins says that evolution by natural selection runs itself, it doesn’t need any intervention. But what do we make of human development in the last 50,000 years?

Humans evolved ability to make tools and develop language has rapidly created social complexity as jobs were divided up, trade began, knowledge being stored/shared, discussion of ideas, culture, art and so on. While genetics brought humans to civilization the subsequent changes have occurred so rapidly that additional non-genetic adaptations were needed. How are we going to live socially with the ever increasing complexity? In short, human development is writing cheques that genetics can’t cash.

Religion in some ways sequences the societal behaviour that is not genetic. For example, the weekly repetition of church service encodes the community with the behavior that is needed/expected in order to function. No one is forced to behave as a human with the values of social justice, equality, and cooperation but if these values are made out to be ordained or compulsory then maybe there is more chance that they will be collectively adopted and prevail/persist though time and this will enable society to prevail.

In this sense we are not genetically predisposed to be human but we are socially predisposed as we learn how to behave different from animals which let’s face it, have to eat raw food every day and don’t enjoy any of the benefits of being human.

These adaptations have been accelerated at times of environmental stress, for example when sea levels rose around 10,000 years ago forcing massive social reorganisation and new religious thinking about how we live together.

At the end Richard Dawkins says that we need to join together to save the planet and we can do all that without believing in anything supernatural, Rabbi counters that by saying that without God we are without hope.

87 comments on “Religion and natural selection

  • If your hypothesis is that at some point in human evolution there was an adaptation that was essentially an adaptation for religion the answer to that is pretty clear. That is extremely unlikely. For the simple reason that from the standpoint of standard natural selection religion makes no sense. An individual organism with an adaptation for religion will waste countless hours of it’s life doing things that have negative survival value. Sacrificing animals or food to the Gods doesn’t have direct survival benefit for an individual. Going through an initiation rite where you have to starve yourself or otherwise abuse your body to the point where you may hallucinate or even risk death has negative survival benefit.

    If there was a mutation for religion that would give a big advantage to any organism that was born without that mutation and such an organism would quickly dominate and do away with those who had the religion mutation.

    Now, a natural question to ask (and one that scientists such as Dan Dennett and Scott Atran do ask) is “if religion is so inconsistent with natural selection then why in the world is there so much of it?” Good question. We don’t have a definite answer. One hypothesis is that it helps define social norms and helps groups be more effective as groups. The problem with that explanation is that it won’t work for natural selection. Why it won’t work is a long story but just google “group selection dawkins wilson” or some similar set of parameters to see the reasons but for purposes of this comment I’m just stating it as a given.

    So then Why Religion? We don’t have a good scientific answer to that question yet. Some people like E. O. Wilson think that Dawkins and most mainstream biologists today are wrong about group selection. Other people like Stephenj J. Gould (gag, barf excuse me that always happens for some reason when I mention that name) some people like Gould think religion is just a “spandrel” a side effect of other adaptations that are useful and so we just got stuck with religion as a result of having adaptations that enabled us to reason about agents, intentions and social groups. Others, well there are lots of theories, it’s IMO a very interesting unanswered question right now.



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  • 2
    Mr DArcy says:

    Spirits, gods and then religion arose as an “explanation” of natural events for which there were no known causes.

    Religion in its modern form is merely organised superstition. Religion has battened on to the social nature of humans and insinuated itself into the various societies. People live and die but the mistaken ideas are carried on, – hopefully for not much longer.



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  • 50,000 years ago, if you had a new idea, almost certainly adopting it would be a stupid thing to do. The margins were thin. There was no room for error. There was no notion of testing ideas to see which worked better. By far your best source of knowledge was traditional wisdom.

    So you needed mechanisms to enforce consensus and the primacy of traditional knowledge, to discourage innovation. Add some woo to make this stuff sacred, then it will not get changed willy-nilly. The evolutionary purpose of religion then becomes enforcing consensus and group loyalty. It enhances us-them, and makes the competition more ruthless.



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  • 4
    Alan4discussion says:

    50,000 years ago, if you had a new idea, almost certainly adopting it would be a stupid thing to do. The margins were thin. There was no room for error. There was no notion of testing ideas to see which worked better. By far your best source of knowledge was traditional wisdom.

    The big difference in the modern world is the scope and speed of communication of reliable cientific information. The days when priests/monks had a near monopoly of writing, and the limited range of single copies of handwritten books is long gone.
    The book-burners recognised the danger the printing press posed to their hold on power, and that has since been multiplied many times over! Even the commercially bought, and the politically correct, stooges and propagandists of the established media, are now being left behind, as large numbers of people gain access to good educational sources of information.



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  • 5
    Cairsley says:

    Ex articulo:

    “… At the end Richard Dawkins says that we need to join together to save the planet and we can do all that without believing in anything supernatural, Rabbi counters that by saying that without God we are without hope.”

    The learned rabbi’s statement that “without God we are without hope” is a typical example of the inanity of religion. If the rabbi, or anyone else, were able to present evidence of something to which the word ‘God’ might refer, he would begin to add substance to his statement. The best that can in fact be done is to understand ‘God’ as referring to a concept formed in human minds that sought to connect and order in some intelligible, or at least expressible, way the vast array of natural phenomena which prescientific people lacked the necessary knowledge to explain. God is a very basic cultural concept, so teaching societies to discard it was never going to be easy. All the more reason, then, to point out that placing one’s hope in God is placing one’s hope in nothing real. So one has as much hope with God as without. In fact, belief in God can lead some people to rely on God for help instead of taking measures to help themselves. Though the hope they feel by relying on God may have the intensity of unadulterated conviction, their real hope of success is actually diminished or extinguished.



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  • One hypothesis is that it helps define social norms and helps groups be more effective as groups. The problem with that explanation is that it won’t work for natural selection.

    I have been puzzled by this group selection debate. I think all Dawkins is saying is even where natural selection works against a group of animals, it still does its thing by individually wiping out individuals and burying their genes. Otherwise you would have a paradox. Let’s say that a variant rabbit decided to fight to protect its young. Its success should not depend on whether other rabbits are doing the same thing, though its ability to find a fighting mate does. Further, if the gene spread, then foxes might refrain from attacking guarded nests which becomes beneficial to all members of the group.



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  • 7
    Reckless Monkey says:

    You are confusing memes with genes. Evolution changed genes to make us social animals with big brains. The by product of the ability to imagine into possible futures and to socialise gives space for religion to occur as an emergent property.

    Jet airliners could likewise be said to be emergent properties of our big brains but you could not argue that jet airliners evolved. You cannot argue this because clearly if we walked back our evolutionary history you would find an ancestor that could not have (without evolving a bigger brain) be capable of designing a jet airliner. Could Neanderthal have been capable of this (perhaps so) could Australopithecus (I think not). In any case our brains gained sufficient complexity for purposes other than designing jet airliners long before we actually did. I suspect in a similar way religion came about because our brains evolved our brains did not evolve so they could form religions. It’s just one of the side effects of having big brains in a social creature.

    Another factor is how little we pay attention to what religion actually claims to be our big brains are more tuned to fitting in socially than with fitting in with particular doctrines. This is why Catholics use contraception, why most religious people in the West do not practice slavery, burning witches etc. As soon as religion steps outside of the social norms it is slowly dragged kicking and screaming into some sort of line. You see this now happening with Gay marriage. Sure religion has had its roll to play in helping shape some of these many horrific dogmas have held us back socially. But evolution doesn’t are so long as you continue to breed, you can live a miserable life and so long as you breed evolution doesn’t care.



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  • 8
    Alan4discussion says:

    In reply to #5 by Cairsley:

    The learned rabbi’s statement that “without God we are without hope” is a typical example of the inanity of religion. If the rabbi, or anyone else, were able to present evidence of something to which the word ‘God’ might refer, he would begin to add substance to his statement.

    His real, and subconsciously projected view, is that his career and influence as a rabbi, has “no hope without god-delusions”!



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  • 10
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #6 by Roedy:

    One hypothesis is that it helps define social norms and helps groups be more effective as groups. The problem with that explanation is that it won’t work for natural selection.

    I have been puzzled by this group selection debate. I think all Dawkins is saying is even where natural selection works a…

    IMO it’s a rather important concept to get because the way evolution has been so often explained to people in the past — the way I was taught in grade school for example — was just wrong. For a long time even some science text books talked about how adaptations could benefit the group. That’s wrong, they work at the individual level not the group, that is the main point.

    Let’s take your example of the rabbit. For a mom rabbit to defend her nest is totally expected by natural selection, she is protecting her direct kin. It’s just kin selection at work. What is unexpected — and what actually happens with animals like prairie dogs — is that an individual will alert the whole group (many families spread out over a field) that a hawk is near. By alerting the group the animal has to make a cry which brings attention to itself. Making that cry is an altruistic act, the animal is lessening it’s survival chances to benefit the overall success of the group.

    A reasonable (but we now know wrong) conclusion is that natural selection is working at the group level, that a trait that benefits the species evolves for the good of the species. We know this is wrong in two ways. First we can model it mathematically using game theory and second just by doing better observations of what really goes on. What we find is that the “selection” part of natural selection always works at the individual level, not at the group level.

    So what is going on with the prairie dogs? That is some combination of reciprocal altruism and kin selection. Kin selection because the formula for kin selection doesn’t require they be direct kin. As long as rB > C (the Benefit to my kin times the percentage of genes we share is greater than the Cost to me) then it all makes sense from a selfish gene perspective. So if many of the other prairie dogs are my cousins, nieces, and nephews, it still makes evolutionary sense for me to be altruistic.

    The other thing that is going on is reciprocal altruism, the prairie dog “expects” that other prairie dogs will do the same. Which means we should also expect to find punishment and rewards set up to police the reciprocal altruism. E.g., if a prairie dog doesn’t give a warning when it would be expected he gets punished in various ways by the group. Or the opposite, I think this happens to some extent with chimps, the more an individual does certain altruistic acts such as warn the group the higher it’s status and the better mating opportunities it has.



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  • 11
    Red Dog says:

    Here is an article I like by Steven Pinker that discusses some of the issues on group selection. It was in response I think to a recent book by E. O. Wilson so it’s kind of geared toward refuting Wilson’s ideas but I think there was a good general discussion of the issues (as usual with Pinker) here as well:

    THE FALSE ALLURE OF GROUP SELECTION



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  • 12
    Ted Foureagles says:

    I have neither the knowledge nor intellectual chops to enter the group selection or Dawkins/Wilson debate, and so what follows is just my uneducated musing. Refutation that teaches me something is more welcome than agreement. First I’d like to generalize by ignoring religious specificity and just talking about any socially moderated behavior, of which religion would be one subset.

    For almost all of human history we have lived in small bands that, because of our social grouping nature, have been somewhat isolated clumps of fairly closely related individuals. Certain alleles are more common within some clumps than within others because of that relatedness and isolation. If a particular behavior that is a byproduct of those alleles results in survival advantage relative to other groups, it will be selected for simply because the group that preferentially survived happened to have it and passed it on regardless of its reproductive benefit to any individual within the group. And when those groups do interact competitively (not necessarily or at least not primarily reproductively), the more successful group will preferentially carry those alleles. Again, not because the alleles themselves conferred individual inheritable advantage, but because the behavior that resulted from them happened to be advantageous to the group in which they were carried, and were thus perpetuated.

    A simplified thought experiment: Say a varied terrain held two groups of humans — mountain people and valley people, and that they didn’t often interact except when they conflicted as whole groups, and then only in the piedmont between them. Because they remained mostly separated, and because each group was small, genetic differences arose and those differences had side effects of different behaviors. Maybe the mountain people woke earlier each day because they lived where the sun hit them earlier. When the groups met in the piedmont and fought, the mountain people carried out successful early morning raids and so won the predominance of battles. Their genetic profile thus predominated not because it conferred any particular reproductive advantage within the group, but because it happened to be there in the group that won due to behavioral differences that happened to be advantageous in that situation.

    Now if we want we can reduce to something as specific as religious behavior. You could substitute cannibalism or culturally conveyed astronomical knowledge — doesn’t much matter as long as there are group differences and, importantly, that the groups are somewhat genetically distinct. If those cultural differences somehow (it almost doesn’t matter how) predominate within certain groups that perhaps for entirely unrelated reasons become dominant, it would likely persist not on any basis of merit, but just because it’s there and is inheritable in the group that happens to win out, and nothing selects against it. It doesn’t have to be individually inheritable as long as it is common in the group that succeeds.

    As our species fills our planet we become less genetically distinct and more culturally homogenous. We operate in large civilizations that are very new phenomena, and in which inheritable traits have little bearing. Things like religion increasingly seem like throwbacks to a time when group distinction among self described tribes really did confer advantage to one tribe against another and provided scaffolding for not only memes but genes.

    }}}}



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  • 13
    YesUCan says:

    How about an analogy like this one)) Maybe genes build the hardware and perhaps also install the operating system. Then, after birth, our brains are being filled with every kind of “program” (ego, beliefs, values, etc.)..



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  • 14
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #13 by YesUCan:

    How about an analogy like this one)) Maybe genes build the hardware and perhaps also install the operating system. Then, after birth, our brains are being filled with every kind of “program” (ego, beliefs, values, etc.)..

    It’s a reasonable starting point but it probably gives too little credit to the genes. There are a lot of behaviors and capabilities, e.g., the ability to do math, to understand language, to represent people as agents with goals and plans, all that stuff would be represented as software to a computer but they are all things that are to a big extent probably hard coded into our genes and not learned.

    Of course it takes triggering and the right social experiences to bring out these capabilities but the evidence is pretty clear that the ability to use language and grammar for example is something that is hardwired into our genes and isn’t completely a learned behavior. That was one of the main points Pinker made in The Blank Slate and an important distinction in the evolutionary psychology point of view he has and the standard model of the humanities which so many people in the social sciences still use. In the social science model it’s more the way you describe it, that genes give us just the basic OS and everything else is learned behavior but there is good reason to think that view is wrong.



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  • “As humans have evolved to be social animals and live in societies we have much more complex niche than other species, and enormous power to affect it . .”

    “. . . we create a niche and wish it to be inherited by successive generation”.

    “In the program Richard Dawkins says that evolution by natural selection runs itself, it doesn’t need any intervention. But what do we make of human development in the last 50,000 years”?
    “How are we going to live socially with the ever increasing complexity? In short, human development is writing cheques that genetics can’t cash”.

    The whole premise of this post presupposes that we humans are somehow special and have some god-like ability to affect the course of this planet in an almost unnatural way.

    It assumes that we have something called ‘free will’ which makes us other than just one of evolutions ‘agents’.
    In the whole infinite (13.7 billion years) ‘scheme of things’ our ‘vision’ is limited to just a few hundred years where we are able to ‘tinker’ and make minute local modifications.

    Humans are amazing in many ways, particularly in respect to our minds – perhaps it is the explosion of the ego/mind that gives us our grandiose impressions of our place and influence in the universe.



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  • 16
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #15 by Turan:

    The whole premise of this post presupposes that we humans are somehow special and have some god-like ability to affect the course of this planet in an almost unnatural way.

    You would have to be a pathetically bad scientist if you looked at all the data we have on humans as a species, compared them to all the others we know about, and didn’t conclude that there is something unusual about humans and their ability to influence the “normal” evolutionary process.

    I agree with you that concluding from this obvious fact that somehow humans are “entitled” to use the Earth as we please or that somehow we have more moral worth than other species is not legitimate. But it’s an obvious fact that humans have and can do more to influence the planet than other animals.



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  • 17
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #14 by Red Dog:

    You may be wrong. If the related part of the brain is damaged person can’t talk, do the math, remember etc. Hardware matters.. But if you are right as well implications of it would be extensive. For example, where all the abilities and memories are stored in the brain? Maybe within genes?



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  • 18
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #17 by YesUCan:

    In reply to #14 by Red Dog:

    You may be wrong. If the related part of the brain is damaged person can’t talk, do the math, remember etc. Hardware matters..

    That fact actually doesn’t support my argument. You could say the same about a computer. If you damage the CPU the computer can no longer print a file. That doesn’t mean that printing is built into the chip. So in the same way the fact that a damaged physical brain can’t do math doesn’t necessarily support my hypothesis that some aspects of arithmetic are hardwired into our genes.

    I can make the best short argument that does support my hypothesis in terms of language. The fact that human languages show such a great degree of uniformity and that human learning of language also shows such uniformity (e.g. certain capabilities arise at certain times regardless of culture) supports the hypothesis that some genetic language capability exists in humans and not other animals. Likewise the opposite fact, that in spite of countless experimental attempts with primates, dolphins, and other animals no one has managed to teach a non-human animal how to use language with grammar supports the hypothesis that its not just learning but genetic coding that at least in part governs our ability there. One other thing, and this applies to math as well, the fact that identical twins who are raised in totally different environments will show far, far more similarity in their language and math skills than fraternal twins raised in the same family supports the hypothesis that some degree of those capabilities is genetic.

    As for memories being stored in genes. No, that doesn’t happen. We don’t know a lot about how memories are stored but nothing we do know supports that theory. They are stored in neurons and the connections among the neurons. There is obviously more to it than that and a lot we don’t know but I’ve never heard of any credible theory that says they are stored in genes, I don’t even know how that might work.



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  • 19
    YesUCan says:

    In reply to #18 by Red Dog:

    You almost convinced me in your reasoning but no there is something else that you have omitted. Regarding language example, you state that (at early age you mean I guess) humans are capable of using language abilities regardless of race compared to animals thanks to genes and you also support your idea with the twins example. Nonetheless, you ignore the fact (I think it is a fact) that human brain is different than those of animals. That is, you compare human brain vs animal brain. With regard to twins situation, they have similar capabilities because their genes produce two similar brains, in the analogy, like the same two models of a computer. There is no need to bring genes to the stage at all.

    For storage of information, of course I dont know where they are stored. It is just speculation. After all, scientists should search every possible location.



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  • 20
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #19 by YesUCan:

    With regard to twins situation, they have similar capabilities because their genes produce two similar brains, in the analogy, like the same two models of a computer. There is no need to bring genes to the stage at all.

    When I say it’s caused by the genes what I mean is: human genes predispose our brains to mature in well defined ways that include developing capabilities such as math and language. So in the twin studies the fact that you could look at the two physical brains and find physical similarities that would correlate with their similar capabilities in math and language, that supports my position.

    However, just talking about the physical brain doesn’t say much either way. Whether it’s learning or genetics ultimately your model has to imply physical changes in the brain, unless you are a Chopra-type person who thinks studying consciousness is essentially outside the realm of the natural sciences. The real key question isn’t “are there physical changes in the brain?” but “are the physical changes in the brain caused by genetics or by learning?” What I’m saying is all those examples I gave support the hypothesis that genetics play a major role in how the brain learns and uses math and language.



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  • 21
    TomRoberts says:

    In reply to #1 by Red Dog:

    If your hypothesis is that at some point in human evolution there was an adaptation that was essentially an adaptation for religion the answer to that is pretty clear. That is extremely unlikely. For the simple reason that from the standpoint of standard natural selection religion makes no sense. An…

    My posting should have been more clear that it doesn’t hypothesize that religion is a genetic mutation but the examples you give in the first paragraph of it having a “negative survival benefit” seem silly as one could just as easily cherry pick religious behaviour that is beneficial to survival. It might make no sense to us but it still exists as a phenomenon that we might want to explain. We can’t just wish it away. My post was an attempt to explore the question you reiterate in the third para..”why is there so much of it?” but as you say, we don’t really have a scientific answer to that yet. But I’m working on it!



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  • In reply to Red Dog – 16.

    Yes, I agree that as an animal species we affect the planet more that any other, although I was making two other points.

    One was about free will where we assume we can do anything other than our natural conditioning determines. In that sense, although we take credit for messing up the planet or saving it, in reality, despite our very human tendency to care, (or not care) debate and question we are still agents of nature as is anything else – and the way we behave is determined by natural correlates not by us.

    The other point, following on from our ability to affect nature was pointing out that in the 13.7 billion years that the universe has been evolving, anything from outer space – what we would call a disaster – could destroy the Earth as we know it.

    I always have to smile at those films where the Earth is threatened in some potentially cataclysmic way where some scientist, super-hero or ‘Red Neck’ saves the planet. A fictitious example of course but it describes our vanity



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  • 23
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #21 by TomRoberts:

    the examples you give in the first paragraph of it having a “negative survival benefit” seem silly as one could just as easily cherry pick religious behaviour that is beneficial to survival.

    Then do so. Give me some examples. Because I don’t think you really can. Certainly you can give me examples of how once a society has a religion it has positive survival benefit for an individual to take part in the religious rituals. But that isn’t at all the same thing. And btw, this isn’t my idea, that religion can’t be an adaptation because it has such negative consequences. I’ve read several books by anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists about religion and they all start off with an introduction that makes that point. For example the following books: Breaking the Spell (Daniel Dennett), Religion Explained (Pascal Boyer), and my favorite In Gods We Trust (Scott Atran). They all say the same thing in the opening chapter that religion is a puzzle because it is so wide spread in ancient cultures but so counter intuitive as an adaptation due to all the negative effects. Here is an excerpt from the Intro to Atran’s book:

    Everybody, whether they are religious or not, implicitly knows that religion is costly, counterfactual, and even counterintuitive. The more one accepts what is materially false to be really true, and the more one spends material resources in displays of such acceptance, the more others consider one’s faith deep and one’s commitment sincere…

    As for costly material commitment to the supernatural, it is all well and good to argue for analogy with some evolutionary principle of “sacrifice the part to save the whole” (Burkert 1996). But… there is no more likelihood of this being a functional analogy than an adaptive homology. For a bear to sacrifice its paw in a bear trap by gnawing it off, or a lizard to leave behind its tail for a predator to chew on, or a bee to die by stinging an intruder to save the hive seem reasonable trade-offs for survival. Yet, what could be the calculated gain from:

    • a lifetime of celibacy (Catholic priests and nuns, Lamist monks, Aztec sun priests, Hindu sadhus)

    • years of toil to build gigantic structures no person could use (Egyptian, Mesoamerican, and Cambodian pyramids)

    • giving up one’s sheep (Hebrews) or camels (Bedouin) or cows (Nuer of Sudan) or chickens (Highland Maya) or pigs (Melanesian tribes, Ancient Greeks), or buffaloe (South Indian tribes)

    • dispatching wives when husbands die (Hindus, Inca, Solomon Islanders)

    • slaying one’s own healthy and desired offspring (the firstborn of Phoenicia and Carthage, Pawnee and Iroquois maidens, Inca and Postclassic Maya boys and girls, children of South India’s tribal Lambadi, adolescents caught up in contemporary Western satanic cults or Afro-Brazilian Vodoo)

    • chopping off a finger to give to dead warriors or relatives (Dani of New Guinea, Crow and other American Plains Indians)

    • burning your house and all other possessions for a family member drowned, crushed by a tree, or killed by a tiger (Nāga tribes of Assam)…

    Atran, Scott (2002-11-14). In Gods We Trust:The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Evolution and Cognition) (pp. 5-6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

    The lives of these primitive peoples were very difficult. Starvation was always a threat. Yet they wasted countless hours of precious time on religious rituals and building religious edifices and time and again they take perfectly good livestock and food and waste it on sacrifices for non corporeal beings. Look at all those examples from Atran above and give me some comparable examples of how religion (compared to just no religion) was a survival benefit for the individual (not the group). I would sincerely like to see you explain that because I don’t think you can. You can only explain it as a benefit to the group, better cohesion, adherence to norms, etc.



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  • 24
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #22 by Turan:

    One was about free will where we assume we can do anything other than our natural conditioning determines

    I actually posted a discussion topic on Free Will (my reaction to the book by Sam Harris) a while ago. Since Free Will is a different topic and the mods don’t like us to divert threads from one topic to another if you want to discuss that further, I would suggest we just go there here is the page for the discussion:

    Harris and Free Will

    Just quickly it sounds as if you are saying that because we don’t have free will (in the sense of humans being outside the laws that govern the rest of the universe) that it doesn’t make sense to talk about things like human responsibility. I disagree.

    I always have to smile at those films where the Earth is threatened in some potentially cataclysmic way where some scientist, super-hero or ‘Red Neck’ saves the planet. A fictitious example of course but it describes our vanity

    Hollywood is full of idiots I agree. But if you are saying that humanity should just stop worrying about “saving the planet” because it’s all determined what will happen anyway I strongly disagree. I’m with Spiderman’s Uncle on this one, with great power… We are unique in the universe as far as we know and even if we aren’t totally unique (which I think we probably aren’t) we are very unusual. Most of the universe if filled with empty space, rocks, and gas. In one place that we know of so far those things came together to create organisms that can understand some extent of how they got here and how the universe works and can also create cool things like love, music, literature, and art. I think that makes us worth saving and worth saving the only planet we know of that can support such an improbable thing as intelligent life.



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  • 25
    Seraphor says:

    In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #21 by TomRoberts:

    the examples you give in the first paragraph of it having a “negative survival benefit” seem silly as one could just as easily cherry pick religious behaviour that is beneficial to survival.

    Then do so. Give me some examples. Because I don’t think you really can. Cer…

    Not to propose a counter argument as I completely agree with your post, however I think it’s important to define the differences between developed religious behavior and the underlying thought processes that cause that behavior.

    All of the examples you have given are of developed religious behavior. These cannot be extrapolated by natural instincts and emotional drivers. These are the products of lousy logic and a lack of adequate knowledge mixed in with superstition, these have ‘evolved’ not in biology but in the minds of their hosts.

    I think the problem here is that the brain, as the habitat for memes, does not have a self correcting mechanism like death provides for biological evolution, and can bypass this obstacle via contagion to other brains. So it’s no wonder that self-sabotaging behaviors such as celibacy or sacrifice have propagated, they’re not bound by evolutionary restraints, or rather their hosts fates are of no consequence to them. It doesn’t matter if people kill themselves as a result, so long as there are more people who believe that sacrifice is a good thing who don’t kill themselves and who then go on to propagate this belief.

    I think people like TomRoberts are referencing an entirely different phenomenon when they claim there are ‘beneficial’ religious behaviors. There are evolutionary beneficial behaviors such as superstition, herd mentality, kin selection, peer pressure and blindly taking the words of elders, which add more weight to false positives which in turn trends towards survival of the individual organism and the group, but the inevitable byproduct of these is religion. THEN once religion has become established, either as mere superstitious ritual or as dogmatic teachings enforced by elders, it becomes beneficial for individuals to follow it in order to thrive within the group, as you rightly stated. Two separate processes that feedback onto one another.



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  • 26
    TomRoberts says:

    In reply to #23 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #21 by TomRoberts:
    Then do so. Give me some examples. Because I don’t think you really can. …

    Thank you for the book references. I just disagree with your assertion that religion can only have been a cost and harm to our survival as the evidence suggests it has persisted in some form for a long time. Even with what we know now there’s not exactly a stampede towards atheism. The assumption that there was no time to waste seems counterfactual to the evidence that there was time to build edifices and perform rituals. Didn’t aboriginal Australians only have to work around 15 hours a week to provide their needs, leaving a lot of free time for other pursuits although they never built so much. Off the top of my head maybe religion (i.e. accepting a behaviour that claims to be ordained) offered some form of conflict resolution that was important for individuals to exist in increasingly complex groups, or codified the behaviour that was expected in order to function. I’m not saying there was an individual genetic adaption to it.



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  • 27
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

    I think the problem here is that the brain, as the habitat for memes, does not have a self correcting mechanism like death provides for biological evolution do…

    Regarding memes, Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes that I’ve never seen Prof. Dawkins or anyone who supports memes defend convincingly.

    THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES : INFERENCE VERSUS IMITATION IN CULTURAL CREATION

    But setting aside the issue of memes, I think your response essentially comes down to the “Spandrel” argument. Religion really serves no purpose at all, its just a defect in our brains that we are susceptible to crazy superstitious ideas. That is certainly a possibility. I think you are kind of on the right track but I differ in one significant way. If you look at some of the books I mentioned in a previous comment, especially Pascal Boyer’s book, they show some interesting patterns when discussing all the various religions. One thing I like about Boyer is he really goes out of his way to talk about non-Abrahemic religions. And there are patterns to all religions in his view. It’s not just that our brains are predisposed to believe crazy stuff, it’s we are predisposed to believe certain kinds of crazy stuff.

    In one chapter Boyer discusses various proposed ideas for a new religion. As he describes them (e.g. a mountain God vs. a pencil God) he makes it an exercise for the reader: could you imagine this as a religion? Then after doing that he tells you which ones are actual religions and which ones are things he made up. But on the made up ones he also presented them to test subjects and the results seemed meaningful. The ideas that seem intuitively reasonable to me as I read the book were also the ideas that either were actual religions or that test subjects identified as a possible religion where as the non-religious candidates (a pencil God) were rated as such by the subjects.

    What Boyer and Atran (and for what it’s worth me) think is that religion says something interesting about our minds, about the various cognitive modules we have and how those modules make us predisposed to believe certain kinds of nonsense more than others. It’s not that different from what you said but it says that perhaps religion isn’t only a complete waste of time (it certainly is a big waste of time in a lot of ways) but also perhaps it fills some need for the average person and we may need to understand that better as we move beyond it.



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  • In reply to Red Dog – 24

    Thanks Red Dog, yes, you’re probably right re diverting threads. I’ve had a look at your free will post but I’ll wait for a future occasion to chat about free will and/or the position of the human species regarding our influence.



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  • 29
    Seraphor says:

    In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

    I think the problem here is that the brain, as the habitat for memes, does not have a self correcting mechanism like death provides for biological evolution do…

    Regarding memes, Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes that I’ve never seen Prof. Dawkins…

    I’m not strictly behind the meme theory. I haven’t managed to read the whole essay you provided but I can see there’s certainly valid criticism of the specifics regarding defining what a meme is, discerning whether a meme has replicated accurately enough to adhere to the same principles of biological evolution. But none of this rules out the vaguer position of ideas spreading from one person to the next, regardless of how well they imitate genes, as simple analogy of evolution even if not as valid science. I simply use the term ‘meme’ over ‘idea’ for it’s connotations with this analogy, and out of respect for Dawkins.

    This is also sort of my point, in that there are differences in the way ideas are transferred to the way genes replicate through evolution. But there is no denying that they do ‘evolve’ and ‘replicate’.



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  • 30
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

    Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes…

    This is baby and bathwater critiquing IMHO. I think its perfectly reasonable to mooch around these pre-scientific ideas. Blackmore wildly over-claims but Dawkins and Dennett have both moved around their positions back and forth still trying to find the best point of purchase.

    High fidelity copying is indeed the key and the work of Vicky Horner is entirely delivering evidence of its exclusive appearance in humans, in children. Expressions and other simple mechanical routines are capable of faithful copying and may constitute the limit of what can reliably imagined to have any gene like properties. Any greater complexity entities may copy but in the messy mostly formless way imagined for RNAworld.

    It may be, though, that the poor copying fidelity of such ill-defined entities may be aided by the more reliably copied entities of simple mechanical behaviours and rituals, maybe simple archetypes, and narrative forms. These may act apart and together as formal substrates for the raggedy world of cultural ideas, tidying them up perhaps even serving as error correction.

    I have always believed that religion was nothing special, just another cultural artefact, grown most likely from old folk passing on wisdom in exchange for food once good enough language became available. That having used up their little repository of genuine knowledge they made shit up and folk fearful of the unknown were comforted/helped by it whichever. That alpha males co-opted this pseudo wisdom of the hidden people/beings, f’rinstance, who did the stuff we didn’t understand to make bigger groups behave for some unseen authority, some unseen stick or carrot. Thats it.



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  • 31
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #30 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

    Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes…

    This is baby and bathwater critiquing IMHO.

    I don’t know what that means. In that paper Atran gives an excellent argument that the metaphor “meme as gene” won’t work because memes don’t replicate with high fidelity. So either you think memes do replicate with high fidelity or you think they don’t need to in order to be used as a good model for cultural transmission. I don’t understand what “baby with bathwater” means in that context.



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  • In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

    Regarding memes, Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes that I’ve never seen Prof. Dawkins or anyone who supports memes defend convincingly.

    THE TROUBLE WITH MEMES : INFERENCE VERSUS IMITATION IN CULTURAL CREATION

    I read that paper but did not find any “devastating critique of memes” in it. Yes, I know that Atran is no fan of Dawkins, Dennett or Blackmore, but he seems in that paper to direct his critique at cultural ideas held by those authors, not at the existence of memes, themselves, which he recognizes in cases of words or handed down traditions, etc. Memes are analogous to genes, but not isomorphic, and take many routes of reproduction based on context. A basic hand tool as a meme will propagate in a different way from a children’s nursery rhyme and different again from the arrangement of keys on your computer keyboard. Shooting down memes as all the same and isomorphic to genes is using a straw man fallacy.

    Perhaps I missed it, but I would ask you to go back and read the conclusion section of Atran’s paper and tell me where he states any critique of memes, specifically.



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  • 33
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #32 by Quine:

    Perhaps I missed it, but I would ask you to go back and read the conclusion section of Atran’s paper and tell me where he states any critique of memes, specifically.

    I don’t need to go back to it I can remember the argument because it was so straight forward. To be a replicator of cultural concepts, to be for anthropology or sociology what a gene is to biology memes must replicate with high fidelity. The arguments why they need high fidelity are in the paper but essentially it’s the same argument as to why genes have to replicate with high fidelity which we know they do. He presents strong evidence from empirical studies that memes do not replicate with high fidelity.



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  • 34
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #31 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #30 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #27 by Red Dog:

    Scott Atran has a fairly devastating critique of memes…

    This is baby and bathwater critiquing IMHO.

    I don’t know what that means. In that paper Atran gives an excellent argument that the metaphor “meme as gene” won’t work because meme…

    He is throwing the baby out with the bath water. He is throwing out concepts that might yet be entirely valuable if better defined. Cultural unit or idea as a definition is hopelessly wide, in my view.

    Victoria Horner demonstrates that human children unlike chimp children take learned skills on trust even when they are palpably absurd. Chimp children doing the same tasks can’t be persuaded to waste their time so. The humans copy exactly without question or demur.

    Defining a meme to fall within the narrow confines of such an act teachable to children, rituals, facial expressions, hands together eyes closed and talk to a man not there, seems to achieve the necessary fidelity of copying needed.

    I further argued that early accurate cultural conditioning like this could act to aid less reliably copied entities by being memes of process or form.



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  • 35
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #34 by phil rimmer:

    He is throwing the baby out with the bath water. He is throwing out concepts that might yet be entirely valuable if better defined. Cultural unit or idea is hopelessly wide.

    I don’t see how an idea can still be worth keeping (whether it’s baby or bathwater) if it has a fundamental flaw. His argument is that there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning which meme theory people use to explain how memes transmit cultural information. They are using an analogy with genes. He shows that that analogy breaks down in a big way. He isn’t saying to stop doing research on how cultural information is transmitted. I agree if he did that he would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He is saying the meme idea was interesting but the fatal flaw means it’s not a good model to steer future research.

    It’s why he uses the comparison with the solar system model of the atom. At one point people took that metaphor seriously. Then they realized there was a fundamental flaw in that model as well and they stopped using it. They went on to other models like quantum theory that didn’t have fatal flaws and that generated good experiments.

    I don’t understand your point about the chimps. It doesn’t address Atran’s arguments at all. Have you read the paper or just skimmed it?



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  • In reply to #33 by Red Dog:

    I don’t need to go back to it I can remember the argument …

    I have just read his conclusion, twice, and I cannot find that position (dangling assertions in the body of the paper, notwithstanding). Setting some fidelity requirement for memes in general is not valid because it depends on context. Requiring that for significance in culture, and then dismissing, is a straw man. Again, it depends on specifics. The basic stone hand axe was copied with high fidelity for hundreds of thousands of years, and is a meme that no anthropologist would reject. At the same time, there are memes like dance fads that mutate very quickly, but are still cultural memes. Again, if you want to use Atran, please quote him directly, and we can see if we agree on what he meant.



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  • 37
    NabilNaser says:

    It is amazing that great scientists like Ritchard, have not been able to see what is in front of their eyes, The whole human evolutionary experience with its religious and scientific aspects are connected. The answers that Dawkigs is trying to offer are some of the ideas that were present thousands of years. The inclusion of the DNA factor is simply a different way of saying the same thing.
    The truth id that religion includes all the science that we have discovered so for, including Standard Theory, the most proven theory in the history of mankind. The problem has always been that people never knew how to read those holy books that go back thousands of years.
    Out of neccessity, they will soon understand. And what started as religious teaching will turn into scientific teachings that will help save the planet.
    I am not talking about a single religion here, I am talking about all religions. It is going to be the most amazing thing ever.



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  • In reply to #34 by phil rimmer:

    He is throwing the baby out with the bath water. He is throwing out concepts that might yet be entirely valuable if better defined. Cultural unit or idea as a definition is hopelessly wide, in my view.

    Yes, I also got that impression. He is treating the analogy with genes as if a claim of isomorphism, which he then shoots down as in the solar atomic model. The key to the meme concept is the copying of information laterally among individuals, and vertically down generations, that is not held in the genes. The question of accuracy of any individual copy is specific to each given context; if enough information is there to trace where it came from, it’s a meme.



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  • 39
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #36 by Quine:

    I have just read his conclusion, twice, and I cannot find that position

    So you couldn’t find this position ” To be a replicator of cultural concepts… memes must replicate with high fidelity.” in that paper? Here is the beginning of the abstract where he says it pretty clearly:

    Memes are hypothetical cultural units passed on by imitation; although non-biological,
    they undergo Darwinian selection like genes. Cognitive study of multimodular human minds undermines memetics: unlike genetic replication, high fidelity transmission of cultural information is the exception, not the rule. Constant, rapid “mutation” of information during communication generates endlessly varied creations that nevertheless adhere to modular input conditions.

    The last bit about modular input conditions is his alternative to memes. He is saying that what gives us the fidelity to transmit cultural information is not the structure of the ideas but the structure of our minds, that ideas that fit certain parameters are easily remembered where as others that don’t are not.



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  • In reply to #39 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #36 by Quine:

    I have just read his conclusion, twice, and I cannot find that position

    So you couldn’t find this position ” To be a replicator of cultural concepts… memes must replicate with high fidelity.” in that paper? Here is the beginning of the abstract where he says it pretty c…

    Yes, I saw those, which are conjectures thrown in without justification. I specifically asked you about what Atran put in his conclusion, because that is the material he claims to be able to justify. If you look you will find that he did not include those assertions. He would not be able to include those as there are so many counter examples of memes that are passed on in culture with a broad spectrum of fidelity. If you are back in ice age Europe, handing down the memes for making fire and wearing animal furs is a life and death issue for your offspring. There have to be genes to build the brains that can learn these memes, but the presence of those memes will also boost the propagation of said genes. Environments that require learned behavior select for the coevolution of genes and memes.



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  • 41
    Red Dog says:

    One more comment on the meme question. Dawkins doesn’t agree with me about Atran but he does agree (contrary to what Quine and Phil have said) that Atran’s critique of memes is substantive and needs to be answered. I remember because he actually replied to my comment on the topic once. His reply was, at least this is my interpretation, that Atran is wrong about memes not having high fidelity or at least that they have “good enough” fidelity. Here is the comment:

    Dawkins response to Red Dog comment

    The important point is he doesn’t dismiss Atran by just saying “he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater” nor does he have any trouble correlating my summary of Atran’s position with Atran’s paper as Quine seems to. In fact Dawkins says (and I agree) “it’s an obvious point”.



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  • In reply to #41 by Red Dog:

    The important point is he doesn’t dismiss Atran by just saying “he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater” nor does he have any trouble correlating my summary of Atran’s position with Atran’s paper as Quine seems to. In fact Dawkins says (and I agree) “it’s an obvious point”.

    Thanks for linking to that thread; I had not seen that clip. Also, I think that is a good thread to take the meme discussion, if you wish to continue it on its own. In the clip, Richard was talking about fidelity in the context of building bodies for beings as an alternative to DNA. That is not the same context as cultural inheritance. The rapid mutation he replied to you about (“obvious point”) was in the context of the whisper game (no mention of the more general conjecture from Atran), which is the point of the game. That game has no checks or corrections, as would, a formal oral tradition such as the memorization and teaching of epic poetry or religious scripture.

    I will hold off here, unless you want to go to the other thread.

    -Q



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  • 43
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #41 by Red Dog:

    One more comment on the meme question. Dawkins doesn’t agree with me about Atran but he does agree (contrary to what Quine and Phil have said) that Atran’s critique of memes is substantive and needs to be answered.

    I think he feels it obvious and easily answered in a quick post before dinner.

    My position on this is longstanding and been argued for here at least twice. I have argued that the meme analogy is perfectly valid and consequently valuable, when constrained in complexity given the distortion in the channel and that the best channel (the channel most often pointed out by RD for the religion memes) is that through to young children from authority figures. I have endlessly posted the Vicky Horner results and commented on them as being the hi-fidelity channel that we seek to underpin the whole process and provide the error correcting substrate indicated in Dawkins example one. The fidelity issue is trivial and widely acknowledged and Atran’s failure to find value in the broader concept remains disappointing and counterproductive to intellectual progress. Your stamp (sic) of “devastating” was also disappointing.

    Ah! Missed this other post. Will tuck in this comment here whilst I have a chance.

    I don’t understand your point about the chimps. It doesn’t address Atran’s arguments at all.

    It is not about chimps but humans who behave in the unexpected way delivering astonishing fidelity of copying (but only when young!) We expect sensible rational behaviour like that the chimps from our kids, but no. This extraordinary level of compliance and suggestibility when young may be the key to our runaway culture. Why we can exploit niches with great alacrity. Cultural inventions of tools and new environment foodstuffs that won’t kill our super vulnerable young. It may even go into kids minds and not chimp kids minds because because of that very vulnerability, our premature comparatively unwired brain…



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  • 44
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #39 by Red Dog:

    The last bit about modular input conditions is his alternative to memes. He is saying that what gives us the fidelity to transmit cultural information is not the structure of the ideas but the structure of our minds, that ideas that fit certain parameters are easily remembered where as others that don’t are not.

    I am trusting that Atran has a lot more to say about how minds are structured in the first place. The feral mind after childhood is a wild and untutorable thing incapable of absorbing much cultural input. Learning to talk and count and smile and frown, nod and shake your head, wash your hands, say please and thank you, eat your greens and sing and play nicely and tiptoe around Nana when she’s asleep and not annoy your Dad and say thank you to God are memes and combinations of them. Most kids do ’em cos they are told to.

    They are not absorbed because they fit a variety of different templates in the brain. Whatever nonsense they are given they absorb because at the point of delivery, when accepted, they get a smile and a little squirt of oxytocin from an as-if-kin parent-type figure. If that fails to make it stick, then a little Dickensian stick and a squirt of cortisol for negative re-inforcement will get a result well enough. Structure is as much made as, pre-existing, being merely filled or decorated.

    Its these early simple memes and high fidelity copying that creates structured minds that accept big straggly ill-formed, “memes” with any kind of utility, I suggest.



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  • 45
    Zeuglodon says:

    Given that I think Red Dog has said most of what needed to be said in the first comment, I can’t really add much to this debate. What I will add, however, is an extra possibility. That possibility is that religion, and faith in general, could be, in part, an ESS in a polymorphic population, if it is an adaptation for a parasitic individual to claim benefits at the expense of others while deceiving them into thinking otherwise. Just as raising cuckoo chicks benefits the cuckoo but not the mother of the victim species, religions may exist to benefit those who use them to claim advantages or privileges rather than those who follow them. So long as the founder or founders of a religion had more to lose from being exposed than their targets had by being suckered in, the proselytising and spreading of a moralistic bit of superstition to rally allies and gain material goods and prestige could potentially become a viable evolved behaviour. This also goes some way to explaining why superstitions and religions involve manipulating people to behave in a certain way, for instance via commandments and “scare ’em straight” stories.



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  • 46
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #45 by Zeuglodon:

    Given that I think Red Dog has said most of what needed to be said in the first comment, I can’t really add much to this debate. What I will add, however, is an extra possibility. That possibility is that religion, and faith in general, could be, in part, an ESS in a polymorphic population, if it is…

    Thanks for the compliment on my original comment. That is an extremely interesting idea. It’s kind of surprising given that I’ve been reading a bit on both religion and game theory over the last couple of years I don’t recall ever seeing anyone say “Religion might be an ESS” and for laughs I tried Googling “Religion ESS” and no scientific articles came up at the top of the list. The top one was “Mary God or GodESS”



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  • 47
    Zeuglodon says:

    In reply to #46 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #45 by Zeuglodon:

    Given that I think Red Dog has said most of what needed to be said in the first comment, I can’t really add much to this debate. What I will add, however, is an extra possibility. That possibility is that religion, and faith in general, could be, in part, an ESS in a p…

    Honestly, most of it is based more on Trivers’ concept of a cognitive arms race between deceivers getting better at exploiting others’ trust, and other people getting better at spotting fakers. While I think he mentioned it in Deceit and Self-Deception, or The Folly of Fools, it was mostly speculation, with no actual empirical data used, and didn’t invoke the ESS directly, if I recall correctly. He also approached it from a different angle to how I did. I also based it a bit on Dawkins’ chapter on Arms Races in The Extended Phenotype, in which he argues that a manipulation by a parasite or a predator can remain fixed under certain conditions and not “inevitably” be outpaced by a counteradaptation.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lack of research on it at present, given I offered it purely as a matter of speculation. You’d need several psychological experiments just to establish the base premises. Another example of this lack of helpful information is the emotion of elation and uplifting awe and wonder, itself an ethics-based emotion connected to religion, which doesn’t have much in the way of scientific literature either, besides the work of Haidt.



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  • 48
    OHooligan says:

    Excellent discussion, people. Esp Red Dog, Phil Rimmer, Alan and Z, but everyone else too. I especially appreciate the link from Red Dog to Prof Dawkins’ comment.

    There is a point in the original post that has been overlooked so far, understandably as it’s not really the main topic, but please allow me to digress:

    No other species….. (list of things that Only Humans Do, allegedly)

    This heads towards the kind of species-chauvinism that crops up so often it’s barely noticed. I’m not comfortable with this, as in its extreme form it has a human-centric universe, with humans the peak of creation, god’s chosen, and the only beings with souls, or free will, or anything worthwhile. Or was that just the white ones? No matter.

    As far as I know, the only things our species has done that marks it out as unique is to leave some stuff on the moon and mars and fling a couple of things right out of the solar system. Beat that, all you Other Species! Well, that and setting off uncontrolled nuclear fusion reactions.

    I like to regard other animals as being a “kind of people”, not all that different from ourselves, and I delight in seeing examples in nature of things that had hitherto been claimed as unique to humans. Which leads to the question: are there other religious animals?

    Skinner showed superstition in pigeons. Does that count? What about bower birds (one of my favorites)? Here’s an alternative description of their behavior, one I have not seen anywhere else (I just made it up).

    Bower birds are extremely devout, at least as far as birds go. They build temples to their god(s), and take great care of them. Well, only the males do this, as they are a rather sexist lot, and females aren’t allowed to be temple-builders any more than women can be catholic priests. The temples, or shrines, are dedicated especially to the god-of-getting-a-mate, and the young male prays as he builds his offering to the god, fervently hoping that his humble efforts will please the god . And the belief is widespread among the population that the god(s) answer by guiding attractive females towards the most devout, most dedicated, and most accomplished of shrine-builders. The females, for their part, having been brought up in righteous nests, daughters of successful shrine-building fathers, are instructed to follow the will of the god(ess), and to give herself only to the most devout, dedicated, and accomplished of shrine builders, regardless of his other features (looks, size, personality, whatever else she might be inclined to find attractive).

    How would we know if this is untrue? I only raise it because, it seems to me, if humans have some natural tendency towards religion, then so should other species. We are different only in degree, not in kind. Count your toes if you doubt this.



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  • 49
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #48 by OHooligan:

    There is a point in the original post that has been overlooked so far, understandably as it’s not really the main topic, but please allow me to digress:
    No other species….. (list of things that Only Humans Do, allegedly)
    This heads towards the kind of species-chauvinism that crops up so often it’s barely noticed. I’m not comfortable with this, as in its extreme form it has a human-centric universe, with humans the peak of creation, god’s chosen, and the only beings with souls, or free will, or anything worthwhile. Or was that just the white ones? No matter.
    As far as I know, the only things our species has done that marks it out as unique is to leave some stuff on the moon and mars and fling a couple of things right out of the solar system. Beat that, all you Other Species! Well, that and setting off uncontrolled nuclear fusion reactions.

    So thanks for the words at the beginning. But I disagree with what you said there. Or at least I want to clarify what I mean, I think perhaps we don’t really disagree.

    From a scientific standpoint there is something unique about human life compared to other forms of life. You don’t have to believe in God or the soul or any other of that stuff to notice that humans simply have cognitive and tool capabilities that no other animal on Earth has. If a Martian scientist came to Earth and didn’t think that humans deserved special study he would be a bad scientist. No other animal uses language the way we do. No other animal uses math the way we do. Those are facts. It doesn’t matter that ignorant people may take those facts and use them so support unsupportable ideas like the soul.

    Now saying that humans are unique animals in regards to math and language does not imply that they have some special dominion over the Earth. It’s no different than saying hawks have really good eye sight compared to other animals. A good biologist would want to know how and why hawks have great vision and a good evolutionary psychologist will want to know more about human language and math.



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  • 50
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

    No other species….. (list of things that Only Humans Do, allegedly)

    Hi Red Dog
    I don’t think we disagree, not where it matters. When you and Phil Rimmer lock horns, I do tend towards Phil’s corner. Hi Phil, nice to see you keeping the old dog on his toes. My digression was mainly an attempt to drag (some) humans off their high horse and suggest that they’re not so totally superior after all. It is usually the humans with gods that have that arrogance, but they’re not the only ones.

    As an alien visitor, I might be interested in the clever artifacts and habitats of the advanced primates, or I might be interested in the experts in flight, or in echolocation, or photosynthesis, or dam building using nothing but paws and teeth. Or I might be collecting viruses, or the reproductive organs of plants.

    If I was a proud member of any other species, I imagine I’d want to boast about the stuff that my lot do best, and belittle the others. Certainly the humans warrant special attention due to their off-planet excursions, so if I came across space from elsewhere, that might be interesting. Or I might dismiss it – yeah, those mammals have made some faltering steps off-world, so what, we did that millions of years ago. But just look at this orchid!!!!

    I try to take a step back from our “inside view” of humanity. Which means ignoring the complex details of human interactions with ink and chalk and more recent tools, and look from the outside, at what humanity has done. We can’t see the blackboards and the engineering seminars of the termites that build their magnificent air-conditioned mounds, so we tend to ignore whatever stands in their place. Likewise, we knew that bees made honey long before we made any inroad into the complex intelligence reports that inform the hive of where to find the pollen. And then step back in, and – knowing of humanity’s complex interactions, business, education, commerce, agriculture, politics, everything – wonder how deep and rich may also be the interactions within other species, that we know little about. I know the word “anthropomorphism”, and it’s usually a put-down. But it doesn’t have to be.

    My little tale of religious birds was meant to entertain, and also provoke a wider question: are there any other religious species? If not, it implies that religion is somehow an integral part of humanity, goddammit. Hopefully a phase we’ll grow out of. It would be interesting to find if other species have – or had – a religious phase in their evolution too. Whales maybe? They must have a long and interesting back-story.

    How about a naming competition: what would be a proper name for the study of the religions and religious practices of other species?



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  • 51
    Malaidas says:

    In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

    No other species….. (list of things that Only Humans Do, allegedly)

    Hi Red Dog
    I don’t think we disagree, not where it matters. When you and Phil Rimmer lock horns, I do tend towards Phil’s corner. Hi Phil, nice to see you keeping the old dog on his toes. My digres…

    I am in agreement with Richard Dawkins on this fact, religion is a virus of the mind which piggybacked onto an important but slightly flawed neurological function, that is to say our natural dualism and the intentional stance, our ability to assign purpose and intent to things is a natural shortcut in the reasoning process, religious belief I would argue is a somewhat natural consequence of this. This being the case it is unsurprising that convergence would lead in some species to similar behaviour, usually such behviour is advantageous to the species which has it, in terms of ability to react quickly to circumstances.

    The rational process of logic, whilst the only true measure of correctness, is never the less none intuitive to us, our natural response is to imagine intent and purpose to everything,

    The rest of the religious memeplex is more complex to explain and I’ll leave that to others better qualified than me to do it.



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  • 52
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #51 by Malaidas:

    religion is a virus of the mind

    Yes, I agree with the view of religion as a parasitic meme, or virus-of-the-mind. Just speculating on what other species might be susceptible. Presumably it’s not an issue until the brain and/or the society reaches a certain complexity.



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  • 53
    Alongfortheride says:

    Let’s not forget the first rule of “NON-BELIEVER’S CLUB” i.e. atheist. Don’t pick on “BELIEVER’S CLUB”.
    Just hope that they can figure it out for themselves and let nature take it’s course.



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  • 54
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #49 by Red Dog:

    When you and Phil Rimmer lock horns…

    Oh dear! My social skills aren’t the best, so apologies to Red if I come off as aggressive. I do get excited by this subject though and I’m keen to see the latest research co-opted into a more scientific study of culture. There is such a wealth of material now from psychology, anthropology and, best of all, neuroscience, that can be brought together to possibly explain this anomalous animal, man. Culture is the the most notable distinguishing feature and to get to the heart of why it happened I am frustrated that what it may come down to following Atran’s model is an evolutionary development of the brain that made them like locks that only accepted good enough keys (ideas)…..Well sure, formal and aesthetic filters can always be said to apply, but why? How do you get to change all those locks to get better ideas going in. It may be so, but there is a huge task to explain what, in fact, has all the evolutionary appearance of a pretty simple switch flip or small set of flips.

    Sadly the Victoria Horner link is down….I blame no one here… For me that video was an ahha moment, realising in those few years of childhood, brain structures could be built with very high consistency and reliability by cultures, and though off the bottom end of the complexity scale for what most wish memes to be, these early building block memes, created the formal and aesthetic filters used later.

    If memetics is actually this two stage process facilitating wild cultural growth, then I believe the brief time taken for it to happen in genetic evolutionary terms makes much more sense. One or a few switch flips operating say on mechanical copying and empathic mutuality with the young, reinforcing skill and ritual acquisition would now do it. Astonishingly, both happen to be facilitated by our hugely increased number of mirror neurons over apes. They make us good at copying the physical and they underwrite our ability to experience another’s emotional state. We learn to spot the rat spleen and pluck it out and get a dopamine hit from Dad’s approving smile.

    To be clear I am not asserting that mirror neurons are the crux of a process in adult to adult cultural exchange, but only that they may be the switch flip that facilitated childhood foundational memes.

    More riskily still I have proposed that the Industrial Revolution may owe its suddenness and vigor to the unusual indulgence of the English middling classes towards their children. (The French were appalled at such soppy indulgence.) Spending on kids rocketed fourfold through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Both play and education came to displace what for most had been a period of work. The ritual of learning and a habit of playful imaging may have contributed to the inventive explosion more than the doings of grownups alone.

    Jesuits know the power of early moulding on later thinking. The sad results of their research wash up on our shores….



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  • 55
    CdnMacAtheist says:

    In reply to #53 by Alongfortheride:

    Let’s not forget the first rule of “NON-BELIEVER’S CLUB” i.e. atheist. Don’t pick on “BELIEVER’S CLUB”.
    Just hope that they can figure it out for themselves and let nature take it’s course.

    Well, I would, except they’ve been picking on me and many others for millennia, so I don’t feel too guilty when I get agitated about their doings.
    The Believers don’t have any special rights or exalted position in my life, and have no right not to be offended by me, after what they’ve done to humanity.
    As for believers ‘figuring it out for themselves’ – how is that working out for us all so far, since the centuries are just flying by…. Mac.



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  • 56
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #54 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

    Oh dear! My social skills aren’t the best

    I told you. How negligent, O’Hool. I forgot to say, Hi. And whilst your point back then of the exemplar of the meme, ritual, was supreme, in this thread it is possibly the very Pizza Hut of an exemplar, the Super Supreme.



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  • 57
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #56 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #54 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

    Oh dear! My social skills aren’t the best

    I told you. How negligent, O’Hool. I forgot to say,

    Hi Phil. It’s i who must apologise. “Lock horns” was too much of a combat metaphor. You and Red are always perfect netizens and I’m always pleased to have a ringside seat as you exchange views, backed by plenty of solid information. I learn so much from you both, though sometimes it goes over my head. Like this:

    Jesuits know the power of early moulding on later thinking. The sad results of their research wash up on our shores….

    Whales? The Jesuits are behind whale strandings? Jeez, I’d no idea.



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  • 58
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #56 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #54 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #50 by OHooligan:

    Oh dear! My social skills aren’t the best

    I told you. How negligent, O’Hool. I forgot to say, Hi. And whilst your point back then of the exemplar of the meme, ritual, was supreme, in this thread it is possibly the very Pizza Hut of an…

    Hi Phil. You had me confused for a while with the Pizza Hut thing. Did you mean my comment that…

    Rote learning, rhyme and ritual are error-correction mechanisms that maintain the integrity of the teaching, down the generations.

    from this topic

    If so, I’m pleased that you noticed it, and in a positive way.



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  • 59
    marcelo_m says:

    In the past like many here have explained yes, it has its purpose, also in other aspects e.g. as consolation for death. I don’t think there is a relationship with the natural forces of our evolution. Although there had been many gods in history, people eventually started to relay in own skills to work our problems and organize themselves.



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  • 60
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #58 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #56 by phil rimmer:

    This one from the old site…….

    Sadly the link I put in to RNA replication modelling is down also. I must find a replacement. Not only did it show the reproductive viability of surprisingly high error rates, but it achieved its highest error rate survival with the co-evolution of otherwise non-viable replicating elements best described as catalysts and helpers. Hmm.



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  • 61
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #57 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #56 by phil rimmer:

    “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” An alleged quote from Jesuit co-founder Saint Francis Xavier. Their “research” into the indoctrination of young children results in some of the sadder more damaged cases who come to this website.

    Now that I write out what I meant to say I can see that its a good thing I left education early….



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  • 62
    Geffron. says:

    In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:
    >

    “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” An alleged quote from Jesuit co-founder.
    is there any point asking why genes or memes encode for religion at much?

    do we speak this ‘religion’ question about meaning? is that not inherent in the word? along with truth? yet inherent in our- Religon, something set in stone, as if it were the saint of the edifice by which all words are to be measured and all truth to be told.

    naturally if not normally all rational individuals comb this by a release of logic, that logic being I think, ‘words and truth are not set in stone’. this is so soft and basic it tends to rule. logic can be that way, but, so can emotion, which I would say is as stable an imminent concept as to be humanbeing; for care.

    to call ideas programs is an old and, I’m sorry, irrelevant meme.

    to para phrase Deleuze from his book “the fold”- I am NoT a machine but I am full of machines. And this does not state that “all” I am is machinery; in every aspect. gramatalogicaly it states the meaning correlate in its syntax. this being that some of me works automatically, that is conceivable to anyone with a good enough lexicon.

    I feel there is a way out of the meme culdisac. if we call memes, rhymes, eventals, subjects, ideas, dress, states of being, not to go on, but just ‘signs’. this usually serves to bring a chat out of dialectics and bring new tracts to bear. hopefully : )

    repetition, reflelexicon, dance, a dance, oil, a cave full of drugs or a tree of time. these are the refrains and seat of the spiritual search for true meaning, in and alongside all that of children, love, pain and work…..

    I guess my point is that an idea is as old as the lifeforms which propagates it a tendency may rise and fall. but transition is allways there allways at each high point and low ebb. one cannot think of one’s unconscious past. but that past is still there. I think this is what Young and Hesse were on about. Signs that change in a toponomy, symbols that exchange cultural’ speciated envelopes of information?

    Then is there a ghost in the machine. C.f.

    Maybe this Religion’ serves as cultural exchange value, as to quality in expression. Therefor serving its own function, developing, churning, possibly say ‘evolving’ ‘evolving’on its saddles and points all ways multiple and full of thoughts that calculate, feel and remember.
    I was indoctrinated a Mormon, that’s why I mention reflections, sorry their weird. However the cultural monad it left with me is just such a tool that raises signs and gives in return. Meh. Poly-vocal and determined or not. But in general as a religion I know, the product is calmly like any other monad I have of a religion. It is a questioning vector, that lode stone that takes to a walkabout in d’ dremdream, –to a universal grammar. However ordinations from God are- that multiplicity, that sense of the subjective. Generally. A kind of self assembling polyarchy.



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  • 63
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #62 by Geffron.:

    to para phrase Deleuze from his book “the fold”- I am NoT a machine but I am full of machines. And this does not state that “all” I am is machinery; in every aspect. gramatalogicaly it states the meaning correlate in its syntax.

    There are a lot of things in your comment that I didn’t understand but that fragment kind of jumped out at me. Are you even trying to make sense or are you just making up words and stringing them together randomly? If you aren’t doing that can you explain what this means? I know what grammar is. I know what logic and an ontology are. I know what syntax is, but I have no idea what “gramatalogical” is and that excerpt above seems incoherent to me.



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  • 64
    Geffron. says:

    In reply to #63 by Red Dog.:

    The reference is to structuralism and post structuralism. Gramatalogicaly is a phrase from Derieida. It just means grammar that is logical. To point maybe to Chomsky’s work in universal grammar. I guess I mean something about meaning, in my post, that is, in a way about language and the role it plays in learning. What was it you were asking? Is it about language acquisition? I mean to take an anthropological stand point. And also to separate toponomy appropriately. Words can change but grammar is kind of central to us. I mean to say signs of cultural exchange and value and quality, work as prepositions, affects. So as to ‘talk’ about being human and what religion means to each, and each other.



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  • 65
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #60 by phil rimmer:

    In reply to #58 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #56 by phil rimmer:

    This one from the old site…….

    Sadly the link I put in to RNA replication modelling is down also. I must find a replacement. Not only did it show the reproductive viability of surprisingly high error rates….

    Roedy has educated us elsewhere on the effectiveness of HIV’s high error rate. So there’s a wide range of replication fidelity that works for evolution by natural selection. Which alone I think undermines most of the objections to memes. Turning it around, any error rate will do as long as it works, ie a recognizable “meme-like” complex actually persists and propagates.



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  • 66
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #62 by Geffron.:

    In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

    I’m really sorry but like Red Dog I do not understand anything you are saying. The clarification you gave Red didn’t help me either but just made me fear that you may have a Post Modern perspective that places itself quite beyond value for me, post modernism having quite rigorously stamped out the possibility of any such.

    The reference to Chomsky seemed a little encouraging that we might be in an environment in which I was familiar BUT on this issue of the early acquisition of (linguistic) ideas, Chomsky has pretty much counted himself out as a trustworthy commentator for me. I will leave Pinker to explain in the first five minutes of part two of this how Chomsky’s rejection of Natural Selection as having a role in the development of language and language acquisition scuppers him as a useful commentator here.

    Maybe try single point posts and we can negotiate a meaning.



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  • 67
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #65 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #60 by phil rimmer:

    Turning it around, any error rate will do as long as it works, ie a recognizable “meme-like” complex actually persists and propagates.

    Exactly so. That was a very interesting post from Roedy. I remember it well. Cultural artifacts can have very short lifespans, thank Dog. Bell-bottomed trousers, avocado bathroom suites, black tulips. But like eyes, re-invented by evolution seven separate times, bell bottoms may yet make their third and totally unrelated (again) re-appearance.

    500 million years of gene survival contrasted with memes at 50,000 years makes the error rates seem a little more survivable. (Must get the maths exampled here.)

    Besides culture feels like the rich world of RNA soup multilayered, multichannel, and interactive.



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  • 68
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #67 by phil rimmer:
    >

    I also need to throw in the idea of evolving to evolve, recently noted here re-Lyme disease. It seems the case that these bacteria have been evolving to better zero them in on that copying fidelity sweet spot, maximising the chances of evolutionary problem solving, with, yet, sufficient stability of form to avoid a destructive lack of functional integrity for the error rate.

    This is exactly the lever tugged back and forth in the world of human cultures by the liberals and conservatives. Some may want maximum change but will fail to see the destructive potential of too much change and over shoot. Conservatives may be change phobic or just savvy and recognise that the safe place to be might be on the lower mutation side of the mutation rate peak. Too high is certain death whilst too low is a risk only if an external threat makes an unexpected appearance. Sixteenth and seventeenth century cultures in China and Japan were hobbled for centuries by overzealous conservatism (Japan outlawed gun technology to appease the Samurai, fed up with too many Indiana Jones moments.) Almost certainly 12th century Islamic culture went the same way.

    Whilst Lyme bacteria evolved for higher but sustainable mutation rates, memeplexes as we might now call anything but the most elemental memes, could well evolve for reduced mutations rates. Richard’s example I think for the religious memeplex was the absorption of the plastid of Faith. Perhaps the image should be of acquiring chunky end telomeres creating immortal memes??



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  • 69
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #64 by Geffron.:

    Gramatalogicaly is a phrase from Derieida. It just means grammar that is logical. To point maybe to Chomsky’s work in universal grammar.

    I looked up Jacque Derrida. He really did coin the word “Grammatology”. I don’t think it means a logical grammar. I don’t know how a grammar can be more or less logical, that makes no sense to me and I know a bit about grammars from my work with computers.

    They are actually pretty interesting and you can study them and prove things about them mathematically. What this guy talks about is just pseudoscience, I encourage you to read some actual Chomsky or Pinker and find out what grammars and universal grammar really are, they are far more interesting than pseudoscience gibberish.



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  • 70
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #62 by Geffron.:

    In reply to #61 by phil rimmer:

    OK I think I’m getting a little hint of meaning here. I’ve read and re-read what you’ve written and its taken me back to my teens when this stuff seemed the best theory of social exchange around. I dropped it like a hot potato shortly after 1976 in fact when neurological study first started to attach itself to psychological study and the likes of Dawkins’ musings on replicators and the musings of AI researchers created explanations and testable predictions rooting social and cultural exchange in concepts of cognition and inference generation.

    The cod profundity of “signs” actually is rootless scientifically, depending on a subjective assessment of significance (sic). Yes it could be said to map in some unclear way to “memes” but why you would you bother to do so? What cul de sac does that lead us out from and what to? In your world of Theory what sign is not actually copy-able; what meme not significant?

    I can’t be bothered to look but are “signs” sometimes not synthetic, perhaps?

    Re-the underlying logic of Grammar, this is actually a great bone of contention between the logic-is-innate mob and the fewer, less credible, more-blank-slaters, who argue that even logic is culturally acquired. If the concepts of IF, NOT, AND, OR, do not exist already in the head then they cannot be learned culturally, nor then can a decently functional language be learned. The root of the problem pointed out to the more-blank-slaters is that known brain processes are associative (coincidence detection and Hebbian learning) and statistical (Baysesian probabilities). These latter are closer to a fuzzy logic than a formal one. For me, however, as someone who believes the slate is a little blanker than Pinker and much less so than Chomsky, this good-enough-logic (right often enough) is also good enough to be the starting point of acquiring the “cultural machine” the “Brain App” of formal logic. (Calling ideas programs is not fruitful for me but thinking skills or better, processes as programs makes reasonable sense.)



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  • 71
    Geffron. says:

    In reply to #69 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #64 by Geffron.:

    I looked up Jacque Derrida. He really did coin the word “Grammatology”. I don’t think it means a logical grammar. I don’t know how…

    Admittedly I have not got into the Chomsky book I bought yet. As the clip you suggested says, (i had seen this log ago) language is not a natural selection issue. I guess I just wanted to say that language doesn’t always make sense, like religion.
    Are the artifacts of faith that persist, fertility and order, fidelity and protection?
    Could this conflict and adaptation going on be capable of evolving ??



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  • 72
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #70 by phil rimmer:

    Re-the underlying logic of Grammar, this is actually a great bone of contention between the logic-is-innate mob and the fewer, less credible, more-blank-slaters, who argue that even logic is culturally acquired.

    No it’s not. Saying that some grammars are “logical” and some are not is just meaningless pseudoscience gibberish. It’s a statement by someone who doesn’t understand the basic definitions of grammar, language, and logic that a mathematician, computer scientist, or linguist would use.

    Grammars have a syntax and possibly a semantics. You can say meaningful things about a grammar such as is it context dependent or independent. And then based on where it falls on that scale you can say things, provably correct things, about the kind of machine (theoretical machine like a Turing machine or a finite state automota) that can parse the language.

    To say a grammar is “illogical” has no meaning though. I challenge anyone to give me examples of grammars that are logical vs. one that is not, it’s not a meaningful distinction.

    You can say things like “this grammar defines a language with the expressive power of first order logic” that is a meaningful thing to say (and true for a grammar I designed a long time ago). But to say “this grammar is logical” or “this grammar is not logical” that just doesn’t mean anything the way someone who understands the terms uses those words.

    If the concepts of IF, NOT, AND, OR, do not exist already in the head then they cannot be learned culturally, nor then can a decently functional language be learned. The root of the problem pointed out to the more-blank-slaters is that known brain processes are associative (coincidence detection and Hebbian learning) and statistical (Baysesian probabilities). These latter are closer to a fuzzy logic than a formal one.

    i don’t know what that means. When you say brain processes are statistical as opposed to what? There is an argument about statistics and language and it was an interesting argument back in the 1950’s but it’s settled now. No one who really understands language and cognition thinks it’s any more a problem worth discussing.

    The argument was that “blank slate” people — which included both the humanities people who think culture is everything and the Skinner people who think culture and internal states can’t be studied by science — had theories for language which essentially ignored grammar. The postmodern people never even get to the point of saying anything meaningful that can be tested but Skinner did. He wrote a book about Verbal Behavior that put forth his theory about how statistical sampling could take the place of innate grammar in humans. Chomsky demolished that theory soon after and no serious researcher in the cognitive sciences treats it as an open question anymore. Anyone doing serious research on linguistics realizes that grammar needs to be part of the explanation and the evidence is overwhelming that the statistical approach Skinner advocated won’t work. Even any serious behaviorist would admit to that, it’s why most theoretical psychologists realize that behaviorism can’t be a complete paradigm to describe human behavior, because a stimulus response model simply can’t account for human language. I can give you the details why if you want but I’ve discussed them in previous comments.



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  • 73
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #72 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #70 by phil rimmer:

    You can say things like “this grammar defines a language with the expressive power of first order logic”

    You are absolutely correct here and my lazy language misidentifies what I wanted to say. (I am trying to tease out what Geffron was on about, not argue for the specific phrases used.)

    On the later stuff you are referencing arguments way, way too early for what I am trying to say. I have a number of fairly recent papers on the innateness of formal logic in brains and its significance in the acquisition of language. Rather than speak ad lib I shall try and dig those up today.

    Just checked out the Chomsky link. No absolutely no. I am not in any way trying to resell this at-the-limit behaviourist notion of language acquisition. Chomsky is entirely right to think it hugely underpowered and without significant explanatory power. No. We’ve got to a much more interesting position now in logic and language, really very akin to this discussion on memes about how ephemeral can a (non uniform!) substrate be that can still yield a rigid and consistently defined enough form upon it. The concept is that of logical nativism.



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  • 74
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #71 by Geffron.:

    Admittedly I have not got into the Chomsky book I bought yet. As the clip you suggested says, (i had seen this log ago) language is not a natural selection issue. I guess I just wanted to say that language doesn’t always make sense, like religion.

    That’s safe to say. That is a difference when talking about issues related to cognition and say physics or a lot of evolutionary biology. In human cognition things are still so poorly understood you can point to just about anything and say there are things we don’t even begin to understand yet and language and religion certainly both fall into those categories.

    I guess that is why my nose gets a bit out of joint when people use terms such as “language” and “logic” in ways that I think aren’t precise or correct. There is so much we don’t know I think it’s important to acknowledge there are a few things we do know and we may as well use the terminology we have correctly when we talk about them.

    And, not that there is any reason you should listen to me but I’ll say this anyway, I would strongly encourage you to do some more general reading on the nature of science vs. pseudoscience before you waste any more time reading things by or about people like Derrida. I looked at his Wikipedia page and IMO his work is essentially meaningless. Actually as I get older it appalls me more and more to see how someone who obviously must have some brains, there can be some internal logic to these postmodern models, can waste so much time and so much time of other people on what is IMO essentially worthless.

    Dawkins and Chomsky would disagree on a lot but I think they would both agree with me on that last statement. Read some Michael Schermer. Get The Devil’s Chaplain by Dawkins and read the very funny and insightful article there on postmodernism. Look into the case where a physics professor managed to scam the postmodern world by submitting a paper of pure BS but they took it seriously. Language is a fascinating topic and Chomsky has a lot to say about it as do Pinker and many others. I would focus on people like that who say meaningful testable things rather than the pseudoscience of postmodernism.



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  • 75
    Geffron. says:

    In reply to #72 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #70 by phil rimmer:

    Re-the underlying logic of Grammar, this is actually a great bone of contention between the logic-is-innate mob and the fewer, less credible, more-blank-slaters, who argue that even logic is culturally acquired.

    No it’s …

    Hay sorry but I only used the word in reference to deleuze. I can drop the whole subject really. (Your points noted).

    This idea of plastid’s interests me. Also this fidelity sweet spot.
    Is a memeplex producing inference in a community?
    I think then that could make religion a cultural interface (process)? With Mechanic apparatus guidance, or process thinking guidance…

    Is cultural and social interface then a good way of seeing the/an evolution? The memes worth in protection, care, reproductive ways and social cohesion. Are the basic requirements of sucsess.

    I’m no DNA scientist but I’m very interested in this tread, for my own learning.



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  • 76
    phil rimmer says:

    Incidentally, and apologies for taking this thread seemingly further off topic (though I hope we’ll make a grand swoop back later), whilst going through my accumulated language acquisition dox I found the reference to the feral child I wanted to link to earlier and then this great wiki article on her Genie. Language acquisition and use is nicely detailed.

    For me it argues very strongly for the significance of (timely) acculturation on language acquisition.



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  • 77
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #76 by phil rimmer:

    I found the reference to the feral child I wanted to link to earlier and then this great wiki article on her Genie. Language acquisition and use is nicely detailed. For me it argues very strongly for the significance of (timely) acculturation on language acquisition

    Chomsky and the Pinker talk about these tragic examples. At first you can look at it and say that it’s evidence that language can’t be genetic. If it was genetic a child raised alone would still develop a language right? Obviously they don’t so obviously language isn’t genetic. That’s the essential argument and it oversimplifies the way genes can work. When we say that a gene gives you this capability or that capability it seldom means that the capability will develop independent of environmental stimulation and nurturing.

    So consider things like vision or the ability of a bird to fly. If you raised a bird in a closed box with no light and didn’t let it fly or see for years and just provided it with food my guess is that the bird would not be able to either see or fly very well if at all. That doesn’t mind that vision in hawks or that the ability to fly is not to a great extent hard coded into the genes. It just means that what is coded are certain tendencies and raw abilities. Those tendencies and abilities require the appropriate stimulation and nurturing to develop and without that stimulation they won’t develop but that doesn’t imply that they aren’t triggered by genes.



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  • 78
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #67 by phil rimmer:

    bell bottoms may yet make their third and totally unrelated (again) re-appearance

    But not until you’ve cleared the last lot out your wardrobe.



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  • 79
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #77 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #76 by phil rimmer:

    Those tendencies and abilities require the appropriate stimulation and nurturing to develop and without that stimulation they won’t develop but that doesn’t imply that they aren’t triggered by genes.

    Indeed. We have that belief in common. It is how much structure used in cognition say arises from the genetic bequest of neuronal structures like thus and so, modular regions, some stacks of uncommitted inference generator, feedback Von Economo cells, error detectors and how much comes from the detail of stimulation provided.

    The fact of synaesthesia indicates that inference generation about stimuli may be rather random and excessive at first and get trimmed back through a process of apoptosis and Hebbian unwiring to a more useful and parsimonious level.

    It is possible you may argue that Chomsky intended that structure was there as some sort of Field Programable Gate Array and that sensory stimulation select which of the over-provision of gates gets reinforced into permanence to optimise utility. But this is my argument. Chomsky’s real argument is surely that the specific gates are mostly in position and simply need some form of commissioning to burst into useful life. These competing views meet in the middle, but it seems to me that Chomsky’s commissioning process is curiously spurious if the gates are already there and unhelpful and besides morphs back into my argument the moment you imagine a rich set of possibilities (as synaesthesia indicates for us) and used with a process of very detailed partial commissioning. Such specific stimulation is cultural stimulation. The rich array of mostly unwanted potential associations are my slightly blanker, more subtle slate.

    A kitten acculturated to a world of vertical lines will never see horizontal ones. A lifetime of living in the densest jungle will defeat distance scaling forevermore (rhinos on the savannah are taken to be insects.) Bringing it back to Atran and memes-

    I will rephrase so you cannot possibly refuse me. Selective early commissioning of infant cognition by cultural means affects the acquisition of ideas. Expose toddlers to the “fact” of invisible agents, or all important things are easy to understand, or everything is always someones fault, smack things that hurt . Selectively commission and memes are things.



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  • 80
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #75 by Geffron.:

    Is a memeplex producing inference in a community?

    Is that another example of a grammatically correct but meaningless sentence, as per earlier discussions? I can parse it, but that’s as far as it goes. Do Jesuits really strand whales?



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  • 81
    OHooligan says:

    In reply to #77 by Red Dog:

    Those tendencies and abilities require the appropriate stimulation and nurturing to develop and without that stimulation they won’t develop but that doesn’t imply that they aren’t triggered by genes.

    Once I had the delightful experience of watching a pair of birds teach their offspring to fly. First time I saw it, it had crash-landed, and I rescued it, bringing it back uphill (getting dive-bombed by the parents for my troubles) and letting it fly away. It could only glide, and crash-landed again. I left the parents to sort it out. Later I saw it perched low in a tree, with the parents swooping in and out and haranguing it. I don’t know if they brought it food, but man were they giving it an earful. It stayed, sulkily it looked to me, on that branch for ages. A day or so later I saw the three of them flying around high over the trees, baby in the middle of the group. Australian Magpies they were.

    I don’t doubt that had I kidnapped that baby bird and kept it in a box, with ample food and no encouragement to fly, it would have hopped around for the rest of its days.

    It looked to me like birds need to learn how to fly about as much as humans need to learn how to drive. They have the aptitude to learn, given the opportunity and the right training, but it’s not as “instinctive” as (say) breathing. I can readily understand the evolution of flightless birds, they would “lose the knack” long before they lost the right kind of feathers and muscles.



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  • Alan Turing became interested in the question of how identical cells could develop into different parts of a body, and wrote a paper in 1952, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”, that was way ahead of its time. A key concept is that units of cellular automata do not need to have separate instructions about what to do in the future if something about the situation around them will break the symmetry when they all try to do the same thing. That is what we see in specific neural wiring, and fine vascularization and your dermal ridges (that make you leave finger prints) or even spots on dogs.

    In those cases symmetry can be broken by diffusion of message chemicals provided by the cells themselves, but it can also be gravity or heat or light or feedback from motion etc. As others have noted, the development of neural networks is enhanced or pruned back based on environmental interactions (especially feedback) which is why the interaction with the world provides us with vastly more capabilities than can be specifically coded in our genes. We inherent our genetic foundation, but what is built on that foundation depends on what we encounter, and interact with, on our way.



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  • 83
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #81 by OHooligan:

    In reply to #77 by Red Dog:

    Those tendencies and abilities require the appropriate stimulation and nurturing to develop and without that stimulation they won’t develop but that doesn’t imply that they aren’t triggered by genes.

    Once I had the delightful experience of watching a pair of birds teach…

    Sweet.

    This gobsmacked me. I wonder if the soundtrack is Barry White?



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  • 84
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #82 by Quine:

    Alan Turing became interested in the question of how identical cells could develop into different parts of a body, and wrote a paper in 1952, “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis”, that was way ahead of its time. A key concept is that units of cellular automata do not need to have separate instructi…

    Darn where did I read about this recently? Was it you? I love how subtly seemingly robust structures can be formed in nature.

    We inherent our genetic foundation, but what is built on that foundation depends on what we encounter, and interact with, on our way.

    Exactly so. The next thing to know is what degrees of freedom are there and how robust is the outcome? In our little lacunae of order how far away is the chaotic edge?



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  • 85
    phil rimmer says:

    I sadly don’t have the time today but I wanted to introduce two ideas (probably already familiar but not in this context.) I shall do so and leave them hanging.

    If the first wave of meme transfer/selective commissioning is more accurately achieved if it is mechanical (I will propose at least with a mechanical/physical component) then we might start to wonder at our richly metaphorical brains and the evolution in our noodles of abstract, non-physical concepts. Metaphor clearly has some sort of association with synaesthesia, but what? (What’s always intrigued me is that the pruning back of the young synaesthetic brain may work in a way that leaves once connected, still functioning artifacts behind.) Metaphor is clearly part of a future meme selecting process.

    And whilst we are in the Ramachandran area of aesthetics, if aesthetic drives can be these rather spurious second order cause of behaviours due to the just-good-enough creation of primitive kin or fitness detectors, say. (I do have primitive kin…but I mean the detector is primitive……but for fitness detector I do mean as in, forgive me, “she’s fit.”) we might be able to mark out the Chomsky/genetic bits of primitive aesthetic meme/idea selection and see if there is some higher more pliable level of culturally derived aesthetics…..

    Darn…late.



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  • 86
    Malaidas says:

    Quote: ” Rabbi counters that by saying that without God we are without hope.”. Nonsense, typical theist tripe.

    3 simple points:

    1) We do not need god to be moralistic, in fact we need to use our own sense of morality to ignore the parts of the bible which are plainly amoral. This would be true of the Koran, but its not possible seeing as questioning a single word of it (no matter how contradictory or stupid) sends you straight to hell. In general our built in sense of morality, through the altruism instinct far outranks the morality depicted in scripture.

    2) Atheists have just as much hope as believers in a supernatural entity. Religion leads to the destructive: self righteousness, bigotry, intolerance, violence etc, etc. Atheism does not, although yes atheists CAN independently of being an atheist become such, it is the nature of a theist religion to breed such, it is not the nature of atheism to do such. groups don’t fight each other, in atheism, we don;t need to we as rely on evidence to settle in-group/out-group disputes, not unprovable text that was virtually 100% certainly written by normal human beings with no spiritual insight, which are therefore unreconcilable.

    3) We have come along way in the last century or so, largely in spite of religion rather than because it. If anything religion has been the direct cause for us not progressing further from the brutality of our past.

    I would argue therefore that ‘With God we are without Hope’



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  • 87
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #71 by Geffron.:

    In reply to #69 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #64 by Geffron.:

    I looked up Jacque Derrida. He really did coin the word “Grammatology”. I don’t think it means a logical grammar. I don’t know how…

    Admittedly I have not got into the Chomsky book I bought yet. As the clip you suggested says, (i had seen…

    Not sure if you are still monitoring this but I was just watching a video of Chomsky talking about science and left wing criticism and it made me think back to this conversation. Regarding Derrida if you get a chance listen to what Chomsky says in this video about Postmodernism and people like Derrida (he doesn’t mention Derrida by name but I think what he says applies to him and all the people like him). There is a lot of intro stuff, the interesting discussion starts around minute 8.



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