Book Review: The God Part of the Brain

(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Contains many interesting ideas, but the informed reader will find much to take issue with.

Atheist Matthew Alper’s The God Part of the Brain seeks to explain the religiosity of humankind in terms of human evolution and the biology of conscious experience. Alper’s hypothesis is that the increased intelligence that gave human beings an evolutionary advantage also gave us the ability to foresee our own inevitable deaths. To prevent people from becoming debilitated by this knowledge, evolution counteracted death anxiety by instilling in us a biological predisposition to believe in gods, a soul, and an afterlife. Now that we understand why we believe in these things, he argues, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that they are all just cognitive illusions and none of them are real.

Although this book contains many attention-getting ideas, I believe the skeptical, knowledgeable reader will find many good reasons to doubt its thesis. Alper has no formal scientific training that I know of, and is a layman when it comes to biology; and it shows. His conclusion that religious belief is genetically hardwired into the entire human species, so that belief in God is a human trait as natural and universal as language or walking upright, is far too sweeping. Not nearly enough in the way of evidence is presented to support it. Other than a brief, footnoted reference to a single twin study, his entire line of argument rests on the assertion that belief in gods, an afterlife, and a spiritual realm is found in every human culture, even if the specifics of that belief differ, and that the only explanation for this is that such belief is a genetically programmed instinct.

Since this is where Alper begins, this is where I will begin as well. It is not the case that every human culture since the dawn of time has believed in a dualistic, Platonic conception of reality. Here is how he puts it:

…every human culture has perceived reality as consisting of two distinct substances or realms: the physical and the spiritual.

…every culture has maintained a belief in some form of a spiritual reality. As this realm transcends the physical, things comprised of spirit are immune to the laws of physical nature, to the forces of change, death, and decay. Things therefore which exist as a part of the spiritual realm are subsequently perceived as being indestructible, eternal, and everlasting. (p.3)

While reading this passage, the counterexample that immediately came to my mind was Buddhism. Contrary to Alper’s claims, Buddhism generally does not believe in a distinct substance called “spirit” that is immune to the laws of physical decay. On the contrary, the core Buddhist tenet of anatman (literally “no-soul”) teaches that human minds, far from the imperishable ghost in the machine that Western religions envision them as, are made up only of mutable aggregates called skandhas that are mistakenly identified as an imperishable self. The belief that the self is immutable and permanent is one of the fundamental ideas that Buddhism teaches against, regarding it as a delusion that causes all the suffering that people experience. Buddhism generalizes this principle to the belief that all things are transient and impermanent. As explained on this site:

The one great law of the universe, then, is change. Phenomena come into being, mature and disappear. They are the result of conditions; when the conditions change, they also change or disappear. Even those things which appear as permanent are impermanent. Entire universes come into being, mature and disintegrate. Buddhism does not recognize a primal cause, nor does it recognize the existence of a permanent, unchangeable substance in anything. Rather, it sees all things as constantly changing, as conditionally created.

Alper’s understanding of Buddhism is seriously lacking. Several times, he mentions the Buddhist concept of nirvana, but speaks of it as if it were equivalent to the afterlife in the Western religions, a place where the immortal souls of the deceased go to dwell. Again, this is a gross mischaracterization of Buddhist teaching, which regards nirvana as a state of non-existence, insofar as it can be described in words at all. In fact, the word literally means “extinction”.

Other examples could be adduced – the ancient Greek Atomists, some forms of Judaism – to show that not all cultures or religions believed in an immortal soul and a spiritual afterlife, as Alper incorrectly claims. The basic point is that the fundamental claim underlying all his assertions, the supposed universality of human belief in the spiritual, simply is not true.

In addition to this, I also find fault in Alper’s scientific claims, specifically his claim that the only way to explain a universal or near-universal human belief is as a hardwired adaptation. Granted, in non-intelligent, non-sentient species that live their lives propelled entirely by instinct, it is a sound claim that any universally observed behavior must be dictated by genes. But human beings are obviously not such a species, and it is here that Alper’s analogies between human religions and planarians turning toward light fall short. In addition to instinct, we have a wholly new level of mental and cultural complexity not shared by other species, and this undermines any simplistic claim that all our behaviors must be programmed by our genes.

Consider a parallel case. All human cultures have also worn clothes, in some form or another. Does this mean that clothes-wearing is also hardwired into us, programmed in our genes? Do the As, Ts, Cs and Gs of our DNA spell out instructions on how to cut and stitch a pair of pants, somewhere on our chromosomes? Are cultures that prefer robes, kilts or togas made up of mutants carrying an alternative allele of the clothes-wearing gene?

As any reputable biologist would agree, this is plainly absurd. There are very good cultural reasons why people wear clothes, including protection from the elements, societal notions of modesty, the desire to attract the opposite sex, and displays of social status. This commonality can be accounted for by basic, general similarities in the architecture of the human mind, and does not require elaborate scenarios postulating a specific selective advantage for early clothes-wearers. As compared to the null hypothesis, the claim that there exists a specific “clothes-wearing” gene is a positive assertion and as such takes on the burden of proof. Without empirical evidence to support such an idea, it becomes nothing more than a speculative “just-so” story, an example of armchair theorizing unsupported by the facts.

If religion is not a hardwired instinct, how else can its prevalence be explained? There are three alternatives:

1. The memetic explanation (adaptive): Religion is not hardwired in our genes, but has spread and become universal because it offered an advantage to human cultural groups that practiced it – societal cohesion and cooperation, willingness to sacrifice oneself in war, the establishment of law and order through divine-command morality, or whatever else – and groups that did not have this advantage were unable to compete with those that did, and eventually died out.

2. The spandrel explanation: Religion per se is not hardwired in our genes, but is an accidental byproduct of some other beneficial adaptation that evolution selected for in our species’ past, such as the propensity to participate in dominance hierarchies, the desire to seek cause-and-effect relationships in the world, or the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena we do not understand. (See Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell for a run-down of these possibilities.)

3. The memetic explanation (parasitic): Religion is not hardwired in our genes, but has spread and become universal because it is advantageous to the religious memes themselves to do so. In this explanation religion is like a common cold virus, evolving in ways that improve its own propagation, even if this results in deleterious effects to the human beings who act as its hosts.

Note, also, that these explanations are not mutually exclusive. Like most complex natural phenomena, religion probably has multiple underlying causes, and the true explanation will almost certainly involve all of them to some degree. Personally, I lean towards a combination of 2 and 3, with a dash of 1. I do not, however, believe that religion is genetically hardwired into us, or that it would have entailed any adaptive advantage to humanity if it was.

Alper’s hypothesis is an extreme version of genetic determinism: any cultural behavior that is widely or universally practiced must be dictated by genes that force us to instinctually behave in that way. No mainstream biologist or evolutionary psychologist that I know of holds to such a strong version of this idea, not even Richard Dawkins, who has been derided as an “ultra-Darwinian” by his critics.

There is another obvious counterexample to this claim: if Alper is correct, how could there be such people as atheists? He offers two possibilities to explain this. The first is that, like most genetic traits, religiosity exhibits a range of variation, and some people will be born with more or less capacity for it than others:

…there are those we might call spiritually/religiously deficient, those born with an unusually underdeveloped spiritual/religious function…. These are society’s spiritually retarded, if you will, or, in keeping with the musical metaphor, those we might call spiritually tone deaf. (p.183)

This hypothesis does have one highly testable implication: there should be a genetic difference between theists and atheists. If it is true that religious belief is a preprogrammed genetic instinct to counteract the otherwise unbearable knowledge of mortality, it should follow that people who lack religious belief but are not crippled by dread must have a different gene that enables them to cope in another way. I strongly doubt any study will ever be performed that finds such a thing, but if one ever were, that would be compelling evidence in support of Alper’s thesis.

But then again, there is another problem: what about people who convert from theism – often very intense, fundamentalist forms of theism, which Alper says lie on the opposite end of the bell curve of variation from atheists – who deconvert and become atheists? There are many such stories that could be produced. Are we to believe that these people’s genes have changed during their individual lifetime? Obviously not.

Alper’s suggestion is that these people’s innate proclivities toward religion may have “atrophied”, or that they have “chosen to suppress” them (p.183) – but if this is possible, it undercuts his entire hypothesis and throws its falsifiability into serious question. Alper’s entire point is that the knowledge of one’s future death is such a horrifying and debilitating awareness that people lacking a spiritual part of the brain literally could not survive and were driven to extinction (he says the knowledge was “jeopardizing our very existence” (p.183)). But now he implies that people can suppress this tendency without serious repercussions?

In a later chapter, this book also puts forth an inventive hypothesis, albeit one that strikes me as highly unlikely to be true. It suggests that America’s high degree of religiosity as compared to most First World nations is due to a founder effect: most of the early immigrants were religious devotees fleeing persecution, who brought their genetic tendency toward dedicated religious practice to their new nation. If this were the case, how would we account for the fact that New England – site of settlement of the Puritans, one of the most fanatically religious of all America’s immigrants, as Alper documents – is today relatively secular, as compared to the Bible-belt South, which was originally founded for economic profit? I suspect, again, the reasons for the United States’ religiosity is cultural and not genetic: the Constitution’s guarantees of a secular government have created a spirit of free-market competition among faiths, as opposed to the established European churches that became complacent and apathetic due to a lack of competition.

There is one more point I have to comment on. Despite being an atheist, despite proclaiming his confidence in science as the only truly effective method of understanding the world, there comes a point where Alper makes a truly bizarre philosophical claim that contradicts much of what he himself says:

As all of our perspectives are relative, no species, nor any individual within a species, can ever claim that its interpretation of reality constitutes any absolute truth… just as flies possess fly “truths,” humans possess human “truths,” neither being any more genuine or “real,” just different. (p.226)

How can this not be read as a repudiation of everything he has spent the previous two hundred pages arguing? If different claims to truth are merely a matter of opinion and there is no way to determine which is more accurate, then his claims that evolution has given us a propensity to believe in God should also be viewed as mere opinion, no more valid than any alternative possibility.

This sloppy thinking is all too characteristic of the book, unfortunately. There are some interesting nuggets of information to be had, such as its citation of a deliciously ironic study that shows religious fundamentalists, not atheists, have often had stressed and difficult relationships with their fathers. But its major argument is little more than armchair philosophizing, lacking in substantial evidentiary confirmation, and contradicted in important ways by much of the evidence we do have.

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