Cleanliness is next to an evolutionary strategy

Windex_OriginalSo Time magazine has an interesting story about social scientists looking at a connection between clean livin’ and Windex. Apparently studies suggest that people behave better when they’re surrounded by the Refreshingly Clean Scent of Streak-free Windex. I don’t doubt this as my own behavior ranges from disorderly mayhem to prim and proper based on the state of my house. (Things aren’t so great right now, thanks for asking.)

Here’s an early paragraph:

It’s the Macbeth principle of morality, says Katie Liljenquist, professor of organizational leadership at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management and lead author of the new study, to be published in Psychological Science. “There is a strong link between moral and physical purity that people associate at a core level. People feel contaminated by immoral choices and try to wash away their sins,” says Liljenquist. “To some degree, washing actually is effective in alleviating guilt. What we wondered was whether you could regulate ethical behavior through cleanliness. We found that we could.”

The story goes into the study — 28 participants in one and 99 in another — where Windex was spritzed into one room and the other left neutral. The folks in the citrus fresh room behaved more morally than the others.

All fine and good. But check out this paragraph:

Nevertheless, both morality researchers and olfactory scientists agree that people do strongly associate physical cleanliness with purity of conscience. It is the notion at the heart of adages like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and evidenced by the widespread use of cleansing ceremonies to wash away sins in various religions around the world. (Truth be told, that practice is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease.)

Truth be told? Truth be told? On what basis, exactly, is this “truth” told? You’ve got the words of Jesus (here and here, for instance) versus the truth claim of Catherine Elton, Time reporter.

Or as blogger Get Anchored notes:

What authority does our writer quote to back up her contention that cleansing ceremonies–like, oh, let’s say, baptism–”is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease”? For that matter, what authority could she quote for a view that is easy to suppose and impossible to prove?

Yeesh.

That little flash of pop-anthropology aside, the article is worth a read. I’m always fascinated with stories of links between soul and body. And, of course, Scripture has so much to say about the purity/aroma link, including this: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him” (2 Cor. 2:14).

For my part, I just wish stories of links between soul and body didn’t presuppose an evolutionary basis. It gets tiring. I mean sure, maybe Lady Macbeth’s character is extrapolating a dramatic arc from an evolutionary strategy. But maybe she was more motivated by the baptismal rite itself. Or maybe it was something else entirely.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Note to Elton: Avoid those “cute” little parenthetical statements next time.

    Note to editor: Hello? Can I refresh your coffee?

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    Heh. I think it’s fair to say that cleansing ceremonies, including baptism, presuppose the natural cleansing power of water as their symbolic basis. I don’t know that “extrapolates” is the right word for that, though — as if we’re meant to picture men of old sitting around musing, “Powerful wet stuff, water — sure does make things look and smell nice and clean. Maybe it’s good on sin and guilt too!”

  • david s

    It’s interesting that the writer and editor didn’t feel the need to explain Lady Macbeth and how she felt about that damned spot. Maybe there is some remnant of a common culture that is still assumed to be widely known.

    In contrast, some writers feel a need to explain the most elementary religious references. Something like: “Easter, a holiday on which Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, ….”

  • str

    There’s more than this one blunder in there:

    “To some degree, washing actually is effective in alleviating guilt.”

    Maybe alleviating feelings of guilt but guilt itself? This is rather a strong statement unless one considers guilt a mere feeling.

    “(Truth be told, that practice is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease.)”

    Mrs Elton doesn’t even has learned his evolutionist lessen correctly:

    Evolution does not try to avoid disease (which rather plays an important role in selection). Individuals do not do things to avoid diseases (that would be teleological) but because they feel like it. But those that felt like cleaning once in a while had an advantage (either by getting less sick or because their mates liked clean ones better) so that they prevailed in the struggle for life while others disappeared.

    Moving forth from Darwinism, the explanation “they clean because they feel like it” seem to me to have some merit. Individuals clean themselves because they like it better to be clean.

    Many animals do some sort of cleaning but it is not always directly related to health (cats for instance even create a problem for themselves by their cleaning and have to choke up swallowed hairs again). And other animals, e.g. pigs, indulge in behaviour that doesn’t seem so clean.

    If Mrs Elton however wants to indulge in teleological explanations, these only work when she attributes the actors with having a certain aim (apart from the direct aim, being clean). Then she should ask the actors themselves what they are trying to achieve. I doubt a candidate for baptism will reply that he wants to avoid disease (if not speaking metaphorically).

    The metaphor of spiritual cleansing is much more direct, bypassing disease entirely. As one washes away bodily dirt, so one wants to wash away spiritual dirt to get … well … clean.

  • Jerry

    (Things aren’t so great right now, thanks for asking.)

    Mollie. I don’t personally know one woman who takes the role of mom seriously (or stay-at-home dad) who would say otherwise.

    I just wish stories of links between soul and body didn’t presuppose an evolutionary basis. It gets tiring.

    I think that’s a good point, specifically your use of the word presuppose. There’s no reason to assume there is a link and no reason to assume there is no link.

  • Stoo

    I notice the item is in the “health and science” section so I’d kind of expect them to be more interested in practical explanations than religious truth claims.

    But it would have been better to swap “truth be told” for something along the lines of “it’s quite possible that.”

  • Brian Walden

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what’s going on here. Professor Liljenquist claims to be studying morality and sins. I realize that psychology isn’t a hard-core empirical science but, still, how does one define a sin scientifically? In Liljenquist’s other comments it seems like she’s studying people’s actions and their feelings about those actions more than objective morality. I wish the article would have clarified the discrepancies in her quotes.

    And what exactly is sinful about the experiments? Declining to make a charitable donation to a charity is not a sin. The investment one was a little less cut and dry, but if the participants were really told that they were free to decide how much money to return to the senders then they didn’t sin by keeping it for themselves.

    And what exactly was Elton trying to say with that evolution comment? That sin is permanent and we can’t be cleansed of it? That sin doesn’t exist? That sin exists but the rituals don’t actually have an effect on its removal? If you’re going to use a bombshell like that you can’t just drop it between two parenthesis, you need to explain it.

  • Martha

    “an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease”

    Washing as an evolutionary strategy? Nuh-uh, that’s bad science! Repeat after me, children: acquired traits are not inherited, so that’s where Chevalier de Lamarck got it wrong and Mr. Darwin got it right.

    On the other hand, learned behaviours can be passed on to offspring, such as the Japanese macaque monkeys which learned to wash sweet potatoes, taught it to their young, and gradually (as the young themselves had offspring and taught their offspring and so forth) this behaviour became common through the troupe.

    Doesn’t make it heritable, though, and it sure isn’t deliberate monkey thinking that ‘clean food is disease-free food’.

    Using “it must be down to evolution” as a catch-all explanation is pure laziness and the scientific equivalent of fideism. Though granted, a newspaper article is not exactly science :-)

  • Jerry

    acquired traits are not inherited

    I hate to disagree with you, but recent scientific evidence says that’s apparently not strictly so. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.39.110707.173441 for example is one journal article on the topic.

    The weight of theory and empirical evidence indicates that nongenetic inheritance is a potent factor in evolution that can engender outcomes unanticipated under the Mendelian-genetic model.

    I would not assume this idea is generally accepted at this point although it might be. Rather I don’t think we can make a categorical statement about it necessarily being false any longer.

  • Dave

    For my part, I just wish stories of links between soul and body didn’t presuppose an evolutionary basis. It gets tiring.

    Why? What’s wrong with noting that an experiment’s outcome is in accord with the germane science? Seems to me that’s good journalism, not bad.

  • Brian Walden

    Why? What’s wrong with noting that an experiment’s outcome is in accord with the germane science? Seems to me that’s good journalism, not bad.

    Science, according to its first premises, has nothing to say about the existence, non-existence, or nature of immaterial objects like souls – they are outside science’s field of study. I don’t know how one can scientifically conclude that an action with a claimed supernatural effect is merely a result of evolution unless one subscribes to a scientism that believes by faith that souls and sin do not exist. Maybe they don’t exist, but that’s not a scientific belief.

    Besides, what’s the evolutionary advantage of another very common practice for allegedly removing sin: sacrifices?

  • blestou

    To answer Brian Walden:

    (Truth be told, the practice of making sacrifices is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to enjoy good high-quality Bar-B-Que.)

    Those men who were able to grill high-quality meats were considered both more manly (and thus desirable as mating partners) and also more divine (as food comes from the ‘gods’), which held the promise of long-living offspring. Thus, the best BBQers became prominent as those divine-men who knew the most about the gods. This eventually evolved into a priesthood surrounded by a cultus in various cultures. Easy-peasy, there’s your link.

    Of course, I grew up in Texas, so the relative importance of BBQ to my worldview may be coloring my scientific results here, but probably not.

  • Dave

    Brian, I doubt that the experimenters originally made references to souls; I believe that was Mollie’s introjection. Science certainly deals with behavior, and the connection between evolution and behaviour has been a lively scientific topic for decades now. It’s not out of place for the reporter to mention an evolutionary connection.

    Whether that alleged connection is accurate or not is another matter, but the topic is germane.

  • Dave

    blestou, the problem with your BBQ theory is that, in the Pretextian world (before Texas), women could BBQ as readily as men, and the selection for a priesthood would thus never happen. ;-)

  • Brian Walden

    Good point, blestou. Maybe the problematic words are merely and strategy. Anything that affects a group’s ability to have children who survive to adulthood can be said to have evolutionary (is that a word?) effects. That doesn’t make barbecuing merely about evolution, nor does it make it an evolutionary strategy. Maybe some people barbecue or perform sin-removing rituals merely as an evolutionary strategy, but I think I’m safe in asserting that’s a very minute minority.

  • Dave

    Maybe some people barbecue or perform sin-removing rituals merely as an evolutionary strategy, but I think I’m safe in asserting that’s a very minute minority.

    Like, zero. Nobody has an evolutionary strategy. Many organisms have reproductive strategies, which can have evolutionary outcomes.

    (This comment posted in observance of the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s publication.)

  • Brian Walden

    Brian, I doubt that the experimenters originally made references to souls; I believe that was Mollie’s introjection. Science certainly deals with behavior, and the connection between evolution and behaviour has been a lively scientific topic for decades now. It’s not out of place for the reporter to mention an evolutionary connection.

  • Brian Walden

    Sorry, I hit accidentally hit submit while trying to quote Dave.

    Only rational souls can possess the knowledge and intent necessary to sin – or at least that’s the philosophical claim; maybe the study never defined sin to begin with. Professor Liljenquist specifically mentioned said “morality” and “sins.” It’s only logical to connect sin and souls.

    Dave, I agree with you that the study seems to be more about behavior and feelings about one’s behavior than sin (which I’m still not sure how science could study directly). The problem I see is the lack of explanation of the connection between the behavior and sin (not to mention the conclusion that people’s behaviors are merely evolutionary strategies). I’ve been assuming this is a problem with the reporting, maybe it’s a fault in the experiment itself and not the journalist.

  • Dave

    Brian, if the experiementers specifically mentioned morality and sin they should be smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. No scientific investigation can arrive at answers about such things. Bad puppies!

  • Bern

    Dave, I’m with you. They did and they should be!
    As should the writer and editor with that parenthetical thing: bad puppies! Bad!


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