Evolution and Everything

Connor Wood wrote a piece titled Darwinism: It’s true. But it ain’t pretty, which I found via Leah at Unequally Yoked. In it, Wood suggests that evolution has left us with psychological drives that are inhumane, and that religion might be a useful corrective.

I’m not exactly sure how to react to much of it. Much of it is hung on the nail of evolutionary psychology. I’m not fit to pass judgement on the academic field, but what trickles out into the popular sphere has a low signal-to-crap ratio. Wood mentions that his exposure came as an undergrad. That makes sense, because he sounds like that friend everyone had in college who took two philosophy courses and suddenly understood everything. I’m hesitant to take him seriously.

This hesitation isn’t helped by some jumps he makes. Early on, he conflates evolutionary success with economic success. The fact that these are not the same should be obvious.

It doesn’t matter how many “large-screen televisions and other flashy toys” I have. If I don’t breed, I’m an evolutionary failure. I think the popularity of this this conflation – at least in America – comes from the Protestant work ethic. And that leads to a second problem.

Wood states that “Religion can offer a proud and defiant response to evolution,” but does it actually play out that way? There’s nothing magic about religion. It’s a human creation that is subject to the same drives and forces as the rest of human culture.

I think Wood has a heavily idealized view of the origins of religion. But even if we accept that Mohammad was the bold re-envisioner of human society that Wood makes him out to be, what has happened since then? Like the rest of our culture, religion has adapted to fit the needs of the people within it. And if Wood is right with his view of evolutionary psychology – (and to be clear, I don’t believe he is, and I’m not sure he believes it either) – then we should expect to see religion quickly come to serve those base drives that underlay human behavior.

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  • UrsaMinor

    If I don’t breed, I’m an evolutionary failure.

    Technically, no. If you don’t pass on your genes to the next generation, you’re an evolutionary failure, but there are ways to do this that don’t involve you personally being a breeder. E.g., my brother’s two biological kids are genetically equivalent to having one of my own. My cousins have also been busy making sure that my DNA is represented in the next generation. If you add up all the offspring, I have the genetic representation equivalent to about three children. And I don’t have to pay their college tuition.

    The lazy man’s way to evolutionary success: encourage your relatives to breed.

    • Revyloution

      Ursa, I know your far more educated on this than I am, but what you just said seems false. Evolution works on two basic forces, selection and mutation. Your brothers and cousins children will have the DNA of your parents, and grandparents, but won’t contain your unique mutations. Any novel genes you’ve developed will die with you. I don’t know that I would use the word ‘failure’ because individuals don’t evolve, groups do. Since our species’ biological advantage is the culture that we are able to pass on in non-biological ways, someone who doesn’t breed can contribute as much or more to the species than someone simply passing on a bit of DNA.

      • SomethingInTheRain

        If you have no offspring but your siblings do then you will share many of your genes with those siblings, it does not matter if any novel mutations are lost, as the majority will still be shared. So if you have genes that reduce your ability to reproduce but are very beneficial to your siblings or their children there is a high chance that some of them will also have those genes, so your family will be more fit then a family lacking these traits.

      • FO

        @Revy: It’s not mutations that count, it’s the main genome.
        Mutations are too small to count in just a generation or two.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          Mutations are too small to count in just a generation or two.
          Not so. Human Mutation Rates

          The predicted mutation rate in humans is thought to be about 130 mutations per generation or 10-10 per nucleotide per generation…

      • UrsaMinor

        Mutations are rare, and as FO says, don’t count in the short term. Many if not most of them are lethal and are eliminated in embryo, so adults carry fewer novel DNA sequences than you might extrapolate from the base molecular mutation rate. The real question in terms of evolutionary success is, how much of your DNA is represented in the next generation? It does not matter how it gets there. There are two ways to make sure it’s represented: the first is to breed, and the second is to support the breeding of relatives who share a lot of your DNA. Full siblings are ideal because they each share 50% of your genes. The more siblings, the better. Two full siblings share 75% of your DNA between them, three full siblings share 87.5%, and so on. But, in a pinch, even half-siblings (25%) and full first cousins (12.5%) will do, if you can scrape together enough of them.

  • mikespeir

    I think this is one of those instances where someone takes a rump roast and tries to make chicken soup out of it. It’s trivially true that evolution ain’t pretty. I suspect most of us accept that Nature can be improved upon. A lot of what we call morality we hold in defiance of Nature. But the argument here seems to be tantamount to the one apologists are always trying to push onto us, namely, that morality must come from something beyond ourselves. No, ultimately, even morality derives from evolution. While Nature may mindlessly urge us to react violently to threat, for instance, we can recognize that our chances of survival are often actually improved by not doing so. The mindless impulse is what Nature has endowed us with, but the ability to tell when to follow a different course is, too.

    I often say I have a kind of faith. I have faith that, ultimately, truth does us more good than falsehood. Delusion, at best, only has a short-term benefit. Often, even that benefit is really an illusion. Now, if someone wants to take my “belief” in truth (which is nothing but whatever squares with reality) and call it “religion,” I may gripe about the terminology. But at least it would be a religion that would have a long-term benefit for the human race.

  • Troutbane

    He may be on to something, but I would actually say that it might be more like ethics and philosophy that might be a corrective counter and not religion. In my humble opinion, religion is good for dealing with difficult issues for about the five minutes from when its created. The problem is, when events change, cultures change, new science emerges, etc, that religion does NOT change. At least philosophers may debate the inherent good or evilness of, say 1000 years from now, whether people should glarkle the plithur or instead fujmes with ideewa (sic). Religion (should it exist then) will keep on saying the same crap it has for the last 2000 years, just cherry picked from religious texts to enforce the present cultural beliefs of different groups, which ALL claim that they, and only they, are the right ones.
    Also, yeah, economic success evolutionary success. Economics success is dependent on an artificially created method of resource protection and distribution. That’s why bankers aren’t collectively known for their hunting and survival skills. Although fictional, “Idiocracy” might explain it better.

  • Troutbane

    Argg, wouldn’t let me use SQL shorthand. Meant to say above ‘economic success IS NOT EQUAL TO evolutionary success’.

  • vasaroti

    We no longer need religion. Instead, we could play simulation games to observe the effects of unchecked Darwinian “selfishness” in various scenarios. Instead of hoping for pie in the sky, we can figure out which strategies and tactics are statistically most likely to result in good results for individual, family, etc.

    We’re not ready yet to design a “morality app” that will offer us suggestions for coping with complex human situations yet, but that day is coming. It will never be perfect, but even the beta version will be a damn sight better than asking God for guidance.

  • Revruthucc

    What interests me about this debate is the willingness of those antipathetic to religion to overlook the good done for the sake of others’ well-being by those who do so in the practice of their faith. Yes, religious zealots have caused far more harm than good in the world. But the people in the pews, or davening in the synagogue, or kneeling on the prayer rug at the mosque, who work to live out the counter-evolutionary call of their faith to help others live better lives should not be thrown out with the dirty bathwater. The zealots become the poster children for religion, leaving the faithful peaceful to pick up the pieces or to be written off for refusing to defend the indefensible.

    • UrsaMinor

      I think you’re missing two very important points:

      1. Religious belief is not a reliable means of getting people to do good.
      2. Religious belief is not necessary for people to do good.

      Good people will do good things, whether they are religious or not (and the religious ones often do so despite religious dogma that urges destructive acts and persecution of others). And bad people will do bad things, whether they are religious or not (and the religious ones often do so despite religious dogma that urges them to treat other people fairly and kindly).

      As a predictor of whether or not an individual will be inclined to do good or bad, knowing his/her religion is about as useful as knowing his/her shoe size.

      • nazani14

        I hope you won’t mind if i quote you.

        • UrsaMinor

          Be my guest.

    • dmantis

      I looooove how critique of ‘A’ is equated to eliminate ‘A’ from the face of the Earth.

      No one here is calling for religion to be purged, outlawed or otherwise deleted from existence. Some of us may argue that if that were to happen, we as a species would be better off, but I digress…

      The point is being made that there is no evidence for religion and that it serves no purpose, despite some vague notion of evolutionary psychology. As far as the good it does, well, compared with the subjugation, violence and misogyny…its like saying “Hey, I very well could be addicted to crack. But atleast I have lost all that weight!”

  • Carla

    Do you know why evolutionary psychology has stuck around so long? Because the vast majority of it’s ideas are completely untestable. Any undergrad can come up with some absurd proposition about how we evolved to like this and do that and have it taken seriously. I ignore the vast majority of what comes out of evolutionary psych, unless it has the words “DNA evidence shows” attached to it, and then I’m still skeptical.

    • UrsaMinor

      I find it a very reasonable hypothesis that our behaviors have evolved for fitness in our native environment (which I take to be small groups of hunter-gatherers with little or no technology). Evolutionary psychology purports to be exploring this, but it really does need to make more testable predictions, and then actually do the experiments. Until then, the entire subject is little more than an interesting set of speculations. It’s philosophy rather than science.

      • mikespeir

        Yeah, I see evolutionary psychology taking a lot of guff. Probably it should, because some of its proponents seem to speak a little too confidently about conclusions not adequately supported. However, some of their findings appear quite plausible and are, I often suspect, discounted more because they take us places we don’t want to go than that they don’t follow from the evidence. Anyway, unless we’re willing to allow that something outside of Nature–supernatural–injected itself into the equation, it’s true by default that our psychologies (at least our innate psychological capacities) have been created and shaped by evolution.

        • Reginald Selkirk

          “Quite plausible” != well-evidenced. I agree that it is likely that our behaviours have been shaped by evolution, but when you get down to specific proposals I have to agree with Carla. Thus the derisive term “just-so stories.”

          • mikespeir

            I agree that “quite plausible ~= well-evidenced” (I’m a Clarion programmer). What I wonder about is the impulse to dismiss that plausibility. It’s one thing to suggest that an evolutionary accounting for a trait isn’t proof, but it’s quite another to sneer at plausible explanations. (I’m not accusing either you or Carla of sneering. I’ve seen it happen a lot, though.) What drives this sneering? It’s like some people have a vested interest in the suggestion not being true.

            • vorjack

              “What drives this sneering?”

              In my case? It’s because so much of evo-pysch that makes into the popular press is so transparently bad and so self serving. I think Blag Hag summed it up with her Pop Evolutionary Psychology game.

              The basic premise seems both obvious and perfectly sound. But I have to question the way it’s used. And since so much of what I am exposed to is, as Reginald put it, “just-so stories,” I have to question the usefulness as well.

            • Reginald Selkirk

              What drives this sneering?
              Lack of evidence. I’m a scientist. I understand the difference between a well-evidence d theory and a brain fart.

            • Jabster

              Probably because of this type of thing …

            • dmantis

              DAMN…you beat me to it! I was going to equate EVO-pysch with ECO-pysch.

              But I’m a Phrenologist, so whatever….

  • Tamilia

    Someone shared this book with me that points out many things in the church that strengthens the urge not to be a Christian. After reading this I saw that those who are least like Christ are Christians! Maybe the author didn’t mean for it to be used as literary suicide to his belief’s position by Atheist but glad it was shared with me. PLEASE Share with your friends! See it here: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/the-zeal-of-thine-house-has-eaten-me and http://zeal-book.com

    • vasaroti

      If you think this book can be used as a tool for pointing out the problems with Christianity, I suggest you write an Amazon.com review for it. Phrases like “the concept of effective structuring in the local church assembly” in the B & N description aren’t going to interest atheists.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Early on, he conflates evolutionary success with economic success. The fact that these are not the same should be obvious.

    The availability of effective contraception has led to a decoupling of sexual attractiveness from reproduction. How many supermodels do you know with 5 or more children? Thus, as you point out, supermodels may be economically successful, but not evolutionarily successful.
    There is also a side discussion to be had about quantity vs. quality. Having lots of kids does you no good evolutionarily if those kids do not survive to reproductive age themselves.

    • vasaroti

      You’d have to prove to me that sexual attractiveness has ever been a big factor in the number of children a woman had. Unless you were a noblewoman, who could potentially leave the marital bed after producing an heir and a spare, men pretty much called the shots.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The Prosperity Gospel makes a mockery of the message of the original gospels.

  • Kodie

    I’m having trouble focusing on this. I read the article from Unequally Yoked last week and I kind of had a problem with it. Then I’m reading the source article, and that’s a little too… much, also.

    First of all, ugly people breed all the time. There is a common phrase, even, “there is someone for everyone.” Let’s put that ugliness on the inside, and even there, almost always, there is someone for everyone. You just wonder how these people find each other, but they do. I was half-watching a documentary on PBS last night called “Born Wild: The First Days of Life” and it was not about cuddly baby animals. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/born-wild-the-first-days-of-life/introduction/5258/ It was sort of about cuddly baby animals, but it was mostly about how difficult life is and how different animals adapt to their circumstances. Some animals were in danger of predation as soon as they were born, and some were subject to a member of their own species, even their own parent, deciding they weren’t fit for survival.

    I think religions in humans try to pretend we are not part of the animal kingdom, that god chose us and made us more intelligent and less brutal than that. Some of us decide it is motivational to be poor and hungry and without health benefits. It is only a motivation to work very hard to survive, to have a job and eat and get health benefits, just like an animal, so it is weird to think of that as one version of a Christian value. The opposite would be charity to the poor, and I think it goes along that members of a church don’t consider their own to be subject to the motivations of poverty, there is a motivation to belong to a church in charity in order to be considered worthy. People in a church will help another member and this is how “it works”. If you are fallen through the cracks, then you are not going to get taken care of, because they see people on welfare as worthless takers, and being taxed so the government can perform such charities on your behalf as wrong. The government is just giving money away, we, the church, can’t control who gets that money and if the people getting it are fit to live or die (be left to their own). Of course, poverty and institutional poverty are problems that aren’t necessarily cured by welfare, but they’re certainly not fixed with leaving people to their own devices. I really think, deep down, some people think it would be easier if poor people would just die before they make it to the age of reproduction, and welfare tends to offset those results. I know some people “play” the welfare game, and how this stereotype obscures the real issue, but nobody really on welfare makes enough to escape the cycle of poverty. If we took away welfare, people would actually die or have no other choice but to join a church. Churches that like to take away the contraceptives people have access to, or education about, as well as the abortions they could choose to have. I am getting off on a tear, but I think a lot of the religious issues intended to “overcome” our biological evolutionary tendencies actually reflect those tendencies very well: belong to a tribe who will take care of you and learn the right way to live, or die.

    Like I said, it’s difficult for me to focus and communicate coherently right now. Thoughts in my head get tangled up as strands of the same issue, so please, I know I said kind of extreme things that have a lot more gray areas than I’m able to concentrate on right now.

    • dmantis

      Extreme…not really. I think you described it very well. It is a tribal mindset that is interwoven into numerous other issues including poverty, welfare, charity and religion’s view of ‘the other’.

  • Zotz

    “…low signal-to-crap ratio…”

    I’m totally stealing that.

  • DMG

    The irony of this article is of course that religions have evolved, subject to all the same selfish pressures as us animals. The ultimate aim of a set of religious tenets is not to make life better for those who hold them, but to recruit and retain more people into holding them (instead of a rival set of tenets).

    Hence we see common patterns across many faiths and sects: only the faithful will achieve [insert good thing], believers in other tenets are damned/dangerous/should be contained/purged, children must become believers from birth, doubting or speaking out against the faith is a grievous crime…

    These ar adaptations for survival just as “red in tooth and claw” as anything biological evolution has cooked up. ;)

  • Carla

    @Vorjack I sneer because even the plausible proposals are largely untestable. Anything can seem plausible without evidence to the contrary; that is the whole point of having the scientific method. When I was studying it, evo psych was mostly ‘come up with theory, publish paper, expect to be taken seriously, ramble about maybe-evidence if not.’ It’s like creation science for atheists, except evolution plays the role of the all-powerful, barely testable god. I’m not denying that we’ve evolved to be us, but until their plausible predictions are testable, they’re just pseudoscience. (There is some new research showing that humans are removing ourselves from settings we evolved to be in, which most negates our evolved responses anyways.)