fossil650.jpg
(pic from NY Times, showing a re-creation of our dearly beloved great-ancestors, Nechama and Yekutiel Ben Dag Gadol)

Interesting review by H. Allen Orr, an evolutionary geneticist, in the New Yorker of Daniel Dennett’s (get a load of this guy’s CV) new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Dennett is a philosopher and considers Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be “the single best idea anyone has ever had.”

With that in mind, he set out to apply the rigors of scientific investigation into understanding why religions succeed and survive over time, bearing in mind that some religions disappear. The book seems to offer a survey of the state of the field as well as Dennett’s own ideas about religion, ideas that he hopes to use, perhaps, to enlighten those with firm religious convictions, “Many readers . . . will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that—that’s what I am and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”

Those darned liberal professors, first they bring us dinosaurs and the missing link and other bits of evolution, and now they want to tell us that…

Explaining the emergence of real religion requires a different kind of approach, and here things get complicated. A mind-boggling number of explanations, some biological and some economic, have been introduced over the past decade or so. One was championed by the evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson in his 2002 book, “Darwin’s Cathedral.” Wilson suggested that religion is a kind of adaptation that evolved by “multilevel selection.” Most biologists think that evolution is propelled by natural selection at one level only: among competing individuals. A polar bear that was whiter than its peers, say, could sneak up undetected on potential prey more often than darker bears could, and was thus likelier to survive and leave more progeny. Assuming that the difference between whiter and darker bears was due to a difference in genes, the genes for whiter bears would grow more common and those for darker bears less so.

According to Wilson, though, evolution sometimes involves natural selection among competing groups of individuals. Consider “predator inspection” in guppies. If a potential predator approaches a school of guppies, one or two fish may peel away from the group, inspect the intruder, and then (if their luck holds) return to the school, reporting on the danger. Predator inspection is paradoxical. Why would a guppy take on such a risky assignment? Why be an altruist? Group selection provides a possible answer. Predator inspection might evolve not because inspectors leave more progeny than non-inspectors within a group—traditional individual selection—but because groups that include inspectors survive better than groups that don’t. Although Wilson doesn’t think that all evolution involves group selection, he thinks that group selection plays a big enough role that a realistic theory of evolution must allow for both individual and group selection.

Applying this theory to our own species, Wilson argued that religion is an adaptation of human groups in the same way that the heart is an adaptation of human individuals. Religion is, in his account, a collection of beliefs and behaviors that brings people together, coördinates their activities, and, in the end, allows groups to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be impossible. If my group’s religion is better at this than yours, my group and its religion will spread and yours will recede. Wilson suggested, for instance, that the early Christian Church succeeded against all odds because its creed of selflessness provided its adherents with a sort of welfare state. Christians banded together, aiding each other through illness, famine, and war. The resulting biological edge, he thinks, played a part in the unexpected success of this once obscure mystery cult.

In “Breaking the Spell,” Dennett tentatively proposes another theory that, like Wilson’s, involves natural selection with a twist. Under Wilson’s theory, the beneficiaries of natural selection are groups of human beings. Under Dennett’s, the beneficiaries are religious “memes.” A meme, a term introduced by Richard Dawkins, is any idea or practice—any thought, song, or ritual—that can replicate from one brain to another. When you whistle a jingle from a commercial, it’s because the jingle meme has successfully replicated and now resides in a new brain, yours. According to Dennett, memes let us lift Darwinism from its historical base in biology to the realm of human culture. The meme, he says, may underlie cultural evolution in the same way the gene underlies biological evolution. Just as some genes grow more common and others less common, so some memes grow more common (“You’re fired!”) and others less common (“Is that your final answer?”). Dawkins often thought of memes as mental viruses, selfish parasites on human minds; Dennett, by contrast, emphasizes that they can be benign, or even good for their hosts.

Bringing the nascent science of “memetics” to bear on religion, Dennett goes on to argue that religious memes that encourage group solidarity might outcompete memes that are less adept at encouraging solidarity, especially when human survival depends on coöperation. His reasoning is that the success of a coöperative group is great advertising for that group’s memes. To take a secular example, liberal Western ideas like democracy and free markets might spread not because other nations are persuaded by principled arguments in favor of these ideas but because Western nations survive and prosper, which prompts others to emulate them. If you find it hard to believe that the beneficiaries of religion aren’t human beings but the memes they carry, Dennett asks you to consider what Christians themselves claim to value more than their lives: the Word. “Spreading the Word of God is their summum bonum, and if they are called to forgo having children and grandchildren for the sake of spreading the Word, that is the command they will try hard to obey.” Dennett also argues that you can help a religion grow even if you don’t believe in God. People can become conscious stewards of memes they happen to consider benevolent, and, in the case of religion, the result might be a bloodless “belief in belief.” People who aren’t sure about God may nonetheless be sure that religion is good for society and so encourage its spread.

Finally, Dennett describes a recent theory according to which the spread of religions reflects the action not of Charles Darwin’s natural selection but of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. As the rational-choice theorists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argued in their book “Acts of Faith” (2000), human beings, when confronted with imperfect information, behave in a way that is generally rational. So if you believe (rightly or wrongly) that there is a God, it can be perfectly rational for you to engage in exchange with this well-heeled partner (even if the commodity you most desire can be delivered only post mortem). Stark and Finke are not, then, so much concerned with why people believe in God as with how believers act and why religious institutions spread. Their key claim is that churches mediate the complex exchanges between mortals and their gods. People go to church, in other words, for much the same reason they hire a real-estate agent: when something important is at stake in a complex transaction, it pays to get professional help.

This theory may explain, as a corollary, why a larger percentage of Americans attend church than do, say, Western Europeans. The reason, according to Stark and Finke, is that Americans enjoy a free market in religion. While we have more than a thousand denominations, Europeans often have centrally planned state religions that put barriers in the way of competition and provide little in the way of diverse religious products. “The American religious economy,” Stark and Finke conclude, “surpasses Adam Smith’s wildest dreams about the creative forces of a free market.”

At a later point, Orr notes that,

Any honest Christian or Jew must admit that, had he been born half a world away, he’d be an honest Hindu or Buddhist. This finding suggests at least some adjustment to more innocent views of the inevitability of one’s faith. But believers often seem happy to make these sorts of adjustments and remain perfectly faithful. For some people, the spell cast by religion seems to have less to do with the particular claims made by a particular tradition than with larger metaphysical claims: the universe has a purpose, God exists, or life is sacred. So the more serious question is whether a science of religion—indeed, whether science in general—can undermine these sorts of beliefs.

Darned good point.

Just wanted to point out that I love our meme.

Well, kinda…

I mean, those Orthodox Jews who spit on women who wear t-shirts notwithstanding. Or those Reform Jews who bring their kids to Temple only to have them declare that they have a Christmas tree at home. Or those wimpy Conservative Jews who can’t bring themselves to choose whether they accept or reject homosexuality. Or those wacky Reconstructionists who will accept just about anybody as Jewish if the person even hints at their being a Jew. Or those insane secular Jews who claim to be atheists but feel deeply rooted in their culture and forget that after all, that culture is a religion. Or those Jews who want to appear “good” to non-Jews and do it by screaming “war crimes!!!” with respect to Israel. Or those Jews who don’t care what the non-Jews think and attack them as if they were all anti-Semites…

Yup, I love our meme.

About the author

themiddle

12 Comments

  • “Any honest Christian or Jew must admit that, had he been born half a world away, he’d be an honest Hindu or Buddhist.”

    Well, yeah. And any honest philosopher must admit that, had he been born in a different country or culture, he might have learned some alternative to modern science and thought western science to be hooey. My point? Just because different people are raised with different beliefs doesn’t mean that one of them isn’t “more true.” Had I been raised in a little village in some poor, third-world country, I might not believe any of the claims of modern science that I currently believe. Does that mean that western science is an arbitrary meme?

  • Muffti heard Dennett speak last week on just this topic. He wasn’t really sure he understood exactly what was going on and it all seemed very speculative and interesting. But Muffti isn’t really sure why this sort of work is anti-religious in any way: the explanation of how religions survive, spread or die has next to nothing to do with whether or not the religions are saying true things. Obviously Muffti has thoughts about the relationship, and one might think that the explanation vitiates the need to believe that the religions have any metaphysically interesting starting point. But we should beware of hwat is known as the genetic fallacy. Surely belief in scientific practice spreads as a meme just as anythign else (if the meme theory has things right) but no one would htink that its fitness to spread as a meme has much to do with the efficacy of scientific method at reaching truth.

  • I think G-d puts you where you belong. You can’t be born in the “wrong place” so that’s why you think “wrong things”. I think you get what you get and it is true for you. But not for someone else, who is essentially stuck with what has been handed them, and has the challenge of making a good thing out of it. Finding what is true in it.

    And then there are people who seem at least to me to have no luck at all and I am sorry for them. But it’s g-d’s will I guess. I have to do my best with my own assignment.

    But I can’t stand Kumbaya.

  • Daniel Dennett makes me feel stupid. Not because I feel attacked but because I can’t quite wrap my mind around his concepts, and I really want to get what he’s saying. I can’t wrap my mind around Stephen Hawking’s writing either, but I don’t really care. Math sucks. Moving right along, “Ben Dag Gadol” means, I think, Son of Big Fish. I giggled. But am I only getting half the joke? Are the 1st names amusing, too? Am I missing an another opportunity to giggle? Between Daniel Dennett and possibly missed jokes, I’m not feeling very bright this afternoon.

  • Nah, our ancestors’ first names are just the first things that popped into my head, although you did get the second name right.

    I don’t think there needs to be a feeling of being attacked by Dennett. he is trying to posit why there are so many religions and why some survive (and perhaps thrive) while others don’t.

    As Muffti points out, and as does Orr in his review, Dennett still seems to be exploring this area rather than coming out with anything definitive. I think the meme concept is fascinating and almost seemed like a natural truth. However, I don’t think he’s accounting for the notion that throughout most of history, religions would and could take violent turns which also affected their membership, its quality and numbers. In other words, it was the threat of violence that brought converts in, and perhaps the threat of violence or other form of harm that kept them in line. It isn’t always devotion or the meme that helps religions survive and thrive.

  • That’s true, MIddle: some ideas could be very well adapted for replication but have their hosts dies of starvation, war, etc. etc. But this is true of all evolutionary biology: some animal may be quite well adpated to its environment but get wiped out because of a chance comet. Or nuclear testing. So you have to havec some sense of ‘normal’ vs. ‘non normal’ adaptation and you ahve to come up with some useful sense of what countsas an ‘environment’. And then, as with most evolutionary stories, it ends up looking a little bit less than the preferred air tightness of less special-science sciences. Oh well. c’est la vie.

  • Muffti is right: Dennett’s project is not to debunk the substance of religion(s), but just to examine the phenomenology of belief.

    I saw Dennett being interviewed last week by Charlie Rose, and frankly thought he said some really foolish things. His antidote to fanaticism is some sort of state-enforced requirement that people be made to study religions other than their own. This will make the the scales fall from their eyes, accomplishing Dennett’s more personal agenda of subverting religion? So he thinks.

    At the end of the day, the fact that people everywhere seek after the divine (necessarily, in different ways) suggests there’s something to religion after all.

  • Well, Tom, to be fair; Muffti is pretty sure that Dennett is an atheist and woulnd’t be at all unhappy to point out that once you have an evolutionary story that isn’t lodged in a big divine experience, one might start to think that religious epistemology is even more challenging than it was already. 🙂 And Muffti think sthat Dennett’s project is actually about the causes of the survival of religions, not phenomenology per se. But Muffti thinks it wuold be a mistae to confuse where things come from with whether or not they are true. That’s typically known, ironically?, as the genetic fallacy.

    Muffti heard Dennett make the same claim, though he made it a bit more soberly as a policy suggestion that can do no harm and may do some good, rather than as an antidote to fanaticism. It seemed sensible to Muffti when put that way.

    But while the genetic fallacy looms large for applications of Dennett, a similar fallacy seems perilously close to being applicable to your last comment. The widespreadness of a practice is evidence that there is ‘something’ to it, but certainly not evidence that it is anything good. (i.e. ‘the fact htat societies every where are mysoginist suggest there’s something to woman hating…’, ‘the fact that greed is everywhere suggest that there is soething to…’ you get the picture)

  • Your point is very well taken, Muffti. My value judgment, that striving after the divine is good, is ancillary– my basic point is that such a human need exists, alongside many other human needs/behaviors, the genuineness of which we take for granted. I don’t think that they arise out of some sort of conspiracy from above (albeit I’ve quoted Nietzsche elsewhere today!).

  • Love the photo, btw. Are those guys the Jewish counterparts to Romulus and Remus?

Leave a Comment