Monday, December 12, 2005

InG we T - Sexual Selection

In Gods we Trust
Introduction 1.4 - Sexual Selection

The second chapter of the book comes across rather tedious, well at least if you are comfortable with evolution related concepts. One interesting point was a brief mention of the relation of religion to sexual selection. Unfortunately this passing reference on page 23 was more of an allusion that a substantive point. This is unfortunate as the idea seems intriguing, even if it hand waving and a priori justifications are all that its discussion can really lead to.

Lots of obscure traits arise due to sexual selection. Is religion one? Coming from a male perspective, I would certainly say women tend to find powerful, stable, secure individuals attractive. This is especially true if they have potential. Some people I know feel very reassured to know that someone always has a little bit more knowledge of the subject at hand. Not that most people ever want to hear about it :), only that it is comforting in case of. Does religion fill this role? As it is often unverifiable, does it's veracity even matter?

If religion hold a promise of potential, it is possible that visible potential is what mates may select for. From an evolutionary sense one could say that we have not yet evolved to distinguish between visible potentials that have substantive promise, and those that are more ethereal. Of course one could also say that such selection has already taken place, and the predominance of religious tendencies show that the potential religious beliefs proffer actually is substantive. I doubt many in Atran's field of study would appreciate this idea, but, like any other number of ideas, it does seem plausible. Unfortunately evolutionary psychology has a very hard time with definitive answers on evolution related issues.

To me the idea of religion as a sexual selector is enticing. Was it once associated with governmental potential? Was it associated with story telling ability? Was it merely associated with abstract thought? Many of these correlations seem to extend beyond sexual adaptation. Even if religion per se is not the adaptation, is it correlated with other advantageous adaptations. ex Can you really being an abstract thinker without religious metaphysics crossing your mind? In this sense, is religious thought an evolutionary spandrel, or it is actually a selecting factor?


Clark Goble said...

I almost wrote up my thoughts on that chapter last night. Like you, I think it will be boring to people who've read books on evolution. However it seems his real point is that selection can select in odd ways - something to keep in mind in these discussions. I really liked his discussion of the throat, speech and swallowing for instance. But clearly things can be selected for odd reasons, like the peacock you have on the post. I think the point is more to argue against overly naive and reductionist approaches to explaining religion evolutionarily.

chris g said...

Yes that chapter was probably to give a better idea from where he was coming from. It seemed rather like the Hawking books, where a grad student fills in many of the intro details. At times the writing was clear and easy to folllow. At other times it seemed unecessarily complicated. It gave me the feeling there were two authors at work. I doubt that was the case, but at times I was certainly wishing a grad student with a more fluid writing style was flushing out this intro material.

If he is arguing against naive approaches to religious evolution, he is putting himself in a tough place. Most cognitive evolution theories are bound to suffer from handwaving. Admittedly he does a good job of ensuring that readers take his explanations as one of several different possibilities. However, the section on Big Brother does seem to shy away from this. It seems like that is his pet take on explaining religious evolution. He certainly has that freedom, however it seems quite a miss to avoid discussions of spandrels (things that get clustered with an adaptive trait).

I think that is why I found the brief mention of sexual selection interesting. It means religion doesn't necessarily have to be a strict environmental adaptation. It certainly could be, but it could also be one of those weird tangential things. Any attempt to pin down the cause of religious evolution seems, unfortunately, bound for scientific failure.

Because of this, it seems more reasonable to analyze religion in terms of phenomenology - just deal with the way things are expressed, ingnoring the reason why they may have arisen. Obviously Atran is hesitant to fully do this. It treats supernatural ideas as if they were real. To get out of this connundrum, he seems to invoke the idea of a wobby base. Rigor is useless if it is built on non-valid assumptions. Apparently sciences like psychology, who have no real foundational base (well at least compared to physics), avoid this problem because of communal repeatability. Thus correlations are reasonable because people can repeat them. Because they are repeatable, it implies a solid base. Because religious ideas are not communally repeatable, it implies a wobbly base.

The problem is, anyone with a testimony would say their religion is based on repeatable event. Thus the wobble is not because religion is invalid, only that the specifics we draw from it go beyond experimental results. This seems to get to your idea concerning the problem with defining religion. Are we talking about the basic beliefs that are universal, or are we talking about the details that are unique to each church?

It seems many of the attacks against religion are dealing with the latter's straw man.

Clark Goble said...

What will be interesting is to see if he makes testable predictions. As I recall, his view is fairly dominant in cog science. You might wish to read that interesting post up at Gene Expressions as it takes on that recent article in the Atlantic I linked to at my blog last week.

I think the Tomasello book I did the reading club on earlier was a good example. It made some controversial claims regarding human evolution. I thought some were problematic for reason I put in my reading club. But they were testable. And this year Tomasello noted that some tests had falsified his claims, although I think they could live on in the modified version I'd suggested.

Clark Goble said...

Just to add, one thing that I think Atran is setting up is the issue of community vs. individual. It'll be interesting to see how that develops. That's an important issue when considering evolution, of course. Something all to easy to forget even by people who ought know better.

jeff g said...

I just finished the second chapter and got pretty much the same feel as Chris did. I'd already read most of the material which he covered regarding spandrel's in other sources and I still found Atran's style in places to be unnecessarily tedious. This, however, was probably due the nature of the beast which he was discussing. While I do think that Gould's spandrel's are useful qualifiers for simple/naive adaptationism, I think that any efforts to take the idea further than that are bound to lead to very confusing prose and muddled logic.

I must say,however, that I, like Clark, did appreciate the breath/swallow/speak part. In fact I thought the whole section on Adaptation, especially the parts dealing which dealt with Creationism, were quite well written.

I also think that the whole chapter would have come off clearer if he had only taken a position on some of the issues which he presented. Since no position seemed to have been taken it was hard to see what he planned on doing with that material.

While his treatment of the innateness of "LS" was brief, I thought that his arguement against its detractors was swift and effective.