Monday, August 11, 2008

Leveraging natural tendencies

One of the advantages of experimenting with non-traditional assumptions is transformational leverage. In religion there is always a tension between internal reform and schism. Wilson views schism from the lens of the free-loader. Established religions that function as group adaptations enrich participants. Over time those that abuse the system get more benefits than those that sacrifice for it. As a result the pious in religions tend to be the poorest. Eventually the difference between the religion and the pious participants is so great free-loader reform or schism is required. In the book of Mormon, the pride/rich cycle clearly demonstrates the same sequence. In the New Testament the Pharisees and the rise of the Christian cults illustrate the same point.

When group organizations are viewed from an evolutionary lens Wilson indicates “human nature will be seen as something that evolves rather than as something we are stuck with,” (2002, pp. 219). While I agree with this statement, I don’t think it means reason will automatically overpower other selective pressures for cultural (group level) adaptation. Just because we understand something doesn’t mean we can always control it. Addiction is a good example. I also think academically minded folk tend to resist using building blocks tainted with perceived irrationality, let a lone ambiguous supernaturalism. However, this resistance seems to deny the very world we live in.

If religious tendencies are an inherit part of a normally distributed biology, and supernaturalism, anthropomorphic big brothers, etc are adaptive expressions of this tendency, then shouldn’t the most powerful group dynamic theories be leveraging not denying these propensities.

The expression of and benefits gained from religion certainly aren’t uniform or static. I can understand why some academics would prefer a world of brights. However, is this any different than preferring everyone to be heterosexual, non-violent or altruistic to non-kin? Appeals to ethics seem more than offset by practicality. If you entertain biological reprogramming, practically seems to more than offset functionality or dogmatic preference. If we truly are dealing with evolutionary tendencies, then any changes not accompanied by extreme selective pressure and numerous generations will have no practical utility. Since this is undoubtedly the case, the wisest solutions to our religious tendencies may be pragmatic both in nature and theory.

While this approach may allow religion and science to remain as non-overlapping magisteria, I really don't see how the two domains shouldn't blend together for those who wish greater understanding.


chris g said...

Just to remove any straw-man bias from my arguments against the bright strategy, I should say reformulating the way people do religion may not be a bad thing. I tend to see periods of religious reformation as very fruitful times. I just suspect any attempts to repress religion for one tendency or another may be doomed. In many cases the same class of behaviour or belief may just arise in another guise. I would much rather confront problems head on rather than redefining them so they stay hidden until the day breaks.

chris g said...

I think that last comment also applies to questions about the rate of group evolution versus genetic evolution.

chris g said...

I really enjoyed the final chapter of Darwin's Cathedral. My post was written just before I started it. Wilson clearly distinguishes between factual and practical realism. When using the prism of selection, it doesn't matter which is "absolutely correct" only which one is more adaptive.

"If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. To paraphrase evolutionary psychologists, factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors." (WIlson, 2002, pp. 228)

He also goes on to briefly mention some of the points brought up in detail by Scott Atran (not cited) at how symbolic belief systems can be more effective when they aren't factually correct.