So, as fun as it was over the weekend to take my Physical Anthro professor up on the task of putting together a fabulous, mind-blowing presentation on Aquatic Ape Theory, that also used up what was to be my final project/presentation for the class.

Backup plan: Superstition and Spirituality as an Evolutionary Device.

Between buzz about the "God Gene," and an intriguing bit in a book I'm reading suggesting that we're hardwired to wonder "Who" (made that noise, made the tree fall over, etc) rather than "What" caused these things, I thought it would be interesting to explore how such hardwiring might be advantageous in our early evolution. There's even intriguing evidence now that the knack for spirituality exists in other animal brains as well. 

Personally, Atheist though I am, I can see an early evolutionary advantage. Existential pondering can lead to leaps in creative thinking. Much of what I'm reading so far talks about spiritual/religious tendencies bringing people together as a community for a common goal and even serving as an early model for laws and government. Plus, I imagine that the superstitious caveman, wondering "who" made that noise behind the bush, has a better chance of survival than the empirical rationalist caveman saying "Why you're just being paranoid and silly. It's probably just the wind, or your imagination, or...{*Chomp* as he gets eaten by the sabertooth tiger that actually was lurking behind the bush}.

Obviously, we can all see how spirituality/superstition/religion becomes a disadvantage later on in evolution, holding us back from science rather than inspiring us to explore. 

It's also interesting to wonder: If spirituality is hardwired into our genes/brains, what of us contemporary Atheists? Are we anomalies? Are we doing battle with that bit of our hardwiring? (Looking around this site, many of us do struggle with the social aspect of it and "fitting in" to our communities). Or have we squeezed all the usefulness out of that part of our genetics and its now starting to weed out? 

Interesting stuff, and of course my ulterior motive here is fishing for yet more information for my final. The professor is a bit leery; wanting to make sure I stick more to the facts and research than my own Atheist wishful thinking. Of course, that challenge just makes me all the more eager to tackle this topic. ;-)




Tags: Vmat2, evolution, gene, genetics, god

Views: 110

Replies to This Discussion

I don't get to do much reading but I just saw a documentary it's a BBC series- Horizon the episode was called The End of God? It got into the "god" helmet and such. Richard Dawkins even volunteers for the helmet. I'm not sure you'd find anything helpful in it but you might find it interesting, maybe you can get a lead from it.

Here is the link to the first part...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQjYm3niI2E
Evolutionary psychology is always a slippery beast, as it doesn't fossilize well and we can't go back and perform experiments on our distant ancestors ;)

My personal hunch (sorry, no real info to back it up, either) is that we're hardwired to look for *meaning*. This starts when we're babies, looking for meaning in patterns until we learn to recognize the people around us, to speak, etc. We just don't stop there... we keep looking for meaning in all the other patterns we can see, from the change of seasons to the patterns of the stars. And really, since we're conscious, it's not a big extension to have the default be to assume consciousness for all things, regardless of their nature (I remember being unable to discard toys as a kid because I thought it would hurt their feelings). I think I've heard stuff about us having a tendency to false positive conclusions rather than false negatives, but I couldn't cite a source to save my life... sorry! Which again would probably be an evolutionary advantage---if you think the tiger is there and it's not, you're probably fine, but if you think the tiger isn't there and it is, you're screwed.

Also, aquatic ape theory is still around? I thought it was pretty much toast even when I was taking this stuff (a decade ago) and there's a lot more terrestrial fossil hominids discovered since then... ;)
Funny, I too always had (and still have) a hard time when I throw a broken something away, like I'm disrespecting it somehow by not trying harder to "save" it. As a child, this translated as truly feeling sorry for the object, almost as if it had a consciousness.

And yup, Aquatic Ape is still around. Though it's still a hot topic. When my partner and I worked to research it for the class we had a hell of a time finding straightforward, unemotional information. All of it was Bob the Blogger who enthusiastically supports/despises the theory. But the biggest arguments "Against" remain weak and mostly aimed at Elaine Morgan being a feminist writer, not a scientist, even though it was scientists she quoted in her works. Kind of like the way Republicans say Climate Change is a scam because Al Gore isn't a scientist.

One of my favorite commentaries on AAT is noting the relative silence of many an expert. The author suspects it's a means of creating plausible deniability, so that if it does become the accepted norm, they can go back and say "Well I never disputed it..."


On the slippery beast that is evolutionary psychology - exactly. It's not exactly something preserved in the fossil record or in a stone tool or potsherd. Though with the buzz around Vmat2, it does have a lot of folks examining the potential evolutionary advantage to superstition.
Well, a *good* scientist has no trouble changing their mind later, in public. That being said, a lack of good science (and an excess of politics and hyperbole) is what made me back away from my early love of palaeoanthropology. I suspect the silence in the mainstream is probably more a result of a lack of testable predictions deriving from the theory. This was the biggest problem I had with it when we studied it. You can say all kinds of random things and cite all kinds of characteristics to support it, but if your theory isn't generating hypotheses that can be tested, it's not useful scientifically, however interesting and plausible it may be. (This is also the thing that makes evolutionary psych so slippery.) Another example that comes to mind would be the argument that humans and orangutans are closest relatives to each other. If you look at the list of characters they base it on, it seems solid. When you start looking at other factors---other characters, palaeobiogeography, genetics, actual human and orang fossils---the holes become apparent.
As I remember many who are into evolutionary psychology suggest that we could be prewired to look for agency behind anything that happens.

That's the bit that first got me interested in something of a "god gene" or a hardwiring for belief. And it seems to be where some of the controversy lies. Is a psychological tendency towards assuming agency behind events the same as superstition? Similar enough to work hand-in-hand with it? Seems like it to me, but I can also see where the lines get fuzzy.

I too am intrigued by the Milgram authority experiments. Very, very telling! In a way, that too is something that can be argued as predisposing us for belief. Or at least, belief in what we are told.

So I did write the term papers. One titled "Science of Myth" the other titled "The Evolution of Superstition." 

 

The latter was the paper that dealt most with this topic. Research took me to some interesting places and in the end, my own humble hypothesis is that yes: It would seem that to some extent, superstition is a biological trait, essential for survival (and I venture to say innovation), and shared by most animals.

 

Now before I get kicked out of the Atheist's club for touting superstition as a good thing...

 

One of the selling points for me is best explained in a favorite book, "When they Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth" by saying simply when we hear a strange noise in the forest, we tend not to think "what" made that noise but "who." Charles Darwin, in Ascent of Man, observed this in his dog; noting one day that the dog was growling at a parasol flapping in the wind. It was an otherwise empty field and the dog must have been able to see there was no person or other animal causing the parasol to flap. And yet, the dog was reacting not as if it were just the wind, but as we would expect the dog to react to a conscious, willful threat. There are apparent survival advantages in having our default position be on yellow alert: To assume there is a willful/conscious someone, even when there is no immediate empirical evidence to suggest it.

 

On the innovation end, while researching the paper, I mused that this is very close to the definition of a scientific hypothesis. We take 2 ounces of evidence (say, a parasol flapping in the wind) and with it create 2 pounds of conjecture (Could it be a ghost?). The invention of a new tool involves imagining such a tool which so far does not exist.

 

That however is where I speculated in the paper, the usefulness of superstition/belief ends, as does its biological inherency. The scientist will take that ghost hypothesis and empirically test it, perfectly willing to say "Oops, my bad, guess it wasn't a ghost but it was the wind after all." Or try to invent that tool to see if it really works or doesn't.

 

As art and language became more and more complex in homo sapiens, so did our elaborate backstories and speculation about the ghost/god/demon/whatever causing the parasol to flap. The gut instinct to fear things that go bump in the night is a biological hardwiring. The elaborate imagination and religion beyond that is cultural. And as we Atheists have observed, rarely good for society.

 

Anyway, just wanted to follow up on that. Got an A on both papers. Yay! 

;-)

I think that asking a question as 'Are WE hardwired...' making a generalization as if people were more equal than they may really be.  

To me, it seems probable to speculate, that while people have a ceiling of the farthest of what evolution would allow them to become under the best circumstances, many people just never reach their full potential, due to immaturity, brain damage or other reasons.  

While therefore the god gene may be hardwired into the brain as a transitory phase during the maturation of the brain, some people are doomed to be stuck in it, while others may grow and develop further to a state, where they become so rational, that they grow out of the need to believe.

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