Monday, December 04, 2006

Seed 2(7): Part V

This is my much-delayed fifth and final part of my review of Seed Magazine, Volume 2, Number 7.

Part I is here.
Part II is here.
Part III is here.
Part IV is here.

Part V: PZ Myers and The GOD Delusion

First, I'll clarify putting "GOD" in all-caps in the title: on the book cover itself, the word is in all-caps. So I went with it.

PZ Myers is already well-known as a person with many opinions and views closely aligned with those of Dr. Richard Dawkins, so the generally positive tone of his review of Dr. Dawkins' latest book is not a surprise. Dr. Myers does criticise Dr. Dawkins for a few points, and does not clearly indicate that some points made in the review were made (at greater length) by Dr. Dawkins in the book.

One early chapter of The GOD Delusion deals with possible explanations for the evolution of religion. Dr. Dawkins' primary example, of a hypothesis that might explain religion as a side-effect of something else, concerns the difference between trial-and-error learning among children and using the wisdom of one's parents. Dr. Dawkins spells out a hypothesis that is essentially "selection should favour children who unquestioningly believe everything their parents tell them in solemn tones because they will rapidly learn valuable survival skills". Dr. Myers apparently believes this is insufficient explanation for the near-universal occurance of religion in humans, and favours his own hypothesis concerning empathy, essentially "humans evolved a pretty good system of other-mind detection, which gets hyperactive and results in attribution of mind to mindless things, such as weather patterns or the universe as a whole." Both hypotheses have some supporting evidence - it is widely understood that having access to a child for a critical period early in life allows one to indoctrinate that child with any ideas one wishes, and empathy is a well-studied trait that may be uniquely or near-uniquely human. However, Dr. Myers' point that Dr. Dawkins' "overlooks" empathy ignores a major point made repeatedly in The GOD Delusion: Dr. Dawkins' is proposing "unquestioning learning" as one potential hypothesis only, and other, non-mutually-exclusive hypotheses are almost certainly relevant as well.

The third-to-last and second-to-last paragraphs of Dr. Myers review are excellent. Dr. Myers describes a hypothetical book about poetry written in the same fashion as The GOD Delusion is a book about religion. Dr. Dawkins states that the goal of his book is to transform a believer into a non-believer through hard reasoning and solid argument. What if there was a book that set out to turn a general lover of poetry into one who cares only for one narrow style of poetry? Wouldn't that book be ridiculous? But a book about religion has one feature of religion to attack that poetry lacks: nobody holds up poetry as an explanation for life, the universe, and everthing. Nobody holds up poetry as a set of immutable moral guidelines, as inviolate instructions on every detail of human behaviour. Religion is held up in this way, and makes itself a target for such books as this one. I think Dr. Myers makes this point very well in his review.

Reading Dr. Myers' review gave me an idea relating to human evolution. I really like Dr. Myers' empathy hypothesis, but I think he overlooked a feature of human evolution, and a feature of human psychology, that may contribute more to his hypothesis.

First, a wee bit of background. I waste unreasonable amounts of time on-line, reading lots of what I freely admit is time-sucking crap. There are (in my opinion) rare gems of great value in amongst all the electronic dung I consume. OK, I'm extending the metaphor a little too far, methinks. Anyway, not too long ago I read the MonkeySphere article on Pointless Waste of Time. Yes, the title of that webpage is accurate. But I highly recommend reading MonkeySphere as a primer of my view of human social interactions relating to concepts like "in-groups" and "out-groups".

Getting away from the MonkeySphere, in his review, Dr. Myers says:

Dawkins again proposes that a wider morality... is a byproduct, an accidental gift of nonspecific feelings of generosity or sympathy. But I think...self-sacrifice for the benefit of unrelated individuals ought to be selected against. The maintenance of empathy as a tool for learning by emulation, and for enabling social interaction, would also produce the golden rule a a by-product and would confer a benefit on those who posses it.

(emphasis by Dr. Myers, elipses by me).

The key words I picked up on in the above quotation are "nonspecific feelings". Empathy, as described by Dr. Myers, is certainly a viable explanatory hypothesis, since empathy is both a human trait and confers several benefits on those who express it. But Dr. Myers' argument about selection eleminating non-specific empathy ignores the role of genetic drift, particularly in small populations. Humans apparently underwent a period of small population size, a population "bottleneck", sometime before the expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa, and lasting perhaps as long as 1500 generations (Fay and Wu, 1999). Even selectively disfavoured alleles can rise in frequency to fixation under genetic drift in a small population, given suffiicient time and a little luck. Linkage disequilibrium, the tendency for particular alleles at different loci to segregate together, is also less likely to relax in a small population.

Could nonspecific altruism, in positive linkage disequilibrium with a trait for rapid in-group recognition, have drifted to fixation during the paleolithic in humans?

My proposed "trait for rapid in-group recognition" is a type-I-error-prone system of recognizing likely members of one's in-group. The type-I error I think this recognition system is prone to would be mistakenly identifying someone as a relative or friend who is not. This mistake need not be seriously bad, especially if most altruistic acts are highly asymetrical, like giving a little food to a starving stranger when not starving oneself.

If both Dr. Dawkins' and Dr. Myers' hypotheses are correct - that children learn readily from sombre elders and have highly-developed systems of empathy (and sympathy), and if in-group mistaken inclusion is a common error, then high levels of empathy and a willingness to believe ridiculous things are coupled in two ways. First, these two traits become coupled in that a parent telling a child that the sky is thinking about you is highly believeable to the child partly because it's an idea based on empathy-gone-overboard. Second, encountering a stranger who expresses a similar ridiculous belief as one's own is an easier person to empathise with. Additionally, an impressionable child who observes a parent accepting a stranger into the group because of shared beliefs, will have both those beliefs and their empathy reinforced.

I think this would lead to runaway establishment of a culture of acceptance, of cultural expansion, based on shared beliefs. If the beliefs are spread via background empathy in strangers, and these strangers then benefit by becoming a part of this expanding culture, multiple memes become linked in a powerful, self-reinforcing memplex, what we might call a nascent religion. The wide-spread exclusion of out-groups, human xenophobia, can then become attached to this religion in the form of discrimination against strangers who fail to share the same beliefs.

Literature Cited
Fay JC, Wu C-I. 1999. A human population bottleneck can account for the discordance between patterns of mitochondrial versus nuclear DNA variation. Mol Biol Evol 16: 1003-1005.

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