Tuesday, December 05, 2006

TGD Responses - selection for religion?

I'm going to do a few articles based on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As this is a bit of a departure from the usual content of yon blog, I'll be sure to prefix the titles of each with TGD so that those so inclined can filter for/against them in their syndication readers. The articles will be a mixture of prose agreeing with parts of the book, arguing against parts, questions which the book made me ponder and for which I have no answer, and quips (I haven't yet decided whether to group these together or allow a post for each) answering specific ideas or even sentences. My only hope is that all of the articles - and the processes leading to their inception - are critical, in what I hope is the obvious intention of that word. Needless to say, I'll leave the punchline - my opinion of the binding theme of TGD and any changes it has had or not had on my views - until the final article.

I'll start this series by looking at his idea of religion having its roots in a "misfiring" of some advantageous trait which has been selected for. I would ask this question: why should that be so? In his description of evolution he explains the idea of a neutral mutation — one which overall has no positive nor negative effect on the fitness of the genome, but which can nevertheless become dominant (or at least prevalent). For instance, human earlobes either join at the bottom of the lobe to the face or they do not. I don't understand there to be any fitness advantage in either, yet at some time the allele(s) associated with earlobe stuck-to-facedness have, I presume, diverged from a common variant. Why couldn't theism be just one type of earlobe? What if the mean fitness of religious nonreligious "phenotypes" (I expect that's the wrong word…perhaps theotype is better) are not significantly different, and religious behaviour just happens to arise and have become common? I suppose there may be an answer to this, although if there is it wasn't presented in TGD.

There is a related argument in the book which I don't buy. In dismissing the idea of a straightforward selection pressure for evolution, Prof. Dawkins presents the Gedankenexperiment of a tribe who worship a war god, and whose religion dictates that they should go and fight the neighbouring tribes, in the course of which they acquire of course the resources of those other tribes, and propagate their seed further. The argument presented against this is that for any one individual it is more efficient to hang back while their companions do all the fighting, then to share a part in the spoils. Therefore the society would collapse, as no-one would want to do any fighting. This rather squarely misses the point of, for example Freya's D.Phil. thesis and the concept that a population based on cooperation (in this case the war-tribe, in Freya's case a biofilm) can in fact tolerate some fraction of "cheats" and that there is a stable state where proportion of cheats is non-zero but the population still thrives. Consider the British benefit system — some non-zero amount of money is spent on targeting benefit fraud, which keeps the fraud not at zero but at some level which both can be afforded and which leaves the spending justified. In fact, a canny war-tribe member would try to weasel their way out of the line of combat by arguing (rightly or otherwise) that they alone have some property that the average combatant does not possess, and would refer to the weaseling as "promotion" or officership.

Another potential explanation is an interpretation from Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart's Science of Discworld series. In it, they describe the idea of "lies-to-children" in which various layers of falsehood are peeled back as a child becomes ready to accept the more complex, yet more accurate, explanations. What if this idea is extended to become lies-to-protoscientists? What if, as well as a moral Zeitgeist, there is a consensus of acceptable sophistication? So a society initially agrees that each tree, waterfall, star, planet etc. must have its own god, then finds that it can accept the god-of-concept ideas of the more recent polytheistic disciplines, then agrees that a single god, while more complex a solution, is palatable, all the while science is also working to provide the ultimate in sophisticated solutions: that which is born out of simple concepts, but which can be applied to give predictable and verifiable results.

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