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March 6, 2007

why belief evolved

Robin Marantz Henig, in an article, Darwin's God, written for the NYTimesMagazine, states: "The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists." (links added)

The larger conversation involves collective action: why do some groups organize while others do not? The specific situation is the problem of enticing an individual to contribute to a collective action when there is not an obvious self-interest:

"I might contribute to my group's effort because the group ties my contribution to provision of some private good that I want, such as participation in the Sierra Club's outdoor activities or, in the early days of unions, low-cost group-insurance benefits not available in the market. Such private goods can commonly be provided in the market, so that their usefulness may eventually be undercut. Indeed, firms that provide insurance benefits to their employees thereby undercut one of the appeals of union membership. The general decline of American unions in recent decades is partially the result of their success in resolving problems for workers in ways that do not require continuing union effort." (From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on The Problem of Free-Riders.)

What interests me is that science is presented bereft of belief. "Belief" is posed as an action directed only toward "God", or as capable of being satisfied or filled only with a system deemed "religious."

"The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped."

Bloom's maneuver is illustrated by relegating language to the realm of "biological adaptation" completely dismissing the role of language in belief of any kind.

"Belief," Henig writes a few paragraphs later, "...gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world." These characteristics of "intensity" and "confirmation" are measurable only through language. Too bad she does not recognize that science also requires belief.

Her hero on the adaptationist side is Sloan Wilson: "a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. “I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big,” he recalled. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that “religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.”

Why can't group selection and belief in science go together? Isn't this the crux of the debate between science (with its divided disciplines of knowledge) and religion (with its disparate denominations)? The question that matters is not whether we believe in religion or science, but in the outcomes and effects that any belief system generates in human relations over time. This is a moral question: its purview is not restricted to the realm of religion.

Posted by Steph at March 6, 2007 7:48 PM


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