20
Feb
10

Where I go beyond my comfort zone

Rarely do I dip my toes in scientific waters I am not thoroughly experienced in swimming. This is partially why most of my discussions tend to revolve around molecular biology and natural history with the occasional taste of (don’t run away) biochemistry. I know I will make many mistakes here, so please, feel free to correct me. So now that you’ve heard my reservations, let me continue:

Between Pliny and Michael, I’ve decided to write about my views of behavior and “belief” from the perspective of genetics. Most of the attempts at finding “god genes” have been riddled with statistical and methodological problems. At best, all we have found, scientifically, are regions of the brain which seem to be more active during religious experiences are also functionally used for a number of other purposes. For this reason, I tend to agree with Steven Pinker (and Stephen J. Gould) that religion is more of a spandrel than an evolutionary adaptation. This is not to say that specific alleles do not convey differing degrees of this spandrel trait.

My view of religion as a spandrel can be more easily illustrated by my definition of the following:

spirit/soul=a mind independent of a physical body
god/gods=spirits which are considered to embody specific traits or personalities

The belief in a person as consisting of a body and of a “spirit” or “soul” is functionally useful for communication. It allows a person to mentally construct a working model of another person based upon previous encounters or how others have described that individual. This “innate dualism” allows us to think of what a person would do, rather than only what a person will do. We can even, if we pay attention, catch ourselves describing a stereotypical individual (gods) quite frequently, and I shall refer to this as “anthropomorphic stereotyping (A.S.).” We also tend to apply notions of agency even when they are not appropriate. i.e. “What causes radioactive elements to emit a particle at specific times?” I shall term this “agency misapplication.” This “innate dualism” and A.S. are further influenced by experiences and environment, including experiences with agency misapplication, which can enhance or reduce the chances of an individual believing in supernatural agency depending upon specifics of said experiences.

I would go too far if I were to say we are “hard-wired” to believe or not believe in the supernatural or “woo.” I would not go far enough if I were to say it is entirely environmental.  Environment does not just use what the genes have made (in the sense that they just make the blank slate and environment does the rest) but influence gene expression, and thus influence how neuronal connections are strengthened or weakened, what memories form or do not, and what behaviors we will do.

Are our brains “hard-wired” to believe or not? Probably not, but there may be something to the notion that some people are less inclined to believe from birth. That variation, however, is likely to be easily drowned out in the noise known as “normal human neuroplasticity.” Indeed, belief isn’t like Harlow’s monkeys experiments, but it may not be entirely different.
Below is the “Immunology” metaphor discussed in a comment and reproduced below:

If you have a molecule with only one epitope which the Ig binds to tightly (observed reality, morality, ritualistic behaviors, fears, etc), it is still not as strong as something which has multiple epitopes which the Ig binds.

In the above illustration, the three different parts which have places prepared (left image) all fit together with only a few gaps separating them. They form a piece of what is collectively termed “culture” in the image, but could, perhaps, be better described as “understanding of reality.” Orange is labeled “knowledge,” but could, more accurately be labeled “observational explanations.” Religion attempts to give both behavioral guidelines, social rituals, and explanations for observations. As such, it displaces the alternatives and comes with the additional baggage of dark blue fluff which Ockham’s razor would shave away so easily.

For this reason, I would not say religion is entirely useless, indeed, the social structure, moral code, and explanations it gives can be quite useful, but it can also be quite disastrous when unchecked by reality. Its explanations may not be accurate (they probably aren’t) and its moral codes may be downright dangerous to some people (slavery, anyone?).

Most religious texts (at least every one I’ve read) are so contradictory that the principle of explosion allows pretty much any conclusion to be reached “logically” by cherry picking the text.

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3 Responses to “Where I go beyond my comfort zone”


  1. February 20, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I think that this is an excellent addition to the discussion as it has been evolving. Even with my own “hard wire” analogy I am referring to inclination more than compulsion, though I believe that the degree to which inclination becomes compulsion varies considerably from individual to individual and from time to time.

    I am delighted with the civility of the contributors. It has been more of a discussion than a shouting match. I, for one, am gaining perspective and appreciate the contributions.

    Mike

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    February 20, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Well, I like to think of neurological “wiring” as just additional cogs in the machine which is the human. Genes are additional cogs. Neurology has been shown to be remarkably flexible, but having little niches carved out for specific experiences. We, for example, have a niche for language. This particular “language niche” seems to be partially carved out by Forkhead Box Protein 2 (FOXP2; one of the many “tiny servants of Vulcan” that John B Watson claimed didn’t exist). It seems, so far as I can tell, that we have many of these tiny servants of Vulcan active in learning, behavior, and even-I beg the behaviorists not to crucify me-religion (at least, generally). I draw this partially on the fact that phobias tend to be somewhat inherited, but not entirely determined, by genes. I think I can easily describe it as follows:
    P1: The learning of certain behavioral/cultural norms is instinctive
    P2: Specific behaviors have ready-made places in the brain to fill (moral codes, behaviors, etc)
    P3: Religion can fill multiple of these places simultaneously
    C: Therefore, religion, even if it doesn’t fit well with the rest of the known world, fills the compartments prepared for other purposes and pushes some of the known world out.

    I compare it to an immunoglobulin molecule, although you may choose something else, the principle is the same. If you have a molecule with only one epitope which the Ig binds to tightly (observed reality, morality, ritualistic behaviors, fears, etc), it is still not as strong as something which has multiple epitopes which the Ig binds.

    A nearly identical explanation is that of how comparative genetics are done. If you have a sequence which is perfectly identical at only one point, but differs in all others, you will end up with a weak bond compared to that which has multiple not-as-identical complementary sequences.

    I have added an image illustrating the first metaphor to the post. The second one is a bit more difficult, and I think I will have to draw it by hand later.


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