Evolutionizing Religion: Who’s Assuming What?

first_img“Findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology promise to change our view of religion,” said Pascal Boyer in Nature.1  His essay summarized studies that offer an evolutionary explanation for mankind’s propensity to embrace religion.  “We can probe the shared assumptions that religions are built on, however disparate, and examine the connection between religion and ethnic conflict,” he said.  “Lastly, we can hazard a guess at what the realistic prospects are for atheism.”    Boyer weaved together evolutionary explanations for several features seemingly common to all religions: belief in things for which there is no evidence, ritual, morality, metaphysics, and social identity.  There is no one place in the brain, a “religious center,” he said.  Rather, “religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.”  Just as the brain was not made specifically for music, politics, ethnic groups and family relations, religion is just an emergent response to “super stimuli,” he said.  “Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion.”  In evolutionary terms, the brain evolved for skills to aid survival, but religion simply takes advantage of those cognitive faculties and meshes them in an unexpected way.  “The mind has myriad distinct belief networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people,” he said.    Central to Boyer’s case are that religious people make tacit assumptions they never notice.  They may be able to describe their core beliefs, “But cognitive psychology shows that explicitly accessible beliefs of this sort are always accompanied by a host of tacit assumptions that are generally not available to conscious inspection.”  The details of religious beliefs may differ, he said, but the tacit beliefs underlying all religious are remarkably similar.  To him, this can only mean that we have similarly evolved brains that exercise the tacit assumptions in diverse ways.    He began his essay with a listing of various reactions to the scientific study of religion:Is religion a product of our evolution?  The very question makes many people, religious or otherwise, cringe, although for different reasons.  Some people of faith fear that an understanding of the processes underlying belief could undermine it.  Others worry that what is shown to be part of our evolutionary heritage will be interpreted as good, true, necessary or inevitable.  Still others, many scientists included, simply dismiss the whole issue, seeing religion as childish, dangerous nonsense.    Such responses make it difficult to establish why and how religious thought is so pervasive in human societies – an understanding that is especially relevant in the current climate of religious fundamentalism.  In asking whether religion is one of the many consequences of having the type of brains we come equipped with, we can shed light on what kinds of religion ‘come naturally’ to human minds’Those human minds, we can safely assume he believes, are also products of evolution.  Throughout the article, Boyer promotes the idea that gods and beliefs are not real, but rather manufactured by the cognitive and social psychology of humans and their evolved brains.  Imagining supernatural beings may be a “natural way,” he said, for human products of evolution to process information:The findings emerging from this cognitive-evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions.  First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape.  On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.Implicit in this idea is the position that atheism is a more scientific world view.  His last paragraph, though, gives little hope for his fellow atheists to gain a foothold in the culture: the evolutionary deck is stacked against them. Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems.  By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions – hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.For previous entries on the evolution of religion, see 03/16/2005, 02/02/2006, 09/25/2006 and 05/27/2008.1.  Pascal Boyer, “Being human: Religion: Bound to believe?,” Nature 455, 1038-1039 (23 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/4551038a.How otherwise intelligent people can continue to be so blind to their own biases after decades, nay centuries, of philosophers and theologians and logicians pointing them out, is stunning.  Nature has just published another in a long series of self-refuting essays.  A freshman CEH reader can probably refute this article in a sentence or two.  If not, you need to apply yourself to stopping by here more often.    What is it about their brains that predisposes evolutionists to think this way?  You notice that we put the shoe on the other foot.  That’s fair, because to him, we are all equally evolved.  By what standard of measure can he insist that his tacit assumptions are better than anyone else’s?  By the standards of science?  Ha!  Only if he is a logical positivist – another self-refuting belief system.  If this is not obvious, go back and read Wolpert’s ideas from the 10/16/2008 entry and the commentary on logical positivism from 05/10/2007 before continuing.  If Boyer assumes that “testable predictions” render evolutionary psychology scientific, he has not learned about the dubious logic of predictive success in science.  It’s the main reason Karl Popper rejected predictive success as a criterion of science, and promoted falsification instead.  (Falsification, alas, was also later rejected as a foolproof criterion.)    Boyer came close to recognizing the self-refuting nature of his beliefs by mentioning people who “worry that what is shown to be part of our evolutionary heritage will be interpreted as good, true, necessary or inevitable.”  (For elaboration on that point, see the 05/09/2006 commentary, bullet 5.)  He should be worried.  To what universal standard could he appeal to decide that religion is an emergent property of the brain, but science is not?  And why would he lament that atheism is hardly the easiest ideology to propagate?  At least he admitted it is an ideology.  But to what universal moral standard would he appeal to say that propagating his atheistic world view would be a good thing?  He said that science may one day find that religion contributed to fitness in ancestral times.  On what grounds, then, can he say it hijacked man’s cognitive abilities?  If it produced fitness, it is just as much an intrinsic benefit to human evolution as the brain itself.    Boyer’s essay is plagued with other fallacies.  For one, he generalizes all religions, no matter how opposite, in a highly simplistic manner: he puts the witch doctor and the Oxford Scholar into the same “fundamentalist” bucket, also a form of ridicule.  By excepting his own reasoning from those of religious nuts, of course, he has also divided the world into us-vs-them, the either-or fallacy: i.e., you either belong to the People of Science or to the “People of Faith” (whatever that broad-brush category means).  Students want extra credit can hunt for begging the question fallacies, non-sequiturs, the post-hoc fallacy, misuse of circumstantial evidence, reductionism, subjectivity and other fallacies.    The card-stacking fallacy is notable in this article.  He only offered three responses to the idea that religion evolved: (1) Worry by religionists that it will undermine their beliefs.  (2) Worry by evolutionists that religion, if part of our evolutionary heritage, will be seen as “good, true, necessary or inevitable.” (3) Disgust by scientists that religion is “childish, dangerous nonsense.”  Why did he not consider the possibility that theologians and knowledgeable scholars will consider his evolutionary theory or religion to be regarded as childish, dangerous nonsense?  Is that not what we have just illustrated?    Another example of his card stacking was to list only things like ritual, metaphysical beliefs, social identity and moral codes as the characteristics of religion.  Why didn’t he mention evidence – and apologetics?  Those things may be lacking in the cultic or ritualistic religions, but the Bible is filled with historical references that can be cross-checked, and appeals to remember what the people knew to be true from evidence, reason and eyewitness testimony.  Paul and Peter claimed to be eyewitnesses of the risen and glorified Christ and emphatically denied that they were following cleverly devised fables.  They also warned people against falling for fables.  If Boyer likes prediction so much, he should consider the prediction Paul made in II Timothy 4:4 that in the last days people will “turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths,” of which evolution is a prime example, because the evidence for God is clear from creation (Romans 1:18-20).  Peter, similarly, predicted the coming of belief in uniformitarianism.  He predicted that mockers would deny the evidence for creation and the flood (II Peter 3:3-9).  Do those predictions count?  Must be consistent.    Boyer and his fellow atheistic evolutionists arrogate to themselves the chair of science, but have no floor to put it on: not a scientific floor, or a philosophical floor, or an evidence floor.  He needs the Judeo-Christian floor to be able to reason about truth, morals, and evidence at all.  Like Yoda, he speaks ex cathedra from some exalted plane above the rest of humanity, telling us about our tacit assumptions while ignoring his own (08/13/2007).  He tells others what makes them tick without understanding that what makes him tick is rebellion against his Creator.  He couldn’t slap his Father’s face without first sitting in His lap.  Pascal Boyer should sit quietly like a good boy and read Pascal.(Visited 55 times, 1 visits today)FacebookTwitterPinterestSave分享0last_img read more

Egg-Shape Evolution Theory Cracks Under Pressure

first_imgTouted as an evolutionary explanation for bird egg shapes, a new hypothesis celebrating natural selection falls like Humpty Dumpty under a gentle breeze of questioning.I think that, if required on pain of death to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird’s egg. —Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862Natural selection is the hero of a paper in Science Magazine about bird eggs, and Phys.org was sure to make that clear in its write-up. “How eggs got their shapes: Adaptations for flight may have driven egg-shape variety in birds,” the bold headline announces. Read further in this article classified under evolution, and you see that a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard used an evolutionary framework to determine the “implications of egg shape in an evolutionary and ecological setting.” This egg story is drenched in evolutionary seasoning, to make sure the reader won’t miss the taste.And if that isn’t enough evolutionary flavor, Claire N. Spottiswoode in Science Magazine marinates the egg story in Darwin’s special brand Natural Selection Sauce. She says,The selection pressure that best explains its evolution comes from the characteristic we most associate with birds: flight.This hypothesis predicts that species under strong selection for flight-related adaptations—such as migrants and aerial insectivores—should have elliptical or asymmetric rather than spherical eggs.The authors use an index of aerodynamic wing shape as a proxy for such selection, and find that this is by far the best predictor of egg shape.Why, then, are there no hot-air balloon–shaped eggs? Not only do they appear developmentally hard to produce, but perhaps they offer no obvious selective advantage over a spherical egg: They are still inconveniently wide, with little increase in volume.Egg collecting is now deeply unfashionable and rightly illegal. But from its heyday in the late 19th to the mid-20th century, it has bequeathed to us data that can yield wonderful evolutionary insights, as Stoddard et al.‘s study underlines.Evolution. Evolution. Evolution. Got it? Eggs evolved by natural selection, and Science shows how. Darwin’s theory explains “an old mystery in natural history,” Phys.org says. No smart person should ever doubt evolution again. Look how useful evolutionary theory is to science! Spottiswoode says,Every bird egg serves the same function: to protect and nourish the offspring within while it grows from two cells to a fully formed chick. Yet this identical function is served by a striking diversity of egg shapes. Explanations for both the origin and function of this diversity have remained little more than anecdotal. On page 1249 of this issue, Stoddard et al. marry biophysics and ecology to provide a general theory that explains how and why diverse egg shapes arose. Based on a mathematical model, the authors predict that simple changes in the forces experienced by the shell membrane as the egg develops in the female’s oviduct are sufficient to generate the observed egg-shape diversity across all birds. The selection pressure that best explains its evolution comes from the characteristic we most associate with birds: flight.One certainly can’t fault the scientific rigor of Stoddard’s team. They accessed a museum collection of almost 50,000 eggs from 1,400 bird species. They proposed a hypothesis. They used math and built a chart with ellipticity on one access and asymmetry on the other axis. They compared the positions of eggs on this chart with the flight behaviors of the species. They made predictions that were fulfilled, and covered anomalies with auxiliary explanations. They showed how their hypothesis succeeds over the “anecdotal” proposals of others. Evolution wins again!In an eggshell, the explanation goes like this: the demands of flight create selection pressure on egg shape. Spottiswoode dispenses with old theories about clutch size, the need to prevent rolling off cliffs, and other “intriguing but ultimately parochial hypotheses” to lead into the new-and-improved idea hatched by Stoddard’s team:Instead they find consistent support for a simple hypothesis. Birds are streamlined for flight. Perhaps streamlined birds need narrower eggs to negotiate their narrower pelvis, and because the only way to fit a chick into a narrower egg is to make the egg longer, elliptical or asymmetric eggs result. This hypothesis predicts that species under strong selection for flight-related adaptations—such as migrants and aerial insectivores—should have elliptical or asymmetric rather than spherical eggs. The authors use an index of aerodynamic wing shape as a proxy for such selection, and find that this is by far the best predictor of egg shape. Swifts that live almost all of their lives on the wing have elliptical eggs. Sandpipers that traverse the globe have elliptical, asymmetric eggs. Puffbirds and trogons of tropical forests that may rarely leave their territories tend to have relatively spherical eggs. So, too, do flightless ostriches, but not penguins—perhaps because they must be streamlined to “fly” underwater. Within specific taxonomic groups, additional correlations suggest that other demands, such as clutch size, do further modulate egg shape, but none applies generally across all birds. Why, then, are there no hot-air balloon–shaped eggs? Not only do they appear developmentally hard to produce, but perhaps they offer no obvious selective advantage over a spherical egg: They are still inconveniently wide, with little increase in volume.Some QuestionsCan the evolutionary answer stand up to a gentle whiff of questioning? A running theme at CEH is that natural selection is a vacuous concept masquerading as a scientific explanation. By failing to provide real concrete predictions that are testable, natural selection reduces to the Stuff Happens Law—the opposite of explanation. Whatever happens, “it evolved,” so that the explanation becomes a just-so story. Are these scientists and reporters playing make-believe again? Or have they really demonstrated the value of Natural Selection theory for science? Let’s think about it.We should note first that egg shapes are examples of microevolution. Getting a chick to develop in 21 days that can hatch and fly is the big issue for evolution; egg shape and size seem very minor by comparison. We might compare the phenomenon to a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Changing the shape of the hat or the size of the rabbit doesn’t matter as much as being able to do the trick itself. Furthermore, the evolutionary story fails to rule out creation or intelligent design, because advocates of those positions are perfectly happy to see variation in egg shape for different species, and are willing to admit some degree of change over time. So far, then, we don’t see the evolutionary story deserving of privileged status.Pelican, courtesy Illustra Media.The biggest piece of evidence they adduce is the chart showing a correlation between flight behavior and egg shape. It’s an interesting pattern. Correlation, however, does not imply causation. Does the egg shape drive the female bird’s oviduct, or does the oviduct drive the egg shape? If aerodynamic efficiency makes natural selection drive egg shape, one would think it would also drive everything else about the bird, like beak shape and mass. But beaks among strong flyers vary all over the map (consider pelicans, hummingbirds, and Arctic terns). Furthermore, for good reason, females only lay eggs when they are not flying. And what about the males, who don’t have an oviduct? It’s not exactly clear why natural selection would have any influence on egg shape. How do they know the differences are not due to genetic drift or some other non-Darwinian mechanism?Hummingbird eggs, by David CoppedgeMore importantly, the scientists, and Ms Spottiswoode and the Phys.org reporter, fail to apply neo-Darwinian theory correctly. They do not identify any mutation in egg shape genes that consistently appears and gets selected when a flyer needs an elliptical egg to survive and produce offspring. That should be the case if natural selection is a law of nature superior to the Stuff Happens Law. They fail to show how every other member of the population died out, such that only the individuals possessing the mutation survived to lay eggs. The explanation, in fact, sounds Lamarckian (inheritance of acquired characteristics) – certainly no less anecdotal than the preceding hypotheses. A look through the main paper reveals the authors admitting that in some respects, the preceding hypotheses made predictions about egg shape that work just as well as theirs. Wobbling between multiple conflicting variables, their flight-adaptation hypothesis reduces to speculation with a very weak empirical basis.Adding to the trouble, their phylogenetic analysis fails to find a consistent ancestry connecting flight ability to egg shape, leaving them scrambling for auxiliary hypotheses like convergence and parallel evolution. Watch the perhapsimaybecouldness index rise like a stiff breeze, threatening the stability of their hatched hypothesis:We do not suggest that a female’s flight behavior during the egg formation period directly affects egg formation, nor do we suggest that egg shape so strongly influences the flight abilities of female birds during their egg-laying period that selection has produced an aerodynamic egg. Rather, we propose that general adaptations for strong flight select for a constrained, muscular, streamlined body plan in both males and females, giving rise in the latter, directly or indirectly, to asymmetric and/or elliptical eggs. The precise physiological mechanisms by which morphological adaptations for flight might affect egg shape are unknown. However, the answer most likely lies in the two parameters highlighted by our biophysical model: egg membrane thickness variations and the differential pressure applied across the membrane, both of which are potentially shaped by selection for a streamlined body plan.Humpty Dumpty just fell. Wasn’t natural selection Darwin’s famous ‘mechanism’ to explain everything in biology? They just said the mechanisms are ‘unknown’, and only ‘might’ affect egg shape. They just said natural selection might work ‘directly or indirectly’—well, which is it? Clearly they do not know. Selection might have been ‘giving rise to’ (miracle words) “asymmetric and/or elliptical eggs,” implying that whatever influence natural selection had was general, non-specific and ambiguous. Is this an explanation, or something they find ‘most likely’ and ‘potentially’ explanatory? That’s only an opinion—a preference. Readers should make up their own minds about the strength of the evidence, not kowtow to the authors’ bluffing about the success of their hypothesis.In short, their hypothesis crashes to the ground right during the Darwin celebration, leaving a scrambled mess of just-so storytelling behind. Spottiswoode concludes that Stoddard’s team has not shown natural selection to play a causative role, and except in a “satisfyingly general” way (i.e., a storytelling way), has really explained very little at all:Stoddard et al. conclude that variation in egg shape at a broad scale is best explained by variation in the need to fly. But although satisfyingly general, this discovery will be far from the final word. A bird’s egg was famously described by abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson as “the most perfect thing in the universe” [3/09/17], but this apparent perfection is most likely the sum of multiple ecological, structural, and developmental compromises. It remains unclear why egg shapes tend toward being spherical in the absence of strong selection for powered flight. Do asymmetry and ellipticity carry costs, such as making an egg easier to break into or harder to break out of? And why has natural selection solved the streamlining problem with elongate and symmetric eggs in some species, and elongate and asymmetric eggs in others—that is, what best explains the variation along the x axis of the figure? Did elongate eggs repeatedly evolve in concert with narrower pelvises, and do their shell membranes vary in thickness and composition in the way that Stoddard et al.‘s model predicts? Their paper opens up a rich seam for researchers to explore.The authors end with nothing left but futureware , in hope that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can pick up the pieces and build a better evolutionary story.Our macroevolutionary analyses suggest that birds adapted for high-powered flight may maximize egg size by increasing egg asymmetry and/or ellipticity, while maintaining a streamlined body plan. Moving forward, it will be important to determine how the developmental process of egg shaping is coupled, in terms of physiology and genetics, with evolutionary constraints associated with flight strength and efficiency.The very thing they promised to explain—egg shape by natural selection (‘selection pressure’)—they now say has to be be explained in the future—egg shaping by natural selection (‘evolutionary constraints’). If natural selection theory has this much trouble with something as simple as egg shape, how can it explain flight itself, where multiple adaptations must appear simultaneously to keep the bird airborne? (See the Illustra film, Flight: The Genius of Birds.)Exercise: Here’s another paper in PNAS that purports to show how natural selection explains symbiotic relationships. It looks very impressive, with lots of math and jargon. But does it really succeed in proving the explanatory power of Darwinian theory? Or is it more like the glitzy ballroom on the Titanic hiding a flawed engine room unable to sustain impact by the iceberg of pointed questions? Look for evidence of high PCI (perhapsimaybecouldness index), exceptions to rules, storytelling, speculation, and fudging of parameters to obtain desired conclusions.Recommended Resource: (Visited 649 times, 1 visits today)FacebookTwitterPinterestSave分享0last_img read more

Land ‘expropriation’ in context

first_img5 May 2006Alexandra Fuller’s books on her youth in Zambia and what was then Rhodesia – Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and Scribbling the Cat – have deservedly made her a minor literary sensation. If she submits an article to a major US or British newspaper, she is likely to have it accepted, and it is likely to have an impact.In one such piece, published in the Los Angeles Times last October, she argued that President Thabo Mbeki “looks set to sail the same course as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe” in pursuing a policy of “uncompensated expropriation of land held by whites for black resettlement”.Because of stereotypes about Africa, this kind of statement, profoundly inaccurate though it is, finds ready credence in the US.I don’t know where Fuller got her facts from, but it is a fair bet she follows events in her old stamping ground via the internet from her new one, Wyoming.To be fair, given the sometimes sloppy way in which South African land reform has been reported in the media, it is easy to see how she could get things wrong. Not that the media is exclusively to blame. The language that officials use can also lead to misunderstanding.It is important that the South African government’s land restitution and redistribution policies are properly understood. The perception that South Africa is headed the same way as Zimbabwe has serious consequences. It raises the cost of capital. It deters investment. It constrains the government’s ability to promote growth and reduce poverty.International precedentsAt the root of much of the misunderstanding is the phrase “willing seller-willing buyer” and what is seen as its opposite, “expropriation”.When the government says that it means to start favouring the latter over the former, this is reported in ways that make it sound like a draconian shift from reason and reconciliation to the coercive and uncompensated dismemberment of property rights. The truth is otherwise.Respectable, prosperous democracies the world over reserve the right to take private property for public use on a compensated basis when the owner proves unwilling to sell or demands a price the government is unwilling to pay.In Britain, this is called compulsory purchase. In the US, where property rights are held in popular mythology to be especially sacrosanct, the government is said to exercise the power of eminent domain.The South African Constitution grants the government a precisely equivalent power and imposes on it limitations scarcely less binding than the fifth amendment to the US constitution, the relevant clause of which states: “. nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”What constitutes a legitimate “public use” is a matter of ongoing debate in the US. Some contend that local authorities have been abusing eminent domain by using it to condemn low-income neighbourhoods so that they can be sold to private developers.The US Supreme Court on ‘public use’The authorities have justified their actions on the grounds that they are improving public welfare by bringing in new wealth and jobs and growing the tax base to improve services. A narrow majority of the Supreme Court has sided with this view.On one “public use”, the Supreme Court has been unanimous. In 1984, in an opinion penned by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, an appointee of the very pro-property President Ronald Reagan, the court declared that eminent domain was an entirely legitimate means to deal with “the perceived social and economic evils of a land oligopoly”.In an answer to a parliamentary question on land reform last October, President Mbeki cited the O’Connor opinion and urged members to study it.The case, Hawaii Housing Authority vs. Midkiff, concerned an attempt by the state legislature in Hawaii to undo the effects of a feudal land tenure system which had resulted in just 72 private landowners owning virtually all non-public land, or nearly half the state.On Oahu, the most populous of the Hawaii’s islands, 22 landowners held 72% of all property titles. This, said the legislature, was skewing the local property market, inflating land prices and “injuring the public tranquility and welfare”.The remedy the lawmakers adopted required landowners to sell land to the state which would then transfer it on a subsidised basis to former tenants. If a sales price could not be negotiated, owners had to submit to binding arbitration.They filed suit, claiming breach of the fifth amendment. When the case reached the Supreme Court, they were resoundingly defeated.South Africa and eminent domainIn South Africa today the government is moving to use its power of eminent domain in much the same way, for a “public use” little different from the one explicitly approved by the highest US court.The democratic will of Hawaiians, expressed through their elected legislature, was for sweeping land redistribution. When this could be achieved on a willing seller-willing buyer basis, their representatives exercised eminent domain. So it is in South Africa.The Hawaiian landowners were compensated, of course, as ours will be. Was their compensation just? No doubt they received less than they would have wished. But that is automatically going to be the case whenever eminent domain is exercised. Eminent domain is what respectable, prosperous democracies do when a “willing seller-willing buyer” agreement cannot be reached.Does anyone seriously think that the US is headed down the same path as Zimbabwe?If not, as South Africa’s US ambassador, Barbara Masekela, asked in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, under what set of assumptions should South Africa be judged any differently?Simon Barber is the United States representative of the International Marketing Council of South Africalast_img read more