Monday, September 17, 2007

God as Evolutionary Accident

When you put two arches side by side each other, you create a triangular space between them called a "spandrel" (see photo).

Now, a spandrel is not something intended, but is rather the side-effect of placing arches adjacent to each other. Whenever you place arches side by side each other, you get a spandrel -- whether you want one or not. That fact inspired the biologist Stephen J. Gould to borrow the term from architecture in order to describe any feature of an organism that did not itself evolve for an evolutionary reason, but was instead a side-effect of some other feature's evolution.

Suppose, for instance, that natural selection results in a wolf's snout getting longer and longer. Further suppose that, as a side-effect of the snout getting longer, the wolf's face just happens to get narrower (Maybe by accident the wolves with genes for long snouts also had genes for narrow faces). So, unlike the snout, the narrow face is not caused by natural selection. If that were to happen, the narrow face would be a spandrel.

Recently, Scott Atran and others have been arguing that human religiosity is at least to some extent a spandrel. Specifically, Atran has argued that belief in supernatural agents -- gods, demons, spirits, and so forth -- is a spandrel. (Belief in supernatural agents is not the sum of human religiosity, but it's a very large chunk of the sum.) So, if Atran is right, the fact every known culture and society has contained one belief or another in supernatural agents is merely an accident of human evolution. There was no natural selection for such beliefs. It merely happened as the by-product of selection for other things.

By product of natural selection or not, the belief in supernatural agents is now part of our genetic make-up. Thus, it is very unlikely we will eliminate religion so long as humans are human. And that is a radically different view than the notion religion will die out as science progresses. If anything, only the forms are likely to change. People might give up their belief in the Christian God, for instance, only to adopt a belief in other supernatural agents, such as seems to be happening in parts of Europe.

Yet, how does Atran explain the various expressions of religiosity that do not seem to involve any belief in supernatural agency? Atheistic Buddhism, for instance. From what I can gather, he doesn't have an explanation for those forms of human religiosity. That is, Atran does not argue that such things as the notion of enlightenment are spandrels in the way that such things as the notion of gods are spandrels.

I tend to think Atran is largely correct in saying the human tendency to ascribe supernatural agency to things is a by-product of the evolution of other human traits. On the other hand, I think some religious notions, such as the notion of enlightenment, have come about, not because we are genetically predisposed to create them, but as a result of experience. So, while I accept that Atran has gone far to explain the origins of some aspects of human religiosity, I don't think he has explained the origins of all aspects of human religiosity.


Darwin's God


Braveheart ( Ela) said...

making a spandrel effect out of God isn't going to change the fact that we do not know our origin. I would not believe a scientist only because he named something atom, or thinks that big bang started it all, because he still does not know what was before the big bang and he never will. Even if we know about DNA and other complicated systems of our bodies, what does it proof? They find things, name them and still do not explain shit. After all, language is also a creation of people.

There is no proof of anything in this confused world.

Paul? what do you believe?

aos said...

The spandrel. What a brilliant metaphor. A friend of mine was having a house built and ended up with an extra space that he said the plans had not predicted.
But you know spandrels or not, I don't think religion's survival depends on genetics or a lack of science. many people have already demonstrated that they can hold both in their heads at the same time (cognitive dissonance you might say). The thing is that science is final explanation deferred whereas most of us have a desire for an explanation now (before the facts are in, in many cases). Our desire for closure will keep religion and some other ways of thinking alive and well.

Note to braveheart: you sound pissed that there are few proofs. Relax and enjoy the ride. I love science but ignorance too is bliss.

Braveheart ( Ela) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Braveheart ( Ela) said...

Thanks for the advice. I am going to relax.

question: is science a creation?

Glossist said...

Hmmm... I don't buy the spandrel thing.

To me, spirituality, faith and religion (different things for the most part) are part of evolution.

I do buy that humankind has evolved (quite successfully and dangerously) into more complex social and cultural connections. I think that those connections are strengthened by spirituality, faith and religion.

Also love your picture by Durer - but I noticed you didn't use his praying hands. :)

Paul said...

Hi Braveheart! It seems to me that there might or might not be a deity. The apparent fact we have evolved to perceive deity does not change the possibility there might or might not be one.

Hi AOS! Do you think human religiosity is more a matter of our trying to answer existential questions than a matter of our genetic make-up?

Hi Glossist! Welcome to the blog! That's true that the theory in science which competes with Atran's theory is the notion we evolved those things to promote social cohesion. I think that's a respectable theory, but I myself tend to go with Atran. Maybe that's because I don't quite understand how religion, etc. promote social cohesion when they seem to also at the same time promote divisiveness.

By the way, I totally forgot about the Praying Hands. Thanks for reminding me!

Braveheart ( Ela) said...

I know there must be something, call it a deity, a spandrel, a god, spirit, the smaller then the atom.. and then one stops and can not go further. So simple and yet bigger then our understanding, or so complex we have layers to peel, but how to peel off the centre?

It just a bit foolish that one has to claim and proof the existence or nonexistence. What for? What does it matter? We can call it science or nature, or god or other name.

I guess it happends because people say god loves us all and would not hurt us, and yet we suffer, and get angry for such a treatment..
the treatment of free will, perhaps?
A discussion without end.

Have a nice day

Braveheart ( Ela) said...

One more thing..I know i mix it all together, and it might not make sense to some people, to mix god with science.
I know how difficult religion might be and I know how easy it is to say there is no god,
I respect all.
and end my discussion.
thanks for the interesting posts to ponder upon.

Paul said...

Thank you for such interesting comments, Braveheart!

aos said...

Is it trying to answer or a product of genetics?
I don't see those as necessarily conflicting. We have certainly evolved to seek answers to questions.
We are problem solvers, and even if we don't get the answer exactly, we like to settle on one. Life is simpler when you have an answer that seems to fit the knowledge you have so far.
Religiosity is another way of making sense of the world. Because it tends to prefer a kind of cosmic closure (not always of course), it leads to both admirable and absurd results. (This is really too big for comments isn't it?)