Evolving Methods

Evolutionary psychologists commonly assert that some trait or propensity identified in lab studies is universal or pan-human and this means the trait or propensity evolved for adaptive reasons in the ancestral past. The problem with most such studies is that the test subjects are highly derived or WEIRD: “white, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” It is exceedingly odd to infer, based on studies of weirdos, that traits or propensities are human universals. This is especially true when it comes to sex preferences, which are notoriously malleable and strongly conditioned by culture.

A recent PNAS study examined allegedly universal or “ancestrally evolved” sex preferences using test subjects from a wide variety of cultures. The findings, unsurprisingly, are significantly at odds with those that dominate headlines here in the West:

It is a popular assumption that certain perceptions—for example, that highly feminine women are attractive, or that masculine men are aggressive—reflect evolutionary processes operating within ancestral human populations. However, observations of these perceptions have mostly come from modern, urban populations. This study presents data on cross-cultural perceptions of facial masculinity and femininity. In contrast to expectations, we find that in less developed environments, typical “Western” perceptions are attenuated or even reversed, suggesting that Western perceptions may be relatively novel.

A large [evolutionary psychology] literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces (masculinity/femininity) reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments. It is difficult to evaluate, however, because most available data come from large-scale, industrialized, urban populations. Here, we report the results for 12 populations with very diverse levels of economic development. Surprisingly, preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments. Similarly, perceptions that masculine males look aggressive increase strongly with development and, specifically, urbanization. These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value.

These findings militate in favor of methodological caution. There is also a large evolutionary psychology literature which asserts that allegedly universal cognitive traits give rise to and sustain “religious” beliefs. Most of these studies are based on tests of weirdos. Until these findings are replicated and confirmed cross-culturally, we should be cautious.


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Magically Speaking

In this Aeon article about “legendary comics author Alan Moore” (whose legend and existence had escaped my notice until now), Moore explains his decision to become, and call himself, a magician:

“The more I think about it, the more absolutist I get,” he says. “I believe exactly that art and magic – specifically writing, but art in general, and magic – are almost completely interchangeable. They share the same terminology, they match up in nearly every respect.”

So why call himself a magician, I wonder, rather than a writer or an artist? He replies that magic is the broader and earlier notion: “It includes all the other things, and it has other connotations as well.” A fair definition of magic, he says, might be “engaging with the phenomena of consciousness. All modern linguists and consciousness theorists seem to agree that we have to have the word for a thing before we can conceptualise it. The first magical act was the act of representation – just saying ‘this means that’.”

Forgive me for burying the lede, but that last sentence neatly sums Durkheim’s argument, in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain translation at pp. 237-39), that magical thinking is the evolutionary root of all thinking:

It is true that [magico-religious thought] is disconcerting for us. Yet we must be careful not to depreciate it: howsoever crude it may appear to us, it has been an aid of the greatest importance in the intellectual evolution of humanity. In fact, it is through [magic-religion] that the first explanation of the world has been made possible.

Of course the mental habits it implies prevented men from seeing reality as their senses show it to them; but as the senses show it, [experienced reality] has the grave inconvenience of allowing of no explanation. For to explain is to attach things to each other and to establish relations between them which make them appear to us as functions of each other and as vibrating sympathetically according to an internal law founded in their nature.

The great service that [magic and religion] have rendered to thought is that they have constructed a first representation of what these relations of kinship between things may be. In the circumstances under which it was attempted, the [magico-religious] enterprise could obviously attain only precarious results.

The essential thing was not to leave the mind enslaved to visible appearances, but to teach it to dominate them and [symbolically] to connect what the senses separated; for from the moment when men have an idea that there are internal connections between things, science and philosophy become possible. [Magic] opened up the way for them.

By this reasoning, which Robin Horton rightly calls Durkheim’s continuity thesis, we are all talking magicians.


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Dishonor Thy Father

From the metaphorical standpoint of selfish genes and their male human vessels, the worst possible fitness outcome is to invest in another man’s child while mistakenly believing the child carries half your genes. This view, espoused by evolutionary psychologists, receives ironic support from marriage rules and adultery sanctions promulgated by many world religions. But, as I explained in One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest and EP & Paternity Paranoia, this view is wrong.

In these posts, I noted that biological paternity is a non-issue for many hunter-gatherers. Among foragers, children are usually raised by large alloparenting groups in which the biological father may or may not play an important role. Thus, the identification and attribution of “father” is fluid, malleable, and often inconsistent with genetic parentage. Despite this variability, there is usually at least one person (or several) who will be identified and addressed as “father.”

It is therefore surprising to learn that an ethnic group in China’s Himalayan region, the Mosuo, take this paternity-plasticity to another level: the Mosuo do not recognize “fathers” and do not even have a word for “father.” This remarkable fact is a product of “walking marriages” which give women the right to have overnight male visitors as they wish. These visits, which obviously may result in biological paternity, do not consequently lead to fatherhood:

Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother’s family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother’s family, and take on her family name.

This does not mean, however, that the men get off scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.

Although the Masuo are agrarian, there are strong echoes here of hunter-gatherer practices and flexibility. Though there is no historical data by which to judge the issue, this could be a cultural survival that has been adapted to new ways of life. It seems to be working for the Masuo:

The result – as different as it may be from other systems – is a family structure which is, in fact, extremely stable. Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care. 

So here we have another ethnographic example of a society that contradicts the standard and widely-accepted stories about pair bonding and ritual marriage. Among the Masuo, there is no “marriage” of the kind theoretically envisioned by evolutionary psychologists and doctrinally affirmed by post-Neolithic religions. With all this in mind, a more apt aphorism might be “Honor thy Alloparenting Group.” These groups, variably consisting of genetic and fictive kin, bear little resemblance to the historically derived (i.e., post-Neolithic) ideal of dyadic nuclear families.

Triptych Holy Kinship_Frankfurt, Staedelsches Junstinstitut_1509

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Whitehouse on ERS

It’s not often that I read an article or interview about the evolution of “religion” that does not provoke some dissent — an objecting inner voice saying “that’s not quite right” or “that’s really wrong.” So it was a pleasure to read this recent Nautilus interview with Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, a major figure in cognitive and evolutionary religious studies (“ERS”). Whitehouse hits all the right notes while answering several questions stemming from popular misconceptions of religion. Because his answers are so good, I encourage you to read the interview in full. As points of emphasis, I particularly enjoyed these excerpts:

At some point in human history many societies switched from animistic forms of religion to institutionalized systems that are closer to today’s religions. How do you explain this transition?

The really critical transition is one that occurs in the gradual switch from a foraging, hunting-and-gathering lifestyle to settled agriculture, where you’re domesticating animals and cultivating crops. What happens is a major change in group size and structure. I think religion is really a core feature in that change. What we see in the archeological record is increasing frequency of collective rituals. This changes things psychologically and leads to more doctrinal kinds of religious systems, which are more recognizable when we look at world religions today.

Why did that transformation occur in agricultural societies?

The cooperation required in large settled communities is different from what you need in a small group based on face-to-face ties between people. When you’re facing high-risk encounters with other groups or dangerous animals, what you want in a small group is people so strongly bonded that they really stick together. The rituals that seem best-designed to do that are emotionally intense but not performed all that frequently. But when the group is too large for you to know everyone personally, you need to bind people together through group categories, like an ethnic group or a religious organization. The high frequency rituals in larger religions make you lose sight of your personal self.

You’re suggesting you don’t have to reduce religious experience to belief systems. It’s the experience itself that sweeps you along and binds you to other people.

It’s about both belief and experience. I do think we can kind of separate the two. Imagine having a brain that’s naturally predisposed to believe some things more readily than others, and then over generations, cultural systems develop in ways that essentially play into those predispositions. The point is that our experiences are made meaningful by our implicit beliefs and the two basically work together.

Psychologically, why is God such a powerful idea?

It may be a product of cultural evolution and the shift to much larger and more complex societies. When you use the singular “God,” you’re talking about some kind of high god, which probably means a god that’s omniscient and cares about the morality of our behavior and punishes us when we behave badly. That’s a relatively recent cultural innovation that may have been an adaptation to living in very large societies.

That’s good stuff, but perhaps even better is the humility and methodological prudence on display:

Do you think science can fully explain religion?

I don’t know about fully explain. I’d like to think that science will one day be able to explain why we’re inclined to adopt these different things that we lump together as “religion,” but I don’t think explaining religion is the same as explaining it away. I don’t think science will ever be able to tell us whether or not there’s a god. That will always be a matter of faith. I’m in favor of a humble approach, but I do think that humility should cut both ways. Religious people should be open to the possibility that some of the things they find most mysterious about the meaning of life or the cosmos might actually turn out to be explainable. Of course, science has been pretty successful at turning certain mysteries into soluble problems. But at the same time I think much of human life takes us beyond the scope of scientific explanation and that’s true of religion, too.

And so what does, in summary, explain religion?

Well, ["religion"] is not a monolithic entity for which we could offer an overall explanation. If we define what we’re really interested in—supernatural agents, rituals, afterlife beliefs, creation stories—then we’d find they result from quite different mechanisms and have different evolutionary histories. There just can’t be a magic bullet explanation of “religion” as if it’s one single thing.

The interview contains several more insights (e.g., religion did not evolve to provide meaning or purpose; New Atheists shallowly see religion as a set of propositions about the world; we need more data on the Axial Age) that make it a nice teaching resource. Thanks to the interviewer, Steve Paulson, for providing it.


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Animist Hunting Technology

While reading a recent book announcement from the MIT Press, I was reminded of Robin Ridington’s compelling argument that animism, or animist knowledge, can profitably be seen as a mode of production. The new book examines African hunter-gatherer technology from indigenous perspectives rather than the usual comparative mode, which is to view such technology through western lenses as “simple” or “primitive.” Here is a partial description from the MIT Press release:

In the border region where Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa meet, indigenous hunters have for centuries made and used an impressive array of tools. There is the bow, made from giant raisin trees and called the “vurha” or “uta” in the languages of two ethnic groups in the area, the chiShona and the xiTshangana. Local craftsmen make arrows (“matlhari” or “miseve”), knives (“mukwanga” or “banga”), and axes (“xihloka” or “demo”). Until the advent of colonial rule, villagers also dug pits lined with poison-tipped stakes (“goji” or “hunza”), where animals as big as elephants were captured.

“The hunt was a transient or mobile workspace where work was done on the move,” says Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. “Boys were schooled in the arts of tracking, shooting, trapping, making weaponry, and using trees as assets for making poisons, medicines, food, and other purposes. The hunt was a professoriate of indigenous knowledge.”

These hunts were also incorporated within a highly spiritualized understanding of forests, animal life, and human behavior, Mavhunga emphasizes. For instance, hunters would never orphan an antelope fawn, and strict local taboos limited elephant hunting to basic needs for meat, skin, and ivory. Chiefs and spirit mediums enforced these rules.

Indeed, the maTshangana calendar is based, in part, on the life cycles of animals: “Mpala,” or November, is when antelopes give birth; “Nkokoni,” or December, is when wildebeest are born and elephants mate. No hunting was allowed during these months.

“Centuries of acquired and received knowledge were available on the annual rates of increase, out of which sustainable yields were calculated,” Mavhunga writes in a new book about technology, society, and nature in southern Africa.

In exploring the hunt as a mobile space for work and education, Mavhunga’s book — Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe, just published by MIT Press — is a call for a historical rethinking about the meaning, prevalence, and application of technological innovation in Africa.

This remark strikes me as particularly apt: “The hunt was a professoriate of indigenous knowledge.” Indeed it was, and not just in Africa. Hunting knowledge, success, and skill required a lifetime of continuous education. The resulting expertise was surely professorial. I have not read Mavhunga’s book so can’t yet endorse it, but readers interested in foragers might want to give it a try. If anyone does, please give us a review.


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Ungodly Science: Dawkins

Since we are on the subject of John Gray, let’s look at his most recent review: a withering attack on arch-atheist Richard Dawkins. The occasion for this lambasting, which assumes the form of a book review, is Dawkins’ self-important and yawn-inducing autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. So it’s not like Dawkins wasn’t asking for it, but I wonder whether the review (“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins”) is entirely fair. Though I am ignorant of such matters, I sense a sub-current of sneering British politics or classicism running throughout. Some fairness might have been achieved had Gray observed that there are three incarnations of Richard Dawkins and each deserves to be evaluated independently. By treating Dawkins as a seamless and ungodly whole, the good gets swamped by the bad and we lose valuable context.

The first Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and science writer. This Dawkins has performed many valuable services, even if the particulars of his selfish-gene case are the subject of major scientific dispute. Disputes are the stuff of science and the ensuing debates over genes, functions or purpose, and levels of selection have been invigorating and healthy. And popular science books like The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution are just splendid, indeed masterful. It would be churlish not to acknowledge and applaud these contributions to the larger culture.

The second Dawkins is the scourge of creationists and religious fundamentalists of all stripes. I don’t have a problem with this Dawkins, though I doubt he has persuaded fervent believers of their cognitive errors. To the surely limited extent that books like The God Delusion have converted any of them, then more power to Dawkins. In religiously bizarre places like the United States, where 150 million people are creationists, someone has to get down in the cultural gutter for these kinds of fights. But those who do so run a risk: combat with zealots can lead to zealotry. As Nietzsche once observed in a different context, those who stare long into the abyss should be wary of the abyss staring back. Confrontations with creationists may have similar effects.

This brings us to the third Dawkins, the one with whom I do have a problem. We can get a sense for this Dawkins, overweened on science, in books like The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. What’s really true – or the nature and structure of “reality” – is a difficult philosophical problem, cosmological conundrum, and open scientific question. While some skepticism and modesty is surely in order when it comes to subjects like this, Dawkins has no doubts. And it is on this issue that Gray, who is also an atheist, blasts Dawkins:

[I]t is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional. If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world. The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind—his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.

For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible. There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.

It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation. He writes well—fluently, vividly, and at times with considerable power. But the ideas and the arguments that he presents are in no sense novel or original, and he seems unaware of the critiques of positivism that appeared in its Victorian heyday.

[Evangelical Atheism] testifies to how shallow, crass, and degraded the debate has become since Victorian times. Unlike most of those who debated then, Dawkins knows practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion. From his point of view, he has no need to know. He can deduce everything he wants to say from first principles. Religion is a type of supernatural belief, which is irrational, and we will all be better off without it: for all its paraphernalia of evolution and memes, this is the sum total of Dawkins’s argument for atheism.

This is admittedly harsh, perhaps even intemperate, but it rings true. John Gray, for his part, is not without his foibles, particularly his promiscuous penchant for calling just about everything – political movements, social formations, and various worldviews – “religion.” This conceptual categorization could be useful, if well-argued, but simply labeling Dawkins’ atheism “its own kind of narrow religion” is in no way helpful or enlightening. While I find much that is valuable in Gray, particularly a healthy skepticism toward blind-secular faith in progress, we can and should interrogate him on these matters. But those are posts for another day, when I complete the series on Progress.


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Secular Prophets

As lead book reviewer for the New Statesman, John Gray has a superb platform for elucidating, in acidic prose, the kludgish philosophy of John Gray. The books themselves seem to be an afterthought, mere vehicles for the critical scorn Gray so often pours on the secular faith in progress. In his most recent review, of Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Gray takes aim at the rationalist prophets of that faith: evangelical atheists. He also happens to like Armstrong’s book, which is a bit surprising. Before Gray gets to her book, he diagnoses the historical and cultural angst that may be motivating these prophets:

The idea that religion is fading away has been replaced in conventional wisdom by the notion that religion lies behind most of the world’s conflicts. Many among the present crop of atheists hold both ideas at the same time. They will fulminate against religion, declaring that it is responsible for much of the violence of the present time, then a moment later tell you with equally dogmatic fervour that religion is in rapid decline. Of course it’s a mistake to expect logic from rationalists. More than anything else, the evangelical atheism of recent years is a symptom of moral panic. Worldwide secularisation, which was believed to be an integral part of the [progressive cultural evolutionary] process of becoming modern, shows no signs of happening. Quite the contrary: in much of the world, religion is in the ascendant. For many people the result is a condition of acute cognitive dissonance.

This is classic Gray: heavy on rhetoric and light on argument. His own fulmination would fall flat without further analysis, which Gray then provides:

It’s a confusion compounded by the lack of understanding, among those who issue blanket condemnations of religion, of what being religious means for most of humankind. As Armstrong writes [echoing Talal Asad], “Our modern western conception of religion is idiosyncratic and eccentric.” In the west we think of religion as “a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centering on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all ‘secular’ activities”. But this narrow, provincial conception, which is so often invoked by contemporary unbelievers, is the product of a particular history and a specific version of [western Christian] monotheism.

Atheists think of religion as a system of supernatural belief, but the idea of the supernatural presupposes a distinct sort of cosmogony – typically one in which the material world is the creation of a personal God – that is found in only a few of the world’s religions. Moreover, the idea that belief is central in religion makes sense only when religion means having a creed.

Throughout much of history and all of prehistory, “religion” meant practice – and not just in some special area of life. Belief has not been central to most of the world’s religions; indeed, in some traditions it has been seen as an impediment to spiritual life. Vedanta, Buddhism and Taoism caution against mistaking human concepts for ultimate realities; Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain currents of what is known as apophatic theology, in which God can be described only in negative terms. It is only those who are hung up on creeds who become missionaries of unbelief.

Gray’s last sentence hits at least one nail squarely on the head. Evangelical atheism is dialectically engaged with an historically particular and peculiar form of western Christian religion. To combat this creedal form and its Abrahamic relatives, atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where large numbers of people happen to reside, it offers precious little to those not bound by the tedious binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.


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