Adaptive Optimization: Code for Design

For the holidays I’d like to share this with my theist friends who see hominin evolution progressively unfolding as one adaptation after another, all culminating in the transcendent and numinous splendor of modern humanity:

To tell stories about a world in which all the organic parts are at an adaptive optimum is typical of attempts to domesticate Darwinism’s randomized, liminal world in motion and render it less fearsome. In fact, adaptive optimization covertly restores the pre-evolutionary argument from design, whose affective motive was to make the world (and its Creator) familiar and tame by founding it upon those analogies to the self, reason and human will, that assure the existence of control over Nature’s power and domestication of Nature’s otherness.

This is a slightly revised excerpt from Eric White’s essay “The End of Metanarratives in Evolutionary Biology,” in which he cites Davydd Greenwood’s Taming of Evolution: The Persistence of Nonevolutionary Views in the Study of Humans.

Nowhere are such views or metaphysical narratives more prevalent than among theist scholars who (often with generous funding from the Templeton Foundation) churn out articles ostensibly demonstrating that religion was targeted by natural selection because it is the Greatest Designed Adaptation, ever.

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13 thoughts on “Adaptive Optimization: Code for Design

  1. Sabio Lantz

    This reminds me of the Red Queen Principle seen in evolution of Parasites and Hosts. Both build the armory so that it seems nothing is moving. Theists build their counter defenses as soon as a ploy is laid bare.

  2. Cris Post author

    Nice allusion. It does seem like a continuous retreat whereby God fills the gaps and the gaps just keep getting smaller. When the creationist/intelligent design wars are over, the next battlefield will be in this area. It seems like I’m the only person addressing this issue right now, but the theists have been exceptionally busy building their design/adaptation arguments around religion, so when everyone realizes what has happened (and how entrenched the theists are), it will result in another long battle. The thing that most irritates me about is that it is intellectually and scientifically dishonest. I abhor the lack of integrity and failure to disclose a priori commitments to God which drive these views, papers, and books.

  3. Michael Blume

    Hi Cris,

    maybe the reason that you are thinking of yourself as “the only person addressing this issue right now”, whereas “the theists have been exceptionally busy building their design/adaptation arguments around religion” is that you are running into your personal conspirational theory right now. Just to name a few examples not fitting your claims: David Sloan Wilson (“Darwin’s Cathedral”) and Jesse Bering (“The Belief Instinct”) or my German colleagues Wulf Schiefenhövel and Eckhard Voland are all declared atheists, nevertheless finding religiosity and religions to be evolutionary adaptive. Do you really believe all of them to be “intellectually and scientifically dishonest”, too?

  4. Cris Post author

    It would be a logical fallacy to assert that because most proponents of “religion is adaptive theory” are theists, then all proponents of “religion is adaptive theory” are theists. It is true however that most “religion is adaptive” proponents are theists.

    I’ve asked you the following questions before but never got an answer: given your worldview and theistic commitments, would it even be possible to contemplate the possibility that supernatural beliefs are not adaptive? That they weren’t targeted by selection? That religion arose after the fact or as a byproduct of something else?

    Don’t your beliefs rule out these possibilities? Don’t you believe that evolution was created and designed by God? And if you believe this, doesn’t it follow ineluctably that belief in the supernatural and religion must have been designed? This design, when translated into evolutionary terms, means “adaptive.” The issue is foreordained and prejudged, is it not?

  5. J. A. LeFevre

    I was attempting to stay out of this discussion having been told what for already, but what the heck? Having been in correspondence for some time now with Michael Bloom and having reviewed some of his work along with works of Jesse Bering and found them to be rather biased against religion. Same with Matt Rossano, but to a lesser degree. Damning with faint praise, the lot.

    Now this whole argument of ‘adaptation’ requires culture to be considered an evolutionary feature – a consideration I find well justified by the evidence, but is not universally accepted. The proceeding and following arguments from all parties in this thread are pointless without accepting at least for arguments sake, that culture be considered an evolutionary feature for this discussion.

    Humans are argued to have appeared about 2.5 million years ago in the personage of homo habilis, the tool builder.
    Shamanism/Religion, in the earliest documentation we have uncovered, appeared about 70,000 years ago. From that first appearance of religion in south-east Africa, human groups lacking religion were competing at a decided disadvantage, loosing ground continually for the next 40,000 years when they finally went extinct. (The exact date for the first appearance of religion is irrelevant – point being that those without were out competed).

    Organized religion (that with priests and-or temples) appeared with the Neolithic revolution about 10,000 years ago, wherever cities were built, and those with the more primitive religion discovered themselves at a competitive disadvantage and are likely to go extinct in a century or two.

    Anyone with the slightest understanding of, or respect for, evolution should recognize extinction as a less than desirable outcome for one’s own family or community.

    Man has been testing alternatives to religion for about 2.5 million years, and they have been found wanting.

    Any explanation of religion from an evolutionary perspective that does not recognize it as an essential feature of a competitive human community is ignoring the evidence.

  6. Cris Post author

    What is the evidence for shamanism/religion (“S/R”) appearing circa 70,000 years ago in southeast Africa? How do we know that some hom groups during this time period had S/R whereas others lacked it? How do we know that those groups which supposedly had S/R out-competed those which supposedly lacked it? What hom groups went extinct 40,000 years ago because they lacked S/R?

    If you can answer these questions with evidence that compels some kind of broad consensus, it would make a huge difference. If not, it’s just a story.

    Moreover the story you want to tell is better and more parsimoniously explained by positing other kinds of developments, such as language or technology or cognition or alloparenting. This is not to say that S/R did not play a role or could not have played a role, but is to say that positing S/R as a kind of Paleolithic deus ex machina for hom success doesn’t really wash.

  7. J. A. LeFevre

    The evidence of 70,000 ybp is the ‘Rhino Cave’ which you have covered. Not definitive, but strongly suggestive. If you want ‘proof’, stick to math. I already said it doesn’t really matter when it started. 40,000 years later would be 30,000 ybp, the Upper Paleolithic, when it is that all ‘non-modern’ humans went extinct – Neanderthal, archaic Cro-Magnon, etc. The very definition of ‘Modern Human’ includes ‘has religion’. While some have suggested that Neanderthal showed signs of developing towards religion, I’ve not seen anyone claim they had it. Irrelevant though as they went extinct. There is no requirement that one Not have religion to go extinct – tribes with long traditions of religion go extinct every year, but every tribe which has survived into history has had religion. You have said so yourself. The role of religion in the survival of communities is a different question. Related, but still different (‘Why’ vs. ‘what’). The only way for a population to go from ‘no one has feature R’ (humans say 100,000 years ago) to ‘everyone has feature R’ (all humans in recorded history – it is not necessary to go back further, but you can) is for ‘feature R’ to have first been introduced into the species, and to then out compete the have nots. If you look closer, the evidence is more compelling, but all you need to know is ‘who won’. Evolution 101.

  8. Cris Post author

    You have made variants of this argument before and I’ve raised questions before, but you haven’t answered my questions, in particular the ones about other explanations. If we simply substituted “language” for “religion” in your proposed sequence, we’d get the exact same thing.

    Are you going to draft a detailed summary analysis of your proposed scenario for posting on the blog? I think you should.

  9. J. A. LeFevre

    Thanks, I owe you that, but such is to address the rather more subtle question of why, the more basic issue of what is just as simple as I’ve laid out. I don’t think anyone would argue against langue being an adaptation.

  10. Cris Post author

    Yet you attribute all this success to religion when language would not only would do the job, but do it better. The group success which you see beginning circa 70,000 years ago is, in the estimation of most anthropologists including me, the likely result of cognitive fluidity and language. Religion may have been an epiphenomenal result of these things and surely was put to beneficial use (i.e., shamanic placebo healing), but R/S in and of itself or per se doesn’t seem like a primary site for targeted selection, nor a resulting adaptation so spectacular that it accounts for 60,000 years of small group success. Shamanic supernaturalism has its uses and benefits, but it didn’t increase group sizes or enable future planning. Language and technology could do both.

  11. Cris Post author

    In addition, I don’t need math proofs but I do need archaeological proofs or data. I wrote the Rhino Cave post to investigate the issue of “religion” at 70,000 years ago, and came to the obvious conclusion there isn’t evidence of “religion” there. There is equivocal evidence of a possible ritual.

    If you want to tell stories, which is fine by me, the stories you tell should hang on something more than isolated or single occurrences of whatever you are trying to explain.

  12. J. A. LeFevre

    While twice dismissing the Rhino Cave as interesting but unnecessary, I still do not see any evidence of prehistoric ritual apart from religion. Further I (along with many others) suspect that ritual is a significant, perhaps the most significant component of religion. This is still irrelevant to the claims I’ve posted to this thread. Same for cognitive fluidity and language. While guilty of the claims attributed to me, those were not made on this thread. I do not question that cognitive fluidity and language are essential attributes to the modern human and his competitive success. Both appear essential to the development of religion as well. I am quite prepared to accept that all humans with religion had fully modern cognitive fluidity and language. On this thread, I have principally reiterated observations that you have made independently: Humans have not always had religion, and that all humans that have survived into the historic record or even the Upper Paleolithic, have had religion. There may be no religion without cognitive fluidity and language, but there are no modern humans without religion.

  13. Cris Post author

    I like it and am looking forward to giving you as much posting space as you would like to lay all this out in detailed fashion. There are modern humans who don’t have “religion,” though most believe in the supernatural. Only hard-core materialists-atheists reject religion and/or supernatural beliefs, and they are very few. Belief in the supernatural seems to arise naturally from ordinary brain-mind operations; religion takes a good deal more, like systematic cultural inputs.

    That issue aside, humans engage in all manner of rituals that have nothing to do with the supernatural or religion. I suspect this has long been the case. I think ritual was used to materialize supernatural beliefs or enact them, but didn’t give rise to them. Asserting otherwise gives short shrift to the power of supernatural beliefs or ideas.

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