Disrupting Daniel Dennett’s Spell

Several years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006). It wasn’t easy. This is not because Dennett’s ideas and arguments are difficult (they aren’t). It is because I don’t care for Dennett’s style. While I can overlook stylistic deficiencies if the substance is solid, in this case I couldn’t. Despite the book’s promising subtitle, Dennett doesn’t come close to explaining religion as a natural phenomenon.

I remember thinking the book would appeal primarily to those who were vaguely hostile to religion, but didn’t know why. In Breaking the Spell (“BS”), they would find professional confirmation that their hostility was justified. But they still wouldn’t know why. At least they would be able to say that some really smart guy, a philosophy professor at Tufts, had somehow confirmed their suspicions.

During the ensuing years, I haven’t given the book much thought. I neither recommended it nor loaned my copy. Recently, however, I stumbled across Armin Geertz’s extraordinary review of BS: “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today.” Geertz, professor of religious history and cognition at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, rips Dennett using language not often seen in academic journals:

A recent book by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) is a catastrophe if our goal is to persuade skeptics of the advantages of cognitive approaches to the study of religion—or even just introduce cognition to the curious! Dennett seems to be hellishly bent on turning his readers off.

I used to think that philosophers by definition are sophisticated thinkers, gifted in the art of persuasive argument, valiantly exposing hidden assumptions and opaque meanings. But I am wrong. What Dennett has done is a disservice to the entire neuroscientific community.

Geertz’s trashing made me wonder: What did others say about BS? They were not kind.

In The God Genome, Leon Wieseltier takes Dennett to task for not distinguishing between the past and present: “And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins?  “Breaking the Spell” is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined originalism.” This is a poignant question, one not contemplated by evolutionary scholars of religion who (mistakenly) believe that the current functions of religion explain past origins.

Dennett’s problem is he believes everything can be explained in evolutionary terms. Like David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson, Dennett thinks evolution is a unified meta-theory. It isn’t, for one simple reason: cultures are not organisms. While Darwinian monism may be simple and satisfying, it is wrong.

In another harsh review of BS (Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark), Daniel Hart explains why:

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative.

This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.

When evolutionary theory is applied to culture change, we are dealing in metaphors and analogues. Societies do not evolve; they have histories. The sooner we stop talking about memes and “cultural evolution” the better. Time to break the spell.


Geertz, A. (2008). How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 20 (1), 7-21 DOI: 10.1163/157006808X260232


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26 thoughts on “Disrupting Daniel Dennett’s Spell

  1. razib

    the criticism of the evolutionary perspective have a lot of validity in highlighting limiations. but i don’t see that the alternatives are any better. also, saying something like societies have history and don’t evolve sounds good, but what does that even mean? most people who know evolutionary assume that historical contingency is part and parcel of the process. at least over any normal time span.

  2. Spulido99

    “Smashing”? Really? I read the Geertz paper and I liked it, but it is not an “smashing”, its more like a “don’t use my field for your political reasons and you have to read more, but, what you wrote is pretty much Ok”, and you know the saying: Everything before a “but” does not count.

    Changing the term “evolved” for “have a history” does not add anything to the discussion, either way the religions have changed and thinking in memes terms can explain that change and how its history unfolded.

    I do not understand something, when you say: “Dennett’s problem is he believes everything can be explained in evolutionary terms” are you just referring to his use of memes? Because in the book Dennet gives many different reasons why religions could have arisen, and the “because is an adaptation” is not even his favorite, he only state it as a possibility.

  3. Pingback: Breaking the spell « Only Yes

  4. Cris Post author

    I don’t want to argue about whether the verb “smash” is precisely the right word, but (wink) suffice it to say that Geertz does not like anything about the book and tears it apart. Smashing is one of several words that could have been used.

    I think that using the word “history” instead of “evolved” makes all the difference in the world. Cultural change is not the same as biological change. Have you been to a bookstore recently? I ask because if you go to the “History” section, you will find tens of thousands of books about human history. None of those books are written within an evolutionary paradigm, and historians don’t practice their craft using evolutionary principles. There are very good reasons for this. While biological evolution surely plays a role in culture change, it does not encompass it nor can it explain it. It is but one smaller part of a larger puzzle that requires multiple theories for explanation. No single theory will suffice.

    As for “memes,” I don’t have any use for them. Ideas are nothing like genes. It is a bad metaphor and bad analogy. I have written about this previously, and if you search the blog for “memes” you will find additional discussion.

    I want to be clear: I agree with Dennett that religion is a “natural” and human phenomenon. I think religion is explicable and can be explained, in part because all religions have histories and we can trace these histories. Some of this history is evolutionary, but not all of it.

  5. Cris Post author

    When it comes to describing culture change, I think the alternatives are much better. These alternatives can be found in history section of the bookstore, and prominently include explanatory models based in economy, geography, politics, etc. This doesn’t mean that biological evolutionary theories aren’t applicable (because they surely are) to culture change; it only means that they have limited explanatory power and are but a single aspect of the larger (non-evolutionary) story.

    Historians have a wonderful methodological tool kit for explaining culture change, and we should at least start with those tools before cramming everything into a metaphorical and analogical evolutionary paradigm. I’m an evolutionist but not a fundamentalist or fanatic and don’t need to insist that biological evolution explains everything. It doesn’t.

    When I say that societies have histories and don’t evolve, I am simply saying that culture change is not the same as biological change. Biological change plays a role in culture change, but this does not mean that culture change is biological.

  6. razib

    When I say that societies have histories and don’t evolve, I am simply saying that culture change is not the same as biological change.

    it’s your right to say that evolutionary models are only about biology. i don’t think that is so. if you think that it’s not useful to reduce history to purely biology, well, yeah. i read a lot of evolution and history, and i don’t think that the latter is superfluous. dennett is prone to rhetorical flourishes. it looks like you, and to a greater extent the people you’re quoting, just replied in kind. i don’t think that’s useful.

  7. J. A. LeFevre

    One is not the other, but they cannot be separated too far, as recognized by Geertz in How to Do the Cognitive Study of Religion:

    ‘In fact, culture may have played a central role in the physical development of the brain during the phylogenetic evolution of Homo sapiens.’

    Richard Wrangham has a specific and topical example:

    While evolution alone may not ‘explain’ culture (or religion), it can inform our understanding of it.

  8. Cris Post author

    I agree that evolutionary models can be used to explain culture change, I just don’t find them very compelling or useful. I think this is why historians don’t use evolutionary models to explain culture change. If it made methodological sense for them to do so, they surely would.

    Evolutionary models were developed for and are applicable to biological organisms. If we are going to carry them over to non-biological settings, we simply need to realize that the transitive property requires equivalence. I don’t see much equivalence between organisms and cultures or societies, but perhaps that is just me.

  9. Cris Post author

    There undoubtedly is a feedback loop between human evolution and culture; niche construction theory addresses this (and I address it in my article on the “Human Brain” which you can find under my Bio tab). I am simply stating that evolutionary theory is not a meta or unified theory that is capable of explaining everything, including non-biological change.

  10. J. A. Le Fevre

    The equivalence comes down to process – variants are introduced (change, mutation, innovation, whatever) and selected through competition. What is different is the encoding system (DNA vs. memory/records). The notion of gene-culture co-evolution came out of the realization that the strictly biological human is not viable. We cannot survive without our culture – our remembered or documented history. We cannot build our tools, produce our food nor defend against competitive threats without our accumulated knowledge on top of our biological bodies. Without culture, our biological bodies could not have evolved – we are not independent of our culture nor our biology. A purely biological model cannot capture that dynamic, that dependence.

  11. Cris Post author

    I fully understand this but when we are not using equivalent units, the law-like process for one kind of unit (i.e., the biological one) does not simply carry over for a different kind of unit. Just because the process is applicable to biology units, this does not mean the same process applies to other kinds of units. As I stated earlier, the transitive property (which is about process) requires identity of units. Absent such identity or equivalence, it doesn’t work.

    Gene-culture co-evolution may produce nice models, but they are descriptive and analogical. I think I have a fairly solid understanding of culture change, and this understanding is not framed by evolutionary biology.

  12. J. A. Le Fevre

    Switch positions (for perspective): Culture creates new environments for biology to adapt to, such as domestication of plants/animals. To understand many ‘recent’ biological changes (as alchohol or lactose tolerance) one must consider the cultural changes that drove them.

  13. Cris Post author

    I understand this and it is an active arena of evolutionary theory called “niche construction.” Clearly there is feedback between biology and culture; the issue we are discussing is whether the cultural side of this equation can be fully encapsulated within biological evolutionary theories. I contend that while biological evolutionary methods may shed some analogical light on culture change, the processes are different and biological models are not sufficient.

  14. Patrick Wm. Connally

    I would read Sam Harris new book , the Moral Landscape and read some evolutionary psychology, we are more grounded in our biology than many are comfortable with it seems.

    For culture to be “above” biology seems to me to take the we have “free will” to choose. If I get Harris right, we have choices we can make in the context of what chance or life has presented.

    Harris and others have used MRI’s to show which parts of our brains are stimulated by religion, poetry, threats, happiness and other features. Culture can provide the vehicle for our biological being like our capacity for language and culture providing a specific language.

    Research with other primates Orcas and other social mamals has clearly shown culture is very biologically centered, our species does it better.

    Richard Dawkins memes is a very useful tool to explain packets of information moving about, especially as we move from rural clans to urban herds of primates.

    Well the joy juice my brain produce from an enjoyable read is gone, and while it did positively reenforce me to the point of my choosing, by having a computer based on early choices that have not embeded in my brain adversion, to put this site in my favorites, and as habit, which gives soothing electro chemical responses which leads to ritual behavior and maybe creates a platform for superstition, I bid you good night

    I know of no historian who has not reflected on a evolving culture, evolution does not mean things get better. Evolution in history is another name for history. For the same reason in all science we are grounded and our understanding is ultimately based on how our biological senses take things in. Only recently have tools like infra red camera been able to take us out of our biological limits.

  15. Peacer

    Why would we insist that to discuss evolution in culture requires discussing it as bound to model, as in scientific (biologic) evolution? Could we consider allowing the use of the evolutionary concept in culture outside of a model and more in terms of making observations about what has manifested in the history? If we do not require of ourselves to explicate or predict, then we can dispense with “model,” and simply see and wonder at the experience of cultural evolution. In this way, “evolution” can be an entirely appropriate way of talking about the changes that have happened and will inevitably happen in cultures. I realize this is a departure from the criticism, strictly, of Dennett — but that’s kinda the point.

  16. Cris Post author

    My discomfort with loose or colloquial talk about “cultural evolution” is that it carries over all kinds of law-like and normative assumptions from biological evolution. Just as you did in your post, I think it a better practice simply to call this “history” or culture change.

  17. Thisica

    I suppose it depends on timescales: cultural changes happen a lot faster than ‘big’ changes to the phenotypes of organisms. Perhaps Dennett’s been a little unclear on this. Different kinds of phenomena require different kinds of explanation. So I do agree with you Cris that using evolution as a one-size-fits-all explanation doesn’t help us much. To put it in a different way: one cannot explain the origin of World War 1 using quarks. That’ll be quite a silly way to analyse the recent human past. Likewise for the mongrel concept ‘religion’ and religion as human practice.

  18. Connor Wood

    Arguing that cultural evolution should simply be called “history” or culture change would seem to occlude any selective processes that might work on culture forms. For instance, Joe Henrich’s work on normative monogamy suggests that monogamous norms have been winning a selective war over polygamy for a few dozen centuries because they encourage more paternal caretaking. You might disagree with his results from that study, but I don’t think you can make a convincing argument that the processes of vertical and horizontal cultural transmission are random with regard to fitness. The selective processes that drive this preferential transmission may not be transitively parallel to those operating on biological platforms, but they’re still iterated selective processes – which means to me that evolutionary language is not just airy analogy.

  19. Cris Post author

    I consider “processes of vertical and horizontal cultural transmission” to be descriptive metaphors for processes that can be better described, and explained, using the standard conceptual tools of the social sciences. These are the same tools that historians regularly use to write their books. I don’t think that cultural evolutionist metaphors, models, memes or maths provide much additional insight or explanatory power. More apropos to your comment, I briefly explained my position in this post. You correctly suspect I’m not a fan of Henrich’s cultural evolutionist work, for reasons that should be apparent from this post.

  20. Connor Wood

    Your arguments in the two posts you’ve linked to are good ones, although I do tend to disagree with them. In your post on “Neo Cultural Evolution,” you make what I consider to be an error in assuming that religion must be some kind of discrete on/off phenotype to be appropriate for evolutionary selection. I can’t see how this assumption has an equivalent in biology; practically no physical traits are binary on/off phenotypes. Height, facial symmetry, feather density, fast-twitch muscle fiber prevalence – these are all features which run along continuua but which no one denies are the products of evolutionary selection pressures. Meanwhile, Pigliucci’s argument that the source of variations must be random in order to qualify for Darwinian selection is one Scott Atran (at least used to) use, and I find it just as implausible in this setting as I do when I read him (although I think he has lots of good stuff to say). First, Darwinian selection does not care where variations come from. Darwin’s model postulated that they were random, but Darwin’s model has been massively improved upon and modified since his time, and there is nothing in the actual description of selective processes that requires random etiology. Once a trait appears, for whatever reason, it can become the target of selective pressures. Second, plenty of cultural variations ARE random vis-a-vis fitness. Some cultures hit on 12 divisions of the octave, others on 32 or 68. Some cultures decide to use candles in their rituals. Others don’t. People are creative and unpredictable; they come up with variations on behaviors at random. In a competitive environment, which the human cultural world certainly is, some of these variations are going to confer advantages on the people who pick them up. Same for the non-random innovations.

    So the question I’d still be interested in is, how do you account for the fact that some cultures outcompete others? This is the primary observation driving adaptationist models of religion, and one that I think you sidestep in your post about paternal certainty. See also my comment in your post on supernatural punishment: http://genealogyreligion.net/post-hoc-supernatural-punishers.

  21. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure what a “culture” is or how this concept maps onto discrete or well-defined groups that have actually existed in prehistory or history. Are “cultures” actors or agents? How are they operationalized in terms of empirical observation?

    If we are talking about intergroup competition, I prefer not to use abstractions which can then be mathematically modeled in ways that accord with a priori assumptions and/or preconceived theory. And speaking of such assumptions, it seems to me that the primary theory driving adaptationist models of religion is that God works in Darwinian ways. While evolutionary theism does not, in and of itself, speak to the merits of these models, it does alert us to the possibility that progress and teleology are driving the investigation and resulting story. Turning the tables, we thus might treat them a priori as suspect and be on the alert for confirmation bias.

    Having said all that, I have addressed intergroup competition in this post on group level success in Paleolithic settings. I have never quite understood why adaptationists are so mystified by cooperation, cohesion, altruism, and trust. Because Durkheim seems to have been similarly mystified, I have often said that if he had ever studied primates, the mystery would have disappeared, or at least lessened. Primates are perhaps the most social of mammals, and talking primates (who can designate fictive kin and thus form larger cooperative groups) even more so. If you can talk, good things happen, ranging from technological advance to enhanced cooperation.

    Outside of Paleolithic settings, there are all sorts of explanations for why one group or society might outcompete or prevail over another. The starting point for any analysis of this kind would be similar to what Diamond does in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Things like geography, ecology, disease, resource bases, trade relations, economy, politics, technology, climate, and demography all play major roles. When historians write books about group competition, they examine all these issues and hundreds more.

    But again, I like to be specific. So we should ask questions that are concrete and which can be answered with actual archaeological or historical evidence. We can then ask questions like: How did the Mongolians establish their empire? Why did the Romans prevail over the Greeks? Why did the Lakota and Comanche become the dominant plains tribes? Why were the Dinka and Masaai so successful in Africa? How did colonizers displace Aborigines? There are many hundreds of such historical questions and many thousands of books that venture answers.

    We might profitably consider these answers before giving an alternative and idealist explanation that revolves around “religion” (whatever that is). There is a reason why historians don’t write books explaining the success of groups of societies using Darwinian theory and models. And this reason is not because historians are dumb, are Darwinian heretics, or fail to understand the tidy models and complex maths. It’s because there are better explanations which accord with the messy nature of human cultures, societies, and realities.

    One of the answers you won’t generally find in all these history books: “religion” is the primary driver of group success and the key variable which explains why one tribe, city-state, empire, or nation-state outcompetes or prevails over another. While “religion” surely plays some role, ignoring all the other factors in favor of the transcendent-divine is either wishful thinking or theist storytelling.

    Finally, I think that all adaptationist modelers need to start thinking about China, which poses serious counterfactual problems for the models. I explained why in this post. China is the biggest, oldest (~1,600 years old), and most complex society or “culture” on earth. China achieved all this without having any systematic, singular, or highly organized form of “religion.” Most tellingly, it lacks the “big god” which is so beloved by cultural evolutionists and evolutionary theists.

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