The Sins of an Evolutionary Psychologist

In a recent essay on the cult of David Foster Wallace, Nathan Heller notes that DFW’s mature work deals with the crisis of contemporary pluralism: “how to think intelligently and truthfully about the world when that world is full of intelligent and truthful people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought.” While Heller characterizes this as the “basic problem of the postmodern landscape,” it surely is more than this.

It is also a problem in science, which scorns postmodernism and savages it with satire. Science, and those who play in its fields, is chock full of highly intelligent people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought. We can only hope that the schoolmasters involved are, as Heller twice notes, thinking truthfully. Those who are not specialists in a particular field and who rely on experts are entitled, at a minimum, to intellectual honesty.

In this regard, it was refreshing to see an evolutionary psychologist recently make a public confession: resurrection apparently does not contradict science because it is beyond natural law. Death, in a special one-off some 2000 years ago, is not really death. This is on good authority of the pope and tradition.

Prior to this confession, I had long been at a loss to understand the stories this evolutionary psychologist has been telling about the “evolution of religion.” Matt Rossano, psychology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, has been nothing if not prolific on the subject and recently published a book that purports to explain how religion evolved through “supernatural selection.” At least we now know what has been driving Rossano, and that his use of science and anthropology is not disinterested.

Anthropologists are in general agreement that between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, one or several groups of humans living in Africa experienced some kind of breakthrough enabling them to increase their numbers, leave the continent, and colonize the world. Who these humans were and where they lived remains something of a mystery. What sorts of advantages these humans possessed also remains something of a mystery.

There is no shortage of plausible hypotheses. They could have been the first group(s) to possess fully fluent language or the capacity for symbolic thought. They may have been technological innovators, crafting better tools, weapons, shelters, and clothing than their predecessors. Some or all these things would have resulted in larger group sizes, which surely played a primary role in their success.

Or, as Rossano would have us believe, they were the first to get religion. This is of course possible. But is it probable? Is it parsimonious? Does the majority of the evidence point in this direction? The answers are no, no, and no.

The evidence is uncertain and equivocal, though you would never know this by reading Rossano’s work. As he selectively presents the evidence, you would think that science has the answers and it all points to the adaptive or supernatural, which for Rossano seem to be one and the same. Science does not yet have the answers, and the incredible story Rossano tells about the “evolution of religion” appears to be wishful (or Catholic) thinking.

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5 thoughts on “The Sins of an Evolutionary Psychologist

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    Sorry, Chris, but I think the answers in this case are yes, yes and yes. Consider first (I’ve not read the referenced text, so just responding to your review) ‘super natural selection’ to be a metaphor. Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to refer to learned traits that could convey an advantage and be passed generation to generation, but so poisoned the term through deliberate abuse that it is not really useful. There is a long tradition of wisdom flowing to man from the gods, Dawkins tells us that wisdom can pass and evolve in a fashion as genes do through natural selection. With a nod to his audience, a touch of poetic license and a poke at Dawkins, and ‘memetic evolution’ becomes ‘supernatural selection’. As for ‘a majority of the evidence’, the ubiquitous prevalence of religion in ‘modern’ Paleolithic populations has made ‘religious artifacts’ one of the markers of a ‘modern’ site vs. archaic hominid site in most references. Because it is parsimonious, I believe it probable: The most prevalent theory of the ‘trigger’ for modern is language, and we know from Noam Chomsky and subsequent linguists that language was ‘fully formed’ in this population, but religion requires language and language does not require religion, but does require significant physical parts in our anatomy which require a lot (millions of years by some estimates – thousands by others) to evolve. Voice box, throat configuration, ‘modules in the brain – evolved for language’ per some. ‘Modern’ however, came after we had both. To me, that says language allowed religion, religion triggered modern.

  2. admin Post author

    There you are! You should be cleared from this point forward to post comments whenever you wish. Sorry about the mix up.

    I have to leave for the evening, but look forward to responding and having a dialogue with you!

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    Thanks, Chris. While this (paleolithic) was long ago and we would surly like to know more of it, I think you are exaggerating ‘how little’ we know.

  4. admin Post author

    I do not think I am exaggerating how little we know. Perhaps the best aspect of my training to date has been to examine the available evidence/data and determine what levels of inference can be made. The highest level of inference is almost never attainable, mid levels are very rarely supportable, and low level inferences cannot be used to spin elaborate yarns about what homs were or were not doing and what they were or were not thinking. The latter, in particular, is treacherous terrain.

  5. J. A. LeFevre

    I would argue that we do not know with any precision what people alive today are thinking – or if they know themselves. What we know concerning religion, from more recent sources, is that every human community that survived into the historical record had some form of religious belief. No exceptions I am aware of. So, then, if we are to pretend that man is an evolved species, subject to evolutionary ‘law’, then the attributes of man should be evaluated on an even basis as the attributes of guppies and finch. We should not be second-guessing our brilliance nor beliefs as granting us special consideration. Religion has an obvious cost, so cannot be neutral. Only communities with religion have survived into recorded history. Large brains have a significant cost in calories and more. Only hominids with large brains survived into the Upper Paleolithic. Therefore big brains are adaptive. What then is religion?

    You cannot use the excuse that we need more facts to ignore or reject the facts you have.

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