Field of Science

Green beards maybe made us religious

A trait doesn't have to have a direct survival benefit for it to be selected for by evolution. So long as it sends a signal to the opposite sex that you have gametes that are worth getting hold of, your reproductive fitness will increase and the trait will be selected for. It's called the Green-Beard Effect, after the popular description by Dawkins in his 1979 book “The Selfish Gene” (although the idea was first proposed in 1964). All it takes is that the genes that create the signal are linked to the genes that code for something that enhances your quality as a prospective mate. Sounds unlikely, but it can happen in theory (Janse & van Ballen, 2006) and seems to happen in practice (in Californian side-blotched lizards, for example)

What on earth does this have to do with religion? Well, Prof James Dow (an Anthropologist at Oakland University) has been modelling the evolution of religion, and in particular trying to figure out why one particularly peculiar feature of religion should have evolved: the propagation of beliefs about the world that conflict with reality.

As Dow points out:

One feature of religion that seems to stand out as non-adaptive is the belief in the existence of an unseen, unverifiable world. The existence of gods, spirits, and the like cannot be verified by the senses. A belief in them makes no sense from an common evolutionary point of view. The animal whose conception of the world is out of touch with reality should be eliminated by natural selection. The one whose mental images correspond most closely to the real environment should be one to survive. The primary problem of explaining how religion has evolved through natural selection is the problem of explaining the belief in unreal things.

But such a belief system could evolve if it has beneficial effect on social organisation. So he set out to investigate in an agent based model whether communication of unreal information (i.e. religious beliefs) could ever confer a survival benefit. Essentially, the model allowed for the co-evolution of culture and genetics, to see if communicating unreal information could help the agents get better at communicating real information.

The bottom line is it didn’t. No matter how Dow tweaked it, the agents who communicated unreal information died out. But that changed when he added the Green-beard effect. This suggests that only way that communication of religious beliefs could evolve is if it is a marker of something else that signifies increased reproductive fitness. Dow explains:

It is clear from the simulation runs shown here that the key to religion's evolution is in the greenbeard effect, the ability to attract adherents. The evogod simulation does not explain why people will give benefits to others who proclaim a reality that is unverifiable. However, it tells us that if they do give such benefits, the biological evolution of religious behavior can occur.

Commitment theory takes this idea one step further and proposes that the reason that people do give such benefits is that they perceive religious folk to be more trustworthy. The results of the evogod simulation support this theory; however they do not completely eliminate other motives for commitment. The attractiveness of unreal communicators might be due to their ability to imitate a kind parent (Kirkpatrick 2005), or to the display of some sexually attractive physical or mental ability, or all three of these types of attractiveness might be in play. The simulation does clearly show that religion cannot evolve simply by stimulating cultural communication. It has to have a quality that causes others to direct communication toward the the person who communicates the most religious ideas. It suggests further research on the motives people have for communicating with, and giving benefits to communicators of religious ideas.

Dow, J. (2008). Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11(2), 2.

Jansen, V.A., van Baalen, M. (2006). Altruism through beard chromodynamics. Nature, 440(7084), 663-666. DOI: 10.1038/nature04387

Einstein: religion is "childish superstition"

Sometimes Einstein is put forward as an example of an eminent scientist who was also a religious believer. What he did or did not believe has literally been the subject of books (Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion) , as well as websites and magazine articles. What he actually believed is complex and changed over time, but seems essentially to have been a vague spiritual feeling linked to strong humanist values (no life after death, no active deity).

But today there's something new to add to the mix: a letter he wrote in 1954 (a year before he died) to the philosopher Eric Gutkind. According to The Guardian, the letter has been in a private collection for 50 years, unknown to historians who have researched Einstein's life.
In the letter, he states: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."
More grist to the mill!

MPs set to allow hybrid embryo research

It looks like it will be a victory for humanist ethics in parliament over scientific research on embryos, according to a survey of MPs conducted by The Guardian. The Catholic Church has been mounting a campaign to pressure Catholic MPs to reject the Human Embryology and Fertilisation bill - despite the fact that they are a bit shaky on what, exactly, the ethical problem is (see Catholics on human-animal hybrids: basically they're yucky).

According to James Randerson, reporting in The Guardian:
The MPs polled by the Guardian were also in favour of three controversial aspects of the new bill, which has exposed deep divisions on ethical questions about genetic testing, parenthood and the sanctity of human embryos.

In March, Gordon Brown was forced to allow his party a free vote on these under pressure from three catholic cabinet ministers Paul Murphy, Ruth Kelly and Des Browne, who reportedly planned to vote against the government.
He goes on to say:
Many MPs are appalled by the way senior Catholic figures have tried to influence the debate. Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, felt the comments of Cardinal Keith O'Brien in his Easter sermon which likened the hybrid embryo proposals to "research of Frankenstein proportions" were offensive. "Imagine the way we would feel if a Muslim cleric tried to dictate how we vote," Salter said.
Which serves to further underline the point regularly found in surveys - that the average person wants religious authorities to stop interfering in politics. It looks like this attempt has backfired on the Catholic Church - perhaps they'll learn from it.

For the BHA perspective, take a look at The Embryology Bill: The BHA's Andrew Copson on BBC News 24.

Nice guys finish first - in group selection, at least

Multilevel selection - the idea that evolution acts at several organisational levels - is a controversial idea that has been put forward to explain the evolution of behaviours like altruism (McAndrew, 2002). Although theoretically plausible, the controversy rages over whether it is of any practical importance, given that it will only work under restricted circumstances (large numbers of small groups that do not interbreed, Nowak 2006). David S Wilson, author of Darwin's Cathedral, is a champion of the idea that group selection can explain the evolution of religious behaviour.

Rick O'Gorman, in a paper co-authored by Wilson, has taken a look at the implications of multilevel selection for evolution of human behaviour (O'Gorman 2008). The paper looks at some of the evidence for this in the interactions between 'intrinsics' (people who value intimacy, community and personal growth) and extrinsics (people who value money, beauty and popularity). In head to head competition in economic games, extrinsics tend to outcompete intrinsics because they're more likely to act selfishly to get what they want. But when you put people together in groups of different compositions, and make the groups compete, the result's more complex. Groups with high numbers of intrinsics do better than those with high numbers of extrinsics, but within a group, the extrinsics still win out.

By itself, this doesn't mean that nice guys win. Within each group, the extrinsics are more successful, so they would reproduce faster (especially if the groups are not reproductively isolated). If group-selection did drive altruism, intrinsics would need to evolve ways to detect and punish these 'free-riders' - preferably by excluding them from the group.

So the authors review the evidence to show that this is exactly what happens:
... there is an extensive body of research showing that humans are willing to punish free-riders in public-goods situations. Moreover, it appears that humans will do so, even when the act of punishing is itself costly. Such altruistic punishment is evoked in controlled lab studies, where participants are anonymous to each other and do not interact more than once with any other participant, avoiding the possibility for reputation to be developed and for signals of future intent.
They go on to talk about the power of gossip as a tool to identify and share information about free riders, and the fear that people have of being gossiped about or ostracised.

They also look at the evidence for 'group-functional behaviour' - in other words, evidence that humans have evolved for optimal performance in a group. For example, there is some evidence that groups can make better decisions than the same numbers of individuals. The ground here is decidedly dodgy, though. It's clear that humans can do some tasks better in groups, but that doesn't require group-level selection. In fact, much of the optimisation for group behaviour could be learned, since all the test subjects will have been brought up in a a society dominated by interactions within groups.

McAndrew, F.T. (2002). New Evolutionary Perspectives on Altruism: Multilevel-Selection and Costly-Signaling Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(2), 79-82. DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00173

Nowak, M.A. (2006). Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation. Science, 314(5805), 1560-1563. DOI: 10.1126/science.1133755

O'Gorman, R., Sheldon, K.M., Wilson, D.S. (2008). For the good of the group? Exploring group-level evolutionary adaptations using multilevel selection theory.. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 12(1), 17-26. DOI: 10.1037/1089-2699.12.1.17