Field of Science

The evolution of nice

Most people reading this blog will have heard of the "selfish gene" - the idea, formally defined by Hamilton and popularised by Dawkins, that what matters from the perspective of evolution is not organisms, but genes.
Those genes that maximise their chances of survival - regardless of what happens to individuals - will be the ones that come to predominate.

It comes in for a lot of flack, mostly from people who wrongly equate selfish genes with selfish people. To be fair, there is also a lot of confusion over terms, with old ideas being reinvented under new terms - like "group selection".

Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University in the UK, is here to put us straight. In a recent paper written specifically with social scientists in mind, he lays down the power of the selfish gene. It's a great paper that takes a look at why so many misconceptions have taken hold and lays out, in non-specialist language, the reasons why most criticisms of the 'selfish gene' are the a result of confusion rather than insight. Anybody who's interested in the evolution of human altruism should read it!

Most people with an interest in evolution understand why selfish genes do not mean selfish individuals. It's clear that selfish genes will benefit from co-operation (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, also known as reciprocity), and kin selection (as the biologist JBS Haldane famously put it, "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins").

What most people may not know (I certainly didn't before reading West's article) is that these, in fact, are the sole genetic basis for altruism (barring some esoteric mathematical possibilities of little practical significance). But if that's the case, how do you get from here to the apparently completely selfless altruism sometimes seen in humans? How come we are kind to strangers?

Well, it really is all to do with how humans work together in groups.

You scratch my back and I'll scratch Bob's

Reciprocity doesn't need to be direct to be effective. If, by sharing with you I help to set up a virtuous circle, that will likely result in some benefit to me down the line. This has been seen in practice, with virtuous deeds propagating out to at least three degrees of separation.

In group life, the issue is even clearer. If my deeds help the group to survive and grow, then I will benefit. From a genetic perspective, it doesn't matter that most of the benefit goes to others - so long as I also get some overall survival benefit.

I would lay down my life for eight cousins... or the bloke who lives next door

Throughout most of human existence, we've lived in small groups and not travelled much. What that means is that, for our ancestors, pretty much everyone they met was a close genetic relative. Even if they were not related in any formal sense - not brothers, or cousins, for example - they would still be carrying similar genes.

And that means that your 'kin, from a genetic standpoint, is likely to be anyone who's in your group. Even people in neighbouring groups are going to be closely related.

So evolution would favour genes that promote altruism to anyone nearby - since they likely carry the same genes. It won't be perfect, but so long as migration is low, it's a good enough rule of thumb.

What's this got to do with religion?

It's popular at the moment to talk about religion in terms of 'gene-culture co-evolution'. The idea behind this is that religion is a cultural adaptation that builds upon a bunch of otherwise unrelated psychological misfirings to promote pro-social behaviour. Since cultures that are pro-social are more successful, religion spreads.

All well and good, but the question then is, what kind of altruism does religion promote? If it promotes the kind of altruism that is directed towards neighbours, then it's working together with evolution, and so the two can co-evolve.

But religion that promotes more general altruism - 'universal love' - is not going to be favoured, at least from an evolutionary perspective.

Of course, in the modern world we see a lot of both kinds of religion. The challenge for anyone trying to explain religion in terms of evolutionary psychology is to explain this!
West, S., El Mouden, C., & Gardner, A. (2010). Sixteen common misconceptions about the evolution of cooperation in humans Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.08.001

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Is religion going to die out in 9 countries? Well that depends...

This week the BBC picked up on a mathematical analysis, first published back in January, which predicted that religion is on the road to oblivion in 9 Westernised countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland).

Unsurprisingly, the report went viral. But is the study any good? Well, you can read it for yourself, as the report (which hasn't been peer-reviewed), is posted on arXiv. Here's my take on it.

The first thing to remember is that, like any mathematical model, it's only as good as the assumptions that are built into it. These include the explicit assumptions, but also implicit assumptions that the modellers make.

In this study they began by assuming that religion is defined soley by self-reported identification with a religious group (i.e. Catholic, Protestant, etc - taken from census data), and that there are only two things that make religion attractive:
  • The more members a group (like a religious group) has the more attractive it is.
  • The more useful it is to potential members, the more attractive it is.
They also assume that religion is fixed and unchanging, that all religions are essentially the same, and that all people are the same.

They express this mathematically, and then tweak the parameters until the equation fits the data. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that this model actually does fit the data, as shown in the figure.

What the graph shows is all the data from the 9 countries showing religious affiliation over time, rescaled and time shifted so they can be plotted on a single graph.

The only way they get the model to fit the data was to assign a value that made religion less useful than non-religion.

So, what this model suggests is that religious decline can be explained simply by the fact that people think that being non-religious is more useful - for whatever reason - than being religious.

That's a quite remarkable idea, although not unreasonable, if you think about it. What's more, if their assumptions hold, then religion will steadily decline and eventually disappear.

But will their assumptions hold?

Well, no. For starters, religion is not a fixed quantity. Every generation creates its own religion, and the religions of the future will have greater utility in the modern world. Then, too, people are different, so the picture is inevitably going to become patchy.

More importantly, I actually could imagine that religious affiliation might pretty much die away. We might see a day when almost no-one can be bothered with Churches and Mosques. But will that mean no more religion?

It depends how you define religion, of course. Many of the social and psychological traits that make up Western religion will still exist. They'll just be put together in different ways.

Will we call these new social constructions religion? Well, that's up to you!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

James Watt and the Making of the Modern World

A little off topic, but I've just been to the opening of a new exhibition on James Watt at the National Museum of Science in London, and wrote a short piece on it over at the Humanists4Science blog. I got a chance to speak briefly with Adam Hart-Davis, the TV presenter, about the impact of Watt's life on society, and put the recording up on the blog post too.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Religion and conflict: cause or coincidence?

Conflicts often fracture along religious lines - the Balkans, Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland to name just a few of the best known. But it's hard to say that religion is the cause of the problem. There are always other factors, like ethnic differences and disputes over land rights.

So what's going on here? Is religion really the cause of conflict, or is it just an innocent bystander?

In a recent analysis of survey data from 30 European countries Malina Voicu, a sociologist at the University of Bucharest in Romania, found that people who said they were proud of their country were significantly more likely to also be religious.

This relationship held even after controlling for a bunch of other factors that could explain differences in religiosity - age, sex, education, income, religious denomination, living in a post-communist nation, and living in a poor country. All of these factors were important, but even after taking these into account, nationalistic people were more religious.

But that's not the whole story. What Voicu did next was to look at what she calls "religious concentration". That's a measure of how divided a country is religiously - whether there is one dominant religious denomination, as opposed to a more fragmented picture.

What she found was that the more united a country was religiously, the closer the link between nationalism and religion.

So it seems that religion does not necessarily trigger national pride. But when religion and nation are aligned, they reinforce each other.

I think that what this really does is show once again that it is simply too simplistic to talk about 'religion' as if it is a real, single entity (Voicu used a basket of different measures of religiosity, and lumped them all together). Religion is, in fact, a jumble of different cultural and psychological traits some of which (at different times, for different reasons, and in different mixes), we lump together and call it 'religion'.

One of those components is a kind of nationalism. It's always there, but in the right circumstances - when religion and nation match - then nationalists are attracted into religion, and religion itself changes accordingly.
Voicu, M. (2011). Effect of Nationalism on Religiosity in 30 European Countries European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcq067
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

A basic psychological link between religion and right-wing politics

Humans are fine tuned to spot coincidences. Take, for example, an experiment done a few years ago by Paola Bressan and Peter Kramer, psychologists at the University of Padova in Italy. They asked their subjects to watch a computer screen, where dots would appear either above or below a pair of words. They had to press one of two keys on the keyboard, depending on where the dots appeared.

After 32 rounds of this, one of the words, unexpectedly, appeared as white on black (Trial 33 in the picture). Now, this was completely irrelevant to the task at hand, but even so it captured people's attention. They took longer to press the button, as they couldn't help pondering the meaning of the unexpected change.

The strange thing was, those who reacted most strongly to this change were those who also reported being religious as a result of personal experience. They found it harder than others to dismiss the coincidence.

Not only was this effect linked solely to religiosity derived from personal experience (and not, for example, linked to family history or church attendance), but this link was entirely explained by belief in the meaningfulness of coincidences.

What's this got to do with politics, though?

Well, it turns out that something similar happens with political conservatives. David Amodio, a psychologist at New York State University, set up an experiment in which the subjects had to press a key when they saw the letter M, but not when they saw the letter W.

Now, the thing was that almost always it was the letter 'M' that was shown, and this set up the expectation that the next letter would also be an 'M'. So this was a test of whether the subjects could break free of their expectations.

What Amodio found was that liberals were better able to break free of this conditioned response, and to correctly withhold their response when a W was shown.

According to a recent article by Kramer and Bressan, both these experimental results can be explained by the same psychological phenomenon. They speculate that we create 'schema' - fundamental concepts about how the world works. Beliefs, in other words.

These schema can be useful, because they speed up mental processing. By employing grand, simple rules of thumb they save mental effort - but at the expense of accuracy.

By employing this schema, the brain can move on from chewing over things that may not have any survival benefit. The results may not be accurate, but they may be good enough not to be actively harmful. One consequence, however, could be illusions and conspiracy beliefs.

Kramer and Bressan's ideas are pretty speculative. But whatever you think of them, it is truly remarkable that both religiosity and right-wing ideology can be predicted solely on the basis of an inability to cope with randomness.

Now surely that can't be a coincidence?

ResearchBlogging.orgAmodio, D., Jost, J., Master, S., & Yee, C. (2007). Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism Nature Neuroscience, 10 (10), 1246-1247 DOI: 10.1038/nn1979

Bressan, P., Kramer, P., & Germani, M. (2008). Visual attentional capture predicts belief in a meaningful world Cortex, 44 (10), 1299-1306 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2007.08.021

Kramer, P., & Bressan, P. (2011). Belief in God and in strong government as accidental cognitive by-products Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (01), 31-32 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X10002104

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Bowling together... in most of Europe, at least

Ten years ago, the sociologist Robert Putnam created shockwaves with his analysis of the breakdown of US society in recent decades -

We sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We're even bowling alone [Source: Bowling Alone].

Putnam's analysis of the causes was pretty nuanced (read: no-one really knows), but he did point out that the decline of religion in the US has gone hand in hand with the decline in other forms of so-called 'social capital'.

In his latest book, American Grace, Putnam goes a bit further, arguing that religion is a kind of social glue. Take a look at this, from a review of the book:

Religious Americans are better citizens than non-religious ones (they give more to secular causes, volunteer more for secular causes, and join more, to mention a few markers of good citizenship). However, it is not their particular theology that predicts good citizenship, but the extent to which they are embedded in a friendship network of religious others (regardless of their religion). [Putnam refers to these religious friends as "powerful, supercharged friends."] 

Well, so much for the USA. What about godless Europe?

Europe must be in a pretty parlous state, without religion to bind communities together! You might think so, couple of pieces of recent research suggest that simple assumption is not really warranted.

Anna Rita Manca, of the ominous-sounding EU Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, crunched through some data from the European Social Survey and found that, sure enough, religious Europeans score highest on 'Social Capital'.

By 'social capital' she's talking about two kinds of activity:
  1. Social engagement, individuals participating to organizations that are outward looking and aim
    at improving the society at large (cultural, human rights, social, religious, environmental/peace organization).
  2. Private engagement encompasses the organizations that work closer to the private interest of the
    respondent (sport, trade union, business, teacher/parents, political party).
Religious people come out higher on social engagement but not private engagement - not too surprising when you look and see that being a member of a religious organisation scores you a point!

But let's not worry about that, because there's something much more interesting going on.

Take a look at this figure, which shows average levels of social capital (both social and private) in European Countries.

In the top right of the graph, in the area representing high levels of social capital, who should we find but our old friends the Nordic countries!

In fact, there's a general trend here - those countries with the least religion have the most social capital. And that's despite the fact that, even in Nordic countries, religious individuals tend to score higher.

We've been here before. In fact, this seems to be quite a common trend. When you question individuals about their behaviour, the non-religious often seem to come out worse. And yet, when you look at nations, those with the fewest religious people regularly come out on top on a range of social issues.

So what does the future hold? Perhaps, you're thinking those Nordic countries would come out even higher if they still had their religion. Perhaps they are declining from a golden age some time in their religous past?

Well that's where research from Francesco Sarracino, at the University of Florence in Italy, comes in. Sarracino used a broad array of measures of social capital, including trust, unpaid voluntary work, and membership in organisations (including religious ones).

He found that, in the period 1980-2000, social capital had increased overall in virtually all European countries - despite declining Church going and declining trust in Church institutions. Sweden, Denmark and Norway have all seen increases in social capital over that time - and this was matched by an increase in well being.

There was one exception to this general European trend: the UK. Now, of all European nations, the UK is most like the USA. Over the past 20 years, social capital in the UK has generally gone down - and the people of the UK have become unhappier.

To me, this says that religion is unimportant for social capital. Rather, there is some shared disease that is corroding society in both the UK and in the USA. If our leaders are genuinely interested in stopping the rot, they should worry less about religion and instead figure out what the real disease is.

ResearchBlogging.orgMascherini, M., Vidoni, D., & Manca, A. (2010). Exploring the Determinants of Civil Participation in 14 European Countries: One-Size-Fits None European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcq041

Sarracino, F. (2010). Social capital and subjective well-being trends: Comparing 11 western European countries Journal of Socio-Economics, 39 (4), 482-517 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2009.10.010

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

They said they wanted a revolution

Well, Hosni Mubarak's gone, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has gone, and surely Gaddafi can't be that far behind.

Who'da thought, eh? To me, it's all the more remarkable because prior to these revolutions the received wisdom was that the ‘Arab street’ was incapable of revolt (I guess so long as you forget about the revolt against the Ottoman Empire!).

But in fact there has always been quite a lot of support for revolution among Muslims. Back in 2004, Robert MacCulloch (Imperial College London) and Silvia Pezzini (London School of Economics) analysed data from the World Values Survey between 1980 and 1997 of 130,000 people living in 61 nations (you can find their report here).

They analysed which people wanted a revolution – specifically, they wanted to know what kind of person agrees that “The entire way our society is organised must be radically changed by revolutionary action”.

They matched that to religious affiliation, and found that 17.4% of Muslims want a revolt, compared with 10.3% of the non-religious and 7.9% of Christians.

Of course, Muslims are more likely to live in countries that are autocratic and where rights are limited – according to a list compiled by Freedom International, there not a single majority-Muslim country that is ‘Free’.

So they adjusted for the degree of freedom and also for other important factors that affect the taste for revolution – wealth (both individual and national) and national economic growth. Once you do that, Muslims, the non-religious and unreligious are all equally like to support revolt, while Christians are about 3% less likely to. But the precise relationship is different in free and unfree countries.

In 'free' countries, Muslims  have about the same taste for revolt as the non religious, while Christians are significantly anti-revolutionary (about 4.1% less likely to support revolution).

In countries that are not free, however, Muslims are 12.6% more likely than the non-religious to support revolt, while Christians are only 1.1% less likely.

It seems that being a Christian or a Muslim in an unfree country seems to be a trigger for revolutionary sentiment – especially for Muslims.

It’s not clear why this should be, but there are some intriguing pointers in the data. For example, one way dictators keep themselves in power is by favouring some groups over others – the old ‘divide and rule’ strategy. In turns out that Muslims are more likely to support a revolt when they are in the majority – in unfree Muslim countries, support for revolution reaches an impressive 25%.

Muslims always have a higher level of taste for revolt than Christians, now matter how you cut the data by freedom and minority/majority status. That might be partly because not all revolutions are the same. Muslims are much more likely to want a revolution to increase political rights – they’re not so interested in revolutions to improve civil liberties.

So part of the reason that we don't see more revolutions in Muslim countries might be that potential revolutionaries actually want a government that is more restrictive of personal freedoms! We'll have to wait to see which kind of revolutionary wins out in North Africa.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

If God loves you, why take medicine?

The relationship between religion and medicine is uneasy. Those rare cases where parents refuse to allow their children to get treatment get a lot of coverage, but it's the subtler effects that interest me.

One recent study looked at whether people with HIV took their medicine as they were supposed to. Most trials of new drugs monitor this, and it can be done very easily simply using special bottles that record each time they're opened.

Sarah Finocchario-Kessler, at the University of Kansas, used data from one such drug trial to see what the effect of religious beliefs (and other psychological factors) was on medication taking.

She found that people who put themselves in God's hands really were less likely to take their medicine.

To be precise, people who used a passive religious deferral coping style (e.g. "I don’t try much of anything; simply expect God to take control") were less likely to take their medicine as often as they were supposed to.  On the other hand,  collaborative religious coping "I work together with God as partners" or self-directing religious coping (e.g., "I make decisions about what to do without God’s help" had no effect on whether people took their medicines.

The biggest effect was with those people who scored high on the "God as locus of health control" measure - that means people who agreed with statements like "Whether or not my HIV disease improves is up to God."
Although this had no effect on medication taking at 3 months, the halfway point of the study, by the end of the study (at 6 months) people who scored high on this measure were 42% less likely to be taking their medication regularly.

This study is interesting because these aren't folks who have any crazy ideas that medicine is useless. Remember, they signed up to take part in a drug study, presumably because they thought they might benefit.

What's more, they stayed in the study right to the end, and did take their medicine most of the time. It's just that they were more likely than others to 'forget' it.

Now, this is a complicated picture in other ways. People who are at death's door (unlike the mostly healthy people in this study) seem to be more likely to ask for 'heroic' interventions to try to keep them alive if they have strong beliefs in God's will.

Maybe confronting your own imminent death triggers some reconsiderations about the mysterious workings of the almighty!

ResearchBlogging.orgFinocchario-Kessler S, Catley D, Berkley-Patton J, Gerkovich M, Williams K, Banderas J, & Goggin K (2011). Baseline predictors of ninety percent or higher antiretroviral therapy adherence in a diverse urban sample: the role of patient autonomy and fatalistic religious beliefs. AIDS patient care and STDs, 25 (2), 103-11 PMID: 21235403

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.