Field of Science

Sorry to break it to you like this, but we are all doomed!

#SciDoom The Field of Science blog network is having a 'We're all doomed' jamboree. What follows is my contribution to this blogging meme. Check out the other blogs on the FoS homepage to see what they have to say!

In David Sloan Wilson's forthcoming book "The Neighborhood Project", he tells the story of Daphne Fairbairn, an evolutionary biologist who studies water striders (those small bugs that skit around on the surface of still water - they're also known as pond skaters).
The Dugger family - Gawd bless 'em!

Fairbairn wanted to understand the evolutionary pressures that drove the size of these wee beasties, and in a series of meticulous experiments (including catching and re-catching all the striders on a stretch of water over several life cycles), she was able to prove that there are two forces working in opposition. Small bugs aren't as fertile, but they live a long time. Big bugs die fast, but have more luck on the fecundity front, while they are still alive. The perfect size is a play off between the two pressures.

Don't worry, we aren't all going to be killed by giant water striders! But what this does illustrate nicely is that evolution works on an interplay between survival and reproduction. Having a high potential for reproduction doesn't help you if you die before you can reproduce.

And this applies to humans too, of course. Which brings me to the point of my post - which is that the 'fitness landscape for humans is rapidly changing in ways that will, I think, have radical consequences for our future.

Consider this. Throughout most of human history, reclusive, introverted cult groups have had a very short life expectancy. That's not because they didn't exist - take the Paulicians, for example. No, the main problem was that when they inevitably rubbed up against more normal, open society, they tended to get killed.

That's because, when it comes to warfare, large compromise-based alliances of pragmatic individuals usually win out. Inflexible fundamentalism is a bad cultural strategy. Even the most successful of these reclusive cults - orthodox Jews - have only clung on in the face of repeated, murderous pogroms.

These days, however, savage and indiscriminate murder of people with deviant beliefs is generally frowned upon.

Then too consider the effects of child mortality. It's no good having lots of children if they don't live to reproductive age. You would be better off having few children, and investing more in each. But modern society keeps almost all children alive. Food is plentiful, and so even the poorest people in wealthy nations can feed their kids enough to keep them alive, at least until they reach reproductive age.

Put these two facts together, and it's very easy to see what will happen. Human society was once, like water striders, regulated by two competing pressures - the pressure to reproduce, but also the pressure to survive long enough to reproduce (and then to keep your children alive).

One of these pressures has now been removed. All that now matters is the numbers of children that an individual churns out in their life. And who churns out the most children? Well, it's the fringe, reclusive, fundamentalist cults, of course.

Besides their very high fertility, these cults are also characterised by their low loss to attrition. Sure, some people do leave, but on the whole access to the outside world is restricted and discouraged, which it makes it a brave individual indeed who will take the plunge.

And the ones that do leave are the most open-minded, enquiring minds. So what you have is an ongoing culture-gene interaction, in which those who are the most rigid-thinking, the most introverted, and the most fearful of other cultures, remain behind - embedded in a culture that propels them to dizzying levels of fertility.

The consequences were made clear by Eric Kaufman in his recent book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. Freed from historical constraints limiting their numbers, what in historical contexts would have been short-lived fringe cults are now expanding at an exponential rate. The classic example is the Amish, whose numbers have shot up from 5,000 to 250,000 over the past century.

Extrapolate these trends to the not-to-distant future, and it's clear what will happen. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a normal, liberal society comprising ordinary religious and non-religious living in mostly urban areas, embedded in a population comprising mostly of disparate cults bred and trained from birth to be dogmatic, insular and narrow-minded.

These cult groups will expand to consume an ever greater share of land and other resources. Eventually, they will come into conflict with each other. But this won't be a conflict like the ordinary wars of old. It will be characterised by utter mutual incomprehension and immutable beliefs. The crusades and the Nazi-Communist conflict will seem tame in comparison.

Perhaps you think I'm being melodramatic. Well, perhaps. There are many variables at work here, and something other than war will come into play to normalise the current imbalance of reproduction. I can't think what that would be, though!

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

Why do more children die when Pentecostals are around?

The US has a persistently high infant mortality rate when compared with other wealthy nations. The reasons for this a partly understood - poverty is a major risk factor for childhood death, And it's believed that the high levels of income and racial stratification could be to blame. Problems with health are infrastructure are also thought to contribute.

But could culture be partly to blame? Quite possibly, and one way to find out is to see whether the dominant culture in a region is linked to higher infant mortality. In the USA, religious denomination is an important facet of culture (even better, it's easier to quantify than most other cultural traits).

So John Bartowski, of the University of San Antonio, and colleagues, looked at the number of churches of different denominations in 1,900 counties of the USA and compared this with the number of infant deaths as recorded by the Kids Count programme.

So this was a study of whether the numbers of different kinds of Christians in a given area affected infant mortality, rather than a study of whether individual families with particular beliefs have higher or lower mortality.

It's an ecological study, in other words, looking at the dominant culture of a region. Similar to other recent studies on vaccination rates and trust. Of course, different denominations are present in poor areas compared with wealthy ones so Bartowski statistically controlled for region, black ethnicity, and poverty.

Batowski found that, in general, the more Catholic churches there were in an are the lower infant mortality was. Conversely, more Protestant churches meant higher infant mortality.

But this broad brush conceals a lot of detail. And the beauty of such a rich dataset was that Bartowksi could drill down to look at Protestant denominations in detail.

When he did that, he found that fundamentalist and evangelical churches actually were linked to lower infant mortality. It was mainline Protestant and in particular Pentecostal churches that were linked to higher mortality.

Bartowski speculates that the protective effect of Catholicism "is best explained by the emphasis that Catholicism places on creating a vibrant civic infrastructure, particularly one focused on promoting population health and well-being", while the "pronatalist tendencies of fundamentalism and evangelicalism (advocacy for children and the unborn) contribute to significantly lower infant mortality rates".

And Pentecostals? Well, he suspects that "Pentecostal suspicion of conventional medicine and its reliance instead on faith healing" accounts for the higher infant mortality.

But he does also acknowledge that this study can only be taken as preliminary. What, for example to make of the finding that mainline Protestants are linked to higher infant mortality? Is this a spurious result, perhaps as a result of some other unknown factor? Or is there something deeper going on?
Bartkowski, J., Xu, X., & Garcia, G. (2011). Religion and Infant Mortality in the U.S.: A Preliminary Study of Denominational Variations Religions, 2 (3), 264-276 DOI: 10.3390/rel2030264

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

We condemn more when we think we're being watched

In a nice new study, Pierrick Bourrat (at the University of Sydney) and colleagues have shown that people are more likely to judge others severely when they are given even subtle hints of being watched.

The set-up was simple. The subjects (recruited from the Campus Universitaire de Jussieu in Paris) had to read a tale of a minor misdeed - finding a wallet in the street and keeping the cash, or falsifying a resume - and then judge how morally wrong it was.

The twist was that half the subjects had a picture of flowers on their paper, while the other half had a small picture of a pair of eyes peering at them (the same ones as are peering at you right now).

For both scenarios, the subjects exposed to the eyes were more judgemental. It seems that when we feel we're being watched, we're more likely to say that we're condemning others. Now, this has all sorts of interesting implications not related to religion - which I'm not going to talk about! You can read the paper if you're interested (it's free, and quite short - link below).

But from the perspective of this blog, it's interesting that religious people are also more likely to condemn others. For example, the religious in the USA are more likely to support the death penalty. And religious Swiss students were more likely to punish wrongdoers after subliminal religious prompting.

So could it be that the tendency for the religious to be more condemnatory is a by-product of their sense that they are being watched? And if that's so, what are the implications?
Bourra P, Baumard N, & McKay R (2011). Surveillance Cues Enhance Moral Condemnation Evolutionary Psychology, 9 (2), 192-199

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

Risk averse Taiwanese are also more religious

The infamous 'Pascal's Wager' is still often trotted out as a supposedly rational basis for believing in god. While the flaws in that one are well known, it is still commonly believed that risk-averse people are more likely to be religious. Better to go to Church than run the risk of being fried in the hereafter, the supposition goes.

Actually, evidence that risk-averse people are more religious is  weaker than you might suppose. What's more, there's no reason to think that it applies in the world outside of the big three monotheisms. The gods of most Eastern religions are pretty disinterested in other worldly punishment.

In fact, Eric Liu at Baylor University has shown that risk averse Taiwanese are no more likely to be affiliated with a religion.

Intriguingly, he did find that the risk averse were more likely to participate in religious activities - and that went for Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese popular cults and Yiguan Dao (which is a modern, syncretic religion), as well as Christianity.

Liu speculates that this is because there is some risk inherent in not believing in Eastern religions. In Buddhism, failure to follow the 8-fold way means getting stuck in an endless cycle of rebirth. And Confucian and Taoist teachings promise some pretty nasty after-death punishments for those who do not follow a moral code - including those who do not pray or perform the right rituals:

Upon arrival, according to specific sentences, the sinners might be burned in flames, hunted and butchered, or boiled in oil or water. Their backs might be plowed, their tongues torn out with hot iron pincers, or their skin stripped off. They might find themselves in burning hot iron beds, have molten metal poured down their throats, or face other kinds of cruel punishment (Goodrich 1981).

So it's wrong to say that non-belief in these Eastern religions is risk-free. Yet I am not convinced that what we're seeing here is fear of afterlife punishments.

To me it seems more likely that the risk these people are trying to avert is the very real risk present in this world, rather than potential risks in the next.

That would match with some other research showing that Europeans who believe in the afterlife actually have a lower work ethic. It seems that the religious work ethic in Europe is more to do with securing rewards in this life rather than the next.

We know that people in risky environments tend to be more religious, and I suspect that by participating in religious ceremonies these individuals are hoping that the gods will improve their fortune. What's more, we know that they can expect to get support in their hour of need from their co-religionists - and so there is a double benefit from going to religious services!

Liu, E. (2010). Are Risk-Taking Persons Less Religious? Risk Preference, Religious Affiliation, and Religious Participation in Taiwan Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 172-178 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01499.x

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

Normal people more likely to recover from depression (probably)

Patients who participate in medical trials are rarely asked about their religious beliefs, so we should be grateful for any studies that do. Here's one, and it's a study of citalopram (sold as Cilexa and Cipromil), which is a modern antidepressant - a bit like Prozac.

So they got religion info on 148 patients out of the 300-odd who took part in the trial (they were a slightly unusual bunch - 64% black, 64% women, and 79% single). And they asked them about their 'Religious well-being' (i.e. whether they thought that God loves them) and about how often they went to Church.

Then they checked up on how many patients had a remission of their depression after treatment. Unsurprisingly, there was no correlation at all between either measure of religiosity and their response (or lack of response).

But then they dug a bit further, splitting the group into three according to Church attendance (low, medium or high). Now they found something - people in the middle of the range had a better response than low or high frequency Church-goers.

What to make of this? Well, the authors speculate that frequent Church-goers might not take their medicine, or that highly depressed people might go to Church more often.

This doesn't explain the low response among infrequent churchgoers, however, and it's tempting to look for some kind of link to other research which shows that people at low and high levels of religiousness tend to be happier than those in the middle (see: the Happiness Smile).

But, to be honest, you do have to take these results with a pinch of salt. There are a number of problems with this study. First of, the cardinal rule of statistics is not to going digging around in the numbers if you don't find what you're looking for first time round. The reason is that the laws of chance means that you're bound to find some kind of pattern eventually - but it will probably be a mirage.

Indeed, a previous study found that religious well-being was linked to better response to antidepressants, in contradiction to this one. Just goes to show that you can't put too much store on these small, ad-hoc studies.

And lastly, there was no placebo control in this trial. That means we don't know if what we're seeing is a genuine effect of the medicine, or simply nature taking it's course.

Perhaps it's simply that people who do normal things, which in the USA (especially the Black community) means things like going to Church regularly but not obsessively, are more likely to recover from depression!

Schettino, J., Olmos, N., Myers, H., Joseph, N., Poland, R., & Lesser, I. (2011). Religiosity and treatment response to antidepressant medication: a prospective multi-site clinical trial Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.527931

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

In Germany, Protestant culture is more trusting than Catholic culture

Here's a novel study looking at how religion relates to social trust - you know, how trusting people are of each other. What's novel about it? Well, first off it's a study of Germans, so that's a new perspective we didn't have before.

Even more interestingly, however, it looks at the cultural effects of religion as well as the individual effects. In other words, if there are, say, more Protestants in an area, or more churchgoers, does that make people more trusting? Even if they are not Protestants themselves?

Germany's a particularly good place to look for these sorts of effects because the country is basically split into the north, with a mostly Protestant heritage, and the south, with a mostly Catholic heritage.

So, when Richard Traunmüller (a social scientist at the University of Konstanz in Germany) looked at an individual level he found that Protestants were more trusting than Catholics, and both Protestants and Catholics, but not other Christians or Muslims, were more trusting than the non-religious.

Just a word of explanation here. These are religious affiliations we're talking about - rather than intensity of belief. So in a sense it's almost a cultural identity. In the same vein, East Germans are more likely to be non-religious and also to be distrustful, but the authors adjusted the stats for that.

Traunmüller also found that people living in mostly-Protestant regions were also more trusting than people living in mostly Catholic regions, regardless of their personal religious beliefs or practices.

And he found that people who attended Church more often were also more trusting - and this seemed to be especially the case for Protestants. However, there was no 'society-level' effect of church going. Simply living in an area of high church going didn't result in higher levels of trust.

What this suggest is that there is something special about Protestantism, as opposed to religious belief in general, that contributes to a more trusting society.

What this could be is hard to say. Other studies have found similar effects and it may be, according to Traunmüller, that Protestant tradition is special because it has an "inherent imperative to extend virtues such as truth-telling, reliability, and reciprocity beyond the narrow circle of one’s own family."

Traunmüller also found an interesting thing about religious diversity. It's often believed that high religious diversity results in less trust - because people from one religious tradition don't trust those from another. But he found little evidence for this in Germany.

The one thing he did find was that Muslims are less trusting the more religiously diverse a region is (that's illustrated in the graph). That's odd, because high religious diversity in the German context typically means more Muslims.

So the more Muslims live in a region, the less trusting they are. Perhaps, Traunmüller speculates, that's because once you start to become visible as a group, you start to experience more prejudice, and so start to turn inwards.

Traunmuller, R. (2010). Moral Communities? Religion as a Source of Social Trust in a Multilevel Analysis of 97 German Regions European Sociological Review, 27 (3), 346-363 DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcq011

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

Religion doesn't help traumatic brain injury victims

Mrs P thanks God for her recovery
from a tragic accident
This one's been in the news a bit recently - a study apparently showing that religion helps accident victims recover from brain trauma. You can read essentially the same report on lots of outlets - basically it's a straight dump of the press release.

So here's what they did. They took 88 adults who had had a serious brain injury sometime in the past 20 years, and they asked a friend or relative to fill out a standard questionnaire on how well they can perform normal daily activities, like dressing or meeting with friends.

They also asked them about their 'Religious Well-being'. This is a questionnaire that asks them how much they agree with statements like “I have a personally meaningful relationship with God” and “I believe that God is concerned about my problems”.

Well, the headline news is that the higher they rated their religious well-being, the more likely their friend/relative was to say that they were functional. And so, conclude the authors:

Feeling supported by a higher power likely enhances positive outcomes in part through the mechanism of enhancing feelings of general support.

But hold on a moment here! Isn't there the little problem of timing? Brain injury occurs some time in the past (10 years on average), and now they ask whether the individual thinks that god loves them? Should we be surprised that the ones who have the worst disability also feel the most abandoned by their god?

In fact, this is such an obvious interpretation of these data that I'm surprised they don't mention it in the paper. Still, it all goes to show that you should take press releases with a pinch of salt!

Waldron-Perrine B, Rapport LJ, Hanks RA, Lumley M, Meachen SJ, & Hubbarth P (2011). Religion and spirituality in rehabilitation outcomes among individuals with traumatic brain injury. Rehabilitation psychology, 56 (2), 107-16 PMID: 21574729

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