Thursday, May 13, 2010

An even worse reason why religion may be adaptive

The story of "Abraham's Sacrifice" is frequently cited as evidence for why the Bible should not be used as a moral guide. (Not to mention the slightly-less-popular story of Jephthah where the Lord required a father to actually go through with the sacrifice of his child.)

Today, however, I think it would be interesting to look at these stories in a little more context. Like last time, I'm using the word adaptive only to describe things that get one's genes successfully into the next generation -- I don't mean to imply any value judgment.

The thing is this: I understand that human sacrifice was more common in prehistoric societies than modern people realize -- and there was an adaptive reason for it.

Starvation/malnutrition was a major cause of death, if not the major cause of death. Often there would be lean seasons when there won't be enough food in your area for your entire clan/tribe to survive until the next season of plenty. And humans -- being capable of planning for the future -- can identify a dangerously lean season. Ultimately, your clan may have more/healthier survivors if some people make the ultimate sacrifice as soon as you see the crisis coming, rather than having everyone eat what they can until the day they starve to death.

Naturally, this is where religion comes in. Religion is famous for the grand moral re-direction (or cop-out). People can do unethical (even horrific) things -- and feel good about it -- by sincerely believing the simple formula: "it's not my will, it's God's." (See here for a recent example.)

In the case of human sacrifice -- even if it rationally benefits the tribe's survival -- it would be extremely difficult to put it into practice using objective reason alone. Thus, there is adaptive value in believing that the seasons and the plants are controlled by (unseen) intelligent beings that have thoughts and intentions. If you believe that it's the God of the seasons who demands a sacrifice in order to make the plants come into fruit again, then killing one's own child can go from being an unthinkable horror to being a pious duty, perhaps even an honor, that a parent would be willing to carry out.

Anyway, that's just a thought as to why religion may have been adaptive in the past, even if it's not always relevant or helpful in our modern society.


trap no trap said...

I’m sure you would be interested in this article:

Based on that, the human development ideas presented there, a good argument can be made that religion just happens. The human brain naturally puts human motivation in other things (other people, but also objects, natural events). As such, religion may be a byproduct of normal cognitive function combined with social, generational interactions to provide adaptive influence – the article suggests that religion promotes cooperation among non-related individuals for mutual gain, for example.

Your human sacrifice example, I suppose, would be an extreme example of cooperation, but I tend to see that as an abuse of an institutional religion – “bad” things may be done and justified in the name of religion, but I don’t know that those things, in and of themselves, always directly produce an adaptive advantage (religious activity is more important than the individual practices, and some of those practices are more important to maintaining the specific religious structure than they are to directly aiding human fitness).

As an aside, because our brains start out primed to be religious, I don’t see religion ever going away; religion will stick around by adopting different forms.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Trap no Trap!!!

Thanks for the link -- I'll have a look.

Ultimately, the question of whether religion is a by-product of other human traits is what I'm addressing in this post (and my earlier one). Religion is an extremely complex construction, and I don't think it's really reasonable to try to box it into "all side-effect, no adaptive benefit" or "entirely adaptive, not a side-effect of other human traits." My guess is that it's a little of each -- kind of like trying to separate nature from nurture.

Rens Thys said...

Religion is, from what I've noticed, mostly a useful tool in Human life to give meaning where humans fail to see the true reason of life: evolution.
The human sacrifice is both a sign of the ultimate offer to a deity and the est example to scare future criminals.

To conclude, religion exsists in the human only for evolutionary reasons and tradition, which also has evolutionairy reasons.

John Hamer said...

Like many broad human concepts such as “citizenship,” or “freedom,” “religion” has itself undergone massive evolutionary developments over the space of the periods you describe, i.e., (stage 1) a pre-historic period when people in the ancient Near East actually performed human sacrifices; (stage 2) the mythic period when myths about these sacrifices were actually recorded by Hebrew authors, including the “Elohist” who composed the Abraham sacrifice myth and the “Deuteronomist” who composed its doublet in the form of the Jephthah myth; and finally (stage 4) contemporary religions today. Among the critical evolutionary events between 1, 2, and 4, is: (stage 3) the invention of “world religions,” such as Christianity. Given the vast difference between pre-historic religion and contemporary religion as well as the vast differences among contemporary religions, I think your comparisons may be oversimplified past the point where they are helpful.

For example, I would argue that the idea that religion should be associated with morality and ethics only begins with stage 3 --- the invention of “World Religions.” Pre-historic religions are about practices such as sacrifices made to God or the gods. Myths were told for purposes that including explaining how world and everything in it works, but they we’re particularly about a moral philosophy. This is one of the reasons why Roman Christians were able to criticize Roman pagans --- the myths about Zeus portrayed a god that behaved immorally and unethically and after the advent of Christianity, religion had evolved by swallowing moral philosophy. But the reason the myths about Zeus included immoral behavior is because the myths predated the invention of moral philosophy. They, like the myths of the earliest sections of the Bible, come from a time that predated “World Religions.” (Essentially, I’m defining “World Religions” here as religions that, unlike pre-Platonic paganism, have evolved to absorb the previously separate function of moral philosophy.)

Likewise, vast seas separate contemporary religions. Yes fundamentalists, who worship texts and believe a number of irrational and empirically false propositions, including the idea that stories which are demonstrably mythic actually happened in real life precisely as outlined in a given text such as the Bible. However, this type of religion is wholly modern --- it is a counter-rational reaction to rationalism. Whereas fundamentalists believe and would have us believe that their religion is literally “conservative,” i.e., that it conserves the way religion was in the past, this is a simply another empirically false proposition. Their religion is not the way religion was in the past. They have a new religion that is specifically reactionary, and that by reacting against rationalism they have created a religion that is defiantly irrational. This kind of religion is bad for society in general and for the individuals who are enthralled within it. However, the last thing we should do is accept the fundamentalists’ assertion that their version of religion is what religion is and has always been about. Rather, their religion is an ignorant caricature of a broad human concept that has different adaptive values for human society at different stages in our history as it and our societies have evolved over time.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

Thanks for the historical perspective!

I realize this is an oversimplification, but I'm actually addressing a very narrow question. If you don't read the atheosphere much, you may not be familiar with the underlying question, so perhaps I should have summarized it better:

Some evolutionary biologists discussed the question of why people would believe that nature is (or is controlled by) something intelligent, with willful intention? Human empathy -- the ability to understand that if I want/feel something, then someone else may feel the same way -- has a strong survival value. Some evolutionary biologists have suggested that the belief in god(s) may merely be a side-effect of runaway empathy; that when humans started grasping others' intentions, they just started attributing willful intention to anything and everything. Thus, the belief in god(s) is a "spandrel" (or side-effect of adaptive behavior), but is, itself, not adaptive.

This idea comes up all the time on the atheist blogs because (I think) it has been promoted by Richard Dawkins. I'm pretty sure this is the exact question addressed by the article that TNT linked above (which, unfortunately, I can't access).

Religion is a complex and multifaceted thing; perhaps as complex as culture itself. I'm really not trying to address religion as a whole with this little idea. Other aspects of religion (group cohesion, singing together, etc.) probably have completely different adaptive value. Here I'm just asking "Is a belief that nature is willfully (supernaturally) controlled merely a side-effect of other functions of the human brain? Or could it have an additional adaptive benefit?"

Regarding the historical stages of religion: I'm just talking about stage 1, prehistoric. I used an example from stage 2 because it's a story that is familiar to modern people. I can't use an actual prehistoric story because they didn't write anything down (so we can mostly only speculate about what they were thinking, as I'm doing here). When the Abraham story was written down, it was already a legend of the distant past. It preserves (in the amber, so to speak) some intriguing traces of information about earlier beliefs and practices. However, the culture that actually wrote the story down (with their own cultural interpretation of it) is really not the religion/culture I'm talking about.

Re: ethics, I'm not talking about religion as a framework for ethics in the modern sense. I just mean that your beliefs about the way the world works can influence your behavior. In this example, it's a little like a neighborhood controlled by a mafia don. You give him what he asks for and he won't kill you; he might even occasionally do some positive things for your community as well. But there's no way you would think of the mafia don as being the source of your morals or ethics. The redirection excuse ("It's not my fault, it's his") doesn't need to be embedded in a moral, ethical framework -- certainly not the way religion is regarded as a source of morals today. You can use "God's will" as an excuse (as in "I have to appease God with this sacrifice, otherwise He won't make it rain") without believing that God is good or just or loving or moral or a law-giver who provides a moral framework or anything like that.

C. L. Hanson said...

Additionally, regarding my point about context and the story of Abraham:

Modern readers often read this story and, naturally, think "This is completely insane! How could anyone read this story and conclude that God is just and merciful? This story proves that God is an evil sadist!" Ultimately, that's a reasonable reaction if the story is assumed to have modern relevance.

The assumptions embedded in the story can give us some clues about its original context -- the cultural assumptions from earlier times and perhaps from surrounding regions. The story appears to contain the assumption that gods sometimes require human sacrifice; it is within the realm of expected behavior for gods. And when the God in the legend refused the sacrifice, the "Elohist" was saying something about how that God contrasted with other beliefs at the time (something which makes very little sense if it is transplanted wholesale into our modern context).

Stephen said...

The hideous thing about Japhthah is that it does not appear that he was required to make the oath or keep it other than his own blindness.

Abraham sticks out because part of what he was rebelling against was a culture of human sacrifice, then his God requires the same thing of him, which when it is reversed makes the contrast again, as you've noted.

But human sacrifice generally occurs in populations with a surplus, not on the ragged edge of survival, fyi.

C. L. Hanson said...

But human sacrifice generally occurs in populations with a surplus,

Yes, exactly. It is related to population surplus.

not on the ragged edge of survival,

It's not clear what you mean by that w.r.t. prehistoric people (before the agricultural revolution). Sure, there were great urban societies in the fertile crescent, in South America, and elsewhere, who may have practiced human sacrifice (for similar reasons -- there were more people than they could feed). But, there, we're already getting into the tail end of the prehistoric period and creeping into the historic.

Stephen said...

We have modern societies on the edge of survival (well, in the last couple of hundred years) that we have been able to observe before they were overrun by other cultures. They have not shown a real penchant for human sacrifice.

Whereas cannibalism, human sacrifice, etc. all seem to show up where population is able to thrive. Like wide spread abortion, it is generally a sign of prosperity, not poverty.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall accounts from anthropology of steady-state hunter-gatherer populations practicing population control by failing to feed infants who are born who cannot be supported.

I don't recall there being a religious component to the practice though---the parents (or at least mother) usually mourn, but do it from what appears to be a cold rational calculation (feed the new baby and all my children starve, don't feed the new baby, and my other children eat).

Of course, the myth of Oedipus contains a reference to the practice, since he was abandoned on a hillside (which is one way to get rid of children). So was Moses, for that matter.

This is one of the reasons that modern technology, in this case birth control, is so wonderful: we can often avoid making choices like that by solving the problem technologically (no pregnancy, no problem).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Stephen!!!

Ah, you're just talking about prosperityrelative to other prehistoric societies. The thing is that (even for the prosperous ones) we're still talking about people who had a life expectancy less than 45 years (largely due to the challenge of gathering sufficient nutrition), and whose food prospects varied with the seasons, not to mention unpredictable fluctuations in the populations of important food plants and animals from one year to the next.

Regardless of whether that qualifies them for "the ragged edge of survival" in your book, pre-agriculture people were dealing with a situation where their range can support only so many people -- and they had little ability to increase the carrying capacity of their range. Humans are notoriously adaptive, however, and one factor they could control was their own population growth. Sometimes this was done through controlling fertility (especially extended breast-feeding), and sometimes through other means.

Hey Anonymous!!!

Re: This is one of the reasons that modern technology, in this case birth control, is so wonderful: we can often avoid making choices like that by solving the problem technologically (no pregnancy, no problem).

Absolutely!!! As I said in fertility, mortality, this is probably the single most wonderful thing about living in our modern era.

Re: leaving babies to die -- I remember learning in my Latin class that infantacide was actually relatively common practice throughout the classical period (ancient Greece and Rome); that unwanted babies would sometimes just be left out in the woods or wilderness to die. And the later period wasn't much different. Churches often had a place where one could anonymously drop off an unwanted baby so that it could be baptized (before it would die, being as the church wasn't equipped to raise baby orphans).

You're right that there doesn't need to be a religious component. I just think that -- as in the case of war -- religion can create (or simplify) the justification.

Another example I thought of writing about is the story of Hansel and Gretel, which starts with parents who don't have enough food, so they just leave their children out in the woods to die. (And not just babies -- kids who are old enough to be aware of what's going on.) The French folk tale Petit Poucet has the same set-up.

You naturally have to be wary about reading too much into folk tales, but people have definitely made serious academic (anthropological) studies about what folk tales can tell us about what life was like for the illiterate peasants who created this oral tradition. (Note that this was much later than the pre-historic period, but there are similarities in that anthropologists have to piece together clues about people who didn't write things down.)

In this case, it appears that leaving your children to die quickly (of exposure or predation in the woods) -- when the alternative was to watch them slowly starve to death -- wasn't quite as unthinkable or incomprehensible as it would be to modern people in developed countries. Again, note that the religious component isn't necessary in this type of sacrifice, but could potentially have made the difficult decision simpler in some cultures.