Wishful Thinking about Wishful Thinking

Cameron Harwick discusses an apparent relationship between “New Atheism” and group selection:

Richard Dawkins’ best-known scientific achievement is popularizing the theory of gene-level selection in his book The Selfish Gene. Gene-level selection stands apart from both traditional individual-level selection and group-level selection as an explanation for human cooperation. Steven Pinker, similarly, wrote a long article on the “false allure” of group selection and is an outspoken critic of the idea.

Dawkins and Pinker are also both New Atheists, whose characteristic feature is not only a disbelief in religious claims, but an intense hostility to religion in general. Dawkins is even better known for his popular books with titles like The God Delusion, and Pinker is a board member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

By contrast, David Sloan Wilson, a proponent of group selection but also an atheist, is much more conciliatory to the idea of religion: even if its factual claims are false, the institution is probably adaptive and beneficial.

Unrelated as these two questions might seem – the arcane scientific dispute on the validity of group selection, and one’s feelings toward religion – the two actually bear very strongly on one another in practice.

After some discussion of the scientific issue, Harwick explains the relationship he sees between these two questions:

Why would Pinker argue that human self-sacrifice isn’t genuine, contrary to introspection, everyday experience, and the consensus in cognitive science?

To admit group selection, for Pinker, is to admit the genuineness of human altruism. Barring some very strange argument, to admit the genuineness of human altruism is to admit the adaptiveness of genuine altruism and broad self-sacrifice. And to admit the adaptiveness of broad self-sacrifice is to admit the adaptiveness of those human institutions that coordinate and reinforce it – namely, religion!

By denying the conceptual validity of anything but gene-level selection, therefore, Pinker and Dawkins are able to brush aside the evidence on religion’s enabling role in the emergence of large-scale human cooperation, and conceive of it as merely the manipulation of the masses by a disingenuous and power-hungry elite – or, worse, a memetic virus that spreads itself to the detriment of its practicing hosts.

In this sense, the New Atheist’s fundamental axiom is irrepressibly religious: what is true must be useful, and what is false cannot be useful. But why should anyone familiar with evolutionary theory think this is the case?

As another example of the tendency Cameron Harwick is discussing, we can consider this post by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary “just-so stories” got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

It does not take much imagination to see that religion could have “evolved because it bound tribes closer together” without group selection in a technical sense having anything to do with this process. But I will not belabor this point, since Eliezer’s own answer regarding the origin of religion does not exactly keep his own feelings hidden:

So why religion, then?

Well, it might just be a side effect of our ability to do things like model other minds, which enables us to conceive of disembodied minds.  Faith, as an emotion, might just be co-opted hope.

But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don’t see why it’s even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.

Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago.  Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands.  Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock.

Conversely, Huckabee just won Iowa’s nomination for tribal-chieftain.

Why would you need to go anywhere near the accursèd territory of group selectionism in order to provide an evolutionary explanation for religious faith?  Aren’t the individual selection pressures obvious?

I don’t know whether to suppose that (1) people are mapping the question onto the “clash of civilizations” issue in current affairs, (2) people want to make religion out to have some kind of nicey-nice group benefit (though exterminating other tribes isn’t very nice), or (3) when people get evolutionary hypotheses wrong, they just naturally tend to get it wrong by postulating group selection.

Let me give my own extremely credible just-so story: Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote this not fundamentally to make a point about group selection, but because he hates religion, and cannot stand the idea that it might have some benefits. It is easy to see this from his use of language like “nicey-nice,” and his suggestion that the main selection pressure in favor of religion would be likely to be something like being burned at the stake, or that it might just have been a “side effect,” that is, that there was no advantage to it.

But as St. Paul says, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Yudkowsky believes that religion is just wishful thinking. But his belief that religion therefore cannot be useful is itself nothing but wishful thinking. In reality religion can be useful just as voluntary beliefs in general can be useful.


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