28 October 2008

Religion: a useful adaptation, a by-product of evolution or a "brain virus"?

Alexander Markov, "Elements"The study of the phenomenon of religion by scientific methods began recently, but some interesting results have already been obtained.

Many features of human thinking, developed in the course of evolution for other purposes, have made people extremely receptive to religious ideas, regardless of their rationality and usefulness. In some situations, religiosity can act as a useful adaptation, contributing to the cohesion of the group. Complex rituals and systems of restrictions can play the role of hard-to-fake signals of loyalty and willingness to cooperate.

Two of the most cited scientific journals — Nature and Science — published this month review articles on the problem of the origin of religion. It can hardly be a coincidence. The search for scientific explanations of one of the most mysterious aspects of human culture has recently attracted increasing attention of scientists. The point here is not so much in a new round of confrontation between science and religion (see: Man was not created in the image of God, "Elements", 06/18/2007), but in the rapid progress of neurobiology, anthropology, evolutionary and experimental psychology and related sciences, which allowed scientists to seriously engage in those areas of human culture in which until now theologians and philosophers reigned supreme. "Evolutionary ethics" is already a fully formed and recognized scientific direction, and today, before our eyes, "evolutionary religious studies" is also rapidly gaining strength. Interest in this topic is growing not only in the scientific community, but also among the general public. This was largely facilitated by Richard Dawkins' sensational book "The God Delusion", which was recently published in Russian under the title "God as an Illusion".

A brain virus?Dawkins' ideas about the reasons for the widespread spread of religion in human societies are set out in the article "Brain Viruses".

Dawkins believes that the spread of computer viruses, conventional biological viruses and religious ideas is based on the same mechanism. A piece of information that is "selfish" and does not necessarily benefit its carrier can spontaneously spread in systems specifically designed to execute and copy (reproduce) certain instructions. The main thing is that the code of the "information parasite" coincides with the one to which this reader-copying device is adapted.

The cell is ideally adapted to execute and copy instructions written as a sequence of nucleotides in a DNA or RNA molecule. Therefore, living cells are an ideal environment for the spread of information parasites (viruses), which are instructions written in the same code: "multiply me", "synthesize proteins for me that will allow me to penetrate other copying devices."

The computer is specially designed to execute and copy instructions written in the form of conditional sequences of zeros and ones. Therefore, computers are an ideal environment for the distribution of parasitic programs written in the same code and containing instructions: "multiply me," "perform such and such actions that will ensure my penetration into other copying devices."

Finally, the human brain (especially children's) is specially adapted for assimilation, execution and subsequent transmission to other people of instructions "recorded" with the help of those means of communication that are inherent in humans. Children are more willing to believe what adults tell them than their own eyes (see: Children's mistakes help to understand the evolution of the mind, "Elements", 07.10.2008). Can viruses not start up in such a "copier"? A typical example of brain viruses is the well—known "letters of happiness": "Whoever sends this letter to ten of his friends will have the most cherished dream come true! It is not difficult to notice that most religions use similar means of influencing the "copying device": the faithful will be saved, the infidels will be "zohavait" by Cthulhu.

The view of religion as a "brain virus" is just one of the ideas within the framework of a more general concept, according to which religion is a by—product (not necessarily useful) of the evolutionary development of some other properties of human thinking.

Another concept, to which scientists also pay considerable attention, suggests that religion (more precisely, the tendency of the human brain to generate and perceive religious ideas) is, in fact, a useful adaptation that developed during evolution along with other useful (adaptive) properties of thinking.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive at all. Often, a by-product of some evolutionary change simultaneously turns out to be (or subsequently becomes) a useful adaptation. Even viral infections, usually harmful, can sometimes turn out to be a boon in the long run (see: Human ancestors borrowed useful genes from viruses, "Elements", 10/22/2008).

A by-product?An essay published in the journal Nature by the French anthropologist and cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer, who has been teaching at Washington University in St. Louis in recent years, is mainly devoted to the problems of the first of the two approaches (the idea of a "by-product").

Boyer notes that many specific features of human thinking make us extremely susceptible to religious ideas.

Psychological experiments have shown that not all religious ideas that people have are fully conscious. For example, people may verbally admit that God is omnipotent and therefore able to do many things at the same time. But in the course of special testing, it turns out that on an unconscious level, people believe otherwise — that God still solves problems one by one, one by one. "Anthropomorphism" in people's ideas about the deity is also manifested in the fact that the gods are endowed with purely human features of perception, memory, thinking, motivation of actions. Many of these views are not realized by the believers themselves and often come into direct conflict with the faith they profess on a conscious level.

Moreover, the unconscious ideas about the properties of the deity are surprisingly similar in very different cultures, despite the cardinal differences of the religions themselves, that is, conscious beliefs. This similarity may stem from the peculiarities of human memory. Experiments have shown that people remember best those stories in which there is a combination of two components: natural and realistic human psychology (thoughts, intentions) and miracles, that is, violations of physical laws (the passage of heroes through the wall, levitation, etc.). Obviously, this specific feature of human memory could contribute to the success of stories about the gods.

Another specific feature of our psyche is the ability to enter into "social relations" with persons who are currently absent. Without this, large organized collectives could not exist. What kind of order can there be in a hierarchically organized tribe if people perform their duties only in the presence of a leader or parent? The ability to maintain a relationship with the "ideal image" of an absent person is a most useful adaptation, but it has inevitable side effects. Among them are such widespread phenomena as stable, realistic and emotionally saturated "relationships" of people (especially children) with fictional characters, heroes, deceased relatives, imaginary friends. From here to religious beliefs is one step.

These considerations help to understand why in most cultures otherworldly beings are so concerned with moral issues (that is, they perform the function of an absent leader or parent). "God knows I stole money", "God knows I ate porridge for breakfast" — experiments have shown that people find the first of these two statements more "natural".

The study of compulsive (obsessive) behavior in animals and humans (including children and the mentally ill) helps shed light on the nature of rituals — repetitive stereotypical actions performed with amazing persistence, but usually do not bring any visible result. The brains of humans and animals have complex "protective" circuits that help to avoid predators and other dangers (for example, infections). Activation of these circuits leads to protective behavioral reactions (to look around for a predator, lick the fur, look for parasites in it, etc.). Hyperactivation of these brain structures can lead to pathological forms of behavior. Religious warnings about "uncleanness", about the invisible threat from evil spirits and demons, undoubtedly fall on well-prepared ground. Therefore, the corresponding rituals ("purification", "fencing of the sacred space") look psychologically attractive.

Humans differ from other primates in their ability to form very large collectives (associations, coalitions) of unrelated individuals. This is an extremely "resource-intensive" behavior in intellectual terms. Monkeys have a clear positive correlation between brain size and the maximum size of a social group. Based on this correlation, it can be calculated that the human brain is able to ensure the effective functioning of a group of 150 individuals, but no more. Meanwhile, people have long formed much more numerous collectives (and this in many cases gives them a huge adaptive advantage).

Monkeys spend so much intellectual resources on social life because they rely on the mechanism of mutual altruism (you to me, I to you), and for this you need to know each relative personally, maintain some kind of relationship with him, remember the history of these relationships and know the "moral reputation" of each member of the collective.

The human brain could not grow indefinitely, so it was necessary to develop special adaptations to make possible the functioning of large collectives in which not everyone knows each other personally. One of these adaptations was the ability to give, recognize and appreciate complex, expensive and difficult to fake signals, the meaning of which is "I am one of you", "I am one of you", "I am good", "I can be trusted".

Religions have managed to use this property of the human psyche to their advantage. It is no accident that many religions attach great importance to the most "expensive", exhausting rituals, as well as beliefs that seem alien and ridiculous to representatives of all other religious groups. It is often considered valor to believe in something especially ridiculous just because it is so hard to believe. In this way, people prove to other members of the group their own loyalty and willingness to follow group norms simply because "this is how we do it."

Boyer admits that in the future science will be able to find facts confirming the adaptive (adaptive, useful) role of a person's predisposition to accept religious ideas. In the meantime, according to the researcher, most of the data indicates rather that religious thinking is an inevitable consequence (read: a by-product) of certain, including adaptive, properties of our psyche. The same "by-products" seem to be music, fine art, fashion and many other aspects of culture. Religion successfully uses the peculiarities of human thinking in its own interests due to its ability to produce so-called "super stimuli" (super stimuli). Visual art provides us with more symmetrical and saturated images than those that can be observed in reality. Religion, on the other hand, provides us with simplified, idealized and "concentrated" images of missing important personalities, reinforced and highly stylized complexes of "protective actions".

Thus, the origin of religion is not something absolutely unique, and there is no special department in the brain that "manages" religious ideas. Different brain structures are responsible for different aspects of religious thinking and behavior (modeling relationships with absent or imaginary persons, ritualized actions, demonstrations of loyalty, etc.). According to the author, the idea of God seems convincing to us for some reasons, rituals are attractive for others, moral norms seem "natural" for others.

Boyer emphasizes that modern scientific data come into sharp contradiction with one of the key statements of most religions — namely, the statement that the origins of existing religious systems were facts of direct intervention by the deity (phenomena to the people, miracles, etc.). Modern scientific evidence strongly suggests that no miracles are needed for the emergence of religions. The only thing that is necessary for the emergence of faith in supernatural beings is a normal human brain that processes information in the most natural way for itself.

The recognition of all these facts, most likely, will not shake the conviction of believers in the truth of their faith. According to Boyer, religious thinking is the most convenient, natural form of thinking for a person, which does not require special efforts from a thinking individual. Disbelief in otherworldly forces, on the contrary, requires conscious and persistent work on ourselves, work that is directed against our natural mental inclinations. Therefore, according to Boyer, disbelief is not a product that will easily find a mass consumer.

For a proper understanding of Boyer's ideas, it should be borne in mind that he specifically emphasized at the beginning of his essay that "natural" does not necessarily mean "good", "correct" or "useful". Humanity has stumbled on such a primitive interpretation of evolutionary patterns more than once (it's enough to recall the nightmarish consequences of the eugenics craze in the first half of the XX century), so it's not worth repeating the old mistakes.
A useful adaptation?

A review article by Canadian psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff from the University of British Columbia, published in the journal Science, discusses the pros and cons of the idea that religion is a useful adaptation that promotes team cohesion. Many scientists admit that religion can stimulate people to "prosocial" behavior (that is, to take care of the common good, including to the detriment of themselves).

Indeed, most religious systems openly encourage prosocial behavior. Therefore, the idea that religion could have arisen as an adaptation that increases the fitness (reproductive success) of individuals living in large collectives seems quite plausible. However, until recently, discussions on this topic remained purely speculative: too few real facts were known.

One of the difficulties faced by the "adaptationist approach" is the enormous diversity of religious beliefs, and the existing differences between cultures cannot be explained from the standpoint of their adaptive significance. Many deities "monitor" the observance of moral norms — belief in them can theoretically contribute to the prosperity of the group — but people willingly believe in those otherworldly forces that do not care about our moral appearance.

Norenzaian and Sharif hardly discuss such gods, indifferent to morality, in their article, leaving them, apparently, to the discretion of supporters of the concept of "by-product".

The authors believe that if religion is truly adaptive, its "usefulness" should be associated primarily with the stimulation of prosocial behavior, as well as with the need for people to constantly prove to their neighbors their high moral qualities, trustworthiness and willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the benefit of society. As you know, a large team will inevitably fall apart if it does not have effective means of identifying and neutralizing egoistic freeloaders parasitizing on someone else's altruism. Therefore, in the course of biological and cultural evolution, first, reliable ways to identify and punish deceivers and pretenders had to be developed, and secondly, effective means to maintain one's own reputation in a large team (so that, God forbid, one himself would not be identified and punished).

The assumption that religion has an adaptive nature and stimulates prosociality allows us to make a number of testable predictions. For example, in critical conditions, the chances of survival for a group united by common religious beliefs should be higher than for a group of non-believers. It can also be expected that in large human societies that have managed to make "highly moral" (prosocial) behavior the norm for their members, belief in gods who care about the moral appearance of people should be more common.

In some cases, these and similar predictions are confirmed by facts. For example, opinion polls show that people who often pray and regularly attend church donate more to charity than less devout followers of the same faith. This correlation is statistically reliable and does not depend on income level, political views, marital status, education, age and gender.

However, opinion polls have a weak point: they are based on the words of the interviewees themselves, and psychologists are well aware that in such situations people tend to exaggerate their merits, including unconsciously. Numerous experiments have shown that the degree of religiosity positively correlates with how much a person cares about his own reputation in the eyes of others. This casts doubt on the reliability of the results based on the respondents' self-assessment.

More objective data can be obtained in experiments in which the subject does not know that he is being tested for prosociality. For example, experiments were conducted under the conditional name "good Samaritan". People were offered to go to the laboratory for testing, and on the way they "planted" a person (an actor) who looked sick and in need of help. Will the subject offer help to the patient or will he pass by? It turned out that this does not depend on the religiosity of the subject: believers and non-believers behaved in the same way in this situation. In this case, the subjects did not suspect that they were being followed.

In a number of other experiments, a positive correlation between religiosity and prosociality is still revealed, but only under certain conditions. Along the way, in these experiments, the question was solved: what motivates the good deeds of religious people? The motives here can be different — both purely altruistic (empathy and a desire to alleviate the suffering of a neighbor) and selfish (fear of spoiling one's reputation in the eyes of God, others or one's own).

The data obtained indicate that the second variant of motivation is much more common. The correlation between religiosity and prosociality is usually revealed only in contexts where reputation issues come to the fore. The following experiment is very indicative. The subjects were asked if they would agree to organize a fundraiser for the treatment of a child from a poor family. Half of the participants were told that if they agreed, they would really have to do it. The other half were told that even if they agreed, the likelihood that they would actually be asked to organize a fundraiser was low. Thus, people from the second group had the opportunity to demonstrate their high moral qualities to God, to themselves and to others at no extra cost. In this experiment, a positive correlation between religiosity and "kindness" (prosociality) was found only in the second group of subjects. It turns out that religiosity inclines people to altruistic ostentation rather than to real altruism.

In many other experiments, it has also been shown that religious people behave more prosocially than non-believers, only if someone is watching their behavior. In anonymous experiments, the level of altruism did not depend on religiosity.

But how can a believer find himself in an "anonymous" situation if, in his opinion, God is watching all his actions? It turned out that belief in divine omniscience really contributes to prosociality, but only if a person is reminded of this omniscience in a timely manner. For example, in economic games, believers behave more prosocially if they are introduced to a text before the game where something divine is mentioned. However, exactly the same effect is given by a reminder of secular institutions that control legality and morality.

The survival rate of 200 closed communities that arose in America in the XIX century. Fig. from the article under discussion Norenzayan, Shariff, 2008Interesting results were obtained by a comparative analysis of various closed communes and communities, of which there were a lot in the USA in the XIX century.

Among them were both religious and secular (for example, based on the ideas of communism). It turned out that religious communities on average lasted much longer than secular ones (see figure). This is in good agreement with the idea that religion promotes prosocial behavior (loyalty to the community, willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the sake of society). A more detailed analysis showed that the survival of religious (but not secular) communities directly depends on the strictness of the charter. The more restrictions the community imposed on its members, the more "expensive" rituals they had to perform, the longer the community lasted. This study, like a number of others, indicates that grueling rituals, fasts, and the like, firstly, are effective means of convincing others of their own loyalty (and therefore a community with a strict charter is reliably protected from pretenders and freeloaders), secondly, rituals serve as a constant reminder of the divine presence, thereby reducing the "anonymity" of the situation. It is curious that after making amendments to the number of "expensive" rituals, the survival of secular and religious communities statistically ceased to differ. This means that rituals and restrictions, and not some other aspects of religion, play a major role in ensuring the sustainability of the community.

A comparative analysis of different human cultures has shown that those cultures in which it is customary to believe in a God or gods who follow morality spread much faster and cover a larger number of people than those in which the gods are indifferent to morality.

Several experiments have also shown that people have more confidence in a stranger if they know that the stranger is a believer. As one would expect, this effect is especially clear if both subjects belong to the same religion and know about it.

All these areas of research are still at the initial stages of development, and therefore there are still a lot of unresolved issues. However, it is already more or less clear that religiosity can contribute to prosocial behavior and increase the viability of a group, although this effect does not always manifest itself and has a number of limitations.

One of the "dark sides" of religious prosociality is that it is usually directed almost exclusively at group members, that is, co-religionists. Many experts believe that altruism and prosociality in human collectives from the very beginning were inextricably linked with parochialism — hostility to strangers (see: Altruism in children is associated with the desire for equality, "Elements", 04.09.2008). Religious prosociality is by no means an exception to this rule. The "separating" aspect of religiosity is analyzed in detail by R. Dawkins in the book "God as an Illusion". However, experimental data shedding light on this problem is still extremely small. So the "evolutionary religious scholars" still have something to work on.

1) Ara Norenzayan, Azim F. Shariff. The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality // Science. 2008. V. 322. P. 58–62.
2) Pascal Boyer. Religion: Bound to believe? // Nature. 2008. V. 455. P. 1038–1039.

See also:
Man was not created in the image of God, "Elements", 06/18/2007.Portal "Eternal youth" www.vechnayamolodost.ru


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