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Further Reading

Column: Operation ID

Reverse Psychology

When It Comes to Human Behavior, Darwinian Hindsight Is Always 20/20

by Casey Luskin

In Salvo 6, I explained why Dr. Francis Collins, the geneticist and former director of the Human Genome Project, is widely promoted by the mainstream media: "Though he is a Christian, Collins is a full-blown neo-Darwinist whose scientific views pose little threat to the preferred ideologies of the cultural elite." This point holds true in all but one area, which, by no small coincidence, is where Collins is most attacked by the scientific community.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 7

In 1991, leading philosopher David Hull wrote in Nature that the notion that "science and religion . . . cannot conflict" fails when "advocates of evolutionary ethics claim to provide totally naturalistic explanations of ethics." Thus, Collins falls out of favor with his fellow Darwinists when he contends—using data from anthropology and psychology demonstrating the universality of religion and morality among human cultures—that many religions are correct in teaching that religious and moral urges did not evolve, but rather were wired into our brains by God.

Consider a January 2008 article in The New England Journal of Medicine. Collins's critics say that while "some scientists" who are at "one extreme" might agree with Collins, there are "many scien-tists" who believe that religious, moral, and altruistic behavior "is programmed into the brain because it facilitates social behavior that leads to the preservation of the species." The article goes on to favorably survey evolutionary hypotheses about the origins of religion and morality.

The tradition of explaining religion or morality in evolutionary terms—a field today called evolutionary psychology—traces back at least to Darwin. In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that "there is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God." Under Darwin's evolutionary scheme, "dreams may have first given rise to the notion of spirits," and "the belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the existence of one or more gods."

Seven decades later, Time magazine quoted UNESCO founder Julian Huxley's statement that "for a justification of our moral code we [need] no theological revelation. . . . Freud in combination with Darwin suffice." While many of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis have been abandoned by most serious psychologists, a survey published in 2007 found that 72 percent of responding evolutionary biologists viewed religion merely as an "adaptation, a part of evolution."

Playing the Game

Evolutionary psychology is a deceptively simple game: All you have do is identify some survival advantage conferred upon an individual exhibiting the observed behavior. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell eloquently explains in The Scientist why evolutionary psychology is not a robust theory:

Darwinian explanations for such things are often too supple: Natural selection makes humans self-centered and aggressive—except when it makes them altruistic and peaceable. Or natural selection produces virile men who eagerly spread their seed—except when it prefers men who are faithful protectors and providers. When an explanation is so supple that it can explain any behavior, it is difficult to test it experimentally, much less use it as a catalyst for scientific discovery.

Put another way, evolutionary psychology is subject to the old maxim that a theory that can explain anything actually explains nothing. Even worse than being just useless and unpersuasive, evolutionary psychology is dreadfully predictable.

Permit me to illustrate this point by using a character from the movie Mystery Men. One of the superheroes, "The Sphinx," dresses like a WWF wrestler but acts like a super psychologist, speaking riddles of superhero wisdom to guide the others. It doesn't take long for the Mystery Men to get annoyed at the Sphinx's superficially clever riddles and their utterly predictable answers.

Take this scene in which Ben Stiller, "Mr. Furious," gets advice from the Sphinx upon discovering his superhuman strength:

Mr. Furious: Okay. Am I the only one who finds these sayings just a bit formulaic? "If you wanna put something down, you gotta pick it up." "If you wanna go left, you gotta go right."

Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage . . .

Mr. Furious: Your rage will become your master? That's what you were gonna say, right? RIGHT?

Sphinx: Not necessarily.

I feel exactly like "Mr. Furious" when I read evolutionary accounts of religion or morality. Evolutionary psychologists purport to offer great insight into how human behavior arose, but their arguments are so predictable and simplistic that I could finish many of their sentences for them. Were I to script a Mystery Men spoof of evolutionary psychology, here's how it might go:

Darwinist: Evolutionary psychology is a powerful field with great explanatory power. For example, we know that altruism evolved because . . .

Casey: Because individuals with unselfish behavior could help their kin pass on their own genes. Right?

Darwinist: But we can explain altruism even towards non-siblings, where the evolution of kindness towards any member of the species would . . .

Casey: Would cause one's neighbors to offer reciprocal favors, thus helping everyone to pass on their own genes. Right?

Darwinist: You don't understand the beauty of our theory, which also explains selfish behaviors such as murder, rape, and genocide, because they clearly evolved to . . .

Casey: To help individuals eliminate their competitors and pass on their genes. That's what you were gonna say, right? RIGHT?

Darwinist: Not necessarily.

Darwinism has little trouble looking backward at many human behaviors and finding after-the-fact rationalizations for how they might aid survival. And that is all that is required to play the game of evolutionary psychology. When the games are over, however, has anyone really accounted for the origin of human behavior through a predictive theory?

• Would we predict that members of a bipedal ape-like species living on the African savannah would require the Golden Rule to survive?

• Would we predict that this species would evolve behaviors such as prayer to an omnipotent God or the reading and writing of holy books?

• What about predicting the enjoyment of a symphony, the scripting of a sonnet, or the pondering of relativity?

• And if evolutionary psychology preaches that survival can be aided by either altruism or selfishness, would it predict that we would have internal moral compasses that always whisper that selfless love is the "right" option—speaking loudest in our most selfish moments?

It seems unlikely that we would predict these human behaviors based on a theory that only demands that organisms survive and replicate.

Just Saving Our Genes?

Some human behaviors pose a greater challenge to neo-Darwinism because they have no apparent use for enhancing survival. Francis Collins observes that

what we admire as the most generous manifestations of altruism . . . are not based on kin selection or reciprocity. An extreme example might be Oskar Schindler risking his life to save more than a thousand Jews from the gas chambers. That's the opposite of saving his genes.

The same could be said of religious calls for worshipers to become a "living sacrifice" (bad for survival) or to remain celibate (often, though not always, bad for reproduction). Again, I can imagine a corresponding Mystery Men scenario:

Darwinist: Even complex human behaviors such as religion are amenable to explanation via evolutionary psychology. You see, religious groups tend to congregate together tightly, assisting one another in survival and providing protection, much like a beehive, thus . . .

Casey: Thus enabling individuals within the group to pass on their genes. That's what you were gonna say, right? But isn't religion much more than group cooperation? How do you explain the evolutionary origin of total religious devotion to a deity? Which "selfish genes" drive young males into monasteries to pray? What about the religious ascetic who chooses to die at the hands of his worst enemies, believing that his own death will save them? How do those behaviors help you "pass on your genes"?

Darwinist: We're working on this kind of stuff. Besides, sometimes the brain misfires, and our evolutionary programming doesn't function properly.

This is precisely how Darwinists cope with behavior that confers no apparent survival advantage. Richard Dawkins views religion as a "misfiring" of neural "modules" that control human behavior and thus compares "falling in love with Yahweh" to a moth "flying into the candle flame."

Similarly, New York University professor Gary Marcus contends that religious belief results from "imperfect neural tools" that have "left us with the capacity to fool ourselves into believing what we want to believe." Evolutionary psychologist Michael Shermer argues that "humans evolved a Belief Engine" that often "makes mistakes in thinking." According to Shermer, this "Belief Engine" evidences "the power of belief systems that drive, and often distort, our perceptions of reality."

It seems that there is nothing that Darwinism cannot explain—if a behavior isn't adaptive, it's just a neural aberration. And neural aberrations are invoked to explain many of humanity's most cherished activities, especially those that occur on Sunday mornings.

Forgive me if I think evolutionary psychology offers arbitrary and unpersuasive explanations of human behavior that appear suspiciously designed to suit atheists. As The Economist recently observed, "evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists," and therefore, "most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view."

Thus, self-styled "skeptics" such as Michael Shermer rarely investigate the evolutionary origin of atheism. In their view, survival required the evolution of logical thinking, and atheism arises when humans apply simple logic. For them, religion is difficult to explain because it is illogical and does not appear to result from any adaptive cognitive behavior.

But why can't theism be the result of logical thinking? Why do evolutionary psychologists never seriously consider whether atheism is the result of "imperfect neural tools"? The very obsession that evolutionary psychologists have with explaining the evolution of religion reveals both their inherent bias against religion and the fact that Darwinian evolution has great difficulty in accounting for the many non-adaptive behaviors found in religion and morality.Perhaps life wasn't intended to be just about survival and reproduction after all.•


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