Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?
Posted by René Volpi
Jesse Bering’s mother died of cancer on a Sunday, in her own bed, at 9 o’clock at night. Bering and his siblings closed her door and went downstairs, hoping they might somehow get some sleep.
It was a long, hard night, but around 7 a.m., something happened: The wind chimes outside his mother’s window started to chime.
Bering remembers waking to the tinkle of these bells, a small but distinct sound in an otherwise silent house. And he remembers thinking that those bells carried a very specific message.
“It seemed to me … that she was somehow telling us that she had made it to the other side. Youknow, cleared customs in heaven,” Bering says.
The thought surprised him. Bering was a confirmed atheist. He did not believe in any kind of supernatural anything. He prided himself on being a scientist, a psychologist who believed only in the measurable material world. But, he says, he simply couldn’t help himself.
“My mind went there. It leapt there,” Bering says. “And from a psychological perspective, this was really interesting to me. Because I didn’t believe it on the one hand, but on the other hand I experienced it.”
Why is it, Bering wondered, that even a determined skeptic could not stop himself from perceiving the supernatural? It really bothered him.
It was a very good question, he decided, to take up in his lab.
God, Through The Lens Of Evolution
For decades, the intellectual descendants of Darwin have pored over ancient bones and bits of fossils, trying to piece together how fish evolved into man, theorizing about the evolutionary advantage conferred by each physical change. And over the past 10 years, a small group of academics have begun to look at religion in the same way: they’ve started to look at God and the supernatural through the lens of evolution.
Whether it’s a dead ancestor or God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think they’re watching you, your behavior is going to be affected.
– Jesse Bering, psychologist, Queens University, Belfast
In the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. That is, something so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn’t slowly died out until we were all left with the trait. But what could be the evolutionary advantage of believing in God?
Bering is one of the academics who are trying to figure that out. In the years since his mother’s death, Bering has done experiments in his lab at Queens University, Belfast, in an attempt to understand how belief in the supernatural might have conferred some advantage and made us into the species we are today.
In one experiment, children between the ages of 5 and 9 were shown to a room and told to throw a Velcro ball at a Velcro dartboard. They were told that if they were able to hit the bull’s-eye, they’d get a special prize. But this particular game had an unusual set of rules: The children were told that they had to throw from behind, they weren’t allowed to throw the ball while facing the dartboard, and they had to use their nondominant hand — rules that basically made it impossible for any of the children to win the game unless they cheated.
The children in the study were divided into three groups. The first group was left alone and told to play the game as best they could. The second were told the same, with one difference — the children in the second group were told that there was someone special who was going to watch them. The experimenters showed the kids a picture of a very pretty woman — a character that Bering had made up whose name was Princess Alice.
Princess Alice, the kids were told, had a magical power: Alice could make herself invisible. Then the children were shown a chair and were told that Alice was sitting in the chair and that Alice would watch them play the game after the researcher left. The third group of kids was told to play the game, but the researcher sat with them and simply never left the room at all.
The question that Bering sought to answer was this: Which group of children was least likely to cheat?
The children in the first group — the completely unsupervised kids — by far cheated the most. But what was surprising was the behavior of the second group.
The children who were under the impression that Princess Alice was in the room with them were just as likely to refrain from cheating as those children who were actually in the room with a physical real-life human being. A similar study Bering did with adults showed the same thing — that they were dramatically less likely to cheat when they thought they were being observed by a supernatural presence.
Deities From Around The World
A Change In Behavior
Bering has a credo, a truth he says he’s learned after years of studying this stuff.
“I’ve always said that I don’t believe in God, but I don’t really believe in atheists either,” Bering says. “Everybody experiences the illusion that God — or some type of supernatural agent — is watching them or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private everyday moral lives.”
These supernatural agents, Bering adds, might have very different names. What some call God, others call Karma. There are literally thousands of names, but according to Bering they all have the same effect.
“Whether it’s a dead ancestor or God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think they’re watching you, your behavior is going to be affected,” he says.
In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother’s death.
“They experience it but they reject it,” Bering says. “Sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that’s not to say that they don’t experience it. We all have the same basic brain. And our brains have evolved to work in a particular way.”
Through the lens of evolution, a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good.
Why would the human brain have evolved to work in that way?
For Bering, and some of his friends, the answer to that question has everything to do with what he discovered in his lab — the way the kids and adults stopped cheating as soon as they thought a supernatural being might be watching them. Through the lens of evolution then, a belief in God serves a very important purpose: Religious belief set us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good.
God And Social Cooperation
Dominic Johnson is a professor at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and another one of the leaders in this field. And to Johnson, before you can understand the role religion and the supernatural might have played in making us the people we are today, you really have to appreciate just how improbable our modern lives are.
Today we live in a world where perfect strangers are incredibly nice to each other on a regular basis. All day long, strangers open doors for each other, repair each other’s bodies and cars and washing machines. They swap money for food and food for money. In short: they cooperate.
This cooperation makes all kinds of things possible, of course. Because we can cooperate, we can build sophisticated machines and create whole cities — communities that require huge amounts of coordination. We can do things that no individual or small group could do.
The question is: How did we get to be so cooperative? For academics like Johnson, this is a profound puzzle.
“Explaining cooperation is a huge cottage industry,” Johnson says. “It dominates the pages of top journals in science and economics and psychology. You would think that it was very simple, but in fact from a scientific academic point of view, it just often doesn’t make sense.”
It doesn’t make sense because there’s often tension between the interests of the group and the interests of the individual. Johnson gives an example. Recently he was on the subway in New York and as he was going through the turnstile a little child ran in with him and got through the barrier. He got onto the subway without ever paying.
Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don’t do things that they consider bad because they think they’ll be punished for it.
– Dominic Johnson, professor, University of Edinburgh
“Now we only have the Metro if everyone pays,” Johnson says. “But there’s an advantage for everyone if they don’t have to pay themselves.”
And what’s true of the subway is true of everything.
Why fight in a war, risk your own death, if someone else will fight it for you? Why pay taxes? Why reduce your carbon footprint?
These all have clear costs, and from an individual perspective, you and your offspring are much more likely to thrive if you don’t get killed in a war or pay your taxes — if you behave like the child in the subway.
The problem is that even a relatively small number of people who choose to behave like the child can affect the functioning of the whole.
“Even a few cheats undermine cooperation,” Johnson says, because once people realize that they are paying for the same thing others are enjoying free, they become less willing to cooperate.
Punishment And Deterrents: Enforcing God’s Law
Today, if you cheat — if you decide to pass on paying Uncle Sam or if you steal a car — there are systems in place that will track you down and punish you. And this threat of punishment keeps you on the straight and narrow. But imagine if you lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.
“We know that punishment is very effective at promoting cooperation,” Johnson says. “The problem is: Who punished in the past before we had police and courts and law and government? There wasn’t anyone formally to carry out the punishment”
In those early human communities when someone did something wrong, someone else in the small human group would have to punish them. But as Johnson points out, punishing itself is often dangerous because the person being punished probably won’t like it.
“That person has a family; that person has a memory and is going to develop a grudge,” Johnson says. “So there are going to be potentially quite disruptive consequences of people taking the law into their own hands.”
On the other hand, Johnson says, if there are Gods or a God who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn’t a vigilante; he’s simply enforcing God’s law.
“You have a very nice situation,” Johnson says. “There are no reprisals against punishers. And the other nice thing about supernatural agents is that they are often omniscient and omnipresent.”
If God is everywhere and sees everything, people curb their selfish impulses even when there’s no one around. Because with God, there is no escape. “God knows what you did,” Johnson says, “and God is going to punish you for it and that’s an incredibly powerful deterrent. If you do it again, he’s going to know and he is going to tally up your good deals and bad deeds and you will suffer the consequences for it either in this life or in an afterlife.”
So the argument goes that as our human ancestors spread around the world in bands, keeping together for food and protection, groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together.
We are their descendants. And Johnson says their belief in the supernatural is still very much with us.
“Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don’t do things that they consider bad because they think they’ll be punished for it.”
Of course there are plenty of criticisms of these ideas. For example one premise of this argument is that religious belief is beneficial because it helped us to cooperate. But a small group of academics argue that religious beliefs have ultimately been more harmful than helpful, because those religious beliefs inspire people to go to war.
And then there are the people who say that cooperation doesn’t come from God — that cooperation evolved from our need to take care of family or show potential mates that we were a good choice. The theories are endless.
Unfortunately it’s not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. So these speculations will remain just that: speculations.
As unknowable — ultimately — as God himself.
When Did We Become Mentally Modern?
Posted by René Volpi
via ALIX SPIEGEL
Ever since Darwin came up with the whole idea of evolution, there’s been one dominant picture of the moment we truly became human. It’s that cartoon sequence: You see a hairy ape man with a heavy brow hunched in profile. Then, bit by bit, his back uncurls and straightens until all of a sudden there is he, upright, truly a man.
Recently I’ve been thinking about this image, because I’ve decided that we somehow ended up with the wrong one — that there’s something much more fundamental to being human than our ability to stand upright.
Think, for a minute, about the beginning of your day. If the beginning of your day is anything like mine, it goes something like this:
Every sound that comes out of my mouth has some kind of arbitrary meaning assigned to it. I could just as well be talking to you in another language and making totally different sounds and saying the same thing.
– Anthropologist Alison Brooks, on language
1. About two hours before you’d actually like to be conscious the numbers on your alarm clock hit that magical combination, 6:15, and suddenly your room is filled with a sound indicating that you are doing something terribly, terribly wrong.
2. You make the alarm stop and head to the shower where you listen to the news — talking heads who fill your brain with different pictures from faraway places.
3. Then comes the problem of trying to dress yourself for work. You leaf through the hangers in your closet in search of something that might suggest competence, professionalism, a sense of purpose. You go through a lot of hangers.
4. Finally you find something, but as you’re zipping yourself up your 3-year-old comes in and decides that the closet is not in fact a closet, but a train headed for a distant locale. “We’re going to ASIA!” he screams over and over as he opens and closes the closet doors about 2,000 times.
5. You head to the coffee shop for a cup of joe, give the nice woman behind the counter $2, and stumble out the door to work.
You have been awake for approximately two hours and almost every moment in your day has been predicated not on your ability to stand upright, but on something else entirely — your completely underrated, chronically overlooked capacity for symbolic thought.
Thinking symbolically is the foundation of everything we do — we live in a symbolic world.
Symbols: Shorthand For Ideas
I know what you’re thinking: Just what is symbolic thought?
If you’re fuzzy on this, don’t feel bad. A couple of weeks ago I took a tape recorder around NPR to see if anyone could cough up a decent definition, and basically what I got for my trouble was a tape full of “umms,” and the sound of people staring at the ceiling.
So then I posed another question: Name five symbols.
This was much easier. In fact, an intern named Connor Donevan reeled off close to half a dozen in under two minutes. The Christian cross, the American flag, a wedding ring, a designer label.
When we think about symbols, these are the sort of things that come to mind — signs that act as a stand-in or shorthand for a whole set of ideas. But in fact symbols play a much larger role in our lives.
Let’s return to one of the most basic parts of your day. Getting dressed.
Every piece of clothing you place on your body is a symbol. That leather motorcycle jacket or button-down polo communicates to the world who you are, what you believe in, and where you sit on the social ladder, and it does that instantly.
Alison Brooks, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, points out that her school is located only 30 feet away from the office of the World Bank, so students and bankers are constantly walking the same streets. But, she says, you can tell in a second which ones are the students and which are the bankers. “Because the students dress like students and the world bankers dress like bankers. The [bankers] all wear suits or very formal clothing. Each of those different populations gets up in the morning and puts on symbols of their status.”
Symbols In Everyday Life
Now let’s consider the next moment in your day: Your 3-year-old has declared that he and the closet are going to Asia.
Asia, like America, is a concept that depends on our ability to think symbolically. America exists only because a group of people got together more than 200 years ago and decided that this great mass of land directly to the south of Canada should bear that name.
California wasn’t America, and then it was. It became America because a group of people decided — more or less out of thin air — that it was. And then they fought a bunch of other people to turn this abstraction into reality.
The money you passed to the lady at the coffee shop — a symbol of the gold in Fort Knox, which it itself, is symbolic of something else: power.
And finally there’s the stuff you heard coming out of the radio during your shower: language. In order to have language, any language, you need to be able to think symbolically.
Think of the word “cat.”
Even though the written word C-A-T looks nothing like a cat, and the spoken word “cat” sounds nothing like a cat sounds, when someone says the word out loud, you’re able to conjure up an image.
Language, says anthropologist Brooks, is entirely composed of these arbitrary symbols.
“Every sound that comes out of my mouth has some kind of arbitrary meaning assigned to it,” she says. “I could just as well be talking to you in another language and making totally different sounds and saying the same thing.”
The miracle is that these arbitrary sounds — these symbols — allow us to see what’s going on in other people’s minds and also allows us to share what’s going on in ours.
For example, if I say the word “bead” you immediately have a picture in your mind of what I’m talking about. If I said beads, you’d generate a slightly different picture in your mind, that I have made your mind form. If I said glass beads — using an adjective to modify the concept — you’d immediately see something different than if I said gold beads. In this way, I make you think in your mind of a thing that I have in my mind.
And once we have this ability for symbolic thought and language then all kinds of things become possible. Through language we can pass down what we’ve learned, organize larger and larger groups of people who can do more and more complex things like build bridges and schools and computers and practically everything else in modern life.
Evolution Of Symbolic Thought
The question to answer, though, is when did we get like this? When is the first evidence that we had acquired this magical ability and were finally mentally modern?
Museums are full of bones under glass — fossils that can tell us when we became physically modern. But how do you find a fossil of a symbolic thought?
Not very long ago a man named Chris Henshilwood stumbled upon one possible answer to this question.
Henshilwood is an academic in Norway, but when he was a small boy, he would often visit his grandfather’s farm on the western coast of South Africa. It was there one day in his youth that Henshilwood discovered a cave half obscured by a sand dune.
Thirty years later, when Henshilwood was no longer a boy but a new archaeologist trying to make a name for himself, he went back to that cave and, under a layer of sand, found several dozen seashells that dated back 75,000 years.
“They are the size, or even smaller, than the nail on your pinkie,” Henshilwood says. “They’re very tiny little shells, and really if you don’t look at them carefully, they are rather insignificant.”
Henshilwood originally dismissed the shells — he assumed they were leftovers from meals or other activities. But then he put them under a microscope and noticed that each of these small, insignificant shells had a tiny hole in its lip. And that’s when Henshilwood had his epiphany: These shells weren’t simply shells — the shells were beads.
“The hole that had been made was in the same place. I could very clearly see under the microscope the wear that had been made by the string or whatever had been used to string these beads together,” Henshilwood says. “And by the time I’d looked through 30 I was convinced — these are beads. These are the oldest beads yet discovered.”
Why are a few shell beads such a big deal?
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The handful of shells Henshilwood found was an early version of the wedding band on your finger or the golden cross around your neck. The beads were symbols — symbols that indicated to the people of that community who this person was, what he believed and whether he was friend or enemy.
So with all of this in mind, I’d like to make a proposal: It’s time for a new iconic image of the moment we became human. And here’s the one I suggest: A hairy ape man with a thick brow sits crouched, working a tiny hole into a small shell. He pushes a strip of animal hide through the hole. And — suddenly — you and I are born.