Thursday, March 22, 2007

Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?

ANNOUNCEMENT: Seminar in History of Biology

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First the announcement, followed by a brief commentary:

I am very excited to announce the following course, to be offered this summer in the six-week summer session at Cornell University:

COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology

SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/26/07 to 08/02/07

COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.

To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation. And indeed, in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of the capacity for religion has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering three alternative hypotheses: that the capacity for religion is (1) an evolutionary adaptation, (2) a side-effect of an evolutionary adaptation, or (3) a “mind virus” with no direct evolutionary implications. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.

In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of comparative anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and general evolutionary theory would be helpful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 26 June 2007 and ending on Thursday 2 August 2007. We will also have an end-of-course picnic at a location TBA.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.

COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.

REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Atran, Scott (2004) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 388 pages, ISBN #0195178033

Boyer, Pascal (2002) Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religion. Vintage Books, paperback, 448 pages, ISBN #0099282763

Dawkins, Richard (2006) The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 416 pages, ISBN #0618680004.

Dennett, Daniel (2007) Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. Penguin Books, paperback, 464 pages, ISBN #0143038338

Newberg, Andrew & D'Aquili, Eugene (2001) Why god won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. Ballantine Books, paperback, 240 pages, ISBN #034544034X

Wilson, David Sloan (2003) Darwin's cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press, paperback, 268 pages, ISBN #0226901351

OPTIONAL TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1,706 pages, ISBN #0393061345

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenaus & Salter, Frank (1998) Indoctrinability, ideology, and warfare: Evolutionary perspectives. Berghahn Books, hardcover, 490 pages, ISBN #1571819231

Fitzduff, Marie & Stout, Chris (2006) The psychology of resolving global conflicts: From war to peace: Volume 1: Nature vs nurture. Praeger Security International, hardcover, 354 pages, ISBN #0275982084

Guthrie, Stewart (1995) Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 336 pages, ISBN #0195098919

Hamer, Dean (2005) The God gene: How faith is hardwired into our genes. Anchor, 256 pages, ISBN #0385720319

Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. (2006) Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality, and truth. Free Press, hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN # 0743274970

Persinger, Michael (1987) Neuropsychological bases of god beliefs. Praeger Publishers, 175 pages, ISBN #0275926486

Wolpert, Lewis (2006) Six impossible things before breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief. W. W. Norton, 243 pages, ISBN #0393064492


I realize that putting myself in between such formidable opponents is perhaps asking for trouble...but I couldn't possibly get into any more trouble than I did last summer, could I? Once again, we shall rush in where angels fear to tread, and consider a very topical topic. As was the case last year, I invite anyone with an interest in the question posed as the title of this blog to consider taking this course, or at least sitting in on our discussion online. We will have an online course blog, where any and all comments, criticisms, suggestions, and other trivia will be roasted and long as they are civil. As for accusations that I'm biased, let me say upfront that I (like almost everyone else) have an opinion on the question: I believe (based on my research into this question) that the answer is "Yes" and that the specific context within which the capacity for religious experience has evolved is warfare...but we'll talk all about that this summer.

We may also talk about whether or not God (or gods, or whatever) exist, but that will not be the primary focus of the course, nor will I allow it to become the primary focus of our discussions. This course isn't about the existence or non-existence of God (or Darwin or me). It's about whether or not the ability to believe in things like God (or gods, or whatever) has adaptive consequences. It's a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for as interesting a summer seminar as last year's was.

So, watch this space; when the course blog goes up, I will announce it here and provide links to all and sundry. And remember:

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." – Voltaire


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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Scientists Say Darwin's 'Tree of Life' Not The Theory Of Everything


AUTHOR: Lisa Zyga

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First the news item, followed by some commentary:


There is only one figure in On the Origin of Species, and that is a tree diagram. As Darwin’s model for the theory of evolution, he used the Tree of Life (TOL) to clearly and visually explain the interrelatedness of all living things, implying that from one common ancestor (the root) sprung branches, which produced smaller offshoots as genetic progeny, etc.

In this model, similarities between species reveal a common ancestor, and differences result from (and explain) Darwin’s main catalysts: competition and natural selection, which generate improvement in future generations. As a simile, the TOL served a vital purpose for introducing the theory of evolution to the community in an understandable way. Although there is no external evidence to support the idea that evolution is inclusively hierarchical, many evolutionists believe the TOL provides an accurate general representation of the history of life, which could potentially be completely reconstructed by knowing the relevant data.

In recent times, however, a minority of biologists and evolutionists have questioned the accuracy of the TOL hypothesis, including W. Ford Doolittle and Eric Bapteste. In a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Pattern Pluralism and the Tree of Life Hypothesis,” the scientists investigate the shortcomings of the TOL, as well as propose alternative models that would better explain how to classify the history of evolving life forms.

Much of the initial concern over TOL was provoked by biologists studying the complex relationships among prokaryotes, the most primitive life forms that include bacteria and archaea. Prokaryotes have a much simpler DNA structure than eukaryotes (all other life forms). Because of this, prokaryotes often transfer their DNA via processes such as lateral gene transfer as opposed to vertical gene transfer (direct transmission form parent to progeny) which is the basis for the “phylogenetic” (evolutionary relatedness) TOL scheme.

“Surely a tree is the right model for most multi-cellular animals and plants,” Doolittle explained to “Thus the TOL is great for fossils and museums and dinosaurs and most of visible life, over the last billion years. But unicellular eukaryotes and prokaryotes represent the bulk of the biomass and diversity of life on earth, as well as the first two-thirds of its history.”

In their paper, Doolittle and Bapteste highlight research that shows other causes of genetic modification, suggesting that evolutionary history is more complex than described by the TOL. For example, recombination, gene loss, duplication, and gene creation are a few of the processes whereby genes can be transferred within and between species, causing variation that’s not due to vertical transfer. These transfer methods give results that don’t fit on the TOL, including species that cannot be traced to a common ancestor.

While such diverse methods might appear to obviously point to a more complex nonhierarchical evolutionary scheme, Doolittle and Bapteste explain that the TOL thinking persists due to confusion between the roles of “process” and “pattern.” The above methods are processes and are widely accepted by modern evolutionists, whereas the TOL is a pattern that, as Doolittle and Bapteste explain, has been ingrained in biologists’ minds from early education as a single, unifying model. As the researchers explain of the current biology scene, “We may be process pluralists, but we remain pattern monists.”

If this combination of thinking seems to clash, Doolittle and Bapteste suggest that the Western philosophical tradition of thinking in universal patterns has caused biologists to cling to classification without realizing it. The authors point out that many algorithms used to study evolutionary hierarchies impose or extract the TOL structure due to their intrinsic design. TOL is a paradigm that has stuck. But Doolittle sees ways to alter this mentality.

“Sure we can [re-train Western thinking]. That's what ‘postmodernism’ is about,” he said. “I would agree that the need to classify might be built in, but the coupling of this practice to a specific theory about what classifications are ‘natural’ is surely not.

As an alternative to the TOL, the scientists suggest that relationships among life forms may be represented by whatever model fits for a certain purpose, a certain taxonomic group, or a certain scale. In contrast to pattern monism, they call this belief “pattern pluralism.” While parts of evolution certainly are tree-like, other parts may be nets or webs or other complex models. Most importantly, however, there seems to be no “theory of everything” in evolution, no metanarrative to unify all life forms.

“In 2006, our understanding of evolution at the molecular, population genetic, and ecological levels is rich and pluralistic in character,” the scientists conclude, “and does not require (or justify) a monistic view of the phylogenetic pattern.”

As for any blow to Darwin’s ego, the scientists point out that he never wrote about reconstructing the tree in an attempt to relate every living thing, but rather used the model as a general guide.

“I'd like to think he would adjust,” Doolittle said about Darwin. “After all, his theory was developed before there was any understanding of genetics and when bacteria were still believed to be spontaneously generated.”

Doolittle, W. Ford, and Bapteste, Eric. “Pattern pluralism and the Tree of Life hypothesis.” PNAS, February 13, 2007, vol. 104, no. 7, 2043-2049.


Ford Doolittle has been saying this for many years, and has been joined by Lynn Margulis, who has argued that the concept of "species" does not apply to prokaryotes.

But, that's not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is how "intelligent design theorists" quote-mine and otherwise distort reality to the point of outright lying. Why do I say this? Because former lawyer and professional propagandist, Casey Luskin, has a postat Evolution News, propaganda outlet for the Discovery Institute in which he says

"By invoking insufficient data, horizontal gene swapping, rapid evolution, and other ad hoc explanations, Darwinists reveal that neo-Darwinism is trying explaining away the data; it is not explaining the data. Perhaps the inability to construct robust phylogenetic trees using molecular data stems from the fact that common descent is simply wrong."

And the alternative? Why, magic of course. All of the living forms on Earth today were created, all at once, on Tuesday 25 October 4004 BC at 9 AM...or some other time in the past, exact date unspecified. Because, of course, that is the only alternative to common descent. Either you and your siblings are the offspring of your parents (i.e. common descent) or you aren't, and if the latter is true, then you must all have been created separately, not by your parents, but rather by God...excuse me, the Grand Omnipotent Designer. And with your memories of your childhood already inserted into your minds, so that the jarring discontinuity of your separate creations would not disturb you too much...would lead you, in fact, into the damning conclusion that you were, in fact, the offspring of your parents, and thus consign yourself to everlasting torment in the lake of fire.

Or not. You see, this is what the kind of egregious propagandizing of the folks of the Disco Institute leads to. Not discussion of the science of biology on its merits, on the basis of reason and evidence, but pure assertions without any alternatives at all (not that they want you to read in public, anyway).

I'm tired (our new baby is keeping Leah and me awake at night), and so I'll sign off now. But damn, people like Luskin just make me want to scream sometimes...

"Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."
- Friedrisch Schiller


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