I've just finished reading Matthew Alper's book 'The God Part of the Brain'. It comes highly recommended by such personalities as E. O. Wilson and I was certainly looking forward to reading it. It describes the journey of the author as he attempts to understand what god is and why it is so important in so many people's lives. It is a mixture of science and personal reflection on the implications of the science, and at first I was struck by the similarity to my own experiences.
Alper's hypothesis is simple. Since religious belief represents an almost universal trait across our species, he believes that it has a genetic component: there is a gene which codes for a god part of the brain:
As a result of our species' capacity for self-conscious awareness, we suddenly needed to be configured in such a way that we could meet the new demands imposed on us by our internal environments. What this meant was that those individuals whose brains possessed some genetic mutation that could withstand the overwhelming anxiety induced by our awareness of death, were more likely to survive. Those most likely to survive, consequently, were more likely to pass whatever advantageous adaptation they possessed onto their offspring.
As generations of these protohumans passes, those whose cerebral constitutions most effectively dealt with the anxiety resulting from their awareness of death were most apt to survive. This process continued until a cognitive function emerged that altered the way these protohumans perceived reality by adding a "spiritual" component to their perspectives. Just as the human brain had evolved linguistic, musical, and mathematical intelligence, we apparently evolved "spiritual intelligence" as well. (p. 122)
First off, there are what I consider to be some gaping holes in Alper's theory. Consider this similar extract:
sites responsible for generating every trait we possess, from stereoscopic vision to opposable thumbs, must have a specific reason for having emerged in us. Since the driving force behind evolution is the preservation of a species, every trait must somehow serve to increase that species' chances of survival. This is evident in every organ we posses - excluding, of course, those vestigial parts such as the caudal vertebrae or coccyx (that evolutionary memento of our predecessors' tails) or the appendix (a relic of our grass-eating days), two examples of anatomical parts which, because we no longer need them, were selected out of us. Because all traits must perform a specific function that will serve to increase a species' survivability, if humans posses specific neurophysiological sites responsible for generating spiritual and religious consciousness, then the same must hold true for these parts as well.
We need therefore ask: What is the advantage of possessing spiritual consciousness? What function might such an adaptation serve that it could enhance our species' survivability? What is this trait's rationale, its reason for being? Again, as is true of all traits, if human spirituality didn't possess some very specific adaptive value, if it didn't somehow serve to enhance our species' survivability, it would never have emerged in us. (p. 103-4).
My criticism of Alper's theory comes down to three particular claims. First, that 'every trait must somehow serve to increase that species' chances of survival' - let's call that an ultra-adaptationist claim. Secondly that because religion is found in most members of our species that it is somehow hard-wired into the brain - the innate claim. And finally that 'the driving force behind evolution is the preservation of a species' - a claim for group selection. Each of these arguments, I will show, is based on a misunderstanding of how evolution works.
First is his apparently ultra-adaptationist claim that every trait must somehow serve to increase the species survivability. However it is easy to see that not every part of a creature's biological makeup is perfectly designed by natural selection, and evolution is not about achieving a perfect creature. From Dennett's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea':
Let us consider the most extreme form of Panglossian adaptationism imaginable - the view that every designed thing is optimally designed. A sidelong glance at human engineering will show that even this view not only permits but requires the existence of plenty of undesigned stuff. Imagine, if you can, some masterpiece of human engineering - the perfectly designed widget-factory, energy-efficient, maximally productive, minimally expensive to operate, maximally humane to its workers, simply unimprovable in any dimension. The waste-paper collection system, for instance, makes recycling by type of wastepaper maximally convenient and agreeable to the staff, at minimal energy costs, and so forth. A Panglossian triumph, it seems. But wait - what is the wastepaper for? It's not for anything. It's a by-product of the other processes, and the wastepaper collection is for dealing with it. You can't give an adaptationist explanation of why the disposal/recycling system is optimal without presupposing that the wastepaper itself is just...waste! Of course, you can go and ask whether the clerical operations could be made "paperless" by better use of computers, but if that happens not to be the case for one reason of another, there will still be wastepaper to deal with, and other wastes and by-products as well in any case, so there will always be plenty of undesigned features in a system that is maximally well designed. No adaptationist could be such a "pervasive" adaptationist as to deny it. The thesis that every property of every feature of everything in the living world is a adaptation is not a thesis anybody has ever taken seriously, or implied by what anybody has taken seriously, so far as I know. If I am wrong, there are some serious loonies out there (p. 276)
So certainly religiosity doesn't have to be an adaptation. It's not the given that Alper implies. Moving on to the claim that since religiosity is a shared attribute amongst members of our species, that it must therefore be genetic. Some more from Dennett:
showing that a particular type of human behaviour is ubiquitous or nearly ubiquitous in widely separated human cultures goes no way at all toward showing that there is a genetic predisposition for that particular behaviour. So far as I know, in every culture known to anthropologists, the hunters throw their spears pointy-end-first, but this obviously doesn't establish that there is a pointy-end-first gene that approaches fixation in our species.
Nonhuman species can exhibit a similar, if reduced, capacity to reinvent the wheel, even though they lack culture. Octopuses are remarkably intelligent, and although they show no signs of cultural transmission, they are smart enough so that we should not be surprised to discover them individually hitting upon lots of Good Tricks that had never been posed as specific problems to their ancestors. Any such uniformity might be misread by biologists as signs of a special "instinct," when in fact it was just their general intelligence that led them again and again to hit upon the same bright idea. The problem of interpretation for Homo sapiens is multiplied many times over by the fact of cultural transmission. Even if some individual hunters are not bright enough to figure out for themselves that they should throw the pointy end first, they will be told to do so by their peers, or will just notice their practice, and will appreciate the results immediately. In other words, if you are not totally idiotic, you don't need a genetic basis for any adaptation that you will pick up from your friends in any case.
It is hard to believe that sociobiologists can make the mistake of ignoring this omnipresent possibility, but the evidence is striking that they have done so, again and again (Kitcher 1985). Many instances could be listed, but I will concentrate on a particularly visible and well-known case. Although E. O. Wilson (1978, p.35) states clearly that the human behaviours to be accounted for by specific genetic hypotheses should be the "least rational of the human repertoire...In other words, they should implicate innate, biological phenomena that are the least susceptible to mimicry by culture," he goes on (pp. 107ff) to claim, for instance, that the evidence of territoriality in all human cultures (we human beings like to call a bit of space our own) is clear proof that we, like very many other species, have a genetic predisposition wired in at birth for the defence of territory. That may be true - in fact, it would not be at all surprising, since many species manifestly do exhibit innate territoriality, and it is hard to think of what force there might be to remove such a disposition from our genetic makeup. But the ubiquity of territoriality in human societies is by itself no evidence at all for this, since territoriality makes so much sense in so many human arrangements. It is, if not a forced move, close to it. (p. 486-7)
So, just as there is no 'throw-spear-pointy-end-first' part of the brain, it seems unlikely that there is a single 'god' part of the brain, which has arisen as an adaptation to existential angst. Religion could just be a Good Trick, which from small beginnings has grown a life of its own.
Finally, what I felt was Alper's greatest crime against evolution, was in claiming that evolution works for the good of the species. Since I've plundered more than enough from Daniel Dennett, here's an extract from Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene':
Evolution works by natural selection, and natural selection means the differential survival of the 'fittest'. But are we talking about the fittest individuals, the fittest races, the fittest species, or what? For some purposes this does not greatly matter, but when we are talking about altruism it is obviously crucial. If it is species that are competing in what Darwin called the struggle for existence, the individual seems best regarded as a pawn in the game, to be sacrificed when the greater interest of the whole requires it. To put it in a slightly more respectable way, a group, such as a species or a population within a species whose individual members are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of the group, may be less likely to go extinct than a rival group whose individual members place their own selfish interests first. Therefore the world becomes populated mainly by groups consisting of self-sacrificing individuals. This is the theory of 'group selection', long assumed to be true by biologists not familiar with the details of evolutionary theory, brought out into the open by Robert Ardrey in The Social Contract. The orthodox alternative is normally called 'individual selection', although I prefer to speak of gene selection.
The quick answer of the 'individual selectionist' to the argument just put might go something like this. Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations of this natural selection, the 'altruistic group' will be over-run by selfish individuals, and will be indistinguishable for the selfish group. Even if we grant the improbable chance existence of pure altruistic groups without any rebels, it is very difficult to see what is to stop selfish individuals migrating in from neighbouring selfish groups, and, by inter-marriage, contaminating the purity of the altruistic groups. (p. 7-8)
I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity. (p. 11)
The idea that evolution works on the level of the species has been thoroughly put to bed by the success of the genetic level taken in neo-Darwinism. As such, Alper should have steered clear of explaining religion as something that has evolved for the good of the species. In reality religion seems to be neither good for the species (fostering increasing hostilities between religious groups) nor a sure thing dictated by biology.
Don't get me wrong. In spite of these glaring errors, 'The God Part of the Brain' is a thought provoking read and Matthew Alper is certainly absolutely correct in the most important conclusion: that atheism is the way to go. Alper's final thoughts though are not so much that everything is pointless, but that familiar chestnut, that whatever the answers are, there is beauty and mystery to behold. Regular readers will know my opinion of beauty and I can't help but feel I expected more from Alper (given the lengths he went to, to discover the answers).
In an upcoming post, I'm going to try and present an alternative to Alper's theory and describe how I imagine religion developed.Go Top