2021-05-19

A God / Socializing Gene … and “The Dawkins Delusion”

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is another snippet from the same transcript that produced the elephants and dugongs post a few days ago. I follow with a snippet from Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct where he rebuts Richard Dawkins shallow understanding of religion.

What is the only type of behaviour that will always be identical in both twins, regardless of whether they have been adopted into different environments or not?

Roger Short: But there has been a very exciting development within the last few weeks actually and it goes back a few years. I was sitting at Imperial College in London next to Lord Robert Winston, who you know, and we were at an international twins conference. There were 600 of us. The last speaker was Thomas Bouchard from Minnesota. Thomas stood up and said, ‘I’ve spent the whole of my life working on the behaviour of identical twins reared apart. Today is my last lecture because tomorrow I retire, and I’ve saved my most important discovery until this moment. Here you are, 600 of you, experts on twins, and you will not know the answer to the question I am just going to pose to you, which I have solved. The question is this: what is the only type of behaviour that will always be identical in both twins, regardless of whether they have been adopted into different environments or not? There is only one of all the types of behaviour that you can think of in which both twins always behave identically. What is it?’ I remember turning to Robert Winston and saying, ‘I haven’t a clue, have you?’ and Robert said, ‘No. I don’t know what he’s on about.’ There was absolute silence, and Thomas Bouchard said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. It’s religiosity.’ I nearly fell through the floor. I thought, my God, how amazing that there’s a God gene.

I was talking to Nick Martin at the Academy and he said, ‘Yes, they now think they’ve got it mapped on chromosome 9.’ It is a gene or a group of genes that control faith. And as Nicholas Wade, the brilliant British-American New York Times writer, has shown in his latest book called The Faith Instinct, which came out just before Christmas, a must-read for you, he has looked at all human societies and he has shown how it absolutely was essential to live as a society with this common belief system which united you. Okay, the gene has passed me by, but it has given me a new respect for the Church.

I was talking to Richard Dawkins last year and I have been corresponding with him recently saying, ‘Richard, you got it wrong. You wrote The God Delusion. Actually, it’s ‘the Dawkins delusion’ because you have totally dismissed God,’ whereas the concept of faith in something (it doesn’t have to be a God but it’s a uniting spiritual belief) is deep within our genes and has been responsible for social cohesion of communities. And if you want to take it one stage further, how tragic…and maybe I should, if he would speak to me again, get back to George Pell and say, ‘Isn’t it tragic that the Catholic Church has chosen to prevent those who are most likely to have the God gene from reproducing.’

 ‘Don’t use Vatican condoms – they’re holy.’ See the transcript for Roger Short’s use of this logo in a reply to censure by Cardinal Pell

Robyn Williams: Okay, a gene for God, I don’t really go along with that, because people like Robin Dunbar, who is now in Oxford, have written about the evolution of the brain, saying that it is more a case of there being not a particular gene and therefore a protein that has some sort of God effect but there being in human beings a feeling for the wider community. In other words, what you are looking at with your sophisticated brain is something far more cultural and widespread rather than God-like. Could that be it?

Roger Short: Yes, I would agree with that completely. For example, Nicholas Wade has a lovely chapter on the Australian Aboriginal belief systems. Okay, they don’t have a God, but they have a real spiritual concept that is a unifying theme and it differs a bit between differing communities. It would be fascinating to study that. If I was starting life again, I think I would like to go and look at that.

–o–


From Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct — part of his response to Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker:

[Richard Dawkins] then notes that people die and kill for their religious beliefs, behavior which he compares to the misfiring of a moth’s navigational system when it flies into a candle flame. Since the moth’s behavior is nonadaptive, so too is religion, Dawkins argues. So what, he asks, “is the primitively advantageous trait that sometimes misfires to generate religion?” His hypothesis is that “There will he a selective advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you.” Religious belief, in his view, spreads like a virus from parents to impressionable children, a cycle that is repeated every generation. Religion, therefore, is the accidental by-product of children’s propensity to believe what their parents tell them.

This argument seems a little stretched because nonsensical information is not of great help in the struggle for survival and seems unlikely to have been passed on tor 2,000 generations in every known human society since the dispersal from Africa. Religion can impose enormous costs, just in the amount of time it takes up. as ises ident from the rites of Australian Aborigines. Had religion no benefit, tribes that devoted most ot their time to religious ceremonies would have been at a severe disadvantage against tribes that spent all day on military preparations.

Dawkins does not seem highly confident in his gullible child theory because he stresses it is “only an example of the kind of thing that might be the analogue of moths nas igating by the moon or the stars.” But without offering any more plausible explanation he insists that “the general theory of religion as an accidental by-product—a misfiring ot something useful—is the one I wish to advocate.”

Dawkins’s gullible child conjecture, like Pinker’s manipulative priest proposal, seems to be driven less by any particular evidence than by the implicit premise that religion is bad, and therefore must be nonadaptive. 

That “belonging” and finding identity through belonging to social group is a common factor brought out in studies of radicalization to extremist groups — whether Islamic or white supremacist. So often it is those who feel alienated from society, that society is somehow going in the wrong direction for them, and those who are lonely — they are prime candidates as recruits into such groups. Like those political radicals, persons coming into religious cults will also speak of finding a sense of belonging, of family.


Short, Roger. 2021. The Science Show: Professor Roger Short, reproductive biologist Interview by Robyn Williams. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/professor-roger-short,-reproductive-biologist/13342638.

Wade, Nicholas. The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures. New York: Penguin, 2010. pp. 66-67


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Neil Godfrey

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21 thoughts on “A God / Socializing Gene … and “The Dawkins Delusion””

  1. For one thing, this confuses the concept of religion with that of belief. Belief is a personal thing that may or may not be shared or discussed and it is understandable, but not fatally true, that people having been brought up in the same context have similar beliefs.
    Humans want to understand their world in order to better survive in it. And they do it, at first, by analogy which means they start with a lot of anthropomorphism so that is something they have in common.
    Religion is the politicization of belief. It’s a mean of keeping people within the ranks. There are no genes involved in this.
    By the way, I’ve dated a twin and one thing she had in common with her sister is an absolute lack of interest in any set of belief

    1. Does her twin sister share the same lack of “religiosity”?

      As for politicization of belief, I do understand that. Yet is not religion itself more than only one type, the organized and institutional type we are most familiar with?

      1. I’d have to know about any other type existing. As for the twins, the only religiosity I’ve seen of them is a childish worship of music stars

        1. We may be interpreting Roger Short’s comments differently. I did not understand him to mean that all twins are “religious” but that if one is extremely religious then the other will be, too, in some way; if one is mildly religious, so is the other, and if one lacks all interest in religiosity, so will the other.

          1. All humans have a genetic capacity for imagination. Beliefs follow from this. Moreover, the same could be said of dogs who see their master as their god.
            On the other hand, if there are indisputable statistics concerning the atheism of twins separated at birth, I am ready to revise my presumptions

  2. Here is a section from Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct (2009) addressing genetics and religious behaviour:

    Religious Behavior and Genetics

    The universality of religious behavior suggests that, as with language, it is mediated by specialized structures in the brain. Language is known to be supported by neural circuitry in certain regions of the brain because, if these regions are damaged even minutely, specific defects appear in a patient’s linguistic abilities. No such dedicated regions have yet been identified with certainty for the neural circuitry that may underlie religious behavior. Excessive religiosity is a well-known symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy and could reflect the activation of neural circuits associated with religious behavior. But there is no agreement on this point, and the search for such circuitry in people who don’t suffer from epilepsy is “suggestive but not conclusive,” according to the neurologist Steven Schachter.39 It could be that religious behavior itself does not require a dedicated brain region large enough to be detectable by present methods.

    The fact that religious behavior is universal strongly suggests that it is an adaptation, meaning a trait shaped by natural selection. If it is an adaptation, it must have a genetic basis, such as a suite of genes that are activated during development and wire up the neural circuits needed to induce the behavior. Identification of such genes would be the best possible proof that religious behavior has an evolutionary basis. The lack of any progress in this direction so far is not particularly surprising; the genes that underlie complex diseases have started to be identified only recently and funds to support such expensive efforts are not available for studying nonmedical complex traits.

    An indirect approach to the genetic basis of religious behavior is through psychological studies of adopted children and of twins. Such studies pick up traits that vary in the population, such as height, and estimate how much of the variation is due to environmental factors and how much to genetics. But the studies cannot pick up the presence of genes that don’t vary; genes for learning language, for example, are apparently so essential that there is almost no variation in the population, since everyone can learn language. If religious behavior is equally necessary for survival, then the genes that underlie it will be the same in everyone, and no variation will be detectable.

    Religious behavior itself is hard to quantify, but studies of religiosity -— the intensity with which the capacity for religious behavior is implemented -— have shown that it is moderately heritable, meaning that genes contribute somewhat, along with environmental factors, to the extent of the trait’s variation in the population. “Religious attitudes and practices are moderately influenced by genetic factors,” a large recent study concludes.40 Another survey finds that “the heritability of religiousness increases from adolescence to adulthood,” presumably because the influence of environmental factors decreases in adulthood (when you leave home you go to church if you want to, not because your parents say so).41 The aspects of religiosity that psychologists measure include factors like the frequency of church attendance and the importance assigned to religious values. Their studies show that there are genetic influences at work on the intensity of religious behavior, but do not yet reach to the heart of the issue, that of probing the neural circuitry for learning and practicing the religion of one’s community.

    In the absence of direct evidence about the genes underlying religious behavior, its evolutionary basis can be assessed only indirectly. The effect of cultural learning in religion is clear enough, as shown by the “rich variety of religions around the world. It’s the strong commonalities beneath the variations that are the fingerprints of an innate learning mechanism. These common features seem very unlikely to have persisted in all societies for the 2,000 generations that have elapsed during the 50,000 years since the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland, unless they have a genetic basis. This is particularly true given the complexity of religious behavior, and its rootedness in the emotional levels of the brain.

    To no less an observer than Darwin himself it seemed that religion was like an instinctive behavior, one that the mind is genetically primed to learn as indelibly as the fear of heights or the horror of incest. His two great books on evolution, Origin of Species and Descent of Man, have nothing directly to say about religion but in his autobiography, written in his old age, he was more explicit about this controversial topic. He wrote, “Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as“ difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”42

    To understand how the instinct for religious behavior evolved, it is necessary to explore the circumstances in human development in which it first arose.

    (pp. 43-45)

    Endnotes:

    39 Steven C. Schachter, “Religion and the Brain: Evidence from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy,” in Patrick McNamara, ed., Where God and Science Meet, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, 2006), 171-88.

    40 Brian D‘Onofrio et al., “Understanding Biological and Social Influences on Religious Affiliation, Attitudes, and Behaviors: A Behavior Genetic Perspective,” Journal of Personality 67, no. 6 (1999): 953-84.

    41 Laura B. Koenig et al., “Genetic and Environmental Influences on Religiousness: Findings for Retrospective and Current Religiousness Ratings,” Journal of Personality 73, no. 4 (2005): 1219-1256.

    42 Charles Darwin, Autobiography (New York: Norton, 1969), 93.

  3. That there might be a God gene does not surprise, although not necessarily because of the socializing function of religion.

    I have long speculated that when the first of our ancestors developed consciousness, they became aware of their own mortality, which would have led to despair for many. A gene that inclined its bearer towards belief in some transcendent reality would have been a useful adaptation.

  4. The faith community is so desperate to “find” (imagine?) some scientific basis to render their particular obsession necessary to the human condition–a “God gene”, some biological chemistry rooted in genetics, something “baked in” to the human condition that makes religion/belief not only widespread, but biologically essential.
    Never mind how multivarious and contradictory all of these “beliefs” have been and are, through the ages and around the world. That’s irrelevant to them. They only want to cling to the thought, however tenuous, that “faith” isn’t simply a nebulous, random synaptic firing, happening to take on whatever form is most available.
    Pathetic.

    1. I believe you’ve missed the point here. The genetic basis is a naturalistic one — not a rationalization by the religious. It is a non-faith, evolutionary explanation. I would suspect many religious folk would not like the explanation and consider it flawed. Note that the explanation does not predispose anyone (genetically) to believe in a god. Note the example of the Australian aboriginals as mentioned — with no god.

      1. I find the two arguments made here rather incompatible – one, that there is a single “religiosity” gene that humans are polymorphic on (i.e. some alleles make people more religious and others less, such that twins that share the allele share their religiosity level), and second, that religion evolved as a bonding system for communities. I find the second perfectly plausible, but in that case why wouldn’t the “pro-religiosity” allele have reached fixation? And if it hasn’t, why is religion (in this general sense of “spiritual practices that bind a community together/set it apart from others”) pretty much a human universal? The latter observation is much more compatible to me with an “it’s complicated” model of how genetics, religiosity and brains interact. (there could also be, and probably is, an evolutionary tradeoff between religiosity and non-religiosity – like, community is important to a human society’s survival but so is creativity, so you should have some groupthink but also some out-of-the-box thinking, and the two might not be completely compatible in the brain. In that view I might buy the single-gene thing a bit more, but seeing it more as a fulcrum between different kinds of personalities than as a gene that “adds religion” where there was none before).

        1. My understanding is that there is some sort of genetic basis to what is very loosely called “religiosity” but that the strength of that basis varies across the human population as does any other inherited attribute. But with twins the “strengths” of the two sets of genes or gene complexes match.

  5. In this context it is well worth checking out the research by Robert Sapolsky on religion which he believes has a genetic basis and is on a continuum with various mental disorders like OCD (ritual) and schizophrenia (seeing visions, hearing the voice of ‘god’). So that those disorders were once adaptive in the age of the shamen / prophet. He’s a great speaker so watching his lectures is a joy.

  6. So if religiosity is ingrained in humans, and differently in each individual, what does it mean?
    In case I can get by without religion, I can not assume, that everybody else can.
    But what would be a good substitute for the current organized religions? Something like Atheism 2.0 https://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alain_de_Botton with his https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_School_of_Life, or a https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunday_Assembly or a Houston Oasis? Some other kind of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_religion ?
    Can a new type of Christianity serve the role without the negatives of religion? Some type of cafeteria, cultural, humanistic, secular Christianity?
    I personally fancy Christmas, although I don’t believe in a historical Jesus. Even if there was some man, he was not born in the year 1 in a manger in Bethlehem.
    I think it is more interesting to know why Luke changed the gospel of Mark and for the nativity the gospel of Matthew https://vridar.org/2014/09/15/how-and-why-luke-changed-matthews-nativity-of-jesus-story/ , and why Mark based a gospel on Pauline epistles, and why the author of the epistles reinterpreted the Septuagint and other texts.
    But would this suffice for those with a strong genetic inclination towards religiosity?

  7. If you weren’t so keep to denigrate Dawkins, you might realise that the “social binding and community” account of religion is entirely in line with his “religion as an accidental by-product—a misfiring of something useful” account. In other words, the specifics of the religion and any truth behind it are unimportant, those are simply byproducts of a human propensity for shared myths.

    As for the “gullible child” theory, he is (again) entirely right. By far the best predictor of someone’s religion when aged 30 is their parents’ religion when they are aged 5. Children do indeed (gullibly) absorb their religion from their family and local culture. Just look at the distribution of religions on a world map.

    1. Don’t overlook Roger Short’s introduction to his rejection of Dawkins’ notions — Roger appears to regularly talk with Richard. They sound like respectful colleagues if not friends. So I don’t think there is a question of being “keen to denigrate Dawkins” in Short’s point at all.

      Doesn’t Dawkins turn to his “meme” explanation for religion — and that is quite distinct from the genetic explanation — except by partial analogy.

      I used to love the New Atheism — with ads on buses, the audacious declamations — but moved away from it when I decided to look more into what the researchers have learned about religion. Regrettably, I had to decide that Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris had no idea what they were talking about. But I still love the other works by Dawkins, sure do!

      1. The “genetic” and the “meme” explanations are indeed distinct, but they are also fully compatible and are both part of the overall picture. The genetic factors that Short points to are about underlying human psychology and propensity for belief (and social binding and community are of course important to that). The “meme” explanation is then about particular religions and particular ideas (“Jesus died for your sins” etc) that then prosper precisely because the underlying psychology makes us susceptible to them.

        This combination of religious memes exploiting a genetics-based psychology that makes us susceptible to them was precisely Dawkins’s explanation all along.

        Dawkins understands religion just fine; but obviously there is also a lot more that one can say about human psychology, and others can contribute those parts of the picture.

        1. Does not the meme view suggest that the basis for religion is dispensible, curable, cultural at its base? That’s quite different from the genetic explanation, yes?

          1. No, the meme explanation is not different from the genetic explanation, it depends on the genetic explanation. The whole point is that religious memes exploit a psychological susceptibility to those memes, where that psychological susceptibility is genetic programmed.

            Thus the superficial aspects of religion (the memes, the differences between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, for example) will be purely cultural, but the underlying susceptibility to religious ways of thinking will be genetic.

            By comparison, a virus such as coronavirus exploits cellular copying machinery, where that genetically-programmed machinery is there for necessary evolutionary reasons.

            So given Dawkins’s view that “Religious belief … spreads like a virus from parents to impressionable children, …” his entire point is that it is exploiting genetically-programmed psychology that makes humans susceptible to such ways of thinking.

            Necessarily, children are genetically programmed to absorb and learn from their parents and their culture, and “religious memes” exploit that. Again, the genetic factors that Short points to are a necessary feature of Dawkins’s explanation!

        2. Perhaps I should add that I do not believe in making excuses for toxic religions. They destroy lives. No question. At the same time, there needs to be room for some rehabilitation and self-acceptance in recovery from the experience in that kind of faith. Understanding the cognitive basis for religious thinking (and even a genetic basis) can help promote understanding and forgiveness of others and oneself.

  8. “Religious ideas have sprung from the same need as all the other achievements of culture: from the necessity for defending itself against the crushing supremacy of nature.”

    Freud

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