scilogs Biology of Religion

Conference Report - Explaining Religion at Bristol University 2010

from Michael Blume, 05. September 2010, 20:45

Among those scientific conferences I had the pleasure to attend, "Explaining Religion" at Bristol University won (and will hold) a very special place. It had been very well-organized by Finn Spicer, Nathalia Gjersoe, Andrew Atkinson and Samantha Barlow, who not only provided for a beautiful yet concentrated space for lectures, debates and come-togethers, but also for a caring, open and humorous atmosphere among all those attending. Thus, the meeting of diverse scientists interested in the evolution of religiosity and religions managed to bring together hypotheses, fresh data and especially people enjoying to share thoughts and findings during captivating lectures and intensive debates right into the nights. Thanks to Bristol, BIRTHA and Finn, Thalia, Andrew & Sam!

The beautiful city of Bristol turned out to be just the right place for the conference, bringing together diverse traditions and modernities. Just as an example - this picture doesn't depict a Cathedral, but Bristol Train Station!

 

As our lectures and debates showed that the evolutionary by-product-hypotheses about religiosity and religions were on the retreat (even among cognitive psychologists), I stumbled upon a small well at Victora Garden that quite captured the emerging picture of belief in supernatural agents constituting an exaptation or adaptation in human evolution. It read: "The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life."

 

But then, the United Kingdom didn't indulge in shallow stagnation. Instead, newspapers like "The Times" featured another "god-of-the-gap"-debate, this time initiated by Stephen Hawking - just at the opening day of our conference.

And the debate raged on for three consecutive days, with leading clergy as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answering and other scientists and writers contributing their views. What a country where debates about religion(s) and science(s) are rightfully making the headlines!

At the conference, the scheduled speakers managed to connect their respective perspectives and datas into a truly convergent exchange. Susan Blackmore (Plymouth) endorsed the popular metaphors of memetics and spoke in behalf of the dwindling minority of scientists who believed that religiosity and religions evolved as a natural by-product in a separate, cultural realm. As I had included her work in my (German) doctorate thesis some years ago, I enjoyed her talk and the ensuing debates. And although she voiced her distress at my demographic findings about the religious having more children while the seculars lacked offspring, she was impressive in her open way of accepting facts. I will take her "It's tough - but that's what science is about!" as one of the lasting sayings that made these days so special.

 

Her lecture was followed by Konrad Talmont-Kaminski (Lublin & blog), who not only advocated the frame of dual-inheritance theories integrating genetic and cultural perspectives, but also brought up arguments for defining religious and magical beliefs not in the terms of "supernatural" but "superempirical" entities. I can't wait for his upcoming book on the subject!

Paolo Mantovani (London) delighted the audience with an insightful and humorous debate whether Santa Claus would meet the cognitive criteria quite often cited by psychologists as constituting god-like supernatural agents. He not only showed that evolutionary studies proceed by the repeated testing of hypotheses, but that every perspective (such as the psychological one) needed to be connected with others (such as the sociological and biological) in order to attain meaningful coherence. 

Bruce Hood (Bristol) and Deborah Kelemen (Boston) captivated the audience having just accomplished that: In presenting tested as well as brand-new experimental data, they offered new and refined insights in the ways children are construing realities and narratives. And as Jesse Bering (Belfast & blog) brought up new thoughts and findings concerning the way adult atheists and theists made (or found?) purpose in their lifes, you might imagine the constructive excitement emerging among those of us who are used to have very few colleagues in the field in their respective countries!

Ryan McKay (Oxford) and Ara Norenzayan (Vancouver) offered just the arc the debate needed now, showing in game theory and experimental practice how religious beliefs enhanced cooperative potentials among believers. Thus, the truly interdisciplinary exchanges and debates "raged on" intensively well into the late evenings and, finally, nights. 

But then, in best British tradition, the conference was also open to ideas from graduates and private scholars. There were many interesting people and talks evolving around the topic. A poster presented by John Jacob Lyons sketching out a signalling-hypothesis concerning the earliest roots of religiosity rightfully catched interest of many participants.

 

Robert McCauley (Atlanta) and Thomas Lawson (Michigan) quite subsumed the conference with overlapping drafts of the emerging picture - whose similarities were even more striking as they didn't design them together. Actually, they were proving that the evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions are coalescing into an overall frame of gene-culture-coevolution (or just "biocultural evolution"), recognizing religiosity as an adaptive trait with proximate mechanisms working on the individual, social and - finally - biological level.

As I had conducted and presented nearly all of my work in German and among German-speaking colleagues for years, I was somewhat anxious about how it would fit into the international debate. And as you can imagine, I was very happy to see that it was absorbed with interest, open minds and encouragements to do more works and publications in English. If you want to see the slides of "The Reproductive Advantage of Religiosity. Religious Demography benefitting Evolutionary Fitness", just click on the graph to download.

Without a doubt, "Explaining Religion" in Bristol has connected perspectives and findings - bringing evolutionary studies on religiosity and religions to another level. I am grateful that I had the chance to participate in this experience!

* Conference Report in German

 



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Comments

  1. Konrad Talmont-Kaminski Another view of the meeting
    06.09.2010 | 01:15

    My own write-up of the meeting is at: http://deisidaimon.wordpress.com/...on-in-bristol/

  2. Tom Rees Sounds like it was fun
    07.09.2010 | 00:02

    Gutted I couldn't make it :(

  3. Andrew Atkinson Reproductive Benefits of Religiosity
    07.09.2010 | 22:14

    Hey Michael - great to see you at the conference. I have a few questions about your talk.

    The data you present seems to suggest that religion, or religiosity, is fitness increasing - right?

    The more I think about it, I wonder whether or not this is the case.

    Given that the majority of the world's population are religious, wouldn't that automatically correspond with increased reproductivity assuming the majority are fit?

    I also wonder wether or not it is just that there are cultural codes in place, such as 'be fruitful and multiply' which if followed, merely look like reproductive advantage when measured in terms of fitness. Maybe such codes were adaptive in our evolutionary past, but why so today?

    Similarly (and I tread on risky ground here) some might observe that reproduction rates, teenage (biologically the best age) pregnancies etc, are high in impoverished areas with low levels of emphasis on education.

    Haven't there also been studies (cannot cite - apologies) which show a correspondence with low levels of education and religiosity?

    With this in mind, and given that, famously, one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' in biology, is it wise to rush to the conclusion that religiosity is 'fitness increasing' from an evolutionary perspective and therefore vindicating in some way?

    High rates of reproduction could be damaging in fact, as with every offspring comes increased costs.

    Also, I do think it is worthwhile exploring Nick Humphrey's suggestion that religious families may continue to have children until they have a male child - the possibility being, that such archaic institutions might place greater value on 'male heirs', so to speak.

    Just some thoughts - I'm still undecided on the matter...

  4. Michael Blume @Konrad
    08.09.2010 | 00:43

    Thanks for your great post! It has been great to meet you and I am looking forward to many debates.

  5. 08.09.2010 | 00:44

    Yes, I sure hoped to meet you there! You would have enjoyed the lectures and debates thoroughly! Hope, we will get another chance to meet one day!

  6. Michael Blume @Andrew
    08.09.2010 | 01:05

    Thanks for the terrific organizing - and the ongoing thoughts! Of course, I gladly take the time to answer to your questions:

    The data you present seems to suggest that religion, or religiosity, is fitness increasing - right?

    Yes. After years of work in the field, I am certain about that one.

    The more I think about it, I wonder whether or not this is the case. Given that the majority of the world's population are religious, wouldn't that automatically correspond with increased reproductivity assuming the majority are fit?

    I don't quite understand. The secular parts of the world populations (like Western Europe, Russia, Japan etc.) are actually shrinking for decades, lacking births. That's obviously not evolutionary succesful.

    I also wonder wether or not it is just that there are cultural codes in place, such as 'be fruitful and multiply' which if followed, merely look like reproductive advantage when measured in terms of fitness. Maybe such codes were adaptive in our evolutionary past, but why so today?

    Well, we are just having the data of today, e.g. comparing the fertility rates of non-affiliated or Amish in the US or secular and religious Jews in Israel. And we're seeing the reproductive advantage of the religious today. Most questions query how far in the past we could project these findings.

    Similarly (and I tread on risky ground here) some might observe that reproduction rates, teenage (biologically the best age) pregnancies etc, are high in impoverished areas with low levels of emphasis on education.

    Yes, but as shown in the slides, the reproductive advantage is taking place e.g. in Switzerland, too - which is not an impoverished area. And Swiss Jews and some Christian denominations show very high birth rates, although having higher percentages of academics and high-earners. We also found strong religious-demographic effects of the well-educated in the German ALLBUS survey and the Australian Census, see e.g. here, p. 162:
    http://www.blume-religionswissenschaft.de/...y.pdf

    Haven't there also been studies (cannot cite - apologies) which show a correspondence with low levels of education and religiosity?

    Yes, many educated and well-off abandon religion. Affected strata are promptly affected by sharp demographic decline.

    With this in mind, and given that, famously, one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is' in biology, is it wise to rush to the conclusion that religiosity is 'fitness increasing' from an evolutionary perspective and therefore vindicating in some way?

    We are certainly not talking about a rush - the respective studies have taken years to collect and connect. And I am certainly understanding about the discomfort of the religious-demographic findings, as formulated by fellow scientists as Eric Kaufmann, too:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...new-book-by-eric-kaufmann

    High rates of reproduction could be damaging in fact, as with every offspring comes increased costs.

    Yes, and we see religious traditions adapting to that. For example, 19th century methodists emphasized smaller, better educated children and the Hutterites broadened acceptance of contraceptions within the last decade as they struggled to find new land for their exponentially growing communities. Nevertheless, only religious traditions seem to be able to attain birth rates above replacement level for a century or more - although we searched intensively, we didn't yet find a single secular group who managed to do that. I agree that this is a disturbing find to many.

    Also, I do think it is worthwhile exploring Nick Humphrey's suggestion that religious families may continue to have children until they have a male child - the possibility being, that such archaic institutions might place greater value on 'male heirs', so to speak.

    Yes, I wouldn't rule out that there might be special effects in specific traditions, but would like to point out that orthodox Jews, Amish or Hutterites are having many daughters, too. As you may see in one of the last slides, the membership of almost all succesful religious traditions is primarily female.

    Just some thoughts - I'm still undecided on the matter...

    You are very welcome! Please feel free to review the slides or the papers on the homepage:
    http://www.blume-religionswissenschaft.de/....html

    You might also like the book of Eric Kaufmann ("Shall the Religious inherit the Earth?")
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...new-book-by-eric-kaufmann

    or Inglehart & Norris "Sacred and Secular", which was quoted by Ara Norenzayan, too.

    Best wishes!

  7. Andrew Atkinson Subject
    08.09.2010 | 22:26

    Thanks so much for your detailed reply Michael. I must read up more on this. If you have a paper, I'd like to pass it to my supervisor...

    Thanks so much for the loan of the book too - I panicked for a while because I thought I'd left it behind at the venue! But I've got it safe... will read asap, and post it off to you...

  8. Michael Blume @Andrew
    17.09.2010 | 07:48
    I am happy that I was able to give you some food for thought! That's what I tried to achieve! :-) Did you see what Susan just posted!? Truly impressive! I plan to answer these upcoming days: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/sep/16/why-no-longer-believe-religion-virus-mind Best wishes!
  9. Darby Subject
    19.09.2010 | 14:55

    It's a mistake to equate reproductive rate straight-up with evolutionary success, especially in social systems where bigger groups of siblings are usually correlated with lesser standing (poorer, fewer advancement opportunities, less education). You ought to see it yourself: you cite the drop in population growth in the western societies, do you REALLY see that as an indicator of evolutionary failure?

    What's being given here is a very shallow understanding of modern evolutionary concepts.

  10. Michael Blume @Darby
    20.09.2010 | 12:06

    No, I am not particularly interested in any specific time or setting. The evolutionary relevant question is: Does trait XY show the potential to enhance evolutionary fitness throughout subsequent generations?

    This is clearly the case with contemporary religiosity, and tons of related findings from archaeology, religious history, psychology etc. are strengthening the point that the same reaches back into our evolutionary past. In fact, it's pretty close to the picture that Charles Darwin had predicted:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...eligiosity-and-religion-s

    Best wishes!

  11. Balanus Subject
    01.10.2010 | 22:09

    Atkinson: The data you present seems to suggest that religion, or religiosity, is fitness increasing - right?

    Blume: Yes. After years of work in the field, I am certain about that one.
    .
    It takes only five minutes to find out that it is not possible to determine evolutionary fitness of actual living individuals simply by counting their offsprings (cf. for example Buss 1991 or 1995). In addition, the term "fitness" is more properly used in connection with a gene, and the relative fitness of a current gene will be known only in the future. In fact, evolutionary theory is a theory about origins and change. Thus, claims about the superior evolutionary fitness of modern religious humans in comparison to secular or atheistic ones should be avoided.

  12. Balanus Addendum
    01.10.2010 | 22:11

    Literature

    Buss DM (1991). Evolutionary personality psychology. Annu Rev Psychol. 1991;42:459-91.

    Buss DM (1995). Evolutionary Psychology: A New Paradigm for Psychological Science. Psychological Inquiry 1995;6:1-30.

  13. Michael Blume @Balanus
    03.10.2010 | 13:24

    I certainly agree that evolutionary studies will never achieve an undisputed status, as they are an empirical field: Each and every hypothesis, observation and definition may be challenged by better ones forever.

    But then, it's not enough to cite some decades-old articles in order to get rid of findings not suiting your personal worldview.

    If you do not like the contemporary definitions of evolutionary fitness, bring on a better one! If you do not like the evolution of religiosity, you should be ready to present an alternative and better explanation concerning not only the contemporary higher birth rates of religious people, but also concerning the evolutionary history of respective behaviors in our species. As you might observe with any creationist: Pure denial of scientific findings is not convincing at all.

  14. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    03.10.2010 | 20:22

    Yes, I have expressed the same complaint: With 50,000 years of solid evidence for the competitive advantage of belief, why focus on such a small aspect of that advantage? But, he was not writing a book, just a few paragraphs, and from my perspective, he has been clear that his is just one of many studies to that same conclusion.

  15. Michael Blume @J.A. Le Fevre
    03.10.2010 | 20:56

    Yes, I wouldn't dispute that religiosity is offering more potential advantages than "mere" reproduction, e.g. social trust, cooperation and health. But from a genetic point of view, variances in reproductive performances leading to the spread or decline of traits are - of course - the most important ones. Note that Susan Blackmore acknowledged various variables in her text.

  16. Balanus Fitness
    03.10.2010 | 22:24

    The point is that counting offspring to determine relative fitness is only appropriate, if humans are really fitness maximisers (i.e., individuals are maximising fitness by performing a given behaviour or a engaging in a certain cultural practice—and not simply by producing children).

    If you want to measure fitness in contemporary populations, e.g. the relative fitness of the trait religiosity, then you have to know the frequencies of the respective genotypes of the parents as well as that of the children at different times of their development (after religiosity selection has acted).

    Without knowing the genotype of religiosity, no reasonable conclusions about the evolutionary fitness of religiosity can be drawn solely on the basis of demographic data. That's all what I say.

    The evolutionary advantage of belief in the past is another issue.

  17. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    03.10.2010 | 23:04

    I am, of course, looking strictly at the phenotype ‘believer’, and the prehistoric data is necessarily much more general, but it is consistent with the more detailed and specific modern data. I do not believe that a genotype for ‘believer’ has been isolated, but that does not detract from the benefits demonstrated by the phenotype, past and present.

    @Michael

    Yes, I read Sue’s ‘conversion’ piece. A commendable achievement collecting and presenting that convincing argument. Even if it starts as not much more than questioning her old assumptions, the data should prevail.

  18. Balanus @J. A. Le Fevre
    04.10.2010 | 13:40

    We are talking about evolution. When a phenotype "believer" does exist, then a genotype "believer" should also exist in some way. It is not necessary that the respective gene variants are known for theoretical considerations. But for claims about the evolutionary relative fitness of contemporary "believers" the knowledge of these gene variants seems to me indispensable.

    What do you mean with "benefits demonstrated by the phenotype, past and present." Evolutionary benefits? Or simply higher birth rates, individual health and so on?

  19. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    04.10.2010 | 20:31

    For ‘benefits demonstrated’, I am primarily referring to that most basic evolutionary measure: population size and habitat occupied. Health, wealth, status or long life might be great things from an individual standpoint, but evolution has no care for the quality of life, just persistence. Further, I suspect that there will be a fair suite of genes ultimately discovered to play some part.

  20. Balanus @J. A. Le Fevre
    04.10.2010 | 22:51

    Okay, population size and the occupied habitat are measures for evolutionary success. But of which phenotype? How can we decide which believer phenotype stems in fact from the respective genotype (belonging to a religious group does not mean that I'm an innate or intrinsic believer). Again, without knowing the frequency of the innate believers (those who are not free to decide about their belief for genetic reasons) in a population, we cannot say anything about the evolutionary success of the real phenotype "believer".

  21. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    05.10.2010 | 00:45

    Yes and no:

    B ‘How can we decide which believer phenotype stems in fact from the respective genotype’

    Answer: It is doubtful we can, hence I stick with ‘phenotype’. Draw the lines where we can fit them.

    B: ‘belonging to a religious group does not mean that I'm an innate or intrinsic believer’

    Answer: Correct, we cannot with any confidence at this point distinguish between ‘true believers’ and pretenders, so for analytical purposes, there is no difference. Anyone who ‘goes through the motions’ belongs to that phenotype, regardless of what they are thinking.

    B: ‘Again, without knowing the frequency of the innate believers (those who are not free to decide about their belief for genetic reasons) in a population, we cannot say anything about the evolutionary success of the real phenotype "believer".’

    Answer: Wrong! If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it belongs to the phenotype ‘duck’. Any success for the phenotype ‘believer’ applies equally to true believers and pretenders alike. For the historic and pre-historic data, that is the best we can probably ever do.

    In living populations, as with Michael’s data, we can get a lot more detail, such as frequency of prayer or attendance, but we can only postulate at what they are thinking. What this data shows is that the more you go through the motions, the stronger the effect, or, the more pronounced the phenotype, the greater the benefit.

    The data does not address any specific beliefs or thoughts, nor does it isolate any specific genotype, therefore we cannot draw conclusions as to which beliefs or genes contribute to the success. My personal belief is that ‘going through the motions’ is the biggest contributor, most specifically for large families, the social gatherings after service trigger ‘maternal instincts’ in both partners. It appears to me to create a community feeling where kids belong, and where you fit in better with kids. Not sure how to test this, but it seems testable.

  22. Balanus @J. A. Le Fevre
    05.10.2010 | 14:30

    Are you still talking about biological evolution?

    As you surely know, what looks like a wasp (at the first glance) and flies like a wasp is not in every case a wasp at all (but a ichneumon fly, for example).

    If you are interested in the biological evolution of the wasps, you will not investigate the proliferation of the ichneumon flies as well, together with that of the wasps, i.e., without distinguishing these two species.

    If belief is only an acquired trait, then evolutionary mechanisms are blind for that trait, because there are no genes that can be passed on to the next generation.

    So, in conclusion, without knowing the real frequency of the gene-based trait 'belief' (in past and present), we cannot draw conclusions about the evolutionary (i.e., biological!) effects of that trait.

    (I know, there exists much confusion in the debate about the biological and cultural evolution of religiosity and religion)

    You wrote:
    "The data does not address any specific beliefs or thoughts, nor does it isolate any specific genotype, therefore we cannot draw conclusions as to which beliefs or genes contribute to the success."

    That's correct. And as a consequence, we cannot make claims about the evolutionary success of religiosity (in a biological sense) on the basis of contemporary birth rates.

  23. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    05.10.2010 | 20:44

    Quite true, we must be very careful of what we claim to know. As for strictly biological evolution, any animal, particularly birds and mammals raised by another, risks its ‘innate’ behavior being corrupted by learned behavior. An age-old debate, for sure, but a twins study recently blogged on Epiphenom shows a significant biological linkage:
    Tom Rees on Friday, October 01, 2010
    http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/...igious.html

    I do not believe that nature has the first care if evolution is cultural or biological, it only measures success.

  24. Balanus @J. A. Le Fevre
    06.10.2010 | 00:01

    » I do not believe that nature has the first care if evolution is cultural or biological, it only measures success. «

    The outcome of cultural evolution is part of the environment for biological evolutionary processes. And the units of these evolutionary processes are genes.

  25. J. A. Le Fevre @Balanus
    06.10.2010 | 19:03

    You are fencing yourself in much too tightly. Genes define the fertile egg or fetus. Individuals compete, communities and states compete not genes. Insisting on a gene only view of the world (or individual) misses far too much to build a functional model of life, particularly human. Hence the development of such as: Dual inheritance theory, gene-culture coevolution, or even that largely dismissed nowadays notion of memes.

    See also Michael’s column: http://www.scilogs.eu/...-gene-culture-coevolution

    Bottom line is that you cannot get a good description of any system if your model is too simple, and genes alone cannot explain human evolution, particularly not for the last 50,000 years.

  26. Balanus @J. A. Le Fevre
    06.10.2010 | 21:21

    I think, I understand what you mean, but I don't think that I'm fencing myself. I do not think that organisms (including humans) are completely determined by genes. Behaviour and also the phenotype shows a remarkably plasticity to fit the requirements of a given environment (even though this plasticity is also the result genetic instructions).

    I favour an extended evolutionary theory which can explain all cultural developments solely by biological processes. In this comprehensive biological evolutionary theory, which is indeed not a simple one, a separate concept of a so-called "gene-culture-coevolution" is not necessary (i.e., the culture-nature-dualism is considered to be obsolete).

    Nevertheless, I do not deny the pronounced evolutionary effects of human ingenuity, of course not. But after all, evolutionary change is defined as the change of gene or allele frequencies in a population over time. And again, since we do not know which genes contribute to religiosity (for simplicity defined as the belief in supernatural agents) and how the frequencies of these genes are, the importance of the contemporary birth rates of religious and secular humans for human evolution remains a great unknown.

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