Note from the Blogowner: I met John at the "Explaining Religion"-Conference in Bristol, where he presented a well-done poster. And I am glad that he is using this blog to present his works and thoughts online for open debate. Please feel free to ask any questions or to make any suggestions you have.
John Jacob Lyons:
In the 12 March 2011 edition of ‘Biology of Religion’, Michael Blume reported that yet another twin-study (Kendler et al, Virginia Commonwealth University) had confirmed that religiosity is partly genetically inherited and partly conditioned by the environment. Recent empirical work based on ‘discussions about causation’ with very young children has come to similar conclusions. Justin L. Barrett will be presenting some of his more recent work in this area on 6 April 2011 at Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a contribution to this year’s Oxford Literary Festival.
Of course our nearest cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, don’t manifest religiosity and the first hominid to do so, by definition, couldn’t have inherited his/her religiosity. If the whole rigmarole began as simply ‘behaviour’, how in heaven’s name did it get into the genes? Of course, at the end of the 19th C, a fellow called Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed the theory that acquired characteristics, such as the muscular arms of the village blacksmith, could be directly inherited (in their adulthood of course) by offspring. Whether he thought this applied equally to female offspring is a moot point. However, the theory was shot down in flames by the Weismann Barrier experiments of August Weismann at the beginning of the 20th C. that demonstrated that genetic information cannot pass from soma to germ-cells. At about the same time a number of scholars, including James Mark Baldwin came up with the suggestion that adaptive behaviour, over evolutionary time, could be ‘assimilated’ into the inheritance system. However, to my knowledge, the mechanism that could cause this to occur has never been proposed.
I have recently suggested that there is no such ‘assimilation’. My hypothesis is that, over evolutionary time, there will be a tendency for a consistent adaptive behaviour to ‘prime’ relevant sections of the genome toward gene-variants (alleles) that encourage/support the manifestation of the adaptive behaviour. This hypothesis applies to the adaptive behaviours of all organisms; all animals and all plants. This includes the phototropic behaviour of plants, the nest-building behaviour of birds and the religiosity of homo sapiens.
In Poster 1 reproduced below, I suggest that religiosity became an adaptive behaviour; probably during the Palaeolithic Era. I have then outlined the mechanism that resulted in certain genetically-mediated propensities relevant to religiosity being ‘primed’ toward allele-sets that encourage/support religious behaviour. I do not suggest that the propensities I have mentioned are necessarily the appropriate ones; it is the suggested mechanism that lies at the heart of this hypothesis.
Of course, religiosity hasn’t been the only adaptive behaviour in town. There are always a host of adaptive behaviours vying to prime the genome. Some will involve gene-sets that overlap the relevant set for religiosity and may well ‘want’ to prime those genes toward different variants. No adaptive behaviour will ever get its optimal set of alleles; compromise and sub-optimisation for any particular adaptive behaviour are inevitable.
You may well wonder how a plant can be environmentally ‘triggered’ to behave photo-tropically. At this point, I have no idea. Perhaps plants don’t need the environmental trigger. If you don’t mind, and even if you do, I will have to leave this one hanging for the time being.
Hastily retreating to a consideration of homo sapiens and religion --- I suggest that once an adaptive behaviour, such as religiosity, has become widespread in a human population via genetic priming, it effectively becomes part of the environment and any new mutations that chime with that particular adaptive behaviour will be favourably selected. This is explained in Poster 2 that also refers back to Poster 1 as the ‘adjacent poster’.
The ‘take-home’ message of this article is that I am suggesting that religiosity has not been assimilated into the human genome. There is neither a gene nor a clutch of genes for religion. However, I do believe that our genomes have been primed for religiosity and that we need just a simple trigger from the environment to manifest religious behaviour.
Finally, please see http://tinyurl.com/l6bure for a related short piece I have written on this subject and an ensuing discussion that may be of interest.
John Jacob Lyons, 24 March 2011