Is religion evolved?

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Is religion evolved?

Postby shadypops on September 13th, 2010, 10:46 am 

Hi all,

You may argue that this discussion would belong in the philosophy forums or another forum but i wanted to get some biologists opinion.

Could religion be evolved as a survival tool? For example, is a person that evolves the propensity to conveive a 'god', be it sun god etc, more likely to survive in the state of nature compared to someone who doesnt. For example in helping an individual to pray for healing and get a placebo effect.

Could it of helped to form community and establish leadership structures? Any other ideas?

Or is it just a side effect of independant conciousness and curiosity, which leads to an irrational creation of the supernatural? Existing today through inherited indoctrination. (i wonder what makes people irrational enough to adopt religion in adult life!)

Any thoughts?
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on September 13th, 2010, 1:11 pm 

Hi shadypops,

Actually, the evolution of religion is a hot topic of research these days, and a lot of biologists, psychologists, and evolutionary psychologists are getting in on it. A quick google search yielded this website which has a nice list of publications on the subject:

Evolution of Religion - Publications

As with most things, though, remember to keep a healthy dose of skepticism about when you read any of these papers. =)

In my personal opinion, I doubt that there was any selective force specifically for religion or supernatural belief, but I'm sure that many other aspects of our brains do favor the development of large cooperative enterprises, and attempts to explain the world around us.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby yttocs on October 6th, 2010, 7:31 am 

From a sociological viewpoint, I could see that religion/myths play a prominent role in cementing the individual to the group. It provides a collective story that provides a sense of meaning and history to a group of people with shared interests and commonality. I don't believe it would be disputed that religion plays this role around the world today, as well as in the past. The power of early societies gave priests and other "divine" letters is a testament to this fact, not to mention that before people fully understood the world and how it works, that you would feel comforted in knowing someone who would know why there was a drought and what you would need to do to over come it.


Building off of your question-how will religion continue to evolve? I suppose we would have to argue that the role of religion has evolved, I'm not certain that it really has.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby CanadysPeak on October 6th, 2010, 8:37 am 

yttocs wrote:From a sociological viewpoint, I could see that religion/myths play a prominent role in cementing the individual to the group. It provides a collective story that provides a sense of meaning and history to a group of people with shared interests and commonality. I don't believe it would be disputed that religion plays this role around the world today, as well as in the past. The power of early societies gave priests and other "divine" letters is a testament to this fact, not to mention that before people fully understood the world and how it works, that you would feel comforted in knowing someone who would know why there was a drought and what you would need to do to over come it.


Building off of your question-how will religion continue to evolve? I suppose we would have to argue that the role of religion has evolved, I'm not certain that it really has.

Your point is excellent. Unfortunately, this means we're mostly using a cement designed for a transhumant desert society that thrived over twenty centuries past. I think we need to artificially "evolve" this forward to our present society. then we can chill and see if it evolves naturally.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby HigherLvlofThinking on October 6th, 2010, 10:50 am 

What if religion evolves to where everyone is Athiest? or Buddhist?
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 6th, 2010, 12:37 pm 

yttocs - I agree with your points on how religion may have benefited humans at one point, and as shadypops suggested, helped those individuals with the tendency to develop religious beliefs survive and reproduce better. And canadys, I see you are talking about the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. :) And I also agree that many of our evolved traits and behaviors are discordant with the current and future environment we humans will find ourselves in.

When we talk about the future evolution of religion, however, I think we need to clarify our thinking a little bit. When we speak of the evolution of religion, are we talking about the biological evolution of the human organism, or about the cultural change of religion through time (essentially, in a change of the environment in which humans are evolving)?

yttoc - you mention the role of religion evolving. What do you mean by this, exactly? Are you talking about how people feel about religion, and whether or not they feel that it is still essential in their lives? If so, you are probably still talking about the consequences of our biological evolution. Or, are you asking whether or not religious belief in today's environment still confers a fitness advantage to those individuals inclined to develop it?

canadys - you explicitly state that religion, as an evolved trait of humans, was adapted to a very different environment than the one many humans face today. But then you talk about artificially "evolving" religion to our present society. What do you mean by this? Do you really mean artificially altering the DNA sequences of those genes which presumably promote religious belief? If so, simply identifying those genes is a gargantuan task, let alone understanding how they function in shaping our beliefs and how to change them in the desired way. But your use of quotation marks suggests you mean something else. Are you talking about changing how people feel about or understand religion and what it really means? This would be changing the environmental inputs that, in combination with our genetic background, yield our beliefs.

And finally, curly_kid13 - your question implies that "Christianity" or perhaps "belief in a deity" is in itself an evolved human trait. As I mentioned in my previous post, I highly doubt that the biological trait of religious belief is that specific. It is more likely the product of a variety of other traits and drives; seeking comfort in predicting and understanding the world around us, seeking cooperative relationships with other people, seeking guidance in making our decisions, using our intelligence and creativity and capacity for language to develop cultural ways of attaining these things. In this sense, Buddhism fulfills these drives just as well as other, more deistic religions; and atheists can find many ways of satisfying these drives that does not require religious belief at all. In my opinion, the increasing prevalence of atheism is a result of changing environments, where science and technology are helping to provide understanding and guidance and methods of connecting to other people. Thus it is not "religion" that is evolving, but our environment that is changing.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby CanadysPeak on October 6th, 2010, 7:13 pm 

Paralith,

I wasn't specific enough. I was referring to deliberately accelerated social evolution. The other kind - erraticating the God gene, if it exists - requires the services of a Marat. I am not he.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby yttocs on October 6th, 2010, 7:44 pm 

I'm not so sure that it needs to evolve, when we could just replace it with science. In primitive times, a priest could tell you why there were droughts and the like. We know have satellites and ag. scientists who specialize in that kind of thing. As for meaning and connection, we can replace the minister with the therapist/psychologist. We have greater insights into our world due to the rise of modernity.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby CanadysPeak on October 6th, 2010, 9:25 pm 

yttocs wrote:I'm not so sure that it needs to evolve, when we could just replace it with science. In primitive times, a priest could tell you why there were droughts and the like. We know have satellites and ag. scientists who specialize in that kind of thing. As for meaning and connection, we can replace the minister with the therapist/psychologist. We have greater insights into our world due to the rise of modernity.


I'm not at all sure that most people want to replace religion with science. Science can tell us about nature and logic and which things are valid and which aren't, but it can't tell us about justice. That still requires some social norming. Religion may or may not be the most effective tool for that, but it is one that a lot of people like. I think we have a better chance of convincing people to change their religion than to abandon it altogether.

Leaving the Christian fundamentalist nuts out of the discussion, most religious people are willing to generally live and let live. In some instances, under that paradigm, religion sort of dedogmatizes (new word?) and becomes a new-age charismatic happening. In other instances, strict rules or exact beliefs become inconvenient and seldom observed.

By way of example, let me relate a story. This past weekend I was at a picnic for adopted children with special challenges. The parents tend to be educated, poor, and possessed of strong opinions. I happened to overhear two parents, one a devout Presbyterian and the other a faithful Catholic, arguing over whether the "five second rule" for dropped cookies applied to the host at communion. The Presbyterian maintained it was only a cookie - not even a good one - and thus you could pick it up or leave it. The Catholic (Remember that Catholics consider the host to have actually become the body of Christ at that point) thought it would be disrespectful to Jesus to leave him lying on the floor, so you should always pick up the host and eat it, provided you could do so within the five second limit, otherwise you should discretely kick Jesus out of sight and get a new one. The rest of the onlookers were bursting their sides laughing at this serious exchange, but the thing was that these two obviously enjoyed their rituals and rites, yet believed very little of it. I think religion is headed that way for many. At least, I hope.

On the other hand, what these two slightly daft believers do with and for these forgotten children who usually end up on the trash heap would put Jesus and all his homilies to shame. So, they perhaps have the essential idea and don't bother with the orthodoxy except in the screwing it up.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby SciameriKen on October 8th, 2010, 12:23 pm 

shadypops wrote:Hi all,

You may argue that this discussion would belong in the philosophy forums or another forum but i wanted to get some biologists opinion.

Could religion be evolved as a survival tool? For example, is a person that evolves the propensity to conveive a 'god', be it sun god etc, more likely to survive in the state of nature compared to someone who doesnt. For example in helping an individual to pray for healing and get a placebo effect.

Could it of helped to form community and establish leadership structures? Any other ideas?

Or is it just a side effect of independant conciousness and curiosity, which leads to an irrational creation of the supernatural? Existing today through inherited indoctrination. (i wonder what makes people irrational enough to adopt religion in adult life!)

Any thoughts?



Haven't you played Sid Meier's Civilization? Religion makes for stronger society! :D

Natural selection works to promote genes that promote survival. In a sense genes are tangible in that they are encoded in our DNA. However, intangible things are also subject to natural selection, including Memes or behaviors. Religion, as such, Convinces followers to practice behaviors that promote propogation. Thus religious societies have a selective advantage over non religious and this increases the prevalence. The shortfall of religion is that although it promotes positive behaviors it does not have explanations as to why the behaviors are positive. So as a meme it has a selective disadvantage to science knowledge as both promote survival but there is more strength in knowing how things work.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 8th, 2010, 2:22 pm 

SciameriKen wrote:Natural selection works to promote genes that promote survival.


No, natural selection works to promote genes that promote reproductive success. Surviving long enough to reproduce is obviously an important pre-requisite, but it is not the primary quality which determines what is favored by natural selection and what is not.

In a sense genes are tangible in that they are encoded in our DNA. However, intangible things are also subject to natural selection, including Memes or behaviors.


Many behaviors are significantly influenced by our genes, and can evolve by natural selection just as much as any physical trait. The idea of memes, however, is a problematic concept. Here is something I wrote about that in another thread.

Paralith wrote:Just wanted to pop in and make a comment about memes. James' concerns about memes are valid, as memes are different from genes in important ways, ways that reduce how well cultural change can be described in terms of natural selection-like processes.

A genotype is distinct from a phenotype. The phenotype is obviously a combined result of multiple genes and multiple environmental inputs. However, variations in phenotype do not alter (in any significant or directed way) the genotype. When the gene gets passed on to future generations, its exact form is kept largely intact. However, memes are not transferred like this. Whatever form a particular meme/idea has in your mind, whatever particular neurological structure or chemical mixture in your brain encodes the meme, that is not what gets transferred directly to a brain of another person. You have to express the meme, exhibit a meme phenotype, if you will, which will then be observed by another person. That person's observation of the meme will be filtered and re-interpreted by their own senses and their own pre-existing ideas, and what takes root in their brain is not necessarily going to be the same as the original meme. Not only that, but if and how it will be different is very hard to predict and may not be very consistent between people over time. This may be less of an issue for a simple meme like dying your hair blue, but for more complex ideas like spirituality or morality, there is a great deal of room for a meme to be twisted and reinterpreted every time it gets "passed on" to another person or group of people. And it's because of this that cultural/memetic change can potentially move along far, far more quickly than genetic change ever could. (Save for human genetic engineering, of course.) And much of that change will not be based on how well that meme serves the human carrying it, but based on the perceptions and preconceptions of the human receiving it. Thus I would expect memes to perhaps be adaptive to what people perceive to be the challenges of their environment. And yes, often enough the perceived challenges will reflect the actual challenges. But also often enough, they will not.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby SciameriKen on October 8th, 2010, 3:12 pm 

Paralith wrote:
SciameriKen wrote:Natural selection works to promote genes that promote survival.


No, natural selection works to promote genes that promote reproductive success. Surviving long enough to reproduce is obviously an important pre-requisite, but it is not the primary quality which determines what is favored by natural selection and what is not.

In a sense genes are tangible in that they are encoded in our DNA. However, intangible things are also subject to natural selection, including Memes or behaviors.


Many behaviors are significantly influenced by our genes, and can evolve by natural selection just as much as any physical trait. The idea of memes, however, is a problematic concept. Here is something I wrote about that in another thread.

Paralith wrote:Just wanted to pop in and make a comment about memes. James' concerns about memes are valid, as memes are different from genes in important ways, ways that reduce how well cultural change can be described in terms of natural selection-like processes.

A genotype is distinct from a phenotype. The phenotype is obviously a combined result of multiple genes and multiple environmental inputs. However, variations in phenotype do not alter (in any significant or directed way) the genotype. When the gene gets passed on to future generations, its exact form is kept largely intact. However, memes are not transferred like this. Whatever form a particular meme/idea has in your mind, whatever particular neurological structure or chemical mixture in your brain encodes the meme, that is not what gets transferred directly to a brain of another person. You have to express the meme, exhibit a meme phenotype, if you will, which will then be observed by another person. That person's observation of the meme will be filtered and re-interpreted by their own senses and their own pre-existing ideas, and what takes root in their brain is not necessarily going to be the same as the original meme. Not only that, but if and how it will be different is very hard to predict and may not be very consistent between people over time. This may be less of an issue for a simple meme like dying your hair blue, but for more complex ideas like spirituality or morality, there is a great deal of room for a meme to be twisted and reinterpreted every time it gets "passed on" to another person or group of people. And it's because of this that cultural/memetic change can potentially move along far, far more quickly than genetic change ever could. (Save for human genetic engineering, of course.) And much of that change will not be based on how well that meme serves the human carrying it, but based on the perceptions and preconceptions of the human receiving it. Thus I would expect memes to perhaps be adaptive to what people perceive to be the challenges of their environment. And yes, often enough the perceived challenges will reflect the actual challenges. But also often enough, they will not.



First - yes thanks for the correction - I was trying to sum it up quickly to focus the topic more on Memes. Getting back to memes - I'd argue the mechanics of how a meme is propagated are unimportant. Because the fact that they are propagated we can examine the natural selection of memes and discuss traits of a meme that are advantages and disadvantages towards propagation. Changes in the meme due to the above described mechanics of propagation could simply be described as mutation. And much like genes where exonuclease domains of a DNA polymerase increase fidelity and reduce mutations of genes .. the advent of writing also increases fidelity and reduces mutation in memes.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 8th, 2010, 3:47 pm 

Let me just make a disclaimer, here. I agree that the spread of "memes" or cultural ideas can be studied for its mechanisms, and that superficially these mechanisms may resemble evolution by natural selection. Like you said, we certainly can discuss what makes one meme more likely to be transmitted, and at that transmitted more faithfully, than others. But you cannot use the mechanism of evolution by natural selection in every exact detail with memes, because memes behave and are structured in a way that is significantly different from the way genes behave and are structured.

My point about genotypes versus phenotypes was one way in which genes differ from memes. Another way is in how they change, how they gain variation. You say that all the ways I mentioned about memes changing can be thought of as mutation. But here's the problem. Mutation in genes is an inherently random process. There is nothing about the structure, the function, or the phenotype of a gene that effects when and how mutations will occur in that gene. That is not true of memes. Exactly how they are changed as they are perceived and reinterpreted by the receiver is not random; it depends on that's person's background, their personality, and it depends on the meme itself. Lamarckism definitely applies to memes, and it definitely does not apply to genes.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby SciameriKen on October 8th, 2010, 5:52 pm 

Paralith wrote:Let me just make a disclaimer, here. I agree that the spread of "memes" or cultural ideas can be studied for its mechanisms, and that superficially these mechanisms may resemble evolution by natural selection. Like you said, we certainly can discuss what makes one meme more likely to be transmitted, and at that transmitted more faithfully, than others. But you cannot use the mechanism of evolution by natural selection in every exact detail with memes, because memes behave and are structured in a way that is significantly different from the way genes behave and are structured.

My point about genotypes versus phenotypes was one way in which genes differ from memes. Another way is in how they change, how they gain variation. You say that all the ways I mentioned about memes changing can be thought of as mutation. But here's the problem. Mutation in genes is an inherently random process. There is nothing about the structure, the function, or the phenotype of a gene that effects when and how mutations will occur in that gene. That is not true of memes. Exactly how they are changed as they are perceived and reinterpreted by the receiver is not random; it depends on that's person's background, their personality, and it depends on the meme itself. Lamarckism definitely applies to memes, and it definitely does not apply to genes.


I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one. I think our difference arises from that I believe you view the evolution of genes and memes on the level of the organism. I view both genes and memes as individual autonomous units where they must propagate or face extinction. Mechanism does not matter, behaving like genes does not matter, all that does is that they face selective pressure. So when discussing a meme like religion you can look at the penetrence of that meme into society and favorable/disfavorable traits associated with the meme that gives it a selective advantage to exist and thrive.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Forest_Dump on October 8th, 2010, 7:21 pm 

SciameriKen wrote:I view both genes and memes as individual autonomous units where they must propagate or face extinction.


Personally, while I know genes exist, thanks to the evidence of science, I am pretty sure memes don't. I am an advocate of Levi-Strauss' structuralism which is about the same thing, but only as a useful heuristic device. But I don't believe either structures as Levi-Strauss wrote of them or memes have any more real existence than that flying noodle monster. But to each their own I guess. Maybe "memes" can be considered a newer religion.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby SciameriKen on October 8th, 2010, 7:36 pm 

Forest_Dump wrote:
SciameriKen wrote:I view both genes and memes as individual autonomous units where they must propagate or face extinction.


Personally, while I know genes exist, thanks to the evidence of science, I am pretty sure memes don't. I am an advocate of Levi-Strauss' structuralism which is about the same thing, but only as a useful heuristic device. But I don't believe either structures as Levi-Strauss wrote of them or memes have any more real existence than that flying noodle monster. But to each their own I guess. Maybe "memes" can be considered a newer religion.


I can argue with this about as much as as I can a Nihlist that I exist. It is actually quite fun to watch memes make their way into existance and extinction on social networks :) I guess nothing exist until we observe it with our own eyes.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby yttocs on October 9th, 2010, 7:15 am 

Paralith wrote: When we speak of the evolution of religion, are we talking about the biological evolution of the human organism, or about the cultural change of religion through time (essentially, in a change of the environment in which humans are evolving)?


How the cultural change of religion through time has occurred would be an excellent place to start in my opinion. Marcus J. Borg and others argue that we need a Christianity that takes into account a non-literal perspective. I don't know if THAT will work for most people. Last time I checked, the mainline denominations were losing members left and right to "Bible believing" mega-churches and the like. To some extent, I would love to be an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian.

Religion is a must for social norming? I would imagine that most people go about their daily lives conforming themselves to civil laws, as opposed to what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai thousands of years ago. The civil authority and governance structure provides the framework, it's the narrative of meaning that would change personally for individuals. given the lack of knowledge concerning most people about other religions, as well as that of their own, it could be argued that people loosely identify with theology, but construct meaning for themselves, all apologies to Erik Erickson.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby mtbturtle on October 9th, 2010, 9:12 am 

SciameriKen wrote:
I can argue with this about as much as as I can a Nihlist that I exist. It is actually quite fun to watch memes make their way into existance and extinction on social networks :) I guess nothing exist until we observe it with our own eyes.


The difference is that in Science you wouldn't have to argue about the existence and you would merely show them so that others could see with their own eyes. That you don't (can't?) suggests to me that memes aren't "real", they don't "exist". a perhaps useful metaphorical idea but beyond that....

If we just stopped calling them memes and instead say ideas, then all the scientific sounding mystique quickly disappears.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby CanadysPeak on October 9th, 2010, 9:16 am 

yttocs wrote:
Paralith wrote: When we speak of the evolution of religion, are we talking about the biological evolution of the human organism, or about the cultural change of religion through time (essentially, in a change of the environment in which humans are evolving)?


How the cultural change of religion through time has occurred would be an excellent place to start in my opinion. Marcus J. Borg and others argue that we need a Christianity that takes into account a non-literal perspective. I don't know if THAT will work for most people. Last time I checked, the mainline denominations were losing members left and right to "Bible believing" mega-churches and the like. To some extent, I would love to be an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian.

Religion is a must for social norming? I would imagine that most people go about their daily lives conforming themselves to civil laws, as opposed to what Moses brought down from Mount Sinai thousands of years ago. The civil authority and governance structure provides the framework, it's the narrative of meaning that would change personally for individuals. given the lack of knowledge concerning most people about other religions, as well as that of their own, it could be argued that people loosely identify with theology, but construct meaning for themselves, all apologies to Erik Erickson.


Although you didn't quote me, I am the one who mentioned social norming. I don't see religion as a must for that, only as a possibility. I would prefer to see culture become the dominant norming force, but culture seems to be disappearing faster than religion, so . . .

Before depending on government to provide a framework of social norming, one might spend a day in a Chicago housing project. There is norming, but it has nothing to do with government.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Forest_Dump on October 9th, 2010, 10:11 am 

CanadysPeak wrote:I would prefer to see culture become the dominant norming force, but culture seems to be disappearing faster than religion, so . . .


This doesn't make sense to me. In this kind of context, I would have taken "culture" to refer to the more broad, anthropological concept which is more or less the sum total of all beliefs and practices of a population of people. Components of culture include language, religion and all other ideologies, economics, etc. As long as there are two or more people who share something beyond the purely biological in a reductive sense, there is culture so culture can't be disappearing. In fact, there are good arguments that "culture" can even be applied to non-humans now that we learn more about non-human cognition, etc.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby CanadysPeak on October 9th, 2010, 11:56 am 

Forest_Dump wrote:
CanadysPeak wrote:I would prefer to see culture become the dominant norming force, but culture seems to be disappearing faster than religion, so . . .


This doesn't make sense to me. In this kind of context, I would have taken "culture" to refer to the more broad, anthropological concept which is more or less the sum total of all beliefs and practices of a population of people. Components of culture include language, religion and all other ideologies, economics, etc. As long as there are two or more people who share something beyond the purely biological in a reductive sense, there is culture so culture can't be disappearing. In fact, there are good arguments that "culture" can even be applied to non-humans now that we learn more about non-human cognition, etc.

Particular culture, not the broad one used by anthropologists. Perhaps I should have said the strong sense of is disappearing.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby yttocs on October 9th, 2010, 1:34 pm 

I would argue that culture is a naturally occurring event. You don't create it, it just is. Yes, society can influence it and we can also do that through laws which in turn, influence norms. There are different norms-housing projects and high crime areas are a key example of this. However, the dominant norms are how we try to counter-act such things
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 9th, 2010, 3:17 pm 

SciameriKen wrote:I think we will have to agree to disagree on this one. I think our difference arises from that I believe you view the evolution of genes and memes on the level of the organism. I view both genes and memes as individual autonomous units where they must propagate or face extinction. Mechanism does not matter, behaving like genes does not matter, all that does is that they face selective pressure. So when discussing a meme like religion you can look at the penetrence of that meme into society and favorable/disfavorable traits associated with the meme that gives it a selective advantage to exist and thrive.


I think we disagree less than you think. It's not that I view evolution in terms of the organism; it's that to really understand evolution you have to think in terms of the "goals" of the gene, and the fact that the "goals" of the gene are acted out in the context of being expressed through an organism's phenotype. It's not one or the other, it's both.

But that's sort of besides the point. All I'm really saying is that you can't say memes evolve via natural selection. You can say that they evolve through some type of selective process that is similar in many ways to natural selection, but it's not exactly the same thing. Natural selection is a process that is a specific result of genes and their properties. Whatever a meme is, if it is real, has different properties, so the process by which it changes will also be different. Yes, a type of selective process. Let's call it memetic selection. But it's not natural selection.

I will have to echo Forest and mtb, however, in their concerns about the reality of memes. I think they do exist, but the exact definition of a meme is probably where we're all getting hung up. They're probably not a clearly defined physical entity, like a certain firing pattern of neurons or anything like that, which makes the definition and description of them difficult. The fact that they're highly changeable makes it even more difficult. But, if you want to study memes, that's a difficulty you should be willing to try and tackle.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 9th, 2010, 3:49 pm 

Forest_Dump wrote:As long as there are two or more people who share something beyond the purely biological in a reductive sense, there is culture so culture can't be disappearing. In fact, there are good arguments that "culture" can even be applied to non-humans now that we learn more about non-human cognition, etc.


This is interesting, Forest. My department had a journal club the other day where we actually discussed an article on chimpanzee "culture." There is a lot of debate on whether chimps have cultures or if they just have "behavioral traditions" and exactly how many of these traditions/cultures exist. Us bio-types agreed that part of the problem is that we've never heard a definition of "culture" that we find particularly satisfying or useful. What you say here is probably one of the most specific and succinct definitions I've ever heard, but if that's true, then chimpanzees most definitely have culture, a great number of other apes and monkeys most definitely have culture, a lot of birds most definitely have culture, and probably a lot of other animals do too. But, I know what some of my fellow students and professors would say about this: this definition does not help us understand what makes human cultures so different from the traditions of other animals. Clearly it is different. Sharing some common elements, of course, but different.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby mtbturtle on October 9th, 2010, 4:48 pm 

Paralith wrote:I will have to echo Forest and mtb, however, in their concerns about the reality of memes. I think they do exist, but the exact definition of a meme is probably where we're all getting hung up. They're probably not a clearly defined physical entity, like a certain firing pattern of neurons or anything like that, which makes the definition and description of them difficult. The fact that they're highly changeable makes it even more difficult. But, if you want to study memes, that's a difficulty you should be willing to try and tackle.


That there is no clear exact definition of "meme" is probably the biggest problem and certainly a major impediment for me for believing in them, that they "exist". I've no problem with talking about ideas, and that ideas change, and that there are certain mechanisms by which ideas spread and so forth but none of that need involve the metaphorical language of evolution and sounds rather mundane and trivial next to the exotic invoking of "memes". I think using that kind of language ends up causing more confusion rather than an understanding about ideas, particularly large complex ideas like religion. Ultimately, it dresses up some rather unscientific ideas by inappropriately borrowing the language of a scientific theory.

But all this is a rather long ways from the OP question regarding whether religion was a survival tool.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby SciameriKen on October 9th, 2010, 7:16 pm 

mtbturtle wrote:
Paralith wrote:I will have to echo Forest and mtb, however, in their concerns about the reality of memes. I think they do exist, but the exact definition of a meme is probably where we're all getting hung up. They're probably not a clearly defined physical entity, like a certain firing pattern of neurons or anything like that, which makes the definition and description of them difficult. The fact that they're highly changeable makes it even more difficult. But, if you want to study memes, that's a difficulty you should be willing to try and tackle.


That there is no clear exact definition of "meme" is probably the biggest problem and certainly a major impediment for me for believing in them, that they "exist". I've no problem with talking about ideas, and that ideas change, and that there are certain mechanisms by which ideas spread and so forth but none of that need involve the metaphorical language of evolution and sounds rather mundane and trivial next to the exotic invoking of "memes". I think using that kind of language ends up causing more confusion rather than an understanding about ideas, particularly large complex ideas like religion. Ultimately, it dresses up some rather unscientific ideas by inappropriately borrowing the language of a scientific theory.

But all this is a rather long ways from the OP question regarding whether religion was a survival tool.



From wikipedia
"A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The word is a blend of "gene" and the Greek word μιμητισμός (/mɪmetɪsmos/) for "something imitated".)[2]"


To disregard memetics simply because something tangible cannot be presented sounds very limiting to me. Do you also throw out social sciences such as sociology as well? Is social darwinism more psuedoscience? In my opinion the power of a scientific disciplin can be measured by its predictive power. Psuedosciences offer no predicitive power whereas a disciplin like memetics will likely lead to useful advances for advertisting, politics and social policy creation. In a sense, right now we know that advertising helps us sell products, but in the future memetics may answer the question of why it does. Furthermore to get back to the topic, memetics in my opinion provide a strong argument for the rise of religion as well as what we can expect of its future.

@paralith: This is the first sentence from wikipedia on natural selection:
"Natural selection is the process by which traits become more or less common in a population due to consistent effects upon the survival or reproduction of their bearers."

I've only thought of natural selection in the sense of a unit's reproducibility and propagation is unaffected by unassociated agents (i.e. Strong sheep thrive because of environmental selection and NOT because humans choose the strongest). I never thought of it as requiring a genetic component. If I am wrong then i suppose we can call it memetic selection and move on.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby mtbturtle on October 9th, 2010, 7:48 pm 

SciameriKen wrote:
mtbturtle wrote:
Paralith wrote:I will have to echo Forest and mtb, however, in their concerns about the reality of memes. I think they do exist, but the exact definition of a meme is probably where we're all getting hung up. They're probably not a clearly defined physical entity, like a certain firing pattern of neurons or anything like that, which makes the definition and description of them difficult. The fact that they're highly changeable makes it even more difficult. But, if you want to study memes, that's a difficulty you should be willing to try and tackle.


That there is no clear exact definition of "meme" is probably the biggest problem and certainly a major impediment for me for believing in them, that they "exist". I've no problem with talking about ideas, and that ideas change, and that there are certain mechanisms by which ideas spread and so forth but none of that need involve the metaphorical language of evolution and sounds rather mundane and trivial next to the exotic invoking of "memes". I think using that kind of language ends up causing more confusion rather than an understanding about ideas, particularly large complex ideas like religion. Ultimately, it dresses up some rather unscientific ideas by inappropriately borrowing the language of a scientific theory.

But all this is a rather long ways from the OP question regarding whether religion was a survival tool.



From wikipedia
"A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The word is a blend of "gene" and the Greek word μιμητισμός (/mɪmetɪsmos/) for "something imitated".)[2]"



Well if we're going to quote wiki as some authority, it is extremely disingenuous to do so without noting some of the many caveats it offers, especially those in support of my own point of view. Such as...

"Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation, but later definitions would vary. The lack of a consistent, rigorous, and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics.[12] In contrast, the concept of genetics gained concrete evidence with the discovery of the biological functions of DNA. In the context of the exact sciences, memetics suffers in comparison because, unlike the idea of genes, memes do not necessarily have or need a concrete medium in order to transfer.


To disregard memetics simply because something tangible cannot be presented sounds very limiting to me.


I'm not sure what definition of tangible you are using, I would say that one of the limiting factors in science is that things have to be consistently, rigorously and precisely defined and the concept of meme doesn't pass those tests with me.

And no I don't throw out social sciences such as Sociology although I would take issue with many of their concepts, theories both in terms of explanatory power and "reality".

And yes Social Darwinism is psuedoscience for a number of reasons but this thread and forum don't seem the place for pursuing any of this.

I don't find memes to explain things like religion anymore than can be done without such metaphorical language and without the associated drawbacks. As I said I don't object to studying language, the power of ideas, how they change etc.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Paralith on October 10th, 2010, 12:05 am 

Wikipedia is a great starting, introductory reference for a lot of things. But generally it is not considered an acceptable source in any serious writing or debate. The bare bones description of natural selection can seem fairly general; but what biologists study that we call natural selection is a specific process that is an emergent result of the structure of DNA and genes, and has certain properties and patterns that you would not necessarily find in a system based upon a different structure.

This is also why the problem of defining a meme is important. Natural selection is what it is because of the way the heritable material of genes is structured. Memetic selection, then, will be what it is because of how memes are structured. And without a good idea of what they are and what they mean, understanding the process of how they change will be much more difficult.
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby Forest_Dump on October 10th, 2010, 7:29 am 

Is there any definition of a "meme" that makes it distinguishable from "idea"?
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Re: Is religion evolved?

Postby mtbturtle on October 10th, 2010, 9:16 am 

Forest_Dump wrote:Is there any definition of a "meme" that makes it distinguishable from "idea"?


Not that I'm familiar with, but if we replace meme with idea and evolve with change and mutation, replication, natural selection with other less science sounding words well then people might notice that we aren't doing science, even social science and we haven't really contributed anything novel to the understanding of things like religion or lady gaga.

Paralith, you might want to split this meme stuff into it's own thread.
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