Monthly Archives: May 2013

Evolutionary Psychology: Application to the evolution of religion

scientiffic reconstruction of a Homo erectus

The way our mind evolved in prehistorical times affects how we approach religion and culture now.

Drawing on the key concepts of evolutionary psychology discussed last time, we now look at the procedure and applications for the evolution of religion.

As for the procedure of evolutionary psychology, Tooby and Cosmides (1989) provide a six-step method, summarized as follows:

  1. identify a puzzling present-day human behavior,
  2. relate it to the environment of the Pleistocene in order to discover how it was adaptive in the past,
  3. analyze the cognitive processing problems that would have to be overcome to accomplish adaptive functioning,
  4. determine the design features any adaptation would require to solve these problems, and develop a model of the cognitive program structure,
  5. eliminate alternative candidate models via experimentation and field observation, and
  6. compare the model to present-day human behaviors.

Applying it to evolution of religion

Applying this method to religion, it becomes possible to see religions as maladaptive, byproducts of some past adaptation with little or no current adaptive advantage.

This sort of reasoning allows a reply to Durkheim and company that religion may serve no function at all.  In fact, it may be detrimental in our modern environment.  Religious change, then, may be no more than the result of innate psychological modules playing out in response to changes in the environment.

Contrary to the predictions of sociobiology and behavioral ecology, no current reproductive advantage need be discovered, save under Pleistocene conditions.  Rather, it is only necessary to link environmental changes to unchanged adaptations that were once advantageous.  In other words, new religious behaviors could be the same old psychological tendencies responding in altered ways to new environmental conditions.

Criticisms

This counters the problem of behavioral ecology, which made no place for sub-optimal behavior.  On the other hand, it poses a new problem in its place: evolutionary psychology relies on positing past adaptations, but the difficulty of identifying adaptations is well-documented (Rose and Lauder, 1996).  Though Laland and Brown point to some useful resources from genetic evolution, including Sinervo and Basolo (1996) and Orzack and Sober (2001), the challenge is significant.

Another major criticism that has been leveled is that evolutionary psychology may over-emphasize the domain-specificity of the mind.  While quick, efficient modules may offer some advantage, flexibility may be even more adaptive (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Such would be particularly likely if our ancestors needed to survive in a wide variety of environments.

This leads us to a further criticism of evolutionary psychology: it makes considerable assumptions in postulating conditions of the EEA.  Our Pleistocene ancestors inhabited not only African savannah but also rivers, deserts, mountains, the arctic, and so on—a wide variety of conditions.  Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that all mental adaptations occurred during our most recent phase of evolution; indeed, many may have evolved long before Homo sapiens or Homo erectus, going back as far as invertebrate ancestors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Thus, there are significant theoretical problems to be overcome in postulating the non-adaptiveness of certain behaviors, such as religion, based on adaptive lag.  Another approach which allows for non-adaptiveness, but for different reasons, is memetics.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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This week’s studies: Domain specificity and Counterintuitive Concepts

 book open pages library books knowledge reading, by ksheltonTo keep myself accountable, I’m posting my weekly readings.  The deal is: at least one study or chapter a day, no excuses.

This will also double as a nice record of book and article references, and a trail for those interested in the topics of Evolutionary Religious Studies, Cognitive Science of Religion, and Culture and Cognition.

This week’s studies

Sunday

Caramazza, A., Hillis, A., Leek, E. C., and Miozzo, M.  (1994).  “The Organization of Lexical Knowledge in the Brain: Evidence from Category- and Modality-specific Deficits.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Monday

Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J.  (1994).  “Origins of Domain Specificity: The Evolution of Functional Organization.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday

Leslie, A. M.  “ToMM, ToBy, and Agency: Core Architecture and Domain Specificity.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– proposes three systems in the theory of mind unit: a mechanical system (Theory of Body or ToBy), an actional system, and an attitudinal system (both in Theory of Mind Mechanism or ToMM).  The first addresses an agent’s capacity for self-movement, the second addresses the agent’s goal-directed desires behind actions, and the third addresses beliefs about reality.

Wednesday

Premack, D. and Premack, A. J.  “Moral Belief: Form Versus Content.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– uses infant research to investigate the rules for determining basic human morality, though virtually any content can be poured into this basic form (varying by culture).

Thursday

Carey, S., and Spelke, E.  “Domain-specific Knowledge and Conceptual Change.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– finds that adult conceptions are not merely enriched versions of intuitive expectations, but that conceptions can change, whether explained by cultural learning or cognitive development.  Thus, we should not expect to find intuitive explanations to be universal in all cultures; they may be changed.

Friday

Bannerjee, K., Haque, O. S., and Spelke, E.  (2013).  “Melting lizards and crying mailboxes: Children’s preferential recall of minimally counterintuitive concepts.”  Cognitive Science, 10(1111).

– generally supports previous research on mnemonic effects of MCIs (Minimally Counterintuitive concepts).

Saturday

Upal, M. A.  (2011).  “Why Radicals Win the Newsday: Ratcheting-up of Cultural Counterintuitiveness in Rumors and NRM Doctrine.”  In: Carlson, L., Hoelscher, C., and Shipley, T. F., eds.  Proceedings of the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.  Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

– applies theory of culturally counterintuitiveness (not to be confused with domain-level counterintuitiveness) to two case studies.

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Evolutionary Psychology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Bizarre though it may seem, phrenology wasn’t all that far off in one respect at least: the brain has specific domains.

The next approach to the evolution of religion under investigation is evolutionary psychology, a field that studies current psychology based on past evolution.

Adaptive lag

Evolutionary psychologists criticize behavioral ecology for confusing adaptive behavior with adaptations (Laland & Brown, 2002).  An adaptive behavior is one well-suited to its current environment, whereas an adaptation is a genetic change leading to increased fitness.

It is possible for an adaptation to become maladaptive when the environment changes.  This is due to adaptive lag, or the time it takes for genetic change to catch up with environmental change.

Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness

According to evolutionary psychologists, many human adaptations were adaptive in the environment in which they evolved, i.e. the Pleistocene era, but now we live in a different world.  It is entirely reasonable, then, for behaviors optimal in the Pleistocene to be sub-optimal in the present.  They evolved for their Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), not for the environment of today.

Domain specificity

This critique already reveals much about the evolutionary psychology approach.  The key concepts are the adaptive behavior/adaptation distinction, adaptive lag, and the EEA.  A further key concept, which has not yet been discussed, is domain specificity.  Evolutionary psychologists hold that the mind contains modules designed to find quick and efficient solutions to certain problems of significance to our ancestors.  Basically, the mind is like a Swiss army knife, each tool of which is an adaptation suited to reproductive advantage in the Pleistocene (Laland & Brown, 2002).

This notion of domain specificity is supported by research in a parallel field of study: the cognitive science of religion.  Inspired by insights from Chomsky’s theory of transformational generative grammar (TGG), which posits that the mind’s ability to produce sentences never heard before requires an innate language device in the mind, cognitive scientists postulate mental modularity in much the same manner as evolutionary psychologists.

For example, Pascal Boyer (2002) suggests that the mind is predisposed to categorize objects into a shortlist of classes with corresponding attributes.  Objects with unexpected attributes, such as a tree that talks, are therefore surprising and memorable.  An idea such as the Old Testament’s burning bush is thus more likely to be retained in memory and passed on to others than less remarkable ideas.

In a similarly cognitive vein, Stewart Guthrie (1995) has proposed an innate human tendency to perceive agents in the environment, in order to explain anthropomorphism in religion.  These findings from the cognitive science of religion parallel the concept of domain specificity of evolutionary psychology, and expand its applications in the field of religion.

In the next post, we’ll apply these concepts to the evolution of religion.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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This week’s studies: Neolithic religion and Çatalhöyük

 book open pages library books knowledge reading, by ksheltonI find myself graced by the dubious blessing of working part time, which leaves me free to pursue my academic studies in preparation for an eventual Ph.D program.

Am I making the most of that blessing?  Well, I wish I were one of those people who could study dawn to dusk, but, well… I find myself interspersing a few too many episodes of Star Trek.

To keep myself accountable, I’ll be posting my weekly readings here.  The deal is: at least one study or chapter a day, no excuses.

This will also double as a nice record of book and article references, and a trail for those interested in the topics of Evolutionary Religious Studies, Cognitive Science of Religion, and Culture and Cognition.

This week’s studies

Sunday

Eller, C.  (2000).  The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a FutureBoston: Beacon Press.

Monday

Whitehouse, H.  (2010).  “Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük.”  In: Hodder, I., ed.  Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday

Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A.  (1994).  “Toward a Topography of Mind: An Introduction to Domain Specificity.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday

Hodder, I.  (2010).  “Probing Religion at Çatalhöyük.”  In: Hodder, I., ed.  Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thursday

Hodder, I.  (2010).  “The Symbolism of Çatalhöyük in its Regional Context.”  In: Hodder, I., ed.  Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friday

Wason, P. K.  (2010).  “The Neolithic Cosmos of Çatalhöyük.”  In: Hodder, I., ed.  Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saturday

Sperber, D.  (1994).  “The Modularity of Thought and the Epidemiology of Representations.”  In: Hirschfeld, L. A. and Gelman, S. A., eds.  Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and CultureCambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Behavioral ecology: Applications to the evolution of religion

2012 Behaviour Matrix copy

Functional models can get rather complex in behavioral ecology.

As we saw last time, the major concepts added by behavioral ecology are optimization strategies and adaptive tradeoffs.  Equipped with these tools, the procedure is to identify a behavior, analyze its reproductive advantages relative to its tradeoffs, and thereby discover the factors that make it an optimal strategy.

Applying it to the evolution of religion

Applying this method to religion, it becomes possible that religious behaviors, which may appear bizarre and suboptimal at first glance, may be optimal when all factors are taken into account.

For example, a sacrifice of oxen made to a deity may appear costly on the face of it.  However, such a lavish offering may confer status, and with it attractiveness to mates, such that the act may in fact be the optimal strategy in terms of reproductive success.  This kind of multi-factorial cost/benefit reasoning may help uncover the functions behind specific religious behaviors, leading to insights of why religions change.

Predictions

As with sociobiology, it may be predicted that changes in religious behaviors may be linked to reproductive advantage.  Behavioral ecology would add that the link can be found in ecological factors.  Specifically, it could be predicted that ecological changes affecting underlying costs and/or benefits modify the equation, thus necessitating religious change to maintain optimal advantage.  This methodology thus adds detail to our work-in-progress theory of religious change.

Criticisms

Yet behavioral ecology is not without its faults.  A major criticism is that it leaves little room for the possibility of non-optimal behaviors.  Whatever appears sub-optimal may be explained as optimal by some later discovery (Laland & Brown, 2002).  There is no clear way to decisively determine that a behavior is sub-optimal.  If one’s hypothesis is that a behavior is optimal, there must be a way to disconfirm this, else the effort must be considered scientifically invalid.  Thus, it would be a mistake to incorporate behavioral ecology into a theory of religious change unless this problem is resolved.

Another complaint is that behavioral ecology confuses adaptive behavior with adaptation.  This charge has been leveled by evolutionary psychology, the methodology discussed next.

The next post will investigate evolutionary psychology.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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Behavioral ecology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

English: Caricature of Charles Darwin from Van...

Darwin’s theory of natural selection, ridiculed in its day, is now a mainstay of behavioral sciences

Arising from anthropologists responding to criticisms of sociobiology, behavioral ecology attempts to understand why certain behaviors become prevalent in societies.  Ethnographic records provide the main source of evidence in this endeavor.

Optimization strategies

The theoretical assumption is that behaviors may have current adaptive functions.  In any given environment, natural selection will have culled sub-optimal

behaviors, leading those that optimize exploitation of resources to predominate.  If such exploitation leads to increased lifetime reproductive success, it is reasonable to assume natural selection toward a genetic predisposition to maximize resources.  The task, then, is to look at behaviors in relation to the environment, uncover the conditions that explain why a given behavior strategy is optimal, and construct mathematical models predicting the behaviors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Adaptive tradeoff

Such models may become quite complex, as individuals rarely deal with only one factor at a time.  For example, climbing to a certain cliff abundant with fruit

trees may maximize food intake, but this must be balanced by the risk of falling during the climb, which in turn must be balanced by the increased social status of being the one to succeed at such a bold venture.  When all these factors are considered, the optimal strategy may appear very different than at first glance.  What may appear sub-optimal with regard to one factor, may prove optimal when other factors are incorporated into the model.  This notion is called adaptive tradeoff.

In the next post, we’ll look at applications for the evolution of religion.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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