Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Evolution of God

Whenever you’re wondering about the origins of something in human evolution or human culture, think 'East African plains'. The East African plains are where almost all our modern characteristics evolved. That's where we evolved upright walking, fully opposable thumbs and, perhaps most importantly, our brains.

As our brains developed we developed pattern-recognition, maybe firstly for facial recognition, which led us later to develop reading and writing skills, amongst other things. Early on however, it helped us to track animals by recognising the footprints of the different prey and predator species. We are probably the only species which can look at a set of footprints and ‘read’ the information in them. We can tell the species, or at least the family – big cat, dog, antelope, ostrich, etc - and we can tell where it came from, where it was going and, with a little learning, how long ago it passed by. All this is invaluable information for both catching lunch and avoiding becoming something else’s lunch. Inheritors of these skills, in the presence of a powerful brain, would have had enormous advantage, so the genetic variations which facilitated them would have spread rapidly through the gene-pool.

Our brain allowed us to learn these skills and to pass them on to the next generation, and the ability to teach and to learn also allowed us to develop cultures by establishing group norms and ethics, and to pass these on to the next generation. Group cohesion and, especially, group identity would have been enhanced by these cultural norms, inculcated from birth and accepted as ‘right’ by the whole group. Failure to comply would have meant exclusion from the group – not a very attractive prospect for a species which is relatively weak as an individual but immensely strong when part of a coordinated group.

Incidentally, Man is not alone in developing cultures which are passed from one generation to the next. The other African apes all have observable cultural differences between groups, as do some more distantly related simian species such as macaques, and baboons. Dolphins and killer whales also have distinct cultural groups and even some species of bird have local (i.e., cultural) calls and songs.

But I digress.

Early humans were now inheriting two different sorts of replicators. They were inheriting biological genes which determined their physical form and they were inheriting cultural or 'memory genes', more correctly now known as memes, which determined their culture, group norms and ethics.

Just as with the other African ape species, we would probably have lived in small groups of related individuals, each group dominated by an alpha male. This alpha male would have won his ‘right’ to be leader and the size of the group would have been related to how many individuals this alpha male (and maybe his alpha female mate) could exert control over. The alpha male would have had first pick of the females and would have enforced this right, maybe through a group of loyal supporters, by the sanction of physical punishment against those who infringed his right or who threatened his dominance. The idea that the alpha male had this right would have been passed on from one generation to the next as a group norm or ethic.

In evolutionary terms, there would be an advantage in the alpha male passing on the genes which enabled him to dominate and the group would have benefited by being more likely to be led by a strong male able to dominate and lead. However, there would have been an evolutionary arms race between these ‘alpha male’ genes and genes which predisposed to illicit sexual activity, since these genes would have enjoyed the protection of the alpha male. Whether these ‘genes’ were actual DNA genes or memes, inherited as part of group culture, is immaterial. The fact is that human groups would have been evolving by gene-meme co-evolution. Replicators have no concern for the nature of the other replicators with which they form alliances.

Now, place yourself in such a group in the plains of East Africa. The plains of East Africa have very many rocky out-crops which offer shelter and which are good vantage points from which to survey the surrounding plain. These outcrops also give the alpha male good vantage points from which to survey the group and keep an eye on what’s going on: who’s doing what and with whom, with particular regard to illicit sexual activity. Alternatively, other males and females will be trying to evade his watchful eye, and those of his supporters.

It is easy to see how this idea of a dominant alpha male, who is at the same time, the strong leader on whom the group depends, and the vengeful deliverer of pain and suffering for any transgression of the group norms, came to evolve in human culture. It is also easy to see why this alpha male takes a special interest in the sexual activities of his 'subjects', and is especially concerned that females remain inactive until he's had his turn, or at least sanctioned their mating.

Domination of his group through controlling their sexual activity ensures his genes get priority and he can also use this control as a reward system to ensure obedience. Meanwhile other selection forces are ensuring continued 'illicit' sexual activity, even making this thrilling and exciting.

Now, move on two or three hundred thousand years and remove man from the East African plains. Place him now in larger nomadic tribes or into settled farming communities and towns across Africa, Europe, Asia and into the Americas. Now there is no place for a single alpha male to sit and watch the whole group and the group is too large or diverse for him to dominate it, yet he still exists in the culture. The memes which arose on the plains of East Africa are still being replicated down through the generations. So many of our cultural ideas have been conditioned by the alpha male's presence and have evolved in an environment in which he exists, but the physical reality of the alpha male has now been replaced by the cultural idea of one.

The alpha male now sits on some imaginary vantage point overlooking the tribe, still the benevolent protector and leader, the guardian of the law, and the vengeful enforcer of his right to grant permission for sexual activity and for whose permission all, but especially the females, must wait until he grants it through the symbolic ceremony of marriage.

His loyal supporters who act as his enforcers, still exist though. They have become a self-selecting band who act as though the alpha male still exists and whose claim to power and authority is that they represent him and are doing his bidding. They have become his priesthood.

Welcome to the god hypothesis: the imaginary benevolent leader who is also the object of fear; the loving protector who punishes transgression and who takes a special interest in our sexual activities. The man whose authority to rule is now so deeply embedded in human culture that many regard it as a sin punishable by unimaginable pain and suffering and withdrawal of the alpha male's 'love' even to question it. And the leader who may just take it into his head to show us his power by some random act of indiscriminate violence if we're not very careful.

God: a cultural idea which is a fossil relic of our evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa. (Tweet this)

Cultural evolution explains both the origin of the idea of a god and its fallacy. The cultural idea of a god is evidence of human evolution as an ape on the plains of East Africa. (Tweet this)





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33 comments :

  1. that's quite an insight!

    perhaps many who can let go of god so easily (or not embrace the idea in the first place) are able to do so because they are lacking a significant father figure? Perhaps after a few generations of families where relationships often end in divorce, our genetic "programmings" will diminish enough to be seen for what they are, just emotional urges to feel needed and part of the bigger universe and that someone is watching out for us and that once we are dead our souls won't wander around lost in eternity, or some absurd fear like that

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  2. Rosa, where are the facts supporting your article? All I read here is speculation and conjecture? Were you there as all of this you said supposedly took place?

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  3. What an idiotic question! Do you imagine something is only true if the author was an eye-witness to the events described?

    Nothing of what I've described is new to anthropology, sociology, geology, psychology, memetic theory or even to the study of our close relatives. All I've done it boil it down into a short blog.

    It is a straightforward account of how ideas developed in human history and evolved as humans and human culture evolved.

    You remind me of creationists who think asking if we were there when humans were evoloving somhow invalidates all the evidence. Conveniently, they neglect to say they were not there during their imaginary god's supposed creation either, nor when any of the stories in the Bible were alledged to have taken place.

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  4. Same question to you Victor E. Pearson. Where you there when a God supposedly created the Universe?

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    1. Good question to the religionist, like Victor

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  5. Rosa,
    Brilliant, concise and effective explanation for the roots of the bible god ideas and for the deep roots of social male dominance and sexism.
    It's sad to experience how 'blind faith' trumps all evidence. Irrationality is the Victor.

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  6. What an excellent construct. Where did you get it from? It explains everything from before we were even human. I thought humans were pre-dispositioned towards religion and this fits perfectly.

    I was never in any doubt that it is a tool for control and women get a shit deal but I was taking the line of men using religion to usurp women as the earth mothers.

    I have also looked at internal dialogue as being perceived as the 'voice of god' when primitive peoples really couldn't understand that it was part of their own thought processes.

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  7. Thanks Philp G. I think my opening paragraph explains it. Think East African Plains. Almost everything about human evolution and especially the fundamentals of human culture can be explained by placing early hominids there.

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  8. Rosa,

    Thanks for bringing me to this post! I must say your hypothesis is quite novel, something that I had never come across, nor thought of myself.

    But I also had my own hypothesis. But as it was turning out too long, have published it as a blog post here - Discrimination against Women: Possible Reasons (click).

    Curious to know, what you think.

    Thanks!

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  9. Great summary. A modern example of this is the dictatorship of North Korea, where the Kims are deified as the "alpha" protectors of the people, but also feared by the people. Hitchens has a great discourse on North Korea in this view.

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  10. I'm pretty sure that would have been the general set of events of how it unfolded,the concern that I have is where will it end. people get exposed to info at a rate we could never have imagined, this will have a effect on people's ability to absorb bullshit, the Ace that religion have up their sleeve is so ingenious. we want to live forever, so when you are telling a intelligent individual that he has to think, the evidence is clear,remember the first decision he has to make before he can even start to play with the idea of that this whole thing called religion is just a clever way to control him, is to give up the chance however slim it is, to receive eternal life.
    you can only give them the truth and facts, there is now way that can compete with eternal live. I'm not sure if you have any religious back ground, but I came through the christian system. and I tell you your brain will not easily give up the chance to live forever.

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  11. The key is to allow the logical conclusions from the facts to show them the hope of living for ever is false. The intellectual dishonesty of Pasquel's wager should be apparent to anyone who learns to appreciate knowledge, logic and reason, and to believe in a god who demands such dishonesty is absurd.

    I do not want a long death; I want a good and rewarding life. Death holds no fear for me, though I will regret knowing that I won't know what happens next.

    I was dead for 14 billion years before by birth and it did me no harm at all.

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  12. Beautiful, Rosa - you've done a little more than "boil it down into a short blog". As far as I'm concerned this is by far the most likely explanation of 'where we are now'; a very nicely nailed together chain of events and a joy to read.
    Cheers

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  13. Well I'm going to have to (partially) agree with Victor on this one.

    "Were you there" is a horrible question - it doesn't matter if someone was there, what matters is if they have evidence.

    Victor also asked you for your evidence. I, too, would like to see it. This is a very interesting story you've written, and I would love to know if it's anything more than a story (as, for example, so many hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are). If there is so much support for this explanation coming from fields such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc, all you need do is cite some of the relevant studies. Instead of doing that, you've basically said "trust me, lots of smart people have said something similar."

    Great. Show me the evidence.

    Tim Martin

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  14. Interesting example of double standards there. Science must produce detailed proof of everything, usually to an impossibly high standard, yet all religion requires is assertion with no supporting evidence whatsoever.

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  15. I would like to ask for further reading on the subject, just where you got all your knowledge o the subject from. It's important to be skeptical on everything we read. It's not unreasonable to ask for evidence as I'm sure you'd ask a theist for evidence too. I've read something similar to this before but I just want to know what books you read, etc.

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  16. I would imagine almost any book or article on ape or other primate social behaviour, and on human evolution and cultural development would give a sufficient understanding of the subject.

    Speculations and hypotheses of this sort can never be more than mind experiments - the thinking through of what is likely to have happened.

    The whole point is to demonstrate that a natural explanation for something like the origin of the religion meme is entirely possible.

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  17. Science must produce detailed proof of everything, usually to an impossibly high standard, yet all religion requires is assertion with no supporting evidence whatsoever.

    What on earth are you talking about? I don't recall saying anything about religion. I asked you for some evidence to support your story. You implied that you had some, and now it seems you're saying that you don't have any, but "you imagine" it's out there. Thank you, I have my answer.

    You don't seem to be familiar with research in evolutionary psychology. Notice I said "research." While much of evo-psych is plagued by just-so stories (such as yours and the ones I linked to in my first comment), it is a branch of science like any other in which the goal is to make testable hypotheses. An excellent example of real research on the evolution of religion would be this paper: http://www.scribd.com/doc/52186189/Scott-Atran-The-Evolution-of-Religion

    Creating evolutionary explanations for various phenomena is easy - creating accurate explanations is not. The problem I have with your post is that you pass it off as an accurate explanation ("Cultural evolution explains both the origin of the idea of a god and its fallacy."), when really it is just speculation with no evidence to back it up.

    Tim Martin

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  18. Tim.

    You appear to have mistaken my blog for a Scientific journal rather than a platform for opinion and speculation.

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  19. Ah, my mistake. I was led astray when Victor asked you for some evidence, and you implied you had some ("Nothing of what I've described is new to anthropology, sociology, geology, psychology, memetic theory or even to the study of our close relatives. All I've done it boil it down into a short blog."). You listed so many ologies in order to sound like you knew what you were talking about, I was quite taken in! And then there was the part where you mistook me for a theist because I - gasp - asked for evidence. ...You might want to check to see if your irony meter's broken.

    Seriously though. If I mistook your blog for more than idle speculation, it's because you present it as more than such. You presented this post as truth ("Cultural evolution explains both the origin of the idea of a god and its fallacy"). When other readers bought your story hook, line, and sinker (e.g. "As far as I'm concerned this is by far the most likely explanation of 'where we are now'; a very nicely nailed together chain of events and a joy to read), you did not correct them by saying "Actually this is just speculation and we don't really know if this is true or not." No, you let the endorsement stand. And when a creationist asked you for evidence, you didn't admit to having none. You tried to sound credible, lest a creationist, of all people, be the one to point out that you were credulously accepting an explanation based on little evidential support.

    Man, that's ironic. And wait... what's this bit of text above the comment window?

    "Please provide a citation for any substantive claim and remember that, whilst you are fully entitiled to your opinion, you are not entitled to have it regarded as established fact needing no further supporting evidence."

    *IRONY METER EXPLODE*

    Perhaps you should add an addendum, "The blog owner, however, is under no such restrictions."

    Tim Martin

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  20. Tim. I'm glad the mistake was yours, not mine.

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  21. I'm an atheist and I'm sure that the blog post's content is infinitely more accurate than any theistic account. But the problem is the one we're seeing in the comments: atheists can't expect to persuade the faithful by demanding "a citation for any substantive claim" whilst at the same time themselves writing huge sweeping descriptions without a single citation. That doesn't make the atheistic account wrong, but unpersuasive to the believers (clearly!). And if the idea isn't to persuade the believers, then why bother? You can't mount good arguments without reference to the facts, and, as the blog owner recognizes, you should say where these facts come from. Otherwise, only assertion remains, or appers to remain. And its precisely mere assertion that atheists so object to in the theistic accounts. This leads to theists claiming that atheism itself is a faith position. It's not, but with blog posts that refer to no external sources it's considerably harder to show it.

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  22. For those who are questioning the article can read up on the following scientific research on human genetics and how 180,000 thousand years ago, humans sprang out of Africa and colonised the rest of the planet.

    https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html

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  23. Junaid, the substantive claim is about God's evolution, aspects of which are merely asserted here rather than demonstrated. That's the complaint, not whether/how humans evolved/sprang out of Africa.

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  24. Luke. You still seem not to understand the difference between a blog and a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

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    1. I think that you're missing the point. The issue at stake is that you seem to expect more in terms of evidence from others than you are prepared to give yourself. It's not that I'm expecting peer-reviewed work but that what you present is sometimes inconsistent.

      Interestingly your question "do you imagine something is only true if the author was an eye-witness to the events described?" implies that you don't think this.

      Yet one of the points made by your contrived post here - http://rosarubicondior.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/help-what-should-i-do.html#comment-form - is the implication that because your friend from Oxford has not met the man from Essex (i.e. he is not an eye-witness to the events described) then it cannot possibly be true.

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    2. >Yet one of the points made by your contrived post here - http://rosarubicondior.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/help-what-should-i-do.html#comment-form - is the implication that because your friend from Oxford has not met the man from Essex (i.e. he is not an eye-witness to the events described) then it cannot possibly be true.

      As you will know, because, presumably you actually read the blog you are quoting, I'm asking there whether I should take what he says 'on faith' or should I require evidence before I believe it.

      What would you advise?

      As a Christian of course you accept the accounts in the Bible on faith and yet seem to accept that the people whose accounts you're accepting didn't but were given evidence.

      Does this lower standard only apply to people who claim to be Jesus or should we just accept everything anyone says on faith?

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    3. How is "accept[ing] that the people whose accounts [I'm] accepting didn't [take it on faith] but were given evidence" any different from your statement that you "would imagine almost any book or article on ape or other primate social behaviour, and on human evolution and cultural development would give a sufficient understanding of the subject"?

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    4. It looks like you don't understand the nature of evidence and how this is communicated in science books. That could be the cause of your problem and why you've fallen for the 'faith' fallacy.

      Do you remember who fooled you with it or were you too young to remember?

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    5. "Do you remember who fooled you with it or were you too young to remember?"

      If I were to follow the precedent you have set in an earlier thread, I might at this point just accuse you of ad hominem abuse. But not without good reason in this case.

      I would, however, genuinely be interested in your take on "the nature of evidence" as you put it.

      For the record, I am not doubting the way in which science books generally communicate evidence. I will also add that in this case, my background is such that what you actually say seems plausible to me (although, as I have just noted elsewhere, this is not proof that God does not exist, if that's what you were tyring to achieve).

      Let me go back to what I asserted originally. "The issue at stake is that you seem to expect more in terms of evidence from others than you are prepared to give yourself. It's not that I'm expecting peer-reviewed work but that what you present is sometimes inconsistent."

      If I made a claim and suggested that "I would imagine that there are texts out there which support it" you would quite probably note that I hadn't shown you the evidence. Yet you are quite happy to say the same thing without giving a reference to a text.

      I presume that you are well read on the subject and that therefore to suggest a good reference or two would not be beyond you.

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  25. For those of you looking for something to read on the topic, I would highly recommend reading Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" in its entirety. It explains a lot of the basic principles this post is based on, and I think it will help to answer many of your questions.

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  26. Rosa, I think your speculation on this earliest step in the evolution of gods is very cogent and it lines up quite well with egalitarian cultures at the end of the hunter-gatherer era. Nicholas Wade's, The Faith Instinct takes off from here by discussing the role of the alpha male's replacement--belief in a supervisor. Great, thanks.

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  27. Decent hypothesis for this particular form of god, but evo-psych is full of trap hypotheses which are probably wrong.

    What we know for sure is a massive human tendency, a cognitive bias towards personification (the psych lit on this is so long people can find their own sources). This has got to be the basis of most beliefs in spirits, made clearly visible in animism; I've seen no alternate hypothesis other than "animism is true", which is clearly wrong.

    We also know that "alpha male" behavior actually existed in numerous human societies, including ancient Middle Eastern ones (though interestingly, not all hunter-gatherer societies, from what we can tell).

    (Your descriptions of alpha male chimp behavior are roughly right, as far as I can tell from everything I've read; big bio lit on that. Bonobo behavior is different, though. So generalizing directly to humans is iffy. But since we know ancient kings behaved like this, we don't need to make the jump.)

    This -- personification and the presence of people who act like alpha male chimps -- is all that is necessary to generate the belief in an "alpha male" God who runs the world or any part of it.

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