Saturday, 14 February 2015

How Religions Evolved By Mistake

The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour

Ever wondered what the biological basis for irrational superstition and religions is?

It turns out to have a perfectly rational explanation in terms of biological evolution in a sentient species. Darwinian evolution can even explain why people are religious in the absence of any evidence for a god or any rational reason to suppose that gods ever do anything.

Human beings are superb at pattern recognition and see patterns in the natural world, often where there aren't any - Jesus on toast, a face in a cloud, etc. The only reason Muhammad never appears on toast is because no one knows what he looked like and it would be a life-limiting activity to claim scorch marks on toast are Muhammad. Our pattern-recognition gauge is set a little too sensitive because it's better that we record a few false positives than fail to recognise something important, like a potential meal, or a potential predator.

This pattern-recognition ability also means we see cause and effect all around us and see the narrative in everything. We are almost certainly the only species that can recognise the patterns of an animal tracks, 'read' the information in them and see the story they tell about the animal, what it was doing, where it came from and where it went, and even how long ago it was there. AS a relatively weak hunter-gatherer on the East African plains, where we were also the target of other hunters such as leopards, eagles, crocodiles, wild dogs and lions this would have been an invaluable skill.

So, like our pattern-recognition skill, our ability to associate cause and effect is also a little too sensitive, so, as this 2009 paper published in the Proceeding of The Royal Society shows, we frequently make mistakes and assign effect to non-existent or wrong cause.


Superstitious behaviours, which arise through the incorrect assignment of cause and effect, receive considerable attention in psychology and popular culture. Perhaps owing to their seeming irrationality, however, they receive little attention in evolutionary biology. Here we develop a simple model to define the condition under which natural selection will favour assigning causality between two events. This leads to an intuitive inequality—akin to an amalgam of Hamilton's rule and Pascal's wager—-that shows that natural selection can favour strategies that lead to frequent errors in assessment as long as the occasional correct response carries a large fitness benefit. It follows that incorrect responses are the most common when the probability that two events are really associated is low to moderate: very strong associations are rarely incorrect, while natural selection will rarely favour making very weak associations. Extending the model to include multiple events identifies conditions under which natural selection can favour associating events that are never causally related. Specifically, limitations on assigning causal probabilities to pairs of events can favour strategies that lump non-causal associations with causal ones. We conclude that behaviours which are, or appear, superstitious are an inevitable feature of adaptive behaviour in all organisms, including ourselves.

Our ancestors would not have lasted long if they had assumed that a rustle in the grass was caused by wind when there was even a small chance it was a lion. And it is worth making false-positive mistakes to get these relationships right.

Bruce Hood, University of Bristol, UK
This paper used mathematical models to show that when the cost of making a wrong assignment are small but the benefits of making a correct one can be large, then the propensity to make these mistakes will evolve and so, over time, we have accumulated a lot of irrational superstitions into our cultural meme pool, even completely contradictory ones in different cultures - black cats being both lucky and unlucky. When my son's Japanese girl friend first came to our house, she was horrified to see our stairs went up from the entrance hall, right in line with the front door, and told us we should sell the house and move because all our luck would flow downstairs and out the front door.

Now, this evolved propensity to make false assignments and the cultural mechanisms for perpetuating these resultant superstitions over time has led us to form religions where an assumed spirit world is also playing a part in causality. It is then a simple step to assign almost any unknown cause to these invisible spirits. You'll see this on any creationist website or social media page where people who are relatively unsophisticated and especially ignorant of science and scientific methods are convinced that the only possible explanation for just about everything they don't understand is that it was caused by an invisible magic spirit or 'god', so this explains everything from the origins of the universe, the origins of life and even their own existence.

Professor Robin Dunbar of Durham University, UK, argues that these spirit superstitions probably had an evolutionary benefit in that they helped create small, cooperative groups by controlling group behaviour and dealing especially with 'free-riders'. Any group based on sharing of resource is liable to be abused by free-riders who take the benefits but contribute nothing to the group. Policing these with imaginary threats is a particularly effective way of deterring it.

However, because we tend to hang on to these irrational superstitions, and religions evolved and were retained because they worked on the scale of small groups, we now have a set of superstitions which are becoming increasingly dangerous.

So, seen from this perspective, religion is very much a small scale issue, a mechanism for bonding small scale communities. And in a senese, herein lies its problem. It is such a powerful mechanism for social bonding that it has been easy to exploit these very powerful psychological mechanisms in the contexts of large social groups once we developed our settled, urban way of life. Once church and state got together, it seems to be possible to mobilise very large groups of people in ways that are not normally possible - and for purposes that can easily become very destructive. Religion evolved to bond communities, and inevitably that means to create in-group/out-group boundaries, them versus us. In small communities, that's probably fairly innocuous, but on the large scale of nation states able to call up serious military power it's a recipe for trouble.

On that last point, note how much effort is spent by religious vested interests in exploiting the psychological mechanism which keep people in the group and seeing members of the out-group as enemies and potential threats. Note too how much effort is spent trying to mislead people about and undermine their confidence in the only means available for critically examining the assumptions underpinning religion - science. Those actively engaged in these deceptions are only too aware of the threat critical thinking poses to their preferred method of group control.

We now live in a world in which two mutually incompatible superstitions are squaring up to one another, each side with nuclear weapons and at least one of which believes their imaginary invisible god will put in an appearance just before human society exterminates itself in a 'final battle' - and that this will be GOOD THING! It's imperative that we show the irrelevance of these primitive superstitions and the threat they pose to us all before the psychopaths and superstitious idiots take us all with them to prove who has the best imaginary friend and which irrational superstition is the right one.

Evolution has produced the amazing world we live in but it has no morals and no direction and can throw up some nasty, dangerous little things like parasites and religion with equal ease. We are probably the first species which can recognise this pattern. We are certainly the first to be in a position to put a stop to it.

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