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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The God Delusion and disproving God's existence: memes and group selection

I have been posting on The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. In this post, I discussed Dawkins' explicit atheist bias.

I now wish to muse about a concept Dawkins uses, namely the concept of a meme, a concept which Dawkins originated, or at least brought to prominence, in his The Selfish Gene. Dawkins says that religion is largely useless, or worse, but acknowledges that the fact that most people subscribe to some sort of religion. If religion gives people a disadvantage, why hasn't natural selection operated against people who have one? Dawkins has an explanation. He says that religion is a meme.

So what is a meme? Well, according to Dawkins, a meme is a unit of culture -- a song, or a way of clothing oneself -- that can be replicated and passed along from person to person. It seems pretty clear that some songs, and some ways of clothing ourselves, can, indeed, be passed along to others, even though they aren't our descendants. Often this is done quite rapidly. Dawkins believes that various religious ideas are memes. He cites some examples: believing in a life after death; being specially blessed if you die a martyr's death for your religion; non-believers should be punished, even killed; belief in a supreme being; and others. (pp. 199-200).

Religious ideas, at least some of them, seem to run counter to what would be expected if natural selection operates as most scientists think it does. For example, being celibate, like Catholic priests are supposed to, or many female Protestant missionaries have done, would seem to work strongly against passing your genes on to the next generation. There is a branch of biology that concerns itself with apparent altruistic behavior. There are several possible explanations for it, all compatible with natural selection, which explain, in one way or another, how sacrificing oneself may really help the sacrificer's genes to be passed on. For example, going to war, and risking death, may make it more likely that your siblings, or other relatives, will survive to pass on genes that they share with you. It is difficult to see how becoming a celibate Protestant missionary helps that person's kin be more successful in passing on genes that they share with her, however.

Dawkins method of dealing with religious behavior that doesn't seem to give an advantage is to explain it as a meme -- something passed on by cultural replication, which can, he believes, be independent of natural selection for genes.

David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, an expert on group selection. (There doesn't seem to be an article on him in the Wikipedia, but several of the references cited in the meme article in the link above were authored, or co-authored, by Wilson.) He is an atheist, and, therefore, agrees with Dawkins in many things. But he has two problems with Dawkins, as I read him.

The first problem is that Dawkins is not consistent with how he deals with group selection. How does group selection relate to the topic at hand? The Wikipedia article on the subject gives the example of viruses in a rabbit. If there is a group of viruses infecting rabbit A, and a different group infecting rabbit B, and the first group is genetically programmed to be virulent, and kill the rabbit quickly, then few or none of them will get the chance to pass themselves on to other rabbits. The entire group will be selected against, with respect to group B. It is possible that religious ideas are selected for in that way. A group that consistently works together to defend itself would probably be selected for more strongly than a group that doesn't cooperate. A group that is honest with each other might be less prone to stress and injury than one that deceives.

Says Wilson: One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd—without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection. - Wilson, "Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Dawkins is Wrong About Religion," eSkeptic, July-Dec 2007.

Wilson's second problem is that he has studied religious behavior, and finds that much of it is of considerable practical value.That means that it should be selected for. People practicing, for example, refraining from smoking, for religious reasons, should be more likely to leave offspring than people who smoke.

So, Wilson, an important atheist scientist, has problems with Dawkins' science, and his characterization of religion.

Thanks for reading.


atlibertytosay said...


I agree that for decades now ... books that are our children read and even cartoons such as "Dinosaur Train" condition our children to have a conflict in their head (and a curious question in adulthood) - why does the Bible say a day and science say millions of years for creation?

Those that honestly come to think of this question find themselves starting down a dark path of doubt ... if the Bible is wrong or "not right" about this ... what else is it wrong or not completely right about?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, atlibertytosay.

I agree that this can be a problem, and that playing fast and loose with scripture is very dangerous, and perhaps the six creation days were, indeed, only 24 hours long, but surely you are aware that there are other uses, in English, for "day" than a 24-hour period. This is also true of the language of the Bible, at least in some places. John 8:56 comes to mind, as does, of course, 2 Peter 2:9. See also 2 Peter 3:8, and, perhaps most astonishingly, Genesis 2:4.

Thanks for your comment.