The Frontal Cortex

First of all, I apologize for the most grandiose blog title of all time. I was going to add Love and War to the title too, but I ran out of space.

My subject is yesterday’s Times Magazine synopsis of the current scientific explanations for the universal human craving for some sort of God. The article neatly (perhaps too neatly) divides the scientists into dueling camps: the adaptionists and the non-adaptionists (spandrelists?).

The non-adaptationists hold that religious belief is a side-effect of our cortical evolution. God emerges naturally from the constellation of tricks and tools that the mind evolved for other circumstances. Non-adaptionists tend to focus on our ability to detect agency and form a theory of other people’s minds as being the main instigators of “the god delusion”:

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions.

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

Adaptionists, on the other hand, tend to focus on how the invention of religion (and its necessary divinities) helped early humans survive in the wilderness.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

I think it’s a little silly to divide the scientists into two distinct theoretical camps, since both theories make important points. (As Razib notes, adaptionists and non-adaptionists are also addressing different levels on inquiry. Non-adaptionists are interested in the neural underpinnings of religion, while adaptionists are more concerned with the cultural rituals.) But I think the divide also causes the scientists to neglect a real point of intersection, where both theories can shed a little light on the evolution of religion problem.

I’m talking about morality. We now know that many of our most fundamental moral decisions depend upon our ability to form a theory of other people’s minds. When we contemplate moral questions involving other people, the superior temporal sulcus and medial frontal gyrus became active. What makes these folds of gray matter interesting is that are responsible for interpreting the thoughts and feelings of other people. In other words, they remind us that other human beings are also human beings, just like us. When we think about doing something immoral, it is these brain regions that activate our amygdala, and make us feel such awful and guilty emotions.

What triggers this sympathetic cortical network? Neuroscientists like Joshua Greene believe that our mind automatically distinguishes between “personal” and “impersonal” moral judgments. A personal moral situation occurs whenever we consider harming a specific person. (As Greene puts it, these actions can be roughly defined as “Me Hurts You,” a concept simple enough for a primate to understand.) When confronted with a personal moral dilemma, our “theory of mind” brain areas are activated, and we start to imagine what somebody else might experience if we pursued a certain course of action.

Here’s the odd twist: the same set of cortical tools – this tendency to see agency everywhere and naturally imagine the minds of others – might underlie both our morality and our religiousity. It might make us both good and holy. Of course, nobody knows if we evolved a theory of mind specifically for moral purposes. A theory of mind and ability to detect agency are probably useful for many different things. But there’s little question that thinking about each other keeps us from killing each other. It helps to reign in our nastiness, which is crucial if you are living in a closely knit group of primates.

So that whole chain of reasoning seems to support the non-adaptionist camp. God is a by-product of brain areas that evolved for other purposes, like morality. But here’s where the group selectionist explanation comes in handy. The invention of religion as a cultural institution has clearly helped to codify our basic moral instincts. The ten commandments didn’t invent morality – our moral instincts were invented by natural selection back in the Pleistocene – but it did make morality both transparent and universal. It encouraged us to obey our moral instincts – thou shalt not kill – which clearly had beneficial repercussions for both the group and the individual believers. Just as the cultural codification of language allowed our symbolic brain to reach it’s full potential, so might the cultural codification of morality by religion allowed our innate moral instincts to become even more powerful. After all, we are much less likely to do wrong if we also think that doing wrong will send us straight to hell.

Here’s the moral: if we are ever going to explain the evolution of religion, then both camps – the adaptionists and the non-adaptionists – are going to have to be right.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    March 5, 2007

    I posit a third grouping: “Supra-adaptionists”, which includes all atheists. People that have evolved an adaptation that superscedes the “need for religion”.

    I do not need a Big Sky Juju to tell me not to kill my neighbor, I do not need religions, and I absolutely don’t need a Roberston, Falwell, or Pope to tell me what to do.

  2. #2 Jonah
    March 5, 2007

    I should have qualified my argument, and mentioned that, of course, we no longer need the ten commandments or any religious code to guide our moral instincts. The basic gist of Judeo-Christian ethics – don’t kill, lie or steal – have been thoroughly assimilated into our secular legal code. But our Pleistocene ancestors weren’t so lucky. They didn’t have a small claims court, or public defenders or Miranda rights. In this lawless environement, it’s easy to imagine how a little religion could have helped spur our moral development along. For many atheists, this hypothesis is uncomfortable, since it seems to link morality with religion. But even if this hypothesis is true, and the invention of God helped man behave better, that link stopped being necessary several thousand years ago. Contary to the claims of Falwell, et.al., we no longer need religion to know what is right and what is wrong.

  3. #3 Roy
    March 5, 2007

    I distrust the people behind the Times article.

    The ability to surmise or suspect agency does make sense as a survival trait, but if, and only if, it is accompanied by the ability to detect and correct errors. Otherwise the ‘adaptation’ will spin the organism off into nowhere based on wrong information.

    The possibility of feeling better for wrong reasons will also doom the species to maladaptive behavior, unless there is mechanism to drive out errors.

    And so ‘both sides’ of this ostensible argument are full of crap.

    Nowhere do they mention that we are all born stone cold atheists. Only as we get older and get lied to regularly does religion make inroads into some lives, and the results are always, without exception, maladaptive.

    What makes us susceptible to religion? Trusting the wrong people.

    For a comparison, they might have asked why people fall for magic tricks. At least then they’d be admitting that active deception is necessary for religious beliefs.

    By the way, the argument that religion helps our moral development is as patently absurd as saying that con artists help us become better citizens. Social species other than our own exhibit moral behavior: where is their religion?

  4. #4 MattXIV
    March 5, 2007

    Another way of looking at religion, not exclusive of any of the others mentioned, is as a facilitator for political consolidation. Political and religious authority have been linked far more often than not and in ancient societies in particular, religious leaders often claimed to have some measure of practical supernatural power that would make it dangerous to oppose them (emperors who claim to be incarnations of gods, kings who claim to be hand-picked by God, high priests who claim to have influence over the fertility of the land, etc). The fear of angering the gods was not taken lightly in many of these societies, as we see with the tendency to expend valuable resources on temples and sacrifices, so linking revolution to the prospect of being abandoned by the gods probably increased political stability. Whether increased political stability itself is good depends largely on the quality of the political system in question, but it’s not hard to imagine phases in human history where it could have been useful.

  5. #5 Cat Faber
    March 5, 2007

    I’m afraid there are many parts of the adaptationist argument that I just don’t buy:

    … how [religion] might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. ….Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves.

    I do not experience these “tormenting thoughts about death” so I’m not a reliable judge. Is it common for non-religious people to have their reproductive capability reduced by “tormenting thoughts about death?”

    Also it seems to me that belief in a delightful afterlife would make one *less* willing to take care of oneself (i.e. to postpone death).

    As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

    A (false) assurance of safety doesn’t strike me as a survival trait. And “a temper of peace and… a preponderance of loving affections”?? Um. You *are* familiar with the Inquisition, right? The Crusades? Jihad? It does not seem to me that the evidence points to religion leading to love and peace.

    Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living.

    See above about the behaviour of the religious toward those who do not share their religion–I don’t think this is going to attract out-group mates. At least not willingly.

    And I will note that many religions promote the use of intoxicants, so I’m not sure the sober living argument gets any traction either.

    The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

    Now this part I can buy, especially the warfare part. Religion as a trait that makes a religious group more cohesive and more likely to start and win wars, would arguably lead to the spread of religion as a cultural feature.

  6. #6 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 5, 2007

    Some of these cognitive tools are used by neuroscientists, and as long as they correlate to anything measurable however indirect it is fine. But if it is too hard to research it seems to go into the “just so” land of evolutionary psychology.

    But here’s where the group selectionist explanation comes in handy. The invention of religion as a cultural institution has clearly helped to codify our basic moral instincts.

    I’m not sure if the post suggest that religion has driven evolution of morality (“the group selectionist explanation”) or not (“our moral instincts were invented by natural selection back in the Pleistocene”). It must be hard to pin down the time of introduction of recognizable religion, seeing that chimps (and elephants, btw) have death ceremonies and attempts burial.

    Atheism is a different proposition, sans rituals and dogmas, so the mode of correlation between personality traits and behavior, if it is at all identifiable as such, is probably not the same as for religion.

    But as you say, morality depends to a certain degree on ToM. This seems to propose to me that since atheists doesn’t use preconceived dogma on moral issues, at least before they choose to adopt an attitude, it may be that they individually benefit from or even need a good ToM.

    So now you have prompted me to form an idea on what I will expect from an investigation here, in case it can find any correlations at all.

  7. #7 natural cynic
    March 6, 2007

    Cat Faber: …it seems to me that belief in a delightful afterlife would make one *less* willing to take care of oneself (i.e. to postpone death).

    A belief in a happy afterlife will be an incentive to live a healthy and proper life if the afterlife is contingent on performing certain acts and/or behaving in a prescribed way.

    “a temper of peace and… a preponderance of loving affections”?? Um. You *are* familiar with the Inquisition, right? The Crusades? Jihad?

    All of these situations that relate religion to harming others are not the norm. Most people’s lives have been long periods of little excitement tilling the fields interspersed with rare events of peril. Religion could very well be a personally stabilizing factor in the long unexciting times. Another factor that makes religion a stabilizing factor can be a formalized way of settling disputes within a group. It is only when there is a threat to the reoligion from without the group that religion shows its aggressive side: the Crusades came from a perceived threat to pilgrims; the first period of Jihad was a reaction to immediate threats from warring non-believers; inquisitions were formulated to react to and persecute the threat of heresy. If everybody stays in line, nobody gets hurt from an inquisition. The jihadi warrior becomes converted to the struggle to have a moral life in times of peace.

    …the behaviour of the religious toward those who do not share their religion–I don’t think this is going to attract out-group mates. At least not willingly.

    Assimilation is probably more the norm than destruction following conquests based partly or largely on religion. Most of the conquered are not likely to have a strong attachment to their old religion and will adopt the religion of a conqueror for social promotion. The word gets out “convert or else” and most people readily rather than risk the else. We hear more about what happens to the die-hards, but they are usually in the minority. It is probably the exception, rather than the rule for a conquering religion to wipe out another.

    And I will note that many religions promote the use of intoxicants, so I’m not sure the sober living argument gets any traction either.

    One of the things that is common among most religions is feasting. Throughout history, one way for smart religious authorities to keep the mob in check is to have feast days and certain limited times of revelry. And the bigwigs get to keep the good stuff for themselves, of course.

  8. #8 beajerry
    March 6, 2007

    You summed it up nicely.

  9. #9 Joe Shelby
    March 6, 2007

    I think we’re all forgetting history here.

    Religion as a source or reinforcer of morality is an extremely recent invention/discovery/revelation.

    At the same time as the 10 Commandments, you had Pharohs of Egypt ruling over all through sheer force of will, two generations of Greek Gods (that became Roman gods) acting in the most immoral ways, and Celts, Germans, Aztecs, Incas, and many more conducting human sacrifice rituals to appease gods.

    In short, “morality” was nowhere to be seen in any religious code save a rare few.

    These articles also collectively ignore the most important emotion of any social creature: trust. Trust is what allows people to specialize and diversify in their roles. If you can trust that the hunters will get enough meat, you can proceed to stay home and keep up the fire and watch over the kids so they don’t have to all travel together as some theories of Ergaster life speculate. The same kind of trust that exists in meerkats that allow for a few babysitters while the core of the tribe forage.

    From trust, it extends into belief. It is *extremely* easy for someone to assert more knowledge than others, to create stories instead of just relating them, to invent a mythology.

    These stories then become the point of control since they help reinforce the right of leadership of the alpha male (a concept also shared among a large number of mammal species including our ape cousins). The stories, the “religion”, is basically just another ax to wield, one that keeps the ax-maker, the storyteller, in esteem with the alpha male as much as the toolsmith was.

    At that point, the only morality that exists is that the alpha male ruler is right (something all cultures pass through and some never escape from, even today).

    Eventually, sacrifice for appeasement transmogrified into doing good for reward, but that is really a very recent invention. Judaism didn’t really have it in the sense that Medieval European Christianity did. Christianity from that standpoint, at least in the Gospels, was very cutting edge. Trouble was “Revelation” and *some* of Paul’s epistles turned around and undid all that by bringing fear of punishment into it vs. choosing to love which is what most of the Jesus teachings and message was.

    As for burial ritual and thoughts of life after death? That’s easily seen as a side effect of our increased memory. We see animals living depressed soon after a death then move on as if the dead never existed. We, however, have stronger memories and can relive that moment of death in our heads if we don’t do something about it. Funerals, life-after-death, and all that are mere appeasements, means of psychological closure so the obsession of the loss (and the fear of our own death) doesn’t become all-consuming. I see it as nothing that need involve any special neurological evolution, just a psychological necessity made as a result of other developments of memory and ritual.

  10. #10 DavidD
    March 7, 2007

    Thinking that “adaptionist” is a word – is that a nonadaptationist accident or a beneficial adaptation?

    Jonah, I think you’re right in your main conclusion that both ways of looking at the God-shaped void evolution seems to have put in our brain are correct. For anyone who thinks we are born “stone cold atheists”, maybe you can recommend your favorite “theory of mind” experiments where children not only come off as seeing their mothers as God, someone who can read their thoughts amidst a general omniscience, but just about everyone else and everything else, too. We don’t throw all that away as our “theory of mind” matures.

    It’s important to say that nothing requires our God-shaped void be filled with God. We all need power, knowledge, love, and goodness. I’d love to see real data regarding the most functional way to acquire that, but instead people just argue for their own way, atheist or theist. If evolution has really made a God-shaped void in our brains, we’ll know the genes involved sometime this century. It will be interesting to see phenotypes about that and what that does to the neuroscience of perception and cognition. Maybe evolution is completely neutral in how we fill our need for power, knowledge, love, and goodness. Maybe some people get pushed more toward hidden things, while others to obvious things.

    If this is all a house of cards, it will crash done within a hundred years. That’s more testable than some ideas about religion.

  11. #11 oyunlar 1
    July 22, 2007

    These stories then become the point of control since they help reinforce the right of leadership of the alpha male (a concept also shared among a large number of mammal species including our ape cousins). The stories, the “religion”, is basically just another ax to wield, one that keeps the ax-maker, the storyteller, in esteem with the alpha male as much as the toolsmith was.

  12. #12 sober living
    July 23, 2007

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  13. #13 oyunlar1
    November 30, 2009

    this perfect…

  14. #14 Gruesome_hound
    February 4, 2011

    Well, the problem of the approach of most evolutionary psychologists towards religion is that they presuppose without evidence the truth of reductive materialism:, namely that the mind, our emotions and our thoughts, can be fully reduced to the interactions of molecules.
    Assuming that, they then wonder: but why do so many people believe they have a soul, and that invisible beings exist, and that there is a God beyond the universe ?
    By investigating the possible explanations, they fully rule out the possibility that people have these beliefs because they may be partially true.
    They have therefore to resort to materialistic explanations like the idea we are deceived by this hyperactive agent detection device.

    But let us examine the problem of religion’s origin from an other standpoint: let us just assume, like many modern philosophers, that feelings (qualia) and thoughts are immaterial, that they are a part of nature, but irreducible to material processes.
    Thomas Nagel argued for example that the full knowdlege of the neuronal processes going on in a bat sending out signals can not show us how it is felt by the bat itself, and that therefore subjectivity is something radically different from the material world studied by science.

    If one presupposes this is truly the case, the explanation of religion’s appearance looks quite different: people are rightly aware that their feelings, thoughts and personality is something different from matter, and they infer that other humans and animals must also have this kind of subjective experience, they form thus their own theory of mind in this way.

    Like philosopher Keith Ward argued, since their immaterial mind is the first reality they encounter, they intuitively think that there may be also invisible minds, and that the ultimate reality itself must rather be something spiritual rather than material.

    The fear of death, coupled with the queerness of their own existence may then lead them to believe they are immortal.

    Note that my non-reductive account of religion may be fully naturalistic, if one accepts that subjective feelings, ideas, and concepts like mathematical truths are a part of nature, although not reducible to matter.

    Likewise, I am not a dualist in the traditional sense: I believe that the immaterial feelings, thoughts which makes us a person emerge from the brain and are completely dependent on it, and would disappear if the brain was damaged.

    According to my non-reductive theory, people began to believe in immaterial spirits mainly because they were puzzled and amazed by the non-material character of their being which they intuitively recognized.

    Now, many religious beliefs could be false of course: it is quite possible, like Thomas Nagel postulated, that nature does not only consist of matter but also of ideas and the potentiality for subjectivity , but that there is no God, no invisible spirits, and no afterlife. By the way, I believe there are strong reasons for believing so, like the problem of evil and poor design in nature.

    Basically, I don’t agree with the evolutionary psychologists because they assume the truth of reductive materialism and limit the possible explanations to material processes, although many philosophers of mind hold a non reductive position.

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