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Saturday, February 19, 2011


Miranda Flint

I don’t think that it is likely that we followed a straight line of evolution that changed us from hedonistic creatures into religious creatures. We seem to, instead, fluctuate back and forth between piety and hedonism. Look at the Romans. At certain points in their history, the Romans seem to have embraced piety, but in others they embraced hedonism. Maybe this is because different emperors had different values, but whatever the cause is, there does not seem to be progressive piousness.

I’m also not sure I agree with idea that our reproductive success depended on our reputation for restraint. It seems to me that it often works the other way around. If one is looking for a mate, it is probably easiest and fastest to pick someone without inhibitions.

larry kurtz

Doc: yours is a pretty good explanation of the tendency of believers to abandon responsibility for ones own behavior to "god's will."

Ms. Flint: you nailed it. Bonobos didn't learn reproductive success from Hobbes, either.

Ken Blanchard

Miranda: When my beagle and I come upon a rabbit during our patrols, the rabbit always does one of two things: it either freezes or runs. Which it does depends generally on how close we come to the rodent and whether our path is toward it or tangential to its position. These two behavior sets, like the device that switches from one to another, are products of natural selection. They provide field tested strategies and flexibility in various environments. So the fact that rabbits do not always freeze is not indication that there is not a "straight line" selection for that behavior.

If there is indeed a schema for religion, that schema would still depend on learning to activate it (as the capacity for speech does). It would likely be stronger in some environments than others. Some people will be born with a big dose of it and others with a small dose or none at all (hence variation). I am not at all convinced that Romans ever stopped being religious. I am guessing that a lot of people wore charms to orgies. I am pretty sure that most people living under or near Roman control still believed in a gaggle of invisible powers. But even if the Roman elite did cease to be religious, that would only mean that, in some circumstances, the religious schema goes on silent mode.

It remains true that belief in invisible powers is an almost universal characteristic of human beings. It is far too persistent to originate in mere accidents or to be entirely dependent on cultural transmission. I think it likely that we are designed for piety.

I disagree with your calculation. There is always an opening in any society for a few Bill Clintons, and sometimes these bold unscrupulous rascals do very well. On balance, however, the shy and fearful are much better investments when it comes to your genetic future. If you don't believe me, ask any insurance agent.

Larry: your first comment may gratify one of your many prejudices but in contributes nothing to the conversation. Both believers and nonbelievers find lots of reasons for evading responsibility.

As to your second, Bonobos prefer Rousseau.

larry kurtz

Ken: ip has a long colorful history of lascivious infidelity for which I have no regrets. You seem to be conflicted about some behaviors that you are either considering or have committed. Is that so?


Larry: I have no idea about ip, but you are an ass.

larry kurtz

Thank you...road plowed.


Always interesting to read scientists take on religion. The thing about science, however, is that throughout history the one thing that is certain is that every scientific ‘fact’ is eventually proven wrong. New technology comes along enabling new insights, and the old facts are proven to have been quite incomplete or to have missed the mark entirely. Yet each generation of scientists, once they have disproven the old and ‘proven’ the new earnestly believes that theirs is the end of discovery – that what they have established as ‘fact’ will never go onto the scrap heap upon which all preceding ‘facts’ have gone. Some guy – maybe tomorrow and maybe a hundred years from tomorrow – fooling around in some DNA lab will conjure up some new explanation for how is all works and people of his generation will look back on us and our rapture with Darwin as fools to have believed such nonsense. And they will expound on how their new DNA derived theory of life is the end all of insight – until their theory is disproven and they are viewed as a similarly ignorant lot.

I can envision the Almighty taking the most respected scientist and the most profound theologian by an ear and clunking their heads together Three Stooges style, telling them, “You arrogant fools – neither of you ever comprehended one tenth of one percent of my grand design.”

larry kurtz

I'll bet you can, Billy; I'll bet you can.

larry kurtz

Eve Swam to Sapience.

What characteristics assured the success of one sapient hominid to survive and reproduce amidst a savage, predator-infested environment? Researchers are focused on ancient African river deltas searching for evidence that the earliest humans foraged for mollusks and the eggs of seabirds.

These aquatic hominids were no longer reliant on knuckle-walking as the buoyancy of water enables upright wading. Usually, she waded just deep enough to hide from or repel marauding hyenas and just shallow enough to leap away from crocodilians while an infant clung to her, fingers entwined in ample head and body hair.

Shellfish-crushing molars had evolved to replace the canine teeth more prevalent in other primates (now sometimes disappearing in modern humans), because she learned to soften food, especially meat, with fire. Wading and diving into deeper water lead to the development of her voluntary breath control, a trait absent in other primates and a core requirement for the evolution of language.

Some have dubbed her Mitochondrial Eve.

Having adapted logs to aid her migration from deltas to islands to continents beyond her native Africa, Richard Dawkins says her 2.5 million year swim continues to this day.

Humans' genetic relationship to a history of riparian life runs deep.


I'm sure the ardent believers in a flat earth a few thousand years ago wrote with the same authority you write Larry.

Ken Blanchard

Bill: I can hardly agree that every scientific fact is proven wrong. In the first place, I am not sure that there are any scientific facts. There is data, hypothesis, and theory. The former is subject to corruption and the latter must be tested. On the other hand, the view of the world that emerges from science contains many items that have stood unchallenged for centuries. The earth is roughly spherical. Ice, steam, and water are in fact three forms of the same substance. Heat is molecular energy, not "hot juice".

It is true that some major theories have been superseded by new theories. Newtonian mechanics by relativity is a good example. That was a case of reinterpretation rather than refutation. It is conceivable that Darwin's theory will one day be replaced by a better one, but it is hard for me to conceive of what that might be.

I agree however with your general point. All human wisdom is provisional.

larry kurtz

In other words, nothing is impossible.


You may be as shocked to read this as I am to write it, but Larry, I agree with you.


Ken - I need to verify your heat as energy propsition, rather than "hot juice". If true that sets my understanding of science education back to square one.

Ken Blanchard

Bill: Molecules are always in motion (short of absolute zero, which even Canada does not have to put up with). The average energy or force with which the molecules collide in a physical object is the heat that that object contains. When molecules of ice gain enough energy, the bonds loosen and the ice turns to liquid. When a hot object is placed on a cold one, the molecules in the former transfer their energy by manifold collisions at the boundary. The one cools while the other warms.

Ancient thinkers tended to view heat as a substance that leaks from one thing to another. That is one of those theories that was refuted. When you rub two cold things together, they both get warm. Where did the juice come from? But if rubbing transfers the energy of the act to the molecules that collide at the two surfaces, then the outcome is explained.

Why do hot air balloons rise? Heated air is less dense because energetic molecules need more room to bounce around in. They push the fabric of the balloon out and the cooler and hence denser air around the balloon slides around it and pushes it up. One simple theory explains many diverse phenomena.

If your science education missed all of this, you indeed need to go back to square one. Don't get me wrong. I am not scolding you. I love this kind of thing.


Dr. Blanchard: I agree with your first point and confess that my first response was a bit simple.

The more I think about your argument, the more I like it. Instead of the usual argument that seems to point toward religion being something humans have evolved out of (polytheism to monotheism to atheism) it, instead it has man evolving from a hedonistic creature into a pious one. That is a great deal more pleasant to those of us who believe in religion.

However, I still disagree on the second point. Shy and cautious might be good for survival – but it isn’t necessarily good for reproduction. Who has the better chance of seeing his genetic line preserved – the man who fathers five children by each of his 12 partners, or the shy, careful man who marries and has three children with one wife? Or, since we’re speaking of piety, who is more likely to have more children – a nun or a promiscuous woman?


KB - I assumed you would see the humor on my profession of ignorance of heat as energy. I am not the smartest guy you will encounter by any means, but that is fairly fundamental and even I understand it. Thanks for the refresher, however.

Ken Blanchard

BillW: I owe you an apology. Your comment was obviously in jest and the jest sailed right over my head. It was late. The moon was in Virgo. I have lots of excuses! Anyway, I pushed the professor button and the bomb went off. I do really admire the molecular theory of heat!

Ken Blanchard

Miranda: I would not go so far as to say that human beings evolved into pious creatures. We clearly did evolve in such a way that we are both capable and strongly inclined to piety.

On the second point, we may be talking past one another. You write:

"Who has the better chance of seeing his genetic line preserved – the man who fathers five children by each of his 12 partners, or the shy, careful man who marries and has three children with one wife? Or, since we’re speaking of piety, who is more likely to have more children – a nun or a promiscuous woman?"

Deliberate family planning is a very recent phenomena on planet earth, and it has been almost exclusively a female activity. Human males, like almost all males in all species, seek every opportunity to mate. For related reasons, males are far more inclined to risky behavior than females. The question here is whether natural selection favors relatively risk averse males. I think it clearly does.

For most of the history of our species, reproductive success required allies and cooperative communities. The most risk prone males competed for the top spots in the hierarchy and those who win such competitions can reap big benefits. A few males can have hundreds of offspring. That is why risk prone schema survive in the gene pool.

However, for every winner there are a lot of losers whose lot was exile or death. Game over. For most males, the far safer strategy was to blend it, be liked, attach themselves to the most like winner in the great captain contest. Most males can imagine themselves as the courageous hero--hence the James Bond movies. Most males (including yours truly) are not in fact courageous hero material. Common acts of courage tend to be unpretentious acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of the polis or one's family.

Evolutionary psychology sees religion as, at least in part, a strategy for forming cooperative communities. If someone is willing to sacrifice resources (time, fatted calves) to the appropriate deity, that someone shows signs of being a reliable partner. Christian apologetics frequently includes arguments for the social benefit of religions. EvoPsych provides some support.

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