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Friday, June 08, 2012

Presumably It Offers an Advantage, Right?

"Like most summer activities, the frogs' vocal signaling requires an impressive expenditure of energy, and therefore presumably has an advantage." -- Bernd Heinrich, Summer World, p. 40

So, here is a prominent biologist stating a general rule for evaluating traits: if the trait is expensive in terms of energy required, by default we should assume it provides something important to the species in question. And, of course, the more widespread the trait is, the more we should suspect it is adaptive.

So, someone who believes evolutionary biology is the cat's meow, and finds a widespread human practice, so widespread that we have never encountered a single culture where it is absent, and one into which a huge amount of energy is poured, would have to say it is most likely adaptive, right?

Wrong! Not if the practice is religion! Then this universal, high-energy consuming activity turns out to be a social pathology! Everyone does it not because it has helped us to survive, but because it kills us!

Some people suffer a total mental breakdown at the mention of the word religion.

15 comments:

  1. If you fix the typo on "toal" I will repost this at Free Advice on Sunday. I swooned when I realized where you were taking this post.

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  2. Also, over at my blog Major Freedom is digging his heels in and will only concede that the USSR was an atheistic totalitarian regime. So if one subscribes to evolutionary biology...

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  3. Wow I just checked out that link. It would be difficult to misconstrue the quote from Paul more than that guy did.

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  4. Some people, it's true.

    Even Hitchens was always very up front about the value of religion to the advancement of the human species. "Our first attempt at philosophy, astronomy, literature..." he would say - not to mention the social cohesion and norm enforcement.

    Thankfully, I don't think all atheists are as nuts as the guy you linked.

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    1. Absolutely. I am making this point in my version for Free Advice.

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  5. "Everyone does it not because it has helped us to survive, but because it kills us!"

    That's not exactly his point, but that it kills them. 150 student at a school. At least trying to.

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    1. scineram, "kill us" should be read as referring to the species. Given that we are discussing evolution, that really should have been kind of obvious.

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    2. This is wrong too. It can hurt the species no end as long as it benefits the gene. The gene need not even be carreid by the species, but usually it is.

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    3. Ken, Ken... the point here is not to plunge into the intricacies of evolutionary theory, and examine whether Dawkins gene-centric approach is correct, whether group selection exists, etc. (But gene-reductionism is largely passe in contemporary biology, as far as I can tell surveying the literature.)

      For practical purposes, if the species is wiped out, the gene will be as well, so we can often treat these as rough equivalents.

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  6. In the quote from Heinrich, "advantage" is ambiguous. If it means "survival advantage" the statement is false. The peacock's tale notoriously reduces survival advantage, while conferring a reproductive advantage. Geoffrey Miller, in the Mating Mind, argues that Art, Music, and Culture generally emerge from sexual selection, like the peacock's tale, and thus that it is silly, and unnecessary, to look for survival advantages to explain them. Religion presumably could be similarly "explained."
    This means having survival value isn't necessary in making a case for religion - anymore than it is for Art, Music or Science. Nor is it sufficient: if you go the group selection route, religion might well confer survival advantages on the group while reducing the survival advantages of the individual. (These comments are not meant to be any critique of religion, only on this sort of argument in its defense.)

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    1. Why would you presume Heinrich or I meant *individual* survival advantage?

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  7. Gene: The problem is there at both levels. It simply doesn't follow from the ubiquity of a trait that it confers an advantage on either the individual or the group. Take the ability to raise hackles - the energy devoted to this is a pure waste for both individual and species. Once the environment includes other members of the species, all bets are off as to whether "fitness" increases over time.

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    1. Kevin, neither Heinrich nor I said it followed. Look back at the original quote: there should be a presumption that if the activity is common AND consumes lots of energy, it is adaptive. We might find it is not so.

      Now, when a world-class biologist tells me that is a sound principle of biological reasoning, I take his word for it.

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  8. I'm sorry to worry this bone some more, but I don't agree with Heinrich that this presumption is in order. The capacity for hackle-raising consumes lots of energy and is ubiquitous. I'm simply arguing for the analogue of prisoner's dilemmas in evolution - something implied by elementary evolutionary game theory. A strain of Panglossianism has always been present in evolutionary biology. Miller's book reviews the history of the reception of sexual selection in the field: the hostility towards the theory (Darwin's theory) was wide and deep, precisely because it breaks the link being something's being adaptive and its' being advantageous for the species and the individual.

    Don't get me wrong: I am not arguing against religion or supporting the stuff on the atheist site you linked to. But I would defend religion on its own terms, not on the basis of it's evolutionary success!

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    1. "I'm sorry to worry this bone some more, but I don't agree with Heinrich that this presumption is in order."

      OK, but citing a couple of instances where it does not pan out is hardly compelling evidence: that is why it is merely a presumption, instead of a necessity!

      "But I would defend religion on its own terms, not on the basis of it's evolutionary success!"

      This is not a defense of religion. This is noting the strange attitude of those who seem to think it is unproblematic to *presume* it is maladaptive, when the presumption should be the opposite (so Heinrich and I claim -- you disagree).

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