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How Religion Hijacks Neurocortical Mechanisms, and Why So Many Believe in a Deity

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Andy Thomson, a practicing psychiatrist, uses his knowledge of the human mind and countless neuropsychological research studies to make the case of how religion and belief in god are by-products of our evolved neural architecture. Below is his talk titled 'Why We Believe in Gods' which he presented at the American Atheist 2009 convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

 

Press play. Use full screen.

 

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Let us know what you think.


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If you understand the psychology of [why we crave] the Big Mac meal, you understand the psychology of religion. We evolved adaptations for things that were crucial and rare... the sugars of ripe fruit... fat of lean game meat... for salt... those were crucial adaptations in our past. And now the modern world creates a novel form of it that comes from those adaptations, but hijacks them with super-normal stimuli... not ripe fruit, but a coca-cola... not lean game meat, but fat hamburger and french fries soaked in meat juice... and it creates these super-normal stimuli, but they're based on ancient adaptations.

 

Let me take you on a bit of a tour of a few of these cognitive mechanisms.

 

The first is Decoupled Cognition... <more at the video>

 

 

He argues how our complex social interactions with unseen others (think visualization and mental rehearsal) are just one step away from communicating with a dead ancestor and one step further to communicating to a god or gods. He also illuminates our susceptibility to optical and other illusions, and how these same "gap filling" tendencies in the brain lend a giant opening for supernatural figures. It's called intuitive reasoning, and it underlines the essence of religious ideas, which are minimally counterintuitive worlds.

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Really interesting iNow. While I'm not interested so much in this debate, unless it is another case of religion, posing an inhibition to scientific study and more importantly, reason, and common sense! (Which it is easy to see occurs often throughout history) The points mentioned, were very interesting. I particularly found interest in the separation of the body and mind, and the effects it can have. I have now gained some new rhetoric armour in a rather recent debate, I've entered, regarding the reasoning behind the existence of religion.

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Glad you enjoyed it. I tend only to share those that I enjoy and find educational. :)

 

 

Here is a book referenced in the video. It relates to the speakers idea of religions representing minimally counterintuitive worlds which present claims and stories which are an optimal compromise between the interesting and the expected.

 

 

 

It's called "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought," and was written by Pascal Boyer in 2001:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_Explained

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Haifa, called it "a milestone on the road to a new behavioral understanding of religion, basing itself on what has come to be known as cognitive anthropology, and pointedly ignoring much work done over the past one hundred years in the behavioral study of religion and in the psychological anthropology of religion."[1] He continues: The clearest virtue of this book is that of dealing with the real thing. Even today, most scholarly work on religion consists of apologetics in one form or another, and we are deluged by offers of grants to study “spirituality” or teach “religion and science”. This all serves to make us forget that religion is a collection of fantasies about spirits, and Boyer indeed aims to teach us about the world of the spirits in the grand tradition of the Enlightenment."

 

http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1581

Boyer does not make an attempt to take an atheist stance and explain away God as a figment of our imaginations, but rather to explain why we believe what we believe and why some beliefs are so persistent.

<...>

The other problem with this account of the origin of religion—where religion is used as an explanation for natural events—is that religious concepts tend to make things more mysterious and complicated than other types of explanations.

<...>

Boyer discusses specific properties of the human mind, for example, how we produce our inferences, and how they affect our inference systems and our templates to generate different kinds of information about religion. He also discusses which concepts are most likely to be adapted and which ones are not.

<...>

I think one of the most important concepts that Boyer covered was that diversity can rise out of simplicity. Here we have very simple templates about the way the world works, and we have inference systems that help us piece together new bits of information and create new information. Using these inference systems, we are able to build up a more complex body of knowledge about the supernatural, thus creating very complicated religious concepts from very simple beginnings. Just as different varieties of atoms can arise from a few changes in electrons and just as complex macromolecules and organisms can be built from different arrangements, so too can complex ideas and supernatural agents be built from humble templates.

 

I also found Boyers’ explanations of the way the human brain works very revealing.

 

 

Another book referenced relating to the minimally counterintuitive worlds idea is "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion," written by Scott Altran in 2002.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Atran

He has experimented extensively on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines.

 

 

http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/03/satran.html

Religion, like other cultural phenomena, ‘results from a confluence of cognitive, behavioral, bodily and ecological constraints that neither reside wholly within minds nor are recognizable in a world without minds’ – the evolutionary landscape of the book’s title – each defining ridge of which is constituted by a set of psychological faculties. One such influence consists of primary and secondary affective programs. Another involves the social intelligence module, which was probably rooted in ancestral experiences of avoiding predators and hunting prey, and received tremendous impetus by the selection pressures exerted by group living. A third lies in the operation of functionally independent evolved cognitive modules such as those devoted to folkmechanics, folkbiology, and folkpsychology.

 

The book begins with a discussion of evolution and, in particular, cognitive evolution. Although much of this will be ‘old hat’ to anyone with a serious interest in evolutionary psychology there are some gems here (I particularly enjoyed the powerful critique of the use of attachment theory to explain religiosity). We then move on to a discussion of the human tendency to detect agency where none is present. The belief in supernatural agency can in large measure be accounted for by the same cognitive adaptation that caused our remote ancestors to interpret the sound of a breeze rustling a bush as the presence of a saber-toothed tiger. In short, ‘supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product trip-wired by predator-protector-prey detection schema’. The next two chapters cover the counterintuitive nature of religious thought and the significance of sacrifice. In Chapter Six Atran concentrates on the dynamics of ritual and revelation in the context of the cognitive psychology of memory. Chapter Seven, ‘Waves of Passion’, surveys the burgeoning literature on the neuropsychology of religious experience which includes some fascinating accounts of experimental work and a nice critique of Persinger’s work. Chapter Eight criticizes traditional sociobiological and group-selectionist accounts of cultural evolution on the grounds that these strange bedfellows all neglect the causal significance of the cognitive architecture of the human mind in the generation of culture. They are ‘mindblind’. This chapter contains a rather striking account of group selection as ultimately a notational variant of Hamiltonian kin selection, and incisive critiques of group-selectionist claims made by David Sloan Wilson and Kevin MacDonald. Chapter Nine is a marvelous and highly original critical analysis of memetics. The final chapter - ‘Why Religion is Here to Stay’ - pulls it all together.
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From the bit I watched, it did seem to be a very-well put together presentation. Hopefully I can watch the full thing later. I just hesitate tho, to acknowledge anyone that claims to fully understand "the human equation". Nuerosciences and psychology have a LONG way to go before telling me why I believe in an admittedly illogical deity.

 

I think they should settle the Nature vs. Nurture thing first, and then go from there ;)

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From the bit I watched, it did seem to be a very-well put together presentation. Hopefully I can watch the full thing later.

Good. I hope you will. It's very informative.

 

 

I just hesitate tho, to acknowledge anyone that claims to fully understand "the human equation". Nuerosciences and psychology have a LONG way to go before telling me why I believe in an admittedly illogical deity.

Well, nobody has claimed to "fully" understand anything. Also, you're basically writing off this entire line of research into the mind and our neurobiology (which has been occurring for decades). I'm perfectly willing to entertain specific challenges and focused criticisms, but to simply suggest that "they have too far to go" before you accept their science is only showing your own faults and biases (I figure if I question your pride and integrity you'll be more likely to articulate your points better :D ).

 

There is a lot of interesting work here. Our neurocortical systems are better understood each day, especially with technology like fMRI, CAT, PET, and SqUID. Further, the explanations make the best sense in an evolutionary sense. We evolved these mental systems to deal with the challenges of the time. Now, those same mechanisms are being hijacked by what Thomson refers to as "super-normal stimuli."

 

Just watch the rest, and then comment. I fear you've written it off before you've even finished with it, and that's no way to do science or understand the world. ;)

 

 

 

I think they should settle the Nature vs. Nurture thing first, and then go from there

 

They have. It's always both. While there are certain traits which result more from one than the other, the two are forever inseparable.

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I will watch it after my classes and then I'll comment.

And youre right, when Im insulted I usually type a two page editorial in word and then post it lol :P

 

That was always my opinion...that the two need each other...but my psych prof said it was an all or nothing deal...I KNEW i didnt like him lol .

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Thanks for posting this, I'll have to share this with others I know :)

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Hey, glad you enjoyed it. Please, do share it. :)

 

 

In the video, Thomson references work done in Ireland by Jesse Bering. It was in reference to children, and their beliefs at a young age.

 

There was a puppet show in which an alligator eats a mouse. Then, the children are asked whether or not (after being eaten by the alligator) the mouse still needs to eat or drink. The children respond, "No." Then, the children are asked whether or not the mouse is still moving around, and they again respond, "No."

 

Then, the children are asked if the mouse thinks certain things... or whether or not the mouse wants certain things, and the children say, "Yes."

 

This type of experiment helps us to show our innate division when it comes to applying human mental states and attributions of thoughts and desires to agents with intentions and goals versus physical objects (this division is referred to as "common sense dualism").

 

Basically, even 5 month olds will startle when a box is moving around the room in a specific pattern, but have no issue with the exact same movements being performed by a human... we are innately common sense dualists, and we somehow are born knowing the difference between agents with intentions/goals and physical objects.

 

 

Here's more on the work referenced, work done by Jesse Bering in 2004:

 

 

http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/InstituteofCognitionCulture/Staff/JesseMBering/FileStore/Filetoupload,39830,en.pdf

Like Evans & Wellman, Harris & Astuti state that their own research programme on the development of afterlife beliefs reveals a set of findings that in many ways contradict the developmental trajectory reported by Bering & Bjorklund (2004), or at least tells a more complicated story with religious testimony and cultural exposure encouraging such beliefs. Again, however, it is difficult to compare findings across these studies. We deliberately avoided eschatological language in our research design because we were wary of biasing children’s answers through the experimenters’ language and behaviours, and in fact our empirical reports list many of the safeguards we used to protect against such biases (Hughes). In contrast, such language was an important manipulated variable for both Harris & Giménez (2005) and Astuti & Harris (2006).

 

Furthermore, the coding procedures used to determine whether children attributed continued psychological functioning to a dead agent meaningfully differed between our studies and those described by Harris & Astuti. Our data were coded on the basis of children’s followup answers to the questions rather than their initial yes or no response. We reasoned that a “no” response is inherently ambiguous and should not be seen as clear evidence for non-continuity judgements after death. Young children in our study often answered “no” to the initial questions about the dead agent’s continued capacities (“Can Brown Mouse still see?”), but upon further questioning it became clear that they were nevertheless reasoning in terms of an afterlife (e.g. “…because it’s too dark in the alligator’s belly”). Harris and Giménez (as well as Astuti & Harris, 2006 and Barrett & Behne, 2005) failed to operationalize children’s “no” answers in this way, instead taking them at face value as evidence of an understanding of the non-functionality of the capacity in question.

 

It is therefore impossible to know whether the findings these authors report is a product of the religious context of the story, as they argue, or is in fact an artefact of their coding procedure. In addition, Harris & Giménez (2005) treated their religious/secular variable as a within-subjects factor, so that all children heard the two death narratives in the same order, first the religious narrative (“Now that Sarah’s grandmother is with God, can she still…”) and then the secular narrative (“Now that Bill’s grandfather is dead and buried, can he still…”). This potential confound of an order effect, where the demand characteristics of the study are so transparent (especially to older children), again makes it difficult to make theoretical inferences based on these data. Finally, the youngest children in the Harris and Giménez study were seven-year-olds, whereas our most robust findings for afterlife beliefs came from the three- and four-year-olds we tested, providing the basis of our nativist claims.

 

<...>

 

Several commentaries focussed on the simulation constraint hypothesis (Antony; Cohen & Consoli; Jack & Robbins; Kemmerer & Gupta; Preston et al). To revisit the central thesis of this hypothesis, I claimed that a delimiting phenomenological boundary prevents people from experiencing the absence of certain categories of mental states, such as emotions, desires, and various episteme (the most “ethereal” qualia). Because we can never know what it feels like to be without such states, these natural representational borders encourage afterlife beliefs. When we attempt to reason about what it will be “like” after death—and what it is “like” for those who have already died—we inevitably get ensnared by simulation constraints and reason in terms of a continued consciousness.

 

 

There's a lot more really good information (and references) at the above link. :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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I thought I'd take a moment to share another quote, as well as a reference, from the video, as I understand that some people are either unable or unwilling to use video lectures in these online fora.

 

 

From the video (shortly after the discussion of 5-month olds startling when a box is moved around a room using the same motions as a human would make, but does not startle when a human moves in the same way... showing how we are "common sense dualists" from birth):

Children know more than they learn... We come into the world with these systems already in place. It is natural, from very early on, to think of "disembodied minds." Now, you can flip it around and you can understand why this is crucial. If I required a body [to be physically present] to think about [someone elses] mind, that's a real liability... It's burdensome... I need to be able to think about somebody, and think about what's going on inside of them, and what their intentions or goals might be... without them present.

 

 

This ability to deal with disembodied minds, something with an obvious selective advantage, has through time brought with it the emergent property of deity. We have the ability to deal with causal agents not physical present, and we are very biased toward attributing a causal agent were there may be none. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that our belief in some life separate from what is actually experienced inside of us... in our body... is the default setting of the human mind, as this ability to predict and rehearse the actions, goals, and desires of others has conferred significant selective advantage... even if those others are unseen and not immediately present.

 

 

Another thing about children is that they are causal determinists... What does this mean? Well... any mind that is oriented toward seeing intentions... and desires and goals... is gonna "over-read" purpose. If you ask a child, "What are birds for?" [that child will respond with something like,] "To sing." [if you ask a child] "What are rivers for?" [that child will respond with comments such as,] "for boats to float on." [if you ask a child,] "What are rocks for?" [that child will respond with something like,] "for animals to scratch themselves."

 

We over-read causality... we WAY over-read causality and purpose.

 

 

He then references research done by Petrovich and also Boyer, both in 2009. In that work, it's demonstrated that children will spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention. It shows how these mechanisms with which we're born make us all very vulnerable to religious ideas. He suggests that religious ideas are much easier to accept, and that it is disbelief that is cognitively much more challenging.

 

 

 

More on those works referenced:

 

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126941.700-born-believers-how-your-brain-creates-god.html?full=true

In similar experiments, Olivera Petrovich of the University of Oxford asked pre-school children about the origins of natural things such as plants and animals. She found they were seven times as likely to answer that they were made by god than made by people.

 

These cognitive biases are so strong, says Petrovich, that children tend to spontaneously invent the concept of god without adult intervention: "They rely on their everyday experience of the physical world and construct the concept of god on the basis of this experience." Because of this, when children hear the claims of religion they seem to make perfect sense.

 

Our predisposition to believe in a supernatural world stays with us as we get older. Kelemen has found that adults are just as inclined to see design and intention where there is none. Put under pressure to explain natural phenomena, adults often fall back on teleological arguments, such as "trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe" or "the sun is hot because warmth nurtures life".

 

 

 

http://www.cognitionandculture.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=417:how-persistent-are-intuitive-erroneous-beliefs&catid=43:helen&Itemid=34

According to developmental psychologists like Elizabeth Spelke or Susan Carey, and cognitive anthropologists like Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, humans are endowed with inference mechanisms that enable them to acquire knowledge of the world (these inference mechanisms are known by several terms, such as core knowledge, conceptual modules or intuitive ontologies). Sometimes these inference mechanisms are at odds with scientific principles. A well-studied example is impetus physics, the view that inanimate objects, in order to be propelled, have to be laden with a force (impetus) by an agent or another object in order to be set in motion. This impetus physics yields a lot of imprecise predictions: for example, over 50% of adults believe that a ball, being launched by a sling, will continue in a curvilinear path, or that a ball dropped by a running person will fall straight down instead of describing a parabolic path. Newtonian physics, in contrast, predicts a parabolic path, a prediction only consistently made by people with a college training in physics (see McCloskey's 1983 review in Scientific American to get an idea).

 

However, an ingenious experimental procedure by Kohhenikov and Hegarty (2001), Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8) shows that even expert physicists are guided by the intuitive impetus physics under some conditions.
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I watched most of the video, which, in my case, is just so much preaching to the choir. I'm surprised that Thompson didn't mention bicameralism. Julian Jaynes, with all his faults and adversaries, still said about the same thing Thompson is saying, but about 30 years earlier. I like Jaynes' approach a little better because he emphasized the role of symbolic language in the evolution of human consciousness.

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Interesting video. I watched/listened to it while doing something else, but it seemed to have a lot of meat to it. I'm going to have to sit down and really pay attention.

 

Btw, have you seen Scott Atran's exchanges at Beyond Belief 2006?

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Referenced also in the video is the work done by John Bowlby on attachment mechanisms. More on that here:

 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_theory

Attachment theory, originating in the work of John Bowlby, is a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory that provides a descriptive and explanatory framework for understanding interpersonal relationships between human beings. Attachment theorists consider children to have a need for a secure relationship with adult caregivers, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur.

 

<...>

 

Within attachment theory, attachment means a bond or tie between an individual and an attachment figure. Between two adults, such bonds may be reciprocal and mutual; however, as felt by children toward a parental or caregiving figure, such bonds are likely to be asymmetric. The reason for this is inherent in the theory: it proposes that the need for safety and protection, which is paramount in infancy and childhood, is the basis of the bond. The theory posits that children attach to carers instinctively,[8] with respect to ways of achieving security, survival and, ultimately, genetic replication.

 

 

The speaker goes on to illustrate how religion and the group experience of belief... of care-takers in the religious domain, as well as the connection with a presumed deity as an "ultimate care-taker" all leverage this attachment mechanism.


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Since there hasn't been a tremendous amount of participation in this thread, I'll try a slightly different approach and offer you a new video.

 

 

19 March 2009. World famous philosopher and humanist Daniel Dennett speaks at Conway Hall, providing "A Darwinian Perspective on Religions: Past, Present and Future".

 

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A friend of mine on another site recently shared this new video with me on "The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Belief."

 

It has a discussion including evolutionary biologists Randy Thornhill (coauthor of "A Natural History of Rape") and David Sloan Wilson (author of "Darwin's Cathedral" and "Unto Others").

 

It's really rather supportive of the premise put forward in the OP, and worth the review.

 

 

 

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Let us know what you think.

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Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

 

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=skeptic-agenticity

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

 

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of “patternicity,” which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

 

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

 

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind—the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others—we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call “agent*icity”: the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms. <
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Incredibly detailed view i-Now. Well done for the research. However, I would have thought that absolute selfishness would be the factor that would ensure survival of the genes/organisms. However, we find altruistic individuals in most societies who seem to be motivated by no substantial reward. Moreover, the 'evolution', or otherwise, of monotheism is quite mysterious to me, because I would have anticipated a wide scale animistic or shamanistic belief. Yet, here we are, most of the world favour monotheism.

 

Also, I have found the evolution of a language to be also mysterious. Is there a scientific consensus to the reason for a language with its semantic and syntactic complexities? Most of my bottom set students seem to communicate quite happily with grunts and physical violence to each other. Why evolve a language that is not only expressive but also self referential?

 

Your thread is excellent but I will need another day or two to follow the links. Interesting stuff!

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Yet, here we are, most of the world favour monotheism.

Well, try to remember that monotheism is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Before about 2 or 3 thousand years ago, practically all human belief systems were polytheistic. Since humans have been around for at least 100 thousand years (and possibly as many as 300 thousand years), the current acceptance of mono versus poly theism seems to be more a factor of good marketing and strong principles of indoctrination at early ages than it is any representation of "betterness" of the belief system itself.

 

 

 

Also, I have found the evolution of a language to be also mysterious. Is there a scientific consensus to the reason for a language with its semantic and syntactic complexities?

That's an interesting question, and would probably warrant its own thread. Try to remember that communication itself is very common across the animal kingdom, and it happens in different ways. You have that first frog who croaked, that first squid who changed colors, or that first fish with an electric current, or that first something with a different odor/smell... These are all communication types, and when viewed in this larger context, it's more easy to see why and how language has become so complex and dense today among humans... a hugely social species.

 

It's cool work, for sure, but obviously somewhat OT here.

 

 

Your thread is excellent but I will need another day or two to follow the links. Interesting stuff!

Thanks for your kindness. I appreciate that, and also am heartened to know that somebody besides just me finds this subject fascinating.

 

Enjoy. :)

 

 

 

 

 


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Interesting article I just read in TIME.

 

 

 

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1179313,00.html

What's the first thing you do if the ground beneath you starts to rumble and the walls begin to shake? Grab the kids and run? Check your home-insurance policy? Fall on your knees and pray for deliverance? All logical enough reactions, but not your very first one. Instead, even when faced with imminent disaster, you'll spend precious time asking, "What was that?" It's called the cognitive imperative, the uniquely human, hardwired instinct to link cause with effect that gave us a vital evolutionary advantage over other animal species. After all, the noise could be just a passing truck and nothing to lose precious sleep over.

 

Delineating how we react to an earthquake is just one example of the cognitive imperative described in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, British scientist Lewis Wolpert's enquiry into the evolutionary origins of belief. If the theme sounds familiar, that's because the search for scientific roots of religious faith is a hot, and heatedly debated, issue of the day. In his 2004 book The God Gene, U.S. molecular biologist Dean Hamer claimed to have located one of the genes he said was responsible for spirituality. Last month, the American philosopher and evolutionary theorist Daniel Dennett provoked more controversy with Breaking the Spell, in which he cast religion in terms of memes — cultural ideas that can spread, mutate and survive in our minds, whether or not they are good for us.

 

<...>

 

As a developmental biologist at London's University College, and one of Britain's loudest champions of the public understanding of science, Wolpert covers genes, memes, pain and various other angles in his book. But rather than just arm wrestling with God's faithful, his book attempts to survey the science underpinning all intuitive beliefs, including religion, that humans stubbornly cling to, in spite of the best efforts of rational enquiry to displace them: credence in the paranormal, magic and superstition; faith in alternative-health therapies; the conviction that sooner or later we're bound to win a lottery jackpot. Our belief engine, Wolpert concludes, works on wholly unscientific principles: "It prefers quick decisions, it is bad with numbers, loves representativeness and sees patterns where there is only randomness. It is too often influenced by authority and it has a liking for mysticism."

 

It is no coincidence that the stubbornest of our "irrational" beliefs correspond to our fears of the unknown, the unknowable and the unstoppable — of disease, death and natural disaster.

 

<...>

 

More likely to start an argument is the author's novel proposition that the imperative to link cause and effect derived directly from our earliest hominid ancestors' discovery of tools as many as 2 million years ago. The ability to fashion a flint spear, he speculates, promoted a kind of causal thinking that was beyond other species: take a certain type of stone, hit it in just such a way, and it will leave a cutting edge. The later development of another tool, language, enabled early humans to explain the technology, and in the evolutionary twinkling of an eye we found ourselves genetically wired to seek a cause for every effect we see.

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iNow, sorry to get back to this thread so late. I have been trying to prioritise my schedule and had to let this really interesting thread drop. I am not discussing questions of faith with you because these are outside the realm of this Forum.

 

I would like your input on a couple of matters though, which are probably relevant to a selectionist framework.

 

From your OP onwards, it seems that inference is central to the development of belief in the supernatural. As one of the articles suggested (and I am paraphrasing here), those creatures who infer the movement of a blade of grass as a predator have a built-in system to avoid being eaten.

 

However, inference is just a form of logical deduction: blade of grass --> could be predator..---> run. Therefore, would it be reasonable to assume that these creatures have a system of logic already in situ as a central part of their neurocognitive architecture? If so, there must be cases in the animal Kingdom , where there are correlates of this type of deduction. Large apes would be excellent subjects for research in this case. I just wondered how good their inference powers would be so scientists good work out a 'threshold' of inference making that would lead to increased survival rates or to point out a predisposition towards the natural or supernatural forces. Do large apes feel awe, helplessness, transcendent joy? Are their scientific methods to show these beliefs? Or are there methods to detect parts of the brain that 'light up' when humans feel these emotions?

 

IMO, in short, if inference systems are central to the evolution of belief of the supernatural, then other animals may have similar adaptations and scientists should be able to study them.

 

There was also a relevant point mentioned about Social Intelligence as a method of ensuring survival. However, the development, or evolution, of a social system with its concomitant social cooperation is central to the survival of a group. What are the mechanisms that encourage a group to form? In my opinion, development of a reasonably robust communication system would have to precede the survival of a group. Otherwise, in the cold light of survival, it should be every man for himself. If it is true that oxytocin plays a role in mother-infant bonding, and vasopressin receptors determine mate fidelity, then those mechanisms would also, IMO, have to be in place before we start talking about the mechanisms for group survival.

 

I loved the section about memes and the rise of cultural norms. I have heard about cultures arising in killer whales, for example, where some families will not eat humans and others, with a separate culture, will happily eat anything of the correct size, including humans. I guess this is the method for transmission of important information in birds being able to pierce open bottle tops from milk bottles to drink the milk. Technically this information should be able to spread quite easily in a localised species of birds by communication then possibly to other bird species by imitation of a successful strategy.

 

However, even this survival of memes (IMO) requires a certain developed mind to be in place and also seems to depend on a fairly sophisticated cognitive architecture in place. It also depends on a deductive faculty. Milk in bottle --> top protects it--->pierce top ---> milk free to drink.

 

I also enjoyed the part of causality and how humans tend to over-read causality even from infancy. This seems to be built into the human brain and even attributing a type of causality to an external agent is also a form of deduction.

 

In short, IMHO, inference, group survival and recognition/explanation of causality all seem to boil down to logical deduction. Humans seem to be born scientists. The thing is, how many other creatures also use deductive cognitive mechanisms?

 

Finally, just to cut my post short, Torquemada, the Crusades and religious persecution provide the worst sort of marketing for religion. Satan worship would seem to be the best sort of religion, allowing complete freedom for acquiring power, maintaining power and for allowing full vent to all human freedom. Yet monotheism still maintains a hold on societies worldwide forcing them to be altruistic and charitable in situations where survival is paramount, but the means for it are a bit shaky.

 

Great thread, which deserves more attention.

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Hi Jimmy,

 

I'm not sure I'm fully equipped to satisfy your curiosity all by myself, but I'll give a try to addressing your key points. Let me preface by saying that these are my own cogitations on the matter, and may not be fully representative of nor aligned with the most current work in the various research domains we touch.

 

 

From your OP onwards, it seems that inference is central to the development of belief in the supernatural. As one of the articles suggested (and I am paraphrasing here), those creatures who infer the movement of a blade of grass as a predator have a built-in system to avoid being eaten.

 

However, inference is just a form of logical deduction: blade of grass --> could be predator..---> run. Therefore, would it be reasonable to assume that these creatures have a system of logic already in situ as a central part of their neurocognitive architecture?

 

Inference is definitely critical to these belief systems, and we very much are born with these logic circuits "in situ." The experiment with the infant who startled at a chair but not a human supports that suggestion rather strongly. A lot of work has been done in other animals where, for example, new borns show a fear of snakes or heights. This suggests that non-human animals have similar neurocortical predispositions and tendencies.

 

What I do wish to point out, though, is that the innate ability to infer and perform this type of logic is only one part of the larger collection of human mental abilities and predispositions which ultimately lead to these strong tendencies toward belief.

 

 

If so, there must be cases in the animal Kingdom , where there are correlates of this type of deduction. Large apes would be excellent subjects for research in this case. I just wondered how good their inference powers would be so scientists good work out a 'threshold' of inference making that would lead to increased survival rates or to point out a predisposition towards the natural or supernatural forces. Do large apes feel awe, helplessness, transcendent joy? Are their scientific methods to show these beliefs? Or are there methods to detect parts of the brain that 'light up' when humans feel these emotions?

This is a very interesting question, and TBH, I don't really know. One problem with doing such measurements in non-humans is that we cannot tell them, "Okay... think about god" and measure them in an MRI while they do. The communication barriers are pretty profound, whereas in humans, we can use our communication skills to properly setup the conditions of the experiment and get some solid data. There are several factors when conducting such work. For example, you need to have a shared definition of your key words, and the participant needs to fully understand your meaning before the test begins. That's a bit of a challenge when working with other species.

 

Additionally, even once we've mapped certain brain regions in humans with steps such as those described above... once we know which brain areas light up for certain very specific thoughts... that will only give us a slight clue into the overall phenomenon since (IMO) the effect/output being described in this thread is a "the whole is larger than the sum of the parts" phenomenon. Finally, once we understand this all in humans we will certainly be much better prepared to understand it in animals. Just recall that animal cognition and neural activity likely won't map one-to-one to human cognition and neural activity, despite the certain overlap in these processes we share in various degrees with these animals.

 

My own speculation, though? I'm pretty darned sure (that if we pin down that this is all explainable as a neurocortical phenomenon based on genetic predispositions in humans) that other non-human primates with a close relationship to us will be predisposed to these same things... that they will also have a "deity-esque" understanding of the universe... likely polytheistic... with super non-understood powers describing the rain and thunder and the cold and the heat, etc. I would find it surprising, basically, that we as humans have all of these biological mechanism inclining us toward belief and other non-human primates, or even non-primate mammals, would not as well. That's just my personal opinion, though. It could go either way.

 

 

 

However, the development, or evolution, of a social system with its concomitant social cooperation is central to the survival of a group. What are the mechanisms that encourage a group to form?

The short answer is the "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" phenomenon. We evolved in the trees, so our eyes are toward the forward of our skulls. This allows us to have better depth perception when swinging from tree to tree or judging distance between branches. However, we then started venturing out and ultimately surviving on the plains... flat land... and our eyes remained at the front of our heads. We began walking upright, which allowed us to see greater distances and over the taller grasses, but we were also now much more prone to attack from predators approaching from behind and above us... Basically, we cant' really see so well behind us because our eyes are at the front of our heads.

 

Now, think of just about any animal that is a common prey, like a rabbit, or a gazelle... you will see that their eyes are at the sides of their head, which gives them a much better ability to see behind them. Their field of vision covers a much broader angle than ours. When a predator approaches from behind a prey animal like this, they pick it up much more quickly due to the placement of their eyes on the side of their head, which allows them to run away and increase chances at survival. They evolved to have eyes on the sides, as this proved hugely beneficial.

 

But, humans... we have our eyes at the front of our head, as that brought us other evolutionary advantages while we were primarily a tree dwelling species, but also some significant disadvantages when we left the trees... as we were much more vulnerable to attack from predators coming from behind us. Hence, the power of social grouping. What happened is basically this. We would be sitting alone, we'd get eaten from behind. However, when sitting with a group of peers, let's say 5 or 10 others... we suddenly could borrow their eyes. We went from having two eyes facing one way to having 10 or 20 eyes facing all different ways. The power of the social group is that the eyes of each group member work together. When one member of the group sees a predator, it sounds a call, and the entire group escapes. They sum the power of their multiple eyes for the collective benefit of the group. Those who cooperated in this way hugely out-survived those who did not... Those who stayed alone, or who lived in unhelpful groups, were consistently removed from the gene pool until we were left with a species hugely predisposed to social grouping and cohesion... Those in a cooperative and like-minded group simply had much better chances at survival over the eons.

 

Also, the group allows for greater success in hunting, as well as in help caring for offspring and kin. There are many reasons why group behavior is favored, and we see it across the animal kingdom in many different species, but especially in primates (which we humans are) who tend most often to exist in troops and packs.

 

 

In short, IMHO, inference, group survival and recognition/explanation of causality all seem to boil down to logical deduction. Humans seem to be born scientists. The thing is, how many other creatures also use deductive cognitive mechanisms?

Again, good question, but I also want to restate what I said earlier that that I don't think this boils down to one lone simple mechanism. It's a combination of several factors which come together to make these "super stimuli" of religion and deities. It's our predisposition toward inference, toward over reading causality, toward social grouping... our innate tendency to learn from and trust our elders, to accept what those in authority tell us, especially at a young age. It's lots of things, all coming together in this very strange way which has changed our culture itself. Ultimately, though... I can't help but to think that other animals do this also, it's just that it's much harder to measure such questions since we can't just ask a dolphin whether or not it believes in some sort of dolphin jesus or dolphin thor or dolphin zeus. ;)

 

 

 

Yet monotheism still maintains a hold on societies worldwide forcing them to be altruistic and charitable in situations where survival is paramount, but the means for it are a bit shaky.

First, bear in mind that the Abrahamic religions make up only about half of the worlds population. There are still a lot of polytheists out there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups

 

Second, I think one of the things we're noticing now in the information age is that people are very often charitable and altruistic for reasons which have nothing whatsoever to do with faith or religious belief. They perform these positive acts and do these helpful things simply because they feel it is the right thing to do. That gives me great hope for humanity, and I look forward to us nurturing our innately positive attributes like these, while simultaneously rejecting some of the things which have caused our world such unnecessary pain and suffering, like belief systems and worldviews which conflict with those of friends and neighbors... beliefs and worldviews which implicitly further these tragic ingroup/outgroup mentalities. Basically, I'm for expanding the definition of "our group" into one that encompasses the planet, and not just "our local pack." That's where evolution seems to have trended, and I personally propose that it will continue in that same direction for many more years and centuries to come.

 

I hope the above gave some insight to your questions. You asked some really good ones, and I quite appreciate that. Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 


Merged post follows:

Consecutive posts merged

Jimmy - Your post kept returning to a common question, "Do animals have beliefs?"

 

With that in mind, I thought that you might enjoy this interesting article with exactly that title written by Dan Dennett back in 1995, published in Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press.

 

http://pp.kpnet.fi/seirioa/cdenn/doanimal.htm

Edited by iNow
Consecutive posts merged.

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While not a definitive association, this recent study regarding complex toolkits for honey bee extraction suggests that chimps have this same ability to mentally interact with unseen others, a critical factor in belief among humans.

 

 

Chimp-Made Toolkit Most Complex Ever Found

 

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/06/02/chimpanzee-tool-kit.html

Central African chimpanzees crave honey so much that they've invented the animal kingdom's most complex known set of tools to get it, according to researchers who found many of the tools still slathered with the syrupy liquid.

 

A new study on the findings, accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution, is believed to be the first to compare such a sophisticated chimp tool set with Stone Age human technologies. Hunger for honey appears to have motivated both species.

 

<...>

 

[Regarding extraction of honey from underground nests] Boesch and his team believe the chimps must therefore possess "an elaborate understanding of unseen nest structure, combined with a clear appreciation that tools permit the location of unseen resources, and a precise three-dimensional use of geometry for reaching the honey chamber from the correct angle."

 

Again, I interpolate that chimps abilities to understand the complex structure of an unseen bees nest is generated from the same neural architecture as humans ability to engage in complex social interaction with unseen others.

 

Even if you disagree with this conjecture, the article above is still pretty cool. :)

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There is a lot of interesting stuff here. Examining the evolutionary origin of consciousness and reasoning ability component by component. Instead of treating it as one big lump with a lump survival value. Examine each subsystem: what other animals share it? how could it have evolved (say in magpies, as well as humans)? how our brains are prepared to infer fallaciously in certain ways---are vulnerable---as a side-effect of some other survival fitness development.

 

It's actually bothering me that I can't make the time to read the stuff in this thread carefully enough. An hour or two ago I was reading and then got interrupted by company. Now I'm back, but have something else that has to be done.

 

I am remembering some research into the idea of self. which animals had evolved it. If you put a red spot on the forehead of an elephant and let it see itself in the mirror it will try to rub off the spot. It knows that it's Itself in the mirror. Almost no other animals except humans and primates will "get it" and try to rub the spot off. But it was recently found that there is a type of bird that recognizes itself in the mirror. And the birds are curious and walk around to take a look behind the mirror too, as if asking what is there and why it works. Most birds think it is somebody else they see. But this one species has a brain which is able to recognize Itself. Then the question is how did that extra brain feature and ability evolve?

 

I really liked the Scientific American article on "agenticity" and "patternicity". Thanks.

 

==============

EDIT: Heres a link to another forum where this was discussed and there are a lot of links to sources, and a video of a magpie trying to remove a yellow sticky from its neck that it can't see directly but can only see in the mirror.

http://www.sciencechatforum.com/bulletin/viewtopic.php?f=37&t=10101

There is a PLoS journal article about this, and a link there too.

It is said that only humans and 4 ape species, and Asian elephants, and bottlenose dophins, have passed this "mirror test". (not African elephants, not other kinds of dolphin, not other primates, just those specific ones.)

And of course now magpies. Hundreds of animals have been tested. Most types of animal just think it is another individual, not themselves, in the mirror. So if the other guy has a spot painted on, it is no big deal. Only certain species have brains with the ability to figure out that it is them and they better scratch or wipe off the mark.

 

So what is important here. People are studying the evolution of consciousness which means ultimately the genetic basis---certain structures in the brain that enable certain kinds of recognition, planning, tool use, picturing future situations, internalizing social interaction, concept of self, mental model of other person, personification (projection of a self onto some other thing, like an automobile or the stock market). Maybe. All these things are different. Different animal species can have a different subset of them. Maybe. They are not just learned by an amorphous general purpose brain. Maybe. They are connected, apparently, with anatomy, hardwire brain anatomy, that is genetically determined and which has evolved in various different animal species. OK, so it looks like a different approach from what has been done mostly in the past.

 

Puzzle as to why a magpie, of all birds, would have the ability to realize that the image in the mirror was itself, and not another magpie. And why other birds would not. Like a robin will fight its own image in a shiny hubcap. Why has a magpie evolved greater sophistication than a robin, in this matter?

 

Beautiful thread, iNow. Many many ideas are latent here.

Edited by Martin

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=iNow;494946]Hi Jimmy, I'm not sure I'm fully equipped to satisfy your curiosity all by myself, but I'll give a try to addressing your key points. Let me preface by saying that these are my own cogitations on the matter, and may not be fully representative of nor aligned with the most current work in the various research domains we touch.

 

You are far better qualified in the matter than I am friend.

 

Inference is definitely critical to these belief systems, and we very much are born with these logic circuits "in situ." The experiment with the infant who startled at a chair but not a human supports that suggestion rather strongly. A lot of work has been done in other animals where, for example, new borns show a fear of snakes or heights. This suggests that non-human animals have similar neurocortical predispositions and tendencies.

 

I understand the point but I was just picking out the important cognitive faculties which would enable species to be born with certain inferences or a knowledge of causality. This can then enable observational or molecular genetic studies to look for key molecules that mediate these responses. Moreover, my main purpose was to state that if non-human primates are capable of expressing wonder and awe, then, IMHO, these are traits which are indicators of a ‘proto –faith’ if you will. I recall vaguely some story about chimps dancing in apparent awe at the first sight of a waterfall. What a beautiful story, if it were true. I would also surmise that the parts of the brain which cause wonder and awe in chimps can be subjected to examination. You could then examine developments of these parts of the brain and perform knockout studies etc…

 

This is a very interesting question, and TBH, I don't really know. One problem with doing such measurements in non-humans is that we cannot tell them, "Okay... think about god" and measure them in an MRI while they do. The communication barriers are pretty profound, whereas in humans, we can use our communication skills to properly setup the conditions of the experiment and get some solid data. There are several factors when conducting such work. For example, you need to have a shared definition of your key words, and the participant needs to fully understand your meaning before the test begins. That's a bit of a challenge when working with other species.

 

I suppose the only answer I can come up with is a bit lame but it involves engaging the chimps in a 4-D simulator and examining which areas of the brain ‘light up’ with brain scans. I don’t know if this is feasible in real life.

 

My own speculation, though? I'm pretty darned sure (that if we pin down that this is all explainable as a neurocortical phenomenon based on genetic predispositions in humans) that other non-human primates with a close relationship to us will be predisposed to these same things... that they will also have a "deity-esque" understanding of the universe... likely polytheistic... with super non-understood powers describing the rain and thunder and the cold and the heat, etc. I would find it surprising, basically, that we as humans have all of these biological mechanism inclining us toward belief and other non-human primates, or even non-primate mammals, would not as well. That's just my personal opinion, though. It could go either way.

 

I like those honest opinions. I would think, IMO, that non-human primates would share a similar experience but would be 'one step away' from humans; hence the point above about wonder and awe.

 

But, humans... we have our eyes at the front of our head, as that brought us other evolutionary advantages while we were primarily a tree dwelling species, but also some significant disadvantages when we left the trees... as we were much more vulnerable to attack from predators coming from behind us. Hence, the power of social grouping. What happened is basically this. We would be sitting alone, we'd get eaten from behind. However, when sitting with a group of peers, let's say 5 or 10 others... we suddenly could borrow their eyes. We went from having two eyes facing one way to having 10 or 20 eyes facing all different ways. The power of the social group is that the eyes of each group member work together. When one member of the group sees a predator, it sounds a call, and the entire group escapes. They sum the power of their multiple eyes for the collective benefit of the group. Those who cooperated in this way hugely out-survived those who did not... Those who stayed alone, or who lived in unhelpful groups, were consistently removed from the gene pool until we were left with a species hugely predisposed to social grouping and cohesion... Those in a cooperative and like-minded group simply had much better chances at survival over the eons.

 

 

Good vision, I see no reason why I cannot agree with that. It would be fascinating if other animals hold strong beliefs or thoughts about their identity, or even thoughts about higher forces. I wonder if cats bring home offerings of the occasional ragged mouse or rat as a sacrificial offering… :)

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Here's a link to another forum where this was discussed and there are a lot of links to sources, and a video of a magpie trying to remove a yellow sticky from its neck that it can't see directly but can only see in the mirror.

 

http://www.sciencechatforum.com/bulletin/viewtopic.php?f=37&t=10101

 

There is a PLoS journal article about this, and a link there too.

 

It is said that only humans and 4 ape species, and Asian elephants, and bottlenose dophins, have passed this "mirror test". (not African elephants, not other kinds of dolphin, not other primates, just those specific ones.)

 

And of course now magpies. Hundreds of animals have been tested. Most types of animal just think it is another individual, not themselves, in the mirror. So if the other guy has a spot painted on, it is no big deal. Only certain species have brains with the ability to figure out that it is them and they better scratch or wipe off the mark.

 

So what is important here. People are studying the evolution of consciousness which means ultimately the genetic basis---certain structures in the brain that enable certain kinds of recognition, planning, tool use, picturing future situations, internalizing social interaction, concept of self, mental model of other person, personification (projection of a self onto some other thing, like an automobile or the stock market).

Now, that's pretty awesome. Drilling down into the information you shared, I discovered this:

 

 

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14552-mirror-test-shows-magpies-arent-so-birdbrained.html

Self-recognition, once thought to be an ability enjoyed only by select primates, has now been demonstrated in a bird.

 

The finding has raised questions about part of the brain called the neocortex, something the self-aware magpie does not even possess.

 

In humans, the ability to recognise oneself in a mirror develops around the age of 18 months and coincides with the first signs of social behaviour. So-called "mirror mark tests", where a mark is placed on the animal in such a way that it can only be observed when it looks at its reflection, have been used to sort the self-aware beasts from the rest.

 

<...>

 

The authors suggest that self-recognition in birds and mammals may be a case of convergent evolution, where similar evolutionary pressures result in similar behaviours or traits, although they arrive at them via different routes.

 

De Waal agrees: "Magpies are known for their ability to steal shiny objects and to hide away their loot. It's not too far-fetched that a master thief like a magpie has that perspective-taking ability," he says, referring to the idea that the birds have a "theory of mind".

 

 

HRVGA9zxXzk

 

 

 

It's actually bothering me that I can't make the time to read the stuff in this thread carefully enough. An hour or two ago I was reading and then got interrupted by company. Now I'm back, but have something else that has to be done.

Lol. If it makes you feel any better, I have that feeling myself repeatedly when reviewing your threads and posts. So often, they are rich with all sorts of wonderful information, but real life tends to consistently keep me from immediately diving too deeply into it.

 

All the same, I usually bookmark the cool bits and come back to them. Hopefully you'll be able to do the same. Thank you for the kind words and feedback, my good man. Have a wonderful weekend. :)

 

 

 

 

 

 


Merged post follows:

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my main purpose was to state that if non-human primates are capable of expressing wonder and awe, then, IMHO, these are traits which are indicators of a ‘proto –faith’ if you will. I recall vaguely some story about chimps dancing in apparent awe at the first sight of a waterfall. What a beautiful story, if it were true.

I'd never heard that before, but it sounds incredibly plausible, and wouldn't surprise me in the least. I did some googling, and found this which seems to support it's veracity:

 

 

http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/05/chimps-awe-inspired-by-waterfall-some.html

Elephants caring for a crippled herd member seem to show empathy. A funeral ritual performed by magpies suggests grief. Then there's the excited dance chimps perform when faced with a waterfall – it looks distinctly awe-inspired.

 

In June 2006, Jane Goodall and I visited the Mona Chimpanzee Sanctuary near Girona in Spain. There we met Marco, a rescued chimp, who dances during thunderstorms with such abandon that he appears to be in a trance. Goodall and others have witnessed chimps, usually adult males, perform a similar ritual at waterfalls. She described a chimpanzee approaching one of these falls with slightly bristled hair, a sign of heightened arousal. "As he gets closer, and the roar of the falling water gets louder, his pace quickens, his hair becomes fully erect, and upon reaching the stream he may perform a magnificent display close to the foot of the falls," she describes. "Standing upright, he sways rhythmically from foot to foot, stamping in the shallow, rushing water, picking up and hurling great rocks. Sometimes he climbs up the slender vines that hang down from the trees high above and swings out into the spray of the falling water. This 'waterfall dance' may last 10 or 15 minutes."

 

<...>

 

"A chimpanzee comes to a stunning sight in the midst of a tropical forest: A twenty-five foot waterfall sends water thundering into a pool below, which casts up mist some seventy feet. Apparently lost in contemplation, the chimpanzee cries out, runs excitedly back and forth, and drums on trees with its fists. Here we see the dawn of awe and wonder in animals.

 

"Famed heart surgeon, Dr. Christian Bernard, witnessed a chimpanzee weeping bitterly and becoming inconsolable for days after his companion was taken away for research. Bernard then vowed never again to experiment with such sensitive creatures."

 

 

In addition to sources for those comments, there are also some other really great stories and quotes at the link above which seem to inform this topic, and reinforce the view that humans are probably not as distinct or "special" as many might prefer to think. :)

 

 

 

It would be fascinating if other animals hold strong beliefs or thoughts about their identity, or even thoughts about higher forces.

I agree fully. If we could demonstrate that other animals had beliefs in higher powers, then of course people would interpret this finding differently. I imagine that some would argue such a finding gives support that those higher powers truly exist. I, however, would tend to see it more as another demonstration of convergent evolution... common obstacles finding similar solutions... naturally through the process of evolution by natural selection. Either way, it would be supremely cool to have such solid data at our fingertips, regardless of how different people may interpret it.

 

Also, the links and information Martin brought into the thread really seem to speak clearly about that question of identity you raise. It's so common across so many species... species with vastly different genetic backgrounds and cortical infrastructures... yet present in them all the same. That same trait is parallel in countless ways to our traits which lead to belief in deities and tendencies to religion. (Also, if only we could communicate better with our non-primate partners on this tiny blue planet. How frakkin' cool would that be?)

 

 

Btw - Your comment about "proto-faith" is probably one of the single-most thought provoking comments I've heard/read all week. You've managed to sum up this discussion relating to animals and our own beliefs/religious predispositions in a very clean and elegant way... Proto-faith. Nice.

Edited by iNow
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While not a definitive association, this recent study regarding complex toolkits for honey bee extraction suggests that chimps have this same ability to mentally interact with unseen others, a critical factor in belief among humans.

 

http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/06/02/chimpanzee-tool-kit-02.html

 

Whilst this is possible, tool building seems to be dependent upon the specific environment - honey-building tools in the Gabon and specific termite tools in other regions. I think this is a means of transmission of specific memes. I do take your point about the ability to be spatially aware and interact with others. However, is this the development of a 'proto faith' or is it a development of a culture, similar to those in Cetaceans? I found this interesting article (and have only read the Abstract) but it seems to posit (not surprisingly) independent evolution of cultures in Cetaceans.

 

Abstract: Studies of animal culture have not normally included a consideration of cetaceans. However, with several long-term field studies now maturing, this situation should change. Animal culture is generally studied by either investigating transmission mechanisms experimentally,

or observing patterns of behavioural variation in wild populations that cannot be explained by either genetic or environmental factors. Taking this second, ethnographic, approach, there is good evidence for cultural transmission in several cetacean species. However, only the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops) has been shown experimentally to possess sophisticated social learning abilities, including vocal and motor imitation; other species have not been studied. There is observational evidence for imitation and teaching in killer whales. For cetaceans and other large, wide-ranging animals, excessive reliance on experimental data for evidence of culture is not productive; we favour the ethnographic approach. The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans, and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties. The wide movements of cetaceans, the greater variability of the marine environment over large temporal scales relative to that on land, and the stable matrilineal social groups of some species are potentially important factors in the evolution of cetacean culture. There have been suggestions of gene-culture coevolution in cetaceans, and culture may be implicated in some unusual behavioural and life-history traits of whales and dolphins. We hope to stimulate discussion and research on culture in these animals

 

http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=/BBS/BBS24_02/S0140525X0100396Xa.pdf&code=7be3e1176ad071f7417e3dfa463249ff

 

I can imagine the equivalent of a dolphin with a Scouser (Liverpool) accent meeting other dolphins :)

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Whilst this is possible, tool building seems to be dependent upon the specific environment - honey-building tools in the Gabon and specific termite tools in other regions. I think this is a means of transmission of specific memes. I do take your point about the ability to be spatially aware and interact with others.

And it was that second point which was key... It wasn't so much about the tools themselves, or the knowledge of how to build them. The article was just background to my point. To restate, the chimps had the ability to visualize the honey bee nest below the ground. They had a mental picture of it's layout and which tunnels had honey, and used that mental visualization to obtain the honey.

 

While tool creation and use is quite tool, it was the ability to extract honey from underground nests via visualization where I found parallels. In short, if chimps can visualize "blueprints" for an unseen bees nest in such a clear way, then it doesn't seem to be a big leap when making the assertion that they also have the ability to visualize or contemplate "unseen others."

 

It was just a cool article, and peripherally related... Not at all central to the premise of the thread. :)

 

 

Speaking of cool, I just got done watching this 2002 lecture by Robert Sapolsky on the Biology of Religion. Sapolsky is a professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology, Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery at Stanford University.

 

His lecture talks about the biology of religion in some interesting ways, and draws some really articulate parallels with schizophrenia, OCD, ritualistic behaviors, social cohesion, etc. I found it really very enlightening and epiphanic.

 

One of the things which stood out to me in the lecture was his repeated point about these various mechanisms and properties of the human psyche being shunned when practiced in the wrong environment, causing one to be pushed to the periphery and removing their ability to pass on genes, whereas if these same properties/behaviors manifested at the right time and place they could be taken up by large masses of people (like a religion). One comparison he made was with sickle cell anemia. It's really bad in most contexts, but in certain times and places its benefit is abundantly clear (like how that same mechanism provides an immunity to malaria).

 

 

Here's a link to that lecture, as well it's outline:

http://blip.tv/file/2204956

 

 

The Biology of Religion

 

I. Some opening caveats, disclaimers and fine print

 

II. Religion and belief

 

1. A return to the final question of the schizophrenia lecture

 

2. Genes and the advantages of intermediate penetrance: sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis....and schizophrenia?

 

3. The Kety schizophrenia adoption studies: their second discovery, and the continuum of traits.

 

4. Schizotypal personality disorder: social withdrawal, odd perceptual experiences, a tendency towards concreteness, metamagical belief.

 

5. Who are the traditional schizotypals?

 

a. Paul Radin, Erwin Ackerknecht and Paul Devereux: hearing voices at the right time

 

b. Alfred Kroeber’s elaboration: “Psychosis or Social Sanction.” The common roots of ‘sanction’ and ‘sanctuary.’

 

c. Western cultures and schizotypalism

 

 

III. Religion and ritualistic practices

 

1. Obsessive compulsive disorder

 

a. Obsessive thoughts: intrusions, blasphemies, and so on.

 

b. Compulsive rituals: self-cleansing, food preparation, leaving and entering, numerology and symmetry

 

c. Genetic, neuroanatomical and neurochemical hints

 

2. Ritualism of the religious orthodoxy

 

3. Hindu Brahmans: hours of daily purification rituals involving cleansing, cyclical nostril breathing, defecation, ratios of handfuls of food from the left versus right hand, rules for entering temples....

 

4. Orthodox Jewry and the magical combination of 365 prohibitions and 248 requirements: cleansing, food preparation, and the importance of numerology over content.

 

5. Orthodox Islam: rules for numbers of mouthfuls of water, for entering and leaving a lavatory, for handwashing, and, of course, magical numbers.

 

6. The rituals of Orthodox Christianity: the magical number 3, the multiplicities of Hail Marys and rosary use down to Lutheran organists advised about dotted rhythms in the Lutheran hymnal

 

7. Freud: “obsessional neurosis as individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis.”

 

8. Ignatius Loyola and the 15th century concept of “scrupulosity.”

 

9. The underlying adaptive value of anxiety reduction

 

10. Making a living as an obsessive compulsive

 

a. An example in a 16th century monk named Luder: “The more you cleanse yourself, the dirtier you get.”

 

11. Why should OCD and religious rituals have such similar patterns?

 

a. An ecological explanation

 

b. A historical explanation

 

IV. Religion and the attribution of causality

 

1. Superstitious conditioning in animals

 

2. Hippocampal damage and increased vulnerability to superstitious conditioning.

 

V. Philosophical religiosity

 

1. Temporal lobe epilepsy: humorlessness; perseveration; neophobia and a "sticky" or "viscous" personality; hypergraphia; concern with religious issues.

 

 

Some concluding thoughts: What am I not saying

 

1. You gotta be crazy to be religious

 

2. That most people’s religiousness is biologically suspect

 

3. That faith is any more biologically accessible or interesting than is loss of faith

 

Enjoy.

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Earlier in the thread, I referred to our predisposition to accept information from our parents and elders when we are born, and how following their instructions without question has proven a very beneficial trait evolutionarily.

 

 

It's our predisposition toward inference, toward over reading causality, toward social grouping... our innate tendency to learn from and trust our elders, to accept what those in authority tell us, especially at a young age. It's lots of things, all coming together in this very strange way which has changed our culture itself.

 

 

Also, at the very start, this thread referred to our ability to interact with unseen others, and how we can visualize and mentally rehearse scenarios with people who are not physically present... and how this ability has proven useful.

 

This video (the fourth in a four section discussion) touches on these topics in an insightful and fresh way, including a personal story from Douglass Adams (author of Hitchhikers Guide) about how he would often call to mind (interact with) his elementary school english teacher (an unseen other) when we got stuck while writing his book, and how useful this was to him in overcoming the aforementioned writer's block. Really fascinating.

 

I especially liked the reference to the movie Dumbo, and how the crows in that movie used a "magic feather" to convince Dumbo that he could fly. The "magic feather" got Dumbo into the right state of mind to overcome his fear and disbelief in his ability to flap his ears and fly away. The analogy was that when people like you and me explore topics like this... when we openly and sincerely seek deeper explanations for belief in deities and religious practice... explanations which are satisfying and help to do away with the mysticism... that we may be ruining an otherwise useful crutch on which many people rely... In much the same way as the crows ruined the "magic feather" crutch on which Dumbo relied. In short, though... Dumbo never needed the feather to fly... it had nothing to do with his abilities whatsoever... and THAT's the point. Good stuff. :)

 

Enjoy.

 

 

 

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