evolutionary spirit

The NY Times Sunday Magazine has an excellent piece on the possibility of an evolutionary basis for the human trait of believing in the supernatural, in particular the concept of a creator and existence after death. The concept of a propensity for spiritual belief being an evolutionary advantage in the “survival of the fittest” sense if very intriguing. They make some good cases using the psychological concepts of agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind. I’ve come across all of these in previous readings but this text provides a good summary, of course mostly relating it to the topic at hand. Frankly I am more inclined to go with the “spandrel” theory presented, but I am open to other possibilities.

On a somewhat humorous note, I love this excerpt:

“Atran ascribes the persistence to evolutionary misdirection, which, he says, happens all the time: “Evolution always produces something that works for what it works for, and then there’s no control for however else it’s used.” On a sunny weekday morning, over breakfast at a French cafe on upper Broadway, he tried to think of an analogy and grinned when he came up with an old standby: women’s breasts. Because they are associated with female hormones, he explained, full breasts indicate a woman is fertile, and the evolution of the male brain’s preference for them was a clever mating strategy. But breasts are now used for purposes unrelated to reproduction, to sell anything from deodorant to beer. “A Martian anthropologist might look at this and say, ‘Oh, yes, so these breasts must have somehow evolved to sell hygienic stuff or food to human beings,’ ” Atran said. But the Martian would, of course, be wrong. Equally wrong would be to make the same mistake about religion, thinking it must have evolved to make people behave a certain way or feel a certain allegiance.”

So I guess we did not evolve a belief in God just to help the next NASCAR victor [pdf]

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