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God, Religion and Tribal Conflict

Lately I have read several books on why humans have religion, why humans are basically irrational, why humans can't differentiate between what is instrumentally beneficial and what is emotionally destructive, etc. One thing that does jump out at me when I read these works dealing with our evolutionary past, is that books can vary in extremes from just-so stories to well documented hypotheses testing. Two recent books occupy these extremes: The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes by Dean Hamer (2004), and Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, Edited by Peter Hammerstein (2003). The God Gene is the just-so story, it has a lot of good information; however it jumps to some rather silly conclusions from the skimpy data.

Hamer makes the case that religion is different from what he calls self-transcendence: religion is what is culturally transmitted, and one's leaning towards self-transcendence is primarily genetic—no god or religion required; so even the title of the book is misleading. He does do a good job of showing that self-transcendence may be yet another behavioral trait that is independent of others that have been studied, but he does not show that it is independent of cooperation and/or ethnocentrism. More on this later.

Hamer states that, "Self-transcendence provides a numerical measure of people's capacity to reach out beyond themselves—to see everything in the world as part of one great totality. If I were to describe it in a single word, it might be 'at-one-ness.'" That is, it includes losing oneself in a common good, feeling like part of something special, mysticism, etc. The problem with Hamer's perspective however is that he sees this as a universal good—people who are spiritual are somehow better than people that are more rational. In fact, this book could be, morally speaking, the flip side of Stanovich's The Robot's Rebellion, where he calls on people to be more rational and less mystical.

He reiterates, "Self-transcendence is a term used to describe spiritual feelings that are independent of traditional religiousness. It is not based on belief in any particular God, frequency of prayer, or other orthodox religious doctrines or practices. Instead, it gets to the heart of spiritual belief: the nature of the universe and our place in it. Self-transcendent individuals tend to see everything, including themselves, as part of one great totality. They have a strong sense of 'at-one-ness'—of the connections between people, places, and things. Non-self-transcendent people, on the other hand, tend to have a more self-centered viewpoint. They focus on differences and discrepancies between people, places, and things, rather than similarities and interrelationships."

Hamer seems to be advocating, though I am not sure he is aware of it, for what I would merely call tribalism, ethnocentrism, cooperative human behavior, etc. versus the more independent behavioral types who are less tribal, more creative, more questioning, and perhaps more scientific and rational. There seems to be, in some way, a thread of connectedness between groupishness and independence, and it could be as easily argued that it is our human groupishness that gets us into trouble, not our more rational/scientific independence. I don't claim that there is a clear dichotomy between these two extremes, but research into altruism, mysticism, ethnocentrism, cooperation, etc.—must be anchored in evolutionary adaptation (unless they are merely artifacts). In either case, they carry no intrinsic moral value either way.

For example, Hamer states that:

"These are some of the questions used to assess the second sub-scale of self-transcendence, known as transpersonal identification. The hallmark of this trait is a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it—animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman, anything and everything that can be seen, heard, smelled, or otherwise sensed. People who score high for transpersonal identification can become deeply, emotionally attached to other people, animals, trees, flowers, streams, or mountains. Sometimes they feel that everything is part of one living organism.

"Transpersonal identification can lead people to make personal sacrifices to help others—for example, by fighting against war, poverty, or racism. It may inspire people to become environmentalists. Although there are no formal survey data, it is likely that members of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace score above average on this facet of self-transcendence. A drawback of transpersonal identification is that it can lead to fuzzy-headed idealism that actually hinders rather than helps the cause.

"Individuals who score low on transpersonal identification feel less connected to the universe and therefore feel less responsible for what happens to the world and its inhabitants. They are more concerned about themselves than about others, more inclined to use nature than to appreciate it."

Imbedded in the above remarks is an extreme bias for "fuzzy-headed" idealism as being more beneficial than rational discourse and action. He makes a wild leap that if a person does not feel connected to the universe, they are somehow not going to make rational choice decisions about what is good for themselves and other humans. Now if Hamer could link free-riders or psychopathic personalities with people who are low on self-transcendence, then he might have a case that one group may be more concerned about other people, but he does not do this. Islamic terrorists probably tend to be mystical rather than merely religious due to culture—it takes a whole lot of "connectedness" to blow oneself up over injustices perceived. And most progress when it comes to science, including all of the health improvements made possible by it, comes from the minds of the dedicated scientists, not the spiritual recluse chanting a prayer to reach nirvana. The Western mind, the mind that is responsible for most of what is science, is practical and less mystical, and it has reduced a great deal of suffering because of our scientific progress. I think Stanovich's prognosis of what ails humanity is far more grounded in facts than Hamer's moralizing.

As Hamer states, people who score low on mysticism are, "more materialistic and objective. They see an unusual loaf of bread or an unexpected parking opportunity as nothing more than coincidence. They don't believe in things that can't be explained scientifically." That suites me just fine. The more rational humans can become—either through education, genetics, or both—the better we will be able to settle conflicts. Mysticism is a dead end to answering complex problems.

Part of Hamer's interest in writing this book is to publicize his work in finding the so-called God-Gene, or VMAT2. This one gene has a significant impact on the degree of self-transcendence, but other genes are yet to be found. What interests me as a eugenicist is that we can now screen for this gene and eliminate it, whereas Hamer would most likely try to breed for it. In fact, he does go into a great deal of discussion with regards to assortative mating.

Pointing out that while one's religion is cultural and self-transcendence is primarily genetic, he notes (as have many others) that people marry their own kind when it comes to personality types and chosen religion. In the past, humans typically married others with the same religion because humans up until recently have been very parochial. Now however, we are far more mobile and cosmopolitan, and it seems that rather than the human genome becoming a melting pot, we will increasingly be more selective in marrying those who are more like us in terms of intelligence and behavior. Increasingly, materialists will marry materialists, and spiritualists will marry spiritualists. Personally, that is one area where I would not suffer a mate who believed in magic, god, Gaia, or any other significant level of self-transcendence—it would just be too alien to me.

Hamer also devotes a chapter to Jewish "cultural practices as genetic selective forces." I could not quite get a handle on where he was going with these examples of culturally defined breeding practices, but it does follow or parallels MacDonald's work on Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. This surprised me because he makes no reference to MacDonald, as if he is unaware of his work. (MacDonald 1994, 1998a, 1998b.)

He also devotes a great deal of time to healing, health, religion and spiritualism. Nevertheless, ultimately, the only message seems to be that almost any correlation can be found between how people are treated and how well they do in terms of health. These stories are as numerous as they are meaningless in the totality of things. Yes, make people feel better, more optimistic, less afraid, and they will probably have a better outcome when it comes to health and happiness. Alternatively, just get a pet dog or shoot your oppressive boss and get away with it. Almost anything has an impact on our inner state of being—unfortunately, most of us can do little to create a personally blissful life for ourselves without knocking heads with others trying to do the same. Embracing new age mysticism is not the answer to real problems that require empirical approaches. Prayer vigils to my knowledge have never stopped an execution by the state, nor prevented war.

Hamer then discusses temporal lobe epilepsy, and shows that this particular form of epilepsy can lead to profound religious experiences in afflicted people. From this, he and others have extrapolated that the temporal lobe must be the seat of all mystical experience (hallucinations) and that even normal people sometimes have temporal lobe misfirings that cause them to experience miraculous events. This is an extreme stretch of logic that needs far more research to connect self-transcendence with a singular area of the brain. (For an excellent book on Islam and its founder, and the connection with epilepsy and self-transcendence that leads to terrorism, read The Sword of the Prophet: Islam—History, Theology, Impact on the World by Serge Trifkovic, 2002.)

Hamer tries to support this brain malfunction for spirituality theory: "Based on this experiment and other lines of evidence, Persinger believes that the biological basis of all spiritual and mystical experiences is due to spontaneous firing of the temporoparietal region—highly focal microseizures without any obvious motor effects. He calls such episodes transients and theorizes that they occur in everybody to some extent. Exactly how often and how strongly is determined by a mix of genes, environment, and experience. The main effect of such transients is to increase communication between the right and left temporoparietal areas, leading to a brief confusion between the sense of self and the sense of others. The outcome, he says, is a 'sense of a presence' that people interpret as a God, spirit, or other mystical being."

He does tell us that 60,000 years ago, there is evidence that Neanderthal man had religion. He then states, "I believe our genetic predisposition for faith is no accident. It provides us with a sense of purpose beyond ourselves and keeps us from being incapacitated by our dread of mortality. Our faith gives us the optimism to press on regardless of the hardships we face." This seems to be the sum total of his explanation for human irrationality and embracing of false beliefs.

He goes on to mention what decades of research by evolutionary psychologists now accept: that altruism, human cooperation, acceptance of group norms (like religion), disgust towards outsiders, blood lust, patriotism, ethnocentrism, and a host of other human tendencies are due to group evolutionary strategies. If the tribe were not united into a tight and cohesive unit, they would be killed or displaced by other tribes who were more aggressive and united, including a willingness to die for the group in intertribal warfare.

Then he dismisses this research as impossible: "One popular concept is that religion helps societies organize and successfully compete against others. But if such group-level selection were the only selective force, God genes would probably die out or be limited to only certain parts of the world, since the necessary conditions—high degree of kinship within the group and high degree of competition with outside groups—are limited to particular geographical areas and certain historical times. To be a universal facet of our evolution, there must be additional reasons to account for the persistence of God genes."

The problem with this simplistic explanation is that there is massive amounts of data that group selection did take place over millions of years, and even if there were short periods where tribal conflict and/or tribal cooperation was absent or minimal, such periods were short in duration and were the exception. Evolution is slow, and such short respites from conflict and/or cooperation would not have altered human behavior (below I will discuss new research about tribal conflict leading to cooperative behaviors).

Hamer finishes the book with a chapter on Jewish cultural practices, explains that Jews have maintained their racial separation, and today they continue to be closer genetically to Arabs. He claims that the racial separation between Jews and those they lived among was due to Jewish religious culture, which is what has been put forth by Kevin MacDonald and includes an analysis of Jewish genetic frequencies for xenophobia, high intelligence, as well as other behavioral traits (again gene-culture coevolution). However, he then claims that Jews were allowed to assimilate into the surrounding gentile cultures, but gentiles were not allowed into the Jewish faith, and this was due to Jews being discriminated against! Now that is a strange twist of logic, and a bit simplistic to say the least. Conflicts between Jews and gentiles have been a 3,000 year ordeal, it is complex, and it is ever changing. To dismiss assimilation because "people don't like us" seems rather sophomoric.

Gene-Culture Coevolution
In contrast to Hamer's book, Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation came out of the 90th Dahlem Workshop held in Berlin, Germany in 2002. I only stumbled upon two paragraphs that deviated from scientific objectivity. With contributions by numerous researchers in evolutionary psychology, had it been read by Hamer, his book would have been far more empirical with less utopian dreaming.

For decades, group selection has been downplayed, primarily because humans were lumped in with other organisms, and the model just did not work out. Simply stated, after further review, since humans have an evolved language, we have also evolved oddities like altruism and or cooperation, as well as religion and irrationality. With language came a host of evolutionary artifacts that other organisms do not have to deal with. In fact, the only explanation for such extreme forms of human behavior such as universal altruism, feeling one-with-the-earth, suicide bombers, and serial killers is to look at how language and culture coevolved to insert a great deal of human emotion into what makes us do what we do, even to our own detriment.

One of the fundamental principles of evolutionary psychology (EP) is the assumption that during the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA), humans everywhere faced similar ecologies and therefore we all evolved in roughly the same way. On the other hand, behavior or quantitative genetics looks at the differences between people and between races, with the understanding that humans in different parts of the world and under varying degrees of ecological change and cultural differences, adapted in differing ways. This book seems to be just barely breaking through the simplistic EP assumption of a single universal human mind, though the evidence for diversity in behavior has been evident to even pre-scientific man.

Now for the problem: people often act in a way that is harmful to them in order to fulfill some inner need or emotion. We have evolved to do the irrational. The list here is endless but includes giving spare change to beggars and blowing oneself up for a nation or religion. Humans can span the extremes from indifference to extreme outrage at transgressors of norms and/or values adopted by the group. Likewise, the group is very malleable and changing—though this was not the case 10,000 years ago. The challenge is to try to fit together our irrational moral outrages of today with evolved human emotions from our common—and often racially unique—pasts.

Daniel M.T. Fessler and Kevin J. Haley state that "We have suggested that guilt and righteousness facilitate the formation and preservation of cooperative relationships. However, not all cooperative relationships are worthwhile. In some cases, the benefits of defection exceed the benefits of cooperation. In a world without emotions that function to preserve cooperative relationships, steep time discounting alone would lead to high rates of defection. However, the existence of relationship-preserving emotions creates a situation in which it may be advantageous to mark explicitly individuals who have little of value to offer the actor. We suggest that contempt is the emotion accompanying exactly such an evaluation. By highlighting the low value of the other individual, contempt predisposes the actor to either (a) avoid establishing a relationship, (b) establish a relationship on highly unequal (i.e., exploitative) grounds, or (c) defect on an existing relationship. Consistent with the low valuation of the other, contempt seems to preclude the experience of prosocial emotions in the event that the actor is able to exploit the partner, apparently by framing the harm as merited."

This is an interesting insight, and yet I doubt if the authors understand its universal implications. Just as individuals within groups may find others contemptible, it is even more prevalent in group conflicts. In diverse societies where different ethnic groups mingle, contempt for the other is rampant, even though most states take extraordinary measures reduce tensions. When groups react like individuals however—instituting avoidance, exploitation, or defection—it is seen as somehow immoral. In reality however, these are just emotions that any one individual can have from one extreme to the other. One person becomes an anti-racist (universal moralist) and attacks their own race in favor of another, while the race realist faces the certainty that benevolence towards others may not be reciprocated in kind.

But I digress, as the point of this book is to explain the process of punishment coupled with cooperation. Ernst Fehr and Joseph Henrich state that, "Strong reciprocity means that people willingly repay gifts and punish the violation of cooperation and fairness norms even in anonymous one-shot encounters with genetically unrelated strangers. This chapter provides ethnographic and experimental evidence suggesting that ultimate theories of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, costly signaling, and indirect reciprocity do not provide satisfactory evolutionary explanations of strong reciprocity. The problem with these theories is that they can rationalize strong reciprocity only if it is viewed as maladaptive behavior, whereas the evidence suggests that it is an adaptive trait. Thus, alternative evolutionary approaches are needed to provide ultimate accounts of strong reciprocity."

Strong reciprocators are the "do-gooders" or the "berserkers" both. That is whether I am a suicide bomber in Iraq, or a missionary healing the sick in Somalia, it is the same behavior that has to be explained. Why would anyone give up so much for so little in return, in terms of evolutionary fitness? That is, humans do very peculiar things when it comes to altruism, cooperation, taking revenge, etc. To really understand how this takes place and what it means, I think one has to play games with themselves on a rational level. I started slowly doing that years ago when I first came upon questions of rationality and behavior.

It goes something like this: next time you eat at a diner where you will probably never return, how much of a tip will you leave? What organizations will you give to, any that you are really against—like the United Way but the corporation pressures you to "participate?" If someone needs help, how do you react? I have found that by being rational I can modify some of my behavior but in other areas I prefer the feeling of "doing the right thing" or feeling "self righteous." I will over-tip the cabby; I will give large tips to movers who deliver my new stove; I will buy a ticket at an event from some pest at work just to keep the peace and my image in tact. At the same time, when asked by a Costco clerk if I would like to donate a dollar to a children's hospital I said no! He said "it was only a dollar and for a good cause," as I rebutted, "I do not like to be hustled by corporations trying to make themselves look good."

To get inside of the extremes from self-serving behavior (bordering on psychopathy) to extreme kinship resource acquisition (families fighting over an uncle's inheritance), to universal moralism (missionaries and suicide bombers), to the passive individual that merely follows the rules but doesn't really take much notice of anything (I'd rather be fishing), we have to understand the complex emotions that evolved to drive us into behavioral niches. Virtually all humans are coalition builders, at least passively by getting along by going along with some groups while being antagonistic against others. But there are behavioral differences in the way that individuals react to group members.

Some people are moral enforcers, and will take action to punish non-cooperators even at their own expense. Others will punish non-cooperators only when they need to, while yet others will shirk their duty to "act morally" within the group. As Ernst Fehr and Joseph Henrich put it, "Hence, within-group selection creates evolutionary pressures against strong reciprocity [moral enforcers] because strong reciprocators engage in individually costly behaviors that benefit the whole group. In contrast, between-group selection favors strong reciprocity because groups with disproportionately many strong reciprocators are better able to survive. The consequence of these two evolutionary forces is that in equilibrium, strong reciprocators and purely selfish humans coexist. This logic applies to genes, cultural traits, or both in an interactive process. Thus, this approach provides a logically rigorous argument as to why we observe heterogeneous responses in laboratory experiments."

What is showing up over and over again in the behavioral sciences is the recognition that unlike most organisms, humans with their language ability can enforce group conforming behavior that sets up our in-group/out-group nature. We compete with each other within the group, but we also have a fiercely embraced sense of belonging to a group for protection from other groups as well as advancement for our group against other groups. Originally, this was only the tribal group, but humans have such a strong attachment to tribalistic affiliations that it can now be artificially created through indoctrination on almost any level, from patriotism to religious adherence, to terrorist cells.

This may not seem like such an important observation, but only a few years ago group-level evolutionary selection was dismissed as impossible. As such, we could not come to grips with human behavior that was irrational in terms of selection pressures on only individuals and their genes. This meant that universals like racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and social dominance were dismissed as social constructs that could just be adjudicated away by our wise leaders. (Our leaders still use the old paradigms that are rapidly being replaced in the behavioral sciences.)

Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich state that "These successive rounds of coevolutionary change continued until eventually people were equipped with capacities for cooperation with distantly related people, emotional attachments to symbolically marked groups, and a willingness to punish others for transgression of group rules. Mechanisms by which cultural institutions might exert forces tugging in this direction are not far to seek. People are likely to discriminate against genotypes that are incapable of conforming to cultural norms. People who cannot control their self-serving aggression ended up exiled or executed in small-scale societies and imprisoned in contemporary ones. People whose social skills embarrass their families will have a hard time attracting mates. Of course, selfish and nepotistic impulses were never entirely suppressed; our genetically transmitted evolved psychology shapes human cultures, and as a result cultural adaptations often still serve the ancient imperatives of inclusive genetic fitness. However, cultural evolution also creates new selective environments that build cultural imperatives into our genes."

It is also now observed that our new advanced technological culture will push genetic changes in our behavioral and cognitive repertoires. 50,000 years ago, humans lived in small tribes, only occasionally went to war with their neighbors, sometimes committing genocide while taking the women for mating. This fusion and fissuring of genotypes was slow compared to the options we have today for rapid changes in our genes. From preimplantation diagnostics to select against genetic disease, to mass extinction of whole nations from either conventional or nuclear weapons is now possible. From the turmoil of rapid social change will come rapid genetic change:

"Contemporary human societies differ drastically from the societies in which our social instincts evolved. Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies were comparatively small, egalitarian, and lacking in powerful institutionalized leadership. By contrast, modern societies are large, inegalitarian, and have coercive leadership institutions. If the social instincts hypothesis is correct, our innate social psychology furnishes the building blocks for the evolution of complex social systems, while simultaneously constraining the shape of these systems. To evolve large-scale, complex social systems, cultural evolutionary processes, driven by cultural group selection, take advantage of whatever support these instincts offer. For example, families willingly take on the essential roles of biological reproduction and primary socialization, reflecting the ancient and still powerful effects of selection at the individual and kin level. At the same time, cultural evolution must cope with a psychology evolved for life in quite different sorts of societies. Appropriate larger-scale institutions must regulate the constant pressure from smaller groups (coalitions, cabals, cliques) to subvert rules favoring large groups. To do this cultural evolution often makes use of 'work-arounds.' It mobilizes the tribal instincts for new purposes. For example, large national and international (e.g., great religions) institutions develop ideologies of symbolically marked inclusion that often fairly successfully engage the tribal instincts on a much larger scale." (Peter J. Richerson, Robert T. Boyd, and Joseph Henrich)

There is now enough evidence that modern human society should be based on an understanding that as long as we are a tribalistic species, there will be more peace, more prosperity, and more happiness when nation-states can be formed by similar people. That is, the homogenous state is far more prone to be beneficial to human happiness than the discords found in multicultural and diverse states. This means a rejection of any political universals enforced by a world body except maybe the notion that to stop conflict, it is best to just separate the belligerents physically as much as possible. That is, promote non-aggressive, non-jingoistic nationalism—where countries compete in the marketplace of commerce and ideas.  

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Matt Nuenke, December 2004.