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We are animals

September 23, 2011

First, apologies for the long hiatus due to work-related issues!

On evolution

You ask if the phrase ‘this was evolutionarily advantageous to us’ is a creedal statement, and something atheists believe.

Quick answer: no, atheists are all different, some of them don’t know or don’t care about evolution, some of them believe in ghosts, etc.  Athiests are at least as weird and variable as any other segment of the population.

Longer and more complex answer: for me, and for many scientifically minded people, the statement above is shorthand for a lot of consequences of the idea that we got here by evolution.

If one accepts that we got here by evolution, then every trait we have must fall into one of a few categories:

1.  Evolutionarily advantageous to us or to our ancestors.  This includes the obvious stuff like the ability to feel pain, which enabled our ancestors to avoid terminal damage for long enough to reproduce (by definition, or they wouldn’t be our ancestors!)

2.  ‘Unintended’ consequences of things which were evolutionarily advantageous to our ancestors, but which have no effect in themselves.  An example of this would be the tummy button, which is a consequence of infants being nourished in the womb via the placenta (advantageous), but leaves us with a central dent which has no harm or utility to our survival as adults.

3.  Stuff which was advantageous and selected for in the past, but is useless now.  Arguably the vestigial tail humans have may be one of these, although it is also used for muscle attachment.  But although we don’t have tails, we still have the place where they used to be, and where they are on other animals.

4.  Random variation which did not effect evolutionary fitness.  Men have hairy faces, but women don’t, even though there’s no obvious reason why this should be the case.  Both sexes still have eyebrows, and we have hair on the tops of our heads (most of us!) but not much on the rest of the body.

If one accepts that evolution is the best explanation for how we come to be here, then every characteristic we have must fall into one of those categories, including our mental characteristics.

Our ability to experience aesthetic pleasure must be either directly advantageous (1), a consequence of something directly advantageous (2), a holdover from previous advantage (3), or random and of no effect (4).

That was what I was trying to say with the shorthand phrase you quote.  It’s not a belief, but it is a consequence of one of my opinions.

On atheists

It really, honestly, is true to say that atheism has no bishops.  I have been both a religious believer and an atheist, and I know that the experience is totally different.

Atheism does have some well-known people who are inspiring writers and speakers, and they have done a lot to move us from the point where non-believers had to keep quiet or suffer ostracism (as is still the case in parts of the US) to the point where we are now, where belief is no longer always automatically privileged as a worldview.  (It still sometimes is, though – the Church of England is not exactly lacking in institutional power.)

Religion used to receive automatic deference.  It still does, but not as much as in the past.  I can see how this would make a believer uncomfortable, but I don’t think that makes it wrong.  Religious beliefs, and religious people, should have a level playing field with the rest of us – not be exempt from criticism.

But really, truly, we don’t have bishops.  Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are visible, but they are also very strongly criticised from within the atheist communities.  See e.g. here: or google ‘Elevatorgate’ if you have a lot of free time.

My own view of Dawkins is that he is a gifted speaker etc., and also an annoying and overprivileged old white guy who is part of the old guard.  There are lots of younger atheists with new things to say.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2011 11:43 am

    “If one accepts that evolution is the best explanation for how we come to be here, then every characteristic we have must fall into one of those categories, including our mental characteristics.”

    Incorrect, for instance, it is known that certain deleterious genes have been selected when a population undergoes rapid expansion and as a result there is little selection pressure to reduce these genes. The characteristics produced by these genes are not either advantageous nor neutral, but disadvantageous.

    Nor does it fit very well with sexual selection, a particularly impressive peacock’s tail can give an individual peacock an advantage over other peacocks, but would disadvantage them relative to other species.

  2. October 1, 2011 5:33 pm

    Is it correct to say that a gene has been selected for, in a situation with no selection pressure? Or just that it hasn’t been selected against?

    And isn’t sex selection a subcategory of my type 1?

  3. October 1, 2011 7:19 pm

    There’s evidence that sexual selection imposes a cost on individuals, therefore it’s disadvantageous when viewed through the lens of a possible alternative history where individuals did not evolve or lost sexual selection.

    Deleterious genes can be been selected in the sense that they’ve survived due to fortuitous events even though they disadvantage the organism. One of the possibilities for an evolutionary theory of religion is that it could have evolved in spite of imposing a net cost on humans, and that an alternative set of random mutations could have resulted in “fitter” humans who do not believe in supernatural agents.

    There’s also a set of genes that advantaged ancestors, but now disadvantage those individuals who have them. A classic example would be the gene for sickle cell anaemia, a single copy of the gene offers protection against malaria, but two copies result in serious disease:

    This is also a possibility for the evolution of religion: it advantaged our ancestors, but now disadvantages us.

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