Thanks to long-time reader and contributer Ari Schwartz for bringing this to our attention.
“It is widely agreed that religion has biological foundations—that belief in the supernatural, obedience to authority or susceptibility to ceremony and ritual depend on genetically based features of the human brain.” Thus does Robert Rowthorn begin his paper on “Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model” with a falsity. Thus we are not later surprised to learn that Rowthorn has “proved” that the religious—whatever they are, poor things—will out-breed the “normals”, to the extent that the genes of the enlightened folks will be watered down with, well, with holy water.
If what Rowthorn said was false, what is true is that some have said that religion has biological foundations. One reading makes this trivially true: we are biological creatures with brains that allow us to think up religious thoughts. But that’s not what Rowthorn has in mind. He says “religion promotes the evolution of genes that predispose people towards religious belief or behaviour.” Got it? Religion itself makes people religious. Sigh. This is what happens when people read Dawkins with minds far too open. Suddenly, any idea sounds good, no matter how illogical.
How’s it work?
For religion to influence genetic evolution it must convey some kind of selective advantage. Such an effect might come about through social bonding via ritual, formation of group identity through myth, honest signalling through participation in costly ceremonies and adherence to social norms through love or fear of God.
Religion—which must be sentient, like a meme; or something—also makes people fertile. That’s what scares the bejesus—and the Jesus—out of Rowthorn. “The more devout people are, the more children they are likely to have.” He’s particularly fearful of them Amish who have a “total fertility rate of 4.8″. Why, if that sort of rate keeps up, the world will be flooded with beautiful hand-made quilts, not to mention the glut of various sauces and jams that even now squirt like a fire hose out of Lancaster, PA.
Remember the good old days? When national or royal academies of science would only publish articles of value and intrinsic worth? Papers which were insightful and had a reasonable chance to not only be true, but were untainted with mind-rattling gibberish? Maybe my glasses are rose colored, but surely a work like Rowthorn’s would never have passed the bar of the Royal Society even twenty years ago, a time when even the John Birch society would have rejected this man’s wild thesis.
Just for a start, Rowthorn has forgotten the Quakers, the thousands upon thousands of Catholic priests, nuns, and brothers, the growing population of Buddhist monks, Shinto priests, and myriad other holy men and women of various stripe whose main goal in life is not to pass on their religious genes. Even though we have no (or almost no) chromosomal material from any of these exceedingly religious people, yet we are able to replenish their stock year upon year. How can this be?
Nowhere does the economist Rowthorn—he is on the Faculty of Economics, Cambridge—acknowledge the idea that those Amish breeders are less well off than his presumably barren but richer colleagues. There is bountiful evidence that wealth is a bar to pregnancy, and not just personal wealth, but that of a community. The better off a region (or country) is, the fewer the kids the ladies of that region like to have. The love of money trumps the love of babies.
And how come the religious haven’t taken over by now, forcing their beliefs down our throats (the main fear of those discussing this paper on Slashdot)? Defections, says Rowthorn. Yes, even though the religious gene is pernicious, yet some people are able to overcome its influence. The people able to accomplish this miraculous feat—they become what they are not by sheer force of will, even though their wills were under the control of their genes—might be said to have been born again. They abandon their Earthly genes and adopt Enlightened memes which overpower their genes. Or something.
Perhaps it’s overwork or overexposure to economical equations that accounts for people like our Rowthorn. All those formulas have a way of inducing a sense of self that can be unhealthy. Maybe that’s why economists don’t have a lot of kids. I think I’ll model this.