The Selfish Genes Of Dennett’s Atheists

If you’re not busy this December 2nd and 3rd, and happen to be in the Buffalo area, you might drop in on the Center for Inquiry’s symposium “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion. A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.1” The organizers have arranged so that it’s only one slim dollar short of a hundred to stay the night at the Candlewood Suites.

“Religion is child abuse!”
Religion is child abuse

And you should. Because to skip means missing the opening speech by Pascal Boyer: “Why There Is Almost Certainly No Such Thing As Religion.” Boyer is a professor of “Collective Memory” at Washington University in St. Louis. A university with no-such-thing-as Christian roots, incidentally.

But never mind, because more interesting is Boyer’s book, Religion Explained (you can see that he is prone to exaggeration). According to the blurb, Boyer assembles findings from “anthropology, cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology, Religion Explained shows how this aspect of human consciousness is increasingly admissible to coherent, naturalistic explanation.”

Your genes made you believe, you see. They do so to “maintain particular threads of social integrity”, so that these social institutions can in turn put you in the mood to make more copies of your genes. Clever little buggers, genes.

Luckily, though, we have men like Boyer who are able to break free of the control of the wee beasties and rise above their vile machinations. No religion for him, no sir! It doesn’t even exist. His genes can’t get the better of him. He has found freedom. His gospel (good news) is that your genes don’t have to control you, either.

If you can’t make it until the 3rd, you’ll still be in time for James Thomson’s lecture: “The Song of Serotonin and the Dance of Dopamine: How Ritual Harnesses Neurochemistry and Solidifies Religious Belief.” This suggests that science can somebody provide us with a pill to lessen the effects of serotonin and dopamine, so that they don’t get out of hand and lead to the worship of (obviously) false deities. Or the medicalization of religion continues apace.

Linda LaScola—who has an M.S.W. from, you better believe it, Catholic University—gives us her speech, “Preachers Who are not Believers — Preliminary and Ongoing Findings” based on a paper she and Dennett co-authored in the anything-goes journal Evolutionary Psychology.

It is their contention that many Christian clergy are “ensnared” in their ministries because of, and I quote, their religious “indoctrination.” These poor souls are “caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament.”

It is a complementary article, however; a peer-reviewed article. Subtle congratulations are offered to the non-believers they found and the “strange and sorrowful state of affairs” in which those folks found themselves.

My dears, all joking aside, I hope that you can see that this is not science. This journal purports to disinterestedly study human behavior and it uses language like this? To claim “sorrowful” is to hold a certain morality, an indisputable set of values.

But, joking to the forefront, I like this trend. I mean, the scientification of belief. It suggests that we conduct a similar study on academic philosophers who assume as true what they most desire to be true and then write confirmatory papers. Why do they do this? Are they are humorless as they appear? Do they suffer dearths of serotonin? Are they dopes sans dopamine?

Is it because they associate only with a snarky, isolated professoriate, a socially cohesive group that is blind to those who live outside its boundaries? They gather together. They sup as one. They have retreats. Just as the religious do, they offer comforting lectures on why what they believe is good and right.

How many of these atheists are secret believers? How many closeted religious will risk social standing or worry they will not gain tenure if they “come out” and say something like, “There is no proof that God doesn’t exist.” What a sorrowful predicament!

The genetic influence of why these people believe as they do should be studied. It is imperative that we discover the evolutionary explanation for their odd, flawed behaviior. We don’t see a lot of these people breed, at least not as prolifically as the religious, so the influence of their selfish genes will be mightily difficult to tease out. But I’m game.

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1“Resplendently asinine.” David Bentley Hart’s review of Break the Spell.

36 Comments

  1. Linking a specific human activity or action to dopamine or serotonin is like linking a software bug to electricity.

  2. I totally get the concept of doubting the existence of god and even easier to understand rejecting religion regardless of what you believe. What I cannot understand is that most atheist, who presumably reject religion, feel the need, the compulsion to preach and prothletise their beliefs (dare I say religion) to others. Wouldn’t it make sense that a true atheist would simply ignore religion and go about his business?

  3. GoneWithTheWind,

    All people do this whether it’s religion, best movie, best software, whatever. The only thing that changes is the topic of opinion. The bigger question is why people do it at all.

  4. These confusions over levels of explanation are both frustrating and depressing for their stupidity. I.e., a neurotransmitter “causes” aggression or some other higher level behaviour. At best you can point to a correlation, but when you start talking in terms of cause and effect, science goes out the window.

  5. Briggs, you’d make a great theistic apologist (in the best sense of the term) as you show, by logic, that these so-called scientists are subject to their own truth claims. So many arguments against religion are often merely emotional reactions clothed in science-speak but logically suicidal.

  6. I laughed. This is a very good piece. Everyone has his own stake and I won’t be the one to call it unscientific just because a co author decided to include a “moral” statement somewhere in the text. I won’t declare it science too, of course. I just awaitfor arguments that aren’t silly(even if in good old fashioned humor)

  7. I agree with the author; it is thoroughly outrageous that anyone would seek to understand the ubiquity of religion by natural mechanisms. Have no doubt that the dastardly Mr Dennett will soon see the error of his ways when he is visited by a noodley appendage of The One True God. Contrary to theories of genetic inheritance, give me a snake for 7 years and I will show you a camel. You can’t explain that. This materialistic blasphemy has set science back for centuries and has to stop. It’s rejection is the is clearly the essence of the true scientific way forward.

    May you all be touched by his noodley appendages. Go science!

  8. @Speed

    “Linking a specific human activity or action to dopamine or serotonin is like linking a software bug to electricity.”

    I agree, the dopamine reward mechanisms are almost essential requirements for understanding the causal pathways to a behavior but taken alone they are generally not sufficient to explain any it to a satisfactory level.

    @GoneWithTheWind

    “I cannot understand is that most atheist, who presumably reject religion, feel the need, the compulsion to preach and proselytise their beliefs”

    Have you considered that your sample of atheists is biased by the fact that you would not recognise most atheists unless they made their atheism clear by the very behavior you describe? This reminds me of reports of dolphins pulling drowning sailors towards shore in that we tend not to hear much from the sailors pulled in the other direction.

    “Wouldn’t it make sense that a true atheist would simply ignore religion and go about his business?”

    Not necessarily. Many atheists do not believe that theism is a force for good in the world and will inevitably voice concern or criticism.

  9. genemachine,

    The ubiquity of religion is not proof of the existence of God anymore than the ubiquity of brown hair is. It’s certainly a common human attribute and if it isn’t caused by God then what is left other than natural causes? The question is worth considering. At one time it was ubiquitously believed that the gods were responsible for the size of the annual crop. The jury may be still out but I do note the reduction in the number of virginal sacrifices for the purpose of increasing crop yield.

  10. @DAV

    My intended point about the ubiquity of religion was indeed that it was a natural phenomenon – a human universal as Pinker might call it – and as such it invites scientific research.

    I tend view religion as more akin to a symbiont than a parasite. It seems to increase not just fertility but also cohesion and helps societies function with a common set of rules and shared world view. Since it tends to be transmitted vertically (parent to child), the “interests” of the religious memes and genes of the hosts are in agreement about the value of more children. Religions that fail to increase the genetic success of the hosts will tend to be out competed by those who do. Another common trait of a successful religion is that it can unite the followers to defend against, or attack, a common foe. I suspect that too much “turn the other cheek” and “love thy enemy” would be a real weakness against another religion better prepared for conflict.

    Regarding crop yields, I think you will find that the modern scientific consensus is that the recent increase in piracy is causing a decrease in global temperatures, which in turn affects crop yields. http://www.venganza.org/about/open-letter/ . That said, let’s be cautious, use the precautionary principle, and double the sacrifices this year. According to Briggs, If we keep doubling up then we can be almost certain to get a statistically significant result at some time in the future.

  11. “I totally get the concept of doubting the existence of god and even easier to understand rejecting religion regardless of what you believe. What I cannot understand is that most atheist, who presumably reject religion, feel the need, the compulsion to preach and prothletise their beliefs (dare I say religion) to others”

    Well as someone drifting somewhere between agnosticism and atheismI’d have to say the following

    Firstly If an argument is to be made on allegedly rational and scientific grounds it needs to be made without using the apparel and apparatus of religious belief. For example, although Dawkin’s “God Delusion” was a fine effort, and I started from the confirmatively biased position of partially agreeing with whole swathes before I read it; the whole discussion around the “anthropic principle” required such a leap of faith and acceptance that it was no better than that being argued against. Likewise the discussions related to how ‘God’ should behave and how he should do things etc were argued from a set of external premises that had to be accepted on, well faith basically. Many evolutionists are like this, over egging the pudding, incorrectly representing our current understanding of the scientific evidence and its uncertainties. Adopting essentially religious attributes in their argument on their search for a position from which to condemn the heretics.

    Secondly if a scientific argument is to be wheeled onto the field of battle let’s at least check the wiper fluid and kick the tyres before revving up the engine. In the case of an evolutionary argument, the sparsity of the fossil record, the limitations in the observed effects, uncertainty as to the mechanics, etc should be laid on the line and the logical processess that allow evolution to have proceeded from ‘hypothesis’ to ‘theory’ if not yet to ‘physical law’ explained. Why those same processes would exclude for example, the narratives (there is more than one) in Genesis from making it as far as ‘hypothesis’. Why without the presentation of additional facts not currently in evidence we can’t scientifically justify putting ‘Intelligent Design’ on an equivalent basis with evolution as equally valid contesting theories. In partucular always being clear about the evidence that would compel us to change our position (the now thoroughly cliched ‘Fossil Rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian’)

    Finally as an (almost) infidel heretic may I just add the following :

    Evolutionary Psychology, sod that for a game of soldiers, I’d rather sign up for Mor(m)onism , transubstantiation, Wahabbist Islam, AND declare that fairies inhabit the bottom of my garden than take that load of old dingoes kidneys seriously. The correct expression can be found in the original (not the recorded) words of that great philosopher Anthony McAuliffe.

  12. @Michael Ozanne

    I do not believe that you wish to dismiss ALL of evolutionary psychology.

    For example, do you disagree that a mother’s instincts to care for her child are subject to, and a result of, natural selection?

    You may benefit from a reading of Dawkins’ magnificent octopus, The Selfish Gene.

  13. “I do not believe that you wish to dismiss ALL of evolutionary psychology.”

    Well if we are going to juggle spherical objects, lets consider Social Darwinism, i’e the weathiest are the most evolved, I’m British, our weathiest pop out a sprog, hire a nanny, then ship it out to boarding school at the first available opportunity. Q.E.D maternal instinct is a genetic defect that is in the process of being evolved out. No strawmen or false conclusions were injured during the production of this argument……..:-)

    Absent a clear understanding of the transfer mechanism by which Genetic instructions are translated into finished organ systems. (Bearing in mind that we can’t predict the coat colour of a cloned cat, google CC and Rainbow..) the whole of EP is Post hoc ergo propter hoc writ large. Having to explain art, poetry, theatre, emotions, truth, apple pie and mother love with the few thousand effective DNA sequences that are different between Humans and Chimps (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/08/0831_050831_chimp_genes.html) , given all the other physical differences that have to be covered as well, was too much for the poor darlings so they invented EP as a pseudoscientific defence mechanism. It allows them to spurt out authoratative sounding answers to awkward questions without having to do any real work. Until some real science shows up ther’s no need to consider EP as anything other than another case of self-referential, cargo-cult intellectual onanism.

  14. Dav: I don’t agree. The things I am not interested in or don’t believe in don’t take up any of my time at all. In fact I would never even think of them unless I am reading a news story or report that mentions them. One would think that by definition an atheist would never think about god or religion. It is after all something that they don’t believe in. Why would they then care what someone elses believes or thinks? The fact that they spend so much time on something they claim to not believe in makes me think that in fact they are just contrary people who get great joy in telling others how stupid they are. It is the way they elevate themselves.

  15. @Michael Ozanne

    I’ll take that as agreement that instincts for maternal care are a result of natural selection. I’ll assume that you would also agree with many other aspects of human behavior shared by other animals, including, for example, sexual dimorphism in behavior.

    Whether maternal care or, my favourite, female intelligence, are disadvantages either in the 19th century or under the modern welfare state does not detract from the evolutionary account of their origins.

    I do not see why we need an exact causal chain between genetic code and behaviors to be confident that they were under selection. Would we require this to hypothesise that a cheetah’s skeleton has been selected to aid it’s high speed pursuits?

    Your mention of Social Darwinism gives a hint of why you might be cautious to embrace evolutionary psychology but I would dismiss this as not being relevant. Social Darwinism is politics and science never tells us how we must act.

    Exactly how far evolutionary psychology can help understand uniquely human behaviors is up for debate. Personally I think that the popular themes in art such as soap operas, theatre, poetry, music, paintings and sculpture often have an obvious link to our shared human nature and life history and are not arbitrarily chosen from all possible themes.

    Without rejecting evolution, and regardless of how many hypotheses are dismissed, the core idea of evolutionary psychology is safe. That our brain (and thus behaviors) have been shaped by natural selection is beyond doubt. One or a thousand bad historians or historical mistakes does not make all study of history bunk, and so it is with biology.

  16. genemachine,

    You’re right on the money about the sample of atheists: making a blanket statement about all atheists would be just as idiotic as an evolutionary biologist trying to explain “religious behavior.”

    I tried to distinguish the kind of enthusiastic atheist, to use only a positive intimation, in the title of the piece: “Dennett’s atheists.” I meant the particular and peculiar kind of atheist that would attend a conference like this one. I do not, I sincerely do not, mean such people as our friend Luis.

    Now, you will agree with me, as it is obvious, that many of these people do not breed at a level which matches, say, devout Hindus. In just the same loose and ambiguous fashion as many of the theses used by Dennett’s atheists, I claim that this evolutionary disadvantage—systematically producing fewer copies of their genes—is because of their rapid atheism. If fact, the low breeding by atheist-ex-Christians seems especially troubling. It is almost as if these atheist-ex-Christians have been infested with some kind of viral “kill off my genes!” meme, one just as deadly as any biologic virus.

    All I need do to prove this is go out and collect a sample, spit out a small p-value, and I will have “proved” what I set out to show: that atheism is bad for you. Evolutionarily speaking.

  17. For anyone who didn’t click through to the review in the footnote–just do it. Take the time, as it is a wonderful example of the saying: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Sublime prose…Briggs gave only two words, here is a longer quoute:

    But, while they may not teach us much about religion in the abstract, they may help to explain the kind of thinking animating Breaking the Spell—for, in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.

    O, how I wish I had said that first!

  18. @Briggs

    I’ve never heard Dennett described as rapid, perhaps you know more of his Christmas eve movements than I do ;).

    I cannot agree with your contention that it is idiotic to try to explain religious behavior in naturalistic terms. Difficult or ambitious may be better terms. Is it your opinion that religious behavior should never be studied or that our explanations should be restricted to the supernatural variety?

    Rabid atheism killing fertility is a puzzle worthy of explanation. I would also speculate that Dennett’s universal acid (evolution) may also also be affecting garden variety atheists and the less devout among the faithful. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea indeed. Among the confounding factors, I heard a rumour that some atheists are educating their womenfolk and by this I do not mean simple needlework and cookery. In this they are playing with fire almost as if they want to taste their fate in advance.

    I agree with Luiz that this a a great piece, I especially enjoyed the no-such-thing-as Christian roots, the vile vile machinations of the wee beasties and the atheists supping as one. Keep it up.

  19. I loved the ar-tickle, but not all its arguments. Mostly, I enjoy reading well-placed jabs at strident atheists, being, myself, a non-strident atheist.

    Even an atheist, though, is a religious sort, they tell me. The religious side of me has devised irrefutable proof that, not only is there a God, but that God is the One True Christian God.

    If we are be fruitful and multiply, then the equipment and enthusiasm for said task are critical components, with those components most in evidence in Christian ministers, priests, self-proclaimed bishops (think Eddie Long), etc. This explains why a woman will walk clear across town, barefoot, over gravel, to have sex with a man of God, bypassing her more attractive neighbor, me.

    If all men are blessed equally, there is no God. All men are not blessed equally; in fact, the servants of God are (sometimes) doubly blessed. Therefore, there is a God. If you can find phallussy in my reasoning, expose it forthwith, I say.

  20. “I’ll take that as agreement that instincts for maternal care are a result of natural selection”

    You may take whatever you wish…. but natural selection isn’t, in principle necessary, posit the following theoretical case. Maternal instincts are randomly enabled or disabled depending on which arse cheek the midwife smacks upon delivery. Also suppose that the original ancestor human group, by chance was composed of say 80% maternal ‘on’ individuals (not all that unlikely compared to the chain of accidents that must have occured to allow life at all) and that by tuition and peer pressure they could always convince 10% of new maternal ‘off’s’ in each generation to convincingly fake the behaviour, even if they didn’t ‘feel’ it. You’d get the majority of individuals exhibiting ‘maternal’ behaviour as essentially a new random event, moderated by environment in each generation. No selection involved, and no need to anthropomorphically assign machiavellian manipulation skills to sequences of amino acids or otherwise engage in pseudoscientific drivel. Now I don’t actually believe this but I’m also not willing to accept that genetic material is able to program neural pathways to affect behaviour absent evidence of a biochemical mechanism by which it can be done.

  21. @Michael Ozanne

    Lets agree that your buttock theory is within the most distant reaches of possibility. I’d love to learn of the biochemical mechanisms involved and the forces that created them (if not natural selection).

    “I’m not willing to accept that genetic material is able to program neural pathways to affect behaviour absent evidence of a biochemical mechanism by which it can be done.”

    All behavior? even breathing? Perhaps you know of a biochemical mechanism for breathing but if you do not not then how do you imagine newborns acquire the ability to do so? observation? Even if that were the case, how did the newborn acquire this learning behavior (not genes), it must have learned to learn, and before that learned to learn to learn, and so on like an infinite tower of turtles. Logically you have a problem.

    It is truly incredible, in the original sense, that DNA programs behavior. It is mind boggling to think that there is some causal chain between DNA and a termite mound, spider’s web, or a weaver bird’s nest.

    Other than these mischievous little buggers building instincts into nervous systems I know of no other natural mechanism and I’ve never found supernatural explanations very satisfying. Fortunately there are many predictions that come from the genes -> nervous system -> behavior theory and I have no reason to doubt that, along with environment, genes do cause behaviors.

    Do you know what it means to “assign Machiavellian manipulation skills to sequences of amino acids”? All it means is that genes which build organisms which help the gene’s reproduction are usually more successful than genes which do not. Imagine the case of two alleles (2 variants of a particular stretch of DNA), one of which prevents a carrier being able to see, and another which allow it to do so. Carriers of the first variant will likely be at a reproductive disadvantage relative to the second so the first variant will be selected against. Regardless of the initial prevalence of the variants, if sight is useful then the ratio of sighted to non sighted will increase. In the biological sense of genetic selfishness the seeing variant is selfish. Most genes that become common will have this “selfish” property of their phenotype aiding their reproduction, no matter how indirect the route of benefit.

    You may think that the metaphor of a gene being selfish is at best useless. My understanding of it is that it does not matter whether the gene causes any amount of pain, death, joy, siblicide, self sacrifice, nepotism, or anything else, it is the property of aiding it’s own reproduction that is selected by nature.

    You have a fundamental antagonism to evolutionary psychology, which is not uncommon, and I doubt I will change your mind. I do not think this antagonism is directly from the science itself.

  22. genemachine,

    I meant painting all religious behavior as identical, or at least intimating that it is, as Dennett et al.’s vast over-simplification do. For example, are we now having a religious discussion? If not, why not? Our back-and-forth can certainly be construed as religious talk. Does the “God gene” which governs the Hopi’s conception of the Great Circle of Life (or whatever it is they believe) work the same on those folks as it did on St. Augustine when he worked out his philosophy? Is it working the same way for us and our chatting? Are Hindus engaged (in Dennett’s words) “child abuse” when they give in-home lectures about their traditional beliefs?

    And how is it Dennett and his pals have escaped from the clutches of their God-directing genes? Are they superior mutants? I’d bet that, in private, more than a few of these folks might speculate along these lines.

    Human behavior vis-a-vis religion is so heterogeneous that it’s doubtful that much genetical can ever be said about it. Or at least, much of any lasting value.

  23. @Briggs

    Sorry for misunderstanding. I see your point that “religious behavior” can describe a diverse range of activities. I’m sure Dennett is aware of this and would generally try to “explain” one aspect of it at a time. Never to your satisfaction, I’m sure.

    “And how is it Dennett and his pals have escaped from the clutches of their God-directing genes?” Let me assure you that this talk of a “god gene” irks me just as much as it irks you. I’ve purposefully avoided articles on “god genes”. I always imagined that these genes would be linked more to having a spiritual subjective experience and by linked I mean explain some small part of the variation with a small p-value, which could be overcome with other influences on your godliness such as the memes you are exposed to.

    I doubt that he considers himself a super mutant. “I’d bet that, in private, more than a few of these folks might speculate along these lines.”. I do not know to what extent anyone put faith in the power of “god gene(s)”. I suppose that if some atheist did then they might indeed consider themselves a superior mutant. That’s assuming that he had any time left after celebrating his superior intelligence.

    “Human behavior vis-a-vis religion is so heterogeneous that it’s doubtful that much genetical can ever be said about it. Or at least, much of any lasting value.”

    Sadly, I think you may be correct. By necessity, I think that we are all prone to believing what we are told by our elders and to an extent religion depends on this but this is not really saying anything interesting. Many people enjoy a communal chant or dance but this is independent of religion. Religious people also doing it is no profundity. In warfare, loyalties can be around tribe, nation or religion interchangeably. I hope I am wrong and some fascinating link with warfare does emerge.

    That said, I’m sure that they do have interesting ideas to discuss at the symposium and there are interesting questions to be asked about religion and human nature. Arguably the holy books are one of our best records we have of morality at the times they were written. By comparing across religions, times and places we can, to some extent, identify patterns and tentatively link them to a common human nature.

  24. “Lets agree that your buttock theory is within the most distant reaches of possibility. I’d love to learn of the biochemical mechanisms involved and the forces that created them (if not natural selection). ” My completely bogus example is based on random chance biased by a randomly skewed starting population. The system would appear to replicate itself but is new at each generation.

    “All behavior? even breathing? Perhaps you know of a biochemical mechanism for breathing but if you do not not then how do you imagine newborns acquire the ability to do so? observation? Even if that were the case, how did the newborn acquire this learning behavior (not genes)”

    Oh straight for the strawman…. I note that the system you refer to is based on dedicated tissue types responding to simple chemical triggers and as such requires no more behavioral training than a bi-metallic thermostat. so add a false premise as a hat to that straw man. In fact breathing will continue to function with large parts of the brain and conscious mind destroyed or missing as the continued existence of climate science shows to the world.

    “Imagine the case of two alleles (2 variants of a particular stretch of DNA), one of which prevents a carrier being able to see, and another which allow it to do so….etc…”

    Again you pick an example of specialised tissues and join it with circumstances where changes in probability decide the outcome. In the case you outline the gene is not selfish it is completely apathetic. It replicates itself when the correct biochemical triggers are present regardless of consequence. But then I guess a book entitled “The Lazy-Ass Stoner Indifferent Gene” might not have sold so many copies….

    “It is truly incredible, in the original sense, that DNA programs behavior. It is mind boggling to think that there is some causal chain between DNA and a termite mound, spider’s web, or a weaver bird’s nest”
    It’s an interesting hypothesis, what’s needed is the work and evidence to make it a theory. Absent that its a faith based position.

    “You have a fundamental antagonism to evolutionary psychology, which is not uncommon, and I doubt I will change your mind. I do not think this antagonism is directly from the science itself.” The antagonism is from the absence of the science. It’s bad enough having to argue the scientific verities with the Intelligent designers without them having the EP drivel with which to degrade the rational side of the argument.

  25. @Michael Ozanne

    It was not my intention to set up a straw man. I will take some small comfort that you agree that at least one behavior – breathing – is innately programmed.

    I agree that in another anthropomorphic sense we can also say that a gene is apathetic or indifferent but, as I tried to explain, the selfish gene metaphor encapsulates the key attribute of what makes a gene successful under natural selection. This gene centric view does actually make innumerable predictions that can be empirically tested and explains, to my satisfaction, many otherwise puzzling behavior patterns such as avian siblicide.

    I have never been in the position of having to argue science with intelligent designers so you have my sympathy. I find it similarly frustrating to have to justify the criteria by which genes are selected and the empirical fact that genes can and do affect behavior. To otherwise intelligent people no less.

    That you consider web building by spiders to be something other than innate, and the very idea of genetic programming of this behavior to be a faith based position lacking the evidence to be described as a theory, speaks volumes. Well done for having the logical consistency to maintain this position and not consider human behavior to be a special case as is popular with some critics of the modern synthesis.

    It is genuinely a puzzle to me why others cannot see my superior perspective. I take little comfort in the truism that there are none so blind as will not see. May the best memes win.

  26. I’ve been looking at some scientific papers purporting to show correlations between beliefs and behavior on the one hand with genes, chemicals, and brain activity on the other hand. It looks like papers on this topic are noted for sample sizes that are pathetic even by the undemanding standards of social science.

    To take just one example, are there any papers on transcranial magnetic stimulation with a sample size over 100?

  27. @Joseph Hertzlinger

    I know nothing of transcranial magnetic stimulation studies but regarding genetics I
    have heard that a Y chromosome can have quite a large effect on behavior and I think the sample sizes are fairly significant 🙂 The visual phenotype is a confounding factor here.

    Another candidate, is genetic variation on MAO, mono amine oxidase, which has been linked to behavior in various studies.

    I think that “normal” people have 2-4 copies of this gene coding for an enzyme which breaks down various neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Obviously, serotonin levels are thought to have an influence on behavior as evidenced by the SSRI industry (much of which I oppose, there is too much money in phamaceutical research for impartial objectivity, and a change in environment would be a more suitable first treatment step) and also by users of MDMA/ecstasy (which admittedly affects more chemistry than just serotonin).

    It’s extremely rare for people to have no functional copies of MAO but just for context consider this study on one family with such a mutation

    Abnormal Behavior Associated with a Point Mutation in the Structural Gene for Monoamine Oxidase A
    H. G. Brunner; M. Nelen; X. O. Breakefield; H. H. Ropers; B. A. van Oost
    Science, New Series, Vol. 262, No. 5133. (Oct. 22, 1993), pp. 578-580.
    http://www.bioforensics.com/conference07/DNA_and_behavior/Abnormal_behavior.pdf.

    A small part of The Dunedin Longitudinal Youth Study was about correlations between copy number variants, environmental inputs, and antisocial behavior. They are said to have found that both genetic variation and environment affect antisocial behavior with the worst behavior associated with low copy number variants and an abusive environment.

    Caspi A, McClay J, Moffitt TE, Mill J, Martin J, Craig IQ, Taylor A, Poulton R: Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science 2002; 297:851—854
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/297/5582/851.abstract

    “We studied a large sample of male children from birth to adulthood to determine why some children who are maltreated grow up to develop antisocial behavior, whereas others do not. A functional polymorphism in the gene encoding the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) was found to moderate the effect of maltreatment. Maltreated children with a genotype conferring high levels of MAOA expression were less likely to develop antisocial problems. These findings may partly explain why not all victims of maltreatment grow up to victimize others, and they provide epidemiological evidence that genotypes can moderate children’s sensitivity to environmental insults.”

    I do not know the sample size here but I would be very interested if anyone can demolish Moffitt’s findings.

    * I think I should perhaps have said MAO-A rather than MAO above, but this does not affect the question over whether genetic affects behavior.

  28. I had an online friend who did research on oxytocin in prairie voles and montaine voles. The theory here is that monogamy is more favoured by the montaine voles than the prairie voles due to their environmental. Or vice versa.

    Some species, such as most penguins and lemur species require 2 parents, and others like lions and polar bears do not. The flamboyant birds of paradise tend to fall on the non-monogamous side, and albatrosses are on the monogamous side. Voles and humans lie somewhere in between and obviously polygamous species complicate the whole issue.

    I think that the research done by my friend – and I think he was replicating it rather than doing it originally – involved using viruses to knock out or enhance some part of the oxytocin pathways. The result being that he could make or break monogamy in the voles by genetic engineering.

    I think that a lot of similar work, knocking out genes associated with behavior, has been done on mice. I seem to remember one on personal hygiene behavior, but there must be dozens more.

    This is my recollection, and I could be mistaken. He could have been lying to impress me and given my predispositions, this may not be difficult 🙂 How this research shook his previously religious worldview is another story that I do not fully know.

  29. I wonder if readers of this blog who question genetic influences on behavior have ever seen different dog breeds or read about the tamed Russian Silver Foxes.

  30. @Joseph Hertzlinger

    I just re-read “I’ve been looking at some scientific papers purporting to show correlations between beliefs and behavior”

    You explicitly said beliefs I went on a big behavioral tangent :/

    Apologies.

  31. genemachine,

    You’re making your point the hard way. Ask instead if there are behavior differences between, say, spiders and dogs.

    It is clear that there are proclivities towards given behaviors in dog breeds, but less clear that a certain behavior would be impossible in one breed but common in another. How much does the environment influence the behaviors is the tough question, the one fraught with error and over simplification.

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