The Myers – Rue Debate And Why They Had to Taser Me

Last night, the Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists club (C.A.S.H.) presented a debate between PZ Myers and Loyal Rue on the question: Can religion and science co-exist? I witnessed this event and would like to tell you what happened.I want to begin with a message to PZ Myers: Thank you, PZ, for your service! There are a lot of people in the twin cities who could engage in an interesting debate on religion, atheism, evolution, creationism, etc. and do an OK job, but none others have the experience and intellectual preparation (to do an excellent job) and the draw (to guarantee lots of people come to see it). Which means you have to drive all the way from Morris, Minnesota on a school night. I hope people understand that you don’t have to do this for any good reason other than it has to be done (although maybe getting out of Morris frequently is a reason, I don’t know).I also want to thank Betsy Burr for joining me last night for the debate and beers before and after. We don’t get together enough, and our joint research projects and our friendship require that this change, so let’s fix that.Thank you as well to the large man at Palmers Biker Bar who stood by and protected us from the onslaughts of dozens of drunken Marti Gras revelers. We did not need your protection … Betsy had the situation well in hand … but I know you were sincere.Finally, I want to thank my wife, Amanda, for doing the hard work last night. It was parent night in the large school you teach in, and aggressive queries and comments from parents insisting that you teach creationism along side of, or instead of, evolution in your science classroom may be very common, but that does not make them run of the mill or acceptable. While the rest of us were out debating, reveling, or discussing rodent teeth, you were doing the hard work that few of us can do.Now, on to the debate. I am certain PZ will blog the best possible perspective of how the debate went and what was discussed (ah, he did so as I was writing this). I want to summarize only a few key points and explain the specific problems I had with Rue’s presentation. These problems are very important to me. So important, in fact, that I sort of lost control last night and had to be tasered by the C.A.S.H. security team. (Thanks, guys, I understand why you did that and appreciate it.)Rue and PZ share an almost identical position on religion in relation to society and science in particular. Rue, however, believes that the next step in the “evolution” of religion is to be transformed into a secular and humanistic construct with all the features he sees as central to religion, including the reification of moral codes and understanding of the natural world in the form of myth/story metaphor tropes that facilitate both moral behavior and an understanding of nature. Rue wants to call this construct religion, and PZ wants to call it science.I was thinking we should call it secular humanism, but interestingly, no one mentioned that last night. Perhaps someone will suggest why that term does not apply.I think the heart of the Rue-PZ difference lies in the following contrasting (yet not necessarily exclusive, or even matched) views:1) Religion is a powerful organizing social and cultural force, so it isn’t going to go away and in fact should be openly used as we pass into the next state of social evolution, from Nation State to Global Consciousness. (That’s Rue.)2) On balance, Religion brings with it baggage consisting of untenable spirituality and non-naturalism, which has often been translated into social or political movements, as well as individual actions, that form the worst aspects of human nature and society. Leave that baggage behind. (That’s PZ)PZ might add that religion has nothing special to offer to offset this baggage. I would also phrase the argument thusly: Retaining religion as a normative social and cultural construct because of the benefits Rue cites (we can accept these benefits as plausible for the sake of argument) is a little like saying that we can accept and maintain Nazism because we have a newly reformed, evolved form of Nazism with all the good features of how to organize infrastructure and government (great roads, secure military, nice rockets) but without the bad features. Most of us would prefer to avoid the label (Nazi) because the label is a symbol that carries powerful meaning, and thus, dangerous baggage.There are more reasons that religion is bad, or at best not good, that were not discussed last night (or that were but that I do not mention). But I await PZ’s summary which will be more succinct and relevant than I can give you in my present hazy state (I only had three beers, but that’s more than I had since going out to the bar with Mike last month to discuss Democratic Politics and stuff).Now, on to my objections to Rue.Rue presented three formalized constructs that I will very briefly summarize here.A processual model of religionRue provided what I’ll refer to as a model of religious social process. This is about how religious practice ties together myths or stories with concepts that emerge to explain the unexplained (such as a duality of nature and spiritual, etc.) and other aspects of society. If you saw his charts and graphs, and viewed them from a Western or Judeo-Christian, or Abrahamic or, I believe, South Asian or possibly East Asian cultural perspective, you would get it, and see its value, and understand what he is talking about. I’m not going to try to represent his model here, go read his books.The most salient point of his model, in relation to the debate, is that morality derives from this process of integrating unknowns and explanations. I think he is right, as long as we keep “morality” in lower case, or use the phrase “a form of morality” and not “the morality.”In Rue’s model, morality and ethics requires this process of transformation of questions about the universe to symbol rich mythology and story telling. The model is really a set of interrelated metaphors that provide the framework for the cultural codification of morality. The next step in evolution of religious practice and belief is to transform this framework into a purely naturalistic one. Keep this in mind, I’ll come back to this concept later.The Evolution of Social FormThe next model he presented was a model of the evolution of social form that runs like this (I’m using a different format than he did but you’ll fully understand it):Bands of foragers -> tribes -> chieftainship -> Nation State -> Global systemIn his model, the processual model described above emerges as human society evolves from bands to tribes to chieftainships, with a story (like an origin story in many cases) facilitating that transition. At the latter end of the process, Rue claims that a new story, which is secular science, needs to be the story that transforms us from Nation State to Global System (he used somewhat different terminology but this is his point). Nice point, he may be right, but this specific aspect is not what I had a problem with, necessarily.Those of you who have studied anthropology will recognize the fallacy in Rue’s stages of evolution. If you have, the following assertion he made will actually make you mad, as it made me mad:Rue notes that later on in this social evolution, the moral code that derives from religion is the main reference point for people’s moral behavior. But, he says, the code that operates at the band/hunter-gatherer level is different. At this basic level of social organization, he says, moral behavior is maintained by the negative emotional reaction by other members of the band when you do something bad. Ogg the cave man does something wrong, and Erg the caveman gets pissed and pimp slaps him, so Ogg learns that this is a bad thing to do. Rue did not use the phrase “operant conditioning” but he was describing such a system. The idea that a band of hunter gatherers could have a complex moral code, drenched in nuance and subtlety, that takes an individual a good part of a life time to learn and in which all members participate, and in which people search for meaning and with which people measure self worth and the worth of others, and to which people turn when in doubt, which is exploited by those seeking power or twisted by those with nefarious goals, and so on and so forth, is not allowed in Rue’s model. That kind of complex stuff happens at higher social levels than the band. Hunter-gatherers can’t do that.I think I like Rue. I’d like to have a beer with him. And he responded with aplomb and courtesy to my ranting, when I took over the microphone and screamed at him for ten minutes until I was tasered by the C.A.S.H. security team. But I have to say that this really burns me.The system of social evolution Rue describes is called the Morganian Evolutionary Model. It looks nice, seems to work internally, and could be a description of how human society has evolved and to some extent may be organized at any point in time as we see some areas of the world in nation states others in tribal states, and others in band state. This idea was very fully developed and widely applied in the early part of the 20th century.Subsequently, historical ethnographies, modern ethnographies, archaeological investigations, and all sorts of other work has put the Morganian model to test. Now, you understand that while I am an anthropologist, I do not trust or accept the writings of sociocultural anthropology at face value. I find much of that area of anthropology to be annoying and useless. But I have made a study … this is central to my own research … of social structure in the “band” and “tribal” areas of human organization. I’m here to tell you, and there are thousands others, piles of literature, centuries of collective experience, to back me up on this, that the Morganian model is wrong.That giant run on sentence I gave you above … “complex moral code, drenched in nuance and subtlety, that takes an individual a good part of a life time to… bla bla bla … which is exploited by those … with nefarious goals, and so on and so forth…” … that kind of cultural complexity we see in day to day life is not less or more developed in any one kind of society. All human cultures have this attribute. Furthermore, societies do not necessarily evolve or change from one type to the other as described in these models. Finally, the attributes and descriptors needed to support these models … what “tribal” is, what a “band” is, etc. … do not hold up under scrutiny.In other words, the Morganian model is a fiction of nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars who had it way wrong. Using the Morganian model to investigate social evolution is about as misguided as using the Humour Theory to do medical research today. Way, way, way, wrong.Now, here is one of the key points I’d like to make, to all three of you who have managed to get this far down the page:Rue’s model of religion is meant to be applied to all peoples who have undergone sufficient cultural evolution. He said this again and again … (“All religions do this, all religions do that…” again and again) … But band level societies get their moral code from the pimp slap or the dirty look or other emotional reactions.These assertions are not true.Some hunter-gatherer groups (quite possibly all or most) have all sorts of religious/ritual/spiritual stuff going on, but do not drive a personal moral code from these beliefs or activities in large measure or at all. A member of such a society does not avoid cheating in an altruistic interaction or in sexual liaison because it is a sin … a violation of a spiritually or religiously derived social tenet. Nor does such an individual avoid transgression because someone else will grunt at him or snarl or slap him or her. A person in a forager society is moral and ethical because there is a moral and ethical code that is nuanced, complex, useful, etc., but in my view that derives not from genes, not from the limbic emotional response, and not from a religious construct centered on myth and metaphor.Rather, the moral code in many cultures is derived from social and community level interactions. It is humanistic. The moral code in many cultures is derived from a humanistic base that in turn is based on understanding of the worth of fellow humans and the value of cooperative interaction, and this moral code is as useful and complex and adaptable as any other moral code. Indeed, the moral code derived strictly from mainstream western religious sources is typically hypocritical, hard to interpret, derives its complexity not from the fact that life is nuanced, but rather, that the text on which it is based is garbled. Hunter gatherers have better moral codes than people living in Nation States, and this code does not derive from or rely on religion.In sum, Rue’s processual model of religion linked to a Morganian evolutionary model are wrong in describing our species, even if parts of these models can be used in a limited way to describe Western perspectives.The Evolution of Thoughts in ScienceRue also provided a vertically aligned model of the evolution of thoughts and activities in science, running from “absurdity” through “conjecture” and “hypothesis” and ‘theory” through law, etc. etc. It is a typical model of stepwise movement from virtually total lack of understanding of something to truthful knowledge. PZ seemed to think this was an OK model, but he did not comment on it much. I think it represents a useful oversimplification. Part of the model assumes that if an idea is refined, i.e., improves and includes more correctness, that it would typically move up from the absurd end to the truth end of the hierarchy, but I can think of transformations in science where an idea “improves” (in that it is better to have the idea than to lack the idea if the ultimate goal is ‘understanding’) but because of this improvement it actually moves ‘down’ the scale, perhaps from hypothesis to conjecture. In fact, I think that happens all the time in hypothesis testing, when it is discovered that your hypothesis was OK in formulation but the methods you are using fail in a way that teaches you more than the experiment itself.But that is an entirely different topic and I think I’ve gone too long already. The final person I want to thank is Loyal Rue … for the very thought provoking conversation.

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42 Responses to The Myers – Rue Debate And Why They Had to Taser Me

  1. Bob says:

    Thanks for the excellent review of the debate; very useful for those of us in another country. You write “…but I can think of transformations in science where an idea “improves” (in that it is better to have the idea than to lack the idea if the ultimate goal is ‘understanding’) but because of this improvement it actually moves ‘down’ the scale, perhaps from hypothesis to conjecture.”What do you have in mind here? Can you provide examples?

  2. pksp says:

    Excellent thoughts Greg. You have now piqued my interest in anthropology; mainly the questions on the origins of morality. As a recent convert to atheism, I am having a difficult time understanding the roots of morality from a non-religious viewpoint. And this point is a big stickler when I try to argue against religion to my fundie friends. They claim no morality without religion, or that all morality stems from religion, and I am learning that this is clearly not the case. I tried to study the evolutionary benefits of morality, but could not explain some of the altruistic aspects of that in evolutionary terms, so I failed again in my debates with friends. Can you suggest some books that you feel address the source and basis of human morality aside from garbled religious texts?Thanks,pksp

  3. J-Dog says:

    pksp – Excellent post, and reflects a current on-going discussion I am having at another board. The key to remember I think, is that Anthro Rules!I suggest pointing out to your fundy friends, that people clearly lived in societies governed by rules BEFORE some bronze-age goat herders started to write weird stories and stuff down in a moldy old book.Greg – DUDE! Totally outstanding. BTW – You couldn’t remember the line “Don’t taser me Bro?”

  4. DouglasG says:

    I don’t want to speak for Greg here, but in hunter/gatherer groups, cooperation is essential for survival of the group. For instance, if the band is out hunting and one person decides that they would rather skip rocks, that person is not doing his or her fair share. They are not acting as part of the group. In fact, this action could have an adverse effect upon the whole tribe. Thus, you must fulfill your role in the group.Thus, bonds for your group are formed. You rely on your tribe or clan mates. Thus, your morality is based upon how you treat others in the group for survival. And, like modern religions, they don’t apply to people outside of your group.The real key to this Global community is getting everyone to treat everyone else as a member of the same community. There is no them. In our current climate, religion puts a line there that we need to break.

  5. Olaf Davis says:

    An interesting summary Greg, thanks for giving it. Your point about scientific ideas moving ‘down’ the ladder Rue describes is a very good one, which is obvious once pointed out but which I’m not sure I would have thought of myself in response to Rue’s model.Bob, you ask for examples of the above. If I’m allowed to interrupt and provide one that springs to mind from my own field:A century ago our picture of the large-scale behavior of the universe was based on two things: matter and photons. We understand how these behave and interact over distance quite well, so on Rue’s scale we could say we have a law of large-scale evolution.Then dark matter and dark energy entered the scene. For a long time these could easily be considered ‘absurdity’ (Einstein’s famous comment about dark energy being his ‘biggest blunder’), or conjecture at best. Even today we have no firm ideas about what dark matter / energy are, and we understand them far less than we do ordinary matter and photons. Maybe you’d call them ‘hypothesis’ or ‘theory’ on Rue’s scale.But, crucially, a model of the universe that contains DM and DE has far higher predictive power than one that doesn’t. It explains many many observations that otherwise make no sense. So, as Greg says: if the ultimate goal is ‘understanding’, this idea is better.Thus we have an idea which is definitely better (in terms of explaining what we see), but which is less-well understood and doesn’t qualify for such a high rung on Rue’s ladder. That’s what I think Greg was trying to say (and I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m worng!)

  6. HP says:

    Greg, fantastic post, and I hope you expand on some of these topics. I’d like to hear more about your anthropological research, and I bet a lot of other readers would, too.pksp: It’s not anthropology (by a long shot), but the philosopher Epicurus articulated a pretty clear foundation for a morality entirely separate from religion about 2500 years ago. Epicurean morality (and no, it doesn’t involve gourmet food) is pretty simple to describe and understand, and I find it a good place to start when discussing morality with my biblically-based friends.

  7. Dunc says:

    Yeah, good post Greg. Hard to believe that there are still people who take that Morganian model seriously…As for a rational, humanistic mortality, I might as well just copy the comment I just left at Pharyngula:Then, wherefrom morality?From the simple observation that other people really are people, just like you, with their own motivations and desires, combined with the simple idea that if you want other people to respect your motivations and desires then you need to respect theirs. Combine the elementary principles of equality and fairness and you can work it all out from there, purely on the basis of rational self-interest.You can’t rely on being able to exert power over others, because there’s always someone with a bigger stick – or there eventually will be as you get old and slow. So coming up with a fair moral code that everyone can get behind is very much in your own interests.For a thorough treatment of this idea, you might want to consider reading John Rawls’ “Justice As Fairness” – although it’s heavy going.

  8. Dan says:

    Fantastic post.Quibble: I think Rue has it right in that morality is related to tribal religions and myths, but Rue has precisely how it’s related exactly backwards. Tribal societies have a highly developed form of morality, which is expressed partially in myths, but also in everything else about their society and customs.It’s different in “more developed” societies because myths and customs become less malleable. You’ve got big books, and kings, and tax collectors, and priests poncing around and fucking everything up, to put it as succinctly as possible. Bureaucracy takes its toll.

  9. Virgil Samms says:

    a vertically aligned model of the evolution of thoughts and activities in science, running from “absurdity” through “conjecture” and “hypothesis” and ‘theory” through law, etc. etc.

    I assume this description is oversimplified, because no one who is up on the evolution-creationism debate, as PZ is, would acquiesce to “law” being labeled as higher than “theory.” They are two different things, not in an superior-inferior relationship.

  10. sailor says:

    “Now, here is one of the key points I’d like to make, to all three of you who have managed to get this far down the page:” I was going to say here is proof there were four, but there were way more than that.pksp, genetic transferrence works though the individual, so dying for others (unless it it is the required number of siblings or cousins) gets your genes nowhere. But on the other hand it is not that common either. It is obvious that cooperative behaviour in a small group can be rewarded and enhance the chances of having successful offspring. Once we set up a system where doing things for others works, occasional heroism I would think could be explained by variation. In our society risk taking may confer benefits when successful (die and it is a mistake). For example, you dive in a pool to rescue that beautiful woman’s pet pouch and who knows you might end up with her. But when while heroism and self-sacrifice is not uncommon, it is uncommon enough to be noted and respected. I think in that framework it is not hard to understand even true atruism.

  11. Amanda says:

    Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this post. I read PZ’s post first and noticed the footnote. I wanted to know more about the specific cultures in which morality wasn’t a product of religion.When you said, “The moral code in many cultures is derived from a humanistic base that in turn is based on understanding of the worth of fellow humans and the value of cooperative interaction,” it all clicked…I think. Did you mean, by “worth,” that fellow humans are essential for survival? I don’t mean to oversimplify…I’m just not familiar with this subject.Do you suppose it’s safe to say that those in our culture who don’t follow a moral code (say, commit major crimes) are often those who feel ostrasized from the culture and don’t, then, experience the direct worth of another human?Is there any relation between the size of a community and the strength of its morality? For instance, in a smaller group of people, each person would contribute a large portion to the group’s survival. In a larger community, those portions would decrease and therefore make the individual more expendable.This really has been a fantastic post (and comments!). Thank you!

  12. ringwald haze says:

    I thought this was an extremely interesting entry, and am a bit disappointed it wasn’t longer.I consider myself a strong atheist, but am also very interested in the humanism and mythology. I find western religion threatening, but from a humanistic perspective see themes which could be very useful if adapted ‘appropriately’.I guess my question, to cut the rambling short, is are there are papers/books/authors that you would recommend people read that immediately come to mind on this subject?

  13. Aaron Baker says:

    You wrote:”Rue and PZ share an almost identical position on religion in relation to society and science in particular. Rue, however, believes that the next step in the “evolution” of religion is to be transformed into a secular and humanistic construct with all the features he sees as central to religion, including the reification of moral codes and understanding of the natural world in the form of myth/story metaphor tropes that facilitate both moral behavior and an understanding of nature. Rue wants to call this construct religion, and PZ wants to call it science.I was thinking we should call it secular humanism, but interestingly, no one mentioned that last night.”I really don’t see religion undergoing this sort of evolution (except, perhaps, for a relatively small number of people). To a very large extent, I think, people are religious exactly because it offers them something more than pretty myths–immortality for example, and the consoling thought that the world is not the bleakly indifferent place it seems to be. Nothing called science or secular humanism offers these consolations. I, like other unbelievers, can say the consolations have no basis in anything experience tells us about the world (though I will admit that consciousness is so strange a phenomenon I hesitate to say anything about it with an emphatic tone of voice). The believer will then say (as he has before) “But I have faith that it all works out well in the end.” If believers can say that today, looking at the world around us today, I see no reason why their counterparts won’t be saying it 10,000 years from today.

  14. gerald spezio says:

    Greg, no question that Morgan’s evolutionary scheme (methodology) with its “ethnical periods” is fatally flawed.But your serendipitous theory (the spontaneous generation of religion, as in maggots) fails just as blatantly.Question; What conditions religion and/or religious beliefs?Marvin Harris, the not at all vulgar materialist, answered forty years ago in the Rise of Anthropological Theory;”The most powerful generalizations about history are to be found by studying the relationship between the qualitative and quantitative aspects of culture energy systems as the independent variables – and the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the other domains of sociocultural phenomena as the dependent variables.”As sound a research principle and strategy today as it was forty years ago – most imperatively if you are doing social science.One gigantic point; If religious concepts arise spontaneously and are beyond the reach and tools of empirical science, inquiry is stifled – kaput!Anything goes, as in Feyeraband’s social soup & chaos.Moreover, if we are all necessarily “spiraling upward” to higher levels and evolving toward global community and earth consciousness (Rue’s contention), then this professed spiraling upward – must be a “law” of nature?If all of this magnanimous ethical spiraling upwards is haphazard and spontaneous, what would keep human society from descending into barbarism – “back into” barbarism according to Morgan’s scheme?When an idealist paints a hook on the wall, they routinely become frustrated when they can’t hang anything from it.How would Rue’s or your methodologies account for the bizarre ethics (lack of ethics?) found among Colin Turnbull’s Ik?At first I thought that the tasering stuff was a spoof.

  15. Shygetz says:

    Aaron Baker said “I really don’t see religion undergoing this sort of evolution (except, perhaps, for a relatively small number of people).”Follow the history of Unitarian Universalism. While it’s not a HUGE religion, it is not tiny and is fairly new. It went from two offshoots of Christianity into what is now a religion with solely humanist dogma. The UU’s give me hope for the rest of religion.

  16. Blake Stacey says:

    In other words, the Morganian model is a fiction of nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars who had it way wrong. Using the Morganian model to investigate social evolution is about as misguided as using the Humour Theory to do medical research today. Way, way, way, wrong.

    I’m reminded of something Hector Avalos wrote of Michael Shermer:

    Shermer’s theory of the evolution of religion reflects that of Edward Burnett Tylor’s (1832–1917) outdated unilineal model of religious evolution, which posited the following stages: animism > polytheism > monotheism. This unilineal scheme was already beginning to be dismantled with fieldwork at the start of the twentieth century, because high gods could be found among some “tribal” peole, and animism could be found in the most “civilized” states.Likewise, Shermer is at least a half century out of date in biblical studies. Most critical biblical scholars no longer see Abraham as a historical figure, and we do not know if he was a monotheist. And the biblical records portray Abraham himself as believing in quite an anthropomorphic god who walks, converses, and eats with Abraham in the tents of Mamre (Genesis 18). Nor did the anthropomorphic gods of pastoral people die out, if one regards Jesus as an embodied god.

    This is a short excerpt from a discussion in Fighting Words (2005), referring to Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil (2004).

  17. Juan says:

    Dunc:

    From the simple observation that other people really are people, just like you, with their own motivations and desires, combined with the simple idea that if you want other people to respect your motivations and desires then you need to respect theirs. Combine the elementary principles of equality and fairness and you can work it all out from there, purely on the basis of rational self-interest.

    You can’t rely on being able to exert power over others, because there’s always someone with a bigger stick – or there eventually will be as you get old and slow. So coming up with a fair moral code that everyone can get behind is very much in your own interests.

    Beat me to it. I’m far from being an knowledgeable person on the topic but I believe the platform for all moral standards is don’t do to others anything that you wouldn’t like them do to you.

  18. pedlar says:

    Pksb – you write:

    As a recent convert to atheism, I am having a difficult time understanding the roots of morality from a non-religious viewpoint.

    if you are looking for some very accessible writings on atheism and morality, may I suggest ebonmusings’ site. The following essay gives a very good overview as well as his own, quite intriguing, personal solution.http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/carrot&stick.html

  19. MyaR says:

    pksp, you might want to take a look at Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained. While I have some quibbles with it, it has a lot of potentially useful stuff for your morality arguments with theistic friends.And yes, more anthropology!

  20. Sarcastro says:

    Religion already “evolved” to what these men are interested in. It did so towards the end of classical antiquity, most notably in the works of Marcus Aurelius whose theology could best be described as materialistic pantheism (although the philosophy was Stoic). And then Christianity wrecked it.

  21. Greg Esres says:

    Rue, however, believes that the next step in the “evolution” of religion is to be transformed into a secular and humanistic construct with all the features he sees as central to religion…in the form of myth/story metaphor tropes that facilitate both moral behavior and an understanding of nature.

    Hard to see exactly what he means by this. Sounds a little like the idea in the recent book, “Blasphemy” (not recommended). I’m inclined to believe that science would its positive attributes if it becomes part of anything called “myth”.

    little like saying that we can accept and maintain Nazism because we have a newly reformed, evolved form of Nazism with all the good features…without the bad features.

    They did a Star Trek episode on this. Didn’t work.

  22. RBH says:

    sailor wrote

    pksp, genetic transferrence works though the individual, so dying for others (unless it it is the required number of siblings or cousins) gets your genes nowhere. But on the other hand it is not that common either. It is obvious that cooperative behaviour in a small group can be rewarded and enhance the chances of having successful offspring.

    Whenever someone brings up (alleged) examples of ‘pure’ altruistic behavior, one need only note that (a) distributions have tails, and (b) Mother Teresa was singularly unsuccessful in reproductive terms.

  23. Marcus Ranum says:

    Well, I got all the way to the end and all I can say is “thank you!” That was really interesting and instructive!(PS – I assume/hope you’re joking about being tasered. I know someone who was on the receiving end of a tasering and he said it was the most awful pain he’d ever experienced.)

  24. Mooser says:

    “Evolution” and “adaption” do not mean the same thing, nor do they imply, “improvement”. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand evolution, Greg.Also, the behavior of men in societies has nothing to do with evolution, not in any way that is understood in a useful fashion. And again, “morals” and “intelligence” may be indeed “adaptions” and the product of “evolution” but they are not “improvements” nor do they represent, in evolutionary terms “progress”We are not, Greg, “the crown of creation”!

  25. Mooser says:

    I’m sorry, Greg, I misread, and read too hurriedly. But Jeez, those “evolutionary” models of human morals and society piss me off! Hear that crap all the time, and also “evolution equals improvement, and Man is the most improved”Societies don’t “evolve”: Two societies don’t mate and produce an evolved society. Societies and religion “evolve” like computers do. People design and build computers and religions and the overall changes are popularly called an “evolution” Two computers don’t mate and produce a laptop, cause space is short.

  26. melior says:

    They did a Star Trek episode on this. Didn’t work.

    It would certainly help if intelligent aliens would show up here to explain the Prime Directive to people.

  27. John T. says:

    I have the answer to make all of mankind become unified as a global community. Prove that aliens exist so we all have a common enemy. Im just waiting for science to get there act together and save us all. Focus your telescopes now. lmao

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I believe the platform for all moral standards is don’t do to others anything that you wouldn’t like them do to you.

    Some of the comments mention ethics. I don’t see how that apply on a discussion of morals, of what we actually do. Ethics is a like art criticism, trying to come up with a post facto explanation for why some art are more liked than others, But the discussion would then be about why we do art, as I understand it.In the current case, being uniformly accepting is not necessarily the expected moral behavior. If a population have recurrent interactions among members, I would expect that tit-for-tat with forgiveness to be the recurring behavior as it is often the superior strategy. And indeed, punishing misbehavior seems to be common among groups of animals.

    a useful oversimplification

    A useful characterisation, and correct to boot. It is expected that anyone describing evolution or random analogies to it from a religious perspective will exclusively state the ladder model, and Rue is no exception.Olaf’s excellent example can IMHO be sharpened by considering the cosmological constant alone. It was not described as dark energy at the time, it was conjectured to make some cosmological models (marginally) static. The CC went from conjecture to debunked (expanding universe) to the simplest hypothesis describing dark energy in the current cosmological theory. Now it is used to explain the details of the cosmic expansion.And I note that the resurrected hypothesis is not identical to the old. The term has moved from the geometry side of the GR description to the energy side, i.e. it is no longer considered a property of space but a property of the vacuum. It is as if the ladder was raised, but before anyone could climb on it it was taken down and moved around to the other side of the building. And now it is the sturdiest ladder among the ones trying to reach the roof.

  29. The Morganian model is itself based on Comte’s positivist theory of social change. It goes back to the 1830s. And even now people like Carneiro still think this is what cultural evolution means. I fully agree with you Greg.The best source for an evolutionary account of morality is, I reckon, Frans de Waal’s 1996 Good natured: the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press].

  30. laurisa says:

    Right on. Badagary Nigeria: A connection between religion and morals is not observed.I have observed that moral code stemming from the social atmosphere isn’t always positive, and some decisions made do not even make sense in my western trained mind. We went to fix a road. The local village chief comes to ask “how much money do you give me to fix my road?” Yes, I am O-wee-bo. Therefore I have money. It’s the first thing the children learn. “O-wee-bo, give me money!” are the shouts as I pass. That is the worth, the use the villagers have for me, a fellow human being. The chief has decided the chance of getting money is worth more than fixing the road.Money. HERE it is money that dictates moral code, drives the efforts of the village. Is that odd, is that different than THERE? I’m not so sure. Religion is alive and well here. Christianity. Yet it means very little to go to church on Sunday and kill O-wee-bo on Monday. In the Western world, it’s akin to going to church on Sunday, and sleeping with a man’s wife on Monday. Thank goodness you have already saved your soul. Religion.I do see moral code acting in accordance with your society. A man that works with me on Thursday will join an angry clan of villagers on Friday to threaten me. For money. Always money. I serve no other function for them than that. It does not matter that my long term objective is to provide electricity to them. Today, they want money and will chase me out, kill me, at whatever cost to them in the future in order to have money today.I see more a link between moral code and money than I do with moral code and religion.

  31. mayhempix says:

    Excellent post!And I’m glad you were zapped back into line and your moral backsliding was corrected.;^ )

  32. James Hanley says:

    You got excited enough about that to get tasered?

  33. Just Al says:

    Got linked over here from Pharyngula, and I have to say, it’s an intensely deep and thoughtful post, with lots of interesting responses.I am completely uneducated in all this, so I stand the chance of running down a path that is not only a dead-end, but is well known for it ;-). However, this is what I’ve arrived at after having been thinking this over for the past couple of years.I think pursuing the concept of “morality” is the wrong approach, because it is an abstract that is defined too loosely. Instead, I think we’re better off looking at the core emotions to see how they might lead to a universal tendency towards morality (and, indeed, religion).To me, I’m right in line with Dunc, above, but will simplify it to “empathy.” The ability to project ourselves into the plights or pains of another human being (or predecessor thereof – I imagine this happened millions of years ago) was one of the key factors towards a cooperative society. Cooperation allowed for hunting game, caring for our ridiculously inept infants, and fending off dangers. Later on, it worked well for agriculture (the transition from family or tribe, to clan or village) and village maintenance.At roughly the same time period, I think the largest risks to survival stopped being the difficulty of finding food, or predation by the big cats et al, and became competition from our fellow species. A family/tribal unit with a stockpile of food is easy pickings, easier than hunting mastodon, and my guess is that the stockade followed very quickly on the heels of the tended field, since raiding parties would seem to be a logical step. Aggression and competition were already a necessary trait for both food and protection, and it isn’t hard to suppose that this could turn against our own species if it meant survival.So, there’s a conflict: aggressive tendencies for the survival of the species against tough competition, versus the cooperation of many individuals to eke out a living. While they sound contradictory for a species to evolve with, they’re both readily observable today. What we seem to have developed is a method to differentiate “us” [good] from “them” [evil].Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but this fits in with everything from religion to sports fans. And it helps explain why we feel more comfortable reducing every decision we can down to simple black & white. And one of the best ways to not be mistaken for an enemy is to establish yourself as a friend.A few above have questioned where altruism fits in there, risking your life for others (and the subsequent risk to the gene pool). I would suspect that it is an excellent way of establishing trust among a tribal group, and also works on the obligation/indebtedness side of things (like the aforementioned beautiful woman’s pooch, or her flat tire). It isn’t so much a matter of saying, “I am good,” as it is of saying, “I am like you and can be trusted.”My own hypothesis (yes, the uneducated one) is that religion sprung up not too long after the establishment of cooperative societies, especially villages or fixed farmland. In such a society, it becomes very possible for individuals to survive with no cooperation, being carried along by the efforts of others. Cultural interaction may have made it difficult to simply discard such an individual from society (because, let’s face it, it was probably the son of a village elder), and empathy might also fight against this. So the next step is to convince the lazy individual that it is in their own best interest to cooperate, and from there, you get to everlasting reward and everlasting torment in a very short period of time.I don’t think this is the sole source of religion, not by a long shot. But I think this is where religion absorbed a moral code, and it worked hand-in-hand with the true source of religion, which is (I believe) insecurity, a survival trait to perhaps all higher species. Insecurity and outright fear lead to safe places to sleep, weapons for protection, food stockpiling, allegiances, and so on. As society developed enough to make survival almost a foregone conclusion, we still had the long-bred trait of insecurity, as well as aggression and empathy. And, of course, there would be a certain number of people who could recognize these traits and know how to manipulate them in others – they became the shamans, leaders, and priests. And of course, power is security too ;-)I’m not sure this fits for everything we can see, and stand to be corrected. But it seems to account for the development of morals without necessitating specifics, and explains why cultures can define moral/ethical behavior in radically different ways – it’s not a matter of what’s best, but what allows to individual to fit into their chosen culture [good]. I think that we, as a species, undergo near-constant conflicts among the cooperative and competitive aspects of our personalities, and these resolve in myriad ways.laurisa, above, noticed that the morals of the villagers she works with seem more linked to money than to religion. I’m certainly not in a position to do more than speculate based on a very brief description, but I suspect that the issue revolves more around the desperate plight of the villagers than anything else. Survival is a strong instinct, and in circumstances where societal cooperation does not seem to work for survival, morals vanish (as study of criminal behavior has often shown). The man who worked with her one day and threatened her in a group the next seems to be facing a distinct dilemma: cooperation with one individual can result in money (necessary for survival to nearly all of us), but may also result in opposition, perhaps even robbery, from members of the village. I doubt there’s any kind of moral guidance there – I’d bet it’s attempting to survive in a difficult situation. Basically, short-term survival has to take precedence over long-term, for there to even be a long-term.Just my thoughts. If anyone knows of research along these lines, even those that dispute it, I’d be happy to check it out.

  34. Caledonian says:

    Always money. I serve no other function for them than that. It does not matter that my long term objective is to provide electricity to them.

    Well, why is that your objective? Why are you sacrificing your time and effort (and probably also your money) for those people?If you wish to pour your water upon the sand, that’s your business. I just don’t understand your motives.

  35. dave says:

    Thanks for an interesting post an discussion, hope the tazer was figurative rather than literal. As an addendum to the suggestions by Just Al | February 9, 2008 11:56 PM, the ill informed impression I have is that chimpanzees and probably other primates show similarly complex social interaction, exchanging affection and usefulness, with altruism working to convince others of prestige and worth. Human social interactions take that so much further that the resource expense of bigger brains is justified by joint reproductive success, and leads on to the development of learned cultural systems organising the group more effectively. Where these cultural systems have the characteristics of religion they can provide a structured organisation with similar benefits, particularly when farming leads to larger societies and eventually kingdoms where the ruling system is given its power by religion. So it goes….

  36. gerald spezio says:

    I quote your cavalier literary word salad – the foundation of your theory of religious causation…. “the moral code in many cultures is derived from social and community level interactions. It is humanistic. The moral code in many cultures is derived from a humanistic base that in turn is based on understanding of the worth of fellow humans and the value of cooperative interaction, and this moral code is as useful and complex and adaptable as any other moral code.”This is mentalistic clap-trap – a preposterous exercise in non-empirical ideaism as totally causal in observable material social structure and social organization..”… DERIVED FROM A HUMANISTIC BASE…” conveys no operational information whatever.the so-called humanistic base “is based on UNDERSTANDING of the worth of fellow humans…”Lots of turtles on top of one another (the bases), but no prescriptive operations about how this idea game actually works – never mind how to find these critical foundational bases.”LOVING UNDERSTANDING” AS IN THE “HUMAN SCIENCES” OF WILHELM DILTHEY, PERHAPS????You are not doing any semblance of science.You are a blatant practitioner of new-age sorcery.Supposedly you learned this witchcraft baloney at HARVARD.Your stated theory might wash as literature.Science it ain’t.

  37. Jenny Z says:

    Sorry for the tasering. Apparently it was needed to allow the crazy guy to give his weekly Regan speech.

  38. Greg Laden says:

    Jenny,(By the way folks, Jenny is the Taser Meister) … I noticed that. I was sitting there thinking “Hey, they should have let me keep talking….!”Oh, and everyone, meet Gerald. He’s banned on almost every science blog out there. I wonder why…

  39. gerald spezio says:

    Greg, any man who gets tasered in the defense of good science against the religious whackos – can’t be all bad.The question remains; Is your clearly mentalistic theory about the causal chains explaining sociocultural similarities and differences the best way to do scientific anthropology?Relying on psychological variables as primary & causal is surely open to debate.

  40. gerald spezio says:

    Just Al, your statement that religion “just sprung up” is more than problematic – most especially for a scientific analysis of all socio-cultural phenomena.If religion “just sprung up,” how could we possibly go about accounting for religion’s causal chains?What do we look for and and where do we look for it?If I have understood it, Greg’s apparent research strategy is similar to the spontaneous generation of maggots.Starting from Greg’s premise, I would be bewildered as how to proceed scientifically – i.e. as a naturalist/physicalist/materialist.Determinism is always the issue!

  41. Greg Laden says:

    Let me make one clarification:I was not proposing a model for the origin of religion, or of morals or of ethics. (I can do that, but I was not trying to do it here). Rather, I was falsifying Rue’s hypothesis about the centrality of myth and stories in, to use his words, “all religions,” by pointing out cases where a well informed examination shows that this is not happening.In making this statement, I have noted possible other ways to think about this, but I am in no way making a formal proposal. Certainly not about maggots, but spontaneous generation may not be a bad model for certain psychosocial processes. (But I’m not up on the 17th century spontaneous generation literature…)

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