As you know, we will be seeing each other tomorrow when I travel to Stony Brook to give the Darwin Day lecture. This reply to your blog will give your readers a taste of what we will be discussing—cordially and constructively, of course, and hopefully over a beer!
YOU SAY: Wilson has simply rediscovered a well known foe: ideology, a phenomenon for which we don’t need a new term, and which, in fact, does describe very well both standard religions and cult-like movements like Rand’s.
I SAY: OK, but you must admit that much of the current discourse naively assumes that atheism stands for science and reason, while religion stands for blind faith. If the New Atheists are ideological in the same way as Rand, we need to know about it.
MASSIMO: Yes, I agree that some atheists far too easily ally themselves to reason and science, when in fact they can be irrational and anti-science. I am pretty sure Dawkins and Dennett do not fall into this category, while Harris likely does (see his sympathy for eastern mysticism). I am agnostic on Hitchens, who I think just enjoys pissing off people.
YOU SAY: Wilson is afraid that Dawkins, Dennett …are interested in propagating an ideology, not furthering critical thinking…I don’t buy it. …they are not dogmatic.
I SAY: I have a lot of respect for Dan, who I regard as a valued colleague. Nevertheless, “Breaking the Spell” does not have the academic caliber of his previous books. He writes about the scientific study of religion as if it’s all in the future, which gives him free rein to interpret religion as a cultural parasite or a maladaptive byproduct, when in fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dawkins is even worse. He is out of touch with the scientific study of religion (much more than Dennett) and judging from his response to my Skeptic article, doesn’t think that he needs to be held scientifically accountable for what he says about religion. I call that dogmatic.
MASSIMO: I call that sloppy. I agree with you that Dennett’s book is better than Dawkins’ and that they may both suffer from the problem you point out. Still, it’s a far cry from not being up to date on the study of religion (a new and controversial field) to being Rand-like...
YOU SAY: Moreover, a movement isn’t an ideology (or a stealth religion), unless we are prepared to regard, say, the civil rights movement as pernicious as well.
I SAY: Please! I did my best to make it clear in my Stealth blogs that not all forms of atheism (and not all movements) are stealth religions. It’s perfectly possible for a movement to work hard to get the facts right and then base action on consideration of the facts. Alternatively, they can distort the facts in their drive to motivate a given suite of behaviors. This is true for any movement, such as the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, or atheism.
MASSIMO: Agreed. Indeed, I would add to the mix certain types of Libertarianism and of feminism (oh, darn, I’m gonna get into trouble again!).
YOU SAY: Perhaps the most interesting part of Wilson’s blog so far is his summary of six hypotheses concerning the nature and origin of religion..This is interesting, though I’m sure he left out other scenarios that, say, a psychologist, a philosopher or a cultural anthropologist may have proposed.
I SAY: No, I actually think that most theories of religion that have been proposed without using the E-word can be categorized in terms of the six major hypotheses, plus the proximate/ultimate distinction. I invite you and your readers to think of a plausible counterexample.
MASSIMO: Fair challenge, and I do agree on the importance of the proximate/ultimate distinction (see, for instance: Pigliucci, M. 2002. "Are ecology and evolutionary biology "soft" sciences?" Annales Zoologici Finnici 39: 87-98). However, I consider more troublesome my objections to the search of ultimate explanations for human behaviors. Not because they are not there, but because that sort of historical hypothesis testing is exceedingly difficult in the case of human evolution (too few closely related species for comparison, no possible measurement of selection in past environments, and lack of a relevant fossil record).
YOU SAY: But then Wilson tells us at the same time that all of the above are probably true and that he prefers option (a), a super-organism. He doesn’t tell us why the super-organism hypothesis is “more relevant than the others” and he doesn’t present any evidence that would favor that hypothesis over the others.
I SAY: I object! In my blog, I judiciously acknowledge that evolution is a messy process and the religion is a fuzzy set of traits, but then I make a strong statement about the primacy of the superorganism hypothesis, so much that it will be regarded as obvious in retrospect (if it isn’t already to some of your readers). As for evidence, how much evidence can fit into a blog? The best that a blog can do is serve as a portal to more detailed treatments of a subject, such as my book (Darwin’s Cathedral), numerous articles on my website, and a second website designed to promote the new scientific discipline of Evolutionary Religious Studies. I dutifully refer readers of my blog to these sources, so please don’t casually say that I fail to present evidence!
MASSIMO: OK, readers will have to check the link and your book, but my general objections to the testability of most hypotheses about the evolution of human behavior (see above) stand. Let me clarify that these aren’t objections of principle: I have absolutely no trouble with the general idea that some cognitive traits and behaviors in humans evolved, sometimes by natural selection. I just think that humans happen to be terrible model organisms for this sort of study, relegating most of this literature to the status of interesting (possibly even true) historical narrative, but not science. But I see below that you strenuously object to this!
YOU SAY: Indeed, it is hard to imagine how most of these could actually be tested, considering they all suffer from the standard problem of evolutionary psychology: we have an abundance of reasonable ideas, but a paucity of data to discriminate among them.
I SAY: I strenuously object! Evolutionary hypotheses about religion and other aspects of human behavior are no more difficult to test than other hypotheses. Like Dan Dennett, you are implying that all of the promise of scientific inquiry is in the future, when in fact there are mountains of data lying all around us, waiting to be organized—just as Darwin was able to organize the mountains of data about the natural history of plants and animals. The “just-so” story complaint is often used to achieve something close to post-modernism, in which we are all free to think whatever we like, because the data isn’t in yet. Check out the work of Richard Sosis (listed in the directory of the ERS website) for an example of excellent scientific research on religion that comes to decisive conclusions.
MASSIMO: I strenuously object to being accused of post-modernism! Just check out some of my rants on the subject in this blog, not to mention the book I’m writing now for Chicago Press (OK, you won’t be able to check the book until some time in 2009, when it comes out). But I actually go further than Dennett on this: I don’t think this sort of science is in the future, I think it will simply not come. There are epistemic limits on our ability to find things out, and I think this is one area where we may have reached them. As Lewontin once put it: “I must say that the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. ... It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.” (“The evolution of cognition: questions we will never answer,” 1998) Of course, only the future will tell...
YOU SAY: More puzzlingly, I’m not sure what it means to say that something like religion is a super-organism.
I SAY: A group is a superorganism when its members work together to achieve common goals, which requires both cooperation and coordination (division of labor). Anthropologists often speak of human groups as “corporate units” (especially during the early and middle 20th century) as it if was common sense. Religious believers frequently compare their communities to single bodies and beehives. Religions make most sense when studied in the context of actual religious communities, such as congregations. Studying religion at a larger scale, such as major religious traditions, is a bit like studying a taxonomic unit such as a phylum. If a religion does a really good job of helping its members survive and reproduce by fostering cooperation and coordination, it counts as a superorganism. There are interesting things to say about biological fitness vs. cultural fitness, but the fact is that most enduring religions help their members survive in purely biological terms. Judaism is a sociobiologist’s dream, for example.
MASSIMO: I agree that the most interesting studies of religion are done within religious communities (a very comparative anthropology-like approach). But I am still not clear whether you are using “super-organism” as a metaphor (which is fine, but beware of the power of metaphors to mislead), or as a direct analog to biological super-organisms, as in the case of ant colonies. In the latter case, one immediately faces serious obstacles, such as precisely the problem of translating between reproductive and cultural fitness that you allude to. Biologists have enough trouble with the concept of fitness, both operationally and conceptually; I can only begin to imagine the mine field that results by taking literally the concept of cultural fitness. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course.
YOU SAY: Finally, Wilson asks the very good question of what do we do with religions. He argues that in order to answer that question we need to have the right idea about what sort of things religions are…I’m not convinced of this either.
I SAY: I’ll try to convince you of this in Stealth V and VI. You speak as if there is a straightforward relationship between religion, ignorance, and poverty, but this relationship would need to be established by empirical scientific research and would need to have a theoretical explanation. I doubt that the relationship is as straightforward as you seem to think and we’ll definitely need both theory and empirical research to work out the more complex relationship, for religion as for any other subject.
MASSIMO: No, I don’t think at all that the relationship amongst religion, poverty and ignorance is straightforward, which of course means that the problem of religion is even more difficult to solve (what would such a solution look like?). Regardless, I am simply not convinced that an evolutionary perspective is going to be of any use, even if correct. But I await to see further elaboration on this point.
YOU SAY: What Wilson calls “the ecological/evolutionary paradigm” of human inter-group interactions may be telling us the right historical narrative about how certain things came about (wars, religions), which is intellectually satisfying, though it may be hard or impossible to test empirically.
I SAY: There you go again with your “hard or impossible” mantra!
MASSIMO: It’s not a mantra (as in a mindlessly repeated phrase), it’s my assessment of the above mentioned epistemic limits of science. There is no question that plenty of people in the past have said that X or Y could not be done, and it was. My favorite example is an astronomer who stated categorically that humanity would never be able to put an artificial satellite in orbit around earth. Sputnik was lunched a few months later. Nonetheless, I find the inability of many scientists to accept that there will be, as Lewontin says, things about which we simply won’t be able to say much, rather strange. To acknowledge science’s limits is not the same as to diminish science’s accomplishments, and I’m certainly not suggesting that there are better, non-scientific ways to find things out (a la intelligent design nonsense).
YOU SAY: But to cure the disease -- if it is possible at all -- we need to understand and tinker with the more proximate mechanisms that are the province of the social, not biological, sciences.
I SAY: As one of the world’s most distinguished evolutionists, I’m sure you will agree that evolutionary inquiry requires equal attention to proximate and ultimate causation, as complementary explanations that mutually inform each other. Also, I reject your distinction between the biological and social sciences as separate “provinces.”
MASSIMO: Thanks for the compliment :) I’m not trying to arbitrarily separate intellectual domains here, but you yourself agreed that there is a distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Sometimes knowledge of one does illuminate knowledge of the other, but I can’t think of too many cases. Indeed, it’s easy to come up with examples of long periods of time where scientists working only within one framework have made huge progress (molecular biology through the second half of the 20th century). Nonetheless, I agree that from an intellectual perspective one is satisfied only when we integrate both perspectives on a given problem. But my point was more modest: having an explanation for something doesn’t necessarily lead to a practical solution. We have a pretty good understanding of why we die, but I doubt science will give us immortality any time soon (and, of course, whether immortality would be a good thing is a philosophical, not a scientific, question -- another separation of intellectual domains!).
YOU SAY: A good analogy here is provided by so-called Darwinian medicine… Unfortunately, religion as a cancer of the mind is much more difficult to understand, not to mention cure, than physical cancer.
I SAY: If you are using the metaphor of religion as cancer, then you are informally subscribing to the “cultural parasite” hypothesis about religion, which is least supported by evidence. Efforts to “remove” religion based on the idea that it is a “cancer” will almost certainly either fail or have unforeseen consequences, just as frontal lobotomies turned out to be a bad idea, based on false understanding. In general, complex problems require detailed scientific understanding to find effective solutions. It’s hard to argue with this general statement, so why should we resist it for the study of religion?
MASSIMO: You read too much into what I wrote. I was not subscribing to the theory of religion as a cultural parasite hypothesis, but merely providing an example of where understanding of ultimate causes (the evolutionary basis of cancer), though intellectually satisfying, does little or nothing to help us solve the problem.
Incidentally, this is an excellent example of intellectual exchange between scientists, where though we differ in our positions we are both interested in making progress and understanding each other’s ideas. Let me know if you find anything like this in the creationist literature...