6 September 2004

Natural piety

Seems like religion's getting discussed quite a bit lately. Here's an interesting essay by Richard Dawkins titled "What Use is Religion?" In it, he suggests that to understand religion [w]e have to rewrite the question before we can sensibly answer it. The question may not be "how does religion add to the survival of the species?" but instead be something along the lines of "what survival trait gave rise to the behavior that is religion?" He offers some suggestions, but I was more interested in his examples of other "wrong questions" in the natural sciences.

Hens have a pecking order. With very little actual fighting, hens figure out whom to defer to and who defers to them. This is called a "dominance hierarchy," and as long as a coop's membership doesn't change, the dominance hierarchy stays fixed. If members frequently are added or removed, the hens must re-establish the hierarchy and will actually produce fewer eggs.

For a Darwinian, the question “What is the survival value of the dominance hierarchy?” is illegitimate. The proper question is, “What is the individual survival value of deferring to stronger hens? And of punishing lack of deference from weaker ones.” Darwinian questions have to direct attention toward the level at which genetic variations might exist. Aggressive or deferring tendencies in individual hens are a proper target because they either do, or easily might, vary genetically. Group phenomena like dominance hierarchies don’t in themselves vary genetically, because groups don’t have genes.


Moths fly into flames because they are wired to navigate using distant light sources (sun, moon) that appear fixed. Artificial light appeared much later than their navigtional wiring.

It is still, on average, a good rule of thumb. We don’t notice the hundreds of moths who are silently and effectively steering by the moon or a bright star or even the lights of a distant city. We see only moths hurling themselves at our lights, and we ask the wrong question. Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead, we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining an automatic fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we only notice on the occasions when it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It never was right to call it suicide.

It's important to get the questions right:

Darwinians make much of this distinction between proximate and ultimate. Proximate questions lead us into physiology and neuroanatomy. There is nothing wrong with proximate explanations. They are important, and they are scientific. But my pre-occupation is with Darwinian ultimate explanations. If neuroscientists find a “god center” in the brain, Darwinian scientists like me want to know why the god center evolved. Why did those of our ancestors who had a genetic tendency to grow a god center survive better than rivals who did not? The ultimate Darwinian question is not a better question, not a more profound question, not a more scientific question than the proximate neurological question. But it is the one I happen to be talking about here.
[ posted by sstrader on 6 September 2004 at 1:27:48 PM in Science & Technology ]