Friday, May 30, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Computer modeller dismisses latest "computer model" of religion

Britain's New Scientist magazine, one of my richest sources of nonsense about religion and spirituality, reports that religion is a product of evolution, according to software designed by evolutionary anthropologist James Dow of Rochester University.

Evolutionary pyschologists, almost all of whom are materialists, fall into two camps: Religion is untrue and useless or religion is untrue but helped our ancestors survive.

Dow is in the second camp, arguing that

Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

The problem with any computer model of religion, of course, is that the topic is so vast and varied that any given model is wildly unrelated to real life. One wonders, for example, what to make of a model of religion that assumes that when unbelievers are attracted to believers the results will necessarily be good for the latter. I am reminded of Hebrews 36-38, NIV, on the fate of the heroes of faith:
36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned[a]; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith yet none of them received what was promised.
A friend, Gil Dodgen, who does computer models for a living, wrote to say,
This is utter silliness, and it stuns me that anyone would take this seriously, much less publish it as a "scientific" study. I design real-world computer simulations in my work with a finite-element analysis (FEA) program called LS-DYNA, which is the world's most powerful and thoroughly used and tested program of its kind. It originated at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and has been designed and refined over decades by some of the greatest minds in the field.

LSD (as I affectionately call it) models the laws of physics and Newtonian mechanics with utter fidelity, and material properties are well understood, tested and documented, and are modeled accurately as well. LSD is capable of analyzing and simulating extremely complex systems involving all kinds of non-linear interacting dynamics. This program is so powerful that it is used heavily in the automotive industry to simulate car impacts, airbag deployments, occupant injuries, etc.

Yet, even with all this, and a programmer who is experienced and knows what he's doing, the simulations must always be tested against reality to finally validate them. (This way you only have to crash one or two real cars instead of 50 or 60 to get things right.)

So, when I hear about a computer simulation that demonstrates how religion evolved (or how any living system evolved, for that matter), all I can do is roll my eyes in wonderment and disbelief that anyone takes this stuff seriously.

As a final note, I can make an LS-DYNA simulation do just about anything I want, by arbitrarily tweaking parameters and material properties. I have done this on occasion just for the entertainment value. Those who attempt to model biological evolution, religion, or climate change can do the same.

Just for fun, check out this LS-DYNA simulation of a car airbag deploying (a 2 MB AVI file). It's pretty amazing:
Gil has also blogged on this here, saying much the same thing.

The only thing we really know about our ancestors' beliefs about life after death (the afterlife, as New Scientist terms it) is that burials that imply such a belief are quite ancient and widespread. One possible source is, of course, near-death experiences, as Mario and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain.