An Evolving God and Evolutionary Genetics

I have been having a discussion with Cliff Burns from Beautiful Desolation about the evolution of God and the role of God in human society.

Cliff is a very intelligent man, and a fellow curmudgeon, so I knew that a discussion with him would force me to think deeply on the subject. We approach God from two different directions.

He from a position of belief and I from a position of disbelief.

I attempted to comment on his suggestion that “By having a sense of greater power all around us, humans are humbled…and believe me, as a species, we need a lot of humbling. When we dispense with God, you’re right, we get Mao, we get Pol Pot, Stalin (I just posted an essay that brushes on this). Without God, we’re lost…”

My reply became convoluted yet I felt there were valid points which maybe needed expansion and so here is a new posting on the subject of evolution and rulership, God and genetics. It is based around my reply to the above. I apologise for any duplication of thoughts.

Cliff, I agree that we, as a species, have a social habit of following a leader, corporeal or incorporeal. As you say, our arts and customs are based on this habit. Could it be that in order to have a civilisation, or even a small grouping of people, it was better to have a few leaders and many followers, These genetic traits could have been concentrated in successful societies.

A successful tribe in the hunter-gatherer days of mankind needed a strong and successful leader. A failure in leadership would lead to either a change of leader or the demise of the tribe. As mankind settled and developed agriculture and pastoralism, leadership was again required, both to deal with the feeding of the embryonic civilisation and to help protect it from marauding animals and acquisitive neighbours. Good leaders need followers and those who would not follow had been weeded out back in the tribal days. As villages grew into cities the leader became much more of a ruler.

It was known that there was a realm of magic which decreed the seasons and the Ruler was close to this realm. His pronouncements and decisions were for the over-all good, even if it meant some individuals had to be sacrificed. Figuratively or literally! The magic realm slowly developed into a supernatural realm.

A recent news story I found suggested that it seems that radical and conservative politics attract different genetic types. Could it be that there is also a “Leadership” gene and a “Follower” gene which could be traced back to the original tribal organisation in pre-village life. Having that leadership in the hands of a human individual or, in the hands of a representative of whichever Deity the society condones, doesn’t seem to matter.

Rulers tended to breed within their own group. A Ruler would marry a neighbouring Ruler’s daughter. Over generations, if there is a “Ruling gene” then it became concentrated within certain family groupings. Leaving the rest of the population to follow. For if you did not follow, you were either dealt with or became a ruler yourself. Rulers do have a habit of spreading their genes around. Many individuals, such as the illegitemate son of Rollo and “the Tanner’s daughter” who grew up to become William the Conqueror, would be given half a set of ruling genes at birth. Excellent foremen and sergeants. And occasionally, successful rebels.

So successful societies were led by successful leaders. The long lasting civilisations had, as history shows, not only a human leader, but important supernatural support. A priestly class, probably well endowed with “ruler genes” was a way to carry the wisdom of a successful style of rulership across generations. Where there was not a strong God-belief in a tribe or civilisation, as with Ghengis Khan or Atilla the Hun and other one generational conquerors the civilisation and the tribe died with its ruler or was absorbed into a new culture.

Whether human or divine, it is the fact of leadership within a population grouping which is important. Sometimes it seems that a divine leadership is safer for the general population because there are not generational leadership contests. Too often a human God can go mad as happened with Stalin, Pol Pot and now Mugabe. A God can evolve within a stable community but to change a God requires a macro-shift in exterior conditions. A major drought, food disease, global climate change or innovative change any one of which could lead to population or influence movement where one group wins and another loses.

To a good follower class, and as explained above, every successful society needs good followers, it matters little from where leadership originates. God and the King are almost inseparable. In ancient Egypt and in Rome, the Pharaohs and Caesers were God and there were Priestly dynasties to ensure intergenerational continuity of the God-ship.

In our modern world we have seen Hitler (Godwin preserve me), Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and now Mugabe remove the “old” religion and take on their own shoulders the mantle of divine abilities. Their kingdoms are doomed. There is no continuing supernatural presence within those cultures. The possible exception in this group is China where Rulership is codified in a Committee which could become immortal.
While such leader/follower dynamics are necessary for a successful and relatively stable civilisation, often it is the free-thinkers or atheists who create the conditions for progress as opposed to simple change.

The new theory on the genetics of radical and conservative politics is not proven, yet there is some data which indicates that it may be a viable theory. Could it be that millenia of civilisation has also created a “Belief” gene pool? Separate from, but similar to the postulated political gene.That civilisation has grown to need a God. Not that I am being specific here because it is obvious that there are a number of successful civilisations around the world which each have their own God. The similarity is that they HAVE a God.

PZ Myers has written on his blog that he believes the New Atheist should aim at the destruction of all religious belief. While I admire his aim, I fear for the result.

As civilised men and women we, or most of us, have had bred into our genes a belief in the supernatural. A belief in magic and superstition. It is the major glue which holds our civilisation together. It doesn’t matter whether there is a supernatural realm or not. The belief is what matters and is what enables us, as a group, to live together. Mostly. And that group over there in the next valley or on the next continent is a danger to us and our belief.

Despite being on the same side of the belief fence as PZ I find I agree with Cliff and disagree with PZ. We need religion.

As an atheist, I see my role as looking outside the square. Finding new ways of doing or looking at things. Developing new thinking systems because those who believe are followers and those who rule are natural conservatives.
It is from my actions that God evolves.

14 Responses

  1. I actually (it’s one of those rare instances) find myself in disagreement with SOME of what you wrote.

    When we dispense with God, you’re right, we get Mao, we get Pol Pot, Stalin

    While these individuals dispensed with God of FORMAL RELIGIONS, they were pretty spiritualist in their bent. I don’t think that loss of God creates evil. That’s a rather old argument (Psalm 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. )

    I DO agree that we should tolerate other beliefs, so long as they don’t declare war on reason, attack our government institutions, deny the rights of others, or cause the death of individuals they don’t agree with (as Dr Slepian). We ARE at war, but I think PZ does a poor job of discerning between enemy combatants and civilians in this fight.

    Do we NEED religion? I don’t think so, but I also think we will always HAVE religion. There will always be people who think with their hearts and not their heads, which isn’t a bad thing in itself.

    Now, PZ may be all fire and brimstone on his blog, but you can see how tenderly he treats the feelings of his students. I don’t think that’s only because he wants to keep his job (which I doubt would be threatened by a forceful statement to his students) Rather I think we are only seeing the sharp edge of him. He’s over-playing his hand.

    I also don’t think that those who rule are necessarily natural conservatives. While I think that there are genetic components to “Alphas” in our society, and that people, like the monkeys in the famous study, are predisposed to kowtowing to the Alphas, I don’t think that has as much to do with ideology as other factors.

    Finally, there have been sufficient studies to show that when a society has other ills, religiosity increases… and that extreme religiosity leads to further ills. The problem is restoring religion to its place, government to its place, and science to its place. None of which can be done in an extremely volatile society.

    Were you living here in the US, you would see that the loss of balance is becoming more and more acute as our society falters into chaos. 10 years ago I wrote to a friend in Poland about what I was concerned was a growing movement away from the rights and freedoms in America relating to the Constitution and the Amendments. Of course then he laughed. I doubt very much he is laughing now. As things continue to fall apart, we are seeing more and more threats to our civil liberties coming from the religious right. While in other countries this is just a lot of noise, here it has taken hold to the point where there may well be an over-reaction to previous separation of Church and State.

    The intolerance seen historically in other nations that have adopted a State Religion may well be shortly seen here in the US… but with even more devastating results as the religion which has emerged seizing power, and capturing the hearts of a desperate and angry nation, is largely intolerant of others.

    Where PZ falls short is in generalizing this struggle to all nations and all religions. While I fear that over all, as things change in the world we will see more extreme religiosity and less tolerance in religion, we’re at the forefront of that struggle here in the US.

    While the Europe has kept it’s head in the rising threats, America lacks the cultural foundations to look coolly on the noise from the far right. We’re still rather floundering, being a nation of reactionaries and revolutionaries. And we have the added discomfort of being a nation of INDIVIDUALISTS, and have replaced what other nations see as cultural and societal connections with a mystic one.

    We’ve naturally polarized into black and white, religious and atheist, even though that has nothing to do with the “natural order of things” If you want to apply any laws of science to this, you may want to apply Newton’s Third Law of Motion: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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  2. dorid, Recent research indicates that political leanings may be genetically based. If this is borne out with further research then it would indicate that those genes have been concentrated within populations for some evolutionary advantage. If this is true, then possibly there is a “Religion” or a “Belief” gene. Societies which used this genetic tendency to create a social fabric based on a “belief glue” tended to succeed. Those that didn’t, don’t. This would cause an increase in the amount of “Belief Gene” within the population. Now, after some ten thousand years of evolving humans and their societies, the majority of people believe. In something supernatural. It is not that God has evolved, it is that we, social homo sapiens, have evolved in an unexpected and subtle way. PZ is quite correct when he suggests that religions become radical. Now there is even a radical and violently dangerous wing to the peaceful Buddhist religion. All religions have a potential violent reaction when they are threatened. America, with its capability of world destruction, is a major problem as it slides from world dominance. That is a subject in itself.

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  3. I’ve looked at some of the research for the “politcal gene” and it’s so much crap. The way they measuer for “genetic influence” is to examine twins in a shared family environment. If they really wanted to see a nature vs nurture study, they’d take twins seperated by adoption.

    While who we are and how we think IS partially shaped by our genetics, it’s also shaped by the experiences we have in life. The “50%” model they’ve been working on is pandering to the nature vs nurture number. Even with the adult twins, the “agree, disagree” gives you a .5 correlation… that’s 50% on average that they come up with the same yes/ no answer, or roughly the same as chance.

    I beleive that the primary part of political belief rests in exposure and evaluation.

    Dr. Milton Lodge of the State University of New York at Stony Brook has shown that certain names and political concepts – “taxes” or “Clinton,” for example – produce almost instantaneous positive or negative reactions.

    and this is a CLASSIC example… because “Clinton” and “taxes” have not only ideological references, but immediate experiential references. Even the smallest child has heard their parents complain about taxes. And with the current political environment and the past Clinton presidency everyone has either a positive experience of a health care promoting, liberal, country saving Hillary or an abnoxious Bubba, intern groping Bill.

    You say that all religions have a potential violent reaction when they are threatened. I’d also say that in many cases they become violent in a power grab they themselves innitiate. “threats” to some religions include the existance of other religions, inability to gain money, disagreement with the ideology of others, and inability to control the government and bend them to their will. And I’m NOT only talking about the US right now, but historically.

    The “atheistic threat” did not occur before the threat of theocracy here in the US, it’s a reaction to the extremist religious interference in our government and our schools.

    Does that make all religion evil? No, but it does create the need to defend rationalism in a more fervent manner, lest the US become a theocracy.

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  4. BTW… I know SUNY Stoneybrook, and wouldn’t trust very much research coming out of there anyway. Even so, I’d guess the media has picked up on the idea of a “political gene” and started spreading it around. Even a Stoneybrooke moron wouldn’t suppose that there’s a specific gene for politics based on this study, even though they do seem to suppose that predisposition is an inherited and not environmental trait (or set of traits)

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  5. dorid, while the “atheist threat” is not a specifically American thing (the Catholic Church and Islam both had major movements against it in past and present centuries) I accept what you say, Yet wonder if the basis of what I have suggested could not have some basis in truth. That simply by living as a group we have changed/ are changing ourselves because our environment has changed. That certain genes are quietly concentrating themselves within us and that eventually we will be able to see the differences. Of course, 10,000 years (around 500 generations) may not be enough time for advantageous genes to fully express themselves and for disadvantageous genes to disappear.

    But it would be strange if no gene shift were to happen.

    (I wish I had more time to discuss this but I’m outa here for today :)

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  6. This is the sort of intelligent discourse I long to see on more internet forums. The lack of critical thinking among the net community is a constant source of dismay to me. Too many geeks, not enough life experience and carefully considered thought. In my experience, when people on-line get into disagreements on passionate, deeply held views, things quickly deteriorate into name calling. I’ve posted on a number of subjects and heard various versions of this brilliant rebuttal: “Oh, yeah? You suck!” Very intelligent, huh? Arch, I respect you, just as I respect Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. My opinion is informed by personal experience and thus my points seem subjective and maybe lacking solid foundation (typical of any faith-based discussion). Without some sense that my work, my life is serving a higher power I’d never have to able to absorb twenty years of abuse and rejection. Others feel they don’t need that element in their lives and that’s fine. My views on God shift as the years go by but not my certainty that some force is working in my life, guiding my pen, counseling my conscience, stiffening my resolve. Thanks for this and the mature tone of this thread…

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  7. I also would like to see more polite discussions in this medium. Not that I claim to be perpetually polite. I was brought up in some of the seedier parts of Usenet and learned that it was very much give and take – and it was far better to give first! From those days I have a wonderful collection of flames which I am sometimes led to bring out of the vault when I see the level to which discussion can drop even here in the Blogipelago.

    While dorid and I disagree on some ideas, we also agree on others. I think the main agreement is in believing discussion is a good thing.

    My views on religion and an afterlife are quite opposite from yours as I find the prospect of an eternity praising a self-centred creator to be quite uninspiring. I find the NOW to be the important part of life. With nothing after death, I try to live to the full. To have some effect on those around me because their memories are my immortality.

    I am honoured to have found two intelligent readers who will keep my sometimes lazy writings and musings up to scratch. The fact that we are all curmudgeonly is a good thing too :)

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  8. I am a curmudgeon, no question…and still only 43 (44 next month). I don’t believe “an eternity of praising a self-centered creator” sounds very interesting to me either and that doesn’t fit my belief system at all. I don’t worship the god found in any of the standard religions, it is a very personal God that defies canon and cant. Don’t you love that great Bill Hicks line relating to Christians and their silly props: “If Jesus came back believe me the last thing he’d want to see is a cross”. I still laugh every time I think of it and miss Bill’s invective desperately…

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  9. Cliff, I didn’t know Bill Hicks so I just googled him. Wow! He makes a lot of sense! Just one example of the quotes I found – “I’ve learned a lot about women. I think I’ve learned exactly how the fall of man occurred in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, and Adam said one day, “Wow, Eve, here we are, at one with nature, at one with God, we’ll never age, we’ll never die, and all our dreams come true the instant that we have them.” And Eve said, “Yeah… it’s just not enough is it?”

    So true. Women are the cause all of our problems. Not that I blame the fairer sex for that, it is our own male doing. (Yes Dear, I heard you, I apologise.)

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  10. Arch:

    Grab some Hicks: “Rant in E Minor” is the perfect CD to start with. You will laugh your head off. And then crack on some Sarah Silverman, just to continue the verbal abuse…

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  11. I’d never heard any Bill Hicks until a couple of years ago when a friend sent me the dvd Totally Bill Hicks. Brilliant, all of it.

    Especially interesting were his attacks on President Bush … it was as if he was predicting the future. Or else, it’s just that nothing ever changes and if you didn’t know better you’d be convinced he was talking about GWB.

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  12. Cliff, I’ll look around but here in Oz we don’t get everything released in North America. I may have to venture back onto ebay.

    az, anyone who picks on GWB must have some good in him :)

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  13. I haven’t read this whole thing yet, but I can say that I personally consider PZ Myers to be a BAD example of a moral atheist. I have posted many an item, only to see it appear, uncredited, a few days later on his blog when I can see quite well that he’s been on mine looking. I am not impressed with the man.

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  14. Rain, I know little of the man yet I already have some problems with his form of radical atheism. It seems as irrational as most religious beliefs. Perhaps he is just another terrorist wannabee dedicated to the destruction of the True Cross, Mecca, the Vatican and the Turin Shroud in a single all encompassing act of megalomanic terror.

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