Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Aquatic Apes and Mormonism

One of the most fascinating proposals in anthropology is called the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, the idea that at some point in the evolution of homo sapiens our ancestors spent a great deal of time in the water. The theory makes a certain amount of sense, and would explain our hairlessness and the fact that human children, unlike all other great apes, love to play in the water. Just go for a walk on the beach, as I do two or three times each week, and it's striking to see kids running into the water chased by parents trying to keep them from drowning. No other primate species does this; they're all instinctively averse to swimming.

This Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) hasn't been embraced by the anthropology community, but it's not down and out either.

Either way, it illustrates one of the big differences between religion and science. In science, when there's an outlandish hypothesis (that is, outlandish compared to the accepted science), the advocates of that hypothesis are expected to provide extraordinary evidence to support their claims. It's not sufficient for them to just say, "It could be true, you can't prove it's not." The strength of a hypothesis rests on its explanatory power and on direct evidence that supports it.

The AAH has a great deal of explanatory power, but little direct evidence to support it. For example, if archaeologists discovered human remains by a sea shore with great piles of sea-urchin shells and other marine species that could only be gathered by swimming and diving, that would be strong direct evidence. Lacking such direct evidence, the proponents of the AAH can only offer indirect evidence, such as the fact that we're mostly hairless, we're good swimmers, and we love water even as babies.

The debate about AAH started in earnest in the 1960's and has continued ever since, but it's fair to say that AAH proponents have not met the standard of providing unusually strong evidence for their "outlandish" theory. Even Dawkins chimed in to say that the theory deserves some respect, but the mainstream anthropology community isn't convinced.

What does this have to do with religion? Well, I was really frustrated this week by a long and convoluted discussion in the comments section of my blog, a quasi-debate between me and several other atheists versus several Mormons. I say "quasi-debate" because it quickly devolved into mild-to-medium strength insults and a lot of smoke and mirrors, with little real substance.

During this debate I was particularly struck by how religion isn't held to the same high standards of proof that science is. A religious person can make a claim that in any other context would be considered outlandish or at least revolutionary, but nobody expects them to provide extraordinary evidence to back it up. In fact, just the opposite: there's a tacit understanding in societies around the world that it's rude to challenge someone's beliefs, however outlandish they are.

Take the origins of the Book of Mormon as an example. There are two competing explanations:
  1. Joseph Smith found gold plates inscribe with ancient Egyptian text in his back yard in Manchester, New York after an angel told him where to look. He found a magic rock that he could put in his hat, and when he buried his face in his hat, he could translate the ancient hieroglyphs.

  2. Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself, partly by plagiarizing from other sources and oral stories he'd heard, and partly by making it up. There were no gold plates or magic rock, and the other witnesses who claimed to have seen the plates were known to be shady characters.
If the Book of Mormon had (for example) just been a history book about America rather than a book about God, the second explanation would be all you heard. Smith's claims would have been considered outrageous and in direct contradiction of known facts. Without very strong evidence to back his claims, not one scientist or historian would have given Joseph Smith further thought. None of us would even know about it today. Joseph Smith would be a forgotten figure.

But Joseph Smith claimed to be a prophet, so all caution is thrown out the window, all scholarship is discarded, and all principles of scientific merit are ignored. His word is all it takes.

Why is it that religion escapes the scrutiny that every other scholarly endeavor must endure? Why do millions of people believe that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and had a magic rock in his hat that made him able to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs?

Then a close friend asked me, "Isn't that why you wrote The Religion Virus? You of all people should understand this phenomenon." And it's true. I remembered in just a few seconds all of the things I discovered while writing the book, about memetic evolution, about the inexorable battle of religious ideas that makes only the very best of the best survive, and how incredibly infectious these ideas become. I remembered that people really want to believe these things, because it makes them feel better about life, death, tragedy, happiness, and the unknown. The survival of an idea (a meme) in the "battle of the fittest" of ideas as they're passed across society and down through history has far less to do with truth than we'd like to think. Ideas that are appealing survive – that's it.

People need religion. It fills a void in their lives. It makes life more tolerable. It really does bring contentment. But it also means that religion escapes the scrutiny that helps us to weed out truth from fiction, reality from fairy tales.

Mormonism is built on a two-thousand-year-old memeplex (Christianity), that in turn was built on top of much older religions (Judaism and paganism). These ideas have been evolving and improving for over ten thousand years, and it shouldn't surprise us, and me especially, that people really want to believe them. And the corollary is that they'll defend these ideas to the extreme when challenged.

Religion is incredibly infectious. I guess the only thing to do is to slog on with my work, writing and blogging and tweeting.


  1. Hi Craig,

    Great post, but I think your explanation of memetic evolution certainly goes a long way in explaining this. That aside, I thought you might find this interesting, but, while at lunch, I decided to reread several sections of your book; in particular, the evolution of memes and the bits on language. Because I have been known to read books with rather edgy titles, I am perhaps a little more in-tuned with those sitting around me. While I was reading, I noted that there was a female sitting not too far from me, and, up to that point, she had been occupying herself with sundry tasks – namely eating and playing with her cell phone. However, as I sat and opened your book, I noted a slight but growing agitation. It likely goes without saying but her “agitation” quickly culminated in this woman praying, and, as she stood up to leave, she walked over to me and stated, “You oughtn’t to read such horrible things; it’s an abomination before God,” and then she exited. Quite strangely, this has happened to me on several previous occasions: once while I was reading Russell’s, “Why I am not a Christian,” and another time while I was in the airport in Lima, Peru reading Steve Jones’, “Darwin’s Island.” There happened to be a rather large and obnoxious group of Americans – either missionaries or tourists.

    As we have discussed, this is the crux of the matter; religious people aren’t happy with living and letting live, for they see – and as you noted in your book – any conflicting information as a threat to their survival. Furthermore, as I keep noting, I don’t really care one way or another whether people hold this-or-that religious view; that is, until such time as they drag it into the classroom or government. I cannot ever imagine myself walking up to a religious person who happens to be reading the Bible on their lunch break and challenging them. It’s astonishing behavior, but somehow they feel justified. And, for me at least, this is what scares me most about religion and religious people, for the open-mindedness we afford them appears to be one way only. However, you are exceedingly correct about the nature of religious propositions for they are accepted without any justification or evidence, and well-documented theories are held to an impossible set of standards. As Sam Harris once noted (I paraphrase), “Faith is the mechanism that allows people to continue believing in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

  2. I have seen a primate that stays warm from the winter in hot springs, but that doesn't change the accuracy of anything else you say. I just wanted to mention it.

  3. Yes, indeed, I have been known to hot-tub during the dark, dreary months of winter...

  4. As an intellectual atheist and spiritual theist, I look at religion and science in the context of what all religious leaders have written since the beginning of religion: religion is based on faith; not fact. Science of course is based on a factual confirmation of a theory that was at one time based on faith. In short, religion resides in the right side of our brains, while science resides in the left. Every intelligent person in my opinion therefore understands that the first step in a religious argument is to prove the existence of God. Difficult if not impossible; I think most religious people skip over this and focus on the religious philosophy: does the religion offer an eschatology or teleology (or both) that appeals to our concept of self? Does it teach a practical axiology? Do we attempt to prove its efficacy ontologically or epistimologically; that is pragmatically? In the final analysis, most theistic men and women find a story they like and wish to be "true," fully knowing that they are accepting such based on faith alone. In a way, it is like believing in Santa Claus; we know that Santa Claus is a symbol of charity without recognition, but children believe the symbol is a reality; eventually, they mature, and perpetuate the belief in Santa Claus to teach children and to remind others that we should help others and give anonymously; so Santa Claus exists and God exists at minimum the same way. Oh, by the way, I am a Mormon and I love the philosophy.

  5. Anon -- You exhibit a very curious state of mind. Your intellectual side recognizes that your spiritual side's beliefs can't possibly be true, and yet you still believe both. I admire your intellectual side and the fact that you've come to this position in spite of enormous social pressure to "toe the line" on the spiritual side. But I truly don't understand how you can separate reality into two separate realms. There is only one reality. Either God exists or He doesn't. Either Joseph Smith had a magic rock or he didn't. Just because you want to believe something doesn't make it true.


Dear readers -- I am no longer blogging and after leaving these blogs open for two years have finally stopped accepting comments due to spammers. Thanks for your interest. If you'd like to write to me, click on the "Contact" link at the top. Thanks! -- CJ.

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