We wish to question a deeply engrained habit of thinking among students of evolution. We call it the adaptationist programme, or the Panglossian paradigm.
S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin (1979) p. 584A typical just-so story has two components. First, it postulates the existence of an allele "for" some trait in the absence of evidence that the gene(s) actually exist (or even that such genes are possible). Second, it postulates that the allele "for" the trait was selected in the past so that now it has become fixed in the population. The attractiveness of most just-so stories lies in the creation of an elaborate, but plausible, adaptive advantage for the postulated allele.
The field of evolutionary psychology seems to have been largely taken over by those who can create the most elaborate just-so stories to "explain" modern society. For example, the avoidance of incest in most (but not all) societies is due to fixation of an anti-incest gene in our ancestors [Another Boring Just-so Story]. As with most just-so stories, there is no evidence for the existence of multiple alleles of a gene where one allele confers incest avoidance while the other allele confers acceptance of incestuous relationships. (The problem becomes even more difficult if it's a trait due to multiple alleles at different loci.)
There's a trendy extension of just-so storytelling that looks superficially like evidence. It's the creation of a computer program to simulate one's just-so story. Naturally, these programs always work as expected since that's the nature of a just-so story. You have a postulated beneficial allele with a postulated selective advantage and, presto!, the allele becomes fixed in your simulated population. It doesn't prove a thing. If your program doesn't work as expected, then all you have to do is fiddle with the selective advantage (s) until it does.
This year's fad in just-so stories is the religion gene. Here's one of the latest from NewScientist, which should know better [Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests]. The article reviews the speculations of James Dow, an Emeritus Professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oakland University in Michigan.
To simplify matters, 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.Make no mistake. This is bad science. It does not meet any of the criteria of good science.
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.
From time to time we challenge the veracity of press releases so it's always wise to check the source to see if the views of the author have been misrepresented. In this case, the original paper is online at The Jounral of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation website [Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?]. Here's the abstract. You can read the article and decide for yourself whether you think this is a worthwhile contribution to the literature on evolution.
Religious people talk about things that cannot be seen, stories that cannot be verified, and beings and forces beyond the ordinary. Perhaps their gods are truly at work, or perhaps in human nature there is an impulse to proclaim religious knowledge. If so, it would have to have arisen by natural selection. It is hard to imagine how natural selection could have produced such an impulse. There is a debate among evolutionary scientists about whether or not there is any adaptive advantage to religion at all (Bulbulia 2004a; Atran and Norenzayan 2004). Some believe that it has no adaptive value itself and that it is just a hodge podge of of behaviors that have evolved because they are adaptive in other non-religious contexts. The agent-based simulation described in this article shows that a central unifying feature of religion, a belief in an unverifiable world, could have evolved along side of verifiable knowledge. The simulation makes use of an agent-based communication model with two types of information: verifiable information (real information) about a real world and unverifiable information (unreal information) about about an imaginary world. It examines the conditions necessary for the communication of unreal information to have evolved along side the communication of real information. It offers support for the theory that religion is an adaptive complex and it disputes the theory that religion is a byproduct of unrelated adaptive processes.How many of you think that this work supports the just-so story and refutes other possibilities?