Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Problem with Evolutionary Psychology


Jesse Bering is an evolutionary psychologist at Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK). He blogs at Bering in Mind on the Scientific American website. Read his latest post: Natural homophobes? Evolutionary psychology and antigay attitudes.

In that post, Bering takes seriously the idea that homophobia could be a character that evolved in our ancestors. The idea is that parents who were homophobic were more likely to be concerned about the sexual orientation of their children. If this led to more heterosexual children then the parents would have more grandchildren and the allele for homophobia would increase in the population.

To my mind this idea is so ridiculous it doesn't even merit discussion and it certainly should never be published in a "scientific" journal. Why is it that respected evolutionary psychologists think these just-so stories are an important part of their discipline? Does this mean that the entire discipline is suspect?1

Jesse Bering is the author of The God Instinct. I haven't read this book but I'm going to order a copy. Here's what he says on his website.
Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill, or they find themselves in close personal danger? Using the latest scientific evidence, Jesse Bering explores how people's everyday thoughts, behaviours and emotions betray an innate tendency to reason as though God were deeply invested in their public lives and secret affairs.

In this entertaining and thought-provoking book, he argues that this religious reflex is not an irrational aberration, and that God is not a cultural invention or an existential band-aid, but an intrinsic human trait, developed over millennia, that carries powerful evolutionary benefits.

Breaking new ground, The God Instinct uses hard science to show that God is not a delusion, but a sophisticated cognitive illusion. Bering reveals the roots of religion in our ability to think beyond our immediate surroundings, and explains why this capacity for belief sets us apart from other animals.
Jesse Bering sounds like a complicated person with interesting perspectives on evolution and religion. Here's what he says about himself on the website.
Jesse Bering is Director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen's University, Belfast. An evolutionary psychologist, he is one of the principal investigators on the Explaining Religion Project.

The Institute's research focuses primarily on human social behaviour, and current topics range from people's belief in the afterlife to moral disgust over social offences. Funded by the EU, the John F Templeton Foundation and the US Air Force, it has projects running all over the world, including India, Mali and Cyprus.

Jesse writes a weekly column for Scientific American, ‘Bering in Mind’. The members of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences named the column an official 2010 Webby Honoree in the “blog­cultural” category.

As well as being an acknowledged expert in his field, Jesse Bering is well known for his approachable and engaging popular writing. Born in the USA, he now lives in Northern Ireland.


1. Perceptive readers will see a connection between evolutionary psychology and adaptationism.

[Hat Tip: Joe at Canadian Atheist]

13 comments :

  1. Scan down to 'Templeton'.

    Stop reading.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill..."

    Since this statement is patently false I see no reason to proceed further and the rest of the book may be safely ignored.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Evolutionary psychology's "explanation" of homosexuality is a typical example of 'just-so' stories in the field, sometimes ingenious-sounding analysis that can never be validated or verified.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill..."

    That's funny, my mom was diagnosed with cancer in October and dead by January, and I managed to keep myself from turning to God. And so did she.

    Oh wait, that's not funny. It's offensive.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a..."

    The premise for his book is pure bullshit. I don't do that and I doubt many atheists do. This guy is clueless.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill, or they find themselves in close personal danger?"

    A true story:

    My sister was in a serious car accident and we gathered at the hospital. She was pronounced dead at one point, but then a doctor detected a heartbeat. She was in a coma.

    My mother was brought up very religious, and although she stopped going to church at fifteen I always assumed she still believed. I have never heard her swear.

    When a priest came to my sister's hospital bed and offered to pray, my mother yelled 'FUCK OFF BACK TO FAIRYLAND!' at him.

    The family gathered around the next bed burst into spontaneous applause, and a nurse later told my mother she had never felt so good as she had at that moment.

    Or, in other words: fuck off back to Fairyland, Bering. There may be people who, in their most desperate moments, can think of no other place to put their hope, but they know, in their heart of hearts, that it's lies. That priests actually *call* what they do at that moment 'preying' ought to be enough.

    (Sister: full recovery, years ago, no prayers or miracles needed).

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill..."

    Thought the same thing and was also offended by this premise of the book. But I was wrong. This guy is good. The Belief Instinct is hands down the best proatheist book out there. Important to know that Jesse Bering is a psychologist and he focuses on unconscious thinking about these things rather than religious beliefs per se.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Like the commenters above me, I was annoyed by that bit about "Even the most committed atheist...". But, I read the whole post and I'm inclined to agree with Dr. Moran about Dr. Bering appearing to be an interesting and complex individual. I've put his book on my Amazon wish-list, which is what I use as my notepad to remind myself what I'd like to read next when I'm in a book-buying mood (i.e. the budget allows).

    At minimum, I'm curious about Dr. Bering's distinction between a delusion and a self-imposed illusion.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDFriday, March 11, 2011 2:39:00 AM

    "The idea is that parents who were homophobic were more likely to be concerned about the sexual orientation of their children. If this led to more heterosexual children..."

    And just how would B follow from A?

    "Why does even the most committed atheist turn to God when a family member falls seriously ill, or they find themselves in close personal danger?"

    Starting from a false premise is not going to get him anywhere meaningful.

    "In this entertaining and thought-provoking book"

    The thought it would provoke in me is that Jesse Bering is clueless.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Just another atheist here to testify that when my father was dying neither he nor the rest of the family resorted to prayer.

    Worse, when I was two, my appendix burst and I had to fight off peritonitis with the aid of surgery and penicillin. My father had to resort to mild violence to remove the priest his parents had summoned to minister to my soul, because the priest was freaking me out, so I was told.

    The idea that there are no atheists in foxholes is not only disrespectful of atheists, it asserts that all soldiers are sniveling cowards, which as far as I can tell is bullshit.

    Odd ideas about atheists abound. One of my nephews was asked by his father-in-law "So what keeps you from fucking your dog?" I'd hesitate to characterize such a question as mere projection.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Since someone brought up Athiests in foxholes...

    http://blog.atheistsetc.org/post/1591969476/dalatheist-see-there-are-atheists-in

    ReplyDelete
  12. "So what keeps you from fucking your dog?"

    The simple riposte to that one, one that no theologian can give a decent answer to:

    'If, deep down, you really thought God was real and praying to him helps, why would you bother going to a hospital for treatment?'.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Evo psy is all about justifying fifties lifestyles. It's called wishful Tarzanist thinking. And when you hear people arguing for the existence of "alpha male rape genes" and "female wired-for-coyness brains" you have to laugh that they're taken seriously.

    ReplyDelete