Sunday, March 11, 2007

Fervor and Spectacle and Genes

At this point, it might be wise for me to scrap my long-delayed post about the Andrew Sullivan-Sam Harris religion debate, but introducing wisdom to the blog at this late date seems silly, so I'm going to cart it out sometime before I leave for a week in Texas on Friday morning. In the meantime, PZ Myers over at Pharyngula reacts to a recent New York Times piece about the evolutionary-biology view of religion, and I think his take is a good one. Remember while reading the excerpt below that, while Myers is definitely an enthusiastic atheist, he's not saying (as far as I can tell) that Civil War reenactments have the same degree of meaning as religion does to the larger culture, but just that it has the same likelihood of being an inextricable part of our DNA:
Many people assign a high personal value to religious belief, so they find the idea that it is an accidental by-product objectionable, and embrace the idea that it has some specific purpose ("purposelessness" is a kind of dirty word to a lot of people, for some reason). So let's strip that loaded term "religion" out of the equation, and put in something equivalent that won't have quite the resonance to most of us.

Say, "Civil War reenactments".

It's pretty much the same phenomenon as religion. Groups get together and follow repeated behavioral scripts; they argue in great detail and with great heat over fine points; many have much of their identity tied up in the philosophical underpinnings of the practice; people invest significant amounts of money and time in the practice; and to outsiders, the whole thing looks rather ridiculous, even when we can appreciate the fervor and the spectacle.

And yet, I haven't seen anyone try to argue that Civil War re-enactors must have had a historical selective advantage, or that there must be a Civil War reenactment gene, or that something so costly must have a hard-wired biological basis. We're reasonably comfortable with saying it has a cultural source, that there's a biological substrate that drives people to be social and associate in community activities, but that the specific patterns in which this drive expresses itself, whether it is in parading in wheatfields with old rifles loaded with blanks, or in standing up and sitting down in pews while someone hectors you about hellfire, are not derivable from your genes. Well, actually, some people do try to argue that the latter pattern of religious custom is built into your biology -- I find them about as credible as I would someone who claims the Confederate battle flag is etched onto their cortex.

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