Sunday, March 02, 2008

Better Belate than Never

OK, I got a reply from Dr. Wilson today that makes me feel a lot better about my ideas. Here is the response:

Dear RoyNiles, There is nothing dumb about the issues that you raise. Everyone should know that when I don't reply, it is for lack of time, not lack of interest, and certainly not because I regarded a comment as dumb. With respect to memes, they are defined in a variety of ways, some broad and others narrow, as I describe in my first blog. There is definitely a process of cultural evolution (not everyone agrees, in part because the concept has a complicated past), which involves some cultural variants spreading at the expense of others, but these cultural variants need not be like genes in every respect. See Richerson and Boyd's "Not By Genes Alone" for the best discussion of memes and cultural variants, in my opinion. I usually avoid the term, although I used it in my blog to say that religions (and other cultural systems) are good at managing their internal environments.
Continuing my response to your comment, your point about built-in calculating mechanisms is also well taken. Numerous evolutionists think along these lines, such as Scott Atran (In God's we Trust) and Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained). These are broadly classified as "byproduct" theories of religion, because the elements of religion are hypothesized to evolve by genetic evolution for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, and then become the basis of religion. Your idea (if I understand it correctly) is close to what is sometimes called a "hyperactive agent detection device." I regard these ideas as quite plausible but a major issue needs to be addressed: Even if these elements of religion are byproducts as far as genetic evolution is concerned, how are they functioning (or not functioning) in their CURRENT form? One possibility is that they continue to function as costly byproducts without delivering any benefits to the religious believer, like a moth to flame. Another possibility is that they have been woven into highly adaptive current-day religious systems. Most current-day adaptations were the byproducts (or exaptations, to use a word coined by Stephen Jay Gould) of past ages.

There was no response to some of the other stuff that I had added - mainly to be provocative - and that's probably all to the good. It was the feedback in general that was sorely needed and has now been gratefully received.

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