Monday, January 30, 2006

Deleted bits from roots

NOTE: this is just some stuff that I cut out of the Roots post. I kind of like it (although it doesn't really go anywhere) so I've put it up as is, no one reads this stuff anyway, so hey!

My problem is as follows. Religion, defined loosely by a belief in some powerful and transcendent agent, is culturally universal. Every culture seems to have something that can be readily identified as religious belief. (This is NOT to say, of course, that every single individual in every single culture adheres to these beliefs.) Given this universality, a number of researchers have wondered whether religious belief is something that has an evolutionary explanation: is there any adaptive value in religion? We know that religious belief is somewhat heritable (some of the variation in belief is accounted for by genes) but is it adaptive? Well I'm not going to answer THAT question, but if you are interested Steven Pinker has a nice paper on it here. Sufficient to say that researchers disagree on this one, but most agree that adaptive or not there is something about human minds that leads them to believe in the transcendental. Even in the UK (where church going has decreased alarmingly) most say they believe in something even if they have little knowledge of what that something is. Religion might therefore be like language; something that is more properly thought of as being acquired rather than being learned. If other languages are around then children will learn the one they hear, but if there aren't, then they will just create their own. This seems to have happened in natural "experiments" such when deaf children were institutionalised in Nicaragua, or when children turn the pidgins spoken to the by adults into creoles (see here for more on this).

All of this suggests that a group of babies became isolated from all other human contact and (and here I stretch a point) managed to grow up into adulthood, they would more than likely have not just a language but also a religion (of some sort). (William Golding reflected on this point in The Lord of the Flies albeit with children rather than babies).

OK so if the above is all true (which is a moderately sized if I agree) is it possible to do anything about religion? If we try to ban religion (which is kind of what he seems to want -- at the very least he wants us to stop teaching it to children) would it work? Would it not be rather like trying to ban language? Or to take Kurt Vonnegut's memorable recollection in Slaughterhouse Five when he tells a friend that he is going to write an anti-war book his friend replies "why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?". Meaning that for all the good intentions war is going to happen whatever novelists might say.

If we think a little more about Dawkin's argument he appears to be making two claims that are logically separable.

1. Religion is bad because it is intellectually dishonest and "gets in the way" of a scientific understanding of the world which is, in his view, more interesting than the rather prosaic explations offered up by religious creation myths.

2. Religion is bad because it leads to cross-cultural conflict, dehumanising the other and legitimising murder, rape and genocide (see my earlier blog on disgust).

The first is his argument (and mine) against the intelligent designers and why they should be kept out of the science classrooms. The second is his argument against Osama Bin Laden, Ian Paisley and their various followers. But religions are currently struggling with both of these. There are an increasing number of Darwinian priests and there are certainly many from all religions who reject violence against the other. Dawkins's discussion with the Bishop of Oxford (a Christian who accepts scientific explanations of the origins of life and the universe) was revealing as Dawkins admitted that he almost had more understanding of the bible-belt fundamentalists than of the watered-down religion of the Christian left. The problem is, however, that if we assume that religion is like language (or glaciers), and we want to avoid 1 and 2, then perhaps this is the best we can hope for.

And my goodness it can be very good. Liberals will often shy away from the whole idea that one tells, instructs or teaches someone something. (Educational theorists will often talk about "negotiating knowlege" -- I kind of know what they mean, but I don't imagine when they are lost in a strange town they wind their window down and ask a passerby if they can between them "negotiate the way to the university").

Work things out for yourself, indeed. Be critical and do not blindly accept, of course. But this should not undermine the power of teaching.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Roots of all evil

I am a great fan of Richard Dawkins. As a writer on evolution he is second to no one, and this in a discipline that is unfairly blessed with good writers. I also value his role as a defender of the scientific method against creationists, intelligent designers, psychics, mystics and other frauds. But, I'm just not sure about his just-screened TV programme The roots of all evil?

I certainly agree with him that creationism and intelligent design have no place being taught alongside evolution in science classes. The reason is simple: they aren't science. The basic reasoning of intelligent design is as follows. Such-and-such is too complex to have arisen "by chance" (as if chance were all there were) so it MUST have been designed. And if it were designed then it follows that the designer was at least as intelligent and skillful as a human designer. The problem is, though, that this designer has to be more complex than the thing you are trying to explain, so it is not an explanation. So you replace a big problem with an even bigger one. This is bad science, but it still could, conceivably, be considered within the realms of scientific explanation (albeit violating one of sciences guiding principles of parsimony). Most IDers, do not take this path however, they argue that the designer is not in itself scientifically explainable because it exists outside the material world. The use of immaterial causes, causes that cannot, ultimately, be reducible to the various laws of physics, is strictly off limits to science which HAS to be founded these laws. So ID is NOT science because it violates the materialist principle that lies at the heart of all scientific explanation. Using gods in science is an absurdly slippery slope. Any time you come up against an apparently insoluble problem (and this happens frequently) you can simply posit a godly intervention and slip off out to the pub: job done.

No I don't disagree with Dawkins on this one.

The bit I am struggling with is captured by the title the programme; that religion is to blame for a great deal of the evils of the world. Religions, he argues have the unique ability to (1) foster hatred against "the other" and (2) provide individuals with the means to carry out atrocities with a belief in the universal right of their actions and the reward of reward in the afterlife.

Somehow I don't think that this stands up as an argument. Many atrocities (including genocide) have involved conflicts between religions, but it is also true that many have not. The industrial-scale genocide perpetrated by the Nazis on the Jews, Gypsies and others during the second world war was not motivated by religion. Nor was the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda; Pol Pot's killing of 2 million Cambodians; and the ongoing conflict in Darfur doesn't cleave cleanly along a religious fault line.

So if not religion, what? Intriguingly given Dawkins's interest in all things evolutionary, the answer might lie in natural selection itself. Humans are not purely selfish (or at least if they are selfish it is not simple garden variety selfishness), indeed they frequently engage in many cooperative and altruistic behaviours with other individuals who are genetically unrelated to them. (Genetic unrelatedness is important since, evolutionarily speaking, giving to a relative is tantamount to individual selfishness as your genes are benefitting to an extent determined by how closely related the individual is to you.) And recent research has suggested that cooperation with others is motivated by moral emotions such as shame, guilt, awe, anger and so on. From this perspective morality evolved as a way of encouraging us to reap the rewards of joint activity with others; we cooperate because we fear the anger of others, wish to avoid the public shame of being identified as a defaulter, or wish to be held in esteem as a good cooperator (this last motivation is often suggested as a reason why we give to charity). There is also a dark side to morality. For reasons that evolutionists don't properly understand the ties that bind us together in our group can also lead us to have negative attitudes to other groups-- something that social psychologists have known for some time. In extreme cases, such as when resources are scarce, or we feel threatened by another group these negative attitudes can lead to violence or even murder usually motivated by emotions such as disgust and contempt for the "other" (see my previous post on the power of disgust).

So to conclude. I am arguing that religion is neither necessary nor sufficient factor for leading us to commit atrocities, what matters most is our evolutionary heritage. We can, in equal measure, be saints and demons; the root of all evil is not religion but natural selection and although there are those that would like to ban the idea, it is harder to see how one might ban the process.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Little Britain, genocide and the power of disgust

When I was a child there was a joke that went:

Q. "What's the definition of disgusting?"
A. "A tramp sitting on top of a compost heap, drinking diarrhoea through a sweaty sock."

Not particularly hilarious now, but at the time it never failed, although the resultant laugh was forced through a grimace; it was funny but it was also disgusting.

The psychology of disgust has a patchy history. Darwin considered it in his classic Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals and Freud used it as part of his theory of infant development (especially in relation to potty training), but it was largely ignored in mainstream psychology for most of the 20th Century. Recently, however, psychologists have started to reconsider this long-neglected emotion. In particular how disgust develops, its relationship to other emotions (such as the closely-related contempt) and why it evolved.

On the last point most researchers agree that disgust evolved as a mechanism to the prevent contamination by pathogens such as bacteria. And it is true that most of the things that elicit a digust response do tend to be things that normally present a risk of illness; bodily secretions, for example, or rotten meat. Although all cultures exhibit the disgust response (read more about this here) there is a large degree of variation in the objects of disgust. In some culutures insects and their larvae are considered delicacies (not just for celebrities on reality TV) and many Chinese find cheese disgusting. The reason for this is what is called the omnivore's dilemma. Unlike many other animals (for some reason giant pandas spring to mind) humans are capable of eating a wide range of foodstuffs. This flexibility in our diet bring great benefits (if one foodstuff is not available rather than starving we can switch to another) but it also carries a risk: how do we know that the new food item is not poisonous? One way is to fix to the diet according to what is available when we are young, this would prevent us from going off an eating something that might disagree with us. According to this theory, young children will try (pretty much) anything with diet becoming increasingly less flexible as we get older due to cultural learning.

A belief related to disgust is that of contagion. It is not necessary to actually touch a disgusting object in order to become contaminated by it, it can be had merely by touching something or someone who touched the object. This vicarous form of contamination is again illusrated by another childhood experience of mine. This time a "game" which probably didn't have a name but let's call it the "Jets" game.

The Jets game began when someone inadvertently (or intentionally!) touched a disgusting item: a dead bird, for example, or a dog poo. This "infected" person would then chase after the others attempting to touch them. Once contact had been made, the child that had been touched was "infected" and he or she would try to contaminate someone else and everyone else would try to avoid his or her touch. Interestingly once an infected person touched someone else they were no longer infected in sharp constrast to the truth of real contagion. If a child was tired of running, it was permissable for them to take a breather without fear of being infected, so long as they performed the following. (1) they crossed their arms in front of their chest -- Egyptian mummy-like -- moving them so that the tips of their fingers struck their shoulders repeatedly, (2) they repeated the word "jets". This thereby offered a form of immunity to infection for a limited time. The notion of contagion is again common throughout the world and was noted by Anthropologist James Frazer in The Golden Bough. Contagion is a powerful belief, so powerful that people will refuse to wear a (laundered) sweater that was reputed to have been worn by Adolf Hitler, and will baulk at the thought of drinking water than once contained a (dead and sterilized) cockroach.

As the joke at the top of this posting points out, disgust is closely related to humour, this is true for adults as well as children. The British comedy programme Little Britain relies on disgust for much of its humour. For example, the pensioner who spontanously and unknowingly urinates on the floor of whatever shop she happens to be in at the time, the psychiatric patient Anne who, among other things, licks her hand and wipes it down the faces of visitors and Maggie the WI woman who projectile vomits after (for example) tasting jam made by an Asian lady. Maggie is an interesting case because she bridges the gap between what is often called "core disgust" and more complex manifestation of the same (or at least similar) emotion.

We laugh at Maggie because her vomitting triggers our basic disgust response, but Maggie vomits because she is disgusted by ethnic minorities, homosexuals and other folk whom she considers "unsavoury" (not also that contagion plays a significant role, the jam she consumes has been contaminated by being made by someone she finds repellant). It has been suggested by Rozin and his colleague, Jonathan Haidt that the disgust mechanism is expanded from its initial domain of bodily products and rotten meat and used to invoke similar emotional responses towards people who are culturally and ethnically different from us. The paradigm case of this was the attitude of the Nazis towards the Jews in the first half of the last century, but this is by no means uncommon, as demonstrated by the Rwandan massacre, "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia and continuing conflict in Darfur. The website Genocide Watch identifies eight steps to genocide the third of which, dehumanisation, is relevant to my point here it states:

"One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder."

It can be seen that the powerful emotion of disgust (invoked by alliusions to vermin/disease, etc.) and the concomitant motivations to cleanse or purify can play a powerful role in ethnic conflict and genocide. The question is are these the very same processes that are at work? Is the part of the mind/brain responsible for maintaining the purity of the body the same part as that which is responsible for maintaining the purity of the culture/race? Or is it simply a metaphor? In Metaphors We Live By Lakoff and Johnson reveal a host of metaphors that we use to structure our world. Argument as war (I "attack your argument", you "defend your viewpoint"), time as money (spend time, waste time, save time) and various orientation metaphors ("up" is associated with happiness, consciousness and high status; down with sadness, unconsciousness, and low status) are so engrained in the way we think about the world that we hardly see them as metaphors but they are, nonetheless, only metaphors. No-one is arguing that the parts of the brain that engage when we think about real space are used in thinking about metaphorical spaces such as "waking up", "falling asleep" and so on.

I would also be interested to know why disgusting things can be so funny. The neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran suggests that we laugh as a signal to others that an event is inconsequential, a kind of "I'm OK" signal that might have evolved before language. This might explain why it is OK to laugh at people's misfortune, so long as they are OK at the end (as in the TV show You've been framed -- most of us don't find it funny if people really hurt themselves. If this is the case then disgusting things are funny when they are harmless, and the laughter signals this harmlessness to others. I'm not sure about this, but I don't know of a better explanation (actually I do have a rather different theory of humour which I will discuss in a future post).

So there we have it. Disgust is very serious (it protects us from contamination and seems to underpin xenophobic and racist behaviour) but it is also closely related to humour. BTW if anyone knows how you might suck diarrrhoea through a sock, sweaty or otherwise, keep it to yourself.

My first carp

No not the fish. Is it absolutely necessary that my profile displays my Astrological Sign and my Zodiac Year? Strange really, because for those who are into these kinds of things (you might have guessed that I am not) each is easy to derive from my date and year of birth, those that can't, presumably don't care (or are outwardly hostile, like me, to such nonsense).

While I'm here (and a little calmer now), I must admit that I do find it incredible that even purportedly "serious" newspapers like The Guardian and The Observer in the UK feel it appropriate to publish horoscopes. As we have just passed the (Western) new year, the papers have been full of multi-page predictions of the year ahead.


I suppose they just feel that they are giving the punters what they want and those of them, like me, who find such stuff mildly irritating will simply ignore them or, more likely, not even notice that they are there. Why doesn't an editor make a stand and make his/her paper a nonsense free zone; serious paper should, I feel, make a stand on such matters as they do on others things (e.g the Independent's notorious/famous support for the decriminalisation of cannabis some years ago).

Maybe they are just "giving people what they want" but this is, I think, wrong. Newspapers and other media should give the people what they think they need to have, and if the the folk don't like it they can go elsewhere for their sorcery.

An introduction


This blog is not going to be about me at all. Rather, it is going to concern itself with psychological reflections on the everyday (and not so everyday) world. As a psychologist I continually see events and phenomena that relate to many of the principles, theories and research and my goal is to burden you with these. I hope it will be interesting for you (maybe it will even be fun) for my part I want to make my internal dialogue global; there's not enough room in my modestly proportioned head for all of this stuff.