Criticisms of evolutionary psychology and the tendency of those working in the field to speculate wildly in a sort of ultra-Darwinian fervor are rather commonplace. Stephen Jay Gould
, for instance, issues strong and compelling challenges to ultra-Darwinism, of which evolutionary psychology is but one facet
. So, I'll let greater scientific minds take on the field as a whole.
I'd like to focus on the ultra-Darwinists' (to borrow a term) fascination with presenting religion as a delusion or a defect in human mental programming. Too often this leads to ridiculous claims and studies that lead to conclusions that could never actually be derived from the data itself. For examples of this, I'll refer you to Professor Allen McNeil's blog, The Evolution List
and a paper by one of his students relating to the detection of agency.
My "favorite" study from evolutionary psychology is I read about quite some time ago, which I have unfortunately not been able to find online. In this study, the researchers constructed a computer program where one group of dots on a computer screen seemed to follow a single dot across the screen. They asked study participants to describe what they were seeing. Most responded with something like, "That swarm of dots is chasing this other dot, attempting to capture it." The researchers interpreted this to mean that the participants had assigned agency to an inanimate object, the dots, and that this was empirical verification of an agency-detection mechanism that was set so high that it would produce false-positives. This and similar studies have often been cited as evidence that religion, especially the belief in deities, spirits, angels etc. is a product of a defect in this agency-detection mechanism.
Professor McNeil's student, Elena Broaddus, explains:
There is also evidence for the existence of an innate cognitive purpose-detector which would be the root cause of our teleological viewpoint. experiments show that infants as young as 9 months of age tend to interpret the movement of self-propelled dots on a computer screen as “intentional, goal-oriented movement (Csibra, et al., 1999),” and are also able to interpret other people’s body-movements as goal-oriented and purposeful (Behne, et al., 2005).
The bulk of research referring to purpose-detection, or “agency-detection” as it is
more frequently referred to in this literature, assumes its existence as a cognitive process and uses it to explain religious thought. Essentially the argument is that purpose-detection arose as a hair-trigger response to possibly threatening circumstances in the natural world, but because of its over-activity (it’s frequently referred to as the Hyper-active agent detection device, or HADD) led to detection of super-natural agents (Barrett 2000; Boyer 2001; Atran & Norenzayan 2004).
Therefore, according to this argument, religion itself is evidence for innate
purpose- detection ability. As Atran & Norenzayan (2004) write, “Supernatural agents are readily conjured up because natural selection has trip-wired cognitive schema for agency detection in the face of uncertainty.”
Most of these ideas are an extension of Guthrie’s theories of animism and anthropomorphism, which he also then uses as a causal explanation for religion. He
argues that in the environment of evolutionary adaptation it would have been beneficial for humans to be able to quickly and easily identify the presence of other people and animals with harmful intentions. Therefore, the evolution of an extremely sensitive detection system was favored which would have been triggered by anything with the slightest resemblance to a living thing because there would have been no evolutionary disadvantage associated with false-positives. His evidence for this theory includes the phenomena of people hearing voices in the wind and seeing faces in the clouds (Guthrie 1993, 2002).
To some of you, the patent ridiculousness of some of these interpretations are probably obvious, but I'll tackle them anyway. We'll start with the dots. Yes, the subjects described the display in anthropomorphic terms, but I would argue that the researchers could have interpreted this in ways that are far more reasonable than their ultimate conclusion, that the participants assigned agency to the dots.
First, we in modern society are accustomed to interpreting symbolic representations. The display of a group of dots "following" another one can be quite reasonably interpreted as a symbolic representation of swarm behavior and thus, described as such.
Secondly, anthropomorphism is commonly used as a short-hand method for describing objects and events. Usually, these descriptions are abstract and not intended literally. How many of you have describe mechanical problems with your car as your car having a "bad day" or being in a "bad mood"? Now, how many of you actually believe that your car LITERALLY has thoughts, feelings, intentions, moods, etc. in the way that a person does? Precisely.
Wouldn't you agree then that interpreting this study as evidence of an "agency detector" is highly suspect and a bit silly? Just because the participants described the display in terms of agency, this doesn't mean that they actually assigned agency to the dots on the screen.
The same goes for 9 month-old children (unable to speak about what they're seeing) supposedly interpreting "the movement of self-propelled dots on a computer screen as 'intentional, goal-oriented movement'". How does one possibly know what a 9 month-old's interpretations are? Especially since other studies have shown that infants respond differently to a gloved hand grasping for an object before and after they are shown that the gloved hand is part of a human being. In other words, they don't see the "inanimate" glove as having a goal but see the "human" hand as having one.
What is more, how do we make the leap from seeing faces in clouds, a practice based on seeing similarities between objects, to detecting agency where there is none? Again, most of us do NOT assign agency to inanimate objects based on their similarities to known agents. We don't assume that the rabbit-like cloud would like to eat carrots or that the "face" in a wood-grain pattern has a mind behind it.
Finally, it is far from evident that, even assuming an agency detection mechanism, false positives would pose no evolutionary disadvantage. If you're out hunting and a mere rustle in the grass sends you running, it is hardly likely that you'll be able to complete your goal of finding food. If you interpret both the rustling leaves and the actual lion as both being potential threats, the inability to distinguish between the real threat and the fake one could get you killed. And obviously, the constant stress of seeing potential dangers everywhere would be severely damaging to your health and your body's ability to respond appropriately in an emergency situation. Paranoia is hardly functional or adaptive.
So, what is the basis for these questionable interpretations? I'll refer you back to Ms. Broaddus:
The bulk of research referring to purpose-detection, or “agency-detection” as it is more frequently referred to in this literature, assumes its existence as a cognitive process and uses it to explain religious thought.
The data is being fit to the hypotheses rather than the hypotheses to the data. Those who view religion as a defect find support for their ideology in these ridiculous interpretations. They must ignore reason and a whole host of contradictory evidence to do so. They must, in the end, ignore the standards of science and embrace pseudoscientific claptrap.