Saturday, April 02, 2005

Twin Research Links Genetics and Adult Spirituality -- Maybe

I ran across this on the Futurepundit weblog.  The headline, Twin Research Links Genetics and Adult Spirituality, appears on the ABC News website, along with Photos: Atlanta Courthouse Shooting, and Sony Launches Mobile PlayStation Portable.  The Atlanta courthouse shooting article is sensationalist, but not really very significant on a national level.  The Sony PlayStation article is amusing, but hardly significant.  The Genetics and Adult Spirituality article shares the virtues of the others: it is amusing, sensationalist, and hardly significant. 
To get at possible causes behind a person's degree of religiousness, Koenig examined surveys completed by 169 identical and 104 fraternal twins. All the twins were men born in Minnesota with an average age of 33 at the time of the survey. The idea was that similarities in faith between identical twins would have a stronger genetic link that those found among fraternal twins.
Of course, the first problem is that the study did not actually measure religiousness.  Since it was done by having people fill out surveys, what they actually measured was survey-filling-out behavior.  What they found is that identical twins fill out surveys the same way more often than fraternal twins do.

That aside, if you take this study at face value, what can you conclude?  That god endowed some people with genes that make them less likely to believe in him, thus more likely to go to hell?  What kind of sense does that make?  If it is true that genetic factors influence religiosity, is that evidence for or against the existence of god?  It would seem to be the latter.  Wouldn't a religious person rather believe that his or her religiosity results from spiritual inspiration, as opposed to being the result of an arrangement of nucleotides?

In case you are wondering why anyone would do this study, the reporter obliges:
[...]If hardwiring for spirituality exists, is it there for a reason? Some argue it's there for a very important purpose — survival.

Survival of the Most Spiritual?

"There is logic behind why humans may have evolved with a religious predisposition in their genes — it has health, pro-social behaviors and psychological advantages," argues Harold Koenig (no relation to Laura Koenig), a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University. "Hope, optimism helps people to survive despite difficult life circumstances."

Koenig's center has conducted more than 25 studies over the past 20 years looking at the relationship between religion and physical and mental health. He says the work has shown a clear link between good health and spirituality, except in less common cases where unwell people feel they have been 'punished' by God. [...]
Note that the explanation does not hold up very well.  He starts out by saying that spirituality has health advantages.  He adds that hope and optimism help people survive.  What he does not say is whether spirituality has any effect separate from that of other psychological characteristics.  That is, if you get two groups of people, with both groups having the same level of hope and optimism, but with one group consisting of religious people, and the other consisting of jolly atheists, would there still be a difference?  Also, is there a connection between optimism and prior life experience?  Sure, there are some people who seem to be optimistic despite having a miserable childhood.  But if you ignore the outliers and look at what is typical, you probably would find that persons from disadvantaged or abusive backgrounds are, on average, less optimistic than those who grew up in advantageous environments.  If that is the case, then it could be that what Koenig is seeing is the effect of a salubrious childhood, not the effect of spirituality.

I don't know, maybe Koenig did the correct statistical analysis, and was able to account for all those factors.  But consider this: isn't it true that, on average, people who have strong social support are more likely to be optimistic that those who feel like outcasts?  Perhaps what they are measuring is the effect of a sense of community on a person's health status. 

Furthermore, what are we to do with the results of this research?  If we are able to establish with certainty that religious people are healthier than atheists, would it then make sense to try to get everyone to be religious, so we all could be healthy?  No, unless you also can come up with some evidence that shows that people who are converted from atheism to religiosity accrue the same benefits that occur in those who are religious of their own volition.  And how does one prove that? 

Simple.  Just take a bunch of atheists, randomize them into  two groups.  One group gets to go on with their lives, minding their own business as atheists tend to do.  The second group is taken to a river, everyone gets dunked under water, has crucifixes waved at them, incense burned, sprinkled with holy water, then gets to sacrifice a goat, while real religious people light candles and pray for them (the atheists, not the goats).  Then you simply see which group lives longer and has more kids. 

I'm sure any ethics board on the planet would approve that study in a heartbeat. 

The fact is, you cannot make someone else be religious.  Although you can make someone act religiously, any religious person will tell you that acting religiously is not the same thing as being religious.  So even if you can prove that being religious has a survival advantage, there is no practical use for the information.

Political correctness disclaimer: I am criticizing neither atheists nor religious people.  The bit about crucifixes and goats may have been a little harsh, but any ritualistic or ceremonial behavior looks/sounds foolish, if taken out of context.  I am fairly confident that religious people don't confuse the nature of their rituals with the essence of their spirituality.

Although I mean no criticism of religious practices, I do intend this post to be critical of certain kinds of research in evolutionary psychology.  The day may come when it is possible to do meaningful tests on hypothesized links between genetics and behavior, the influence of genetic change on behavior, and the influence of behavior on genetic change, but in most cases we are not there yet. 

For example, in the genetics and spirituality research, it is not sufficient to show that spirituality has a survival advantage, because mere survival has no effect on evolution.  What counts is inclusive fitness. (Although survival is a necessary part of inclusive fitness, it is not sufficient.)  While that would be testable, it is hard to imagine a valid experiment that would be ethical to conduct.  Furthermore, in order for it to be valid, it would be necessary to show that spirituality has an effect that is distinct from the effect of living in a cooperative culture. 

I suspect that church membership does have a small but potentially measurable effect upon inclusive fitness.  Membership in a church generally brings with it some material advantages.  What I wonder about, though, is whether there is any demonstrable effect of spirituality alone.


Suppose you live in a secular cooperative, such as a cohousing community.  And let's say that everyone agrees to contribute 10% of their income to a fund that helps people out if they loose their jobs, get sick, need childcare, or for other social needs.  Additionally, suppose that the co-op members all agree to engage in relaxation or meditation on a daily basis.  Would those cultural factors increase inclusive fitness?  I guess I don't know for sure, but it seems as though they would.

Advocates of the spirituality-survival connection would have a hard time designing an experiment that isolates the advantages of spirituality from the advantages of material support.  From a methodological standpoint, I do not see how one could isolate those factors and still have representative populations in the study and control groups.  I also do not see how such a thing could be studied prospectively, in double-blind conditions.  It is possible, even likely, that a person's health is affected positively, simply by knowing that material support is available.  It would not be necessary for one actually to sue the support to derive some health benefit.  But if you know that such support is available, then -- by definition -- you are not blind to the experimental condition.

In an effort to be fair and balanced, I will say, for the benefit of those who are advocates of this kind of research, that the field still is in its early phase.  Many fields of inquiry go through such a stage, during which the methodology is unrefined. 

In conclusion, it appears that evolutionary psychology in general, and research on spirituality-survival in particular, have a long way to go before they are worthy of even a casual mention in a national news medium, let alone serious consideration as academic disciplines.   I certainly would not advocate making any kind of life-changing decisions based upon their findings.


Following a lead provided by THX (of Time Changes fame) I read a better article on the same subject.  Tests of Faith was published in the Guardian Unlimited on 2/24/2005:
By providing contexts for a moral code, religious beliefs encouraged bonding within groups, which in turn bolstered the group's chances of survival, says Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist turned psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Some believe that religion was so successful in improving group survival that a tendency to believe was positively selected for in our evolutionary history. Others maintain that religious belief is too modern to have made any difference.

"What I find more plausible is that rather than religion itself offering any advantage in evolutionary terms, it's a byproduct of other cognitive capacities we evolved, which did have advantages," says Boyer.
The comment that "religious belief is too modern to have made any difference," follows a questionable line of reasoning; it probably stems from a common misconception that evolutions always is slow.  Neanderthals probably had religious practices, as long as 100,000 years ago: they buried their dead.  Certainly religion was well established by the time of the Upper Paleolithic period.  So I would not assume that the time frame was so short as to preclude an evolutionary effect.

I don't quite agree with Dr. Boyer's statement that religion is a byproduct of other capacities; rather, I would say that the capacity for religion results from capabilities that evolved for other reasons. 

Note that it is not my intention to be entirely dismissive of the subject.  Dr. Boyer is a serious researcher (and may be a Debian fan as well.)  His homepage is here.  He wrote a book entitled Religion Explained.  In his blurb about the book, he states:
People do not have religion because there is a specific need for it, or a special part of  the brain that creates religion. Religious ideas and norms happen to be highly "contagious" given the kinds of brains we humans have.
This seems sensible to me.  I guess this leads me back to my original premise: evolutionary psychology may have merit, but if so, it is in an early stage of development.  Speaking as an outsider (and as a Perpetual Sophomore), I would say that they need to focus more on the mechanics of evolution if they hope to achieve respectability among biologists.
*Photo credits: I do not know who took these pictures.  They are on the website for Sunward Cohousing, an intentional community in Ann Arbor.  The Corpus Callosum has no affiliation with Sunward Cohousing, but it looks like a nice place to live.

(Note: The Rest of the Story/Corpus Callosum has moved. Visit the new site here.)
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Several years ago I read the results of a study (I wish I could cite a reference, but I don't remember and I'm too lazy to track it), done in Denmark, I think, looking into the genetic basis for schizophrenia. A bunch of surveying was done with the relatives of schizophrenics.

What they found, generally, was that close relatives tended to also have a variety of mental issues, but working out from the patients as if in concentric circles - First Circle, actual disease; Second Circle, fanatics (religious, UFO, conspiracy, etc.), nutty but not nuts; Third Circle, artists and entrepreneurs (imagination & risk-takers); Fourth Circle, ordinary folk. The conclusion was that a mixture of genes produced personality types that were useful in a societal structure, but sometimes, a bad mix, not so much.

I'd think that spirituality ranges in Circle 2, 3, and 4, but this might help explain similar levels in identical twins. Just a thought.
Thanks for the comment. I am familiar with the concept, and believe it has validity. However, it does not necessarily confirm the hypothesis of evolutionary psychology. The reason is that it is possible that society has adapted to the effects of the genetic variation, rather than the genetic change having been caused by the social consequences of the genetic variation.

It is tempting to assume that the interaction goes both ways, and I tend to think it probably does, but I think a more rigorous approach is needed to test that.
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