Book Review: Supernatural Selection

So far, it’s been about three months since Sci’s dissertation. During that time, she has:
– defended her dissertation
– moved to New Huge City
– started a post-doc(!)
– been sending out paper to beef up her little CV
– been learning large numbers of new, difficult, cool techniques
– been awesome
– completely failed to take a vacation.
Sci has ALSO, during this time, accrued yet another tidy little pile of books for review. In fact, there was a tidy little pile waiting on the doorstep of her new apartment ON THE DAY SHE MOVED IN. Sci was simultaneously excited (presents!) and dismayed (AUGH MORE SCIENCE TO READ) by the gifts. And so it has taken her a little bit of time to get started. I did get through “your brain on food“, but other than that it’s been slow going. And Sci admits that she paused a bit for some fiction on the way (delicious, delicious fantasy fiction. OM NOM NOM), and may pause for a bit more before she keeps going.
Anyway, the latest one the arrive in the mail was Supernatural Selection, by Matt J Rossano. And though it took me a while, due to various factors, Sci’s through it. And here is her review.
Supernatural Selection, by Matt J. Rossano
supernatural selection.jpg

It was, in fact, the preface and introduction to the book which left me with the strongest impression, and unfortunately that impression wasn’t a particularly positive one. The idea is that this book is focused on the evolution of religion as being a positive thing in our evolutionary history. I’ll get to the introduction and how I felt about it later, but for now I’m going to focus on the meat of the book, wherein I let Rossano recover my interest.
And the rest of the book DID convince me of his broader point. Rossano is developing a lot of his ideas off of Kirkpatrick’s “Attachment, Evolution, and the Psychology of Religion (which Sci read and reviewed here). This means that this book is full of evolutionary psychology, which is a controversial field at best. Sci’s going to withhold judgment on that particular aspect for the moment and concentrate on the book itself.
To start, the ideas that Lee Kirkpatrick developed in his book were that religion is byproduct, a bug, and a feature of human evolution. It allows dieties to serve as attachment figures, and produces a sense of social bonding for an individual. There are some issues with this idea. Kirkpatrick tends to go at it from the view of just one god, but he also is viewing religion in a developed, modern form rather than an ancient one, which is merely one of the ways of viewing the topic. Another problem is the question of whether or not religion is acceptable or a “good'” thing because it may have evolved, something which Kirkpatrick neatly sidesteps, and this probably saved him a lot of grief. This is where evolutionary psychology can quickly get into issues. I found Kirkpatrick’s book to be deeply interesting.
Anyway, on to Rossano. Rossano has taken some of Kirkpatrick’s ideas about the use of evolution in social bonding and attachment, and instead of applying them to the individual, applied them to the social GROUP. The idea is this: religion evolved as a bug or feature of overattribution of agency (like when you’re in a dark forest and the trees look exceptionally scary and skeletal and you can’t help think they’re a bit evil, even though they really are just trees. That’s overattribution of agency), as well as an evolving sense of awe and the ability of early hominids to use symbolic thinking and certain types of memory. He goes on to develop this idea in the context of early ritual, and the positive effects this would have had on social bonding within the group, the imposition of group rules on members, and other possibilities such as placebo effects from healing rituals.
It took about halfway through the book for Sci to get over the introduction and find the argument persuasive. But I also found it to be a little one-sided. The book repeatedly mentions the few bits of scientific evidence for early ritual (Rossano cannot help it that the evidence is thin here, and he does a good job of typing it in with his hypotheses), and talks about the positive effects on health and group identity. But there’s a more insidious part of this as well. It is the way that religion has contributed to the negative aspects of group bonding, aspects involving dominance of less powerful individuals, and of course the dominance that involved these new, presumably religious hominids wiping out all other groups of hominids in world over time. We have to assume that probably wasn’t by shaking hands and declaring brotherly love. Unfortunately, Rossano really doesn’t discuss the role that religion may have played in this part of the takeover by early modern humans at all, and the book ends up as a rather one sided edition of how nice religion has been for the human race, helping us feel all good toward each other and curing our headaches via placebo effects.
While his arguments for the positive effects are persuasive, I really find it unfortunately biased that Rossano did not attempt to cover the role religion probably played, and definitely DOES play, in social subjugation and violence between groups. Religion is a great way of making you feel involved in an in group, but it’s ALSO a great way of pushing others out. Whether this ended up as a positive thing for humanity is also a bit of a stretch. Sure, if religion evolved in this way, it certainly resulted in humanity as it is today, but I think it would be extremely naive to say that we are living in the best of all possible worlds with the best of all possible sets of highly evolved hominids. While Rossano certainly did not argue this point, his coverage of religion as a positive thing in human evolution does seem to imply a uniformly positive effect that is simply not the case.  There are minor discussions of the downsides associated with religion being the focal point of morality in the last chapter, but it’s only a few paragraphs at best.
And now we’re going to go backward and take a look at the introduction and preface, for it is in this section that I feel that Rossano demonstrates a certain amount of innocence, especially in light of his lack of development on the possible role of religion in violence in human evolution.
The author starts the book with the optimistic idea that maybe knowing that religion is an evolved phenomenon with a positive effect on group cohesion will open up dialogue between the religious and atheists. I’m not sure exactly what progress he would be attempting to make here. I cannot see an extremely religious person being at all swayed by the idea that religion evolved, and I cannot see an atheist looking at this book and not noting that religion also is responsible for a certain amount of violence and dominance problems that existed in the past and which continue to plague us today. It was this idea in the introduction which left a rather bad taste in my mouth, and while the rest of the book did help take some of that away, a certain amount of skepticism remains.
With regards to writing style, I’m afraid that after the first half of the book I found it to be extremely repetitive. This is partially because Rossano really has a rather limited amount of archeological evidence to draw from and interpret, and thus is partially understandable, but I also think that it is possible that the book could have been about half as long as it was and still get its main points across (or perhaps have more room for the other side of religion in the development of humanity with regards to things like warfare). The same archeological finds (a strangely snake shaped rock, deep cave painting, red ochre, and shamanism as it persists in modern hunter-gatherer societies). come up again and again, each time interpreted in a slightly different way to get at a new aspect of the hypothesis. After a while this begins to wear thin, and while it’s not Rossano’s fault that the archeological record is hazy, dwelling on the same finds over and over and slightly different ways after a while starts to detract from the point.
Writing issues and some idea issues aside, the book has an interesting application of evolutionary psychological theory to religion in a group context, and if you’re interested in that, you’re very likely to get something out of it.

5 Responses

  1. Humans are superb tool users and it would be a true miracle if they did not use religion as a handy stick to beat others over the head with. It is a real shame that Rossano stayed away from this isue in is book; it’s not going to win him any points with the atheists he hopes to bring to the debate or with certain type of theists – like me for that matter.
    [Yes, I’m religious, and I believe God set up this world so that if people won’t believe, it’s fine – God wants us to be free and that’s why you won’t find any evidence for or against His existence, ever. Unless you deliberately lower your standards of what is accepted as evidence. But if you need evidence to believe, well, you have a semantic problem.]

  2. It seems he’s on Robert Wright side in this issue.
    What I didn’t understand from your review is, does he think that religion evolved as an adaptive behaviour or as a by-product of our mental capacities? He says that god-belief is related to overattribution of agency but then moves to how wonderful religion is to humanity. Does he think that the adaptive aspects of religion have evolved by themselves in some sense?

  3. Daneel: sorry, should have been more clear. Short answer: religion evolved as a trend toward the supernatural (overattribution of agency + group dynamics) and this trend is a byproduct of our mental capabilities, which was then a positive thing for the species. I think he would probably say that the adaptive aspects of religion have also changed over time, but I don’t think that is specifically addressed.

  4. Thanks for reviewing this, Sci. I don’t think I got past the introduction – the author’s approach just seemed to generalized that it didn’t appeal to me. (Granted, the role of introductions is to be general, to a degree, but there was not much that hooked me in.) Maybe I will finish it, or read part of it, but I appreciate that you finished it and posted your thoughts!

  5. thanks. i am going to review this at some point too.

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