Review: Do Religions Evolve?

York Cathedral ceiling. Lots of lovely arches.David Sloan Wilson describes himself as an atheist, but, he insists, he is a “nice atheist”. The proviso is made necessary by the often acrimonious nature of evolution’s forays into religious study. In contrast to writers such as Richard Dawkins who views religion as ‘a kind of mental illness’, Sloan Wilson thinks that the spiritual world has much to teach us about our grubby origins.

For most critics of religions, the operative concern is the truth or not of religious beliefs. For Sloan Wilson, however, that is not the point. The interesting questions centre on the roles that such belief systems play in human societies, and how they make human groups behave. In evolutionary terms, “even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world” [pp41].

This is where Sloan Wilson’s emphasis on the role of multi-level selection in evolution comes in. Natural selection is usually presented as taking place on the level of the individual – why does this dung beetle survive when another does not? But selection can also happen on the level of groups – why does this human tribe defeat the others? As Charles Darwin wrote,

“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.” [pp5]

In the long-run of evolution, selection among groups can mean that tendencies which make groups more effective (pro-sociality, for instance), win out against those that make individuals more effective at the expense of their group (selfishness, cheating, etc.). Religions enshrine the idea of a common good, encouraging believers to suppress selfish individual desires in the service of this corporate body. In the terms of multi-level selection, religions suppress within-group competition to improve competitiveness at the group level.

“A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture.” [pp175]

The human tendency to develop religions and other belief systems is useful because it enables us to develop social systems to deal with unique and difficult social circumstances. In this context, the sheer diversity of religious faiths is a sign of how belief systems can mobilise and organise basic human capacities to cope with different situations, be it the day-to-day existence of a forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer tribe, the water temple infrastructure of Bali, or the economic and social challenges of Korean immigrants to the United States. This capacity for variation means that religious groups can be seen as “rapidly evolving entities adapting to their current environments” [pp35]. Cultural variation enables our basic psychology to be organised in ways that are appropriate to a given social and material environment.

“Cultures are required to orchestrate human behavior in relation to specific environments. An infinitude of cultures are possible to channel our innate psychological impulses in different directions.” [pp204]

That is not to say that all religious systems will be adaptive to their circumstances; from the Protestant Reformation to the communes of Los Angeles, history is littered with the detritus of failed faiths. The variation of religious faiths, much like genetic mutation, constitutes “a process of blind variation and selective retention” [p122] and, similarly, will largely result in failure. The reason that explosions of diversification occur at specific historical periods is a question left unexplored here.

The book’s greatest attraction is in its case studies, which explore the ideas and practices of diverse religions and suggest how various features indicate the adaptiveness or not of that religion to its social environment. This requires a certain level of anthropological and historical rigour, and Sloan Wilson draws heavily on existing literature, applying his own interpretive lens to the findings made by others.

The greatest amount of time is spent on Calvinism and its influence on Geneva. After previously expelling the reformer, political tumult prompted the Swiss city to invite Calvin to lead the Church. Riven by factionalism and on the frontlines of an economic and military conflict, the Genevan authorities realised that they needed to shape up if the city was to survive. Material demands such as the funding of the army called for spiritual doctrine.

“Civic authority by itself was unable to forge such an unruly population into an adaptive unit, which is why the unifying effect of religion was needed. God’s will for citizens of Geneva was to shoulder the burden of the city’s infrastructure.” [pp109-110]

Overcoming division required loyalty and responsibility to shift upwards, to transcend factional groupings. Thus we see that Calvinism emphasises traits such as humility and an absolute faith in God’s will, such that believers will accept their station and role in life without question: “all of life’s afflictions have a purpose in God’s plan, however incomprehensible to us. Our role is to be utterly confident in God’s wisdom and to accept whatever he places upon us.”[pp100]

The tenets of the faith show a concerted movement from the personal to the public – self-direction is comprehensively displaced upwards, to the structures and processes of the Church. The cynical might say that such aggressive depersonalisation pacified the faithful the better to exploit them, but Sloan Wilson makes clear that part of Calvinism’s effectiveness was the willingness to enforce its strictures on elites and commoners alike. By ensuring that elites could not flout laws with impunity, the city could act more like a coherent and cooperative unit. This is an argument that meshes well with the historical work of Peter Turchin, who argues that the rise and fall of empires is closely related to the levels of inequality between elites and commoners. Ideologies that can mitigate against internal divergences can thus be powerful factors in social stability.

But as the Protestant Reformation certainly shows, there are two sides to group-based cooperation. Given the right encouragement, humans are willing to prefer the common good to our own, but we are equally good at dehumanising those outside our groups, all the better to attack or oppress them. Indeed, there are studies showing that football fans are unconcerned, even pleased by the physical suffering of their rivals. These capacities are often mobilised along national, rather than religious lines, and although Sloan Wilson acknowledges the similarity, it is not a topic he dwells on.

Overall, the book makes a compelling argument about the role that belief systems play in enabling human cooperation, offering a welcome corrective to those that simply dismiss religion out of hand. Spiritual beliefs, Sloan Wilson shows, play a crucial role in the material world, and deserve serious study. Moreover, the evolutionary approach he proposes can take us beyond religion and into a deeper understanding of ideology in general.

David Sloan Wilson, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Chicago University Press, 2002.

Review first published in ThinkLeft Issue 2.

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Fake News: The Epistemology of Media

Post-truth, or post-irony?

“What is truth?” said Pontius Pilate to Jesus. Or at least this is what we are told he said in the Gospel of John. Can we trust John to have related accurately the words of Pontius Pilate? Most scholars date the book of John as two generations after Pilate’s death. And yet, despite the dubious provenance of the quote, it is a very important question. Indeed it is the central question we concern ourselves with here.

On November 24, 2016 the Washington Post ran a story entitled: “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say”. The article claimed that Russia had been involved in a concerted effort to sway the election in favour of Trump through a sophisticated propaganda war. But perhaps even more significant than the central claim, is that it launched the phrase “fake news” into the media discourse.
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Officials and Provisionals

Martin McGuinness, Political Strategy and the Civil Rights Movement

A Provisional Sinn Féin poster featuring Joe McCann and other Official IRA members (via Irish Political Ephemera)

The death of Martin McGuinness has inevitably prompted reflection on his career, with the reactions varying according to one’s political ideology. For the mainstream, McGuinness’s oeuvre is sharply divided into two halves, that of paramilitary godfather and political statesman, with the dichotomy arising from their view on the Provisional IRA’s (PIRA) long running campaign.

For Sinn Féin and a wider body of sympathisers, that division is an artificial construct; the two eras – military leader and peacemaker — are different forms of the same struggle. The change in strategy by no means entails an admission that the Provisionals’ military campaign was misconceived, only that it could no longer sustain progress towards their goal.

Interestingly, much of the online commentary sympathetic to Sinn Féin has revolved around how the Provisionals’ armed campaign was a fight for civil rights in Northern Ireland; the military campaign being an inevitable response to the brutality of British State and the loyalist mobs that the campaign’s progress elicited.

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Interview with Cathal Goulding

cathal_gouldingThis introduction and interview is from “On Our Knees: Ireland 1972” by Rosita Sweetman

Introduction

The Irish Republican Army officially came into being when Padraic Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin on Easter morning, 1916. The IRA traces its roots right back through all the physical force resistance groups that at various times throughout 700 years of British domination of Ireland had risen up to try and get them out. Its recognised father figure is Theobald Wolfe Tone, of the United Irishmen, and his grave is the scene of an annual re-affirmation of Republicanism.

The IRA was the army of the people during the War of Independence (1919-1921). They secured military victory for the Irish people in that they forced the British to the conference table, but were sold down the Swanee by political leaders who divided on the Treaty offered by Britain. The compromise reached was that Republicans would have a 26 Country “Free State” to run as they wished in theory (in practice of course it was to be run as the British wished as they still held the purse strings), and the 6 remaining counties were to be jointly controlled by the Unionists in Stormont, and Westminster. In the absence of the British enemy the Irish turned on each other and the resulting Civil War saw the IRA defeated, the Free Staters in control and building bourgeois Ireland under President Cosgrave. Thousands of IRA men were imprisoned and interned and Ireland settled down temporarily to trying to become a nation of grocers and big farmers.
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Trump, Russia and the CIA

trump-and-putin_zpspfthamxrIn 2012, there was substantial outrage about Russia placing restriction on foreign financing of NGOs and unions which was spurred by the fact that there was significant funding by the United States. The Western media were almost uniformly appalled that such restrictions would be placed. I remember reflecting at the time on what the media angle might be were the roles reversed. What if Russia had tried to interfere in US politics by funding opposition forces? I surmised there would be immediate calls of treason and the response would be at least as intense as the one for which Russia was being condemned.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t wrong in this prediction. The current scenario demonstrates the asymmetry nicely. Russia is currently being accused of hacking the US to subvert the election. This claim is being made by both the power centre of the Democratic Party and by the CIA and is now being featured as a media headline in the Washington Post, the Guardian and other major media outlets.
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Why is my rent so high?

The Rent is Too Damn High!After a quick perusal of Daft.ie, it’s clear that the rental situation in Dublin is an absolute catastrophe. Rental prices have gone through the roof. Literally, garden sheds and one-car garages are now going for 900 Euro per month and more. Prices are up more than 30% from their lowest point, and they are now higher than they have ever been, even during the Celtic Tiger. To add insult to injury, you would be hard pressed to find a place to rent even if you could afford one, perhaps by packing in like sardines. The recent saville report says that vacancies are now below 1.5%.

Economists are fond of telling us that it’s all about supply and demand. And of course they are right, but if one is to believe the story of the invisible hand, efficient markets and all the rest, increases in price are supposed to create supply to meet the demand. So why is it that the rental market is so tight, new housing units are not being built, and we’re not only finding things unaffordable, but unavailable in the first place?
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Review of Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises by Anwar Shaikh

Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crisis by Anwar ShaikhFor a long time, neo-classical economics has been the economic orthodoxy. Neo-classical economics is a patchwork of theories all with a general aim of demonstrating how production and distribution takes place under mediation of supply and demand.

The theory came to prominence in the late 1800s, displacing the previous classical economics, a research programme which was initiated by Adam Smith most famously in his great work, “The Wealth of Nations”. This programme was continued by David Ricardo in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation among other works, and later by none other than Karl Marx in his seminal work Das Kapital.

Marx made deeply important contributions to classical economic research. In fact his contributions were so important that they poisoned the well of classical economic theory completely, leaving no room for more conservative theorists to wiggle out of the implications which are brought forward in Das Kapital. To put the central problematic in a nutshell, there was an unresolvable antagonism between wage labourers and capital over value. Yet despite the importance of his additions, Marx’s theories are firmly rooted in the tradition of classical political economy.
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Electoralism vs Abstentionism (Or: Why You Should Run For Office)

vote communistThis article is a response to an article posted on The North Star by Sophia Burns, a comrade and fellow member of the Communist Labor Party titled Don’t Run for Office. It can be found here: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12742

The tradition of movements commonly grouped under the umbrella “the left” is diverse. It includes movements rooted in ecology, labor struggles, women’s’ struggles, fights against racism and many other currents. Likewise, the tactics employed by these groups have varied across time and space.

One of these tactics, standing candidates for government offices is perhaps the most divisive. In the early years of the socialist movement, the Marxists, and others, argued decisively in favor of using the popular assemblies conceded by the ruling coalition of classes to further the cause of the workers’ movement against the anarchists. The electoral socialists would create the movement known historically as “social democracy” which is distinct from the modern ideology using that name. Many communists, including those in the Marxist tradition, have argued since these days that the failure of social democracy in the early 20th century to achieve revolution is proof that the tactic of standing candidates for democratic assemblies in capitalist society is either outdated or was never correct to begin with.

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Centrism extremism: how horseshoe-politics silences brutality

2048px-Imperial_Federation,_Map_of_the_World_Showing_the_Extent_of_the_British_Empire_in_1886_(levelled)Extremism as a concept is central to current popular political discourse. In its common definition, however, it is also a highly flawed. Its use shows a bias towards centrist politics that silences a history of extremism. Centrists are just as well capable of committing extremist acts upon populations, and violently exclude them from basic rights. The concept extremist should be re-purposed to highlight centrist extremism, and expose the fundamental inclusion-exclusion divide of modern politics.

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Of Tankies, Trots and Social Democrats

The uncomfortable questions of formerly existing something-or-other

Hammer and Sickle, 1976 - Andy Warhol

Hammer and Sickle, 1976 – Andy Warhol

On the left, there can be no subject more divisive than the question of unity. There are approximately three times as many opinions on the question as there are socialists. I probably hold at least four of those opinions myself.

One of the fissures rent by the “unity question” is provided by the debate on “formerly-existing socialism” – which is in quotes, of course, because somebody wants to emphasise that they don’t think it was socialism. This major dividing line has allowed the various Trotskyists to define themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to their “Stalinist” enemies who are naive enough to think these states represent something historically positive, but also between these and the Social Democrats, who think it proves that socialism doesn’t work.
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Avatars of the Advanced-Capitalist Psyche – Capitain America: Civil War

My 11 year old son asked me what I thought of Captain America: Civil War, upon leaving the cinema. What follows is approximately what I told him (and consequently, perhaps such questions are a mistake he will not make again). SPOILER ALERT

Near the opening of Captain America: Civil Warcaptain-america-civil-war-art we are transported to a TED talk given by Tony Stark, the genius playboy billionaire technologist that doubles as Iron Man. The talk could be fairly referred to as an expression of the “The Silicon Valley Ideology”. His audience is the alumni of MIT – the perfect representatives of our film’s notion of who represents the people of importance – tech savvy innovators. Tony’s personalised narratives of hardship emotionally manipulate the audience as he alludes to the promise of triumph over adversity through technology. It is just as it should be in any TED talk worth its salt.
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Wailings about Left Unity

In yesterday’s Irish Independent and on Facebook, Julien Mercille asks why The Workers’ Party, Socialist Workers Party, and the Socialist Party do not form one party.

Marxists.org

The first answer a lot of people will reach for is simple inertia. Organisations have a momentum and direction that isn’t always easy to change, especially as the leading forces within the parties have got there because of that very approach.

But that isn’t the whole story.

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The Bern Manifesto: Why I am Voting for Bernie Sanders

A spectre is haunting America – the spectre of Bernie Sanders. All the powers of the political establishment have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: David Brock and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal, White House staffers and Congressional party machines.” This could certainly be the beginning of a very compelling political manifesto. The next sentences would introduce the dramatic and cataclysmic forces of capital and labor, clashing to the death in a fiery pit of debates, call centers and polling places, all battlegrounds in the epic “political revolution” spearheaded by a sweater-wearing 74 year old.

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Kautsky – The crisis of capitalism and the shortening of working time

By Karl Kautsky, translated by Noa Rodman

In former times we had a saying in Germany: “When the peasant has money, everyone has.” That was perfectly true wherever the great majority of the people were peasants or farmers. It is no longer true in the industrial countries. In such countries the majority is composed of wage workers. There we have to change the old saying. In such countries we can say: “When the workingman has money, everyone has.”

pic_6177511

But the workingmen have money only when they are employed. Unemployment does not injure the working class alone, it injures the whole of society. The campaign against unemployment is a campaign for general social interests.

This has by now become a matter of common knowledge. Unfortunately, however, there is no general agreement as to the ways which lead to the elimination of unemployment. To be clear on this question, we must bear in mind one decisive fact which is not so generally recognised, namely: That unemployment springs from two distinct sources, each of which gives rise to a particular kind of unemployment, and each of which requires particular methods for eliminating it.

One of these two sources of unemployment is overproduction, and the other is technological progress.

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