Sunday, February 19, 2006

Trashing the God Genome

The following paragraphs are quotes from the harsh review of Dennett's new book (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon) written by LEON WIESELTIER, literary editor of The New Republic, in the Feb. 19 New York Times Book Review. The text includes quotes from Dennett, but blogger isn't doing quote marks or dash marks for me at the moment.

It's certainly appropriate to point out that any proposed natural biological account of the origins of religion is a just-so story than can not be tested. Mr. Wieseltier might have pointed out, however, that the just-so stories of conventional religions have led to massive human suffering and chaos. Some of the evolutionary psychology fantasies (Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, for example) yield a more benign outcome.

Clips from the review:
What follows is, in brief, Dennett's natural history of religion. It begins with the elementary assertion that everything that moves needs something like a mind, to keep it out of harm's way and help it find the good things. To this end, there arose in very ancient times the evolutionary adaptation that one researcher has called a hyperactive agent detection device, or HADD. This cognitive skill taught us, or a very early version of us, that we live in a world of other minds, and taught us too well, because it instilled the urge to treat things, especially frustrating things , as agents with beliefs and desires. This urge is deeply rooted in human biology, and it results in a fantasy-generation process that left us finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us......Eventually this animism issued in deities, who were simply the agents who had access to all the strategic information that we desperately lacked. But what good to us is the gods' knowledge if we can't get it from them? So eventually shamans arose who told us what we wanted to hear from the gods.....Folk religions became organized religions.

There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking, nothing more. Breaking the Spell is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know. So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and generating further testable hypotheses notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. Like other animals, the confused passage begins, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal. No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: This fact does make us different.

Then suddenly there is this: But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science. As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett's telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind, a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

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