Thought Experiment Digressions

The first tangent to the digression concerns the role of organized religion in society in general, and politics in particular. Back to the Pleistocene and the conflict with the neighboring band: What tools do the SDAPs have to use as leverage to goad the Neurotypicals into action? Would instilling fear and counting on our built-in ability to compartmentalize and thereby override our inherent morality sufficient, or do they need something else, something that the Neurotypicals can use as a justification for ignoring their moral sensibilities even when their faith in the SDAPs is weak? Enter organized religion: Although many mammals have been shown to exhibit superstitious behavior in experimentally controlled environments, humans alone have expanded these tendencies into elaborate rituals and customs and therefore extend the irrational behavior into realms far beyond the domain of ordinary superstition.

What could the evolutionary purpose of that be? Certainly the behavior would appear to be maladaptive: If nothing else, the waste of precious resources on something that has never been scientifically proven as a fruitful endeavor (indeed, even Randi’s “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” prize (, which has the exceedingly low threshold of requiring proof of any supernatural force, remains unclaimed despite hundreds of attempts at it). And there are often far greater costs than that, for example the countless incidences of religion-inspired genocide against peoples who are not even in competition for resources.

But what if our instinctive acceptance of organized religion developed mainly to provide a tool to ensure that SDAPs are able to fulfill their role as protectors and acquirers of resources (albeit via immoral acts in many cases)? Certainly this plays to the Authoritarian’s strengths: What better proxy when an appropriate Social Dominator leader can’t be identified than using the ultimate Social Dominator, God? And when an appropriate local candidate can be identified, how useful it must be to be able to multiply his (or her) power by deifying them? Why, the Neurotypicals would have to take action if God tells them to, right? It matters not whether that “god” takes the form of a specific individual in the band, all of an individual’s ancestors, or some more amorphous supernatural force, so long as belief in this power can be used to goad people into action that would otherwise appear dangerous, irrational, or even immoral, the purpose of our religious tendencies will have been fulfilled. Has the tendency to accept organized religion, with all its irrationality and tendency to cause immoral behavior rather than prevent it, been bred into us solely to allow SDAPs to take charge when it would provide a competitive advantage to the group to do so?

It is notable that, like the authoritarianism it is highly correlated with, tendency toward devout religious belief is not uniformly distributed in the population. Perhaps this too confers fitness on the group: By allowing externalizing the moral system for selected individuals in the band, religion allows a finer grained control over them than is possible without it. And by making this externalizing process selective to those individuals who also are most inclined to commit aggression toward others, the general stability provided by the Neurotypicals can be maintained.

Belief in religion can also be useful as a salve to ease the psychological pain of having to tolerate, or even participate in, atrocities. After all, if you (and/or your band) did it to please God, that’s got to be OK, right? You might even ritualize it, as in the case of human sacrifice, to emphasize that these are not just base emotional acts, they’re an integral part of the process of pleasing God and securing blessings for your band. Seems like the SDAPs, which are unusually fond of those types of acts, might get a twofer with organized religion.

This proposed role of religion is compatible with theories based on “costly signaling” such as those proposed by Irons 2001 in Evolution and the Capacity for CommitmentSosis 2003, and Sosis 2006 in Where God and Science Meet, which claim that the purpose of religious practices is to promote group cooperation by requiring hard-to-fake demonstrations of commitment. But as is the case with authoritarianism as mechanism for ensuring cooperation, the theory has to explain not only how religion is useful as a method of costly signaling, but also why it is not uniformly distributed among individuals, why it is so unitized with a tendency toward prejudice and aggression, and why that particular type of costly signaling has evolved over all others.

These theories also do not address the tendency for religions at all levels to fixate on specific locations as belonging to a particular people because it is God’s (or more historically, their ancestors’) will. This would seem to be unrelated to the issue of costly signaling, but a crucial feature if the evolutionary purpose of religion is resource retention or acquisition: Why else would humans be so inclined to risk death in a war to retain or reclaim some particular piece of ground? Even better, with religion you are guaranteed everlasting life, and so even the risk of being killed in battle becomes much less of a deterrent to hostility. By not emphasizing the role of religious belief as a justification and facilitation of warfare these other theories are at best partial descriptions of the role of religion in human evolution.

The second tangent to the digression is the question of the proportion of SDAPs in the population. Because of their tendencies toward aggression, SDAPs almost certainly made up a disproportionate percentage of the casualties during intertribal conflicts in our ancestral past. But in modern times, the SDAP leadership and population primarily sends in proxy (or even “volunteer”) cannon fodder to fight and die in their immoral and pointless wars. Unless it can be shown that this cannon fodder is composed of a significantly higher percentage of SDAPs than the general population, we can only conclude that we are now living with a higher percentage of individuals with these characteristics than at any time in the past. Which means the need to find systematic ways to rein them in has never been greater. Fortunately, although these percentages are higher now, SDAPs remain a minority of the population, probably less than a third even taking into account the elevated activation level brought on by the 24-hour news cycle. With some targeted reduction in that (e.g., by shunning heavy Twitter and Fox News consumers and recommending they read a weekly newsmagazine instead), the incidence of activated authoritarians would significantly decrease, decreasing the effective size of the SDAP minority to below 20% where it is unlikely to cause significant disruption.

The third (and final) tangent concerns the general applicability of evolution-based arguments to behavioral, social, and political issues (i.e., the realms of Evolutionary Psychology, Evolutionary Sociology, Evolutionary Political Science, etc.), particularly with respect to traits that would at first blush appear to be maladaptive. In addition to SDAPs there are a great many classes of individuals that systematically differ from Neurotypicals, differences that would seem to arise more commonly than one would expect if they were merely genetic or developmental “mistakes”. But perhaps these differences provide benefits in some circumstances, if not to the individual then perhaps to their kin. Some examples are homosexuality, transgender, addictive personalities, and mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Indeed, why are some people born liberal and some conservative? Are some of these examples of eusociality, where some individuals are genetically programmed not merely to strive to reproduce themselves but instead to play a supporting role in ensuring the survival of their kin and by extension their band/tribe? This type of specialization is common in ants, bees, and termites, and has even been shown in mammals such as the mole rat.

Another possibility is that these variations are the result of genetic polymorphism, where a specific gene is selected for because it provides a competitive advantage in some circumstances (most commonly providing greater resistance to disease) even though it can be highly maladaptive in others. While it would be quite unexpected to find that cleft palate or club foot turn out to be related to some adaptive traits, the example of sickle-cell anemia (the gene for which turns out to offer resistance to malaria) and the correlation of IQ with the genes for genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s disease as documented in Cochran, G. Hardy, J., & Harpending, H. 2006 means that this is not out of the realm of possibility. All of these possibilities should be explored further, if only to understand these conditions but also with the hope that a greater understanding of them and their evolutionary basis can lead to policies that may assist these non-Neurotypical individuals in achieving their full potential while minimizing the negative impacts on others.

Next: Engineering Matchism