Are Paranormal Believers Mutants? Hardly!
Paranormal and conventional religious beliefs have much in common.
Posted June 8, 2018
In three previous posts, I discussed a recent paper, provocatively titled "The Mutant Says in His Heart, 'There Is No God': the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load" (Dutton, Madison, & Dunkel, 2017) that argues that atheism and belief in the paranormal are the result of adverse genetic mutations. This is based on the claim that belief in a moral god has been selected for by evolution in civilized societies, and that deviations from this belief are a sign of abnormal development. The authors argued that these “deviations” should be correlated with markers of mutational load, including poor health, left-handedness, autism, and fluctuating asymmetry. However, close examination of the evidence undermines these claims. My previous posts discussed the evidence regarding atheism; this post will discuss the evidence regarding whether paranormal belief is likely to be related to mutations. Contrary to what Dutton et al. suggest, conventional religious beliefs and belief in the paranormal are closely related, so it is unlikely that the former has been selected for while the latter reflects deleterious mutations.
To briefly recap, Dutton et al. argued that the development of complex civilizations created evolutionary pressures favouring the development of a specific kind of religiosity, specifically, belief in a moral god. On the other hand, the same evolutionary factors have acted to suppress other kinds of beliefs, including belief in paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, as the latter were supposedly more adaptive among hunter-gatherers but became maladaptive in complex societies. The prevalence of such beliefs in modern times is supposed to be the result of relaxation of selective pressures that have allowed the accumulation of genetic mutations that lead to “deviations” from more “normal” religious beliefs. In the authors’ own words: “We would expect that the belief in a world influenced by ghosts would have been selected against because it is, in fact, comparable to the kinds of beliefs held by hunter-gatherer societies, and does not involve a moral god.” Additionally, “belief in the paranormal… is clearly a deviation from the belief in a moral god and will usually be a deviation from the regular participation in religious ritual, though there may be exceptions, such as Spiritualist churches.”
As I pointed out in a previous post, this view seems rather ahistorical because there have been several highly successful civilizations that were not founded on belief in a moral god or gods. Additionally, belief in ghosts is deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture and religion, one of the world’s oldest and most successful civilizations. Dutton et al. argue that both paranormal belief and atheism were so maladaptive that people with these characteristics would have been unlikely to survive in pre-modern times: “By contrast, atheists and believers in the paranormal would, disproportionately, never have reached adulthood or never have been born, because these beliefs, though very different, are partly an expression of the breakdown of selection and thus of rising mutational load.” However, paranormal beliefs, such as belief in witchcraft, were highly prevalent before the industrial revolution rather than being “deviations,” so people with these beliefs seemed to have little trouble surviving. (I also pointed out that atheism has a long history, and was attested in ancient times).
Furthermore, their argument that belief in the paranormal is a “deviation” from belief in a moral god is contradicted by contemporary evidence that the two kinds of beliefs frequently go together, although the relationship can be complicated. One study (Orenstein, 2002) found that conventional religious believers were more likely to believe in the paranormal than those who were not religious, although frequent church attendance tended to be associated with less paranormal belief. Additionally, religious belief has a stronger association with paranormal belief than religious participation. The study also found that “nones” (those with no religion) were not particularly strong supporters of the paranormal, whereas those with the most traditional religious views had the strongest paranormal beliefs. This goes against the idea that paranormal belief is a particular aberration of the irreligious or those outside the religious mainstream.
Another study (Wilson, Bulbulia, & Sibley, 2014) found strong positive correlations between conventional religious belief and most paranormal beliefs, for example, the correlation between conventional belief and belief in witchcraft (i.e. the belief that some people can cast magic spells that have real effects) was .56, a statistically large effect. Note that this relationship was found despite that mainstream religions tend to discourage unconventional paranormal beliefs.
What evidence do Dutton et al. use to support their claims that paranormal belief is associated with mutation load? They offer two lines of evidence, one concerning the relationship between paranormal belief and fluctuating asymmetry and the other between paranormal belief and mental health.
Fluctuating asymmetry refers to small random deviations from perfect symmetry in bilaterally paired structures. In theory, genetically fit individuals should have better symmetry, whereas more asymmetry is associated with mutation load. Dutton et al. suggest that religious people would have lower fluctuating asymmetry than atheists or believers in the paranormal. However, none of the studies they cited actually show this. They could find no studies relating atheism to fluctuating asymmetry (which I discuss in more detail in a previous post), and three studies relating fluctuating asymmetry to paranormal belief. These studies do not really support their case. Only one of these studies (Schulter & Papousek, 2008) found a significant correlation between general paranormal beliefs and fluctuating asymmetry of finger length. However, this study, which involved 136 participants, did not include a comparison with conventionally religious people, so it cannot be used to show that paranormal believers differ from the conventionally religious in this respect. Furthermore, this study also assessed facial asymmetry, another measure of fluctuating asymmetry, and found that it had no relation with paranormal belief. A second study with a much larger sample of 1118 people (Voracek, 2009), however, found no relationship between fluctuating asymmetry of finger length and paranormal belief at all. The third study (Rogers, Caswell, & Brewer, 2017) only found a small correlation (.10), in females but not males, between fluctuating asymmetry of finger length and belief in psychokinesis specifically but not belief in ESP. Based on these results, Dutton et al. state that, “we may cautiously conclude that there may be a weak association between fluctuating asymmetry and paranormal belief.” I don’t think that these results allow us to conclude anything. The largest of the three studies found no relationship. The other two studies, which were much smaller, used multiple measures and found only limited and inconsistent correlations, which could be statistical artefacts from using multiple comparisons.
Regarding mental health, Dutton et al. cite various research showing that paranormal beliefs are associated with mental disorders such as schizophrenia, and personality traits such as neuroticism and schizotypy, which refers to a set of tendencies to have psychotic-like experiences. They use these findings to conclude that paranormal beliefs are associated with developmental instability, and therefore with mutation load.
I think this conclusion is misleading and is based on a distorted reading of the evidence. For example, Dutton et al. cite a review by Dein (2012) of the relationship between paranormal beliefs and mental health in support of their claim that paranormal beliefs are maladaptive. However, this distorts Dein’s message that it is not so much what you believe but how you believe it that defines the difference between madness and sanity. That is, people can have odd beliefs and anomalous experiences, yet be well-adapted, if they have a positive attitude to such things. On the other hand, those who have fearful attitudes to the paranormal tend to find anomalous experiences emotionally disturbing. More specifically, Dein notes that while mentally disturbed people have elevated rates of endorsing paranormal beliefs, such beliefs per se are not evidence of mental disorder, because they are also common in the general population. Dein notes that certain psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and thought insertion can occur in non-disturbed individuals, so having odd beliefs and experiences is not in itself an indicator of mental illness. What seems to differentiate clinically disturbed from healthy individuals is that the former have more negative responses to anomalous experiences. That is, when disturbed individuals have what appear to be “psychic” experiences (regardless of whether these are real), they tend to respond with negative emotions such as fear, whereas well-adapted individuals tend to regard these experiences more positively. The same can be said for how disturbed and non-disturbed individuals respond to hearing voices that are not real. In the former, the voices are often persecutory, while in the latter, the voices may be perceived as helpful.
Regarding schizotypy, some researchers consider that there is a spectrum ranging from “normal” experience to that which is frankly psychotic, with people high in schizotypy being somewhere in between (Schofield & Claridge, 2007). Hence, schizotypy may not be an aberration as such but a variation in the range of human experience. There is evidence that both schizotypy and paranormal beliefs are associated with artistic creativity and mystical experience, and it has been suggested that all of these may have a common core which can have both adaptive and maladaptive aspects (Thalbourne & Delin, 1994). I think that artistic creativity, which tends to be associated with both schizotypy and paranormal beliefs, is more likely to be a mixture of adaptive and maladaptive traits rather than a pure aberration, as it is highly socially valued. Hence, paranormal tendencies may not be the result of a mutation so much as a marker of tendencies associated with creativity and willingness to accept unusual ideas.
Additionally, there is evidence for “benign schizotypy.” That is, magical thinking and delusions of a spiritual nature may actually serve adaptive functions in some people. Farias, Underwood, and Claridge (2012) argue that what they call “modern spirituality,” which involves “new age” type beliefs, can offer a positive framework for interpreting psychotic-like experiences. That is, a person can have unusual experiences that are technically psychotic (i.e. believing and experiencing things that are not real), yet which are interpreted positively and are beneficial for one’s health. This accords with Dein’s view that odd beliefs are not necessarily maladaptive.
On the other side of the coin, mentally ill people often have psychotic delusions involving conventional religious beliefs, which indicates that conventional beliefs are not necessarily benign, a point which Dutton et al. do not address. For example, belief in evil demons is associated with poorer mental health (Nie & Olson, 2016), probably because it reflects a malevolent world view, yet such beliefs are common in the USA today and are a component of many contemporary and traditional religions (e.g. Pentecostal Christianity teaches belief in spiritual warfare).
Hence, in some people odd beliefs and unusual experiences can coexist with positive mental health, whereas in others, conventional religious beliefs can be associated with mental illness. How one holds one’s beliefs also seems to be important. For example, traditional religious believers who harbor doubts tend to be more depressed than those with stronger, more committed beliefs (May, 2017). People with paranormal beliefs who have a framework that allows them to interpret unusual experiences in a positive and meaningful way may have better mental health than those with similar beliefs but a more negative attitude to them. For example, belief in ghosts might be malignant if one believes that ghosts can do harm but may be benign if one considers ghosts in a more positive “spiritual” manner. Hence, the presence of paranormal beliefs as such is not necessarily either adaptive or maladaptive, and therefore not necessarily evidence of harmful mutations.
In conclusion, the claim that conventional religious belief is a sign of genetic adaptation and that paranormal beliefs are a sign of harmful mutations rests on a false dichotomy between the two. Both kinds of beliefs involve accepting the existence of unseen powers for which there is no scientific evidence, so they may both spring from similar underlying cognitive mechanisms, and this may explain why they frequently coexist in the same individuals. Some people may be more willing to credit the existence of the paranormal than others because they have unusual personality traits, but these are not necessarily maladaptive. Conversely, conventional beliefs are not necessarily benign. There is a connection between paranormal beliefs and mental health, but it is not a simple one, just as the relationship between conventional religious beliefs is not simple. Hence, the claim that paranormal beliefs are an “aberration” resulting from harmful mutations does not seem like a tenable or reasonable explanation, and is not based on good science.
 Some garbled media reports about this study, e.g. this one, claimed that the study found that left-handed people were more likely to believe in the paranormal. However, the study only found that left-handers were less religious generally, which I discuss in a previous post.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
The Three Witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth, Daniel Gardner, 1775
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Salvator Rosa, 1645
Dein, S. (2012). Mental health and the paranormal. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 31 (1) 61–74. http://sci-hub.tw/http://doi.org/10.24972/ijts.2012.31.1
Dutton, E., Madison, G., & Dunkel, C. (2017). The Mutant Says in His Heart, “There Is No God”: the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806-017-0133-5
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Schulter, G., & Papousek, I. (2008). Believing in paranormal phenomena: Relations to asymmetry of body and brain. Cortex, 44(10), 1326-1335. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cortex.2007.08.022
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