Defending Atheist Mutational Load Theory — Part 2

Part 2 of Dutton's reply to my critique of his work on religion and mutations.

Posted Jun 22, 2018

This article is part 2 of a guest post replying to a series of articles (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) I posted critiquing a paper called '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', in which the authors of the paper respond to my criticisms. As I noted previously, the contents of the following represent the authors' views, not mine, and I stand behind my original critique. 

It May Seem ‘Amazing’ (and Even ‘Egregious’) but the Mutant Really Does Say in His Heart: “There is no God”’ (Part 2)

Dr Edward Dutton and Prof Guy Madison

10. The Religion-Health Nexus doesn’t exist

Mr. McGreal criticised our argument that the religion-health nexus may be partly genetic on the grounds that Koenig (2012) assumes it to be environmental in origin. However, Koenig specifically argued that religion, in general, is not associated with health, but rather that only the very specific kind of religion that involves community worship and belief in God is positively associated with health. And we make it abundantly clear that it is only this very specific kind of religiosity that is associated with elevated health.

11. Healthy Non-Religious Jews

Evidence has been presented that non-religious Jews are healthier than some religious gentiles (see McGreal, 19th March 2018). Of course there is bound to be variation within a general trend for various reasons, which obviously does not refute the general pattern observed. The relevant comparison would be observant Jews versus non-observant Jews.  

12. Healthy Atheist Ideologues

Evidence is cited indicating that atheists with a well-defined world view are healthier than the vaguely religious. This is again comparing different things. We have in no way argued that religious people are always healthier than atheists, nor is that key to the theoretical issue. What we do argue is that this is the overall trend and, more importantly, that it is the case when key variables that also impact health – such as socioeconomic status – are controlled for. In addition, we are quite clear that we are talking about a very specific kind of religiousness, of which the vaguely religious would not be a part.

This provides a route into the question of which beliefs might fulfil our definition of religiousness. Indeed, atheists with a ‘well-defined worldview,’ such as active Marxists, can be argued to be following something that is in many ways similar to a religion. Indeed, ideologies are widely argued in Religious Studies to be, in some ways, "replacement religions" (see Dutton, 2014; Eliade, 1957). We would therefore certainly expect such people to be healthier than other kinds of atheist. Thus, we might question whether they are really atheists at all. Marxism seems to reify History as something that unfolds inevitably; implying some kind of belief in Fate. So, although these people do not seem to believe in gods, they seem to conceive of eternal values and principles that are absolute and unquestionable, indistinguishable from religious dogma. As Jordan Peterson (2018, p. 103) has put it:

‘You might object, “But I’m an atheist!” No you’re not . . . You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs . . . You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.’     

Also, as we stated in our original study (Dutton et al., 2017, p. 3):

‘. . . it has been argued that atheistic ideologies, such as Marxism, have many religious dimensions (Eliade, 1957), to the extent that they are, to some extent, ‘replacement religions’ (see Dutton, 2014). However, in practice, their leaders are often accorded transcendental powers and ultimately literal god-like status, as in the Soviet Union with Lenin and Stalin (Froese, 2008).’ 

13. Religiousness not related to subjective health in parts of USA

It has been noted by Mr McGreal that in less religious areas of the USA, religiousness is not related to "subjective health." It may well not be, but that is missing the point, which is that objective health is relevant to our analysis of adaptive values. Indeed, subjective health has been shown to be a poor proxy for objective health, so it is unsurprising that whereas the correlation between religious measures and health is about 0.29-0.38 (see Koenig et al., 2012), it has been shown to be much weaker – in one study 0.09 – when it comes to subjective health (see Argyle & Hallahmi, 2004, p. 187).

14. Left-handedness doesn’t predict Atheism

McGreal claims that our analysis of handedness says nothing conclusive about atheists. What it does show is that the least religious are the most left-handed. As atheists can be regarded as very irreligious indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that atheism is associated with left-handedness. Mr McGreal further attacks the fact that the study measure is religious commitment, and that this is "distinct" from religious belief. It can be countered that it may well be distinct but it is clearly very far from completely distinct. 

15. Left-Handedness is not a Mutation

Mr McGreal has questioned whether left-handedness can be regarded as a marker of genetic mutation load because handedness is also influenced by environmental factors. This is a mute argument, as one would be hard pressed to identify any trait, let alone any measure of developmental instability, that is not influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.

16. Atheists are not Autistic

Concern has been raised by Mr. McGreal about our argument that autism is associated with atheism. This is a version of the old logic problem that if all p are q, does it then follow that all q are p? No, and if autistics (who have a "pathology") are atheists for a particular reason then everybody else who is an atheist does not have to be that for the same reason. But we are not arguing this. The evidence shows that we are all somewhere on a spectrum between autism (which predicts atheism) and schizophrenia (which predicts extreme religiosity). Autism reflects hypo-mentalism and schizophrenia reflects hyper-mentalism (Crespi & Badcock, 2008). People become more atheistic as they get closer to the autism end of this spectrum. So, Mr. McGreal’s criticism involves drawing some sort of essentialist line between "mentals" and "normals." There is no such line.

17. Confusion over maladaptive intelligence

Mr. McGreal accused us of being confused in how we dealt with an anomaly in our study. We argued that mutational load would be associated with atheism. Yet this does not fit with evidence that intelligence – which is a marker of low mutational load – is weakly negatively associated with religiosity. We respond to this anomaly with two key points. Firstly, intelligence is a very weak marker of mutational load and, secondly, the criticism confuses different time perspectives. Let us elaborate. Yes, intelligence has historically been adaptive, probably up until at least the 18th century (Woodley & Figueredo, 2013). Nevertheless, from a Darwinian perspective, intelligence is non-adaptive in the present-day modern context, because it is negatively associated with fertility, meaning that we would actually expect it to be associated with mutation load. Mr. McGreal claims that we try to "have our cake and eat it" and that our idea is "confused" (McGreal, 21st March 2018). It is indeed a confusing issue, and we should have put more effort into clarifying it. With regards to the present-day situation, however, the issue is crystal-clear: You are adapted to your environment to the extent that you pass on your genes. The intelligent pass on fewer of their genes than do the less intelligent in developed countries. Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, intelligence is presently maladaptive in this ecology as it does not promote the passing on of its underlying genes.

18. Lack of direct measures

We do of course agree that more direct measures of mutational load are required to more conclusively test our hypothesis. This reflects that classical problem of where to draw the line between what is a legitimate scientific endeavour and what is not, reflected in the aphorism that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Should we refrain from communicating what we believe might become a fruitful and important area of study, because the data are not good enough, or restrict ourselves to non-scholarly outlets? On the other side of the balance, it might be better to communicate ideas with the rigour and empirical evaluation that can nevertheless be mustered in a specialist journal, rather than in the shallow and abridged form available to a magazine author. That might furthermore provoke the unearthing or gathering of relevant data. Thus, employing the best data one can find is, however unsatisfying, still better than not testing the hypothesis at all.

19. Religiousness, symmetry and the paranormal

Mr McGreal criticises our argument that paranormal belief is a marker of mutational load on the grounds that religious people are also more likely to believe in the paranormal. He notes that the evidence we cite – of schizophrenics and those with mildly asymmetrical physical traits (both signs of mutational load) being more prone to paranormal belief - does not allow a distinction to be made between religious and non-religious paranormal believers. Again, however, we do highlight the relative weakness of some of our measures, and that we employ them because they are the best available. Mr. McGreal concludes that, in essence, if you’re more inclined to believe in one form of non-material existence then you’re more inclined to believe in another. However, there is evidence that schizophrenia predicts not only belief in the paranormal but also belief in conspiracy theories. These have nothing to do with a non-material existence (Barron et al., 2018). Schizophrenic characteristics are also associated with belief in aliens (see Clancy et al., 2002). This would imply that schizophrenia, as a marker of high mutational load, is associated with both material and non-material worldviews which deviate from the specific one to which we are long evolved. This is the model which explains all these data, whereas Mr. McGreal’s ‘one non-material belief, many non-material beliefs’ explains only part of these data.

20. There is no evidence for an atheism asymmetry nexus

Finally, Mr. McGreal observes that we have found no relationship between atheism and asymmetry, which he takes as an argument against our propositions. That does not quite follow, however, because it remains to be tested. Some data to that effect that we had not room to cover in the article are that, as noted in Dutton’s (2018) How to Judge People by What They Look Like, Republican voters are more physically attractive than are Democrat voters (Peterson & Palmer, 2017), with low physical attraction being a sign of developmental instability. As further indications of a relationship between atheism and mutational load it has been it has been found that in Europe, the USA and Australia, people rate ‘right wing’ politicians as more physically attractive than ‘left wing’ politicians (Berggren et al., 2017). The authors provide an economic explanation: ‘Politicians on the right look more beautiful in Europe, the United States and Australia. Our explanation is that beautiful people earn more, which makes them less inclined to support redistribution.’ However, the problem with this argument is that there is far more to being a ‘right-wing’ politician than not supporting economic socialism. The current consensus in psychology is that two broad dimensions are necessary to describe sociopolitical attitudes (Duckitt et al. 2002). One of these is ‘resistance to change’ or ‘traditionalism’ and the other is ‘anti-egalitarianism’ or justification of inequality. Berggren et al.’s interpretation does not explain why good-looking politicians are more likely to be traditionalist.

An alternative explanation to Berggren et al.’s, which is far less question-begging, is that egalitarianism, the questioning of religious tradition and the promotion of Multiculturalism were extremely rare between the Dark Ages and the Industrial Revolution; the period of intense Darwinian selection. Populations that were so low in ethnocentrism as to espouse Multiculturalism and reject religion would have been selected against, and would probably have been extinguished across the 50 generations or so in this interval. The evidence for this consists of the robust association between religiousness and ethnocentrism and the fact that ethnocentric groups ultimately win the battle of group selection in computer models, as we noted in our article. It therefore follows that the espousal of these dogmas would partly reflect mutant genes, just as the espousal of atheism does. This elevated mutational load would be reflected in the bodies as well as the brains of its protagonists. Accordingly, we would expect them to have higher fluctuating asymmetry in the face – reflecting mutation – and this is indeed the case. There is a substantial degree to which ‘religiousness’ crosses over with being ‘right-wing’ in industrial societies. Indeed, the Right Wing Authoritarian Scale (RWA) and the Fundamentalism Scale have been shown to significantly correlate at 0.75 (Laythe et al., 2001), meaning they are strongly the same. So, these studies provided indirect evidence for an atheism-fluctuating asymmetry nexus.

The (Mutant) Heart of the Matter

As stated, we agree with Mr. McGreal that more research is needed in this area, and it would be informative if more direct measures of mutational load could be unearthed. We do insist, however, that it is not a valid argument against our study that these kinds of data do not exist or that we have been unable to find them. Having now responded to all points, we feel that the heart of the matter might be an overestimation of what it means to propose something in a scientific journal. It does of course not mean that we insist that this is the absolute truth or that we demand that the reader agrees, and it does neither necessarily mean that we believe it ourselves. What it does mean is that we find it sufficiently worthwhile to use as a lever to gain new knowledge, as supported by its tendency to arouse interest amongst other intellectuals and academics — to which Mr. McGreal’s thoughtful responses amply testify. In this light, many of the points could be seen as somewhat nit-picking or unpersuasive upon close inspection. We are nevertheless very grateful for Mr. McGreal’s interest in our work, engaging in which has forced us to think carefully about our study and to some extent develop our reasoning, and for his courtesy in publishing our response on his blog.

It has thus been a fruitful exchange for us, as well as hopefully to some extent for the development of knowledge in general. We conclude that we were quite correct in saying that "The mutant says in his heart, 'There is no God'". The study has stood up to the many criticisms levelled against it, notwithstanding its "controversial" findings.

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