Defending Atheist Mutational Load Theory: The Authors' Reply

Are atheists mutants? The author's reply to my previous critique.

Posted Jun 21, 2018

Recently, I posted a series of articles (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) 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." The first author of the article, Edward Dutton, contacted me and asked if I would publish a rebuttal, and I have agreed to do so as a guest post. Due to its length, the reply will be posted in two parts, which Dr. Dutton has agreed to. Disclaimer: the contents of the following represent the authors' views, not mine, and they are responsible for the accuracy or otherwise of their statements. I still 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 1)

Dr. Edward Dutton and Prof Guy Madison

In a recent study entitled "The Mutant Says in His Heart 'There is no God,'" (Dutton, Madison, & Dunkel, 2017) we reported a set of empirical findings in support of the idea that Industrialization leads to the accumulation of group-fitness damaging genetic mutations through relaxed selection, according to the Social Epistasis Model (Woodley of Menie et al., 2017). A crucial component of this theory is that relaxed selection not only has direct effects on fitness, but also impacts important fitness behavior regulation processes. These genetic and environmental effects manifest in fitness damaging worldviews, for example, which thus accelerate the process by way of acting as "social multipliers" (see, Dickens & Flynn, 2001, for a description of this concept in another context). This would imply that deviations from the pre-Industrial, selected norm would be associated with high mutational load.  

Our study specifically addressed whether religiousness is associated with a lower mutational load in modern environments, employing the very specific definition of religiousness as belief in a moral god or gods and collective worship thereof–and based on the view that religiousness is a group selected trait. We duly examined this through exploring associations between putative indicators of mutational load (poor health, autism, fluctuating asymmetry, and left-handedness) and two deviations from this apparent pre-Industrial "norm": atheism and paranormal belief. The associations were in the direction predicted.

Our study gained a great deal of attention and was reported in newspapers worldwide such as the UK’s Daily Telegraph (Rudgard, 21st December 2017). This is unsurprising as religiosity is a very important issue. However, our study analyzed religiosity in a rather novel fashion and, accordingly, there are many ways to misunderstand or misconstrue it. It appears that this is what has happened amongst popular psychology writers and even academic psychologists. Dr. Stuart Ritchie, of Edinburgh University, remarked of our study simply "Amazing!" and Scott McGreal termed it "one of the most egregious papers I have ever read." (O’Mara, 24th December, 2017) Presumably, however, Mr. McGreal may have had second thoughts about our study’s outstanding awfulness, because rather than simply dismissing it as nonsense, he conducted an extremely detailed critique of it on his blog, dedicating no less than four lengthy posts to it (McGreal, 17th March 2018, 19th March 2018, 21st March 2018 & 8th June 2018). Mr. McGreal has obviously thought deeply about our study. In that capacity, we are all interested in understanding the psychology of religion, we relish the opportunity he has given us to continue this debate. Mr. McGreal presented 20 key criticisms:

1. We Use Questionable Sources

We opened our article by observing that several individuals have spontaneously and independently noted the supposed superior beauty of religious females in online fora, while we have not found examples of people that report finding non-religious females more attractive. These are simply examples of ordinary people expressing their opinions. As we do not argue that this constitutes scientific evidence of anything it is no more questionable than an anthropologist quoting some of the subjects with which he has done fieldwork.

2. We Misunderstand Bible Passages

We further alluded to a number of Bible passages that seem to suggest that the religious are healthier, better looking, less left-handed, and so on. It has been suggested that these examples do not illustrate our point but, again, we have confidence in the reader’s ability to evaluate the article. We happen to find a breadth of influences more engaging and entertaining, even in an academic article, and apparently the scientific community, in the guise of the three reviewers of the article, found it quite acceptable: no-one even mentioned the Bible quotes. The idea that they would have any scientifically conclusive value, however, had not even occurred to us and we find it odd that this would even be suggested. It is really a straw-man criticism. The Bible should, however, perhaps not be entirely dismissed, since it reflects in itself a very long selection process from the stories passed down orally to the many editions of the texts throughout the centuries (see Peterson, 1998). Having passed the test of resonating with the experiences of many minds in this process, it may therefore say something that a blind boy is accepted by many Christian commentators to be autistic (King James Bible, 2018), being possessed by the Devil and, thus, by implication, not possessed by God. Similarly, it seems telling, although not by any means conclusive, that evil is generally on the "left-hand" in the Bible.  

3. Ancient Atheism

Mr. McGreal argues that our theory that atheists would not have survived in pre-modern times due to their high mutational load is refuted by the fact that there were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome. However, we did not assert that no atheists at all would survive in pre-modern times, only that there would be a substantial selection against this trait. And, more importantly, the presence of atheists in ancient Greece and Rome would seem to perfectly illustrate our point. In both instances, we begin to see atheistic philosophers, from amongst the higher classes, when societies become highly advanced. Meisenberg (2007) has observed that in such advanced civilizations the intensity of selection is reduced due to higher living standards. This leads to greater genetic diversity and, moreover, the children of the higher classes would have been disproportionately likely to survive due to their superior living conditions (see Clark, 2007).

Meisenberg (2007) argues that this means that, at a certain point, levels of stress become so low amongst the upper class that they begin to question the society’s religion (religiousness, he notes, being partly predicted by stress) and limit their fertility, being more efficient users of the contraception which has now been developed at this late stage of civilization. There is abundant evidence for this (e.g., Woodley of Menie, Figueredo, Dunkel, & Madison, 2015), which leads to a generation-by-generation decline in average intelligence. In preindustrial conditions, there is a positive relationship between socioeconomic status and fertility (see Clark, 2007), and Dutton and Charlton (2015) have shown that socioeconomic status is partly predicted by intelligence, meaning that there was a fertility-intelligence nexus which eventually went into reverse. Indeed, Dutton and Woodley of Menie (in press) have actually shown that, in line with this theory, per capita innovation decreases in the ancient world from around the point that "philosophy" develops, consistent with the Social Epistasis Model. This is, moreover, all consistent with the idea that atheism is generally associated with advanced civilizations in which the checks on mutation are weaker than they once were. Meisenberg (2007) avers that Western civilization managed to get further in terms of development before the well documented positive relationship between socioeconomic status and fertility (see Dutton & Woodley of Menie, in press) reversed because of its intense and violent religious dogmatism, which included the complete anathematizing of contraception.

4. Religion Has not Been Selected for  

Another, more surprising claim, is that religion has not been selected for. It has obviously been selected for because it is around 40% genetic, based on twin studies, and possesses all of the other widely accepted markers of having been selected for, such as elevated fertility, as we demonstrated in the original article.

5. Misleading References

It has been argued, with regard to our reference to Blume (2009) that we misleadingly imply that he says that religiousness is sexually selected for. In fact, we state that religiousness implies access to a useful network of people. This is what Blume (2009) argues and he is referenced for this reason, although he does rather imply that religiousness, in males, can be sexually attractive to females.

6. Religious People Are not High in GFP

Our suggestion that religious people are higher in the General Factor of Personality (GFP) has been disputed, pointing to Gebauer et al. (2014) who shows that this relationship is weaker in less religious societies. It may well be weaker but it is still positive, and so Gebauer et al. is simply an illustration of our point that religious people are higher in GFP, likely leading to religiousness being sexually selected for.

7. Religiousness Is Not Sexually Selected for

It has been noted that people tend to marry those who are similar in religiosity to themselves, which Mr. McGreal argues means that it’s not sexually selected for. We cannot see how this follows at all. Indeed, people tend to be attracted to people who are genetically similar to themselves, so-called assortative mating, but this mechanism does not contradict that sexual selection operates on more or less genetically influenced traits. That aside, it is correct that we cannot prove conclusively that religiousness is or has specifically been sexually selected for, although its substantial heritability indicates that it is (or has been) subject to some type of selection. In pre-modern times, religiousness would have been associated with many positive qualities, such as access to a network of individuals, high GFP, and following moral rules, which mitigates against exploitation of women. On the part of male sexual selection, female religiousness would be desirable as an insurance policy against cuckoldry. This may well be part of the reason why women are more religious than men (see Dutton, 2014). In the broader scheme, however, sexual selection of religiousness appears very likely given the growing consensus that sexual selection tends to play a greater role than natural selection for many human traits compared to most other primates, by way of concealed ovulation, for example.       

8. Adaptive Atheism

Mr. McGreal proposes that "atheism" could itself be adaptive in certain circumstances. This may be true. It could allow you, in a very religious society, to showcase certain desirable qualities such as bravery and the intelligence to critically question the accepted norm. This could be sexually attractive to some females. It could also be adaptive in an atheistic dictatorship because you would be less likely to upset those in control. But this remains hypothetical in view of the fact that fertility amongst the religious is by and large higher when controlling for significant variables (see Ellis et al., 2017). Moreover, as we demonstrated, at the group level, societies high in positive and negative ethnocentrism always come to dominate and religiousness predicts both of these traits (see Dutton et al., 2016).     

9. Group Selection is "Controversial"

Mr. McGreal censures us for using the concept of "group selection" because it is "controversial" amongst evolutionary psychologists. But the fact that something may be considered "controversial" is irrelevant to whether or not it is accurate. We referred to the multilevel selection model–not the traditional group selection model–in our study, and the fact is that no critic or reviewer questioned this. But it has indeed been argued that there exists amongst evolutionary psychologists something of a "prejudice against group selection which is impervious to evidence from laboratory experiments. It is also impervious to evidence from the wild." (Wilson, 7th November 2009)

Please see Part 2 for the conclusion of the article.

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