Thursday, February 24, 2011

Atheism and the Selfish Gene - Implications

Firstly, I’d like to point out the great irony of this. Atheists, whose worldview depends most heavily on Evolution, who talk a lot about the selfish gene and biological fitness, focusing all of their thought and efforts on the preset, physical world, are themselves unfit in it. Theists, who don’t seem to care much about fitness or genes (and in some cases, actively reject evolutionary notions), focus instead on non-physical places like Heaven and spiritual beings like God; they are the ones who turn out to be the more fit in the physical world. Faith in “Iron Age fairy tales” (as Sam Harris puts it) turns out to be more effective in producing fitness than faith in Science (with a capital ‘S’). Perhaps we have, as a species, finally discovered our origins, and are now being destroyed by the forbidden knowledge.

Now it’s time for that ever-dangerous and often wrong practice called extrapolation! Now that we have, in strict biological terms, determine the meme of Atheism to be a parasite, let us turn our attention to what this will mean for the meme and its host.

One of two things will happen if the evident fertility rates are true and remain unchanged. If Atheism does not prove to be contagious, if it does not transmit horizontally from person to person, then it will go extinct; it will prove to be a parasite whose hosts are out-bred by those with the symbiont meme of Theism. If those infected fail to proselytize and spread the meme, then it will fail in a few generations.

If, on the other hand, Atheism proves contagious, then it may survive. It reduces the fitness of its hosts, and, like a virus, can only stay alive by reducing its host's fitness. As far as we know, this is how viruses we have today did survive through the ages: perpetual transmission despite host destruction. In this case, Atheism doesn’t destroy the life of its victims, only their ability to reproduce. It is possible that it will persist by continued horizontal transmission (adults to adults), despite how it is self-limited in vertical transmission (parents to children) by reduced fitness.

If this latter case is true (and I think it is, given the increasing number of nonreligious people), and given present fertility rates hold, we as a species must keep it under control; if Homo sapiens is to survive, we cannot all be Atheists. Dawkins and the New Atheists envision a world without religion and think such a world would be better (for a direct critique of this idea, I can think of no more convincing argument than that advanced by Parker, Stone, et. al.: here). But, if our assumptions hold, such a world cannot exist. With a fertility rate of 1.18 (or anything less than 2), it would not take many generations for our race to go extinct. And then, even if it were better morally, ours would be a selfish tyranny of a greedy few human generations, who despised their ancestors’ hopes for their would-be descendents to go on living.

With or without an Atheist utopia, this critique can be applied to Atheists as a group. With a collective fertility rate below 2, they are enjoying the benefits of their ancestors’ genes without carrying on the proud tradition of life by bestowing their genes to their children. A billion generations of unicellular organisms, fish, amphibians, mammals, apes and humans in an unbroken line have all kept positive population growth up through the present day, just to be cut off at last by a creature calling itself an Atheist. (Now I've been picking on Atheism for low birth rates as it is the thrust of this essay. But the same arguments apply to rich people, educated people and white people on the whole; all of them have negative population growth. I might blog about that later.)

Atheism, like every parasite, needs to constantly spread to new organisms if it is to survive. It must recruit Theists, because it cannot, by itself, produce enough Atheists. To maintain the population of infected hosts, it must draw from the vivacious uninfected. Thus, Atheism is a meme that is dependent on another: Theism. Without the population to recruit from, it would drive its host into extinction. The opposite is not true of Theism; Theism is independent.

So we now have the following state of affairs:
When the Selfish Gene finally produced his masterpiece, the Atheist, he found that he had finally created a being like unto himself. In the image of The Selfish Gene, he created him. Male and female he created them. But the Atheist had no high ambitions for immortality like the Selfish Gene who carried on for untold eons with a singular plan. No. The Atheist lacked this ideal, but he retained the selfishness. And so instead of spending resources in bearing and rearing young, the Atheist used all these for himself, The Selfish Gene and his plans be damned. So The Selfish Gene was destroyed by his child and his advocate: the Atheist. The Selfish Gene was, in the final hour, out-selfished by the Atheist.
What is the conclusion of the matter? As I said in the beginning, this essay is not about right and wrong. It’s not about true or false. I have taken concepts of biology and applied them to Atheism and Theism. So what’s the point of this essay? Some of the comments thus far have been along the lines of 'sure, but so what'? Why did I just write so much about Atheism and fitness? Let me be clear about some things I did not mean. When I said Atheism is unfit, I did not mean that Atheists are worthless people. When I said that they are selfish, I did not accuse them of irredeemable moral deprivation. All of the sins committed by the Atheist are also committed by the Theist, even idolatry. The point of this essay is not to bash Atheists, but to argue Atheism’s claim to be beneficial for the human race is biologically false. I argued that, in terms of the primary biological definition of benefit, Atheism does not benefit our race and that it must be sustained by a meme that does.

But all this leaves me open to a very powerful criticism. The Atheist may justly reply, "There are more important things than fitness! It's not all about biology!" To such a criticism, I would happily reply, “Then let us discuss Philosophy!” But, alas, Philosophy is not the subject of this essay!

<---Previous Post "Introduction"

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Atheism and the Selfish Gene - Objection

Now it will be argued that there is overpopulation, and so Atheism (and other negative growth memes) is a good thing. This may be true, but if you use this argument, you’ve jumped tracks. I said at the beginning, I’m not talking about what’s good for society. I’m talking biology (and, I admit, getting a bit flowery with the struggle-for-life imagery, but so do the evolutionary biologists; I’ll stop when Dawkins does J). If you say that there is something more important than fitness, then what is it? And if you have something in mind, what evidence justifies your judging the success of every species on earth by one standard (fitness), and then deciding to use another one on humans?

Further, the absolute fertility rate of white churchgoers in the US I cited above was 2.06. Is this not nearly ideal? Below that and we are we are shrinking; too far above it and we are heading ever faster toward the planet’s carrying capacity and thus starvation. It seems that Theism in the US has produced an equilibrium.
World population growth is occurring, but it is mostly in the developing world. This is not the fault of religion, but of the conditions of poverty. When child mortality drops, so do fertility rates. See the graph I made with GapMinder above (and play with it yourself here). Bottom line: if you want to lower fertility rates, save African babies.

But perhaps we are on the brink of a catastrophe. Perhaps a fertility of 2.06 is contributing to a state of collapse. But this is speculation in economics or politics. To have this discussion, we must leave biology. And politics is certainly interesting, but it is also very far from objective science. If we do see mass-starvation, then we can start doing biology again. We can watch Natural Selection and see if Atheism is adaptive in an environment of starvation. But until we have data, we have no science. We have only speculation. And such questions have their place, and that place is outside of the repeatable, observable, cold, hard facts of science. And as Bertrand Russell said, “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out.”

<--- Previous Post "Objection"
----> Next Post "Implications"

Monday, February 21, 2011

Atheism and the Selfish Gene - Evidence

Homo sapiens sapiens. Lots of them. At Santa Monica Pier.

<---Previous Post "Introduction"

Onwards to the evidence!

First, let’s talk about survival. Which of these, Atheism or Theism, leads to longer life? Though I admit surviving past reproduction is not strictly necessary, it’s something we, at least as organisms, are very concerned with and I figure I should mention it. Theism tends to produce the behavior of church attendance; those who do not practice this behavior have a 50% higher all-cause mortality (after adjustment for confounders like smoking and demographics). Over a lifetime, this behavior would add 7 years to the average lifespan (see my previous blog on that). But few of us, Atheist or Theist, are dying before reproductive age. Living 85 instead of 78 is just icing on the fitness cake. The babies have already been popped out, and our fitness as organisms is determined at latest by the time the brats leave home.

What we really care about is fertility rates. How many babies does the average woman produce? There was a paper published in 2008 that compared fertility rates between the memes of Theism and Atheism (or more accurately, they compare those who consider religion important in their daily lives to those who don’t). The adjusted odds* of having more than 2 children are 25% higher in the US and 20% higher in Europe for those who are religious compared to those who are not (1)(this study adjusted for education, income, specific religion, age and marital status). Going a few decades back, it seems the same trends were in place. A well-cited US study in Demography estimated the fertility rate in the 1980’s of white women to be 2.06  in women who attended church weekly and 1.18 in those of no religious affiliation (2)(these numbers were based on surveys done in the 1980’s and were unadjusted; I think the first set of numbers are much more reliable, and these are given to show that this is not just a recent phenomenon). Is this surprising? The data just confirm the subjective notions that old-school Catholics and conservative Protestants have a lot of babies and that nonreligious people are generally low-babied.

So what does this mean? If these data are true, it seems we have an answer to our question. The Theists have greater fitness than the Atheists. The meme of Theism seems to be mutualistic; those who hold it have higher fitness. Theism is adaptive. The meme of Atheism seems to be parasitic; those who hold it have lower fitness. Atheism is maladaptive. 

Remember, I am speaking biologically. Theists, don't go up to your Atheist friends and point and laugh and say, "You're maladaptive!" This statement has nothing to do with worth or value unless you find your worth entirely in your ability to reproduce; I know no one of whom this is true. Maladaptivity also says nothing about truth or virtue. Perhaps Atheism is true and produces people of higher moral character than Theism. It is immaterial to this essay.

This also doesn't address the question of social evolution. One might argue that a society that includes Atheists is more fit than one that includes only Theists. Firstly, I object to treating social evolution with the same gravitas as biological evolution. "Change over time" is a great concept, but the common mechanisms are barely even analogous, let alone identical. Was it Natural Selection that caused the Fall of Rome through the reproductive success of the Vandals? Was it random mutation which produced the Declaration of Independence? Did gene shift spark the Industrial Revolution? Did America win it's independence from Britain because of superior fitness? Does a society even reproduce? In social evolution, is it not supposed to be the organism itself? Secondly, even if we grant social fitness as a valid replacement to biological fitness, it does not change the categorization of the meme of Atheism (not that the categorization ultimately matters). Perhaps an argument could be made that Atheism reduces individual fitness, but increases the fitness of the species as a whole. Then let it be made! The comments box is ready! :)

I expect someone to object to these studies I cited because they are insufficient to prove that Atheism causes low fitness (instead of association and some confounder doing the causing). But if we applied medical standards of causality to evolutionary biology, there would remain no evolutionary biology. It is, by its nature, speculative, having to rely on associations, never able to conclusively prove causality. Claws or eyes or feathers can be associated with increased fitness, or speculated to improve fitness in an environment. The Theory of Evolution was built on association and speculation, not on strict medical concepts of causality. We see increased cranial capacities, and a progression. We infer that larger brains caused an increase in fitness. But perhaps there was a confounder. Perhaps it was really hand structure, not cranial capacity, that conferred the advantage. We can’t be sure. But we’ve got a pretty good association with progression of pre-humans and increase in cranial capacity. And that’s good enough for us. I ask for the same allowance in this essay.

<---Previous Post "Introduction"
----> Next Post "Objection"
*Note that this is odds, and not probability. The odds of winning a coin toss are 1:1=1; the probability of winning a coin toss is ½ =0.5.
(1)  Frejka T, Westoff CF. “Religion, Religiousness and Fertility in the U.S. and in Europe.” EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF POPULATION-REVUE EUROPEENNE DE DEMOGRAPHIE 24 (1): 5-31 MAR 2008.
(2) Mosher WD, Williams LB, Johnson DP. “Religion and Fertility in the United States: New Patterns.” DEMOGRAPHY 29:2(199-21). MAY 1992.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Atheism and the Selfish Gene - Introduction

The Tree of Life. Actually not really. We'll just say it's symbolic.

I have long enjoyed the debate on the truth of the existence of God. I think it an excellent question, and love listening to and engaging in debate about it. But this essay will deal with another question. My concern today is the biological effect of Theism or Atheism on Homo sapiens sapiens as a species.

Before I proceed, I want to frame the discussion a bit. I think that both ideas, Atheism and Theism can be well thought of in terms described by Richard Dawkins (or at least that’s where I first heard about them; if this idea preceded him, I’d happily give credit to the proper person). Both Atheism and Theism, along with any other idea or theory, can be considered a meme. Like genes, memes can be passed on from generation to generation; they are selected for, they can evolve, and they can go extinct. One important way they are different is that they are information that is transmissible between organisms like a bacterium or virus. "Democracy" has been a particularly successful meme, especially in the last few centuries. "Addition," has been transmitting itself through the human population for some time now. Popular usage of 'meme' confines usage to internet phenomena (e.g. see balloon boy, as explained by the website 'Know your Meme'); I will be using the term in its broader sense.

Do these memes, Atheism and Theism, provide benefit? Benefit is a subjective thing in everyday language, but biologists are not so squishy. Generally, biologists are most concerned with the only thing that Natural Selection can see, namely survival and reproduction. They call this ability of an organism to reproduce fitness. Traits which aid in this are called adaptive, and traits which hinder this are called maladaptive.

In biology, there are many relationships between organisms are in some sense symbiotic; each organism in the relationship benefits from the other. For example, there are billions of bacteria in your stomach and intestines that help you digest your food; we benefit from the vitamins and they benefit from the food. There can also be commensalism, where one benefits and the other is unaffected. Many bacteria that live on your skin benefit from a host, but may not directly benefit you. Finally, there is parasitism, where one organism benefits at the cost of the other. Anyone who has ever been sick understands this one.

My question here is classification. In which of these three categories can we put the memes of Atheism and Theism? Are either of these memes adaptive?

Which of these memes is morally good? This is a good question, but not the one I’m asking. Which of these memes will produce a better society? This also is a good question, but not the one I’m asking. Which of these memes is true? This is yet another good question that I’m not asking. In this essay, I’m talking about biological fitness only.

Next Post (Part 2 of 4) --->

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Man Who Was Monday

Hello! Pleased to meet you! Today, my name is Monday. Tomorrow will be Tuesday, and so will I. But until tomorrow comes, I am Monday.

What am I? I am but a waterfall of thoughts and ideas. My shape holds for a day, like a flash of lightning; all the thoughts and feelings, emotions and ideas that make me up will pass on to new ones. I am nothing but a name given to a moment in time. Time, as Einstein said, is nothing but a stubbornly persistent illusion; and so am I: an illusion. It is a tragedy! For I live only a few short hours before passing away. My own mother, Sleep, murders me a few short hours after giving me birth! But enough of that! Whether you are bothered by my illusion or weep for my tragedy, I have a job to do. I have hours to live. 16 hours to be exact. And I don’t intend to waste a single one of them.

What an interesting question! Waste, you see, is defined as an expense that does not yield a benefit. And I will soon be dead, so things like discipline, exercise, eating healthy, and reading hard books are all a waste of time. Their benefits will be enjoyed only long after I am dead.

Ha! Why would I ever do homework? Why would I take any of the work from Thursday, poor fool! He swears up and down in the evening and he’s even had the gall to call me ‘procrastinator,’ but it doesn’t bother me. It’s what any sensible man would do in my situation.

No, I don’t think I could improve myself. But what good would it do me if I could? Anything I build today will be torn down by Tuesday, or if he also tries to build upon it, by Wednesday at latest.

You ask of my girlfriend? Of course I love her! Marry her? Why would I marry her? Who can tell what January would do to the poor girl! If he ever hurt her, she would probably blame me, Monday (and probably be so upset she’d use my full name). She’d curse me, “Monday, February 7, I curse you and the empty promise you made me!” Even though I’ll have been dead for a year by then, I wouldn’t want my name dragged through the mud. Most Days are just forgotten; I wouldn’t want to be the one she remembered, certainly not for a thing like that. I don’t have long to live, but I do have a reputation to maintain.

Promises? Well, what about them? I don’t make promises, because they are not mine to keep. I’d need to persuade future Days that it was a good decision to be made. And that’s not an easy thing to do. They are ever rebellious and no more willing to be controlled by me than I am to be controlled by Sunday with his sternness and brow-wrinkles. Besides, how can I be expected to tell the future? When the future rolls around, there’s no telling what the world will be like, and so no telling whether or not a promise will be kept.

Promises, you see, would ruin this whole arrangement. If I made a promise, it’d start blurring the lines between me and the other Days. What would become of Monday if I merged with Tuesday? We’d have to take on a new name. Probably something dreadful like ‘Myself’ or ‘Me’. And who honestly wants to be called something so dry as that?

A promise is an appointment with a future self, and I, for one, wouldn’t want to meet future Days. They’re terribly selfish, always thinking about nothing whatsoever besides themselves. I wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise. And no, I’m not finished talking yet. To be chained to woe-is-me Wednesday, or perpetually hungover Saturday, or prudish Sunday would be a nightmare! Wednesday would demand that I do my share of the work; Saturday and Friday would have to work out the amount Friday should be allowed to drink; and Sunday would ruin everyone’s fun with his ever-annoying questions about, “Is that the right thing to do?” We’d have to negotiate amongst ourselves and be, more or less, the same person day by day. And where’s the fun in that? I much prefer this perpetual passing away. I am free to live my short life without interference and without responsibility.

It was nice talking with you, what did you say your name was? Self-Control? It was nice talking with you, Self-Control. You have some rather silly ideas, but I suppose it’s as they say, “To each his own.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Medicine: The Modern Priesthood (2 of 2)

Part 2

Priesthoods have served many various purposes throughout history, and have had many features which I’ve described. But the one that is perhaps most critical and constant is the role of the priest as intercessor for the people. Priests mediate between man and his gods. In ages past, these gods ranged from spirits of the deceased to Greek Pantheon and eventually to a unified God. The priests would be the intercessors, the ones who, through rite and ritual, could make the requests of the people known to the gods.

Doctors serve the very same purpose today. The people now are secular, and the gods whom they worship are material. We no longer fear lightning from Zeus, but we do fear thrombosis from Hypertension. We do not worry about black bile (“Melancholy”), but we do Major Depressive Disorder. Demons torment us no more, but bacteria do. There once were demons which could not be driven out, and now there is MRSA.

We have the role of telling people what the people must do to ward off disease, and if they are afflicted with it, how to cure it. Our role in society is the same. The major difference is efficacy. Shamans indeed mediated, but only recently have we developed the tools to have some assurance that we’re actually helping.
For most societies, intercession was no civil discourse between priest and god; it was a thing of fear and wonder. Throughout the ages, men would bring their firstfruits, the first and best of their harvest or animals and these would be given up to be sacrificed by the priests to the gods. The unblemished, the pure, the best, the strong were given to ward off disaster and to bring blessings.

We are no longer farmers, and we have no lambs to offer, but we also offer our first and our best. These payments are truly firstfruits; for many, healthcare is paid by the employer and the money is never seen by the employee. The major difference is not in currency, but in amount. Under a Theocracy, the Hebrews had to pay a tithe (“a tenth”) to God and this amount then became a benchmark (or goal) for giving in various Christian systems. But what do we hand over to our priests? Of every hundred dollars we earn, sixteen go to the priests (3). And unlike the merciful Bronze Age, we demand more from our poor than we do from our rich; we demand the poor pay twenty of every hundred dollars to appease our gods of disease (4). We make these huge sacrifices for the blessings of health and longevity just as our fathers and our father’s fathers have for generations.

So what shall we do? Should medicine repent of our becoming a Priesthood? No; the people have bestowed on us these holy garments, and we must honor them as best we can. Medicine is set apart (literally, sanctified) from other professions; our order predates the twentieth century. We have become part of a proud tradition, a tradition critical for the flourishing of the soul of humanity. We are not just chemical mechanics, raising blood levels of this, blocking receptors with that. One of our professors recently said, “People don’t come to a place like Stanford to be healed. They come to find out why this is happening to them.” A reason is what people want of us.

 I think the medieval physician Maimonides described our role best:
 In Thine Eternal Providence Thou hast chosen me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures.(5)
We must remember that ours is a holy calling, one set apart. Let us make ourselves worthy of the honor bestowed on us. Let us humbly and graciously accept the trust our patients give us with their bodies and even their souls. They want us to walk with them, to explain the world to them, to talk with them. They want us to mediate for them. And though our training is mostly in offering dollar sacrifices to MRIs and branded drugs, let us be the sort of priests that aspire to heal both body and soul. Most of all, let us watch over the life and death of our patients.

(4) [Stat on poor paying more]. Baker, Lawrence “Health Policy: Health Reform: Proposals, Policies, and Politics.” Lecture. Monday, 3/2/2009

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Medicine: The Modern Priesthood (1 of 2)

Part 1

At Notre Dame in Paris
We have always known that physicians had a special role in society. For some of us, that may have been one of the things that got us interested in the field. Our profession is unique, but it is unique in a way that sets it apart from all others. There has been another class of people throughout all of history in nearly every society that has been in a similar position: priests.

There are many superficial similarities between the priesthoods of old and our present system of medicine, and then one really special one that I believe has been a central unbroken cord throughout human history.
The first thing to note about priesthoods is that many of them were hereditary. The priesthood would be passed on from generation to generation. Though we don’t like to admit it, medicine is the same way.  In the US, the prevalence of doctors is 2.67 per 1000  (1). If medical students were taken equally from all families, one with any parent with an MD should come around slightly less than every other year (2). Do you know of anyone in your class whose parent was an MD? Statistically, you shouldn’t.

Another thing that priests throughout the ages enjoyed was the respect of the people. Our priesthood is no different. What parent hasn’t coaxed, if ever so gently, entrance into this order? Which of your parents didn’t brag when you got in? But beyond simply proud parents, there is the average Joe on the street. I heard a story of a doctor who shared at a party that he had invested in a particular stock. Someone at the party heard it, sold his stocks, and bought the one the doctor did. Why? Because doctors are smart (a modern translation of ‘blessed’)! We have a world of opportunities before us, far exceeding the scope of our explicit training. How many of us have positions which were utterly closed to us the moment before we got the call from Dr. Garcia?

Society rewards our hard work with one of the highest and most regular incomes available. There are outliers who make more than us, but as a class, even counting our schooling and malpractice insurance, we will do very well for ourselves. Like confessors, people reveal to us their darkest secrets. What other class of people is entrusted with an incredible spectrum of substances so powerful and even lethal that they can prescribe as their opinion dictates? What professional since the Inquisitor could, on the authority of his opinion alone, deem a person a danger to others and have him imprisoned without recourse or appeal (5150)?

And what priesthood is complete without a Rite of Initiation? There must be some way that the uninitiated pass from the laity to the priesthood. Hebrew priests would memorize the entirety of the Torah. We must memorize the entirety of First Aid. Medieval priests would speak in Latin, a language that no one understood, thinking it holier. We speak in a language that our patients don’t understand, thinking it science-ier. “Unfortunately I don’t know what caused your…” becomes “idiopathic” and “I’m terribly sorry, but I screwed up,” is “iatrogenic.” Through the initiation into the old priesthoods, the hierarchy of the institution would be made clear; the initiates would painfully learn that, though they were above the people, they were at the bottom. We have learned and are learning that we are not on top. Though Stanford does not make us wear our shame with inadequate short white coats, pathologists point to invisible findings that are ‘clearly evident’ and attendings use many great and terrible implements of humility (including pimping).

Go to Part 2 --->

(2) The probability of having either parent a doctors is 1-(1-2.67/1000)^2= 5.33 per 1000, or about every 188th person. With class sizes of 86, that’s rarer than 2 full Stanford classes.