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) --->


  1. Are there any data on suicide and depression rates between atheists and theists? Would this also play into biological fitness?

  2. I've looked at a few papers on mental health and religion and been disappointed with the quality. Of course, there's Durkheim (the "father of sociology") who argues, among other things, that Catholics have a lower suicide rate than Protestants. But not about Atheists.

    Even if there were a difference in suicide rates, it'd have to be staggering to be as big as the fertility difference. You'd probably need something like 1 in 100 Atheists dying off annually to suicide before you even approach such massive fertility differences. Any difference in mortality, of course, would be seen in the long run. Orthodoxy is that even tiny beneficial changes over millions of years will be selected. But big negative changes will be eliminated quickly.

    Depression might plausibly be involved in fitness. If it were, I think it would have a lot more to do with having babies than suicide. Depression might be driving the low fertility rates in Atheists (i.e. "I'm depressed, so I won't have kids"). Or it might be that Atheists are less depressed ("I'm happy, so I won't have kids"). Without data, there is but speculation.