Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.
The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.

Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.

This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.

For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.

If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.

As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?

Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?

Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.

Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.

In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.

The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.

First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).

They found that:

  • Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
  • Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
  • Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.

They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.

Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)
Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)

The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).

How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.

So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.

This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

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The placenta and the pace of life

The poor old placenta. It really doesn’t get much public attention. And yet it does a crucially important job – acting as the interface between the mother’s blood supply and that of her developing foetus.

Every molecule of glucose, oxygen and many other essential compounds consumed by the voracious offspring passes across the placenta – from the mother’s blood to the foetus’. And waste products pass back the other way to be detoxified and excreted by the mother’s organs.

Given these roles, one might be tempted to see the mammalian placenta as a discreet anatomic servant, working tirelessly, unseen and largely without thanks for the mutual good of mother and foetus. Only to be discarded or eaten after birth and spared no further thought.

And occasionally be venerated in YouTube videos with mystical soundtracks:

But such a view underrates one of the most interesting organs that ever evolved.

For one thing, the placenta varies more among mammal species than almost any other organ. And research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA provides some clarity on how this diversity evolved. Continue reading The placenta and the pace of life

Sex and domesticity

The most erotic thing a man can do for a woman is…. the dishes.

You’ve no doubt encountered this oft-repeated claim, or one like it, before. In this case it comes from a source no less authoritative than Naomi Wolf, about 36 seconds into her 2007 interview with Ali G.

The “research has shown” bit seems to come from a rather flimsy survey that therapist Neil Chethick did for his book
VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think about Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework, and Commitment.

But the idea has legs. It taps into so many important veins of domestic angst: how can I spice up my sex life? How can I avoid doing the hoovering? Angst played out against the backdrop of ever-shifting sexual divisions of labour.

Yet, as always, reality is far more complex than the headlines. Some studies suggest that the more housework gets shared, the more sex the couple has. Other research claims that egalitarian couples have less passionate and satisfying sex lives. And still, millions of semi-domesticated men hang out for more wisdom on which chores to do and how to time them for maximum erotic payback.

If you’re one of them, you won’t have missed the recent news stories about a new paper in American Sociological Review that seems to overturn all the things you heard on Da Ali G Show. Continue reading Sex and domesticity

Better than sext? The new Facebook app that could change the mating market

I’m intrigued. And horrified. And curious. And incredulous.

Twitter, that lolly-bag of random ideas, just led me to a story on the website of Cosmopolitan magazine about a new FaceBook app called “Bang with Friends”.

Catchy.

Think I might go back to Scrabble.

According to Cosmo:

The way it works is you sign into the website using your Facebook profile, and then you anonymously register interest in, erm, banging your contacts. You actually click a button called “down to bang” for the guys you’re digging – slightly creepy, but hey, it’s better than a wall post expressing your intentions. If the guy(s) you pick haven’t pushed the button for you too, thus aren’t interested, then your crush remains a secret. But, if you did make their cut, then you are both made aware, in fact the “down to bang” button will change to “awaiting bang”…yep, there’s no skirting around the issue here.

For those who need to know – How to Bang http://bangwithfriends.com/fuck/how

I’m sure the delectable balance of intrigue and horror will propel many a media story about this new app and let slip an avalanche of moralising. I don’t really want to moralise here myself. All the important stuff can still be boiled down to two words:

Consenting Adults.

The way people find each other for romance and for sex has been changing ever since there first were people. The pace of change accelerates steadily, as economies and social institutions and communication technologies change. And the self-appointed gatekeepers of sex have exploded in “moral” outrage at every step along the way.

I don’t think of myself as old, but the world of sex and relationships that young people today seem to inhabit is not a world I recognise. Mobile phones, and the internet have revolutionised the business of finding one another and establishing both interest and rapport. At the risk of revealing my inner creep, I certainly wish there had been more of this stuff around when I was younger.

But one of my main research interests is sex, and especially the different interests that often generate conflict. This conflict simmers even between consenting adults who use protection and like each other – both in Facebookland and in real life (which I am told I can abbreviate IRL). And any device that changes the mating market can be used to tilt the balance in favour of one party over another.

Hell, why did these “university aged men” invent Bang with Friends other than to get more roots? And why, for that matter, did Zuckerberg (and accomplices) invent Facebook?

Bang with Friends opens up a world of awkward. How do you proceed once you get the “awaiting bang” all clear? And if someone is “good to bang”, then how do all the old-fashioned niceties that surround consent get dealt with?

Most of all, what kind of deception can we expect and anticipate?

As Conversation columnist Lauren Rosewarne put it, in another context:

People go online and pretend they are somebody else all the time. People we know in real life demonstrate all kinds of delusion and absurdity on Facebook. Craggy paedophiles routinely go into chat-rooms and pretend to be adolescent skaters and both single and married folks rapidly drop kilos, years and play up the pep constantly on dating websites.

This app doesn’t simply change the market for those folks who are looking for a “bang”. It changes Facebook for everybody else too. If this app catches on with enough people, and not just under-laid 22-year-old straight men, then anybody could find themselves on “down to bang” lists. And how long will it be till those “awaiting bang” notifications get shamed, with screenshots and all?

And that’s the thing about technologies that change the sexual and reproductive landscape: porn, Viagra, AIDS, the pill, safe abortion, amyl nitrate, legalised prostitution, priestly celibacy, IVF, cloning, sexting, daytime ads for ashleymaddison.com, erectile dysfunction drugs, and sham drugs. Anything that I’m allowed to Google at work and you aren’t. Every one of these changes the balance of interests between partners and changes the game, for better or worse. I wouldn’t want to stop progress, but I’m fascinated and at times a little scared about the consequences.

For the meantime Facebook is already a notorious tool for stalking. I can only imagine the incentive to unfriend exes, colleagues and creepy distant acquaintances has suddenly tilted dramatically.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Shutting that whole thing down: Todd Akin, rape, pregnancy and abortion

Like almost everybody else I spoke to today, I was staggered, this morning, to hear Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. The Missouri Republican, who is running for Senate, was justifying his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape, when he offered up the following cringeworthy utterance:

From what I understand from doctors, [pregancy resulting from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

It’s possibly the biggest news story in the world right now, but if you missed it, Nicole Hemmer has done a wonderful job here at The Conversation dissecting the responses to Akin’s comments and their likely campaign-aborting implications.

As Hemmer and others point out, Akin’s comments are very much an extension of the so-called “Republican War on Women”. The Republican party finds itself unfortunately captive to evangelical zealots whose bronze-age cosmology is matched only by an antediluvian attitude to sexuality, sex and reproduction. It should surprise nobody that women (like atheists and homosexuals) are far less likely to vote Republican than men are. What surprises me is how many women do vote Republican.

I couldn’t do justice to just how ignorant Akin must be to even consider qualifying “actual rape” from any other. Fortunately columnists, bloggers and tweeters everywhere have been hard at it since Sunday morning. But what struck me most was his pseudo-medical contention that “the female body has ways to try shut that whole thing down.”

That is an assertion that strays right into my research specialty: the biology of sexual conflict. I’ve written many times before about the fact that the reproductive interests of a man and a woman are seldom perfectly aligned and can be quite profoundly out of whack. A wife and husband who differ on whether to have another child are in mild sexual conflict, whereas a rapist and his victim are – it would be hard to overstate this – at profound odds (evolutionarily and otherwise).

Women and men, like all sexually reproducing animals, negotiate the decision over whether to mate or not. The outcome isn’t always a happy compromise because sometimes the mating is worth much more to one party than the other. But in some species, a female can choose – after copulating – not to use the sperm of a male.

In the Australian Black Field Crickets we use in my lab, the male cannot copulate forcibly with the female. She has to mount him voluntarily and she is unlikely to do so unless he has a sexy song. But once she has mated him and he has attached a bag of his sperm (a spermatophore) to her abdomen, she often chooses to remove it before its entire contents enter her body. This isn’t in the male’s interests and he harasses her to prevent her reaching around and removing the spermatophore.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing Todd Akin had in mind? Post-rape female choice in humans in which women have some kind of adaptation that prevents conception with the sperm of a rapist. I always savour the irony when an evangelical evolves into an armchair adaptationist.

If such an adaptation existed, it certainly doesn’t work particularly well. According to one U.S. study, “national rape-related pregnancy rate is 5.0% per rape among victims of reproductive age”.

My point here is not to get sidetracked in the largely irrelevant biology of whether women can, somehow, discriminate against the sperm of a rapist. I would rather highlight the fact that the way in which women discriminate against men whose children they do not want to carry is by not having sex with them in the first place. A measure of the extent to which a society deserves to consider itself civilized can be gained from the extent to which its citizens recognize this fundamental and inviolable right.

When this right is violated or subverted, be it via incest, or violent coercion, or any other means whatsoever, the result is rape. To suggest that some forms of rape earn that name more legitimately than others is to deny women this right and to defend the agenda of the rapist.

But in societies like ours, there are other very effective mechanisms by which women can choose not to bear a child by a particular man, including a rapist: abortifacient drugs and abortion. Bill Clinton famously asserted that “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare”. Even the most ardent pro-choice advocates agree that abortion should be rare, but without legal and safe abortion women fare considerably worse in the messy business of sexual conflict and in society as a whole.

What strikes me about the anachronistic attitudes of evangelicals and their Republican puppets to abortion, contraception, family planning, female economic empowerment and feminism in general is just how unambiguously male these attitudes are. All of these issues are informed by what suits men’s evolutionary and economic interests. Or more precisely by what suited the interests of men, especially rich and powerful men, before the industrial revolution.

An entire political party in one of the most advanced and educated countries on earth has become a caricature of the most basal evolved insecurities about masculinity. They seem terrified of losing control over the means of reproduction and petrified of cuckoldry.

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Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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