Thursday, May 20, 2010

Evolution of religion

The question of how religions have developed is one that has been thought through for as long as people have been questioning religion. Why do religions seem to develop in similar patterns and support similar social structures? As of now, the best hypothesis is that religions developed out of our naturally formed social structure. It developed as a meme to explain the various occurances of the natural world.

The human mind is geared towards seeing patterns as a survival technique. A good example of this is that it allowed our early ancestors to pick out the panther from the background visual 'noise' of tall grass and thus get away before becoming someone else's lunch. This reinforced the pattern seeking tendency and it began to be applied everywhere. This pattern defining 'software' was applied especially towards unknown events such as natural disasters, death, disease, social structure, and any other natural phenomenons they could not explain or understand. Religion reinforced a hierarchical social system that was useful as populations grew in number. It also out competed opposing belief systems through normal memetic evolution)

Many characteristics of religion can be directly traced to how our early ancestors naturally formed social groups as populations increase. Observer any small group of humans and there generally will be no clear leaders. People will take on roles based on skill and chores are passed around on a basis of need and ability and not through command from a central authority

This can be seen whenever we observe any small surviving tribes of humans, we see that the population generally does not exceeds approximately 150 individuals. In fact if the population increases, the tribe will splinter, a section moving off to live elsewhere. In these limited population groups, every person is required to stockpile the necessary supplies to sustain the group. Thus every person is of equal standing to everyone else for survivals sake. The superstitions and religions that are held by these groups mirror this as they are invariably polytheistic with mostly equal power between the various deities. Any variation is based solely on the importance of the role that the individual deity has (the deity for fertility will be more important then the deity for something more obscure like the night sky). To further support the idea of 150 as a limiting number we can look to recent developments in Neuroscience. Here, studies and experiments on how the brain stores information has shown that the region of the human brain responsible for remembering individual faces has a limit on average around 150. Thus giving more evidence that humans initially evolved to be in communal groups no larger then this size.

But if we increase the number past the 150 mark, we find that there are more then enough people to gather food and other resources, creating even a stockpile. Suddenly we find individuals who actually have some free time away from general hunting and gathering. This extra time allows individuals to become specialists. Such specialists would include artisans, storytellers/historians, dedicated child rearing groups and much more. Each of which creates greater efficiency and allowing for more specialization.

As these independent skill groups develop another task oriented group naturally arises through emergence, this is the governing class. A group who starts by acting as a central processing to allow the burgeoning society to run more smoothly and effectively. This development of this new class adds an extra boost to the rate of development within the other individual skill classes as well as streamlining food production and availability, thus reinforcing its own existance.

This process is actually quite similar to the emergence that is seen in nerve tissues. As neural nets become more complex, densely packed regions of nerve tissue develop to allow for processing of the now expanding regions of complex nerve nets. These clusters are known as ganglions, and as evolution presses forward they too begin to arrange themselves into distinct control systems. These control systems start out as multiple ganglions converging into a single structure. A structure that eventually will become the central nervous system.

Just like in the case of nerve tissue developing complex systems, societies develop a ruling group that will become more influential as the population increases. With more people comes the need for strong central authority. This is then reflected in the belief systems held by the society. Before the population explosion there was an anarchic-commune of individuals with equal purpose. There was also a general equality in their religious beliefs. But as the population increase and one group of humans becomes more influential over the others, so too does one group of deities become more influential.

This places even more power and influence in the hands of the governing body and often allows for a schism. A split between the classes that controls the daily functions within the community and the group that keeps track of the beliefs.
The governance side dictates what is to be done within the community and the clergy keeps up the superstitions and beliefs that have developed, often forming a belief system where the governing body is in place at the will of the deities, or even that the head of the governing body is a deity or otherwise connected to them in some way. By doing this, they solidify the governing bodies place in society as the head of society instead of just a managerial system. This symbiosis allows for both groups to raise in power.

This leaves us with a belief system that enforces the status quo, explains away natural phenomenons as well as keeping the people in line. Looking at it from this angle it seems completely natural for such a system to form. Therefore religion seems to be nothing more then an evolutionary process to allow for survival under new conditions.
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Thursday, May 6, 2010

American Academy of Pediatrics and female genital mutilation

I had read of this event first at PZ's blog then again saw it written about by the Skepchick Chelsea. I am disgusted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). This is not some exaggeration or hyperbole, I am truly disgusted, reviled, angered and quite a few other things. What has this group done to invoke such ire and contempt? They have established a loophole allowing pediatricians to perform female genital mutilation.

Recently, a piece of legislation has been put through the federal government. It is called The Girls’ Protection Act. This act makes it illegal for any person to take a child outside of the United States or any United States territory to have the act of female genital mutilation performed on a child. This was a major piece of legislation that will hopefully put a halt to the previous legal act of sending a child out of the country for a barbaric practice that can be seen as a form of sexual enslavement and torture.

What the AAP has done is essentially an act of defiance against this humanitarian legislation. Under this new loophole of theirs, they claim to allow for what they call a 'little nick'. When it comes to this kind of act, it does not matter how big or small the 'nick' is, it is the very fact that it is done. There is no ethical or medical reason for it to happen. It is entirly about the control and oppression of females. There is no benefit to the victim of this procedure. What the AAP has done is essentially to tell doctors that they do not need to follow the Hippocratic Oath when it comes to some backwards cultural concept. It tells doctors they can do harm as long as that harm makes some parents with everted, damaging and idiotic beliefs happy.

By creating this loophole the AAP has declared themselves hypocrites who would rather appease some barbaric ancient custom designed to keep females 'in line' then actually stand up for human rights. The AAP has violated the Hippocratic Oath, an act that is seen within the medical community as one of the most loathsome and detestable acts possible. It is seen within the medical field as grounds for the revoking of a doctor's medical license. So why does the AAP think that doing this was right? What makes them think that they now do not deserve legal retaliation, the very kind that any independent doctor would receive for such an act?

Do they believe in the idea of cultural relativism? That there is no right or wrong, just different morays put forth by different cultural establishments? If that were true, then the Hippocratic Oath would be meaningless. If all views, as long as they were held be enough people, were equally valid, then there would be no point in requiring doctors to swear to this doctrine and be held accountable if they violate it.

Then it must be that they are they just cow towing to certain cultural and religious beliefs*. The idea that certain concepts, no matter how horrible or vile they may be, should be allowed, for the sake of culture or religion is, to be blunt, idiotic. Any person who does so is not just being 'understanding' of a belief as they say, but actively allowing for an act that they would otherwise fight against.

By creating this loophole, any doctor who might be sympathetic to this 'tradition' can now perform it. It could even cause cases where a doctor who would otherwise not perform or wish to perform it, to be pressured by the parents under the concept of cultural relativism into performing it.

The AAP claims it is just a 'little nick' compared to the full procedure done in areas where female genital mutilation is acceptable. They claim it better to have just a small bit of damage done then the whole thing. This reasoning is moronic. It would be like arguing that if we allow just a little bit of rape, not the full thing, but just a smidgen of it, then it would satisfy the rapists and they wouldn't go through with the whole thing. Not only does it not work, not only is it stupid, but it still causes harm. There is no benefit here and none can be argued, because as I said, cultural relativism is just so much shite.

If the AAP really does want for this barbarism to be relinquished to the annals of history, then they should take a stand against it in its entirely. I can only hope that its members are vociferous enough to make it known that this loophole should be torn out and those who pushed for its creation adequately punished for their overstep.

*Yes, I am aware the act of female genital mutation is more cultural then religious. That as Islam spread over the area where this act took place, it merged with the culture perpetuating it. That no where in Islamic doctrine does it require for female genital mutilation, but that it is a cultural tradition that was enveloped and then spread alongside Islam. But the fact remains that the practice has grown alongside Islam long enough to become intertwined with it. That it is accepted under Islam and where ever it goes, the practice often follows. So while I acknowledge the fact that Islam does not require female genital mutilation and that the act is not even originally an Islamic practice, I do know that there is a link between the two. A link that has allowed the practice to spread with Islam, to become protected under Islam. To the point where many people who would not otherwise practice female genital mutilation do so because of some Islamic influence.
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