Saturday, 12 February 2011

OMG!

Some days ago I ran across this article on PhysOrg.com, usually a source of interesting and useful science related news. I guess I should have been more suspicious when I saw the title: "Model predicts 'religiosity gene' will dominate society". Still I read on. And then I reread. And then I actually went to the Proceedings of the Royal Society B web site to read the abstract for myself. Luckily for me (or not, depending on how you look at it), at the time the full text of the study was available, too. Not that I should have bothered. The abstract really tells it all...

So, what do we have here?
Well, the authors claim that they have modelled how genes for religiosity are destined to eventually become prevalent - and not just prevalent, but totally dominant - in humans. The actual genes that might influence one's propensity to succumb to religious mumbo-jumbo are not known yet, of course. The authors just presume that they must be in there somewhere, making people religious. This is actually not a problem, a lot of an organism's traits are obviously controlled by genes, even if exact ones are not pinpointed yet. So, so far so good. I am not at all opposed to the idea of susceptibility to religion being influenced by one's genetic make-up. After all, most, if not all, things are.

(Do please note I have said "influenced" not "determined". There is a difference and it is crucial.)

I urge you now to go off and read the abstract. Hopefully you will come back at least convinced that there is something fishy here. Obviously, I hope you will also see how the whole study, premise to conclusion is silly. If you did, then please feel free to stop reading now. I won't mind at all. I am not particularly keen on preaching to the converted.

OK, so you're back, or never did go away hoping I'll tell you all you need to know. If it's the latter, please do go and read the abstract (and the full text if you can access it). I'll wait until you're back...

Right, I guess we're all back now...

The authors start by stating the obvious - and correct - fact that religious people these days (and I might add, probably at any time in human history) have more children than atheists. Or, as authors put it: their secular counterparts. I am not entirely sure that theirs is a good label, but that's beside the point.

Next authors admit that their model is "simple". I've no problem with that, either. Simple models are usually the best. After all, we should all be wielding our Occam's razors with wild abandon.

And then, the bombshell. I will quote it here in its entirety, because it's the most important, and most misguided part of this whole sorry affair:
"[the model] assumes that fertility is determined entirely by culture, whereas subjective predisposition towards religion is influenced by genetic endowment."
I mean, we really should not have to talk about this further. If we were in, I don't know, early 70s when the dilemma of nature versus nurture still attracted people who thought it's either one or the other, but never both, then the authors might have a leg to stand on. But today, in the 21st century, it should be clear that at the very least the consensus is that it's always a mix of nature and nurture, the genes and the environment that will influence the phenotype. One doesn't even have to be an expert in the field, nor a devotee of Richard Dawkins or even evolutionary psychology.

And even if this particular debate were not settled, if it the nature versus nurture war was at its fieriest, to pit pure nurture (fertility) versus pure nature (genes) would have been a faux pas. And a very big one at that. I am truly amazed - shocked! - that the Royal Society has deemed the paper worthy of publication.

After this, it becomes completely irrelevant what kind of model was employed and what other assumptions were made. Unfortunately, I have forgotten the details since I read the full text, but believe me there was nothing there that would qualify as good science. How could there be when the very question asked and the basic assumptions are bordering on silly, let alone being wrong. From what can be found in the abstract, and especially if we give authors and their "fertility is determined entirely by culture" assumption a benefit of a doubt, then one thing that authors seem to overlook (on purpose?) is that most modern developed societies are becoming increasingly non-religious, and even the religious within them tend to have less and less children (even the ones whose religion forbids contraception even when it saves lives - yes Catholics, I'm looking at you). It may be the case that in poor countries both religion and fertility are raging, but it has always been clear that both tone down with economic prosperity.

But, let me reiterate, with the basic premise as quoted above, there is no reason at all to look further into the study itself - even if I wasted my time to do exactly that, mainly so that I cannot be accused of criticising something based on a web site post and an abstract. How I wish I could have my time back now. It truly was almost physically painful to read through some of the worst "science" I have ever had the misfortune of reading. And actually, I am sure I would have felt the same - and probably even more betrayed on top of everything - if I read the paper as someone who does have a religion. The paper truly qualifies for the well worn out: with friends like these, who need enemies?

So, now, I've had enough of kicking puppies. Please try better next time, OK?