Tuesday, July 19, 2011

why we are all different (and not all religious)

epiphenom | So, on to the paper by Robert Rowthorn, which I see now has even been picked up by the Denver Post!

Just to explain a bit of the background. Rowthorn is an economist, and his paper is basically a model of what would would happen if you have a gene (strictly speaking [and for Bjørn's benefit], an allele) that predisposes for membership of a group, and if that group has high reproduction.

What he shows is that the gene spreads incredibly quickly - just 10 generations after it appears, 80% of the population have it. After 20 generations, 95% have it, and it keeps increasing until that figure reaches 100%.

Because the gene spreads, membership of the group increases. It starts off a little slower, and never quite reaches 100% (because even gene carriers can opt out in this model).

Since there is a gene for religion, and the religious (especially the ultra-conservatives) have more kids, you can easily see how this model directly relates to the real world.

And that, Dear Reader, is why 95% of the world's population are Orthodox Jews!

Oh. Alright there is clearly something wrong with the model, but that's OK. Models are usually wrong, and the fun part comes in trying to figure out why. And this model is particularly interesting because it touches on a number of popular misconceptions.

Some are specific to this model but there's also a much bigger issue underlying all this: just why is there so much variation in how religious people are, if (as some theorists will have you believe) religion is so beneficial?

But first, let's look at some specific problems with the assumptions in this model. First off, it isn't really a model of religion, despite the title of the paper. It's a model of conservatism.

Rowthorn starts from some basic assumptions. That global birthrates have fallen, but they have fallen more slowly among the most religious (and not at all among certain sects like Orthodox Jews and the Amish). That conservatism and religion are inextricably linked (and that they have a simple genetic basis). And that religion is inextricably linked to high birth rates.

A quick survey just of European history will quickly show that the last two assumptions don't hold. There have been countless examples of religious anti-conservative movements - the Protestant reformation is just the most obvious example, but there are numerous others, like the anti-slavery movement and the 12th century reformation.

Religion is invented by people, and religion can be radical and innovative - according to their needs.