The evolution of religion: Why belief systems are literally false and metaphorically true

Where do your beliefs come from? It turns out evolution is behind every religion in the world.

Bret Weinstein: We have minds that are programmed by culture that can be completely at odds with our genomes. And it leads to misunderstandings of evolution, like the idea that religious belief is a mind virus, that effectively these beliefs structures are parasitizing human beings and they are wasting the time and effort that those human beings are spending on that endeavor rather than the more reasonable interpretation, which is that these belief systems have flourished because they have facilitated the interests of the creatures involved. 

Our belief systems are built around evolutionary success and they certainly contain human benevolence, which is appropriate to phases of history when there is abundance and people can afford to be good to each other. The problem is if you have grown up in a period in which abundance has been the standard state you don’t anticipate the way people change in the face of austerity. And so what we are currently seeing is messages that we have all agreed are unacceptable reemerging because the signals that we have reached the end of the boom times, those signals are everywhere, and so people are triggered to move into a phase that they don’t even know that they have.

Despite the fact that human beings think that they have escaped the evolutionary paradigm they’ve done nothing of the kind, and so we should expect the belief systems that people hold to mirror the evolutionary interests that people have rather than to match our best instincts—when we are capable of being good to each other because there’s abundance, we have those instincts and so it’s not incorrect to say that human beings are capable of being marvelous creatures and being quite ethical. 

Now I would argue there’s a simple way of reconciling the correct understanding that religious belief often describes truths that, in many cases, fly in the face of what we can understand scientifically, with the idea that these beliefs are adaptive. I call it the state of being literally false and metaphorically true. A belief is literally false and metaphorically true if it is not factual but if behaving as if it were factual results in an enhancement of one’s fitness. To take an example, if one behaves in let’s say the Christian tradition in such a way as to gain access to heaven one will not actually find themselves at the pearly gates being welcomed in, but one does tend to place their descendants in a good position with respect to the community that those descendants continue to live in. So if we were to think evolutionarily, the person who is behaving so as to get into heaven has genetic interests. Those genetic interests are represented in the narrow sense by their immediate descendants and close relatives, in the larger sense they may be represented by the entire population of people from whom that individual came, and by acting so as to get into heaven, the fitness of that person, the number of copies of those genes that continue to flourish in the aftermath of that person’s death will go up. So the belief in heaven is literally false—there is no such place—but it is metaphorically true in the sense that it results in an increase in fitness.

Where do your beliefs come from? There's a school of thought that sees religion as a mind virus that wastes the time and effort of human beings, but evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein offers a more reasonable explanation: "belief systems have flourished because they have facilitated the interests of the creatures involved," he says. Religious people are evolutionarily fitter than non-believers, not because they are protected by a deity but rather because religion is a form of adaptive evolution. Religion is so widespread because it has massive survival advantages beneath the supernatural elements—that's what Weinstein refers to as "literally false and metaphorically true". For example, believing in heaven is literally false—there is no such place—but believing in it keeps your descendants in good standing in the religious community after you're gone, thus setting your lineage up to continue. The thought itself may be untrue, but the result of the thought is evolutionarily effective. "Despite the fact that human beings think that they have escaped the evolutionary paradigm, they’ve done nothing of the kind, and so we should expect the belief systems that people hold to mirror the evolutionary interests that people have," Weinstein says. For more from Bret Weinstein, visit bretweinstein.net.

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  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
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First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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