Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Do We Need Religion to Survive? Is That Even the Right Question?

Does religion help us survive? No more than moths thrive in flame, says Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins: I’m very often asked, "What is the Darwinian survival value of religion?" and I usually reply, "That may be the wrong question." You may have to rephrase the question and it may turn out to be not the survival value of religion but the survival value of something else in the brain, which manifests itself as religion under the right circumstances.

Now, a good analogy which I’ve used is the question: Why do moths fly into candle flames? Now, you could describe that behavior as suicidal behavior in moths, self-immolation behavior in moths, kamikaze behavior in moths. That would be one way of phrasing the question, but it’s the wrong question.

If you actually look at the way moth and insect eyes generally work, insects use celestial objects like the sun or the moon or the stars as compasses. It’s important, it’s valuable, there is survival value for any animal moving in a straight line. If an animal wants to move in a straight line, a very good way to do it is to keep a celestial object at a fixed angle, and that’s easy to do in insects because they have compound eyes, very unlike our eyes. Their eye is a whole sort of hemisphere of little tubes looking outwards, and so you can maintain a fixed angle to something like a star or the moon by keeping the moon in one ommatidium. If you do that, because rays from the moon come from optical infinity, they’re parallel, and so if you keep of the moon in one ommatidium you will fly in a straight line. It might be say 30 degrees; keep the moon at 30 degrees to your right. And that works, and that’s valuable, and that’s what many insects do.
However, candles are not at optical infinity, candles are close. The rays of light from a candle are therefore not parallel, they are radiating out. If you maintain a fixed angle of say 30 degrees to the rays that are emitted from a candle you will describe a neat logarithmic spiral into the candle flame and kill yourself.

So these moths are not killing themselves, it’s not suicidal behavior; it’s a misfiring of a natural, normal behavior, which before the invention of candles would have worked. And it still does work the vast majority of time because most of the time in the dark a moth is not subjected to artificial light. So ask the right question. The right question is not, 'What’s the survival value of a suicidal behavior in moths?' the right question is, 'What’s the survival value of maintaining a fixed angle to a celestial object?' and then it’s easy to come up with the right answer.
Proximate questions are questions which you answer with the physiology of the animal, the nervous system of the animal, and the hormones of the animal—things happen in the animal’s nervous system which cause it to do something. That’s the proximal answer. The ultimate question is, “What’s the survival value? What’s the benefit to the animal? What’s the benefit to the animal’s genes, in particular, to make it do that?”

An old teacher of mine at Oxford, J.R. Baker, used the example of breeding seasons in birds. Why do birds breed at certain times of year? The ultimate answer is: it’s beneficial to them to have breeding seasons because they produce chicks at the right time of year to cash in on the optimal food supply. That’s the ultimate answer. The proximate answer is that they breed at a certain time of year because day length is changing and their hormonal system, their nervous system is geared to day length and that’s the proximal reason why they breed at a certain time.

What is the Darwinian survival value of religion? That's not the right question, says Richard Dawkins. To find the right question, he relies on an evolutionary analogy: Why do moths fly into flames? It means instant death, so what's the evolutionary value of this kamikaze behavior? Dawkins delivers a crash course in proximate and ultimate causality, two very important distinctions in biology. Moths evolved to navigate using celestial objects as compasses. The moon and the stars emit parallel light, a very reliable and consistent beam, meaning a moth can fly in a straight line guided by that light. Candle light is an entirely different source that emits light in a spiral... leading straight to the hottest part of the flame. These moths aren't suicidal, says Dawkins, it's a misfiring of an evolutionary trait because of a modern technology in their environment. "The right question is not, 'What’s the survival value of a suicidal behavior in moths?'" he says, "The right question is, 'What is the survival value of having the kind of physiology which, under some circumstances, leads you to fly into a flames?'" There survival value of religious behavior may be at the genetic level, Dawkins suggests, and the proximate question in this case would be: what part of our brain does religion serve, and is religion really the only way that function is manifested? Richard Dawkins' new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.


Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
Keep reading Show less

Has science made religion useless?

Placing science and religion at opposite ends of the belief spectrum is to ignore their unique purposes.

Videos
  • Science and religion (fact versus faith) are often seen as two incongruous groups. When you consider the purpose of each and the questions that they seek to answer, the comparison becomes less black and white.
  • This video features religious scholars, a primatologist, a neuroendocrinologist, a comedian, and other brilliant minds considering, among other things, the evolutionary function that religion serves, the power of symbols, and the human need to learn, explore, and know the world around us so that it becomes a less scary place.
  • "I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it's not the whole story and there's a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy," says Francis Collins, American geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "But that harmony perspective doesn't get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict."

Signs of Covid-19 may be hidden in speech signals

Studying voice recordings of infected but asymptomatic people reveals potential indicators of Covid-19.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Coronavirus
It's often easy to tell when colleagues are struggling with a cold — they sound sick.
Keep reading Show less

Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Keep reading Show less

Supporting climate science increases skepticism of out-groups

A study finds people are more influenced by what the other party says than their own. What gives?

Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study has found evidence suggesting that conservative climate skepticism is driven by reactions to liberal support for science.
  • This was determined both by comparing polling data to records of cues given by leaders, and through a survey.
  • The findings could lead to new methods of influencing public opinion.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast