Debate Magazine

Crying Babies & Religion

By Cris

You know things are going bad for evolutionary psychology when the field, and its methods, have become the subject of satire performed by scientists. The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAH!) is an annual competition that celebrates “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” Presentations are judged, in part, by how much “scientific” information is brought to bear on the hypothesis, data, and conclusion. In practice, this means that these post hoc evolutionary hypotheses must be supported by lots of citations, graphs, and most importantly, fancy maths and impressive statistics. These are of course the adornments that make things, like bullshit, look and sound scientific.

I was not aware of the BAH-Fest until the other day, when I happened across last year’s winning presentation by Tomer Ullman. He explains the adaptive advantage of crying babies in the theoretical context of group level selection:

While watching this brilliant bit of bullshit, I couldn’t help but think that crying babies and religion have much in common. To be more precise, I was thinking that “crying babies” function, in this BAH evolutionary argument, in much the same way that “religion” functions in similar kinds of adaptive arguments.

If Ullman had substituted “religion” for “crying babies,” his presentation would have been taken seriously, and passed scientific muster, by those who argue that religion is a group level evolutionary adaptation that fosters social solidarity. It should go without saying, but it won’t, that such solidarity is said to “promote loyalty” and “foster altruism,” which is just a polite (or “scientific”) way of saying that religion, like crying babies, makes for fanatical warriors and competitive success. If you don’t believe me, just look at the models and maths.

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