Biology Magazine

Pleasing Theories & Reality

By Cris

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been getting the uneasy feeling that evolutionary models of what we today call “religion” aren’t really bringing us all that much closer to actually explaining the complexities of the phenomena under consideration. This is not to say that evolutionary approaches aren’t appropriate because they certainly are. It is to say that simply fitting cognitive and historical data relevant to “religion” into an evolutionary framework doesn’t necessarily validate the new models.

In fact, I’m start to suspect that much recent evolutionary theorizing about religion isn’t all that new. Much of what is being argued has been said before (by David Hume, Charles Darwin, Edward Burnett Tylor, James George Frazer, RR Marett, Emile Durkheim, etc.), with the only difference being that what was said before wasn’t dressed up in neo-evolutionary language and fitted in bio-cultural evolutionary models.

It was with this creeping uneasiness in mind that I just read Ashutosh Jogalekar’s provocative post on theories, models, and the future of science. Although he frames his discussion around physics and cosmology, I don’t see human thought and behavior as being any less complex. His ideas, in other words, apply equally well to evolutionary theories of religion:

Maybe someday a comprehensive theory will be found, but given the complexity of what we are trying to achieve (essentially explain the nature of all the matter and energy in the universe) it seems likely that we may always be stuck with models, not actual theories. And this may be the case not just with cosmology but with other sciences. The fact is that the kinds of phenomena that science has been dealing with recently have been multifactorial, complex and emergent. The kind of mechanical, reductionist approaches that worked so well for atomic physics and molecular biology may turn out to be too impoverished for taking these phenomena apart.

[A]s the statistician George Box famously quipped, although some models are useful, all models are in some sense wrong. What Box meant was that models often feature unrealistic assumptions about the details of a system, and yet allow us to reproduce the essential features of reality. They are subject to fudge factors and to the whims of their creators.

Grand explanatory theories have traditionally been supposed to be a key part — probably the key part — of the scientific enterprise. But this is mostly because of historical precedent as well a psychological urge for seeking elegance and unification. The belief that a grand theory is essential for the true development of a discipline has been resoundingly validated in the past but it’s utility may well have plateaued. I am not advocating some “end of science” scenario here – far from it – but as the recent history of string theory and theoretical physics in general demonstrates, even the most mathematically elegant and psychologically pleasing theories may have scant connection to reality. Because of the sheer scale and complexity of what we are trying to currently explain, we may have hit a roadblock in the application of the largely reductionist traditional scientific thinking which has served us so well for half a millennium.

Similar to Jogalekar, I am not suggesting an end of naturalism scenario for evolutionary theorizing about religion. I am suggesting, however, that evolutionary models are oversimplifying things to a considerable degree, and are failing to capture an important part of the messy, lived, experiential, contingent, and constructed realities of religious history.

Pleasing Theories & Reality

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