Natural Reflections Review, Part I

I just finished Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s wonderful book Natural Reflections: Human Cognition ad the Nexus of Science and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough.  One of the best parts is that it’s pretty short (~150 pages) and quite readable–way less dense compared to so much I’ve read in the social sciences.

Smith spends much time examining, and debunking, some recent efforts to explain religion/religious behavior entirely in terms of evolutionary psychology and genetics.  More strongly, natural sciences alone offer minimal explanatory power for religion in particular, and human culture and behavior more generally.  Our beliefs, attitudes, and cultural patterns depend intimately on context and cannot be traced solely to evolved cognitive processes.  As she says eloquently on p. 66:

In seeking to account for any complex behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon, a good starting assumption would be that it was the emergent outcome of multiple factors of various kinds, operating at many scales and levels, interacting over time.  The starting assumption of evolutionary psychology and “cognitive” approaches to religion, however, is that the best way to explain any behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon is by demonstrating that it is the outward effect of the activation of some underlying mental mechanism.  A methodological tradition of this sort puts a premium on ingenuity with respect to the hypothesizing of mental mechanisms and, by the same token, encourages negligence with respect to the investigation of possibly relevant environmental, experiential, and developmental factors.

Smith goes on to argue that these recent analyses of religion, dubbed the New Naturalists, have a very misguided view of what natural science offers.  In trying to construct a grand unified theory of religious behavior, they cherry pick data, distort the available empirical evidence and, in short, engage in some of the very same unscientific practices they accuse the religious of.

Smith does not use these observations as a cudgel with which to bash the New Naturalists (although I wish she had!).  Rather, she wishes to highlight that both science and religion are ultimately derived from a similar set of cognitive processes and functions, and there is much overlap between what we call science and what we call religion.

Another message that I found appealing was her insistence that natural science does not provide the only or even best  means with which to query religions.  There are “intellectual aims and purposes other than those associated with the natural sciences and, accordingly, of other marks and measures of intellectual value” (p. 143).  That is, while evolution and genetics are useful and illuminating, they do not tell us everything we want to know.  So-called interpretive approaches (history, sociology, cultural anthropology) also have a role.  On p. 111:

Although our general structures and modes of operations as biological creatures have been strongly shaped by selection pressures, not everything we do as particular persons involves the furthering of our own reproductive fitness or the perpetuation of our genes.  We may also remind ourselves that, as creatures who continue to develop throughout our lives, we are affected by particular experiences that shape our responses, purposes, judgments, and actions…no less significantly than our biological endowments.

In the end, this was a fascinating and eloquent read. I’ll have a big more along with a few minor complaints in a future post.  This has gone on long enough.


    1. You really should. It was great. On a different note…do you have any good fiction recommendations? I think I’m starting to go a little crazy with all this science policy/philosophy reading! I just read “Shadow of the Wind” by Zafon and absolutely loved it. I had forgotten how much fun a good novel can be.

  1. Yeah, I always like to mix it up between fiction and heavier topics. Well, I’ll recommend “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, though that’s a fairly unoriginal recommendation. “Solar” by Ian MacEwan. Anythingby Hans Fallada, but especially “Every Man Dies Alone”. I read “Shadow of the Wind” last year at my wife’s recommendation – I liked it, but she reads a lot more down that alley. She told me that both “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov and “The Dante Club” by Matthew Pearl have similarities to it in atmosphere. I read “The Master and Margarita” years ago but can’t really remember. I hope this gives you a few good suggestions.

    1. Thanks, this was very helpful. I was thinking about Franzen, but might try one of your other recommendations first. I read The Dante Club several years ago and agree it was similar to Zafon’s book. Will let you know what I think.

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