Saturday, June 16, 2012

Those who help themselves

There was another strand to the conversation I had with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow the other day that bears consideration.  Namely, the subject of what services churches offered came up.  Connie mentioned that many liberal churches she's visited or been a part of over the years focused extensively on "doing good in the world" and this was translated into multitudes of community services such as soup kitchens or after school programs for troubled  youth.

While this is admirable work and many of these churches really do make a positive difference in people's lives, it does have some rather unfortunate consequences that, while not inevitable, are nevertheless common.  In particular, members are asked to volunteer considerable time and resources to supporting these causes, something regarded by many as a serious strain on their already busy lives.  More importantly, though, they are being asked to expend these resources largely helping people who are not part of their religious community.

Now, this is where things get really interesting.  Before I started studying religious groups I had a very cynical view of the charity work done by churches.  I felt that it was all done primarily as a means of recruiting new believers.  I thought that food, shelter and clothing was being denied to people unless they were willing to subject themselves at the very least to prayer and a sermon.  What I've come to appreciate in my field work, though, is that most churches don't seem to operate this way.  They usually open their doors to everyone and many assiduously avoid even the appearance that their community support is contingent upon acceptance of their world view.

This acknowledgment has softened my cynicism considerably, but it has also given it a new focus.  Namely, interviews with informants over the years have made it clear that while many in these liberal churches are happy to throw bread to the huddled masses outside their doors, they're rather uncomfortable inviting these people into the sanctuary for worship.  What appears on the surface to be an admirable statement of altruism is in effect a line drawn in the sand and those who try to transgress this boundary create a troubling sense of cognitive dissonance for members of the community.  They know all too well that the sign in front of the church says that all are welcome.  But in reality they aren't well prepared for the all that might come through their doors and they don't really want to be face to face with that all on a pleasant Sunday morning when they would rather catch up with friends and family over coffee and donuts.

But now we're back to the central problem, and it's really a problem of sustainability.  If we were to look at this through the lens of Elinor Ostrom's design principles, then these congregations are doing a good job of clearly delineating their boundaries, which, however hypocritical it may seem to be is nevertheless necessary to sustainably manage resources.  Yet they are using these resources not to help themselves but to help others.  The in group is bleeding itself for the sake of the out group.  It doesn't take evolutionary thinking or exposure to Lin Ostrom's scholarship to realize that this state of affairs is not sustainable in the long term except perhaps for those few congregations blessed with an excess of members who are existentially secure with lots of time to spare.

Contrast all of this with more conservative churches, particularly those of the Pentecostal persuasion.  Many of these churches also support soup kitchens and after school programs and the like.  However, they are far less squeamish about using these events to proselytize.  As such, they aren't drawing as distinct a boundary between "them" and "us" since their hope is that the "they" will become part of the "we."  Perhaps even more importantly, though, these churches typically offer a huge number of services to help their members as well as non members in the broader community.  On the one hand, it seems as though a Pentecostal congregation places extra burdens on its members with an expectation that they come to church three or four times a week.  However, congregants are typically getting valuable services for their trouble.  Rather than having to find a baby sitter to watch the kids while they go to teach remedial reading skills in an after school program, parents at an Assemblies of God will more likely drop their kids off at the church daycare while they attend seminars on financial planning, good parenting, or marriage counseling.  Is it any wonder, then, that they are often able to muster more resources and engage higher levels of commitment than many mainstream Protestant churches?  By seeing to the down to earth, practical needs of their members in ways that can help to relieve some of the stresses of modern life they concomitantly increase the ability of those same members to reach out and help those in the wider community, efforts that are unabashedly couched in terms of church growth.

It strikes me that this would be a relatively easy process to study and one we should add to our never diminishing project lists since it leads to a rather simple prediction.  Namely, the higher the proportion of in group vs. out group services a church offers, the better it should do in terms of growth and retention of members as well as its ability to engage volunteerism.  Conversely, the higher the proportion of out group vs. in group services a church offers, the worse it should do in all those same dimensions.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Architecture as a means of cultural canalization?

Part of being a student of David Sloan Wilson means meeting some very interesting characters.  Among some of the more interesting I've come across are Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd.  Connie is a science writer and an atheist who has been heavily involved with the Unitarian Universalist movement over the years.  Michael is a former Evangelical minister and author of Thank God for Evolution.  Together they serve as modern day itinerant preachers for an evolutionary, yet nevertheless highly spiritual, world view.  Or perhaps to put it in George Levine's terms, they advocate for a strongly enchanted evolutionary world view.  I met them once a few years ago when they gave a presentation at a local church, but didn't get the chance to talk with them in any depth.   Luckily, I had the opportunity yesterday when Connie and Michael stopped by the office for a visit to remedy that missed opportunity.

As part of the conversation yesterday, David and I explained our working conception of tight vs. loose groups and how these categories related to tolerance for within group variation.  This came on the heels of a discussion about David's desire to create an historical database of Binghamton area churches.  Connie put these two streams of conversation together to make a very interesting observation.  Namely, she said that congregations associated with old, beautiful church buildings tend to have members running the gamut from religious conservatives to agnostics.  As such, we might be inclined to think of them as generally "loose" congregations.  However, it is often the case that this variation remains largely buried beneath the surface, protected by a series of often unspoken taboos surrounding subjects that members tend to avoid talking about.

I find this observation fascinating on a number of different levels.  At the most basic, it represents a looseness in beliefs accompanied by a tightness in behaviors that we haven't accounted for or even thought about in any of our models.  More importantly, though, it brings together many different strands of my recent thinking that I feared were in danger of unraveling.  I have been so caught up in recent months with practical issues surrounding empirical work that I have had a growing anxiety that I have been losing sight of my broader theoretical questions about cultural robustness and evolvability.  It is important to have moments where you can step back, if even for a moment of clarity, to see how those endeavors are supporting one another.

I'm still mulling all of this over, but a starting point for synthesis comes from Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity:

The simple fact of the continued existence of the 1,000-year-old cathedral, for instance, does more than speak of the endurance of a liturgical order and its relationship to a place and a group.  It demonstrates it.  Even a new cathedral build to a traditional plan demonstrates the endurance of the plan, and thus the order specifying it, and so does the manipulation of sacra which are either themselves ancient or which conform to ancient patterns. (location 2251)

Rappaport here is not discussing cultural robustness directly.  Rather, he is discussing the roles of material objects in ritual.  Nevertheless, I think he is hitting on something important to my own interests, something that accounts in part for Connie's observation.

Traditionally, churches have been built along certain plans that evoke the sense of endurance and timelessness that Rappaport illuminates here.  This becomes an important part of the church liturgy, a concrete (and very expensive) statement that the social order represented by the church is unchanging, that its correctness and morality are something outside of time.  This is fine as far as it goes.  However, the fact is that society does change over time and the "facts" deeply embedded within the architectural bones of the church at some point begin to become counterfactuals in the minds of those who have attached themselves in one form or another to that structure.

Yet, as Rappaport so convincingly argues, rituals, and the physical structures that support them, are so powerful in part because they remove ambiguity.  Either someone participates in a ritual or does not.  Either they become a man or woman by virtue of completing a rite of passage or they do not.  Either they have agreed to support a family in their war efforts through dancing around the fire or they have not.  But Connie's observation points to a flaw in Rappaport's argument.  Yes, an ostentatious cathedral enforces the idea that a church's rituals and, hence, ideals are eternal.  However, it does not necessarily communicate exactly what those ideals are.  If these are not made explicit in other ways then individuals are likely to define these idiosyncratically and a high degree of variation in beliefs is likely to accumulate.  That these differences in belief do not necessarily lead to changes in liturgical practices suggests that beautiful, old churches can act as components of cultural canalization.  They become physical means by which underlying variation is, if not suppressed, then at least subsumed in a way that allows the outward appearance of the church, its phenotype if you will, to remain unchanged.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Substrate Neutral Inheritance Systems

My preoccupation with cultural robustness and evolvability has naturally caused me to think frequently about the problem of cultural inheritance.  If we take a broad definition of culture to be non-genetic, non-epigenetic information that is socially transmitted, then culture becomes a Darwin machine like any other. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Darwin machine is any iterative process in which heritable variation is generated and subsequently undergoes some sort of selection.  The components necessary for creating a Darwin machine, then, are variation, selection and inheritance.

Note that this formulation is substrate neutral.  In other words, it does not depend on what the media of variation, selection and inheritance are.  Although the specific details will change, the same general logic applies whether we are talking about genetic systems, certain kinds of evolutionarily inspired computer algorithms or, presumably, culture.  This makes the notion of a Darwin machine potentially quite powerful in its ability to describe and understand many different kinds of systems from within a common framework.  Unfortunately, though, there remains much work to do in order to realize this potential.  In particular, to become more broadly applicable the individual components that make up Darwin machines must also be framed in substrate neutral terms.

To take but one of the necessary ingredients into consideration, how could inheritance systems be framed in substrate neutral terms?  To begin to imagine this I think it makes sense to start by considering the necessary components that make up the system we understand best, the genetic inheritance system.  So thoroughly studied has this system been that a central dogma has arisen around it that describes the flow of information within cells.  This flow begins with information storage in the form of DNA.  Almost every cell within a body contains a complete copy of all the genes necessary to build and maintain the organism.     However, not every gene is expressed at every moment.  Indeed, timing is critical for many cellular processes and so cells have evolved mechanisms to determine which genes should be turned on and off at specific times in response to environmental signals.  Once a gene is turned on, it is transcribed into an RNA intermediate which is, most often, translated into a protein product that performs some important function for the cell, be it structural, regulatory or metabolic.

At some level, carving this system up into essential components is a bit arbitrary.  Nevertheless, I think some general themes do emerge.  For instance, it seems an important component is some kind of information storage system.  Obviously, for inheritance to occur there must be some way of transmitting this information to new entities.  At the same time, there needs to be an information retrieval system and a crucial part of this information retrieval system would seem to be way of "reading" the environment to "know" what information is required and when it is needed.

Are these the minimal necessary components?  Would they be sufficient to establish an inheritance system?  Are all of them needed?  Are there other components missing from this list?  I would very much like to see more discussion along these lines and I welcome any insights others might have.

I recently had someone tell me that there was no need for new, substrate neutral terms.  He felt that genetic inheritance provided a sufficiently broad framework and that it could easily be expanded to accommodate other kinds of systems.  I think this is a mistake for at least two reasons.  First, I worry that using genetic terminology predisposes researchers to only look for the familiar.  While there are undoubtedly similarities in cultural and genetic inheritance systems, there are just as assuredly significant differences as well.  Foregrounding future work with genetically laden conceptual frameworks makes it likely that at least some of these differences could be completely overlooked.

Second, I believe that taking a step back to look at inheritance from a substrate neutral perspective produces new questions and opens space in which to explore them.  For instance, if it is true that an inheritance system needs some form of information storage then an obvious difference between genetic and cultural evolution is that the former contains information in a relatively concentrated from while the latter uses a distributed system.  This observation leads naturally to the question of how concentrated vs. distributed systems might respond differently to natural selection.  It similarly leads to questions about how information retrieval is achieved in a distributed system in a way that allows entities to respond adaptively to their environment.  I don't feel these same kinds of questions emerge as naturally when using analogical reasoning to expand a genetic framework.