Saturday, July 03, 2004

The Ghost in the Machine

Many years ago I used to do a little cloning (yes, the DNA kind, but only with tiny bacteria). I would take two circular pieces of DNA (called plasmids) and use special enzymes to cut them. I'd cut one in one place -- creating a string of DNA, and the other in two places, creating two little strings of DNA. I'd then mix them all together, and because of special details around what the cut ends look like, I would be able to insert one slice of DNA into the other and then turn it back into a circle, but now the circle would have something new in it.

But sometimes the new circle (plasmid) would have other stuff in it two. Sometimes the two ends would just stick back together, or multiple pieces of the new DNA would insert themselves, or the two small strings might join back up, or they might form two plasmids themselves. The point is that instead of ending up with a tube of just the plasmid you desired, you'd end up with a tube of mostly the plasmid you desired, and then some other stuff. We referred to this other stuff as "artifacts" because they were there, they were a neccessary part of the experiment, but they were really only present by accident. I don't know of a good way to express "neccessary, inevitable, AND accidental" when refering to the by-product of some other process or system, so I use the word "artifact".

This is just a long winded way to setting some context for this fascinating article looking at religion and the brain. Much like Pinker's The Blank Slate it discusses how advanced in neuroscience demonstrate what religios beleif actually is, how that is distinct from what we think religios beleif is, and how religious beleif is an artifact of the way our brains are wired to process social relationships.

Our brains evolved in an environment very different from the one we live in today, so it's not surprising that our instinctive preference for personal exchange makes us hostile towards the efficiency maximizing impersonal exchange delivered (and protected) by market economies. Similarly, it seems that the same neural mechanisms that enable us to monitor personal exchanges and relationships might also have created the "god" artifact, and hence religion.

It's not clear to me what one does with this sort of knowledge. So, even if people's natural revulsion to Economics comes from a brain structure shaped by Neolithic pressures (or whatever) it still doesn't change the fact that they are revolted.


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