On the Evolutionary Origins of Religion

Is religion a parasitic meme or is it a cultural adaptation?

The divide on the question of the naturalistic origins of religion is between the adaptationists and the by-product theorists. The adaptationists are led by David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Haidt, while Daniel Dennett is the major proponent of the religion-as-a-by-product hypothesis. In this post, I outline the issue briefly and mention some implications of these ideas.

The application of evolutionary theory to the humanities is one of the more controversial areas of science. The field of evolutionary psychology has been around for more than three decades now, since Edward O. Wilson published his revolutionary book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. The idea that evolutionary history could have shaped the behavioral tendencies of individuals and groups has become accepted in animal behavior research circles. From the many experimental systems studied, empirical data has been garnered, confirming or rejecting specific hypotheses.

The controversy arises in the application of these same studies to human subjects, in order to explain human group behaviors. The reason why the data obtained from studying less-cognizant social animals cannot be applied to humans, is the importance of human culture in our social organization- a fact that renders models of human social evolution unexplainable if you take into account biological evolution alone. Despite this limitation, sociobiology remains a powerful tool for studying the evolution of these cultural beliefs that organize society- beliefs such as religion.

According to David Wilson, religion is the result of an adaptive selection process that primed humanity to be able to form intelligent levels of higher organization. In order to drive this point home, Wilson, in his book Darwin’s Cathedral, talks about two kinds of reality- factual reality and adaptive reality. Factual reality is concerned with cold hard facts that are descriptive of the nature of things as they are. Adaptive reality is concerned with beliefs. Wilson argues that since adaptation is the key to survival and well-being of a species, beliefs that increase the fitness of human groups constitute an adaptive reality.

Wilson then goes on to argue that beliefs that are likely to increase fitness of the groups as a whole are good, whether they are false beliefs or even dangerous to individuals within their communities. He concludes that since religion is very likely an essential factor for the continued survival of humans, we should not attempt to force out its influence over society.

Dennett's hypothesis, which he lays out in Breaking the Spell, is that religion is a by-product of other necessary behavioral tendencies. He surmises that religion is like a parasite that co-evolves with the host, may have been useful at some point in its evolutionary history, but can be dangerous to the host itself.

To make sense of all of this, let me start by laying out clearly two of the central questions:

1. Is religion really adaptive or is it a by-product of our physiological evolution?
2. Are the implications of the answer to the above question a science issue or a values issue?

The first question is an empirical one. There are a few studies that have been done in this area, but most of them have studied correlations between the degree of religiosity in a population and the various social-health factors such as economic stability and healthcare. Wilson draws heavily on these studies in supporting his thesis. The fact is that as far as human sociobiology is concerned, experimental evidence is lacking.

It is hard to find actual empirical evidence to support either position but it’s easy to formulate theories and weigh the observational evidence for and against them. This analysis shows that the adaptation Vs by-product debate is itself a false dichotomy. There is no reason why these two principles cannot be mutually compatible. To be precise, the tendency for supernatural beliefs may be both the by-product of our brain development from primitive humans, as well as socially adaptive in maintaining and maximizing cohesion between members of society.

The ability to develop beliefs is an integral part of the evolution of intelligence. This is because we form abstract concepts in our brains in order to describe the reality around us. It is easy to see how we could have formed beliefs that ascribed the workings of nature to a supernatural source. It is also possible that once these beliefs were formed, there could have been selective pressure to evolve a reinforcement of this tendency towards supernaturalism, in order to conform to social rules that may have increased fitness.

This is becoming an active area of research and many questions are to waiting to be answered when the research results are in. It may well turn out that religion is indeed a parasitic belief system that does not confer any adaptive benefits to its hosts in modern times that can’t be gained by purely naturalistic belief systems. Conversely, it may be that some fundamental part of our social structure requires religious beliefs to exist and proliferate. Most likely, religion operates on both levels.

Now, the second question. Wilson claims to present a wholly scientific idea, and indeed his transition from science to policy is so smooth that the break is almost imperceptible. The evol
utionary biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigluicci recently chided Wilson for making the naturalistic fallacy, albeit in a different context. Simply put, this is the idea that one goes from making factual statements about the world (the realm of science) to making value statements, but still claiming objective validity. If Wilson had acknowledged this shift from the descriptive to the normative, the argument would be different. He does not. Wilson is disingenuous in claiming that his proposition is objective and based on a standard model, having defined the conditions for the standard model as requiring a highly adaptive species. In clinging to his wish for an objective morality, Wilson not only makes the naturalistic fallacy, but also settles for a moral system that is less desirable. This is to say, a subjective philosophy that takes into consideration scientific fact is at a better position to make value judgments about reducing suffering, than an attempted objective morality that proclaims the laws of nature as the moral guide to our actions. The latter can be a slippery slope to Social Darwinism.

Dennett more explicitly separates the science of the evolutionary origins of behavior from the moral idea of utilitarian values, while still letting his morality be informed by the science. Putting aside the objective statements about religion and behavior, we are left with personal but well-informed subjective moral values. From his philosophical perspective, Dennett argues that Wilson's position implies that dishonesty should become the scientific position, in the name of fitness. Such a society, even if Wilson's thesis is true, would not necessarily be worth striving for. In any case, there is so little evidence to support Wilson's position on the negative effects of removing society’s blinders and exposing naturalism to a popular audience, that it is not reasonable to suggest any kind of policy decisions based on it.

We have, for ages, been misguided by religion in some areas of our understanding of reality. Science, however, is much more guided and controlled a system of inquiry to observe nature and study its laws. The conflict between these two ways of looking at reality has much significance for the future of our species. In any case, I sincerely hope that the continued state of ignorance that most organized religions provide is not a fundamental requirement for the survival of humankind. I do believe that it’s not a fundamental requirement in order for me to live a moral and happy life. This debate is far from over.

This article first appeared here

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Comment by Ajita Kamal on January 11, 2009 at 3:28am
Thanks Michael! Its nice to be appreciated :)
Comment by Ajita Kamal on October 27, 2008 at 12:34am
Hi Lone wolf. Your concept of how religion came to be is likely correct for the most part. It is an idea shared by most atheists I have met. I think we all have some version of this understanding.

The scientists here are trying to approach the subject scientifically by analyzing the evolutionary reasons for the evolution of religion. This is the actual question of why religion evolved, from a deterministic point of view. What's really cool is that this research will provide more insight into the nature of religion than all the centuries of pouring over scholarly books in the monasteries and ashrams. It is an exciting time to be around, for sure!
Comment by Lone Wolf on October 26, 2008 at 10:56pm
I think the origins of religion are quite simple. Imagine you a man living thousands of years ago with no knowledge of any of the modern scientific knowledge. You have question "Where did we come from?" "How does the Sun move across the sky?" "Why did that earth quake happen?" "Why did that plague come through and kill my family?" With out the answers we have now they made up gods and spirits. From there it developed from explanation to social control and through religious politics ("my god is better than your god" "no my god is better than your god" "your god is not real only my god is real") we get monotheism and though cults that grew and became religions we get Christianity and Islam.
Well its my opinion at least and it seems most probable to me but I'm just one man.



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