There’s been something of a trend among a certain subsection of evolutionary anthropologists to explain religion as the product of a gene. Not that there is any evidence of a religion gene, mind you. Heck, not that there’s any evidence that such a gene is possible! But if there was, you see, it could explain Methodists.
Reporters, who report on science about as well as they report on religion, love these stories. I came across one such article published by ABC News. Written by Ewen Callaway, it was originally published by New Scientist, which means it’s not as bad as some of these stories tend to end up. But it’s still bad. The headline, which is in no way backed up by the story, is “Religion Is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.” Here is the chunk about the software program constructed by James Down, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan:
To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.
The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.
The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people — those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.
Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.
“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.
Argh. The truth is that Dow, not a software model, suggests that “Religion Is a Product of Evolution.” He crafted a software model with the necessary assumptions to elicit the conclusion he’d already suggested. Way to just swallow the study hook, line and sinker, Callaway! There is just no way that a study this weak should receive media play. Assumptions underly the entire study — not evidence or facts. A computer simulation may be useful, but it is not a scientific fact. No experiments were performed, no data were collected.
If you assume the existence of a religion gene and then assume that gene has an advantage in the population, it does nothing to advance the debate about why religion exists to build a software program designed around those assumptions.
Check out that second-to-last paragraph. It shows that Dow just reworked the study until it came up with the answer he was looking for. The reporter should have been much more critical. Even if the reporter wanted to assume an evolutionary explanation for religion, a much more critical article could have been written. The irony that this software model — based on completely unproven assumptions — would be used by ABC News to denigrate religious belief is too much.
Stories like this don’t serve science or religion well.