Evolution: Theory or Evidence?

When it comes to evolutionary theories of the mind, I read this the other day that showed a welcome humility about what we know and what we don’t. From Anthony Gottlieb:

Today’s biologists tend to be cautious about labelling any trait an evolutionary adaptation—that is, one that spread through a population because it provided a reproductive advantage. It’s a concept that is easily abused, and often “invoked to resolve problems that do not exist,” the late George Williams, an influential evolutionary biologist, warned. When it comes to studying ourselves, though, such admonitions are hard to heed. So strong is the temptation to explain our minds by evolutionary “Just So Stories,” Stephen Jay Gould argued in 1978, that a lack of hard evidence for them is frequently overlooked (his may well have been the first pejorative use of Kipling’s term). Gould, a Harvard paleontologist and a popular-science writer, who died in 2002, was taking aim mainly at the rising ambitions of sociobiology. He had no argument with its work on bees, wasps, and ants, he said. But linking the behavior of humans to their evolutionary past was fraught with perils, not least because of the difficulty of disentangling culture and biology. Gould saw no prospect that sociobiology would achieve its grandest aim: a “reduction” of the human sciences to Darwinian theory.

This was no straw man. The previous year, Robert Trivers, a founder of the discipline, told Time that, “sooner or later, political science, law, economics, psychology, psychiatry, and anthropology will all be branches of sociobiology.” The sociobiologists believed that the concept of natural selection was a key that would unlock all the sciences of man, by revealing the evolutionary origins of behavior.

The dream has not died. “Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature” (Oxford), a new book by David Barash, a professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, inadvertently illustrates how just-so stories about humanity remain strikingly oversold. As Barash works through the common evolutionary speculations about our sexual behavior, mental abilities, religion, and art, he shows how far we still are from knowing how to talk about the evolution of the mind….

Going by what Barash has to say about religion, Darwinian thinking isn’t likely to transform our understanding of it anytime soon. We do not even know why we are relatively hairless or why we walk on two legs, so finding the origin of religious belief is a tall order. Undaunted, Barash explores various ways in which religion might have been advantageous for early man, or a consequence of some other advantageous trait. It might, for example, have been a by-product of our curiosity about the causes of natural phenomena, or of our desire for social connection. Or maybe religious beliefs and practices helped people coördinate with others and become less selfish, or less lonely and more fulfilled. Although he does not endorse any of these ideas—how could he, given that there’s no possible way to know after all this time?—Barash concludes that it is “highly likely” that religion owes its origin to natural selection. (He does not explain why; this conclusion seems to be an article of faith.) He also thinks that natural selection is probably responsible for religion’s “perseverance,” which suggests that his knowledge of the subject is a century out of date. Historians and social scientists have found quite a lot to say about why faith thrives in some places and periods but not in others—why, for the first time in human history, there are now hundreds of millions of unbelievers, and why religion is little more than vestigial in countries like Denmark and Sweden. It is hard to see what could be added to these accounts by evolutionary stories, even if they were known to be true.

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  • Larry Barber

    Why isn’t the existence of science ever ascribed to evolution?

  • Joe Canner

    I agree with most of what is said here, particularly as it relates to characteristics that are uniquely human, such as art and religion. I would question whether we need to be so agnostic about sexual behavior, given the strong physiological component and the fact that we can learn a lot about the evolution of sexual behavior from our animal cousins.

  • I appreciate this article, Scot. Thanks for posting it.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Larry (1) It is!
    Joe (2) Excellent point re sexual behaviour.


    Great post. We are animals, derived from related animals and fundamentally related to all living things, as we know them in material reality. So, finding the origins of ideas about God in our biology, and making this part of our anthropology should not be a big deal. Nor is a biological beginning to thinking about God in any way antithetical to the realization by human beings that God actually reveals himself to us – and continually, when we care to listen.

    Our reluctance, to think in terms of there being both material and spiritual realities, even our resistance to a God who comes close enough to reveal something of himself, are serious impediments.  Given no God, or a distant, stand-off God as a starting point, it’s little wonder that we have problems imagining a relational God in the sense that we relate to him, and, he also relates to us.

    The idea of God could begin with the evolution of the human mind and consciousness, then move to the rudimentary but essential monotheism, as revealed to ancient Israel, then on to subsequent classical renditions and now to very open, relational views. This is quite compatible with current ideas in evolutionary psychology. The difference is that an atheistic interpretation would ascribe it all to psychology while a Christian theistic interpretation would acknowledge the revelation of God to us, and the central role of the story of early Israel and early Christianity.

    Our humanity and our relationship with (ability to hear and understand) God are inseparably linked. It is very helpful to see this as due to an incomplete, but developing, creation of the new human in us. With the risen Lord as the evidence of this reality and as the goal which a loving God will ultimately achieve.

    Of course, a corollary of this kind of thinking is that our current ideas about God, whatever they may be, and our various interpretations of Scripture, undoubtedly have some psychological (personality) connections.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I appreciate biologists’ caution. I have always found these sorts of explanations as filling in something like the “god of the gaps” on the evolutionary side of things. To give reasons is like saying “We know what this was for or what it was intended for.” That strikes very close to speaking of purpose and design in ways that biologists ought not to do.
    Randy Gabrielse

  • NateW

    I have absolutely no problem saying that Religion could very well be a product of any of the factors he mentions. It’s entirely reasonable to me that there are physical and psychological benefits to communal belief that there is a deity watching out for the groups best interests.

    What is far less likely, I think, is that there is any sort of evolutionary benefit for a group of people committed to dying for their enemies.

  • Mike M

    I think, too, that we need an historical perspective on some of this. When E.O. Wilson first popularized sociobiology, he was hailed as a genius by autocratic right-wingers and denounced as a Fascist by liberals like Gould. Gould lived as, and remained on his deathbed, an ex-Jewish atheist. He realized the potential dangers of misapplying Wilson’s theories to “crowd control” and revolted against this, NOT evolution.
    So the same dangers still apply: will science be used for good or evil? Like C.S. Lewis and vivisection, perhaps our energies as Christians should be directed into this question instead.

  • Tom F.

    I think I tend to be with Gould. Even an atheistic reductionist like Dawkins doesn’t chalk EVERYTHING up to biological evolution. He thinks that cultural evolution is important too and his idea of “memes” is an (likely failed) attempt to understand evolution at a cultural level.

    Biological evolution still plays a role, but culture moves so quickly and can really be the determining factor in so many areas.

  • John Inglis

    A good illustration of the limits of promissory materialism. It continues to promise solutions, results and proofs, but does not deliver.

    If religion is not true (no spiritual reality, no god), but adaptive and hence evolutionarily successful, then why not the same assertion in relation to science and materialism? The bat swings both ways.

  • RJS

    John Inglis,

    If there is no spiritual reality, no god – then religion probably exists because it is adaptive and evolutionarily successful, although it could be a neutral tag along (neither helpful nor damaging).

    If there is no material reality – then science and “materialism” exists because it is adaptive and evolutionarily successful.

    Few of us doubt material reality – so science is accepted. I think the problem really comes from the idea that the success of a material view in explaining material properties eliminates the spiritual reality.

  • NateW

    Good point, RJS. We talk about whether or not God “exists” like he is an omnipotent ghostly Sasquatch or extraterrestrial. Some believe in him despite a lack of concrete evidence, some thing one has to be a nut to believe. If the conversation is about whether God “exists” in this manner then I’d have to agree with the latter group.

    We just have so much trouble wrapping our heads around a God who doesn’t “exist” but who simply “is.” When asked if I believe in God I’m never really sure how to answer. Does God “exist”? My most people’s conceptions of existence, no. But does that make Him any less real? No.

    I’m not sure how far we can take Darwinian theory, but I’m reasonably sure that humanity will perpetually grow in knowledge about physical and biological reasons that we are the way we are. I just think it’s shameful that the common Christian concept of “God” sets him up as one who acts, from the OUTSIDE, UPON this world rather than from WITHIN and in UNION with it.

  • NateW

    P.S. If the idea that God doesn’t exist but is still real seems crazy or heretical to anyone, I can’t recommend Peter Rollins’ “Insurrection” highly enough. Be warned: It is a book that must be read with “ears to hear”. If you approach it asking “do I agree with him?” you will find much to disagree with. But if you allow the desire to truly understand him guide your thoughts you will eventually find yourself knowing and serving a much more beautiful and glorious God! Actually, that’s probably the way we should read every book!