Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?

Connor Wood

The pond-skater

Welcome back! This is the third installation of my series on religion and group-level evolution. Last time, we left off with the raging debates between scientists who champion kin selection and those who swear by group selection. Group selection is the idea that cooperative behaviors – like caring for others’ offspring or loudly warning neighbors about predators – evolved by competition between groups. By contrast, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, insists that altruistic behaviors evolve strictly to benefit relatives. For example, when a mother babysits her sister’s child, she may seem generous and giving, but she’s actually being genetically selfish – peer through the illuminating lens of inclusive fitness theory, and you’ll find that she’s just caring for a little package of copies of her own genes.  [Read more...]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

[Read more...]

Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [Read more...]

Sex, the cuddle chemical, and religion

Kate Stockly-Myerdirk

Mother and Baby

Last week, Connor wrote about sex differences here. I happen to research one specific instance of sex difference: the fact that women tend to be more religious than men. Social scientists have come up with all sorts of unsatisfying theories for why this could be. Is it because women are socialized to be more submissive, gentle, and expressive, which are (apparently) religious values? Is it because church life is an extension of home and family life, in which women (apparently) are more involved? Or perhaps it’s because “God” is a father figure, so men fear him, whereas women are attracted to him? Personally, I’m not convinced by any of these theories. But the question deserves real attention. [Read more...]

The Sam Harris backlash: is sex real?

Connor Wood

Male/female

I’m working on a non-blog-related research project this week, and don’t have time for researching a new blog-post-article-thing. So let me quickly make everybody angry by weighing in about the debate surrounding atheist spokesman Sam Harris’s supposed sexism. The question I think we should focus on is not whether Sam Harris is a horrible sexist person for suggesting that his brand of atheism might be intrinsically more attractive to men than to women. Instead, I want to raise the question of whether sex differences exist in an objective sense – that is, beyond the obvious distinctions between male and female “sexy bits.”* [Read more...]

How do we make meaning of evolution? By admitting its uncomfortable truths.

DarwinHere on planet Earth, around 3.5 billion years ago, a profound miracle happened. Somehow, organic molecules began contorting themselves into self-replicating shapes. Over the ensuing eons, further miracles occurred: simple cells became complex, melding different lineages of DNA to forge the eukaryotes, of which you and I are both members. Water-dwelling animals morphed slowly into creatures with lungs, and the capacity to breathe air. Different species developed entwined, symbiotic relationships with each other – insects pollinating flowers, flowers feeding insects. But none of these miracles were miracles in the classic sense. Aside from that first eruption of living cells out of lifeless carbon, each of these developments proceeded out of Darwinian processes, under evolutionary law. The two-million-dollar question is: what does this mean for who we are? [Read more...]

Why do religions tell impossible tales? A testable hypothesis

Connor Wood

Woman opening world

Einstein was probably the most quotable scientist who ever coined a phrase. Even people who couldn’t tell special relativity from Scooby-Doo have heard the famous quote that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But does this sentiment apply universally, without limits? Is it really better to conjure up fantasy worlds than to know, concretely and factually, how to build wind turbines or computer mainframes? Well, sometimes it might be. I think that when we fall victim to excessively rigid, causally determined stories we’ve told ourselves about the world, a glimpse of fantasy might be just what we need to slip free of our ideas about what’s possible – allowing us to stumble on new solutions to problems. [Read more...]

Is science more “unnatural” than religion?

Connor Wood

Young female student

Robert McCauley, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Emory University, thinks that religion is natural, but science isn’t. Such a claim could easily inspire all manner of outrage and uproar from both offended believers and irked scientists alike. But what McCauley means, as he outlined in a recent book – titled, aptly, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not – is that religious beliefs arise from our basic, evolved cognitive predispositions and biases, while science is only possible when we struggle hard to overcome those biases. So is there any truth to his claim? Is religion just what human minds do when they’re being lazy? [Read more...]

Is religion anthropomorphism?

Connor Wood

Emperor Moth

The verdict is in: we are our brains, roughly speaking. That is, according to modern neuroscience and cognitive science, our personalities, dreams, and experiences are all products of intensely complex interactions of the neurons in our craniums. You can disagree or agree with this claim, but nearly all experts who study the brain and mind are convinced of it. When it comes to things spiritual, the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is a field that tries to understand religious beliefs from within this naturalistic framework. And recently, one of the founding thinkers in CSR outlined a central claim in the field: religion is essentially about anthropomorphism, or the tendency for our brains to see persons in the world around us.

[Read more...]

Supernatural agents influence our social strategies

Ian Cooley

We’ve all had the experience of being spooked at some point in our lives. Maybe you were home at night when suddenly the power went out. In the dark, you became aware of something across the room, but you assured yourself that it was nothing. A moment later, however, there was no denying that the drapes were definitely moving. Of course, it was just a drafty window, but your lungs felt like they had just finished a marathon. This experience may have been the result of your mind’s predisposal toward perceiving other conscious entities in your environment; a recent research article suggests that we’re naturally inclined to attribute supernatural beings who have information about our private social knowledge.

[Read more...]


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