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?

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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...]

Trust issues? The answer might be rhythm

Connor Wood


One mistaken assumption many Americans have about religion is that it’s a private affair – a certain set of beliefs that individuals either do or don’t hold in their hearts. But the reality is that throughout cultures and history, people have gathered to chant, sing, and worship in communities, from Korean Buddhist sanghas to little Protestant chapels in New England. While there are massive differences between traditions, members of nearly every religious community take part in some sort of synchrony, or shared, rhythmic action: think singing in time, or bowing simultaneously toward Mecca. And recent research from New Zealand shows that this moving or chanting in sync helps people act more generously  – especially if they’ve worked hard to stay in time with each other. [Read more...]

Does religious belief make you a better person?

Jonathan Morgan

Religious guy

When evolutionary psychologists look at religion they tend to highlight the way it could strengthen communities to make them successful. The intuitions behind this theory also spur a large body of research linking religiosity to prosocial behavior. As Robert Putnam famously put it, religious people make better neighbors. They’re more generous, trustworthy, helpful, cooperative, and generally healthier…or so the theory goes. But a recent review of these studies suggest that we may be drawing too simple and hasty conclusions. [Read more...]

Religion makes cooperation a winning strategy

Connor Wood

FirewalkingHuman life depends absolutely on cooperation. Unlike other animals, we don’t have big fangs, sharp claws, or leather-thick hides. Instead, we have our ability to work efficiently with each other. In modern industrial civilization, we take this flair for cooperation to the next level, depending each day on thousands of strangers to bring food to our cities, keep the roads clean, and mine coal to power our homes. And it just might be religion that makes this all possible.

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