A rant on the evolution of religion

A rant on the evolution of religion January 11, 2011

There’s been a minor explosion of punditry about the evolution of religion, some of it naive and some of it making my blood boil. It seems that it was Jesse Bering who kicked it off. Before Christmas, he wrote up Michael Blume’s research into religion and fertility. Then in the New Year, Jonathan Leake picked up the story in the Sunday Times. Most recently, Nick Spencer took up the cudgels in the Guardian.

Each of them made me more exasperated than the last! And what is it that’s got them so excited? Well, it’s the idea that the relatively higher fertility rate of the religious in the modern world means that religion is somehow at the apex at the tree of life. Here’s Jonathan Leake spouting off:

Such a view – that the ubiquitous phenomenon of human religiosity is not only in the blood but also delivers a distinct evolutionary advantage – is gloriously consonant with (most) religious views.

Well, maybe it is consonant with religious views, but it’s also nonsense, based on a profound (but common) misunderstanding of religion, and the connection between religion and psychology. Let me try to explain in three steps…

First off, we are not naturally religious.

At least, we are no more naturally religious than we are naturally football fans, or concert goers.

Of course, football and pop concerts are popular because they appeal to a number of deep-rooted instincts, but no-one would claim they are natural. They are things we invented.

And here’s the critical bit: we invented them specifically to satisfy our instincts.

So that’s the way that it works. We have mental biases, that make us want to do certain things. We make culture, and we make culture that appeals to and works with our mental biases.

Religion, like music, is cheesecake for the mind – an “exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of our mental faculties”. So the fact that religion, like football and pop concerts, taps into our instincts is not a coincidence and it’s not a surprise.

In fact, it’s bleeding obvious.

That leads to another critical concept. There is more than one way of tickling these sensitive mental spots. All of culture does it. It just so happens that one group of cultural practices in the West that seem to appeal to similar mental biases have been given the label ‘religion’.

But try to apply these categories to other cultures, and you fall flat. Other cultures have invented kirschtorte, not cheesecake, while some choose not to have dessert at all. These people have the same cognitive biases, but different ways of tickling them.

Once you get that point, the next is obvious: Religion can be beneficial without being optimal.

If someone invents a cultural practice that’s harmful, it’s not going to be very popular. But if someone invents a cultural practice that’s really the bees knees, it still won’t be popular if it doesn’t tickle our cognition.

So the most popular cultural practices are going to be ones that make the best of our mental deficiencies, while still appealing to our blinkered mental capacities.

You can be reasonably sure that religions have, in some way, been optimised. But optimised for what? In the great landscape of cultural possibilities, any given religion is probably at a local optimum. It will have been designed that way by its human inventors. But that doesn’t mean that a better culture is not possible, if you shift radically to another part of the landscape.

To the people of Iron Age northern Europe, garotting members of their community and dumping their bodies in the bog probably seemed like a damned fine idea. No doubt it appealed to a host of human mental biases. It also seems to have been successful in building communities (at least, in relative terms) – after all, the culture survived for millennia.

And yet, it’s an approach to life that most people would frown upon today.

In other words, it’s perfectly possible for religion to be beneficial in terms of the local cultural landscape, and yet harmful compared with the potential possibilities. Religion can be beneficial and harmful at the same time. It just depends what you are comparing it with.

Which brings me to my last point. High fertility is not a sure indicator of evolutionary advantage.

Sounds odd? But it all depends on context. Let me explain with an example.

Fat people are less fertile. They get fat because they’re predisposed to eat too much and not exercise unless they have to. So it’s clear that these traits are not going to be favoured by evolution, right?

Which, no doubt, explains why why my local shopping mall is populated by such svelte, athletic-looking individuals!

Well of course it’s immediately obvious what’s wrong with that line of argument. In fact, 2 million years of evolution, in a harsh, food-scarce environment, has favoured precisely those individuals who stuff their faces with all the calorie-dense food they can get, and who do the absolute minimum of exercise required to get it.

It’s only in the modern environment where the tables have been turned. It’s only now that over-eating and under-exercising carries an evolutionary penalty. And that’s why so many people in rich countries struggle with their weight.

Now compare that to atheism. Atheism, like religion, is a cultural construction. It’s taken up by people with the right mental biases who are placed in the right cultural setting. And like obesity, atheism is increasing, not decreasing. The majority of people in Scandinavian countries (and, yes, now the UK too) are now not religious, just as the majority of Germans are now overweight.

Clearly, the mental biases that predispose for atheism were not selected against in our evolutionary past, no more than the mental biases that predispose to obesity were.

Perhaps, in the cultural settings that occurred in the past, the mental biases that are today linked to atheism actually increased fertility. Perhaps those mental biases led to a higher proportion of children survived to reproductive age. Who knows!

Today, atheists and the non-religious have fewer kids. Now, that could mean all sorts of interesting things in the future. But predicting the future is a mug’s game, and simple extrapolation almost always results in embarrassment.

Predicting the past is much easier. And whatever else, we can be sure that a good grip on reality does seem to have been evolutionarily beneficial. Which is nice.

To finish, here’s one Mormon woman’s remarkable story, just published in the NY Times. Just to show that the relationship between religion and fertility is never going to be as simple as the pundits would have you believe.

 If you liked this… then you might also like the follow-up posts, There’s no such thing as a gene for religion, and Why we are all different (and not all religious).

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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