Does Evolution Favor Religion?

So the Good Samaritan is not misfiring but behaving perfectly naturally. Moreover, Wilson believes that human beings are so successful, compared with our nearest evolutionary cousins, precisely for this reason. Chimps are pretty intelligent, but they operate on the basis of mistrust. Early humans, though, learned to trust their fellows. That proved to be extraordinarily beneficial since human intelligence could then develop cooperatively. We're not always nice to each other. But we are bonded socially, and that, working in tandem with our intelligence, leads to a highly developed morality.

Religion as the Key to Humankind's Success?

This move changes things dramatically for the evolutionary assessment of religion. It's not just that religion provides beliefs that bind people together, much as the sociologist of religion, Émile Durkheim, proposed. Further, multi-level selection means that groups can come to behave as if they were single organisms: religion converts human groups into an "organism-equivalent." In fact, those religions that best encourage people to feel they belong to one another tend to be the ones that last and grow. Far from being a mistake, religion may provide the best evolutionary explanation for humankind's success.

Of course, accounting for the origins of something proves nothing about its worth -- philosophers call that the genetic fallacy. There are also reasons to question Wilson's evolutionary theory. Further, as with our moral instincts, so with our religious instincts: we are not always nice to each other. But if our cooperative capacities have led to us having the most developed moral sense of all the animals, perhaps also with our religious sense too. Moreover, it can be valued as such.


This article was first published at ReligionDispatches, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

Mark Vernon is a writer and journalist whose books include Wellbeing (Acumen, 2008), Teach Yourself Humanism (Hodder Education, 2008,) and Plato's Podcasts: The Ancients' Guide to Modern Living (Oneworld, 2010).

5/18/2010 4:00:00 AM
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