Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Evolution of "the God gene"

Articles on a particular topic seem to come out in clusters. Shortly after doing yesterday's post on the origin of religions I see this article by Nicholas Wade in the NYTimes. He makes some further interesting points.
For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless...For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.

It is easier to see from hunter-gatherer societies how religion may have conferred compelling advantages in the struggle for survival. Their rituals emphasize not theology but intense communal dancing that may last through the night. The sustained rhythmic movement induces strong feelings of exaltation and emotional commitment to the group. Rituals also resolve quarrels and patch up the social fabric.

The ancestral human population of 50,000 years ago, to judge from living hunter-gatherers, would have lived in small, egalitarian groups without chiefs or headmen. Religion served them as an invisible government. It bound people together, committing them to put their community’s needs ahead of their own self-interest. For fear of divine punishment, people followed rules of self-restraint toward members of the community. Religion also emboldened them to give their lives in battle against outsiders. Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.

Could the evolutionary perspective on religion become the basis for some kind of detente between religion and science? Biologists and many atheists have a lot of respect for evolution and its workings, and if they regarded religious behavior as an evolved instinct they might see religion more favorably, or at least recognize its constructive roles. Religion is often blamed for its spectacular excesses, whether in promoting persecution or warfare, but gets less credit for its staple function of patching up the moral fabric of society. But perhaps it doesn’t deserve either blame or credit. If religion is seen as a means of generating social cohesion, it is a society and its leaders that put that cohesion to good or bad ends.


  1. Hi Deric,

    Great blog. Just come across it, so catching some older posts.

    "For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors." - I don't see why this should be the case, if by atheists it means those people who default to atheism based on the rational interpretation of science and every day evidence (or lack of evidence for religious claims). I suppose it could be said of the dogmatic atheists (i.e the 'faith' atheists).

    There's no need for detente between religion and science. Science should be able to account for religion one way or another eventually. Religion is just another topic to study and explain. The antagonism assumed in the article is between the currently religious and the currently non-religious, particular those of the latter who base their world view on a rational interpretation of scientific investigations and who resent having their behaviour dictated by those who claim religious authority.

    "But perhaps it doesn’t deserve either blame or credit." - The religious are quick to make great claims and attribute credit to religion. It's reasonable for the non-religious to highlight the shortcomings of religion - to draw attention to or to blame religion for certain acts performed in its name. The fault with religion in this respect is not that any particular religion does inherently prescribe abhorrent acts (though some do), it's more that religion's claims for authority, prescription of obedience and general indoctrination of its followers makes them susceptible to persuasion to the extent that it's easier for manipulative leaders to prescribe abhorrent acts, whether the religion does or not.

  2. Anonymous8:26 AM

    "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful" - Seneca