Sunday, March 27, 2016

Religion is not in conflict with evolution — it is a product of it

In a previous post, I argue that humans have evolved unique categories of needs and motivations not shared with other animals.  One of these I call ‘legacy drive’.  This is a central theme in my recent book (Aarssen 2015), where I interpret religion as a fundamental domain for legacy.  Here I have posted an excerpt from the book.  

The human individual knows that he must die, but has thoughts larger than his fate. … Religion is an effort to be included in some domain larger and more permanent than mere existence.
—  Feibleman (1963)

A sense of legacy from religion is associated of course with faith in doctrines that promise some kind of afterlife.  Belief in a future life fulfills what Sigmund Freud (1928) recognized to be “… the oldest, strongest and most insistent wish of mankind”.  As discussed in Chapter 4 [in Aarssen 2015], evidence from paleoanthropology strongly suggests that the imaginations of our ancestors were sufficiently creative for conjuring such superstitions and cultivating them in symbolisms and rituals dating from at least 50 thousand years ago.  In the words of Malinowski (1931), “Religion … can be shown to be intrinsically although indirectly connected with man’s fundamental, that is, biological needs.  Like magic it comes from the curse of forethought and imagination, which fall on man once he rises above brute animal nature.” 

Organized religion is of course still very alive and well today, with many dozens of main varieties to choose from — providing reassurance, for the faithful, that the ‘self’ need not be impermanent, even while knowing that the body is.  This is the so-called transcendent, or ‘vertical’ component of the fitness benefit of religion, both ancestrally and today — i.e. as a domain for legacy, through everlasting life of the ‘soul’.  As Kaufman (1958) put it, “Man is the ape that wants to be a god.”  Even the most devoutly religious people know, however, that all religions are just delusions (except one, of course).  

For our ancestors, as well as today, organized religion has also had an important ‘horizontal’ component: congregational affiliation.  Worship-ping memberships like churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples can provide at least three significant benefits for genetic fitness:

(i) by reinforcing one’s confidence in the ‘vertical’ component (i.e. ‘our God and his promises of salvation must be real if there are so many fellow believers’);

(ii) as a vehicle for bolstering self-esteem (in terms of membership within a ‘larger-than-self’ cultural world-view), and a sense of memetic legacy (from attainment of social status/power through personal testimony before fellow parishioners, and personal accomplishment in the business of the religious institution); 

(iii) by serving as an incentive to behave in ways that promote pro-social reciprocal exchange benefits of group membership — e.g. by not stealing, lying, murdering, etc. — because the threatened consequences of transgression involve not only shaming by the group against the perpetrator (and hence compromising one’s intrinsic ‘need to belong’), but also banishment of the soul to eternity in a bad place (e.g. hell).  What was good for the prosperity of the social group was good for the gene transmission success of resident members.

Our ancestors probably also enjoyed an additional, perhaps even more ancient, benefit from belief in the supernatural: answers (when no practical ones could be found) regarding the mysteries of life and nature — thus satisfying the restless human curiosity, and calming fears of the unknown.  The answers here were of course interpreted in terms of favours, judgements and interventions of a ‘higher power’, involving spiritualism and/or deity.  And the early shamans, priests, prophets, and their esteemed disciples, were also likely to have enjoyed elevated social status and greater attractiveness to potential mates. 

Abundant evidence now indicates that attraction to religiosity has a partial genetic basis, and that religious people generally have more children than non-believers (Rowthorn 2011).  A predilection for superstitions then is in our genes.  Religiosity, for those who ‘believe’ (and ‘behave’ accordingly), is not only an effective self-impermanence anxiety buffer (calming the intrinsic fear of failed legacy);  it can also calm general fears of the unknown and unexplained, and promote social order and cohesion — group prosperity — and hence individual prosperity of resident members.  Plus — because public dedication as a ‘follower’ normally evokes trust from other in-group members — religion bolsters one’s local reputation, including with potential benefits through mate attraction.  All of it delivered genetic fitness for ancestors.   

Religiosity then is a fairly obvious cultural product of natural selection.  Interpre-tations of its evolutionary roots have been explored in no less than 18 recent books (published in the span of just a decade) [Box 10.1; in Aarssen 2015].

The old debates, therefore, between evolution and creationism (still active in some realms) are misguided; creationism is not in conflict with evolution — it is a product of it.


Aarssen LW (2015) What Are we? Exploring the evolutionary roots of our future.  Queen’s University, Kingston.

Feibleman JK (1963) Mankind Behaving: human needs and material culture. Charles C Thomas, Springfield.

Freud S (1928) The Future of an Illusion. Hogarth Press, London.

Kaufmann W (1958) Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Row, New York.

Malinowski B (1931) The role of magic and religion. In: Reader in Comparative Religion (Lessa WA, Vogt EZ, eds). Row Peterson, Evanston, IL.

Rowthorn R (2011) Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 2519–2527.

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