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Evolution, Religion, Biology and Social Science 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Biology, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Social Sciences.

I’ve written several times here about whether or not I think religion is evolutionarily adaptive. A friend of mine referred me to a recent critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion written by David S. Wilson, author of Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson is famous for his theorizing of the evolution and adaptiveness of human religion, and he is a compelling evolutionary thinker. I find myself having many of the same problems with Wilson’s writing about social phenomena that I do with many other scientists: In a nutshell, why do individuals trained in biology think that they are qualified to talk authoritatively about society and culture? It is especially ironic, considering how biologists get all cranky when physicists, chemists, engineers, or medical doctors (or for that matter, social scientists) purport to know about biology.

Christopher O’Brien, an archaeologist/anthropologist and one of my favorite science bloggers. He recently posted a great discussion of why biology is so complex, and why it’s irritating in the extreme when engineers and medical doctors speak as if they have authority in biology (emphasis mine):

[Richard Dawkins wrote] If you throw a dead bird into the air it will describe a graceful parabola, exactly as the physics books say it should; then come to rest on the ground and stay there. It behaves as a solid body of a particular mass and wind resistance ought to behave. But if you throw a live bird into the air it will not describe a parabola and come to rest on the ground. It will fly away and may not touch land this side of the county boundary.

We can explain the dead bird completely in relation to physics. But the live bird we must explain not only in terms of physics and chemistry, but also anatomy, physiology, zoology, ecology, ethology, paleontology, geology, and a host of additional disciplines. The explanation for living things (what they do and why, how they live and why, where they come from and why) is more complicated than any nonliving system. (I would further argue that adding the cultural complexities of human societies on top of their nature as biological organisms, the complications increase – so anthropology is actually a more complicated science than biology – but don’t tell the bio-bloggers that!). The engineer and medical doctor for the most part cannot intellectually grasp the intricacies of biological systems.

I would never say that Wilson or Dawkins should not explore social or cultural issues or phenomena, merely that they should do so humbly and with care. And please with at least a nod of acknowledgment to the 1000s of men and women for the past 150 years who actually have expertise in studying human culture. So after reading Wilson’s review of Dawkins, and being admittedly intrigued by his discussion of evolutionary theory, I came away with that exact same feeling about Wilson that I often do with biologists and evolutionary psychologists who are studying social phenomena.

First, I agree completely with Wilson’s critique of Dawkins refusal of group-level selection. Papa D is an amazing thinker and at that gene-level thinking, brilliant. But like Wilson says, he misapprehends group-level selection completely. [I liked the article’s explanation of the history of the idea of group selection in evolutionary biology.] But the problem in talking about humans is that group-level selection is the consensus norm among anthropologists. And there’s an entire body of research into human evolution that basically demonstrates clearly that many if not most of the selective pressures on human evolution come from the social environment, that is, the adaptation of the individual to the social group. Anthropologists have been working on this for decades, and the state of the field is a brilliant synthesis of the ways that human complex sociality co-evolved with cognition, bipedality, enephalization, and language. When I read a couple of biologists having this arcane argument, while there’s an entire discpline that’s been working on this stuff for years and years, it makes them seem oblivious.

2) On a purely evolutionary level, Wilson is right that to evaluate religion as a trait means to see it as adaptive, maladaptive, or as a spandrel (the result of genetic drift or the accidental byproduct of other adaptations). Where he and I part ways, however, is twofold. First, his approach to human culture belies an overly simplistic view of how cultures work (not surprisingly) and an ignorance of the social sciences. Second, I disagree with his conclusions about the adaptiveness of religion. This, however, is a normal part of these kinds of dialogs, and it’s less a critique than simply my read of the evidence. Wilson believes that religions are, group-selectively, adaptive. I think the social scientific data don’t support that conclusion.

Social scientifically, religion must be seen in interaction with all other aspects of culture, for religion is, simply, a subset of culture. It moves through time in much the same way as other kinds of culture *except* for its “otherworldly” aspects. Wilson’s argument makes short shrift of the otherworldly, saying that evolutionarily the only thing that matters is what it causes people to *do*. Unfortunately, this undercuts his entire argument by willfully ignoring the complexities of where human culture comes from, which includes not merely observable behavior, but the experience of qualia and the cognitive-rational processes that undergird the behavior, and how all of these things interact to change over time.

Indeed, when religion is taken in its whole form, including its experiential as well as cognitive aspects, you get much more complicated views of how it works, and you are prevented from drawing too-easy conclusions about its adapativeness, because you have to see it interacting with all other aspects of the culture and you must account for the side of religion that is an experience of the individual.

In sociological terms, where Wilson ends up is with religious functionalism: what role does religion play in the social group. This made me laugh out loud when I read it, because this is literally an idea that’s about 130 years old in sociology, and Wilson presents as if he’s discovered something new. Social functionalism, however, at least in the way Wilson frames it, is about what’s “good for the group.” In other words, Wilson’s framework relies on the non-human biological group-selection frame. For humans, however, and I would argue for most other social organisms, at the raw level of adaptability it has to do not with the good of the group (or at least not baldly so), but rather with the adaptation of the social group to itself and of individuals to the group. Anthropologists have book length explanations of how human social complexity arose for species survivability, and how that pushed the co-evolution of our brains to handle complex social interaction.

[To be fair, Wilson’s functional conclusions, that religions are practical and that new ones form when old ones don’t work, are spot on. They just date back to Durkheim, and probably even Comte before him. This is hardly a revelation. And so it is only a “transformation of the obvious,” as Wilson calls the shift from seeing religion as non-functional to functional, to someone who is ignorant of the hundreds of years of social science about this topic.]

Why I disagree that religion is adaptive:

First, religion acts in conjunction with many other aspects of a culture to produce the positive group effects Wilson describes. In other words, the kinds of cohesiveness he sees (with the Jains, for example) is common in all kinds of cultures, religious or not. Second, his use of ESM as a source for understanding how religion effects the relative happiness and integration of individuals is fascinating and I can’t wait to look it up; but as Wilson points out, ESM is limited in that it cannot explain the differences between religious and non-religious to a degree that would satisfactorily demonstrate emotional adaptiveness of religion. It is, at best, suggestive; and incidentally, it’s also contradicted by numerous social-psychological studies into the relative happiness of atheists.

But more importantly, I simply find the evidence of the cognitive psychologists when combined with the work of paleoanthropologists to be far more convincing. By ignoring the “otherworldly” experience of religion, Wilson’s hypothesis ignores the main question: of all the cultural solutions to group cohesiveness (and there are many), why is religion among the most powerful and widespread (basically universal among humans)? The cognitive science work seeks to answer that question (I’ve covered this ground in other posts, so I’ll be brief here):

Human brains co-evolved with complex social interaction, in a beautiful dance between gestation length, energy expenditure on brains, encephalization, energy expenditure on child care, and social hierarchy. The older mental process of working in the physical environment (our innate physics, if you will) has combined with our more recently evolved mental process for dealing with complex social interaction (our innate sociality) to create an overlapping cognitive space where our understanding of cause and effect (physics) interacts with our need to impute intention in interacting with other humans (sociality). In studies done of atheists, even they fall easily and unthinkingly into a mode of thinking of imputing intention where none exists. Cognitive psychologists call this “hypertrophic social thinking.” Our hypertrophic sociality, which enables interaction in complex groups, also makes us extend our theory of mind outward from the body, so that we both experience our own mind as being separate from our bodies and we then infer that others’ minds are also separate from their bodies. Again in studies done of atheists, even they, when they aren’t thinking carefully, impute intention and existence to dead things (even inanimate objects!).

Wilson all but rejects this evidence, claiming that it is merely the building blocks upon which adaptive religion is built. But the cognitive science has taken a giant step toward answering *why* religious culture as opposed to other cultures in creating the cohesive function that Wilson describes, and why religious culture is *universal* among humans.

In the end, Wilson’s functionalist answer for group-level adaptation falls apart for me on the grounds that while religion is sufficient to create the cohesive result he finds, it isn’t necessary. That is, other cultural formations have the same effect.

So we are left with the original question, is religion adaptive evolutionarily?

With all this evidence, I fall to the side of seeing religion as a spandrel, a byproduct of the evolution of our social minds. The effects of religious culture overlapped with culture more generally, producing group cohesion, necessary in a species so radically dependent on each other for survival. It was only adaptive in the way that culture generally is adaptive; but as a specific kind of culture, one tied to otherworldly experience, it is evolutionary neutral. I have to agree with Dawkins on this one point: Religion is on the verge of becoming maladaptive, by which I mean that religion by its nature, according to Wilson’s own research, is about drawing group boundaries and defining social relationships, so in a world of increasing pluralism, a level and degree of pluralism our species has never known before, those kinds of rigid group boundaries will increasingly lead to violence and I fear group extinction — that is, maladaptation to the social environment.

So after reproducing (badly) the work of 135 year old sociology, Wilson ends up with the wrong answer to the evolutionary question.



1. wry catcher - 8 July 2007

I made a quite long comment about this on FLAK, but I got all embarrassed at how dumb and non-academic it was, so I erased it. Suffice to say, I totally agree with you and I completely get your perspective on this.

2. ted - 8 July 2007

I really like the idea that religion is a spandrel, that it is, as you say, “byproduct of the evolution of our social minds.” It makes a lot of sense, because as our brains became more or more powerful, we realized we knew less and less, and that unknowable-ness really is the cause of religion. One of my professors, Tom Csordas, has an amazing article that theorizes just that. It’s called “The Asymptote of the Ineffable.”

3. Todd - 9 July 2007

Wry, I would love to hear what you had to say on the issue. I’m sorry you second guess your “articulateness” and your brains, which are among the most brilliant I’ve ever encountered.

Ted: Thanks for the cite. I’ll look it up!

4. Mike - 20 October 2007

I like this post very much, Todd. Have you thought of doing something along these lines for an academic journal? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and others periodically publish things on these kinds of topics. I’d love to see you develop this into an article. But whether or not you have the time/inclination to do that, I enjoyed your thoughts.

5. Todd - 21 October 2007

Thanks Mike. I’ll consider doing that during winter break.

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