Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The evolution of religion

As a follow-up of sorts to my genetics of altruism post, The New York Times magazine had a fascinating, thought-provoking piece on the evolutionary advantages of belief.

Turns out that some scientists have been studying religion from an evolutionary perspective, trying to figure out why religion is universal when it is seemingly maladaptive to survival: usually, believing in nonexistent things and expending energy on nonproductive pursuits will make it harder to survive, not easier.

First the science, then my two cents.

The science is split into two camps. There's the "byproduct" school, which says religion is not in itself an evolutionary advantage, but is a byproduct of a complex and imaginative brain that is. Then there's the "adaptionist" school, which argues that religious belief is in fact advantageous by promoting trust and cooperation within a group.

The byproduct folks have some fascinating bits of data to work with. Their main ones are three recognized human traits:

Agent detection: The ability to infer the presence of organisms that intend to harm us. If we see motion out of the corner of our eye, our mind tends to assume it is a potential hostile organism and react accordingly. We assume the motion is guided by a mind rather than assuming benign causes like wind blowing leaves around. This makes evolutionary sense: If we're wrong about it being hostile, we're still alive. If we're wrong about it being benign, we're dead or injured. But it predisposes us to see intelligent agents behind every observed phenomenon.

Causal reasoning: The ability to "impose a narrative" on seemingly unrelated events. I tend to describe this as "pattern detection", the ability to see patterns even where none exists. Again, this is evolutionarily advantageous: it helps us solve puzzles and figure out cause and effect even with scant evidence, and is largely harmless when applied incorrectly. But it, too, predisposes us to see order and causation where there is none.

Theory of mind: This is simply the recognition that other people have their own viewpoint and do not know everything we know; it's the ability to imagine yourself in other people's heads. It lets us anticipate the actions of other people based on our knowledge of their knowledge. The survival advantage is obvious. The link to religion is a little more complex. Experiments show that children do not develop "theory of mind" until they are 4 years old or so. Until then, they believe others -- and especially their parents -- are omniscient. In other words, we are born believing in omniscient, invisible minds, which paves the way for a belief in God.

Then come the adaptationists. They argue that while the byproduct school might help explain some of the biochemistry of belief, belief itself is also favored by evolution. Some of my thoughts on altruism closely reflect adaptationist arguments. Religion can make people feel better by worrying less about death, letting them focus on living and the future. By reinforcing desirable behavior, it helps them attract better mates. It makes groups more cohesive, allowing them to outcompete nonreligious groups. It makes individuals more willing to sacrifice themselves, again increasing the survivability of the group. Such advantages outweigh the evolutionary costs of religion, which is measured in the time and resources devoted to ritual.

Adaptationists also note that this doesn't have to be an either-or thing. All species contain a range of various traits: height, strength, speed, disease resistance, etc. Why should belief be any different? In that view, theists and atheists aren't enemies; they represent a socially healthy mix. "What seems to be an adversarial relationship between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel," to quote the article's paraphrase of David Sloan Wilson.

Me, I don't see the two schools as necessarily being in conflict. Humans are social creatures by design, and the idea that we're wired to view the world in a certain way makes sense. Further, anything that promotes social cooperation is evolutionarily advantageous. Religion is an effective tool to that end, so it's easy to see why it would be so ubiquitous.

I would add that belief is advantageous for a reason not cited in the article: because it gives us a sense of control. Early humans were surrounded by deadly things they didn't understand. That could be debilitating to a mind imaginative enough to envision all the horrible things that could happen. But if we think we know why lightning strikes or earthquakes happen or people die, then we can develop rituals and practices to control or appease them. If we think we know what the stars are, we can use them to store our hopes and dreams. Belief is just one more tool to help us order our surroundings, giving us a framework that lets us live our lives more successfully by explaining away the unexplainable.

Believers may be offended by this whole discussion, as if God can be reduced to a particular brain structure or random chance. But that's not necessarily the case. Knowing the mechanism by which humans experience God does not prove God doesn't actually exist. To quote Justin Barrett, a prominent member of the byproduct school and a practicing Christian:

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”

This is a variation of "evolution is the tool by which God created humans" argument. And it works just as well. We believe because God gave us the ability to believe when He created us.

Anyway, it's a fascinating article, far more interesting than I can do justice to here. Give it a read before it disappears behind the Times Select wall.

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Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

I'm not a believer myself, but it always seemed to me that religion fills an individual and societal need to create meaning and purpose in life and to help explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena. As you noted, without religion, people lack a sense of control over their lives and would be unwilling in many cases to sacrifice present comfort/pleasure for future benefits. Many atheists seem unable to comprehend that the idea of an arbitrary universe and eventual extinction is difficult for many people to accept and religion helps them get through life.

3/07/2007 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike Marc, I am a believer. I do not, however, believe in organized religion. My faith helps me accept what I don't understand & be at peace with it.bStill, I can see where being part of a religious organization or a sharing of faith with others would offer a sense of community & selflessness.

Labeling the processes of religious evolution does not increase our understanding of it. For most of us, our evolving religious beliefs reflects our ever expanding knowledge of how things work. We no longer worship wind or sun gods, or believe that Earth is the center of the universe, because we better understand our little blue marble & the processes that make it function. A four year old begins to outgrow the belief that a parent is God because, as they grow, their greater ability to think logically naturally changes that belief. As we gain understanding & knowledge , we question & abandon outmoded beliefs & adopt new ones. Rightly or wrongly, this new sense of logic leads some of us into a deeper faith in a creator & some away from it.

3/07/2007 12:35 PM  
Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Many atheists seem unable to comprehend that the idea of an arbitrary universe and eventual extinction is difficult for many people to accept and religion helps them get through life.

Actually exactly what I believe is behind the whole religion thing. Also not a problem for me except when it starts interfering with government and public policy.

3/07/2007 5:12 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Marc: And undoubtedly many agnostics or atheists start developing some sort of belief as they near death and mortality becomes more important to them. That is not, though, a particularly compelling argument for the existence of God -- only for the power of our fear of death.

Anonymous: I agree that knowing the processes of religious evolution doesn't increase our final understanding of it or God -- it's like an integral, forever getting closer to knowing and never quite reaching it. But I think it is helpful in that if we understand our own psychology, we can better separate actual evidence of the divine (if it exists) from the quirks in our internal wiring. As you suggest, it ends up strengthening our theory of God by eliminating the weak, disprovable links in our faith.

Just to remind everyone, btw, I'm an agnostic. I'm using "our" a bit loosely here.

NYM: An interesting question is whether this research could be used to argue that religion is a social good and thus deserving of government promotion. The counterarguments are several: if the benefits of religion are largely psychological and largely because of the way we're wired, we can derive the same benefits from secular associations -- aspiring to national ideals, for instance. Also, there's the bit about theism and atheism creating a healthy balance -- so we need both, not just one.

3/07/2007 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Marc Schneider said...

I agree with Not your mama, that I don't care whether or not people are religious as long as it doesn't impact my life. But, at least some atheists, like Dawkins and Harris, do care and seem to want to wipe out religious belief without caring about the need it feels in many people.

3/08/2007 10:34 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Agreed. I think Dawkins et al are motivated by three things: the intellectual challenge of refuting religion, the irritation of being a nonreligious minority in a sea of believers, and a focus on the harm religion does instead of the benefits.

On the other hand, does anyone seriously think that they will succeed in wiping out religious belief? The only way that would happen is if the entire populace found their arguments wholly persuasive -- and isn't that a personal choice for each person to make?

I'll start getting concerned when atheists start using the levers of power to persecute believers.

3/08/2007 10:44 AM  
Blogger Not Your Mama said...

No, I do not believe it is possible to wipe out religious belief, even if I wanted to which I do not no matter what I say when I'm really, really mad at SOME religious people ;).

I don't even object to displays of various faiths. Just isn't an issue to me.

Personal choice rules.

3/08/2007 3:36 PM  

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