Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Darwin's God

The New York Times Magazine for March 4th has an article on "Darwin's God", which surveys the current debate over Darwinian explanations for religious belief. This debate supports my claim that the desire for religious understanding is part of the evolved nature of human beings.

It is said that Darwinian scientists studying the evolution of religion "agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain."

The "byproduct theorists"--like Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer--argue that while religious belief has never served any adaptive purpose--it has never enhanced survival and reproduction--it has arisen as an accidental consequence of mental propensities that were adaptive in human evolutionary history. For example, it was probably adaptive for human ancestors to have an evolved capacity for causal reasoning--to be able to explain events in the world through cause-and-effect logic, because this would have allowed them to be more successful in the natural world. But then when they faced unusual or mysterious events, they might have looked for mysterious superpowers to explain these events, and thus they would have found religious belief comforting.

Moreover, it was probably adaptive for human ancestors to detect intentional agents (animals and other human beings) and to be able to imagine what other people were thinking. Such natural tendencies to see the world as governed by intentional agents and thinking beings might then have led human beings to assume the existence of disembodied agents or minds as spiritual beings that intervene in the world.

On the other side of this debate, the adaptationists--like David Sloan Wilson--would say that religious belief was not just a side effect of mental adaptations but was itself an evolutionary adaptation. Wilson would say that religious belief helps to bind believers together into cooperative groups that outcompete groups that are not so tightly bound together. Religious beliefs and rituals are commitment devices by which religious people show that they can be trusted to cooperate with their fellow believers. Such group selection enhances the Darwinian fitness of religious groups.

In arguing for "Darwinian conservatism," I would say that there is some truth in both positions. My list of 20 natural desires rooted in evolved human nature includes the natural desire for religious understanding. Human beings generally desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this longing to make sense of things. Driven to fear and despair by their experience of pain and death, human beings impagine themselves surrounded by mysterious forces that determine their fate. Driven to hope and pride by their feeling of spiritual exaltation, human biengs image that their existence can be redeemed by ecstatic union with the divine.

Religious understanding satisfies our natural desire to make sense of things, to explain the order of the universe in which so much seems mysterious to us. Ultimately, we are driven to ask about the first causes of everything, and such questions have no final answer except by invoking some transcendent causal order of things.

Religious understanding also serves to unite us into a community of believers who can trust one another to be cooperative, even when this requires individual sacrifice for the good of the group. That's why conservatives tend to see religion as necessary for social order. Regardless of what one thinks about the theological claims of religious belief, religion can have a practical benefit in holding believers together in cooperative communities.

That's why even skeptical conservatives (like Friedrich Hayek) paid tribute to traditional religion as an evolved, spontaneous order that supports social cooperation.

Darwinian science sustains this conservative understanding of religion by showing how religion could have evolved as part of human nature to satisfy our natural desires for understanding and cooperation.


Unknown said...

Re: the unity of religious community... It seems to me that an equally valid or better argument can be made that religion serves to separate communities in endless schismatic conflict.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Larry, but "group selection" went out 30 years ago with Dawkins' publication of The Selfish Gene. Treat yourself to the recent third printing.

John S. Wilkins said...

Group selection is not dead because Dawkins or Dennett said so, nor even because George Williams did. David Sloan Wilson and Elliot Sober have revived a version, called "haystack" selection, in Unto Others.

In fact, if aggregates of organisms act as if they were (genetically) the one entity, then it can be the subject of selection, as even Williams argued back in 1966.

Incidentally, Larry, I have a post on this topic of religion here.