Monday, July 30, 2007

Religion as an extended phenotypes

A few posts ago I explained why I didn’t find two popular evolutionary explanations for religion very convincing. I attacked the idea that religion was a harmful by-product of something useful and the idea that it was a meme that was good at spreading itself despite being harmful to its host.

Ironically, it was Richard Dawkins who also produced the most popular exposition of what I think is the best way to study man’s religious impulse, in his book The Extended Phenotype. In that book, he explained that it was not just bodies that genes could build and evolution could act on. Things like a bird of paradise’s dance, a termite nest and a beaver’s dam are also evolutionary adaptations just as much as the peacock’s tail and gubby’s spots. That, I think, is probably also true of the religious instinct. It is a part of our extended phenotype, an adaptation that humans have evolved because it is good for us. After all we have been religious for an extremely long time if archaeological evidence of burial practices and cave paintings are anything to go by. Even if it started off as a by-product, the religious instinct has clearly been selected for in the meantime. In fact, many evolutionary adaptations start off as useless appendages or features that natural selection works into something much more productive. Perhaps the initial impetus was from our desire to see causes in the world or to impart personality to rocks and the sky. This is certainly an area worthy of study and I expect that archaeologists can tell us rather more about this than has percolated into evolutionary biology.

The fact that religion is preserved by evolution doesn’t tell us which religions might be true but nor does it mean that they are all false. Imagine that we lived in a world where religion really had held back progress as Hitchens and Dawkins absurdly believe. In that case, it wouldn’t exist because religious societies would have been wiped out by the non-religious way back in prehistory. So, the next question I want to ask (skipping the ultimate origins of religion) is exactly how it has improved mankind’s lot. How does religion increase our ability to survive and procreate? To answer the question, I will be linking what we’ve discussed about game theory, the decline of violence and in-groups/out-groups.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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