Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Religion a By-Product?

If anyone remembers the Darwin Wars, they will recall that one of the skirmishes centred around spandrels. These are triangular areas between arches, most obviously on the base of the dome of a church as a result of the way that the vaulting interacts with the columns holding it up. They make good places to put frescos or mosaics. Stephen Jay Gould argued that spandrels are by-products of the way churches are constructed. No one builds a church with the intention that it should contain spandrels, but when you have them you find they are useful display spaces.

Gould believed (correctly in my view) that evolution also throws up by-products of the body’s architecture that, once they have appeared, could be subject to natural selection. However, their actual appearance is essentially random. Gould went on to argue (less convincingly, in my view) that this means if you re-run evolutionary history, you would most likely get a very different result to the variety that we see today. The randomness of the spandrels would defeat the non-randomness of adaptation and give us another pattern of life to the one we see today.

Among the most vocal of opponents to Gould’s views were Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett (the latter in chapter ten of his brilliant Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). Which makes their views about religion really very odd. Both of them have decided (in The God Delusion and Breaking the Spell) that religion actually is a spandrel. They believe it is a by-product (and an undesirable one at that) of useful evolutionary traits. Other atheists with access to the media are peddling the same idea.

Their arguments are pretty weak because no one seems to be able to agree about which evolutionary traits religion is a spandrel of. But is it possible for it to be a spandrel at all? Probably not. The essence of their criticism of Gould was that traits can only start off as spandrels. As soon as they exist, evolution can start acting on them. Only a trait that had absolutely no effect at all on an organism’s reproductive chances can be a true spandrel. Everyone agrees that religion has had a pretty big effect on the course of human history, so evolution must have had plenty of opportunity to act on it. And that being the case, it must be an adaptation or else evolution would have got rid of it.

So, religion at its earliest stage could well have been a by-product. But once it started to have an effect on human behaviour, it became a trait in its own right. That being the case, it is almost certainly a beneficial adaptation.

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