Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Evolution of Religion

I was going to write a big, brilliant post on this subject, but, alas, my fame-seeking personality supplicated to laziness and sloth. Forgive me if this is scattered or underdeveloped; take it out on me in the comment section.

Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Psychology seek to understand how current human processes, among others, developed from way, way before pre-historic times. Early-hominid environmental conditions influenced genetic mutations whose (long-) lasting affects still influence our functioning today. As an outgrowth of these studies, the examination of the Evolution of Religion recently emerged: Is there an evolutionary benefit, among early humans, that could explain biologically and psychologically why religion perpetuated itself? Oversimplified, how and why did religion emerge?


Natalie Angier interviewed Evolutionary Biologist David Sloan Wilson in a NYT article last week. To cut to the chase, Sloan argues that religion evolved because:

it helped make groups of humans comparatively more cohesive, more cooperative and more fraternal, and thus able to present a formidable front against bands of less organized or unified adversaries.
While I haven't read his new book, Darwin's Cathedral – now on my reading list - I find this explanation unsatisfactory. Group cohesion is a sociological factor, not a biological one. Religion might make groups more cohesive, but that affect would be secondary.

Enter a study done at the Missouri University. According to this study, there is a "spirituality spot" found in the brain, more specifically the right parietal lobe. This part of the brain handles self-definition (selflessness, self-criticism, self-awareness, self-focus, etc.). As such, people who are more spiritual have less active right-parietal lobes.

The finding suggests that one core tenant of spiritual experience is selflessness, said Johnstone, adding that he hopes the study "will help people think about spirituality in more specific ways."

Spiritual outlooks have long been associated with better mental and physical health. These benefits, Johnstone speculated, may stem from being focused less on one's self and more on others - a natural consequence of turning down the volume on the Me-Definer.
So, maybe religion evolved because the propagation of a selfless gene - and mental, physical health genes? - one that develops the right parietal lobe. People with this gene mated creating a dominant gene. This selflessness would then manifest socially through deeper, more meaningful relationships, through stronger group cohesion. I'm not an expert, but that seems to fit better.


How does the studies on the Evolution of Religion dialogue with theology? While I think the studies of the Evolution of Religion are important and worthy, I do not think theology should take an accomodationist approach to the subject. It is necessary to have theology dialogue with these findings, especially as most theologians believe the theory of evolution. I am skeptical, however, that theologians are taking the right approach. For example, asking "Where does God fit in?" cedes too much epistemological ground; theology should not be solely reactive to scientific inquiry.

Reading books on the subject I found that Evolutionary Biologists and Psychologists are self-professed atheists, even Wilson. Remember, the questions you ask influence the answers you seek, and the answers you seek influence the questions you ask. With this in mind, as I read books on the subject, I usually found myself thinking the authors asked the wrong questions, leading to potentially – and subconsciously! – preconceived findings. And, if you don't question the assumptions, you are more likely to grant the conclusions. I don't mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater, again, this subject is worthy. There, however, should be a deeper discussion over epistemology, assumptions, and presuppositions when intertwining these studies with theology. This discussion needs to happen, but it must be fruitful not accomodationist.

My $0.02. Ca-ching!


Alicia Solomon said...

Have you had a chance to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins? If so, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on his persepctive. He is an eveloutionary biologist who deeply explores the topic that you mention.

Drew said...

Alicia, I have not; it is also on my to-do list.

Joel McDonald said...

While I don't exactly remember her argument for why religion evolved, I'm pretty sure Karen Armstrong in A History of God discusses this a bit...and more!

- Joel McDonald
Virginia Beach Progressives

Darren Staley said...


I have the Dawkins book. I will mail you my copy if you like.

Bryan said...

Hi Drew. Interesting topic. Did you notice the NYT interview is six years old?

There is a more recent, and more detailed article at the NYT called Darwin's God which you can find online if the subject interests you.

you said "theology should not be solely reactive to scientific inquiry."

I don't think I agree with that. Doesn't it have to be reactive to scientific inquiry? If theology makes an assumption which is contradicted by scientific inquiry, then the theology has an epistemological problem. I'm not sure what you meant by "solely", but it seems theology has to be at least reactive to scientific inquiry.

If theology doesn't react to scientific inquiry, it is immune from correction when it is false. Would that be a good thing?

"Evolutionary Biologists and Psychologists are self-professed atheists"

Is there a better kind of atheist? :)

"With this in mind, as I read books on the subject, I usually found myself thinking the authors asked the wrong questions, leading to potentially – and subconsciously! – preconceived findings"

Imagine how Christian writing appears to all the non-Christians!

"And, if you don't question the assumptions, you are more likely to grant the conclusions."

This is precisely why some people think theology could benefit from asking some basic questions before granting its own preferred conclusions. I think the scientific inquiry into the origin of religion will help with this.

Jason said...

At the risk of over simplification or modern (scientific) compartmentalization, a more fruitful method for discussing the evolution of religion might veer away from biological explanations and the assumption that a lot of what makes us human can be pinpointed as base sugar pairings and amino acids. I think that Arthur Peacock's slippery, yet memorable, diatribe about "nothing butter-y" is fitting here. As a species, we have developed emergent properties of sorts, things that cannot be easily traced to biological or chemical causes, but instead stem from an essence of self-awareness, reflection, and a recognition of being an em-bodied existence. The question of the evolution of religion might fit nicely next to a discussion on the evolution of philosophical inquiry for a few reasons: 1. both are products of human reflection and stringent intellectual effort that far preceded modern scientific inquiry. This is not a defense of what Aristotle obviously got wrong (e.g. the number of teeth in a horse's mouth), but is rather nod to show that much good thought was done prior to modern scientific inquiry. 2. both seem to have stemmed from an active engagement with human existence that went beyond acceptance to questioning. (No, I am not one of those people who check my brain at the door when talking about religious devotion, and I know there are plenty others who don't "check out" as well.) 3. both are products of human culture, the complex sociological, emotional, linguistic, and historical event that helps define us as a species, organize human society, and provide cohesion for social relations.
More to the point, the evolution of religious thought is more like unto the evolution of philosophical inquiry than the scientific inquiries and explanations for brain activity in parietal lobes. Religion (and philosophy) are part of the essence of humanity, not the result of being homo sapiens. I will grant that inquiries among the "physics envious" disciplines such as sociology (and subsets thereof like evolutionary sociology) might here provide some quantifiable study of these products of culture, but attempts to reach too far in biology's pockets for explanations should result in a quick ruler rasp to the knuckles.
For thinking that we may just be more than the sum of our parts then, let the study of the evolution of religion be a cultural, linguistic, historical, sociological, and psychological study (with the aforementioned warning looming especially large over these last two disciplines). To mix such study with scientific inquiry is grant undue presumption to scientific methods to explain humanity rather than the biological existence that supports it.

And I can already hear some atheistic detractors cry out, "Then he assumes that religion is part of the essence of humanity, so it would then follow that he would call us in-human were we to reject religion." This is a valid argument, and far be it from me to doubt your ontological claims to human essence. But dialog and rejection of religion is, in and of itself, an engagement with religion. And that makes my atheist friends as "human" as anyone. After all, then at least some people are thinking/reflecting/postulating/arguing for themselves...(Hopefully, I despise atheist posers.)

Another set of detractors that now reach my ears are those folks who have imported scientific methods/theory into humanities studies. I am willing to say that the application of scientific inquiry to aspects of human culture and the traditional "humanities" has yielded interesting observations, but I like to think of these observations as "second opinions" of sorts. I am quite baffled as to why so many humanities disciplines have acquiesced to some of this inquiry. After all, I wonder if many scientists would be upset if I were to look at The Origin of Species or Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with a literary, gender dynamics fine-toothed comb.