Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why Are Women Religious?

At my talk last Friday I was asked about the field of evolutionary psychology. This seems to be a popular topic among educated non-scientists. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that most people are only interested in human evolution—that doesn't mean I can't be disappointed.

The person who asked the question wondered why opponents of evolutionary psychology don't get more ink. The implication was clearly that the opponents are in the minority or don't have a very strong case. I should have directed him the the Wikipedia website: Evolutionary psychology controversy. It summarizes the main problems with evolutionary psychology.

Let's look at a recent article by Elisabeth Cornwell, an Assistant Professor of Research at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her article attempts to explain why women tend to be more religious than men [Why Women Are Bound to Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective]. We may be able to use her article to illustrate some of the problems with explaining human behavior using evolution.
It is because of hormones that male and female brains differ. While there is no evidence for differences in intelligence (as was believed in the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth - women were not even allowed to vote until 1920!), to deny that differences exist is simply wishful thinking. Evolution cares nothing for either misogyny or feminism; it cares not for what is moral or immoral, just or unjust: without caring at all, it builds survival machines to carry genes into the next generation.

But what has this to do with religious beliefs among women? Quite a bit actually. When we look at some of the behavioral and psychological differences between women and men, we can glimpse some of the adaptations necessary for our ancestors' survival.
Emphasizing differences between men and women is a common theme these days. Some of these differences are due to genetic differences between men and women (e.g. hormones) and some are just cultural differences that have no genetic component. The trick is to distinguish between those differences.

When it comes to specific behaviors, such as religious belief, we need to be very careful. Is there a gene for "religious belief" or is this an epiphenomenon, or a cultural thing? If there's no gene controlling "religious belief" then we're not talking about evolution or biological adaptation.
With this in mind, we can begin to understand why it is so essential for women to fit into their social group. Exclusion would have meant extinction since those women who could not live in accord with the other members of their group would have had fewer or no descendants. Thus, the evolutionary pressures that shaped the need to live in harmony with the group pressed more strongly on women than on men. This is not to suggest that there were not strong evolutionary pressure for males, too, to conform, indeed there were. However, males who risked upsetting the status quo and did so successfully would have gained an advantage in their own reproductive success. Females who tried the same would not.
Like most people who advocate the evolution of specific behaviors, Elisabeth Cornwell is not spelling out the details of her proposal. Let's try and fill in the blanks.

The idea that women might feel the need to belong to a group isn't wrong. There may even be some biological differences between men and women (hormones?) that underlie this preference for belonging. But that's not all that Elisabeth Cornwell is proposing.

What she is suggesting is that there may have been a time in the ancient past when women didn't care about fitting into a social group. Then a new mutation arose that changed this behavior so that women with the mutation wanted to be part of a group. The mutation didn't have the same effect in men even though they must have carried it. Because of "evolutionary pressure" this socialization allele increased in the population until almost everyone had it—but it only worked in women.

Alternatively, women may have elected to form strong social groups because it was a smart thing to do. Over time, women risked being ostracized if they didn't conform to the social norm. (That seems to be a common behavior among women, even today. )

So, we have two competing explanations. One is that there's a gene (allele) for socialization that is responsible for this behavior in women, and that this allele arose during the course of human evolution and became fixed because it conferred selective advantage on women who carried it.

The other possible explanation is that women's biology did not change. The evolution of intelligence in primates, millions of years ago, led to formation of social groups in apes because these groups of women made life easier. It was a deliberate decision, made by intelligent apes. This is not biological evolution.
Religion is a human invention, the gods and goddesses that have come and gone during our short history have all displayed the best and (more often) worst human traits. They fell in love, jealousy was common, revenge, anger and trickery prevailed, the struggle for power was universal, and all could be brought to folly and woe due to excessive hubris, greed, and lust. Soap operas pale in comparison! What concerns me, though, is that religion reflected the culture of the times - and, for better or worse, the religions most prominent today are all rather ancient beasts that grew out of a time when women were subservient to men, and often considered as property to be bartered, battered, and controlled.
One of the main criticisms of evolutionary psychology is that its proponents are often guilty of cultural bias. They tend to extrapolate from the culture they know to all of human behavior. This is an important criticism since the stories are not about biological evolution within a small society but about the evolution of human behavior—all humans.

In this case, Elisabeth Cornwell is talking about cultures that date back only 3,000 or 4,000 years. They are the cultures that produced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They are not relevant when it comes to discussions about human evolution.

Another criticism of evolutionary psychology is related to the previous one. It's the premise that evolutionary psychologists know enough about pre-historic societies to be able to make reliable statements about evolutionary pressures. As a matter of fact, we simply don't know how our hunter-gatherer ancestors behaved. We don't know if women formed tight-knit social groups that excluded men, or if women living 50,000 years ago tended to be more "religious." Maybe women were smarter than men and they didn't believe the crap that male shamans1 were spouting!
So we are back to our original question: Why do women today continue to fall victim to an archaic system of beliefs that foster misogynistic behavior? Why are women even more likely to be religious than men? The simple answer is that it is safe. Please don't take this as a slight against women -- it isn't. Male/female differences exist, but I'm certainly not suggesting that risk taking is a better option than playing it safe. After all, women are less likely than men to die doing incredibly stupid things (check out the Darwin Awards it is nearly exclusively male 'winners'). But the fact that women are less likely to push the status quo for fear of social exclusion and even retribution makes a lot of evolutionary sense.
Actually it doesn't make a lot of sense from an evolutionary perspective except as an epiphenomon. Female ape brains may be biologically different from male ape brains and those differences may make it easier for females to form groups. The fact that, today, women in Western industrialized nations tend to be more religious than men could be entirely due to culture.

In other cultures, and other times, it might be men who are more devoted to religion. I don't believe that a woman's brain is hard-wired to be more susceptible to superstition than a man's. Nor do I believe that humans evolved a propensity to be superstitious over being rational.

1. shamans is the correct plural of shaman.

[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

For more, see Pop Evolutionary Psychology, Modern women are excellent gatherers, Changing Your Mind About Evolutionary Psychology, Please Tell Me This Is a Joke, and Changing Your Mind: Are Humans Evolving?.


  1. There is some evidence that a tendency to be religious is in fact heritable: see http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2006/11/heritability_of_religiosity.php for discussion of this. Doesn't mean that we have come up with hand-waving adaptive explanations for god-botherers though.


  2. Aren't the evolutionary psychologists just confusing the terms "evolution" and "selection"? I don't doubt that there have been more than a few times throughout history where non-religious women were persecuted (17th century Salem...), so maybe these people just need to start calling themselves selectionary psychologists instead. Problem solved.

  3. Jane says,

    Aren't the evolutionary psychologists just confusing the terms "evolution" and "selection"?

    Yes, that's part of the problem. But it's only a small part. In general they are just confused about all of evolution.

    I don't doubt that there have been more than a few times throughout history where non-religious women were persecuted (17th century Salem...), ...

    Most of the persecution was done by very religious men. Those women who were smart enough to have some doubts got eliminated. That might explain something about the evolution of intelligence in women .... :-)

    Seriously, it was mostly men who were the extremists when it comes to religion. That's the opposite of what the evolutionary psychologists were trying to explain in Elisabeth Cornwell's article.

    BTW, don't forget that men were also put to death by those religious Puritans. Don't you remember your ancestor, William Potter? He was hung in 1662 for bestiality.

  4. For being a prof, she's a poor writer.

  5. In Germany, evolutionäre Religionswissenschaften (Evolutionary Religious Studies) are making some real progress. Here, religious and atheist worldviews enjoy more dialogue and we are exploring the reproductive benefits and the cooperative gains of religiosity. This is especially treu of "reproductive cooperation" like marriage - and women, who have higher investments to secure, wisely tend to favour religious communities and religious spouses. (Ever wondered why Goethes Gretchen asked Faust about religion as he wanted to seduce her?) Religion is part of human nature and it has a natural history.