Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What's the Darwinian Survival Value of Religion?

Last month, John Wilkins was at a conference on Religion and Tolerance and links to the complete video of the conference are posted on his blog [Religion and Tolerance]. Fascinating stuff.

Here's Richard Dawkins explaining the possible Darwinian survival value of religion in a way that makes a lot of sense although I don't think he pays enough attention to explaining how genes cause behavior. He also touches on the question of whether religious belief can lead to doing evil things and chastises believers for bringing up Hitler and Stalin. It's not true, he says, that having a mustache makes you evil.

If you look quickly in the first few minutes you can see a famous Australian philosopher in the audience. He seems to be agreeing with Dawkins.


  1. "Richard Dawkins explaining the possible Darwinian survival value of religion ..."

    It is so nice that this website is not overrun by that Evolutionary Psychology claptrap.

  2. I'm not sure the question has any merit.

    I guess formal religion has been around for 10,000 years or less. Far too little time for the evolutionary impact, if any, to show itself surely?

  3. Our Aussie philosopher looks rather serious and ruminative to me. Not sure whether that signifies agreement or otherwise.

  4. @DiscoveredJoys

    Richard Dawkins defined religiosity as (among other things) "the belief in a supernatural creator". That has been going on for a sufficiently long time to make evolutionary sense. There seem to be quite some researchers involved in evolutionary studies of religion.

  5. Must the capacity for religion have a significant selective value?

  6. I have the same question as others: Does religiosity offer any fitness advantage to begin with?

  7. I didn't listen to the whole video, but I postulate that religion had survival value for societies (say, by promoting social cohesion, sacrifice for the common good, etc), but not necessarily for individuals. However, that makes it a matter of cultural evolution, not biological, and gives little or no reason to look for "genes for religion".

    Besides, religion as actually practiced is such a diverse phenomenon that I don't think it counts as a discrete phenotypic "trait".

  8. Putting aside for a moment that there's more to evolution than Darwinian whatever, I think it is often forgotten that ideologies and religions themselves survive and replicate and so on. Thus, one must also keep in mind that the most important thing for religion/ideology is to survive itself. It does not need to have any adaptive value for its host, no more than, say, Toxoplasma or termite gut parabasalians or commensals. To a large extent, it's an organism in its own right, with selection acting on itself as well as its host.

    Social and intellectual dynamics also follow eerily similar patterns to biological evolution. I think it is a mistake to dismiss that aspect of evolution when discussing human cultural phenomena. I'm not necessarily evoking Dawkins' version of memetics - IMNSHO, he doesn't get the finer details of evolution to begin with - but just because the originator of an idea had flaws doesn't mean the whole concept is now worthless.