Figuring this is the week between Christmas and New Years I can write about just about anything I want, and nobody will read it. My original thought was to talk about cultural transmission and what happens when Christmas gets transmitted to a non-Christian society, such as Japan, but well one picture really says all that needs to be said:
Instead, I figured that since one of the most common periods for religious celebration is around the winter solstice I might talk about religion. In particular, I wanted to talk about some of my thoughts that arose from reading one of my favorite books on the subject, D. S. Wilson’s “Darwin’s Cathedral”. I recognize that David is a bit of a controversial figure, and not everybody sees eye to eye with him, but I must say that with Darwin’s Cathedral he really did hit a home run. Wilson has some interesting ideas, and his online magazine, This View of Life, is well worth looking at once in a while.
Before starting, there is one important point to make. Science is one of many ways of knowing. Scientists, as scientists, can only address issues that are in some sense observable, and which can be described using naturalistic explanations. A naturalistic explanation is an explanation that relies on the known physical properties of the universe. Gods and deities are supernatural beings – That is they reside outside of the world of known physical mechanisms. Religion relies on faith and supernatural explanations to explain the existence of deities, and many of the trappings of religion. As such science has nothing to say about whether religions explain some fundamental truth or whether there is a God of gods. Importantly, I consider myself to be a scientist, and I have opinions about God — I am an atheist, and I do not believe there is a god; however, that is my opinion as a person. As a scientist I do not and cannot have an opinion about the existence of God. While science has nothing to say about the validity of religion, it can have something to say about the human practice of religion, and that is what I want to talk about.
The first observation to make is that in humans religion is virtually universal. As far as I know secularism is a relatively modern concept, and that primitive societies all have some form of belief in the supernatural or some form of deity. The reason that this is important is that when we see a structure or behavior in animals that is wide spread among a large number of species we tend to reason that it is an adaptation. Thus, we find that most four legged mammals have tails and reason that it is an adaptation. When functional analysis shows that, for example, cats use their tails for balance, and that they can turn on their tails and land on their feet we are hardly surprised.
By the same reasoning, because it is nearly universal, it makes sense to speculate that religion is an adaptation for humans. The question is what is that adaptation.
A hint to the answer to this question can be found in the ten commandments. Without repeating them here, suffice it to say that they can be divided into three distinct groups. Commandments 1 through 4 all are say that there is only a single deity that should be worshipped in a particular fashion. Commandment 5 (honor they mother and father) basically tell us to act in a fashion that promotes the family. Finally, commandments 6 through 10 tell us to act in a fashion that promotes the good of the group. Thus, to be totally crass the ten commandments basically say that there is one police officer (God), that you need to obey that officer, and that the laws are that you should sacrifice your own fitness for the good of the group. It is worth pointing out that God is the perfect police officer. God is always watching, and metes out justice after you die, so you never can report on it.
This, then, suggests that religion is an adaptation to promote group cohesiveness and group functionality. As far as adaptive story telling goes, one can imagine that human groups that had some sort of religion or other organizing social structure would be more cohesive and survive better than groups that lacked religion.
Indeed, this is D. S. Wilson’s thesis: religion is an adaptation that promotes and enforces group level cooperation. Unlike me, however, he is able to back up his ideas with a high-quality qualitative and quantitative analysis. Sadly, I loaned out my copy of the book, and the library is closed on Christmas day, so you will have to live with my remembering. Suffice it to say that in his survey of numerous religions, all of them had some form of edict or statement about how people should behave, and in all cases the statement was that individuals should sacrifice their individual fitness for the good group.
This idea is not new. There are a number of “social solidarity” theories for religion (Sosis, R.; Alcorta, C. 2003. Evol. Anth. 12: 264–274), which are essentially what I am suggesting here. However, among “evolutionary biologists” religion is generally considered an “exaptation” Gould, S. J. 1991. J. Social Issues 47: 43–65, or some form of cultural virus, or an evolutionary by product or mistake (Dawkins). What I am suggesting here is standard adaptive story telling; however with the twist that I am allowing the possibility that group selection is important in human evolution. If we allow this possibility many new and potentially important adaptive stories become reasonable.