Group Selection and Religion

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:


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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.



10 Responses to “Group Selection and Religion”

  1. OK, you if you are going to get formal, neither science nor religion is a “way of knowing”. Generally ways of knowing are usually something along the lines of:

    sense perception

    Science de-emphasizes emotion faith and intuition, and strongly emphasizes perception and reason. Religion emphasizes emotion faith and intuition, and perhaps de-emphasizes reason.

  2. Michael Fugate says:

    If that is true, why try to include religion as a way of knowing? Knowledge depends on facts and as far I can tell religion doesn’t have a method for producing facts. That science has limits doesn’t imply that religion is a way of knowing – one doesn’t follow from the other.

  3. Michael;

    I am going to plead ignorance at this point. You raise some important questions, but unfortunately not questions that a simple evolutionary biologist such as myself can answer. How do Christians know there is only one god, but Hindi (if my understanding is not completely wrong) know there are multiple gods? I have no idea. I just know that the scientific method is not the be all and end all of ways of knowing.

  4. Michael Fugate says:

    >I think the main thing is that you need to know the limits of different ways of knowing.<

    You have a guide to help me out here – I fully understand the limits of science because science has a pretty well documented methodology – but have a bit of a problem with the limits of faith and authority. How does one decide when faith works and which authority to believe? There has to be a means, but religion seems unable to describe one that has any universality. For instance, you say science can't tell us about gods (which natural theologians would beg to differ I might add). Nevertheless, how does religion tell us about gods – how many, what they are like, and what they do? Are all descriptions of gods equivalent or are some better than others? Are they all pointing to same thing – no matter how contradictory? How about religions – equivalent? What about their truth claims? Are they local or global?

    Is religion only a personal thing producing "truth" for each individual in isolation with no ability to produce shared knowledge? It is like those Bud Light commercials about sports superstitions with the tag "it isn't weird if it works." Are religious truths unverifiable?

  5. Michael;

    Yes, I strongly believe there are other ways of knowing. I would submit that “science” is not a good way to judge the quality of a Jane Austin novel. Rather we use an aesthetic sense to judge works of art. In other cases, I read in the paper that scientists have discovered water on the moon, and I believe them, not based on data, but based on the fact that I trust their judgment. In this case I am using authority as a way of knowing. Another way of knowing is faith or belief. An awful lot of people believe that echincea is good for colds. There is no scientific evidence for this; quite the contrary there is evidence against it. In this case thinking echinacea is is good for colds is based on faith.

    Religious knowing is based on authority and and faith. A Christian may believe the bible and use it as an authority on the creation of earth. This is using authority as a way of knowing. They may have also searched their soul and decided there must be a god. In this case they are using faith as a way of knowing.

    Is one way of knowing better than another? Hard to say. Scientific reasoning certainly is a powerful way of knowing, but there are areas (judging the quality of a novel) where it really falls flat. I think the main thing is that you need to know the limits of different ways of knowing. Faith is not a good way to know the age of the earth, on the other hand the scientific method is not a good way of deciding whether there is or is not a god.

  6. Michael Fugate says:

    >Science is one of many ways of knowing. <

    And the others are?
    Does this then imply that religion is a "way of knowing?"
    If so, how does religion know? What is its methodology?

  7. Bjorn;

    It surprises me, but then that is why we do this stuff. I have two thoughts on that. The first is that religion is not the only policing mechanism used by humans. Consider hazing at fraternities, and the rights rituals and practices of military units. All of these serve the function of promoting group cohesiveness. Thus, it is not religion per se, but the existence of institutions and practices that promote group cohesiveness. My second thought is that a single exception certainly weakens my argument, but does not invalidate it. I would be hard pressed to design an experiment that tested the role of religion in group cohesiveness, although D. S. Wilson comes close. In any case, I guess it has to remain speculation rather than theory.

  8. The Pirahã of the Amazon don’t have religion. If correct, does that make a difference to your point?

    “According to Everett, the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god,[11] and they lost interest in Jesus when they discovered that Everett had never seen him. They require evidence based on personal experience for every claim made.[5] However, they do believe in spirits that can sometimes take on the shape of things in the environment. These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[12] Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach.[13]”ã_people

  9. Helen;

    Interesting question on the title. My thinking was that the subject was how a metapopulation evolved. So in that sense it is named correctly. That is, evolution in a metapopulation, or more generically evolution in metapopulations. I opted for structured populations mostly because I like the sound better. The truth be known it should have been named “The phenotypic view of evolution”.

    I like to think that religion is an adaptation for cohesiveness, but while in one respect group selection is all about cooperation, there is a dark side. That is, group selection is about the differential survival and reproduction of groups. As such, we should expect cooperation within groups and competition among groups. I think it no accident that as George Carlin says, more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason. In other words, it can be argued that religious war is a natural and logical outcome of religion as a group adaptation.

    From a positive perspective (one should always be positive!) perhaps commerce and communication will have the effect of expanding our groups, and promoting the good aspects of group selection, while minimizing the among group competition aspects. We can always hope!

  10. Helen Sköld says:

    A reflection on the title here, should it not be Evolution AMONG Structured Populations?

    In social species, I think too group selection is functional. How much compared to at individuial level can probably be calculated on. Human rasism probably fit both levels but I am unsure it is adaptive in stable civilisations with trade and development?

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