Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.

Niche construction: what does it tell us about culture?

Meika recently posted a comment on this site, highlighting the concept of niche construction as a driver of evolution.
I found it fascinating, which, partly is why it’s taken me so long to respond. (The other reason is a total computer melt down). Anyway, I’m intrigued with the niche construction material, which I hadn’t come across. I’d agree with the authors of the book that this area is worthy of greater study, but can’t help wondering whether it really does constitute a new way of looking at evolution… Continue reading

How to teach science and religion in schools

Michael Reiss, clergyman and director of education at the Royal Society, a leading science organisation, has been misquoted as saying creationism should be taught in schools. This is what he actually said .

Audio of Prof Michael Reiss

His main point seems to be that creationism is not really a simple error that can be corrected in a 50 minute science lesson. Rather, it’s part of a bigger worldview that can only really be challenged by being engaged with.

The closest Reiss comes to suggesting creationism should be taught is the following:
‘If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.’

In other words, he’s really not advocating the teaching of creationism, but discussing it rather than ignoring it.
Continue reading