Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Religion and Evolutionary Fitness

Thursday, July 19th, 2012


The practice of religion interrupts the human preoccupation with self-serving activity—which suggests that one function of religion is to keep people from being too obsessed with their personal interests. But why should that obsession, which confers an advantage in evolutionary fitness, be prevented?  Could there be a countervailing advantage in being relieved from the same obsession? Or does this aspect of religion perhaps decrease human evolutionary fitness?  It is a mistake to assume that every characteristic which takes hold in a population increases fitness. Daniel Dennett’s book on the memetics of religion, Breaking the Spell, opens with a counter-example:

You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? [Dennett, 2006, p 3]

The answer, it turns out, is no benefit—to the ant! Its grass-climbing behaviour is prompted by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that has penetrated its brain. In order to complete its reproductive cycle, the fluke must find its way into the digestive system of a sheep or cow. By commandeering the motor apparatus of its host the ant, the fluke puts itself in the way of being grazed.

Dennett’s book takes as its starting point Richard Dawkins’ observation that the memes of human culture, like genes, are replicating entities whose populations wax or wane according to principles of natural selection.[Dawkins, 1976]  Among the memes that thrive or die are religious ones. The provocative question animating Dennett’s discussion of religion is, “What is the relationship of religious ideas to their human hosts? Do religions benefit their believers, are they neutral, or are they—like the lancet fluke to the ant—deleterious parasites?” (more…)

Religion as an Antidote to the Self

Friday, June 15th, 2012

“Why does religion exist?” is a challenging question for both the natural and the social sciences. There is a fact to be explained: a large majority (about 85%) of human beings profess religious beliefs and engage in religious practices. For evolutionary biology, the challenge is to explain why religion caught on so well. Did religions confer a competitive advantage on the members of our species who adopted them? If they once did, do they still confer a competitive advantage? Although a ‘gene for religion’ is unlikely, religious affiliation is heritable: the strongest determinant of an individual’s religion is the religion of his parents. [Dennett, 2006, p 86] Religious observance is costly, requiring the erection of places of worship and maintenance of a priesthood, and could be presumed on that account to reduce the evolutionary fitness of believers as compared to their more worldly competitors. Why, then, have religions flourished? Almost the same question confronts economic theory, which assumes human behaviour is best modelled by Homo economicus, an agent who always chooses what he believes is in his own interests. Why would such agents choose religion, which requires personal sacrifice with no clear payback, or at least without the kind of payback that motivates the same agents in their other transactions such as work for pay and pay for groceries. A parallel question faces psychology. Religions commonly advocate self-denial, which can be presumed to be psychologically repellent. Why are people attracted by institutions and practices which ask them to give up pleasures?

All the world’s major religions try to curb human selfishness. They attempt to break their followers’ obsession with their personal lives, and encourage them to care about something larger than themselves. An aim of religion is to alter human motivation: to guide thought and motivate action in directions that run counter to ‘natural’ inclinations.

I want to examine the hypothesis that religion arose as a response to the emergence of the self as a motivational centre in human psychology. (more…)