The biological sciences approach to the questions of the origins of religious belief and morality is not to ask what the proximate causes are that led to belief in god and the afterlife (for which the answers may be to satisfy curiosity and provide comfort) but to see what evolutionary advantage accrues to those individuals who hold such beliefs, because natural selection works on individual organisms, not groups.
To better understand how evolutionary biology addresses these questions, it is useful to review the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection. Following Philip Kitcher’s The Advancement of Science, (p.19), Darwin’s four fundamental evidentiary claims can be stated as follows:
1. The Principle of Variation: At any stage in the history of a species, there will be variation among the members of the species: different organisms belonging to the species will have different properties.
In other words, children are never identical with their parents. Within each species there is considerable diversity in properties and in support of this position Darwin took great pains to point out how hard it was to distinguish between different varieties within the same species, and between species.
2. The Principle of the Struggle for Existence: At any stage in the history of a species, more organisms are born than can survive to reproduce.
If there is an abundance of food and other resources, the population of any species would multiply exponentially. The fact that it doesn’t is due to limitations in these necessary elements and this is what results in only some surviving and their populations reaching more or less stable values.
3. The Principle of Variation in Fitness: At any stage in the history of a species, some of the variation among members of the species is variation with respect to properties that affect the ability to survive and reproduce; some organisms have characteristics that better dispose them to survive and reproduce.
The members of a species that are more likely to survive and pass on their properties to the next generation are those that have properties that give them some survival advantage in the environment in which they find themselves. It is important to note that only some of the properties need to be advantageous for the organism to have preferential survival. Other properties may also flourish not because they have a similar advantage but because they are somehow linked to the advantageous properties and are thus carried along. Thus some properties may simply be byproducts of selection for other properties.
4. The Strong Principle of Inheritance: Heritability is the norm; most properties of an organism are inherited by its descendents.
Most properties that we have (five fingers, four limbs, heart, etc.) are inherited from our ancestors.
From these four principles, we infer the crucial fifth:
5. The Principle of Natural Selection: Typically, the history of a species will show the modification of that species in the direction of those characteristics which better dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce; properties which dispose their bearers to survive and reproduce are likely to become more prevalent in successive generations of the species.
So natural selection will favor those organisms that, by chance mutation in their genes, have properties that give them better chances for survival, and thus these characteristics will appear in the next generation in greater abundance.
This is the powerful theory that Darwin and Wallace proposed and which forms the basis of all modern biology. Note that it does not deal with how life originated in the first place and Darwin was frank about this limitation and offered just the broadest and mildest speculation about that big question. There is no question that when dealing with the issue of life itself, the problem of how life evolved and diversified has received better answers than the question of how life first originated.
Pretty much the same situation applies to religious beliefs (and the evolution of language also, but that is a topic for another day). Once religious ideas came into being, it is not hard to see how they could have continued and produced the present diversity using the above principles.
It is obvious that when it comes to religion, the strong principle of inheritance applies. The best predictor of what a person’s religious beliefs are is the religious belief of the parents. Most children believe the same religious ideas as their parents except for slight variations. Most young children have very little idea that other religions even exist and don’t even think of their own beliefs as ‘beliefs’ because they have been taught them as facts and believe them because their parents told them. (Interestingly, it is found that the eldest child is likely to be more faithful in adhering to the parents’ beliefs than subsequent children.)
Applying the theory of natural selection to religious beliefs, the theory goes in the direction of religion being propagated as an accidental byproduct of selection for something else. It has been argued that in terms of natural selection, there is a definite survival advantage to favor a genetic predisposition for children to believe parents and other authority figures than to disbelieve them, and that thus this quality will be preferentially selected. In other words, natural selection does not select for religious beliefs per se, but religious beliefs are propagated as a byproduct of selection for trusting one’s parents.
To see how believing what one’s parents tell you is beneficial, we know that unlike many animals, young children are not at all capable of surviving in the wild on their own. They need parents to protect them. A child who listens to her parents (don’t touch the fire, don’t walk over the edge of the cliff, etc.) is more likely to survive than a child who ignores the authorities around her. Thus it is not hard to see how natural selection would prefer to select for a propensity to believe authority figures and that thus human children have evolved to have a predisposition to believe them.
But as Richard Dawkins points out in The God Delusion (p. 176) the catch is that the child is not able to discriminate between useful and useless bits of advice. “The child cannot know that ‘Don’t paddle in the crocodile-infested Limpopo’ is good advice but ‘You must sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, otherwise the rains will fail’ is at best a waste of time and goats. Both admonitions sound equally trustworthy. Both come from a respected source and are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.”
So while there is a survival value to the child inheriting a genetic predisposition to believe what her parents tell her, a byproduct of this is that the child inherits the religious beliefs of the parents as well, with slight variations. So once religious ideas gain currency in the early days of human evolution, they start propagating and diversifying like any other organism in the tree of life and become distinct entities that share a common root. Over time, just as individual biological variations became separated and formed into distinct species, so do religious beliefs. After some time, with the process often assisted by some charismatic religious leader, these religious variations became codified to become the distinct religious doctrines we see around us.
Another suggestion is that religious ideas, once they come into being, are ‘memes’ (ideas) that are analogous to genes but act like the mental counterparts of viruses, in that they act to propagate themselves and not for the benefit of the organism they inhabit. Dawkins describes the possible existence of ‘memeplexes’, a collection of memes that form the environment of ideas in which other memes have to compete for survival. He suggests that existing memeplexes might favor the survival of the following memes (p. 199):
• You will survive your own death
• If you die, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy two virgins (spare a thought for the unfortunate virgins)
• Heretics, blasphemers and apostates should be killed (or otherwise punished, for example by ostracism from their families)
• Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief. (In my discussion of Pascal’s Wager I mentioned the odd assumption that the one thing God really wants of us is belief. At the time I treated it as an oddity. Now we have an explanation for it.)
• Faith (without evidence) is a virtue. The more your beliefs defy the evidence, the more virtuous you are. Virtuoso believers who can manage to believe something really weird, unsupported and insupportable, in the teeth of evidence and reason, are especially rewarded.
• Everybody, even those who do not hold religious beliefs, must respect them with higher level of automatic and unquestioned respect than that accorded to other kinds of belief. . .
• There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don’t even try to understand one of these, for the attempt to understand might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfillment in calling it a mystery.
• Beautiful music, art, and scriptures are themselves self-replicating tokens of religious ideas.
I am not too familiar with the whole meme framework but I mention it here for the benefit of those who may know more about it.
I think that, just as in the case of life, there is a plausible biological explanation for how religious ideas propagate and diversify once they come into existence. The more difficult challenges are explaining what caused religious ideas to come into being in the first place, and similarly, what are the biological origins of morality.
More to come. . .
POST SCRIPT: Amazing pool shots
I have played pool only a few times in my life, enough to give me an appreciation of how skilful this player is. It is said that skill at pool is a sign of a mispent youth. By that rule, this pool player must have completely wasted his life.