That Allen MacNeill fella is crazy brave — after trying to approach Intelligent Design seriously as a course subject, now he’s going to teach another controversial summer seminar on whether religion is adaptive. I think where the previous course ran off the rails was in the too-respectful attempt to encourage the participation of the Cornell IDEA club — he basically ended up aiding and abetting a gang of ignorant ideologues, and that’s also the way it got spun in the media, to the creationists’ advantage. I agree that it’s a good idea to engage the counter-culture warriors who are pushing the unscientific glop on the public, but we can’t begin with the premise that ID creationism has some validity; that’s doing the work of the Discovery Institute. Discussion of evolution has to begin with the scientific foundation of modern evolutionary biology, and if anyone wants to wiggle in with their alternatives, they need to do the hard work of providing evidence, first.
I also have to disagree with one of the premises of his course description. After explaining the ubiquity of religious belief, it’s variation, and the existence of people who have no use for religion, he says:
To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation.
No, it most definitely does not.
I have noticed a lot of students wandering around with these white rectangular objects with cables hooked up to their ears. I’ve also discovered by personal experience with a teenager that these objects are quite precious to their owners, and are practically revered. Yet there are also some students who don’t care at all for them. Do evolutionary biologists look at the iPod and say “A-ha! There is an evolutionary adaptation”? Probably not. Evolutionary psychologists might, but we already know they’re nuts.
I think instead that we ought to determine if there is a hereditary component before talking about its likelihood of having an evolutionary function. Since we see that whole cultures can rapidly, within a few generations, shed much of their religious baggage; since religion seems to be largely a product of indoctrination rather than a built-in product of the brain; and since individuals can exhibit reversals from religiosity to atheism and vice versa within their lifetime, I remain unconvinced that there exists any kind of direct biological predilection for religion. The frequency of a phenomenon is not an indicator of its adaptive value, nor do variations reinforce that notion.
For another example, people in the US largely speak English, with a subset that speak Spanish, and a few other languages represented in scattered groups. That does not mean we should talk about English as an adaptive product of evolution. Language, definitely—there’s clearly a heritable biological element to that ability. Similarly, religion may easily be a consequence of a universal trait like curiosity (we want answers to questions, religion provides them, so it spreads—even if the answers are all wrong) or empathy (we are social animals, we like community activities, religion hijacks that communal urge), but religion itself is but one replaceable instance, an epiphenomenon that too many people mistake for the actual substrate of the behavior.