The origin of religion-3: Do people have a ‘god gene’?

It seems clear that people want to believe in religious ideas or at last have a propensity to believe in supernatural phenomena. Is religion a social belief that developed only after complex societies formed or is a predisposition towards religion hardwired in our brains? Those who argue the former think that religious beliefs emerged late in evolutionary history as a cultural artifact, a ‘meme’ if you will, that appeared only after language and social structures appeared, and spread widely because of its utility.

Others argue that the ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests (though does not conclusively establish) that they might have evolutionary advantages and that a propensity to believe in gods and the afterlife developed early on and became hardwired in our brains and spread throughout the species the same way (through natural selection) that other genetic features spread, thus providing us with what one might call a ‘religious gene’.

If so, then that raises two more questions. The first question concerns time. Did the hard-wired propensity to believe in supernatural agencies arise after the human species appeared or has it an even earlier genesis? Advocates of the former view suggest that religious beliefs are an evolutionary adaptation that appeared after humans and spread because they provide a survival advantage, by being a kind of glue that helped form tightly knit groups of early humans that provided greater success in hunting and foraging. This idea of properties selected for the benefits it confers on a group (known as ‘group selection’) is controversial because strictly speaking natural selection only works on the level of individual genes, not even a whole organism, except in so far as the organism is a vehicle that propagates the genes. Group selection seems to be possible only under very limited conditions. (See Evolution “for the Good of the Group”, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson, American Scientist, vol. 96, September-October 2008, p. 380-389.)

Supporters of the latter view of pre-human origins think that the origins of religion lie deep in our primal brains that originated long before humans appeared on the scene. The fact that we share the pattern-seeking quality with other species suggests that that feature at least goes back deep into our prehistory.

The second question deals with mechanism and involves the technical issue of whether the propensity to believe is an evolutionary adaptation (i.e., a property that provided a selection advantage that enabled it to grow and spread throughout the entire species) or whether it is a by-product of selection for another feature that did have a survival advantage. For an example of the latter, diseases like sickle cell anemia should, in a naïve Darwinian view, have died out long ago because the bearers (due to incapacity or early death) tend to leave fewer offspring than people without the disease. The reason that it persists is that sickle cell anemia in its mild form confers protection against malaria. So sickle cell anemia exists as a by-product of selection for malaria resistance.

Neurobiologist Jeff Schweitzer dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as a religion or god gene’ and argues that religion originated and was transmitted as a cultural artifact.

The human brain is extraordinarily adept at posing questions, but simply abhors the concept of leaving any unanswered. We are unable to accept “I don’t know,” because we cannot turn off our instinct to see patterns and to discern effect from cause. We demand that there be a pattern, that there be cause and effect, even when none exist. So we make up answers when we don’t know.

The first ideas of religion arose not from any awe of nature’s wonder and order that would imply an invisible intelligent designer, but rather from concerns for the events of everyday life and how the vast unknown of nature affected daily existence. To allay fears of disease, death, starvation, cold, injury and pain, people fervently hoped that they could solicit the aid of greater powers, hoped deeply that they could somehow control their fate, and trusted that the ugly reality of death did not mean the end. Hope and fear combine powerfully in a frightening world of unknowns to stimulate comforting fantasies and myths about nature’s plans.

Of course, the biggest and most wrenching unknown served by religion is that of our fate upon dying. As a matter of survival, we are programmed to fear death, but perhaps unlike most other animals, we have the cruel burden of contemplating this fear. Religion is one way we cope with our knowledge that death is inevitable. Religion diminishes the hurt of death’s certainty and permanence and the pain of losing a loved one with the promise of reuniting in another life.

Fear of death, the need to explain away the unknown, hopes for controlling one’s destiny, a desire for social cohesion, and the corrupting allure of power are the combined masters of all religion. Evolution and natural selection do not enter into this equation other than with the obvious fact that humans evolved large brains.

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch argues that religion originated along with the capacity to use our imaginations. If religion is a figment of the imagination, it thus probably originated around the time that humans developed the capacity to imagine things and beings that do not exist and which live on after they physically die. He thinks that this likely happened around “40-50,000 years ago, at a time called the Upper Palaeological Revolution, the final sub-division of the Stone Age.”

Is belief in god a ‘meme’ (a unit of knowledge) that propagates like a gene, by spreading from person to person via cultural transmission instead of biological inheritance? The problem with cultural explanations is that one has to make the additional assumption that these cultural belief practices are plausible enough to have spread rapidly throughout the entire population. With evolutionary genetic adaptations, a single advantageous mutation can end up dominating an entire species.

While it is possible that belief in god is a purely social and cultural phenomenon, resulting from the need of early people and societies to find explanations for natural phenomena and to frighten people into obeying social norms, their similarities across wide geographical areas suggests that they may have some sort of biological origin. While it is true that the power of the state and the religious hierarchy has historically been used to enforce religious orthodoxy by severely punishing non-conformity, beliefs in gods seem to predate the existence of such organizations. And anything, like religion, that has features of universality immediately suggests that they have their origins in our distant evolutionary past, the way that the universality of the animal body structure of four limbs can be traced back to our fish-like ancestors.

Next: The case for the hardwiring of at least the propensity for religious beliefs

[UPDATE: Paul, the octopus prophet, picks Spain to win the World Cup.]

POST SCRIPT: Is the South African racist an endangered species?

Jon Oliver of The Daily Show investigates and finds one exceptional specimen.

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  1. says

    Mr. Singham, these are some very thoughtful possibilities for the origin of religion. I have no doubt that most of these phenomena have come into play at one time or another. We live, after all, in a continuity-based universe. I also have a love of physics, though I’ve never delved into the theoretical that much. I have a fondness for the applied variety. One of my favorite books is “Stars, Their Birth, Life and Death,” by Shklovskii. For nearly sixty years, my interests have included a great deal of science, yet my curiosity has led me to investigate other things, too.

    Your thesis assumes that there is nothing more than physical commensurability — the continuity of space-time reality. Postulate, for a moment, the possibility that there is a realm based on discontinuity. For the last thirty-odd years, I have been attempting to understand an incident on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles which appears to have involved just such a discontinuous realm. It is my opinion that the better part of religion comes from here, and not any socio-biological mechanism.

    Rather than write a book, here, I hope you don’t mind me including three links. One is from a discussion, “Does Science Compliment Religion.” I know, one has to grant value to religion before this becomes a meaningful title, but the discussion could be thought provoking, if not enlightening. The other two are from my own blog. discussion on Science and Religion

    “Humble Confidence,” critical ingredients in any investigation into creation

    “How Many Popes have Walked on Water?” — an irreverent look at faith and religion

    If this does not pique your curiosity, I’ll just add that the mechanics of creation are logical in their own right, but counter-intuitive when considered from most scientific world views. Just as oil and water do not mix well, the mechanics of physical continuity and the mechanics of creational discontinuity may seem entirely incompatible. In any experiment, an investigator needs to have the proper ingredients before they may adequately investigate a phenomenon. To date, most scientists have forgotten this simple fact when looking into creation or the so-called “paranormal.”

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