The origin of religion-9: Real and fictive kinship

For the last post in this series, I want to look at the strategies that religions use to both grow and retain their members. Elisabeth Cornwell and Anderson Thomson in their article The Evolution of Religion suggest that the growth of religion could have been aided by the idea of ‘fictive kinship’. To understand this, we need to bear in mind that what evolution selects for are individual genes, not the full organism. The full organism (a human or chimpanzee or bird or plant) is simply a vehicle for carrying and reproducing genes.

The early research of W. D. Hamilton and R. Trivers showed how it can be evolutionary advantageous for a gene for the organism that contains it to nurture, protect, and even sacrifice itself for a relative because of its shared genes, and that this could form the basis for what we call altruism. As the mathematical biologist J. B. S. Haldane replied when asked if he would give his life to save his drowning brother, “No, but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins”, which reflects when the number of his own genes that he loses by dying breaks even with the ones he saves in others.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57, and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27, 1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a clear summary of the research on how evolution can provide an explanation of the biological basis of altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

This drive to perpetuate a gene by aiding the survival and reproductive success of those who share that same gene, our ‘kin’, is evolutionarily advantageous and is thus likely deeply embedded in our primal brain.

Farmers know this and take advantage of this altruism towards actual kin by tricking animals into creating a false sense of genetic connection, a ‘fictive kinship’, in order to make an animal help another not related to it. For example, sheep and lambs can die during the birthing process and although it would help the farmer if an ewe that had lost its own lamb allowed an orphaned lamb to suckle it, ewes are reluctant to allow a lamb not its own to do so. This is understandable behavior in Darwinian terms because the ewe’s genes do not benefit from spending its resources on an unrelated animal. But by skinning the dead lamb of an ewe and using it to cover the body of a lamb whose mother has died, the ewe can be fooled into thinking that the lamb is her own and allow it to suckle.

Cornwell and Thomson suggest that the perpetuation and growth of religion is aided by this idea of fictive kinship. In primitive societies, we recognized as kin those who lived with us or very close to us. As societies grew larger and more complex, other devices had to be created to keep track of who was kin and who was not. Family names were one such device but in even larger groups we find ways to trick people into thinking in terms of kin by using labels such as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, ‘fatherland’ and ‘motherland’, and so on. These terms are targeted to appeal to the primal brain that has evolved to instinctively rally to help kin, and are exploited by armies and religions and politicians in order to get people to band together as fictive families to fight against other fictive families.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, exploits the fictive kinship aspects extensively. It speaks of ‘god the father’ and ‘Mother Mary’, their priests are referred to as father or brother, their nuns as sister or mother, and the liturgy constantly invokes the idea of the congregants as brothers and sisters.

Another explanation for the origin of religion is the idea that belief in an afterlife is a precursor to belief in god. This view suggests that in primitive societies, older adults may have found it advantageous to themselves to initiate and propagate the idea that there is an afterlife in which they still wielded influence over events in this life. It enabled them to command respect and good treatment from the young in this life even when they were old and decrepit and of little practical use. It is not a big step from believing in a world of the afterlife to believe in some sort of hierarchy existing there, with the ruler of that after-world transmuting into a god-concept.

It is unlikely that we will definitively answer questions about the origins of religion since those events lie in deep evolutionary time and beliefs don’t leave fossil remains or their imprint in DNA.

Those of us who wonder why religions still exist in the face of modern understanding of how the world works tend to underestimate the determination of believers to hold on to their beliefs. A Pew poll finds that while the public may say that they respect and understand science, “much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.”

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that “recent discoveries and advances” in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers. (my italics)

But whether we treat religion as a mental illness (as argued by Albert Ellis) or understand its origins and presence in any number of other ways, we clearly have our work cut out in trying to expose it because of its deep evolutionary origins that can make people choose to believe in illusions over reality.

But the big weakness of religion, the one that works against it and will ultimately lead to its demise, is that it is a false belief with zero evidentiary support and such beliefs, however strongly held, eventually crumble.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to discredit science to preserve religion

Following up on the above Pew poll, you can see the comical lengths that religious people will go to in their attempt to show that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. Incidentally, the creationist Kent Hovind (aka ‘Dr. Dino’) who is featured in the video is now serving a ten year prison sentence for tax fraud.

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