As mentioned in the introductory post on the Zingularity, like everyone else on earth I was born an atheist, unlike most, I stayed that way. Long before I was old enough to know why super natural beliefs were suspect, I was prone toward skepticism. I always wondered why I was spared, or cursed according to some. Is it possible there’s a genetic component to my view? I don’t know. If there is, it would surely be a complex interplay of genes and culture. But let’s speculate, let’s assume such a genetic basis exists. Purely for the purpose of discussion.
The reason I find this idea so fascinating is because evolution works on genes. One popular definition of evolution is “a change in alleles within a population over time,” where an allele is one of two or more versions of a gene. Most of us alive today descend from the large populations that developed around early city states. It’s a numerical likelihood for one thing, and those populations were the ones that developed resistance to endemic diseases that plagued early settlements and ravaged remaining bands of hunter-gatherers.
If modern history is any guide, many of those early populations held a rich mythology, and they weren’t terribly tolerant of dissenting views. A thought experiment: if, over centuries and thousands of generations, individuals who did not profess a firm belief in local superstition were socially unpopular, up to and including outright massacred, then a propensity to accept the prevailing mythology might confer an adaptive advantage. Iterate countless times, our speculative alleles become fixed, and the resulting population might be composed chiefly of those who believe, or those who excel at pretending they do. We might end up with two main kinds of people, true believers and shameless, one might even infer sociopathic, fakers. Sound familiar?
OK, it’s a giant stretch. An egregious jump with little or no data behind it, and it’s probably difficult to test. Besides, religion probably has all kinds of adaptive value beyond my hasty speculation. Genocide is sure as hell not contigent on religion — humans have been coming up with ugly justifications for it since antiquity and probably long before that. The willingness to suspect unseen, hidden cause and effect, the desire to construct fanciful explanations for observed phenomena, could even help fuel the intellectual engine behind what we call science today.
But it strikes me as an interesting notion nevertheless.