As a follow-up of sorts to my genetics of altruism article, The New York Times Magazine had a fascinating, thought-provoking piece on the evolutionary advantages of belief. Scientists have been studying religion from an evolutionary perspective, trying to figure out why religion is universal when it is seemingly maladaptive to survival. Usually, believing in nonexistent things and expending energy on nonproductive pursuits will make it harder to survive, not easier.
First the science, then my two cents.
The science is split into two camps. There’s the “byproduct” school, which says religion is not in itself an evolutionary advantage, but is a byproduct of a complex and imaginative brain that is. Then there’s the “adaptionist” school, which argues that religious belief is in fact advantageous by promoting trust and cooperation within a group. The byproduct folks have some fascinating bits of data to work with. They assert three recognized human traits:
Agent detection: The ability to infer the presence of organisms that intend to harm us. If we see motion out of the corner of our eye, our mind tends to assume it is a potential hostile organism and reacts accordingly. We assume the motion is guided by a mind rather than assuming benign causes like wind blowing leaves around. This makes evolutionary sense. If we’re wrong about it being hostile, we’re still alive, and if we’re wrong about it being benign, we’re dead or injured, but it predisposes us to see intelligent agents behind every observed phenomenon.
Causal reasoning: The ability to “impose a narrative” on seemingly unrelated events. I tend to describe this as “pattern detection,” the ability to see patterns even where none exist. Again, this is evolutionarily advantageous. It helps us solve puzzles and figure out cause and effect even with scant evidence, and is largely harmless when applied incorrectly. It too, however, predisposes us to see order and causation where there isn’t any..
Theory of mind: This is simply the recognition that other people have their own viewpoint and do not know everything we know. It’s the ability to imagine yourself in other people’s heads. It lets us anticipate the actions of other people based on our knowledge of their knowledge. The survival advantage is obvious. The link to religion is a little more complex. Experiments show that children do not develop “theory of mind” until they are four years old or so. Until then, they believe others — and especially their parents — are omniscient. In other words, we are born believing in omniscient, invisible minds, which paves the way for a belief in God.
Then come the adaptationists. They argue that while the byproduct school might help explain some of the biochemistry of belief, belief itself is also favored by evolution. Some of my thoughts on altruism closely reflect adaptationist arguments. Religion can make people feel better by worrying less about death and instead letting them focus on living and the future.
By reinforcing desirable behavior, it helps them attract better mates. It makes groups more cohesive, allowing them to out-compete nonreligious groups. It makes individuals more willing to sacrifice themselves, again increasing the survivability of the group. Such advantages outweigh the evolutionary costs of religion, which is measured in the time and resources devoted to ritual.
Adaptationists also note that this doesn’t have to be an either-or thing. All species contain a range of various traits: height, strength, speed, disease resistance, etc. Why should belief be any different? In that view, theists and atheists aren’t enemies. They represent a socially healthy mix.
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, says in The New York Times Magazine article, “What seems to be an adversarial relationship between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”
I don’t see the two schools as necessarily being in conflict. Humans are social creatures by design, and the idea that we’re wired to view the world in a certain way makes sense. Further, anything that promotes social cooperation is evolutionarily advantageous. Religion is an effective tool to that end, so it’s easy to see why it would be so ubiquitous.
I would add that belief is advantageous for a reason not cited in the article: because it gives us a sense of control. Early humans were surrounded by deadly things they didn’t understand. That could be debilitating to a mind imaginative enough to envision all the horrible things that could happen.
If we think we know why lightning strikes or earthquakes happen or people die, then we can develop rituals and practices to control or appease them. If we think we know what the stars are, we can use them to store our hopes and dreams. Belief is just one more tool to help us order our surroundings, giving us a framework that lets us live our lives more successfully by explaining away the unexplainable.
Believers may be offended by this whole discussion, as if God can be reduced to a particular brain structure or random chance, but that’s not necessarily the case. Knowing the mechanism by which humans experience God does not prove God doesn’t actually exist. To quote Justin Barrett, a prominent member of the byproduct school and a practicing Christian, “Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?”
This is a variation of “evolution is the tool by which God created humans” argument, and it works just as well. We believe because God gave us the ability to believe when He created us.