The evolution of religion

By Sean Aqui | Related entries in News, Religion, Science, The Plame Game

As a follow-up of sorts to my genetics of altruism post, The New York Times magazine had a fascinating, thought-provoking piece on the evolutionary advantages of belief.

Turns out that some 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.

(continued at Midtopia)

(Also, for those interested, my thoughts on the Libby verdict — in two posts.)


This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 6th, 2007 and is filed under News, Religion, Science, The Plame Game. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 Responses to “The evolution of religion”

  1. Dan Goorevitch Says:

    The birthrates of nations who practise religions far outstrips those who do not. Your assertion, Mr. Aqui, that religion is “maladaptive to survival” is based on your own idee fixe, not any objective evidence.

  2. Sean Aqui Says:

    Actually, the European countries with the lowest birthrates are also the ones with the most religious and traditional cultures: Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. So the picture isn’t that simple.

    But you didn’t read the linked post, did you? Because it largely deals with why religion is *not* maladaptive to survival.

  3. David Says:

    The phrase “believing in nonexistant things” gets my hackles up – perhaps a way to express the essential bit without the confrontational tone would be “believing in non-provable things,” or better, “belief in a discorporeal being.” “Non-existant” implies that there is evidence that X does not exist, and while I do not believe that the existance of God can be proven, it cannot also be disproven.

    It is interesting to study religious belief as an anthropological matter – do believers have a higher survival rate than non-believers? Clearly they have a higher birthrate – but they may also have a higher death rate.

    Perhaps in the name of full intellectual honesty, we should consider the converse of the hypothesis as well – it isn’t neccesarily that religious belief causes evolutionary advantage – it might be that God rewards believers (or punishes non-believers). The only assumption for that line of reasoning is that the believers are correct in their belief that God exists.

  4. Sean Aqui Says:

    David: You’re right, that was carelessly expressed. I was trying to summarize a view expressed by one of the scientists featured in the story, who said:

    “So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn’t this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking “what is materially false to be trueâ€Â? and “what is materially true to be false.”

    The actual story, and my post, takes a far broader and more balanced perspective.

  5. Sean Aqui Says:

    It might further be interesting to try to tease out which believers have the highest success rate — as a possible pointer to the One True Religion.

    Not that I believe in that. I imagine the title of “most successful religion” would depend on the time period sampled.

  6. Dan Says:

    I stated thus:

    The birthrates of nations who practise religions far outstrips those who do not. Your assertion, Mr. Aqui, that religion is “maladaptive to survival� is based on your own idee fixe, not any objective evidence.

    and you answered:

    Actually, the European countries with the lowest birthrates are also the ones with the most religious and traditional cultures: Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. So the picture isn’t that simple.

    Are Spain and Portugal, Greece and Italy really “the most religious and traditional” and what exactly does that mean? In what way are the Spanish “more traditional” than the French?

    More importantly, have you compared non-European countries to European ones? Many non-European nations are profoundly religious and religion plays a greater role in their lives. Yemen, for example, has a birth explosion.

  7. Richard Says:

    Higher birth rates are not an advantage to survival, at least in humans. 6.3 billion and counting.

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