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The Sciences

Did religion evolve?

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 28, 2008 5:46 PM


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Some time ago, I took an internet blowhard to task for misunderstanding even the most basic aspects of how science works. Instead of being able to rebut me, he just blew harder, making light of the idea that ideas of justice and equality could evolve, though of course there was absolutely no substance to any of his dismissals. It's common among people like that to ask how evolution could possibly explain the rise of beliefs or non-physical concepts among humans, in particular religious belief. Evolutionary biologists have lots of answers to that, but an interesting new study indicates that religious belief isn't that hard to evolve. They created a simple simulation, and the results were provocative:

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information. The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information. Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished. "Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," [evolutionary anthropologist James] Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

In the model, the attraction is undefined. It's simply an attraction. If we are to extrapolate to real life, though, I can think of plenty of such attractions. In many religions (OK, almost all of them) non-believers are ostracized, marginalized, and sometimes actively discriminated against. That is a pretty good incentive in a society to shut up and keep your head down. Another potential attraction is one many of us feel: the need to correct errors. Creationists, for example, are quite wrong in nearly everything they believe, and I've written a lot about that. So have hundreds, thousands of other people. That doesn't necessarily translate to creationists propagating, but it is an attraction, if something of a paradoxical one. Religion spawns art, music, writing, and all three of these can attract non-believers. I'm sure if you think about it you can come up with lots more. So this simulation doesn't overly surprise me, but I think it can point the way to more specific models of how a belief in religion can be selected by evolution. I'll be very curious to see where this type of research goes.

Tip o' the allele drift to Larry Klaes.

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