Religion and natural selection
On Radio 4's Start the Week I really enjoyed listening to Richard Dawkins, Lisa Randall and Rabbi Jonathan Sachs discuss their views on life, the universe and everything, a real privilege. It got me thinking about why they are so opposed and led me to ponder scientific links between religion and natural selection.
I’d love the opportunity to address my ideas directly to Richard Dawkins but instead I am going to indulge myself on this forum with three ideas; religion and niche, religion being naturally selected, and religion as an adaptation to do what genetics can’t do.
Religion and niche
All species have a niche and these niches can include constructions that are inherited by successive generations that make the success of following generations more likely (a rabbit warren for example). As humans have evolved to be social animals and live in societies we have much more complex niche than other species, and enormous power to affect it, but the fact still remains that we create a niche and wish it to be inherited by successive generations.
Our norms or mores of living and cooperating with each other are so different from any other species that they might appear to be supernatural. No other species takes care of its young to the degree we do, or looks after the sick or elderly, or builds art galleries and so on. These things humans have done for a long time and we view them as totally normal things to do. As these ways of living together need to be persistent over time, attributing them to something that seemingly persists, a god or the sun, enables this behavior to be passed down from generation to generation.
Is religion therefore a behavioural way of protecting and sustaining our niche by making it more likely for the conditions in which humans flourish to be reproduced?
In some ways it makes no difference how that god is imagined to be, religion is as religion does and as long as it is believed in and persists the idea serves its purposes to society. An example of this might be aboriginal Australians whose dreamtime beliefs have persisted for 50,000 years.
Religion and natural selection
If religion is a shared value system and was created to maintain the social order and in that way stabilise our niche then it is a product of natural selection as it differentiated social groups ability to survive (be resilient).
How many different views about god or gods have ever existed in people’s minds? How much have these ideas been naturally selected? If we go back hundreds of thousands of years how much would one social group’s ability to survive be influenced by its ability to successfully organize itself?
Whatever the god or gods happened to be called or looked like makes no difference, but I think the way that religion expresses itself in social organization would. Are there laws that people were expected to obey, social duties? Were there religions that withered on the vine because their method of social organization was inefficient and unable to adapt and were replaced by other systems?
How much did early religious systems conflict with each other and were naturally selected by dint of being associated with failing social organization?
Religion did what genes couldn’t
In the program Richard Dawkins says that evolution by natural selection runs itself, it doesn’t need any intervention. But what do we make of human development in the last 50,000 years?
Humans evolved ability to make tools and develop language has rapidly created social complexity as jobs were divided up, trade began, knowledge being stored/shared, discussion of ideas, culture, art and so on. While genetics brought humans to civilization the subsequent changes have occurred so rapidly that additional non-genetic adaptations were needed. How are we going to live socially with the ever increasing complexity? In short, human development is writing cheques that genetics can’t cash.
Religion in some ways sequences the societal behaviour that is not genetic. For example, the weekly repetition of church service encodes the community with the behavior that is needed/expected in order to function. No one is forced to behave as a human with the values of social justice, equality, and cooperation but if these values are made out to be ordained or compulsory then maybe there is more chance that they will be collectively adopted and prevail/persist though time and this will enable society to prevail.
In this sense we are not genetically predisposed to be human but we are socially predisposed as we learn how to behave different from animals which let’s face it, have to eat raw food every day and don’t enjoy any of the benefits of being human.
These adaptations have been accelerated at times of environmental stress, for example when sea levels rose around 10,000 years ago forcing massive social reorganisation and new religious thinking about how we live together.
At the end Richard Dawkins says that we need to join together to save the planet and we can do all that without believing in anything supernatural, Rabbi counters that by saying that without God we are without hope.