First of all, I apologize for the most grandiose blog title of all time. I was going to add Love and War to the title too, but I ran out of space.
My subject is yesterday’s Times Magazine synopsis of the current scientific explanations for the universal human craving for some sort of God. The article neatly (perhaps too neatly) divides the scientists into dueling camps: the adaptionists and the non-adaptionists (spandrelists?).
The non-adaptationists hold that religious belief is a side-effect of our cortical evolution. God emerges naturally from the constellation of tricks and tools that the mind evolved for other circumstances. Non-adaptionists tend to focus on our ability to detect agency and form a theory of other people’s minds as being the main instigators of “the god delusion”:
Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions.
Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.
What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”
Adaptionists, on the other hand, tend to focus on how the invention of religion (and its necessary divinities) helped early humans survive in the wilderness.
So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”
Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.
I think it’s a little silly to divide the scientists into two distinct theoretical camps, since both theories make important points. (As Razib notes, adaptionists and non-adaptionists are also addressing different levels on inquiry. Non-adaptionists are interested in the neural underpinnings of religion, while adaptionists are more concerned with the cultural rituals.) But I think the divide also causes the scientists to neglect a real point of intersection, where both theories can shed a little light on the evolution of religion problem.
I’m talking about morality. We now know that many of our most fundamental moral decisions depend upon our ability to form a theory of other people’s minds. When we contemplate moral questions involving other people, the superior temporal sulcus and medial frontal gyrus became active. What makes these folds of gray matter interesting is that are responsible for interpreting the thoughts and feelings of other people. In other words, they remind us that other human beings are also human beings, just like us. When we think about doing something immoral, it is these brain regions that activate our amygdala, and make us feel such awful and guilty emotions.
What triggers this sympathetic cortical network? Neuroscientists like Joshua Greene believe that our mind automatically distinguishes between “personal” and “impersonal” moral judgments. A personal moral situation occurs whenever we consider harming a specific person. (As Greene puts it, these actions can be roughly defined as “Me Hurts You,” a concept simple enough for a primate to understand.) When confronted with a personal moral dilemma, our “theory of mind” brain areas are activated, and we start to imagine what somebody else might experience if we pursued a certain course of action.
Here’s the odd twist: the same set of cortical tools – this tendency to see agency everywhere and naturally imagine the minds of others – might underlie both our morality and our religiousity. It might make us both good and holy. Of course, nobody knows if we evolved a theory of mind specifically for moral purposes. A theory of mind and ability to detect agency are probably useful for many different things. But there’s little question that thinking about each other keeps us from killing each other. It helps to reign in our nastiness, which is crucial if you are living in a closely knit group of primates.
So that whole chain of reasoning seems to support the non-adaptionist camp. God is a by-product of brain areas that evolved for other purposes, like morality. But here’s where the group selectionist explanation comes in handy. The invention of religion as a cultural institution has clearly helped to codify our basic moral instincts. The ten commandments didn’t invent morality – our moral instincts were invented by natural selection back in the Pleistocene – but it did make morality both transparent and universal. It encouraged us to obey our moral instincts – thou shalt not kill – which clearly had beneficial repercussions for both the group and the individual believers. Just as the cultural codification of language allowed our symbolic brain to reach it’s full potential, so might the cultural codification of morality by religion allowed our innate moral instincts to become even more powerful. After all, we are much less likely to do wrong if we also think that doing wrong will send us straight to hell.
Here’s the moral: if we are ever going to explain the evolution of religion, then both camps – the adaptionists and the non-adaptionists – are going to have to be right.