Evolution for Everyone

Those who are following my Stealth blogs have been on the edge of their seats, waiting to know the true nature of religion (see Stealth III for details). It is a superorganism? A form of exploitation? A disease? Like a moth to flame? Like obesity? A roll of the dice? And the answer is…

ALL OF THE ABOVE! Yuk! Yuk! Before I provide a more interesting answer, let me explain the meaning of this one. Biological and cultural evolution are messy processes with lots going on at the same time. Religion is not a single thing but a large collection of traits–what mathematicians call a fuzzy set. Insofar as the six major hypotheses are plausible for evolutionary theory as a whole, all of them will be at least partially relevant to the large collection of traits that we associate with religion. Still, some hypotheses can be more relevant than others, allowing a more interesting answer. And the answer is…

THE SUPERORGANISM HYPOTHESIS! If you could say only one thing about religion, it would be this: Most enduring religions have what Emile Durkheim called “secular utility.” They define, motivate, and coordinate groups to achieve collective goals in this life. They promote cooperation within the group and bristle with defenses against the all-important problem of cheating. Using the terms that I introduced in Stealth I , they score high on practical realism, no matter how much they depart from factual realism along the way.

Not only is this the single most explanatory hypothesis, but I also claim that it will become obvious in retrospect. Transformations of the obvious have occurred repeatedly in the history of science. When Darwin was a young man, he went on a fossil-hunting expedition to a valley in Wales with his professor, Adam Sedgwick. There were no fossils because the entire valley had been scoured by glaciers. Darwin and Sedgwick couldn’t see the evidence for glaciers because the theory of glaciation had not yet been proposed (by Louis Agassiz in 1837). In retrospect, the evidence for glaciers was so obvious that the glaciers might as well have still been there, as Darwin recounts in his autobiography–but a theory was required to organize the evidence. Lyell’s theory of geology and Darwin’s theory of evolution accomplished a transformation of the obvious at a much larger scale. I claim that a transformation of the obvious is in progress with respect to the secular utility of religion.

I expand upon this theme in an article titled “Evolution and Religion: The Transformation of the Obvious,” which is part of a new edited volume on evolution and religion and is available on my website. Here I can only hint at how byproduct and individualistic accounts of religion can be reconciled with the concept of group-level secular utility. Byproduct theorists claim that the psychological traits associated with religion evolved by genetic evolution for reasons that had nothing to do with religion. An example is the concept of a “hyperactive agency detection device (HADD)” developed by Justin Barrett and others, which makes us prone to explain events as the actions of intentional human-like agents. This tendency could well have evolved by genetic evolution for reasons that have nothing to do with religion, as byproduct theorists claim, but we still need to know how it is employed in religious belief. Evolution has been famously described as a tinkerer, building new structures out of old parts. The adaptations of today were the byproducts and exaptations (to use a bit of evolutionary jargon) of past ages. So, does HADD still qualify as a byproduct when it comes to religion, like a moth to flame, or has it become part of the adaptive machinery of religion that contributes to secular utility?

With respect to the individual benefits of religion, suppose that you discover a grand mansion, better than anything that you could have constructed on your own, with a sign on the door that says “Welcome! Move right in!” You would be a fool to refuse, and your decision might be purely selfish, with only your own welfare in mind. You thrive in the mansion, so does this count as an individual benefit? Perhaps in terms of your decision and welfare, but as evolutionists we are trying to figure out how the mansion got there. That required a collective effort, returning us to group-level secular utility.

That’s the best I can do to convince you of the transformation of the obvious in half a blog. For the second half, I want to focus on the consequences of accepting the superorganism hypothesis. In Stealth III, I stressed that it isn’t enough to announce that something is a threat. We need to know what kind of threat to take appropriate action. If you’re a monkey and the threat is a leopard, you need to climb a tree. If the threat is an eagle, you need to climb down from the tree. Each major evolutionary hypothesis comes to a different conclusion about the nature of religion, the degree to which it poses a threat in modern life, and what we can do about it. That’s why the debate is so important. We are not engaged in idle philosophizing but making decisions that have important consequences in the real world. Here are a number of conclusions that emerge from the superorganism hypothesis at such an elementary level that they are unlikely to be wrong.

First, viewing religious groups as superorganisms doesn’t make everything nice. If you’re an ecologist, you already know what organisms do to each other. They compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting, and engage in mutualistic interactions. No less can be expected of superorganisms, which merely increase the scale at which these interactions take place.

Second, acknowledging the secular utility of religion makes religious systems more like secular systems, such as governments and business corporations, than they previously appeared. Everyone knows that governments and business corporations are supposed to deliver benefits in this world to their members, even when they fail, usually because of corruption from within. Religions appear different only because they depart so flagrantly from factual realism. If it turns out that there is method to religious madness, then we can regard all enduring cultural systems as “corporate units,” as anthropologists were once fond of putting it.

Third, there are no strong theoretical reasons for expecting religious groups to be more biased than secular groups toward negative between-group interactions, such as competition and predation, as opposed to neutral or positive interactions. I’m one of the few people who can address this issue because I have studied a random sample of religions, chosen without any particular hypothesis in mind (see my website for the paper titled “Testing major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample” ). The majority of religions in the sample originated and spread in a non-violent fashion–think of early Christianity and current versions such as 7th Day Adventism. I am not claiming that religious groups are biased toward pacifism, only that they are like secular groups in employing the full range of options in their interactions with other groups.

Finally, once we begin to think of human groups of all sorts as like species interacting with each other in an ecosystem–what I call the ecological/evolutionary paradigm–we can begin to think more constructively about how to manage between-group interactions, religious and otherwise. The distinction between religious and secular remains important and interesting, but is best understood within a larger theoretical framework provided by the ecological/evolutionary paradigm.

That’s the best I can do in half a blog to describe the consequences of accepting the superorganism hypothesis. In the next installment of the Stealth series, I will show how the new atheists, guided primarily by the other major hypotheses, reach conclusions that are ineffective, silly, and worse. They are like monkeys issuing false alarms and sending us scurrying in all the wrong directions.