Does religion evolve?

Here's a comment that represents a widely held misconception about the evolution of religion:

Whenever there is an discussion about religions and changes in religions someone always pulls out the argument that religions evolve. I am very sorry but I believe that applying the concept of evolution to religion is not a valid argument.

The argument suggests that religions start off as primitive beliefs and then change to become better beliefs. This is not the idea of evolution. Evolution does not necessarily make life forms better. Evolution changes life forms and sometimes these changes enable the creature to survive in its environment better, but if the environment changes again the creature could be doomed to extinction. Evolution does not mean that a creature becomes a better or more advanced creature.

Since animism appears to have been an early belief system does that make it more primitive then polytheism? Since polytheism appears to be an earlier belief then monotheism does that make monotheism a better belief system?

What is wrong with this?

Several things. For a start, it is clear that evolution does not make things globally better, but often it can make things locally better adapted, and if religions evolve we might expect that they become better adapted to their social ecology. And they do. Religious doctrines adapt to local intellectual requirements, and religious rituals and prohibitions (say, about abortion) adapt to the social needs of the host society.

Second, it is not a claim of the evolution of religion hypothesis that religions do, in fact, get "better" or more advanced. There is nothing, for example, requiring a sequence of animism→polytheism→monotheism. Monotheisms have a higher social fitness in large scale empires or cultures, whereas polytheisms tend to be regional religions - and there are exceptions to both rules.

The view that cultural evolution required a lineal sequence that was predetermined is the old positivist view of history, deriving from Comte. But cultures and religions do not evolve like a fetus develops, through predetermined stages, and so an evolutionary view of religion is actually more realistic. Religions change over time, they go extinct, and they split into distinct traditions. They adapt to their environment, they construct their environment in part, all just like organismic evolution.

The problem a lot of religious people have with an evolutionary account of religion is that they presume, without any historical warrant, that their religion, at any rate, must be better than its predecessors or competitor. It would be like, oh, I don't know, thinking that your own species was somehow the best thing that had ever come along, and we all know how ridiculous that would be to believe.

More like this

The NYTimes magazine has an excellent article on the controversy within science as to the meaning of God. This is different from the cultural controversy as to the validity of Revelation because it is concerned with why religion may have evolved as opposed to whether it evolved. Lost in the…
With all the fuss lately about the atheistic books of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it is easy to overlook another glut of books that tend to threaten religion. I am referring to the series of books intending to provide a scientific basis for the prevalence of religious belief. Examples of the…
Aristotle said that for any well-defined topic, there has to be an object of study. What is the object of the study of religion? Well, for a start, it is not God, but the conceptions and roles that gods play in religion. If a God exists, that object of study is not available to us to empirically…
During the first few years of ScienceBlogs there was a lot of talk about religion. Yes, there's talk about religion now, but it's toned down in the wake of the ebbing of the publicity around The God Delusion. Naturally in the wake of the New Atheism a raft of conventional apologetics have been…

I agree wholeheartedly. I'd written out more or less the same thing in this comment box but then realized that there was more to the post after "What is wrong with this?"

Aah - Feed readers.

By J.H. Swain (not verified) on 02 Feb 2008 #permalink

The problem a lot of religious people have with an evolutionary account of religion is that they presume, without any historical warrant, that their religion, at any rate, must be better than its predecessors or competitor.

If they believe that religions evolve into "better" forms, then obviously their current faith must necessarily be false or incomplete, since a better variant is destined to replace it. But I'm surprised that religious folks would take that view in the first place, since they usually see religious "truth" as absolute.

All of this assumes that religions evolve as life does, based on a unit of replication. I assume that would be Dawkins' "meme". But has anyone described in convincing detail, an actual mechanism for memetic evolution? And can analogies to biology be safely made? Even if memes were a viable model, I'd bet on significant differences.

As far as later species being "better" than earlier ones - perhaps "better" is the wrong word. However, I would think the long term trend towards the emergence of increasingly "complex" forms seems undeniable, even if it isn't smooth. Not sure if that would apply to religions.

Of course religions evolve, but it is silly to conflate two separate meanings of the word "evolution." "Evolution" as applied to living creatures means something completely different than the sorts of general changes that happen in religion.

It's like a person talking about the "gravity of the situation" and then having somebody else complain that that cannot be right because the situation does not vary as the inverse squared of the distance.

It's not a metaphor, it's a close analogy. Cultural evolution is as darwinian as the biological - cultural change is not directed or necessarily progressive, and religion is a part of culture.

jeff: I do not think either biological or cultural evolution is trending towards complexity. Obviously, any increase over minimal complexity is an increase, but the bulk of life is no more complex now than it was 3 billion years ago. Likewise, culture is no more complex than it was in the Pleistocene, but we now have major communication and high population density which makes the totality more complex. Each individual has about the complexity of culture that they would have had in a foraging society, going by studies on modern foragers.

Likewise, there's no reason to think modern religion is any more complex than that of, say, the Axial Age. It's just able to communicate faster.

Evolution of religion - a timeline:

Religion 3000 BC: My God can beat up your God, and I have the latest, most advanced stone battle axe to prove it.

Religion 2000 AD: My God can beat up your God, and I have the latest, most advanced nuclear tipped missile to prove it.

Religion 5000 AD [.............] Hmm...somebody's God must have won.....

But has anyone described in convincing detail, an actual mechanism for memetic evolution? Language may give a good description. I find it hard to believe that anyone would argue that vulgar latin (for example) didn't evolve into different romance languages.

By Brian English (not verified) on 02 Feb 2008 #permalink

I think the shortfall of memetic evolution is that it presumes that the sine qua non for evolution is a replicator. I disagree with this (now - I once didn't). It seems to me all you need is a reproducer, some entity that makes more of itself. If replication is involved, as it is in a lot, not all, of biology, well and good.

The "mechanism" (another term I have problems with; there are so many) here is that humans do reproduce ideas, behaviours, symbols, institutions, rituals, artifacts and languages. There are well defined units in some of them, none in others, and in most, a mixture. This in no way defeats a cultural Darwinism, though, because it (i) is not required in Darwin's original view of evolution, and (ii) there are non-replicator forms of inheritance in biology, which is entirely subject to Darwinian evolution.

Most memetics is mimetic, is the slogan.

Brian I'm not an expert in this area and you will have to follow it up for yourself but one of the first thinkers to define the principle of natural selection in evolution in the 18th century was the comparative linguist Lord Monboddo in his The Origin and Progress of Man and Language (6 volumes, 1773-1792). He is known to have influenced Erasmus Darwin but it is not known if Charles knew of his writings.

"Grey evolution"

A marvellous jeweller told me rumours about grey mould in UK theatre.
A marvelous jeweler told me rumors about gray mold in US theater.
How come ? Well, it's evolution of language.

Karen Armstrong's "The Great Transformation" well illustrates the idea that religions adapt to fit their particular environment. A wonderful book and recommended reading.

By Nebularry (not verified) on 03 Feb 2008 #permalink

John says,

It's not a metaphor, it's a close analogy. Cultural evolution is as darwinian as the biological ...

Since it is well know that the vast majority of biological evolution is non-Darwinian--in the sense that it is not a result of natural selection--does this mean that most of cultural evolution is also accidental and not selective?

If so, I agree with your statement but I would have phrased it differently to emphasize that neither biological evolution or cultural evolution are Darwinian.

Religious evolution could be a fascinating subject. Clearly it is heavily influenced by the actions of a very small number of influential individuals, and hence the predictive capabilities of any developed theory would be low. Probably most of the time well meaning intelligent people are influencing the direction of change. I suspect that most of the time complexity is increasing, but then occasionally someone comes along and pushes thing back towards what are perceived to be the original pure creation. Of course as lanquages, and culture evolves the relevance, and understanding of the old writings grows less well tuned to the modern world.

By loosening the requirements, e.g. going from replicator to reproducer, one can surely claim that cultural evolution is "like" biological evolution. I've got no problem with that. What I'm less clear about is what concrete benefits the study of religion gets from the analogy, over and beyond borrowing the prestige of a tremendously successful system of explanation. What specific mechanisms or themes carry over between, say, attempts to account for how trilobites evolved between the Cambrian and the Ordovician and efforts to understand Protestantism between the 16th and 20th centuries? Most of the arguments I've read about mimetics have been rather scholastic. I'd be interested in evidence of the fertility of the analogy.

By Jim Harrison (not verified) on 03 Feb 2008 #permalink

I do not think either biological or cultural evolution is trending towards complexity. Obviously, any increase over minimal complexity is an increase, but the bulk of life is no more complex now than it was 3 billion years ago.

Ah, but I wasn't referring to the bulk of life, but rather to the emergence of (what I would see) as increasingly complex forms that didn't exist previously, i.e. simple replicator -> replicator with a membrane -> single cell -> multicellular -> nervous systems, etc. And finally (and chauvinistically), humans and all of the extended phenotypic complexity that surrounds us (culture, technology, etc).

Perhaps what the creationists call "irreducible complexity" may provide a ratcheting effect for complex systems. If system has evolved temporary mutual interdependencies, and changing or removing any of those dependencies breaks it, then the system can only remain static or evolve by adding on more components. Just an idea...

I think the shortfall of memetic evolution is that it presumes that the sine qua non for evolution is a replicator. I disagree with this (now - I once didn't). It seems to me all you need is a reproducer, some entity that makes more of itself.

Fire can make more of itself, does that mean it's capable of evolution? Some form of inheritance is required.

I'm not sure that memetic evolution actually does assume a well-defined replicator as in genetics (that's why I was asking). A meme is something that can be inherited with modification, but that doesn't mean it can be easily separated into gene-like components and analyzed.

The point is, if you're going to draw an analogy between biological evolution and religion, you would need to define exactly what these reproducers are and how they inherit with modification.

Larry, I won't argue semantics with you, but "Darwinian" does not equal "natural selection"; Darwin allowed for a considerable amount of randomness in his view of evolution and later Weismann even identified things of contingency, like the founder effect. I think you mean "neo-Darwinian", and I would agree - neither all the evolution of life nor culture is neo-Darwinian.

Jim: there is a real problem of results with cultural evolutionary models, particularly memetic ones. However, Richard Boyd and Peter Richerson have done a lot of empirical and theoretical work on cultural evolution. They have extended it from being a simple analogue of diffusionist models in anthropology to being a theoretical scheme in its own right. I'm not competent to dispute their math, but I have problems with their dual inheritance model, however.

Jeff: a reproducer involves heredity, where fire doesn't. Making more of itself in this sense means making copies, not adding to the mass.

Evolution is the description of a natural process which occurs as time moves forward in a tide that takes all things with it. In this time and space it is, perhaps, one of those times of a rapid evolutionary process for religion. This point is made in a very thought provoking manner at a website I recently visited: http://www.spaceagereligion.com .

By John Allen (not verified) on 03 Feb 2008 #permalink

Religious doctrines adapt to local intellectual requirements, and religious rituals and prohibitions (say, about abortion) adapt to the social needs of the host society

If all of these things--religious doctrine, local intellectual requirements, rituals and prohibitions, social needs--if all of these things are interdependent but all change according to their own distinct logics over time, what would you expect to see? Continual improvement? Or just change?

Also, what would constitute evidence that culture does not evolve?

Was the evolutionary process of humanity over the past 1000 years toward improvement or change? I would say that earth and humanity are moving forward in the process of the Universe. Rather than improvement, humanity is responding to that process

By John Allen (not verified) on 14 Feb 2008 #permalink

I don't know what evidence or reason one might have for the universe or humanity or anything else getting "better", but on current evolutionary and physical theories, the only advances are localised.

As humankind as evolved in knowledge and intellect, we have come to understand that the Earth and the human primate species are not the center of the world or physical existence. Not really too long ago, the intelligent human was certain that the Sun rotated around the flat earth. Every educated and intelligent human was certain of this fact of reality and would likely take a sarcastic attitude at any question of the fact. This knowledge, however, has changed/advanced, as a global paradigm, to a much more expanded vision. From the limited vision of the human eye, humankind has changed/advanced to the ability to view the Universe through the eye of the Hubble Telescope. This change/advancement in vision is such a change that it renders the prior knowledge invalid. While humankind has moved from an invalid understanding of how the earth fits into the external physical environment beyond earth, toward a more valid understanding, it could be argued that the knowledge has not advanced, but actually changed into another dimension of uncertainty which ultimately will be proven invalid as we advance and change into further understanding of the external physical environment.

This is not to mention that every single cell within the human form has an infinitely small dimension indicating that a microscope can peer into the infinite vastness of the sub-atomic Universe within a single human cell at the same time a telescope can peer into the infinite vastness of the atomic structured Universe outside the cell. Where exactly does this leave the human being who looks up from the electronic microscope, viewing the infinitely small Universe, to look through a telescope, to view the infinitely large Universe? (Microcosm + Macrocosm = Universe) It appears to leave humanity and the earth at a center point of two infinite directions (Within and without). Here we are at the center again the center of Infinity - that place where all the infinite space within a human cell, and all the infinite space outside the human cell, meet to form material existence and the human primate who is again the center and reason for it all.

Humankind has changed from spliting flint to make tools and weapons to spliting atoms to make tools and weapons. Is this change a form of advancement? At the human level it is a value judgement and a matter of perspective. No single argument could stand as absolute.

So, as all the Universe and galaxies and planets spin in majestic motion, the human primate sits still and contemplates evolution. Are we changing, advancing, or growing better? I suggest we are spining with the Universe. We are not driving the Universe, the Universe is driving us.

By John Allen (not verified) on 15 Feb 2008 #permalink