Is religious cognition adaptive?

There was a paper recently in PNAS on "The cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief". A couple of bloggers, Epiphenom and I Am David, come to opposite conclusions. Epiphenom says that the study shows that religion is not a side-effect of the evolution of cognitive processes, while IAD says that is exactly what it shows.

The paper purports to show that when thinking about God or beliefs about God, the very same areas of the brain are used that are used in ordinary social interactions and so on:

The MDS results confirmed the validity of the proposed psychological structure of religious belief. The 2 psychological processes previously implicated in religious belief, assessment of God’s level of involvement and God’s level of anger (11), as well as the hypothesized doctrinal to experiential continuum for religious knowledge, were identifiable dimensions in our MDS analysis. In addition, the neural correlates of these psychological dimensions were revealed to be well-known brain networks, mediating evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions.


The findings support the view that religiosity is integrated in cognitive processes and brain networks used in social cognition, rather than being sui generis (2–4). The evolution of these networks was likely driven by their primary roles in social cognition, language, and logical reasoning (1, 3, 4, 51). Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes (52).

Does this mean religion is not an adaptation? Well, yes, and no. It depends on what you are trying to explain.

Anything that has evolved for one reason was based on pre-existing traits or organs that evolved for another. Nothing comes from nothing in evolution; at least, nothing complex. And whatever else one might think of religious cognitive behaviours and capacities, they are complex. That they occur on a prior substrate of cognitive features is no surprise. Are they now being used in that way because there is an adaptive benefit? There's the rub. Also, fMRI is a relatively blunt instrument. I have heard it described as trying to work out how the internet works by checking the overall throughput at various exchanges. So there can still be special adaptations, although as yet there's no evidence of it.

One of the major explanations of religious dispositions is that it parasitises, as it were, existing cognitive capacities. So it is explained as a non-adaptive byproduct. But if it were an adaptation, what else would it subsist upon? Our ability to walk bipedally subsists upon a quadrupedal locomotory system, but nobody thinks that is maladaptive or nonadaptive (or at least I hope they don't). Since everything that is an adaptation is a modification of some prior organ or trait, the question for any possibly adaptive trait is, when was it subjected to selection?

If religious cognition was subjected to selection, say, after the growth of various other capacities, such as symbolic communication or the ability to recognise a certain number of social agents, then it would be subsequently adaptive.To show that religious behaviours and cognition are not adaptive, we have to show that there is no reasonable account of them being subjected to selection, and that is actually a far harder thing to show.

One way we might do this is by showing that every case of religious behaviour actually lessens the fitness on average of its bearers. But that isn't even true in the case of celibate clergy or priests - inclusive fitness means that their families rise in status and have access to all kinds of support and resources. In some Catholic countries, to be a priest's nephew meant advancement in business and society. Moreover, highly organised religious societies do tend to compete well against disorganised societies (think of the Csarist Russian encroachment against the Siberian tribes in the 18th century), although how much that is due to social cohesion from religion versus social cohesion from other causes is moot. At the very least religion is used as a social glue, a point noted by Machiavelli and Burke among others.

So there could be "fine-tuning" selection for religious dispositions based upon the existing social cognitive functions of human beings, and indeed they may have made that sort of selection possible, and fMRIs will not tell us one way or the other.

How to prove the alternative hypothesis? I cannot say. A metalevel analysis of religiosity and social cohesion might show no correlation, or even a negative one (in which case we could usefully ask, why does religion persist at all? One answer might be the Dawkins/Dennett "mind virus" explanation - religiosity is evolving separately from human biology and so the adaptation is for the memes not the bearers of the memes. I find this very unconvincing, for several reasons. The main one is what I'll call the Ewald Objection. Paul Ewald, in a major book on the coevolution and virulence of diseases, pathogens and their hosts, noted that as the replication rate of the disease approaches that of the hosts, commensuality evolves as their genetic interests tend to coincide. Religion is mostly transmitted vertically, and so the "interests" of the religion and the interests of the hosts/adherents are pretty much the same. So religion ought to be a commensual rather than a parasite. And in most societies it is. Only when there are major social and political upheavals, such as in the early second millennium BCE, or during the rise of Islam and the shifts in both directions, or in the height of the Christian imperial period, and today, do religions not transmit with parentage. In these cases, religious ideas may be quite deleterious to their hosts if they are selectively advantaged.

So I tend to think that religion is adaptive at various levels in various conditions, and no general claims can be made about it. The capacity to be religious is clearly an outgrowth of other evolved capacities, but that does not mean either that it is not itself an adaptation, nor that it is adaptive either. We have to find out rather than assert a priori if that is the case.


More like this

In some Catholic countries, to be a priest's nephew meant advancement in business and society.

Yep. Not to mention the advantages inherent in being the son of a priest or, better yet, the son of a pope. Very odd, but true.

By Willa Jean (not verified) on 09 May 2009 #permalink

Cheers Larry for the link. Just a small correction: I've called my blog 'Ego sum Daniel' but 'I am Daniel' (not David) would be OK since that's what it says on the title bar.

I'd also like to nuance my view a bit. I don't think I come to such a definite conclusion in my post as you suggest. The fact that religious belief, not religion as a whole, seems to stem from a prior substrate of cognitive features, as you put it, is in my opinion a very clear argument for religious belief being a secondary effect of our cognition. One might think that it's nothing new or surprising, but considering the amount of people that need to stress the "dignity" of religion among human cognitive and behavioral features I thought this study's way of grounding at least one component of it, belief, in regular cognitive and evolutionary processes was worth attention. I thought the conclusion drawn by Tom at Epiphenom was too strong, but after a comment he left on my post I don't think we're necessarily contradicting each other.

Whether or not religious belief became adaptive after it emerged, or whether it's adaptive today, is not something I go into at depth, but I still feel skeptical to the need to explain it in only adaptive terms. I also want to stress the distinction I made between religious belief and religion taken as a whole since I feel the whole gamut of religious behaviors falls outside of the scope of this study.

How embarrassing, I called you Larry while correcting you for missing my name. Sorry about that John. I was reading The Sandwalk at the same time and 'Larry' just slipped out I guess.

I wonder whether it wouldn't be helpful to distinguish more clearly between religion and spirituality in this context.

Spiritual beliefs (esp. the beliefs in a life after death and some sort of invisible agency) seem to have some biological basis in cognitive features that evolved for other purposes, and as such might have been adaptive or a by-product (I suspect the latter).

Religion builds upon that same foundation, but I would think it came up too recently in human history, and too quickly, to have been selected against or for on an individual basis. One could argue whether religion conferred a selective advantage to societies (in the context of Bronze Age agrarian societies), but that results in another chicken/egg conundrum: religion could have been either the cause or the result of higher social organization (or both to a degree). I highly doubt that religious individuals ever had a selective advantage, but that might no longer be all that relevant at that point in history.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 09 May 2009 #permalink

"Nothing comes from nothing in evolution; at least, nothing complex."

I understand what you are saying with this (I think) but if any creationists read it they are going to whoop for joy at how you are saying that evolution can't produce anything complex. I predict that this sentence will be quotemined extensively.

Good post, John.

I can say I'm not a big fan of the "X has been associated with some other function, therefore X is not an adaptation" style of argument. If we treat any exaptation as if it is eo ipso not an adaptation, then adaptations are excluded from our explanations by definition, since every adaptation is an adaptation of something that's already there.

I know you're not a big fan of group selection, but I think in the case of cultural phenomena like religion it's a hypothesis worth considering. Religious belief/thought/practice might be a genetic byproduct, but an adaptation for cultural groups. Human groups united by religious beliefs might out-compete other groups in society. In a case like that, the byproduct explanation and the adaptation explanation are complementary rather than alternative. One explains how the genetic underpinnings of the neurological mechanisms evolved (as a spandrel of cognitive evolution), while the other explains why religions are frequently so dominant in diverse human cultures (they adapt human groups better than other kinds of cultural groupings).

Religion is mostly transmitted vertically, and so the "interests" of the religion and the interests of the hosts/adherents are pretty much the same.

Culture is also transmitted vertically. Is culture also adaptive? One might also ask what the difference between religion and culture is, in this context.

Religious cognition likely emerged as a unique combination of these several evolutionarily important cognitive processes

What is the relevant difference between "religious cognition" and any other kind of cognition (apart from any truth claims)? Is this referring to some specific kind of first person "spiritual" experience?

A woman givng birth might tell you bipedalism is maladaptive, but probably not so politely. I am still waiting on transporter technology...

I object to assuming something is an adaption unless you can prove it isn't, which seems to be happening. My conservative scientist (who alternatly plays chess either on my left or right shoulder depending on the day and subject) doesn't see proof from any of the arguments presented here. Comparing disorganised religion to organised religion doesn't prove the point. Relative fitness of religous vs atheists may do nothing more than show that the kind of people who are atheists have character X and religious usually not X and this X or not X causes relative fitness. You cannot tease out the predisposition to religiousty, from the particular effects of the relgion chosen. Yow cant show how an isolated society or atheists vs and isolated society of religious people compare either.

On the whole, unless there can be an objective measure of biological predisposition to religiousity and some method of measuring its effect, I find measuring the adaptedness of social phenomena hazardous.

I guess the issue depends on when we first got religion. If
it was just a few thousand years ago, then the few hundreds
of generations would not be enough for selection to work.

To be an adaptation, a trait has to be:

1. genetic,
2. species typical
3. functional and
4. originating in response to a specific
problem in the ancestral past (the EEA)

That religion is genetic is doubtful. Studies on the adult
brain need supporting evidence from elsewhere. Haven't seen
MZ/DZ twin studies, but, well, almost every atheist seems
to have all their grandparents religious.

Religion might be species typical - there is hardly a
culture where it does not exist. It is probably functional;
it provides a support system both psychological and social.

The last one, whether it arose to solve a problem, is also
unknown. One could argue conscious awareness, by itself,
created a problem of motivation (we know we are going to
die; always plan exactly till the end of the expected
lifespan). An adaptation that drives religion would then
solve this problem.

Selection does not select adaptations; it selects behavioral
traits which help one breed better. In effect, on every
round, it selects a set of modules which combined
lead to reproductive success. Looked at that way, it can
be argued selection favored the combined set of cognition
and religion, both being adaptations. Of course, the 4
criteria above would still have to be met.

What if religion were an adaptation? No big deal.
Adaptations do not generate spontaneous behavior; they
are processing modules which generate behavioral output
in response to environmental input. They are also calibrated
during development. Even if religion were an adaptation,
one still can build a society where no one is religious.
Adaptations do not force behavior, they are reactive
modules. Their trigger is still social, and hence they
activate only under specific social circumstances.

Ajoy, I do not think that an adaptation must either be genetic (the religion is a meme argument mitigates against that), or even when it is biological that it must be modular. There is some evidence for modularity outside the cognitive domain, but little to no evidence for cognition at all. Instead, I think that we have biological dispositions to think or behave in particular ways. If religiosity is a special adaptation, it must at best be a dispositional trait, not a modular one.

I was using evolutionary psychology terms. Standard EP
(D. Buss, for eg) does define adaptation as genetic, and
considers the brain to be massively modular. A biological
disposition is a module, calibrated by development, and
responding to environmental input. I was thinking aloud on
what if the religious/spiritual drive were such an

Religion being meme of course has not been proven either.

As to modularity within the cognitive domain, well there
is a branch of EP, evolutionary cognitive neuroscience,
which says there are modules for spatial ability, language,
reading other's emotions, and so forth. See
"Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience", MIT Press,
from Steven M. Platek et. al. for a good summary. I tend
to agree with you that hard evidence is outdistanced by
hypotheses there.

For EP, a dispositional trait is still a module. Modules
are genetically wired, but responsive to both childhood
calibration and later environmental input.

I think the reason for the persistence of religion is more to be found buried in this sentence: "highly organised religious societies do tend to compete well against disorganised societies (think of the Csarist Russian encroachment against the Siberian tribes in the 18th century..." Religious people feel superior to other people and refuse to leave them alone; there is a sense of "divine" entitlement with ready justification for behavior which would have been beyond the pale within small groups. As James Russell Lowell said, "Toward no crimes have men shown themselves so cold-bloodedly cruel as in punishing differences of belief." I personally think that genocide has played a far greater role in the survival of religious ideology than is regarded as comfortable to admit.

By eyeswideopen (not verified) on 10 May 2009 #permalink