Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Does belief in God confer an evolutionary edge?

I was listening yesterday to NPR's "All Things Considered" when it ran a piece entitled "Is Believing In God Evolutionarily Advantageous?" (You can read the story, or listen to it, by following that link.) Here's one interior snippet:
Dominic Johnson is a professor at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and another one of the leaders in this field. And to Johnson, before you can understand the role religion and the supernatural might have played in making us the people we are today, you really have to appreciate just how improbable our modern lives are.

Today we live in a world where perfect strangers are incredibly nice to each other on a regular basis. All day long, strangers open doors for each other, repair each other's bodies and cars and washing machines. They swap money for food and food for money. In short: they cooperate.

This cooperation makes all kinds of things possible, of course. Because we can cooperate, we can build sophisticated machines and create whole cities — communities that require huge amounts of coordination. We can do things that no individual or small group could do.

The question is: How did we get to be so cooperative? For academics like Johnson, this is a profound puzzle.
Johnson illustrated the conundrum with a personal recollection: Johnson was paying the fare to board a train in New York City, and as the gate opened to admit him, a child ran up, seemingly out of nowhere, and pushed his way through too.

The kid got something for nothing. Why isn't that the human norm?

The answer may be that neither the subway nor society in general works properly when only some pay while others freeload. Why should you pay taxes when you know (or at least suspect) that your neighbors are fudging? If enough people start to feel that way, the tax system, and, ultimately, society breaks down completely.

What keeps people on the straight and narrow? It may be belief in the Hereafter. We may not be caught and punished by the IRS for cheating on our taxes, but we may fear that we are condemning ourselves to eternal torment.

And it's not just us in the Puritan-fueled West who think that way. All human cultures, it is believed, have some instinct of a supernatural force or being -- a Deity or deities who can punish or reward. Even atheists have such impulses from time to time, as the linked story relates, though they do their best to suppress them.

Is this religious impulse part of our evolutionary 'hard wiring?'

Evolution is supposed to be about passing down your own genes. That's fundamentally selfish, or at least a concern confined to one's immediate family. How did we as a species discover that taking care of others increases the odds of one's own genetic survival?

Anyone who's read any science fiction will be familiar with the argument that religion is only an agent of oppression. Tricksters who guessed when the rain was coming or when it might flood bamboozled others into feeding them. And then the tricksters refined their observational skills and kept them secret in order to keep the yokels in line. Religion allows an elite to impose its will by creating fear of a Higher Power. And no one needs to go beyond today's newspaper to find examples of oppression and abuses ostensibly in the name of religion -- and practically any religion you care to name, any day of the week.

But -- maybe -- it's the oppression part that is the perversion, not the religious impulse itself. Maybe the religious impulse itself is good and healthy and necessary to our survival as a species.
So the argument goes that as our human ancestors spread around the world in bands, keeping together for food and protection, groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together.

We are their descendants. And Johnson says their belief in the supernatural is still very much with us.
Isn't that just the sort of trick a Creator would play on us?

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