Science and myth do not necessarily occupy exclusive spheres; the one can enlighten and clarify the other. This article explores some methods by which one may study religion scientifically from an evolutionary perspective.
For example, consider the problem of religious change – the paradox that religions, those self-proclaimed guardians of unchanging eternal truth, are themselves subject to change. Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the temple religion of ancient Israel, nor Japanese Buddhism to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama in the 5th cen. B.C.E. Further, a whole host of variations on these religions and others have appeared throughout history, only some of which survive. An analogy to genetic evolution is readily apparent. Why do some religions proliferate, while others die out? Why do those that survive change over time? What are the mechanisms by which religions change in a selection process akin to genetic evolution? These are the questions that might be illuminated by a scientific investigation.
This article explores five methodologies: sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution.
Sociobiology has taken a beating due to controversy, and has become something of a dirty word in academia. Few researchers continue to describe themselves as sociobiologists today. Yet it contributed important concepts which have made their way into mainstream biology, and which lay the foundations for many of the other evolutionary approaches described here. The most important concept is that of the gene’s-eye view. Basically, the idea is that you have to look from the perspective of the actual unit of replication, the gene, and examine its sole interest: replication. The only “concern” (genes have no intentions, of course – we are speaking metaphorically here) is that the gene be reproduced as prolifically as possible and by whatever means or route is expedient. It is thus not the interest of the individual, but rather of the individual’s genes, which must be examined. It doesn’t matter one whit to the gene whether it reproduces via its host individual, or via a relative with an identical copy of the gene. Thus, menopause begins to make sense if women past childbearing age are able to aid grandchildren who also carry their genes. This concept, which expands the scope to include others with identical genes, is called inclusive fitness.
It would be too much to go into all the interesting concepts contributed by sociobiology, though there are many. In terms of the study of religion, sociobiology would suggest looking at religion from a gene’s-eye view, examining how religious behaviors might contribute to the inclusive fitness of relevant genes. This lays the foundation for studying religion from an evolutionary perspective, but leaves out an important factor: the influence of culture. We’ll come to this again when we talk about memetics and coevolution.
Behavorial ecology was founded by anthropologists responding to critiques of sociobiology, and bears the stamp of their methodology. These researchers examine specific behaviors among specific peoples, in ethnographic fashion, and attempt to figure out why these behaviors fit their local ecological conditions. Assuming that evolution will have culled suboptimal behaviors, researchers hunt down the factors that reveal puzzling behaviors as optimal for local conditions. Key to this approach is a careful weighing of all relevant factors in a cost/benefit analysis. For example. making a lavish sacrifice of oxen may seem a counterproductive waste of resources, but if the status conferred by such a sacrifice increases appeal to potential mates, the cost is offset by the benefits. The behavior is thus revealed to be optimal, given local conditions regarding resources and status.
A major problem with this approach is that there is little place for suboptimal behaviors. All behaviors are assumed from the start to be optimal, and those not yet proven to be so simply await a genius researcher who can explain them as such.
As for the study of religion, behavioral ecology offers a valuable tool in the form of the cost/benefit analysis.
Evolutionary psychologists accuse behavioral ecologists of confusing adaptive behavior with adaptations. Adaptive behavior is that which improves fitness in relation to the current environment – i.e. optimal behavior. In contrast, an adaptation is an evolutionary change that improves fitness in relation to the environment for which it evolved, but not necessarily the current environment. Much of human evolution, evolutionary psychologists argue, is evolved for Pleistocene conditions. Our modern environment is quite different, however, and past adaptations may well be maladaptive today. Thus, there is a very real possibility of suboptimal behavior resulting from adaptive lag, or the time it takes for genetic evolution to catch up with changes in the environment.
Evolutionary psychology postulates a human mind that is made up of modules, each an organ producing a certain behavior or range of behaviors adaptive in the Pleistocene. These modules are like programs that keep playing themselves out, sometimes with less than ideal results. Religion, therefore, may be the byproduct of past adaptations, the potentially maladaptive result of Pleistocene modules meeting modern conditions.
A parallel field which shares this view of the mind as modular is the Cognitive Science of Religion. Researchers in this field take much the same approach, with some interesting results. For example, Pascal Boyer (2001) suggests that the mind is predisposed to categorize objects into a shortlist of classes with corresponding attributes. Objects with unexpected attributes, such as a tree that talks, are therefore surprising and memorable. An idea such as the Old Testament’s burning bush is thus more likely to be retained in memory and passed on to others than less remarkable ideas. This gives it an advantage in replication. Insights such as this fit in readily with evolutionary psychology.
But evolutionary psychology has its problems too. Most serious, in my opinion, is over-reliance on the Pleistocene. First of all, humans in that era did not live only in the African savanna, but also in mountainous, forested, and sub-arctic regions. Thus, it is complex to postulate adaptations to such a wide variety of conditions. Furthermore, evolution does not occur all at once – many of our human adaptations may be left over from previous phases of evolution reaching all the way back to invertebrate ancestors. Thus, tracing the origins of behavior to supposed Pleistocene adaptations becomes foggy indeed.
When Richard Dawkins wrote one of the key texts of sociobiology, The Selfish Gene (1976), he included a chapter proposing that there might be other replicators besides the gene which are objects of evolution. Culture may in fact evolve in a quite similar way, replicating by leaping from mind to mind via communication, and surviving with differential success due to limited mental capacity. Dawkins called these replicators memes, and memetics is the study of their evolution. The essential concept is the meme’s-eye view, modeled after the similar genetic concept from sociobiology. With regard to the study of religion, memetics would recommend that we take a religion’s-eye view, asking what most benefits the religion itself. Here we would be talking of a religion as a blindly evolving entity whose only interest is its own replication.
The meme’s-eye view is a revolutionary concept in the study of religion which greatly advances our prospects, but memetics suffers from a fatal flaw: just as sociobiology neglected cultural influence, so memetics neglects genetic influence. In their enthusiasm for the meme’s journey of self-replicaiton, memeticists have thus far largely ignored the effect of genetics on this journey.
The problem of sociobiology and memetics is redressed by gene-culture coevolution. This approach seeks to determine, by rigorous mathematical models, the relative influence of genes and memes in human behaviors. It effectively synthesizes the preceding methodologies while raising the level of rigor to an unprecedented degree. Both culture and genes are found to significantly influence the evolution of human behaviors. For example, genetics surrounding the structure of the visual sense organ drives the evolution of cultural words describing colors. On the other hand, culture can drive genetics. The Indo-European cultural habit of raising cattle has been proposed to lie behind the evolution of adult lactose absorption in northern European peoples, while adults from other parts of the world are generally lactose intolerant.
Coevolution is by far the most promising method for the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, its models involve such esoteric math that few researchers have taken it up, and the layperson is all but barred from participation. Nevertheless, it is probably the best hope for the future.
These five approaches offer great insights into the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. Sociobiology lays the foundations, while the other four provide increasing refinements. This progress culminates in gene-culture coevolution, though this methodology is a daunting challenge to take up. This seems the most promising prospect for studying religion from a scientific, evolutionary perspective
Boyer, P. (2001). Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.