Darwin's God (By ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG) is the title of the article on the cover of the New York Times magazine published on March 4th 2007.
If any of you have the patience or the desire to read the piece, it takes about 30-45 mins to read it. This is not quite a review, I just loved it so much and thought I would share it with you, and try to capture the essence of the arguments in my post.
What I loved about this article was how the author talks about the evolution of religious belief and of those that study it using what the author called a “Darwinian approach” . i.e. Could religious belief have served an evolutionary purpose? To those of you curious about the origins of physical, cultural, and the social customs and belief systems of humanity this may be a fun read.
To quote from the piece
“what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?”The debate as it rages within the scientific community has a few disagreements (surprise..surprise!) with the common thread being that “religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history”. The two main schools of thought to explain this happen to fall in to a) belief being adaptive or a b) byproduct of the evolutionary processes.
A good example of these two schools of thought, are seen in the traits found in blood cells. As the article says “Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood’s being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.”
A very interesting analogy to explain religious belief evolving as a byproduct of evolution is a spandrel. A spandrel is an architectural term for the V shaped space that is formed when 2 arches align, the space is there, it serves no real purpose just that it has formed as a byproduct of arches aligning. So if religious belief is a spandrel, what is it a byproduct of? Could be some of the things below?
Humans faced hardships during early life and that favored the development of cognitive tools such as agent detection (organisms that can cause you harm), causal reasoning (causal narrative for natural events) and theory of mind (other folks have their own belief, desire and intentions). The article provides examples of how these tools make it easy to have belief in the supernatural such as it being easy to believe that for a contemporary woman that her cancer treatment worked despite 10:1 odds to be either a reward for a prayer, a miracle rather than a lucky roll of the dice.
The other interesting example for theory of mind that I found attractive was that, once you posit the existence of minds then it is a short jump from there to suppose that the mind and the body can be decoupled, thus explaining that despite the dead, decaying physical body, one finds it easier to believe in the existence of the soul that can feel and then in the existence of a transcendent god.
Scott Atran an anthropologist, who is often quoted in the Sunday magazine uses the term folkpsychology for things such as the theory of mind, intentional stance and social cognition. We then learn about its obvious advantages from an adaptive point of view. Early humans used this to rapidly distinguish between good guys and bad guys. But if the byproduct theory folks are right and these beliefs are of little use in finding food and procreating, why do they persist? They could, as the article says because evolution always produces something that works for the purpose it was designed for and then there is no control for however it may be used for another purpose.
Other interesting arguments include assertions like humans being hardwired for belief, somewhat like we are for language and that the language we learn depends on the cultural environment we grow up in as do the environments that dictate ones religious beliefs
Adaptationists talk about how religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the scared, while the spandrelists counter saying that the existence of comforting beliefs does not offer and adaptive advantage.
Belief in an afterlife is easier as one of the ways we make sense of other people is by trying to be in their shoes, but tying to comprehend something as radical as “not being there” or not existing is akin to running in to a “cognitive wall”. This made it easier to believe that there is an afterlife as it is hard to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones.
Adaptationists also bring out an argument which sort of makes some logical sense in that religion may have offered advantages at the individual level (feel better, more focused on the future, obedience, morality) and at the group level (cohesive, sharing resources and preparing for war).
The article quotes several heavy hitters such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Scott Atran, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris and a few others.
In closing, I have no answers about where I fall on this issue, but purely from an anthropological perspective, this article educated, informed, stimulated and made me think. For me therein lies its success. I loved the last 2 paragraphs from the article which are quoted below, as you might have guessed the first one appealed to me a lot.
What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.
This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.