Darwin: Religion & Ethics ─ Reading #1


Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion [excerpts]

by David Sloan Wilson



[1]  Richard Dawkins and I share much in common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin’s Cathedral I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.


Where We Agree and Where We Part Company 

[2] In The God Delusion Dawkins makes it clear that he loathes religion for its intolerance, blind faith, cruelty, extremism, abuse, and prejudice. He attributes these problems to religion and thinks that the world would be a better place without it. Given recent events in the Middle East and even here in America, it is understandable why he might draw such a conclusion, but the question is: What’s evolution got to do with it?


[3] Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion, and we even agree on some of the details, so it is important to pinpoint exactly where we part company. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses to study any trait, even something as mundane as the spots on a guppy. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection? If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups, or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural evolution there is a third possibility. Since cultural traits pass from person to person, they bear an intriguing resemblance to disease organisms. Perhaps they evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups. 


[4] If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but not the present, such as our eating habits, which make sense in the food-scarce environment of our ancestors but not with a McDonald’s on every corner. Perhaps the trait is a byproduct of another adaptation. For example, moths use celestial light sources to orient their flight (an adaptation), but this causes them to spiral toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or a flame (a costly byproduct), as Dawkins so beautifully recounts in The God Delusion. Finally, the trait might be selectively neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift  . . .


[5] Dawkins argued on behalf of adaptationism in his debates with Gould and would probably agree with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. As he sees it, people are attracted to religion the way that moths are attracted to flames. Perhaps religious impulses were adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their human hosts, like the demons of old that were thought to possess people. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion. [6] The least likely possibility for Dawkins is the group-level adaptation hypothesis. Religions are emphatically not elaborate systems of beliefs and practices that define, motivate, coordinate and police groups of people for their own good.


For the Good of the Group? 

[7] To understand Dawkins’ skepticism about the group-level benefits of religion, it is necessary to trace the history of “for the good of the group” thinking in evolutionary theory. Groups can be adaptive only if their members perform services for each other, yet these services are often vulnerable to exploitation by more self-serving individuals within the same group. Fortunately, groups of individuals who practice mutual aid can out-compete groups whose members do not. 


[8] According to this reasoning, traits that are “for the good of the group” require a process of between-group selection to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality and self-sacrificial traits in other animals. Unfortunately, his insight was not shared by many biologists during the first half of the 20th century, who uncritically assumed that adaptations evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy— for the good of the individual, group, species, or ecosystem— without requiring a corresponding process of natural selection at each level. When the need for group selection was acknowledged, it was often assumed that between-group selection easily prevailed against within-group selection. This can be called The Age of Naïve Groupism, and it ended during the 1960s and 1970s, thanks largely to two books: George C. Williams’ 1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection and Richard Dawkins’ 1976 The Selfish Gene. 


[9] In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams affirmed the logic of multi-level selection but then added an empirical claim: Even though between-group selection is theoretically possible, in the real world it is invariably trumped by within-group selection. Virtually all adaptations evolve at the individual level and even examples of apparent altruism must be explained in terms of self-interest. It was this empirical claim that ended The Age of Naïve Groupism and initiated what can be called The Age of Individualism, which lasted for the rest of the 20th century and in some respects is still with us. 


Scientific Dogmatism 

[10] In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. Williams ended Adaptation and Natural Selection with the phrase “I believe that it is the light and the way.” Here is how Dawkins recounts the period in his 1982 book The Extended Phenotype: 

The intervening years since Darwin have seen an astonishing retreat from his individual-centered stand, a lapse into sloppily unconscious group-selectionism … We painfully struggled back, harassed by sniping from a Jesuitically sophisticated and dedicated neo-group-selectionist rearguard, until we finally regained Darwin’s ground, the position that I am characterizing by the label ‘the selfish organism…” 


[11] This passage has all the earmarks of fundamentalist rhetoric, including appropriating the deity (Darwin) for one’s own cause. Never mind that Darwin was the first group selectionist. Moreover, unlike The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype was written by Dawkins for his scientific peers, not for a popular audience! 


[12] In reality, the case against group selection began to unravel almost immediately after the publication of Adaptation and Natural Selection, although it was difficult to tell, given the repressive social climate. In the first place, calling genes “replicators” and “the fundamental unit of selection” is no argument at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being selectively disadvantageous within groups. When this happens, the gene favored by between-group selection replaces the gene favored by within-group selection in the total population. In the parlance of population genetics theory, it has the highest average effect. Re-labeling the gene selfish, just because it evolves, contributes nothing. The “gene’s eye view” of evolution can be insightful in some respects, but as an argument against group selection it is one of the greatest cases of comparing apples with oranges in the annals of evolutionary thought. . . .


The Revival of Group Selection 

[13] Much has happened in the four decades following the rejection of group selection in the 1960s. Naïve groupism is still a mistake that needs to be avoided, but between-group selection can no longer be categorically rejected. Claims for group selection must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, along with the other major evolutionary hypotheses. Demonstrations of group selection appear in the top scientific journals. . . .


Individuals as Groups 

[14] Not only can group selection be a significant evolutionary force, it can sometimes even be the dominating evolutionary force. One of the most important advances in evolutionary biology is a concept called major transitions. It turns out that evolution takes place not only by small mutational change, but also by social groups and multi-species communities becoming so integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. The cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed this concept in the 1970s to explain the evolution of nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells. The concept was then generalized to explain other major transitions, from the origin of life as communities of cooperating molecular reactions, to multi-cellular organisms and social insect colonies.


[15] In each case, the balance between levels of selection is not fixed but can itself evolve. A major transition occurs when selection within groups is suppressed, making it difficult for selfish elements to evolve at the expense of other members of their own groups. Selection among groups becomes a dominating evolutionary force, turning the groups into super-organisms. Ironically, during the Age of Individualism it became taboo to think about groups as organisms, but now it turns out that organisms are literally the groups of past ages.


[16] Dawkins fully accepts the concept of major transitions, but he pretends that it doesn’t require a revision in his ideas about group selection. Most important, he doesn’t pose the question that is most relevant to the study of religion: Is it possible that human genetic and cultural evolution represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups into the equivalent of bodies and beehives? 


Selfish Memes and Other Theories of Cultural Evolution  

[17] Dawkins’ third claim to fame, in addition to selfish genes and extended phenotypes, was to coin the term “meme” to think about cultural evolution. In its most general usage, the word “meme” becomes newspeak for “culture” without adding anything new. More specific usages suggest a variety of interesting possibilities; that culture can be broken into atomistic bits like genes, that these bits are somehow represented inside the head, and especially that they can evolve to be organisms in their own right, often spreading at the expense of their human hosts, like the demons of old.


[18] As with religion, Dawkins has not conducted empirical research on cultural evolution, preferring to play the role of Mycroft Holmes, who sat in his armchair and let his younger brother Sherlock do the legwork. Two evolutionary Sherlocks of culture are Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, authors of the 2005 book Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. One of the sleights of hand performed by Dawkins in The God Delusion, which takes a practiced eye to detect, is to first dismiss group selection and then to respectfully cite the work of Richerson and Boyd without mentioning that their theory of cultural evolution is all about group selection. 


[19] Consider genetic evolution by itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the same group, resulting in one group that is very different from the other groups in the total population. This is one way that culture can radically shift the balance between levels of selection in favor of group selection. Add to this the ability to monitor the behavior of others, communicate social transgressions through gossip, and easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers, and it becomes clear that human evolution represents a whole new ball game as far as group selection is concerned. 


[20] In this context, the human major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage, resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. As the great social theorist Alexis de Tocqueville commented long ago in Democracy in America, “the village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.” As the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony, our lineage was able to eliminate less groupish competitors. The ability to acquire and socially transmit new behaviors enabled our ancestors to spread over the globe, occupying hundreds of ecological niches. Then the invention of agriculture enabled group sizes to increase by many orders of magnitude, but only through the cultural evolution of mechanisms that enable groups to hang together at such a large scale. Defining, motivating, coordinating, and policing groups is not easy at any scale. It requires an elaborate system of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the “social physiology” of the human group organism? Other than briefly acknowledging the abstract possibility that memes can form “memeplexes,” this possibility does not appear in Dawkins’ analysis . . . 




Excerpts from Ch. 3 of The Faith Instinct, by Nicolas Wade Penguin Press, 2009


If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.

         EDWARD O. WILSON  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, p.262.


[1] The human form has undergone extraordinary changes since its lineage split from that of chimpanzees some 5 to 6 million ago. Our brain tripled in size, our body hair was shed, we down-sized our teeth, shriveled our gut and gained a fine facial appendage conserving moisture in dry climates the nose. Equally radical and transformative, though less well appreciated, have been the changes in human social behavior. In the societies of our apelike forebears, coordination was achieved relatively simply, through a strict hierarchy dominated by the alpha male. Hunter gatherer societies are organized on a very different principle— they are completely egalitarian. It was during the transition from male dominance to egalitarianism that religious behavior emerged. . .


[2] Humans developed or enhanced a skill known to psychologists as theory of mind—the ability to infer what someone else knows or intends. Groups possessing these new skills in various strengths competed furiously with each other in the struggle to survive. All these new faculties were doubtless drawn upon as natural selection searched for an effective solution to the most pressing of all problems for a social species—how to make selfish individuals place society's needs above their own. This departure from self-interest required not just moral self-restraint and social cohesiveness, but an emotional commitment to the group so fierce and transcendent that men would quite readily sacrifice their lives in its defense.


[3] The solution that evolved was religious behavior. It was those who learned to bond to each other through ritual song and dance who developed the most cohesive communities. It was those who believed that the gods or their dead ancestors were seeing into their hearts who hewed closest to their society's rules. It was those who most feared supernatural retribution who built the most moral societies with the strongest social fabric and the resilience to outlast others.


Common or Universal Features of Religion

[4] The principal evidence for thinking religious behavior is an evolved part of human nature is the fact that religion is universal. Every known society possesses some form of religion. And though there are wide cultural variations—religions across the world are very different from one another—there are also many shared elements. These constant or almost constant features of religious behavior are the ones likely to have a genetic basis. . .  The divine rules include codes of moral behavior, as well as largely arbitrary ritual requirements, such as taboos on certain foods or speaking certain words.


[5] Societies whose members embraced such beliefs would have been more cohesive and united in attaining difficult goals, whether in peace or warfare. Because an instinct for faith would have promoted survival, genes that favored such an instinct eventually became universal in the early human population.


Religious Behavior and Genetics

[6] The universality of religious behavior suggests that, as with language, it is mediated by specialized structures in the brain. Language is known to be supported by neural circuitry in certain regions of the brain because, if these regions are damaged even minutely, specific defects appear in a patient's linguistic abilities. No such dedicated regions have yet been identified with certainty for the neural circuitry that may underlie religious behavior. . .  The fact that religious behavior is universal strongly suggests that it is an adaptation, meaning a trait shaped by natural selection. If it is an adaptation, it must have a genetic basis, such as a suite of genes that are activated during development and wired the neural circuits needed to induce the behavior. . . Identification of such genes would be the best possible proof that religious behavior has an evolutionary basis. In the absence of direct evidence about the genes underlying religious behavior, its evolutionary basis can be assessed only indirectly.


[7] The effect of cultural learning in religion is clear enough, as shown by the rich variety of religions around the world. It's the strong commonalities beneath the variations that are the fingerprints of an innate learning mechanism.  To no less an observer than Darwin himself it seemed that religion was like an instinctive behavior, one that the mind is genetically primed to learn as indelibly as the fear of heights or the horror of incest. His two great books on evolution, Origin of Species and Descent of Man, have nothing directly to say about religion but in his autobiography, written in his old age, he was more explicit about this controversial topic. He wrote, "Nor must we overlook the probability of the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God, as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake. To understand how the instinct for religious behavior evolved, it is necessary to explore the circumstances in human development in which it first arose.


From Male Dominance to Egalitarianism

[8] For most of their existence, modern humans have lived as small bands of hunters and gatherers. Only 15,000 years ago did people begin to settle down in fixed communities, forming the large societies that are commonplace today. Religious behavior evolved in hunter gatherer society, well before settlement. The social structure of these hunter gatherer bands therefore has considerable bearing on the nature of religion. . .  The egalitarian approach "appears to be universal for foragers who live in small bands that remain nomadic, suggesting considerable antiquity for political egalitarianism," writes the anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who has studied the transition from hierarchy to a society of social equals.


[9] A critical question in human evolution is how the hierarchy typical of ape societies was transformed into its opposite, the egalitarianism of hunter gatherers. Human brain size started to expand dramatically after the split with chimps. One consequence of this increased cognitive capacity was the invention of weapons such as wooden spears. Weapons are great equalizers, and would have had the effect of flattening out the male hierarchy of a still apelike society, Boehm suggests. Another leveler would have been the cognitive ability of the weak to form coalitions against tyrannical leaders.


[10] But as egalitarianism slowly evolved in the human lineage, it would have exposed a critical weakness in the social structure: with the power of the alpha males eclipsed, how was order to be kept? If no one were willing to defer to anyone else, who would determine the interests of the group? Who would take the personal risk of punishing deviant and antisocial behavior?


[11] The threat of freeloading and anarchy would have become increasingly serious as human cognitive abilities increased. Individuals would have figured out new and better ways to take advantage of the group's protection without contributing anything in return. Nothing is more corrosive to a group's cohesion than free riders. If they go unpunished, the advantage of social living quickly diminishes; others will contribute less, and the group will disintegrbelaboringate or crumble under challenge from neighbors. Free riders would have gained new power with the advent of language, a perfect instrument with which to deceive, prevaricate and manipulate. Those who were not pulling their full weight had a new means of cloaking their selfishness.


[12] Just as the emerging human societies were being undermined by the freeloaders within, they had to confront a pressing external threat, that of warfare. Like the ability to freeload, warfare became more sophisticated and deadly as cognitive capacity increased. People may not like warfare, but the point needs no belaboring that they are very proficient at it. The skill is an ancient one that reaches far back in the primate lineage, a fact that has come to light from close study of chimpanzees. Though at first thought to be peaceful, chimpanzees in fact occupy territories that are patrolled and defended by bands of males. Through raids and ambushes, they try to pick off the males of a neighboring group one by one until they are able to annex the group's territory and females.


[13] Early humans seem to have inherited the same instinct for territorial defense and warfare. As with chimpanzees, the aggressiveness of hunter gatherer societies was not at first recognized by anthropologists. . .  War seems to have been the natural state of hunter gatherer societies. "Peaceful pre-state societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime," writes the anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley in his survey of primitive warfare.' [War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage; Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.] He estimates that a typical tribal society lost about 0.5 percent of its population in combat each year, far more than the toll suffered by most modern states—war deaths in the twentieth century would have amounted to 2 billion people had the tribal death rate persisted.


[14] Pre-state societies fought often. About 75 percent went to war at least once every 2 years, until they were pacified, whereas the modern nation state goes to war about once a generation. Adding to the carnage, primitive peoples were not in the habit of taking prisoners, unless to torture them as the Iroquois did, or to fatten them for eating later, as was the practice among certain tribes in Colombia. Otherwise, captured warriors were killed on the spot. "In fact, primitive warfare was much more deadly than that conducted between civilized states because of the greater frequency of combat and the more merciless way it was conducted," Keeley concludes. . .


[15] Some anthropologists and archaeologists have long been reluctant to accept this conclusion. Instead, perhaps with a desire to portray modern warfare as unusually wicked, they have suggested that war is an aberration, or that it started only after the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. . .


[16] Morality, altruism, loyalty and duty are considered high virtues, but policies of aggression and extermination reflect the darkest aspects of human nature. It is not a comfortable thought that both should have been shaped by the same selective pressure, the need for a degree of social cohesion sufficient to withstand the demands of intergroup warfare. Still, as Lawrence Keeley notes, "Warfare is ultimately not a denial of the human capacity for social cooperation, but merely the most destructive expression of it." Human nature, as has often been remarked, is a mixture of contrarieties, with capacities for great good and great evil being interwoven. It is not so surprising that both should be branches of a tree that itself is rooted in deeply ambiguous moral territory, the struggle to survive in a dog-eat-dog world.


[17] Early human societies transitioning away from male dominance thus faced two social problems of the utmost severity— the threat of free riders from within and the threat of hostile neighbors from without. How were the new societies to be fortified against these threats? One solution would have been to build on the pre-moral systems that had evolved in primate societies: from these emerged the innate moral dispositions of early humans. "There appears to be a universal short list of values that all cultures share: negative ones that proscribe killing, seriously deceptive lying, or theft within the group, and positive ones that call for altruism and cooperation for the benefit of the whole community," writes Boehm.


[18] But moral restraint by itself is not sufficient to deter freeloading or to energize a group to prepare for warfare. Knowing what's right and doing it are two different things. Freeloaders may figure the chances of getting caught are acceptably low. A man may desire to defend his community, but what rational motive could make him sacrifice his life to do so?


[19] A solution gradually emerged to counter the two acute threats of freeloading and of warfare: religion.


[20] Religious behavior addressed these two leading challenges to social order in the evolving human lineage. It both enforced the moral instincts and motivated people to pay any cost in defense of their community. Religion secured a new level of social cohesion by implanting in people's minds a stern overseer of their actions. The Nuer, for instance, believe that "if a man wishes to be in the right with God he must be in the right with men, that is, he must subordinate his interests as an individual to the moral order of society," writes Evans-Pritchard. It was belief in these supernatural supervisors that enabled egalitarian societies to emerge from the dictatorship of the alpha male that primate societies had endured for so long.


[21] Ants, the other evolutionary masters of social living, are distinctive for the high degree of cooperation between members of the same colony. But with ants, just as with people, sociality toward the in-group is combined with relentless hostility toward other ant colonies. Ants are territorial and will fight pitched battles at their borders with neighboring groups. Some species have developed special soldier castes. Victory may lead to the opponents' extinction, their queen being killed, their workers and larvae eaten or enslaved, and their territory and other property annexed. "The greatest enemies of ants are other ants, just as the greatest enemies of men are other men," observed the Swiss myrmecologist Auguste Forel.


[22] It is striking that, with both ants and people, evolution should have made cooperation and warfare two sides of the same coin. Social cohesion is critical to both the ant and human systems. With ants, cohesion is secured by the shared chemical signals that regulate their behavior and by the high degree of relatedness among members of a colony. Neither of these factors is compatible with human physiology. This is why ants don't need religion but people do. . .