This Monday, I attended a lecture by Nicholas Wade, science reporter and author of The Faith Instinct, how religion evolved and why it endures. I intend to post a detailed blog report of this talk in a Rockefeller University blog that we plan on launching later this week. Although I don’t intend to duplicate material in the two blogs in the future, because many of my readers will be the same, I will post what I have written here so far, since this was a topic that I also think is relevant to some ideas I have discussed here, especially Christopher Mooney’s talk which I blogged about a few weeks ago. If you do enjoy reading about this, be sure to tune into the new blog when I post the link later, as there will likely be more details. There will also be some other great voices talking about their life in science and Rockefeller University itself.
If Nicholas Wade, science reporter and author of The Faith Instinct, had perhaps forgotten that he was addressing an audience of scientists filling Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller University this Mon. April, 11th, he would be sharply reminded during the questions. The central thesis of his talk, and new book, is that human beings have a “religious instinct” that is adaptable, and has been favored and fixed by the processes of natural selection. Many in the audience questioned how natural selection could have allowed for the emergence of this instinct in the first place. The inability to prove the thesis, the lack of control societies without religion, and even personal experience with egalitarian primate societies, were all brought to bear on the talk by the members of the audience. This is likely because the thesis was close enough to a scientific argument that those in the audience instinctively demanded of it the full rigor of a scientific investigation.
If the work in this book were to be laid out like a scientific argument, it would look something like this:
Observation– All societies have some form of religion, and this religion takes on very similar forms, including an agent or deity, a form of worship including prayer and sacrifice, and laws and punishments. When societies attempt to stamp out religion (as in communist China and Russia), it seems remarkably resilient, reemerging as powerful as ever.
Hypothesis—Religion is adaptable, and the “religious instinct” has evolved in all humans through the forces of natural selection.
Proof— To confirm that his hypothesis could be true, Mr. Wade makes the case for several points, a few of which I will outline below.
1- Religion is beneficial at the community level, and these benefits (at least in early egalitarian societies), would be strong enough to be adaptable and to allow for the evolution of a religious instinct.
2- Once this religious instinct was established, it evolved along with human societies, used as a tool by those in power to strengthen the dominant ethos of the time. For example, in egalitarian societies religion focused on community bonding activities, such as dance. For societies such as the Romans, religion was used to justify rule, using intermediates between the common people and the deities, and suppressing activities like dancing.
3- Religion was beneficial to human societies through it’s influence on three factors: fertility, warfare, and morality. A religious proclamation on fertility could allow societies to influence their growth by encouraging reproduction, or even discouraging it when needed (through monasteries and convents). Religion has traditionally been used as a rallying tool when warfare is required by the society, but often becomes quite peaceable (even within the same societies) when they do not face an immediate threat. And lastly religion allows a platform for morality, and doing things for the good of society as a whole, that is likely essential for the proper functioning of any human community.
Points two and three are easy to comprehend, but most of the questioners hit on the fact that the first point, how religion could have evolved in the first place, was much more tenuous and unsupported. Another famous writer with strong opinions on religion and science, Dr. Richard Dawkins, had written years ago that group benefits are not adaptable, because the individual benefits have a much more rapid and immediate effect on the forces of natural selection– this in his famous book The Selfish Gene. Mr. Wade argues that in the beginning of our evolution, the fact that we were likely tribes of egalitarian societies would allow belief in religion to be greatly beneficial to these communities. Religion in an egalitarian society allows an invisible government, the ability to punish violators and discourage freeloaders, and to influence the rate of reproduction based on this society’s needs.
Although these points are believable, they are hardly strong enough to support what could be a quite controversial argument, that desire for religion evolved through a scientific basis. Mr. Wade did attempt to cover his bases at the beginning of his talk, stating that those who believe that God created the human body would also believe that he would “prepare the mind for belief.” Ultimately, I think Mr. Wade’s theory comes up against the limitation of all scientific explanations, that they can tell you “how”, but not “why”. Religious instinct, something we clearly all have, has grown and evolved along with all human societies, and Mr. Wade lays out some very interesting theories as to how this has occurred. But why we have this strong desire for religion in the first place, seems to be an open question. Personally I’m happy that some things, especially those that reflect on a such a spiritual subject, remain unexplained. Of course I haven’t actually read the book, perhaps within its pages human religion will be fully explained and justified, but, somehow, I doubt it.