Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology: Darwinism and Religion

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A number of scientists argue that biology has much greater scope of application than previously thought, and they are ready to apply evolutionary theory (and other theories of biology) to all aspects of human existence, and to develop a new Darwinian social and human science. They hold that evolutionary biology can yield profound consequences for our understanding of human thought and behavior. This research program used to be called sociobiology but since the 1980s it often has been called evolutionary psychology. It is a disputed question whether sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are basically the same, or two different research programs in biology. What they do have in common is that both attempt to demonstrate the impact of biological evolution on the human mind, behavior, and culture, including the phenomena of religion.

Evolutionary psychology seeks to apply theories of evolutionary biology in order to understand human psychology. The basic strategy is to link evolutionary biology to psychology and psychology to culture. The working hypothesis is that operating beneath the surface of cultural variation is a human mind which contains universal, psychological mechanisms or species-typical information-processing programs which evolved in the Pleistocene period to solve adaptive problems regularly faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestorsproblems that directly or indirectly affected reproduction, such as finding mates, or problems of protecting offspring, fleeing predators, communicating, and cooperating. The core idea is that if we want to understand culture, including religion, the best way to do this is to understand first that humans are not born with empty minds, a tabula rasa, or blank slate, which can be inscribed at will by society or individuals, but creatures whose minds are partly hardwired at birth. This hardwiring probably underlies many human universals, that is, forms of behavior and psychological characteristics shared by people in all cultures, such as incest avoidance, feelings of guilt, sex-role differences, and religious mythmaking. There is an inherent human nature driving human events, but it is shaped to cope with Pleistocene conditions rather than modern conditions.

The Scope of Biological Explanations of Human Affairs

Few scholars would dispute that human beings have evolved out of nature. It is also very probable that the main cause of evolutionary change is natural selection. But how much and how far natural selection has affected and shaped human thinking, behavior, and institutions is the subject of a very heated debate. The defenders of evolutionary psychology say that people have seriously underestimated the extent to which natural selection has shaped human thought and behavior; the critics claim that it is easy to overstate the extent to which evolutionary theory can give us detailed insights into human nature.

It might therefore be helpful to think about a scale of views about the appropriate application of evolutionary theory to humans, or about how much that can successfully be explained in Darwinian terms. We could then at least distinguish between:

  1. Anti-Darwinists who maintain that evolutionary explanations are invalid when it comes to explaining both nature and culture.
  2. Non-Darwinists who maintain that evolutionaryin contrast to culturalexplanations can tell us very little or perhaps nothing about human thought, behavior, and society.
  3. Moderate Darwinists who maintain that evolutionary explanations can tell us important things about human thought, behavior, and society, and must therefore be treated as a supplement to and a possible correction to cultural explanations.
  4. Ultra-Darwinists who maintain that evolutionaryin contrast to culturalexplanations can tell us very much or perhaps everything we need to know about human thought, behavior, and society.

We here have a continuum, and thus there are no clear lines of demarcation between these four views. Creationists exemplify the first extreme, and at the other end of the scale are people such as Daniel C. Dennett, who in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) maintains that Darwin's dangerous idea (evolution by natural selection) bears "an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways" (p. 63). Evolutionary psychologists belong more or less to the ultra-Darwinian camp. Anthropologists, sociologists, and scholars of religion, on the other hand, typically could be classified as non-Darwinians. Evolutionary psychologists have called their view the "standard social science model" and maintained that the understanding of the human mind present in this modelas basically passive, as a basin into which the local culture is gradually pouredhas distorted the study of human beings and culture.

The crucial difference is that non-Darwinists (or standard social scientists) believe that we have now evolved to a state of being so much creatures of our culture that our evolutionary origins can tell us little or nothing about what we are now, whereas ultra-Darwinists (or Darwinian social scientists) think that an understanding of the evolutionary process that made us what we are is essentialit provides the keyfor understanding who we are and why we behave and think the way we do.

This difference can be illustrated by focusing on, for instance, male polygynous behaviormen wanting to have sex with a lot of women. A non-Darwinian explanation of male philandering understands it as rooted in particular cultural backgrounds, which implies that in a different kind of cultural situation the behavior would not exist. A Darwinian explanation understands this kind of predisposition as hardwired into the male psyche, which implies that male polygynous behavior would likely manifest itself no matter what the cultural environment was like: it is genetically hardwired because such behavior increased the reproductive success of males (but not of females) in the environment in which the male psyche evolved.

How strong this male polygynous predisposition (or any other human psychological trait) is supposed to be is a point on which evolutionary psychologists disagree. Although they predict that most men would have a predisposition to philander, they might hold different views about whether males could control this desire fairly easily, or whether it is like hungersomething that must be fulfilled. Moreover, the strength of the psychological mechanisms in males for philandering does not have to be the same for all males. Various aspects of our character are deep in our genes, but they can vary between individuals. The extent to which a male philanders depends not only on the strength of this predispostion in the individual, but also on the social environment he inhabits, the prevailing social conventions, his attachment to his partner, and his religious beliefs.

Evolutionary psychologists, consequently, do not deny that the environment or culture as well as genetic factors play roles in determining human thought and behavior. The weaker the psychological trait is, the more space there is for cultural influence to shape human thought and behavior. But changes in society and human behavior could be very difficult and take a very long time if Darwinians are right. Given that (1) human genes change very slowly, and (2) the human brain is genetically hardwired to have a certain content, that is, particular species-specific psychological mechanisms that cause thought and behavior, it follows that (3) humans are actually adapted for living a life of the late Stone Age, because that is the historical period in which our genes and psychological mechanisms were formed, and consequently (4) we cannot with great success change certain things in human society, because in general, biological forces cannot be manipulated as easily as cultural forces. The last implication provides the breeding ground for the politically sensitive debate about any biological explanation of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology can have profound social, political, and religious implications.

Evolutionary Psychology of Religion

Religion constitutes a great challenge to evolutionary biology, because religion is one of the major categories of behavior undeniably unique to the human species. Whereas in morality we can find some similarities between animal behavior and moral behavior (for instance, in respect to reciprocal cooperation), this is not true when it comes to religious behavior. There exist no prayers, religious rituals, or beliefs in God or gods among members of other species living on this planet.

The standard Darwinian explanation of the existence of religion is that religion emerged and spread because it secured the reproductive success of those of our distant ancestors who embraced it. Tribes who developed religious beliefs, myths, and rituals had a better chance of surviving and reproducing than those tribes who failed to do so. Above all they congeal identity. Religious practice provided these individuals living in a harsh and dangerous environment with unquestioned membership in a group claiming great powers, and by this means gave them a driving purpose in life compatible with their self-interest. The beliefs, myths, rituals, and the institutional structures of different religions may differ greatly, but this is not crucial, because the function of all religions is ultimately the sameto protect the genes and secure the fitness of the individuals. The standard explanation of why religion is selectively advantageous is because it justifies and reinforces moral precepts. Religion indirectly, and morality directly, secured the genetic fitness of our distant ancestors, and for Homo sapiens, it continues to do so today. In fact, the most radical ultra-Darwinians hold that everything in culture serves the reproductive success of individuals and, ultimately, the success of their genes. Natural selection regulates everything of any importance in both nature and culture.

Some scientists such as Edward O. Wilson have concluded from the fact that religion is selectively advantageous that religion is probably an ineradicable part of human nature whose sources run much deeper than those of ordinary habits. Therefore, if people want to abandon traditional religions, they need to find a replacement. Wilson's controversial suggestion is that perhaps science can become our new religiona secular religion he calls "scientific naturalism." Others, such as Scott Atran, deny the existence of a genetic religious inclination and maintain that humans merely have the capacity to become religious. This difference of opinion arises from the fact that Atran claims that religiosity is not an adaptation and has no evolutionary function as such. Another alternative evolutionary explanation of religion holds that religions are a byproduct of natural selection rather than a direct adaptation. Religion is not directly promoted by natural selection, but merely made possible by other features of the human organism, which gives it a survival advantage. Human intelligence, for instance, is an adaptation, but science is not; science is rather a byproduct of a big brain.

This second explanation of religion (and of other cultural phenomena) is of course something non-Darwinians also accept. The crucial difference, however, is that evolutionary psychologists maintain moreover that natural selection has framed universal human psychological mechanisms, stemming from our long-enduring existence as hunter-gatherers, which impose a particular substantive content on culture, or in this case, on religious representation. Consequently, evolutionary psychologists use evolutionary theory not only to explain why and when religion arises but also to explain recurrent patterns in religious thought and behavior. For instance, Pascal Boyer maintains that ideas about gods, spirits, and ghosts pervade religions because humans are endowed with species-typical psychological mechanisms which evolved in the Stone Age for reasoning about the behavior of human agents. It is because of these structural developments of the brain that ideas about supernatural agencies became and continue to be culturally widespread. Evolution by natural selection gave us a particular kind of mind so that only particular kinds of religious notions can be acquired.

Criticism of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology is still in its early phase, and any well-grounded verdict about its fruitfulness and adequacy when it comes to understanding religion will have to wait for its further development. Nevertheless, a variety of critical responses against evolutionary psychology have emerged from biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, philosophers such as Holmes Rolston and Mikael Stenmark, and religionists such as John Bowker and Keith Ward. Their charges include that evolutionary psychologyin some or all of its versionscontains a naturalist-atheistic bias; that it presupposes scientism (the idea that all genuine knowledge is to be found through science and science alone); that it is self-refuting; that it is unrigorous (data are skimpy); that it neglects alternative hypotheses; that it does not take seriously the fact that there are many alternative evolutionary forces besides direct adaptation that affect the establishment of characters; and that it fails to explain religious missionary activity, which helps to ensure the replication of genes unlike the missionaries' own.

Although it would be undeniably interesting to reach a general verdict about the prospect of evolutionary psychology, it is important to consider its merits and demerits on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps some elements of religious thought and behavior can best be explained in Darwinian terms, whereas others require instead cultural explanations. We should not accept evolutionary psychology because it is sometimes correct, nor should we reject it because it is sometimes mistaken. The future will tell whether evolutionary psychology will be of great or minor importance for the study of religion.


Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford, 2002. A provocative evolutionary account of the so-called counterintuitive and factually impossible world of religions.

Barkow, Jerome H.; Leda Cosmides; and John Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford, 1992. A highly influential book in which the research program of evolutionary psychology is presented.

Bowker, John. Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture, and Religion. London, 1995. A critical response to Lumsden and Wilson's Genes, Mind, and Culture by a religionist.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York, 2001.

Broom, Donald M. The Evolution of Morality and Religion. Cambridge, U.K., 2003. An evolutionary account of the close ties between morality and religion.

Dawkins, Richard. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York, 1995. A controversial speculation from a Darwinian and naturalist perspective about "God's utility function."

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. London, 1995. The ultra-Darwinian manifesto.

Gould, Stephen, and Richard Lewontin. "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian ParadigmA Critique of the Adaptationist Programme." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 205 (1979): 581598. The classic argument presented against the idea that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution.

Hinde, Robert A. Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion. London, 1999. A defense of the idea that religious observance results from pan-cultural human characteristics which have shaped religious systems in all their diversity.

Lumsden, Charles, J., and Edward O. Wilson. Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge, Mass., 1981. Presents an early version of evolutionary psychology, though it still was called sociobiology.

Mithen, Steven. The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London, 1996. An attempt to explain the connection between the development of the brain and the origins of religion.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. London, 2002. An influential criticism of the contemporary social sciences and the idea of an empty mind.

Pyysiäinen, Ilka, and Veikko Anttonen, eds. Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion. London, 2002. A collection of articles written by evolutionary psychologists of religion and scholars holding similar views.

Rolston, Holmes. Genes, Genesis, and God: Values and Their Origins in Natural and Human History. Cambridge, U.K., 1999. A critical but also sympathetic response to the biologization of religion.

Stenmark, Mikael. Scientism: Science, Ethics, and Religion. Aldershot, U.K., 2001. A critical philosophical discussion of evolutionary theories of morality and religion.

Stenmark, Mikael. "Contemporary Darwinism and Religion" In Darwinian Heresies, edited by Abigail Lustig, Robert J. Richards, and Michael Ruse, pp. 173191. Cambridge, U.K., 2004. A presentation and analysis of different attitudes towards religion found among biologists.

Ward, Keith. God, Chance, and Necessity. Oxford, 1996. Contains a response by a religionist and theologian to some of the exaggerated claims of biologists about religion.

Wilson, David Sloan. Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago, 2002. Wilson explores the relevance of group selection for understanding religion and society.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass., 1978. The classic attempt to develop and defend a Darwinian social and human science.

Wright, Robert. The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. London, 1994. A well-written presentation of the theories of evolutionary psychology for the general public.

Mikael Stenmark (2005)

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Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology: Darwinism and Religion

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