Thursday, March 22, 2007

Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?

ANNOUNCEMENT: Seminar in History of Biology

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill

First the announcement, followed by a brief commentary:

I am very excited to announce the following course, to be offered this summer in the six-week summer session at Cornell University:

COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology

SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/26/07 to 08/02/07

COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?

COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.

To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation. And indeed, in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of the capacity for religion has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering three alternative hypotheses: that the capacity for religion is (1) an evolutionary adaptation, (2) a side-effect of an evolutionary adaptation, or (3) a “mind virus” with no direct evolutionary implications. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.

In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.

PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of comparative anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and general evolutionary theory would be helpful.

DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 26 June 2007 and ending on Thursday 2 August 2007. We will also have an end-of-course picnic at a location TBA.

CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.

COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.

REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Atran, Scott (2004) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 388 pages, ISBN #0195178033

Boyer, Pascal (2002) Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religion. Vintage Books, paperback, 448 pages, ISBN #0099282763

Dawkins, Richard (2006) The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 416 pages, ISBN #0618680004.

Dennett, Daniel (2007) Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. Penguin Books, paperback, 464 pages, ISBN #0143038338

Newberg, Andrew & D'Aquili, Eugene (2001) Why god won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. Ballantine Books, paperback, 240 pages, ISBN #034544034X

Wilson, David Sloan (2003) Darwin's cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press, paperback, 268 pages, ISBN #0226901351

OPTIONAL TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):

Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1,706 pages, ISBN #0393061345

Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenaus & Salter, Frank (1998) Indoctrinability, ideology, and warfare: Evolutionary perspectives. Berghahn Books, hardcover, 490 pages, ISBN #1571819231

Fitzduff, Marie & Stout, Chris (2006) The psychology of resolving global conflicts: From war to peace: Volume 1: Nature vs nurture. Praeger Security International, hardcover, 354 pages, ISBN #0275982084

Guthrie, Stewart (1995) Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 336 pages, ISBN #0195098919

Hamer, Dean (2005) The God gene: How faith is hardwired into our genes. Anchor, 256 pages, ISBN #0385720319

Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. (2006) Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality, and truth. Free Press, hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN # 0743274970

Persinger, Michael (1987) Neuropsychological bases of god beliefs. Praeger Publishers, 175 pages, ISBN #0275926486

Wolpert, Lewis (2006) Six impossible things before breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief. W. W. Norton, 243 pages, ISBN #0393064492


I realize that putting myself in between such formidable opponents is perhaps asking for trouble...but I couldn't possibly get into any more trouble than I did last summer, could I? Once again, we shall rush in where angels fear to tread, and consider a very topical topic. As was the case last year, I invite anyone with an interest in the question posed as the title of this blog to consider taking this course, or at least sitting in on our discussion online. We will have an online course blog, where any and all comments, criticisms, suggestions, and other trivia will be roasted and long as they are civil. As for accusations that I'm biased, let me say upfront that I (like almost everyone else) have an opinion on the question: I believe (based on my research into this question) that the answer is "Yes" and that the specific context within which the capacity for religious experience has evolved is warfare...but we'll talk all about that this summer.

We may also talk about whether or not God (or gods, or whatever) exist, but that will not be the primary focus of the course, nor will I allow it to become the primary focus of our discussions. This course isn't about the existence or non-existence of God (or Darwin or me). It's about whether or not the ability to believe in things like God (or gods, or whatever) has adaptive consequences. It's a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for as interesting a summer seminar as last year's was.

So, watch this space; when the course blog goes up, I will announce it here and provide links to all and sundry. And remember:

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." – Voltaire


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At 3/23/2007 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I was wondering if Dawkins' book would make the required reading list anywhere.

I think the one major weakness in The God Delusion is that, while Dawkins gets all sorts of momentum set up to make a scientific argument for God's nonexistence (mostly in the line of establishing why there ought to be a scientific way to answer the question) he ends up landing on a philosophical argument, the Ultimate 747 thingy.

I like your idea about our belief in God being adaptive due to warfare. Ironic, given Dawkins' and others' conviction that religion lead to warfare (an idea which is also supported by the Bible; just ask Abel).

At 3/24/2007 04:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.

Unbelief is also universal in that it has been present in all human cultures, despite vigorous and frequently violent efforts to eliminate it. Perhaps someone should study that.

I trust you to relate to your students that "adaptive" and "good" are not necessarily the same thing.

You certainly have the courage to tackle controversial topics. I hope it goes well.

At 3/24/2007 04:08:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the one major weakness in The God Delusion is that, while Dawkins gets all sorts of momentum set up to make a scientific argument for God's nonexistence (mostly in the line of establishing why there ought to be a scientific way to answer the question) he ends up landing on a philosophical argument, the Ultimate 747 thingy.

With respect to the Argument From Design, the distinction between philosophical and scientific arguments is not entirely clear. Many of the significant contributions on the topic have been provided by science, with the most significant contribution ever (IMHO) provided by Charles Darwin, a scientist, not a philosopher. Other scientific theories impacting the argument include the nebular hypothesis, and the Big Bang. The philosophical Argument From Design is an Argument From Ignorance, so science helps to dispel the ignorance.

At 3/26/2007 01:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The premise that religion is a human universal is incorrect. It is a pale shadow of the Christian belief of a perfect god and a fallen man where 'true religion' helps man return to man's ways. In modern secular thinking the perfect god has been replaced by a species-wide idea of perfection.

At 3/26/2007 03:15:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. It is very disappointing to see how these evolutionary theorists of religion lack knowledge of religions other than garden variety Judeo-Christianity (where they seem to have at least some factual knowledge, as in Scott Atran's case, they reproduce standard textbook stories about Hinduism that have been left behind a few decades back).

2. If they did a serious study, it would perhaps strike them that no one has ever given either theoretical or empirical proof for the claim that religion is a human universal. From the 13th century onwards, European travelers, missionaries, merchants and scholars simply assumed that there would be religion in all societies. With this assumption in the background, they looked for the 'beliefs' and 'gods' of these societies. In the process, these western minds invented religions everywhere. Later scholars began to create all kinds of definitions of "religion" in order to accommodate their (cultural) intuition that religion is universal. As though a definition of a word can help us decide on the universality of a phenomenon. After all, we don't use a definition of the word "gravitation" in order to find out whether gravitation exists on all planets, do we?

3. The same goes for the so-called theories or explanations of religion. These simply presuppose as a pre-theoretical given that religion exists in all cultures and societies. Then they concoct ad hoc accounts groomed to explain for this pre-theoretical assumption. In the process, they abuse evolutionary biology, cognitive neurosciences, psychology, etc. to produce unscientific just-so stories. What they seem to miss, is that this is a massive exercise in the fallacy of petitio principii. That is, one assumes the truth of a proposition whose truth should be demonstrated: that religion is a cultural universal.

4. If this course intends to be scientific and serious in any way, it will have to answer a few questions: What is the proof for the universality of religion? How could one test this claim about the universality of religion? That is, which criteria allow one to test the presence of religion in a culture or society? This cannot be solved by giving definitions as to "the universal belief in spiritual or superhuman beings." Notions like belief, spiritual, superhuman are too vague to provide us with any real test. One cannot also draw on evolutionary biology and claim that it shows that religion is universal, since evolutionary biology does not give us the structural properties that allow us to recognize the object of religion (and this would simply be a repetition of the petitio principii).

5. If one begins to realize the difficulty of proving that religion is a human universal, then the question becomes: How come all these brilliant minds have simply presupposed that religion is universal? Historically, it is very clear that we have inherited this assumption from Christianity. Christian theology tells us that God has given religion to humanity. It is inscribed in our souls, so to say. Thus, the stubborn presupposition that religion is universal (whether among scholars of religion, biologists, psychologists, common sense, ...) is simply a secularized Christian theological claim.

6. Perhaps all these evolutionary thinkers are then abusing Darwin's beautiful and brilliant theory in order to reproduce an old theological story about humanity. Surprising no, given the supposed atheism of people like Dan Dennett?

Anyway, those interested can have a look at S.N. Balagangadhara, "The Heathen in His Blindness...": Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (Leiden, 1994; Manohar, 2005).


Jakob De Roover

At 3/26/2007 08:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Studying Darwin can be interesting if one wants to learn how biology and the sciences in general began to assume their present form. However the study of evolution and biology at large have progressed far ahead of where Darwin was at the end of his scientific labours. Studying Darwin to uncover a "religious human universal" or spiritualism etc. is searching for a mare's nest. It ain't there and is nonsensical. I am afraid this course is like a car trying to start with flat tyres.


You would do well to read Balagangadhara's book before you launch this course

At 3/26/2007 09:52:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

First, let me thank you all for your comments. In general, I have found you folks considerably more tolerant (and a lot less vituperative) than some of the potty-mouths at other websites (I leave it to your investigative acumen to figure out which ones). I got into academics because I admired the Socratic ideal, in which we treat each other as a community of scholars with a common goal: following the logic of argument and evidence to wherever it leads. That's what I'm hoping will happen this summer.

Let me emphasize right away that we will NOT be arguing about whether any particular religion is "true" or not. I believe very strongly that the answer to this question is not in any way within the province of the empirical sciences, and will therefore try as hard as I can to steer our in-class discussion away from this particular line of inquiry.

Furthermore, and in line with the spirit of the previous ground-rule, what we will be considering is the evolution of the capacity for religious experience (including, but not limited to, religious beliefs), and once again not any particular religion per se. I intend to present the class with this analogy: that the capacity for religious experience is like the capacity for language. That is, the capacity is innate, but the actual language one learns is exactly that: learned.

Indeed, this analogy goes deeper, because as evolutionary linguists have discovered (following Noam Chomsky's lead) is that all languages share a "universal grammar," the structure of which is apparently wired into the human central nervous system. If this were not the case, it would probably be impossible to actually translate from one language to another. Since we can do this, there must be some deep commonalities between them, which go beyond surface differences (and also probably constrain them to some degree).

The same appears to be the case for religions; although they vary widely from culture to culture (and indeed, from person to person), they all have some commonalities, which comparative anthropologists have taken some pains to delineate. Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained is probably the best introduction to these concepts, and so we will probably begin by reading his book and discussing the criteria that he uses to identify and analyze religious experiences and practices.

As to my biases, I am the first to admit that I have them. I think everyone does, and that to not lay them on the table right in the beginning is not only disingenuous, it is downright dishonest. Ernst Mayr expressed this idea best: he said that he always made his arguments as clearly and as forcefully as possible, with as few qualifications and amendments as honesty allowed, so that both the people who agreed with him and (especially) those who disagreed with him would know exactly where he stood and what to agree with and what to attack. That's my goal as well.

And so, as I have explained at my blog and on others, I am strongly leaning toward the "capacity for religion as direct adaptation" hypothesis. The other two hypotheses are the "epiphenomenon" and "mind virus" hypotheses, as exemplified by the writings of Pascal Boyer and Richard Dawkins, respectively. Having argued about the distinctions between these three hypotheses elsewhere, let me say now that it may be that all three play a part in producing the human capacity for religious experience (which includes belief and practice). Scott Atran has already argued for combining the "adaptation" and "epiphenomenon" hypotheses, and I think that a reasonably strong argument can also be made for the "brain modules that predispose us toward particular kinds of mind viruses" hypothesis, which of course combines #2 and #3.

Finally, to those who just can't stop arguing for the "my religion is TRUE and therefore any other explanation is FALSE by definition" position, let me say that taking that position in my class this summer would get you massively ignored. As I have repeatedly stressed to my students in both my introductory biology courses and my evolution courses, the natural sciences are not about TRUTH, especially TRUTH BY DEFINITION. Science is about our best guess as to how the universe works, based on the evidence we have so far, and that a scientific theory is simply an hypothesis that has not yet been shown to be false based on empirical evidence.

Yes, there are other ways to argue about aspects of reality, such as whether 2 + 2 = 4, but mathematics (and ethics, logic, metaphysics, and a lot of other topics of dispute among academics) are NOT empirical sciences (indeed, I refer to them as non-empirical sciences in my courses) and therefore outside the scope of my course.

I hope this helps clarify what we will be doing this summer (and, more importantly to some people, what we will NOT be doing). I welcome any comments, suggestions, and especially criticisms, as long as they are presented in the spirit of collegiality with which I run my courses. If you want to cuss and call people names and avoid making arguments, especially on the basis of evidence and reason, there are lots of other places (such as Panda's thumb and Uncommon Descent) where you can do that. If you do so here, however, I will not respond to you in any way, and hope that the rest of those who still respect the principles of free and open inquiry will do the same.

In other words, people who use the F word and people who use fart noises in an attempt to make logical arguments are wasting everyone's time…especially mine.

Allen D. MacNeill, Senior Lecturer
The Biology Learning Skills Center
G-24 Stimson Hall, Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853
phone: 607-255-3357 (Allen's office)
website: http://evolutionlist.blogspot....
"I had at last got a theory by which to work"
-The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

At 3/26/2007 11:00:00 PM, Blogger mtraven said...

You have a typo in the name of the
Eibl-Eibesfeldt text "Indocrinability" sounds like a theory of how hormones make you susceptible to ideology.

At 3/26/2007 11:24:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Thanks, mtraven: is fixed.

At 3/29/2007 11:37:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A question on the use of the word "capacity" in your definition of the course's goals: do you think that this will be interpreted by the religious crowd as "awakening" to God, as they see it (i.e. the idea that mankind evolved to be able to sense God's perceived existence)?

Would it not be more accurate, scientifically, to frame the course description in terms of theory of mind and agency detection?

Thanks, Dan

At 3/29/2007 02:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allen, I really appreciate your balanced view of the issue of religion as a result of evolution. Lots of people take an observation, say, "religion affords its holder these adaptive advantages" and infer from that that religion is only an adaptation, implying that its truth claims are irrelevant.

So you have not made this jump, which is a common one in modern thinking. If something is a material phenomenon, it does not follow that it is only a material phenomenon.

Aside from that, good luck on keeping your class in line! I think you have set an uphill course (so to speak) for yourself. The temptation to degenerate into discussions of truth claims and other-religion bashing is very strong.

At 5/01/2007 03:26:00 PM, Blogger Speedy Closets said...

Religion is simply an elaborate way for humans to deal with our fear of death. Religion does not need to evolve as long as it satisfies that basic function. Religion will continue to thrive as long as people continue to die.

At 7/11/2007 10:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Denver Post 7/10/07:

"Threats by religious group spark probe at CU-Boulder"

"University of Colorado police are investigating a series of threatening
messages and documents e-mailed to and slipped under the door of
evolutionary biology labs on the Boulder campus.

The messages included the name of a religious-themed group and addressed the
debate between evolution and creationism, CU police Cmdr. Brad Wiesley said.
Wiesley would not identify the group named because police are still

'There were no overt threats to anybody specifically by name,' Wiesley said.
'It basically said anybody who doesn't believe in our religious belief is
wrong and should be taken care of.'"



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