Did Religion Have an Evolutionary Value?

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Richard Dawkins argues that humanity's historical predisposition towards religion and supernatural beliefs may have held an evolutionary utility. "The rule of thumb: 'Believe whatever your parents tell you,' quite clearly could have survival value," says Dawkins.

He's the King of All the Atheists (um, yeah, right), and now Richard Dawkins is hammering home what he sees as his key argument against the existence of God. In his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins aims to put the theory of evolution in a factually unassailable position.
Here, at Adelaide Writers' Week in 2010, he goes through his book chapter by chapter, and in doing so attempts to convince his audience of the absolute veracity of Darwin's theories. [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]

Richard Dawkins is a world-renowned evolutionary biologist and author. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and, until recently, held the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His first book, The Selfish Gene, was an instant international bestseller, and has become an established classic work of modern evolutionary biology.

Richard Dawkins is the author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, A Devil's Chaplain, The Ancestor's Tale, The God Delusion, and most recently, The Greatest Show on Earth.

Professor Dawkins's awards have included the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London (1989), the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Award (1990), the Nakayama Prize for Achievement in Human Science (1990), The International Cosmos Prize (1997) and the Kistler Prize (2001).

He has Honorary Doctorates in both literature and science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Fora TV has the entire presentation.

26 responses so far

  • Lloyd Hargrove says:

    Aside from the survival tag, prior to the many opportunities for intra-cranial exercise we have today perhaps most of the "strain for gain" which pushes improvement of mental facilities and perhaps evolution of same would seem to have been fostered by the contemplation of "gods" necessarily plugging in the blank spaces of the burning desire for knowledge in general. There are still plenty of blanks to fill in but perhaps people are now more comfortable with the term "as yet unknown".

  • ~~ says:

    Roy Baumeister, a professor of Psychology, also has made this claim and the broader one that culture itself is evolutionarily adaptive and has some publications in this area.

  • Steven Cosnyka says:

    i agree

  • Perhaps a universal mind could have used evolution to create? Just because we cannot prove one way or another science is asking us to say that if it cannot be shown by physical, measurable means, then it cannot exist. How does one measure the depths of love, hate, and other intangibles?

  • Geoff says:

    Love and Hate can me measured.
    If you ask a person experiencing an emotion on a scale of 1-10 in most cases they will give you an answer.
    If they pubch you in the nose you can assume that their anger levels are on the upper scale.
    If you were to set aside your faith for long enough to seriously question where that faith comes from you may come to the same conclusions as Richard Dawkins.

  • Mike Kelly says:

    If you believe in god and "IF" you really have courage, ask youself: What would it really mean to me if there where no god?" And if you can validate and verify your answer, you might come to understand a bit of what really exists and does not exist.
    Atheists, such as R. Dawkins, understand far more about god and religion than do the majority, by far the majority, of believers. I estimate he has read, and understood, more religious books and theories about religion and the majority of believers. Hmmm. Why is that?

  • Bartholomew says:

    @ Mike Kelly
    Sir, what of those who had the courage and did ask themselves and still find themselves coming to the conclusion that there is something divine and beautiful about reality and every existing moment?
    Maybe it's you who needs the courage to take a step back and consider all of the possible ideas of what religion is trying to convey. Maybe it's Richard Dawkins himself that has kept a closed mind toward Religion and needs to find a new way to evaluate or think about things, e.g. reality and it's relation to the ego.

  • dcotler says:

    Andrew @ 4 "science is asking us to say that if it cannot be shown by physical, measurable means, then it cannot exist"
    You seem to have things backward. Posts like this will garner disdain from educated people.

  • notsureeitherway says:

    this may explain why belief in religion would be propogated down generations onto impressionable kids, but does not in any way explain the root of how/why the parents are saying 'believe this, or do this'.

  • Neosopheus says:

    Religion, as with any form of culture, is passed down from generation to generation, from parent to child, and so on. Usually it is accepted unquestioningly, as it brings families and people together. However, I find it interesting how arbitrary our beliefs are. Really, what we believe is a product of when and where we were born. We assimilate, for the most part, the larger culture that surrounds us. This is a fact and is demonstrably true. Now given this fact, think about what you believe and why it is you believe it. Is it because it was what has been passed down and uncritically adopted by you? I fear that the answer for most people is yes.

  • Terry Grinnalds says:

    When you consider mankind and religion with an eye to figuring out "why," you have to start by asking what value it has for people. The traditional answers are (1) that it answers questions about nature and life, (2)that it provides solace from the fears of death and the mischances of life, and (3) that it provides continuity to the reassurances of childhood that "someone is in charge" by providing a "heavenly father" (and/or mother as the case may be). However, my own experiences incline me to believe there is another aspect less seldom recognized, or at least discussed. I was raised Methodist in Virginia, during the 1950's and 1960's, a time when Christianity was taught in a comfortable way, focusing on the moral teachings of Jesus, and not much on the threats so much a part of fundamental protestantism these days. As I grew to adulthood, I found I no longer believed. I didn't become militant about my disbelief, or even speak of it. I simply ceased going to church on a regular basis. I found, however, that I had no problem with going to church occasionally with my parents, and after I married a second time in my 30's, because my wife is a believer (also Methodist), I began attending my old church on a regular basis. As time went on, we began to get drawn into church activities. My wife has a wonderful voice, and mine is passable, so we joined the choir. Eventually we quit, in a dispute over church politics, and I have not since been a regular churchgoer. However, I generally attend Christmas and Easter services with my wife at another church. With this background (and there is a reason for giving it), here is my observation. Even knowing I did not believe the core beliefs of Christianity, I went to church because I still felt happy and fulfilled from attending the services, from taking part in the comfortably known rituals with others doing the same, and on the occasions when I still attend those services, sing the hymns, say in unison "I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth..." and other parts of the ritual, I still feel good doing so. I leave with a sense of peace, and I do so even knowing I don't believe in Christianity or in any religion. So, having considered all of this, here is my answer to the "why" of religion: We, all of us need a connection to others, not just to our spouses, our children, our immediate friends and close family, but to everyone. Religion gives us that connection in a way nothing else has achieved. Lenin and Stalin tried to substitute a secular, essentially political, connection through communism, but it never took. Let me say it again: religion makes this connection with an efficiency never otherwise achieved. When I was in college, I read the famous observation (and I apologize for not recalling the author) that "Man is a spiritual being" and thought it an outmoded and primitive idea. As I grew older and experienced what I have here related, I came to recognize there is a great truth in it. I think that spiritual connection between people is an inborn, biological need in all of us. It is an expression of the social instinct is responsible for who and what mankind is today. Religion - any religion, actually - seems to fulfill that need. To the extent one religion better fulfills it than another may be the main thing that makes one more successful than another. That has nothing to do with the validity of the beliefs, but it has a hell of a lot to do with the strength of belief of religious adherents to the tenets of their faith. This is an emotional, not a logical need of humanity, which explains why so many are immune to the logic of atheism. For those of us who are nonbelievers, Jesus walking on water or raising the dead, or being the product of a virgin birth are stories essentially indistinguishable from, and certainly of no more validity than, Jack and the Beanstalk. But people don't want to be alone. They want not to be alone so much, in fact, that if belief in the ridiculous and illogical is the price to pay for their connection with one another, it is a price they willingly (if not recognizably) pay. Few people are comfortable being as hypocritical as I and able to accept the connection through participation in a recognized fallacy. The HAVE to believe to participate and partake. I don't think we can get a handle on the power of religion in our modern world until we begin taking this into consideration.

  • Michael Burns says:

    Call it religion or spirtuality or hocus-pocus or voo-doo, it cannot be denied that it is a cultural universal.
    Anybody who got past Darwin.101 would hypothesize that it must be a species trait and that it very likely provides a survival advantage to those who have it.
    The simple and obvious advantage is that it facilitates co-ordination of group activities. Also, the trance-state associated with religous fervor makes for some seriously committed warriors. Check out the Japenese of WWII for an extreme example.
    In a time when a human's greatest threat was other humans the cohesive force of a shared religion/voo-doo/magic would be the difference beteen survival and extermination.
    Now, it is more apt to create exterminations than to prevent them.

  • Michael Burns says:

    Call it religion or spirtuality or hocus-pocus or voo-doo, it cannot be denied that it is a cultural universal.
    Anybody who got past Darwin.101 would hypothesize that it must be a species trait and that it very likely provides a survival advantage to those who have it.
    The simple and obvious advantage is that it facilitates co-ordination of group activities. Also, the trance-state associated with religous fervor makes for some seriously committed warriors. Check out the Japenese of WWII for an extreme example.
    In a time when a human's greatest threat was other humans the cohesive force of a shared religion/voo-doo/magic would be the difference beteen survival and extermination.
    Now, it is more apt to create exterminations than to prevent them.

  • Ian "Birdbooker" Paulsen says:

    If you're interested in this topic you might want to read this new book: Supernatural Selection by Matt Rossano
    See: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0195385810/ref=s9_simv_bw_p14_t1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-7&pf_rd_r=18CJP7BWTTDY5C0MPKWY&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=490891951&pf_rd_i=283155

  • Jimmy Brown says:

    Mr.Dawkins its is people u is the reason why a man/terriost will strap a bomb to his body an kill innocent people and think they r going to heaven to spend ent.with God. Did i say ent. with God i sure did that is one of million reason why God is real do u no why does sun rises in the east an set in west, an why does water go down a drain clockwise,one more why is that when the wind come out of the south to the north its is warm, an north to south its is cold. O foolish man, says God who is that,not mindful of him e.mail me with those answer if u can,Gigdy-gigdy

  • Ted Hoppe says:

    On one hand there is the argument that there is a divine so great that it is beyond my simple comprehension, on the other nothing. I am in the middle, a mere mortal. Why must I "believe" in anything? What makes it about believing? A "divinity" will know me even if I don't know it. I will myself to be a good and decent man among others of my kind.
    Isn't this enough?

  • Zoltaire says:

    Richard Dawkins is an imbecile. Noone cares about a biologist's opinions on physics or metaphysics. He's a hack, his contribution holds about the same value of a palm reading.

  • Darren says:

    I believe in God, not religion. I believe that evolution is progress... movement in one direction.. but why get better? Why preserve life? Science only tells us how but not why. Science only brings new questions, none of which, if answered, will matter when I die. I am content to be amazed that the fact that the universe is far too vast for us to ever fully understand, and I can never explain how glad I am to be free from needing an explanation for the universe.

  • Emily says:

    What's the harm in religion? http://whatstheharm.net/

  • Bill Davis says:

    Dawkins explains why certain people believe what they do in terms of how they were trained and the comforts the belief affords.
    This opens the door to asking what explains Dawkins' beliefs. He would say empirical evidence. But in philosophy empiricism is just one of several competing criteria of truth, and in any case why does he pick that one? It can't be based on physical evidence for there is no physical evidence for the rule "believe only what is supported by physical evidence."
    Things are much more complicated than this angry advocate seems to appreciate.

  • Eugene says:

    If there's an evolutionary advantage to parental obedience (i.e. to not take risky behaviors like picking up snakes) which predisposes one to religious faith, it would be ironic if religious faith in turn actually predisposed you to take risks ("I can pick up the snake now, because God will protect me" ... or "I can suicide bomb this building, because Allah will reward me in the afterlife" etc).

  • Scott says:

    I read and admire Mr. Dawkins. I respect and admire his viewpoint all the while knowing that there are more advantages to FAITH (never-ending confusion with religion) than an evolutionary need to follow leader/parent (although I do not doubt that this evolutionary hypothesis lead to the current state of international affairs and all manner of social/systemic problems we observe today, always and in time immemorial. Most of Mr. Dawkins hammerings of religion are certainly a result of attacks on science by the religious and not necessarily the FAITHFUL. Faith and religious fervor are not mutually exclusive. He has been echoing a frustration I have with those reporting from my ranks yet screaming insults at reason, logic and science. Science is fallible but, is mostly aware of itself and will self correct. While I find some of Mr. Dawkins comments on faith emotional (although metered to perfection) and counter-productive to his goal, I will continue to fight those amongst us hyper-willing to flush the whole practice of the useful arts and supporting reason. But, if those of us willing to embrace a grander sense of faith AND science and reason are in fact anomalous then; I feel evolution may get the religious in the end anyway and ironically so (albeit in the very VERY distant future - a sad prognostication and nothing more.) Or; how ironic would it be if evolution "gets" the reasonable while the "strong" and certainly numerous religious survive based on millenia of evolutionary SIMON SAYS? Jeez.

  • Viktor says:

    Extraodinary Knowing by Elizabeth Mayer. Read it.

  • Scott says:

    @ 23 Viktor: Nah thanks I already got one. *snickers* *whispers in a terrible french accent* I told 'im I've already got one. ..... extraordinarily unextraordinary. But, hey who am I to say that one happenstance with one of my hillbilly brethren should not spark serious scientific discussion about vagaries regarding someone's very extraordinarily being impressed by a minor miracle? Those kind of miracles happen every day and have probably much more to do with simple statistics than ANY type of knowing -other than the knowing of human behavior and responses. I can't believe an entire book was launched as a result. It equates the taboo of incest to a reluctance to explore this "inter-connectedness" of humans and things and does so in a step down from unicorns to the perspective of an otherwise scientifically minded non-unicorn person. It is still a unicorn (with a Sherlock Holmes double billed hat precariously dangling from the horn). It was a sweet diet but I have done it already and it was all empty calories.

  • There are a range of scholars from different fields already working on that subject, e.g. in the Evolutionary Religious Studies network:
    (It has been founded by David Sloan Wilson, who is active with "Evolution for everyone" at Scienceblogs, too.)
    Among the many findings concerning the potential adaptivity of religiosity are loads of data according to whom religious people tend to have more children on average. Here is a discussion with recent author Eric Kaufmann on the topic:
    And now, I will proceed to digg & tweet this post and its lively discussion! 🙂

  • Paul Howard says:

    Nicholas Wade, in his recent book "The Faith Instinct", makes the same point, that evolution contributed to the development and success of religion. Part of the value of religion was that tribes with strong religious underpinnings had, as a result, strong group cohesion, which led to more success in war.