Case Studies in Earth & Environmental Science
Did evolution contribute to the human tendence towards religion?
Questions to Ponder and Discuss
- “Nothing in biology makes sense,” said geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, “except in the light of evolution.” How valid is it to extend what Darwin wrote out of the natural sciences? Can/should religion and morality be thought of with evolutionary-mindedness?
- According to evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma, the entire tradition of philosophical explanation by the purposes of things, with its theological foundation, was made completely superfluous by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. After reading excerpts from On the Origin of Species and Descent of Man, do you think that was unintentional? After reading excerpts from The Selfish Gene, do you think Dawkins’ reductionist view was a proper reading of Darwin and if so, is the subsequent literature a proper reading of Dawkins?
- One difference between Darwin and Darwinism is that the former is a man with a religion, while the latter (and all its derivations) is an explanation which negates the need of another explanation, specifically, religion. Which of the popular articles made this distinction?
- Some semi- or non-scientific issues (e.g. politicized sciences) try to drape what they have to say with science, as if to validate their claims. Is this “strategy” being used here?
- Paul Bloom’s article was awarded a spot in The Best American Science Writing 2006; what attributes warranted this? Is it the exposition? Bloom writes about his own research; do you think this had an affect on the article? (Is good writing punished if he’s writing for his colleagues?)
- In this case study, many of the popular articles are written by the researcher themselves. Why do you think that is? Is the effect different? Is the science better explained? Compare Boyer’s technical vs. popular article to Atran vs. the NYT article “Darwin’s God.”
- How do the interviews with Bloom, Dawkins, and Wilson compare with their own writings?
- I’ve selected a David Sloan Wilson scientific paper from 1975. After reading the conversation in NYT with him about his latest book (Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002), how has his theory “evolved” on paper?
- In putting this case study together, I made many assumptions and among them, that religion is related to cooperation and moral systems. Is this assumption justifiable? Do writers of popular articles make this assumption?
- I’ve included a book review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (excerpted). Do you think the sentiments of the reviewer are because of a biased-predisposition? Is it possible to read/write about religion without a predisposition?
- In his article (not presented here) titled “Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics in Sociobiological Perspective” (Zygon 23(4):383-407), George C. Williams presents: “the process and products of evolution are morally unacceptable and act in opposition to the ethical progress of humanity . . . what is, in the biological world, normally ought not.” In other words, since natural selection is “immoral,” is this discussion moot and which popular articles seem to convey that?
- “Altruistic punishment” (Fehr and Gächter) explains why cooperation is frequent among genetically unrelated people, in non-repeated interactions, when gains from reputation are small or absent. Can (or how does) this translate into implications for moral systems and religion? Is human cooperation due less to natural selection than to cultural forces that are rooted in pervasive moral systems? (Additionally, Fehr and Gächter have also published their findings in The American Economic Review.)
- In these studies, why are non-human primates and babies/children often used as test-subjects? And insect colonies as comparisons to human societies? And why do some popular articles particularly hone in on this?
- It’s not inconceivable that a person who can explain/understand things that are otherwise unexplainable/ununderstandable, might actually play a more important function in society; is religion actually adaptive, or is it merely a by-product of the evolving complexity of our brains gaining the capacity to accommodate and explain things through an opaque logic? Or does it have no evolutionary implications, and is a cultural artifact, a self-replicating unit of thought, or an accident of human nature? Or rather, which argument is best supported? None of the above?
Charles Darwin, (originally published 1859). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, ed. Joseph Carroll. Broadview Press, Toronto, 2003, excerpt.
Charles Darwin (originally published 1874). The Descent of Man. Prometheus Books, New York, 1998, excerpt.
Richard Dawkins, 1989. “Why are people?” and “Memes: the new replicators” from The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Daniel Dennett, 1995. “Is Nothing Sacred?” from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Daniel Dennett, 2006. “The births of religions” from Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Viking, New York.
James W. Dow, 2005. “The Evolution of Religion: Three Anthropological Approaches,” abstract and summary, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, 18(1):67-91.
Scientific & Technical Information.
Scott Atran and Ara Morenzayan, 2004. “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27:713-730 (without peer commentary).
Pascal Boyer, 2003. “Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function,” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 7(3):119-124.
Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter, 2002. Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415:137-140.
Andrew B. Newberg and Bruce Y. Lee, 2005. “The Neuroscientific Study of Religious and Spiritual Phenomena: Or Why God Doesn’t Use Biostatistics,” Zygon 40(2):469-489.
David Sloan Wilson, 1975. “A Theory of Group Selection,” PNAS 72(1):143-146.
James Gleick, November 20, 1983. “Breaking Tradition with Darwin,” The New York Times.
Ben Cullen, 1998. “Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion,” from The Evolution of Complexity ed. Heylighen, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht.
Martin Gardner, July-August, 1999. “The religious views of Stephen Gould and Charles Darwin – Special Issue: Science and Religion: Conflict or Conciliation?” Skeptical Inquirer.
Frans B.M. de Waal, July-August, 2002. “‘The whole Mass a Paradice”: is religion an adaptation that enables groups to function as single units?” Natural History.
Natalie Angier, December 24, 2002. “A Conservation with David Sloan Wilson; The Origin of Religions, From a Distinctly Darwinian View,” The New York Times.
Pascal Boyer, March, 2003. “Why Is Religion Natural?” Skeptical Inquirer.
Steven Pinker, October 29, 2004. “The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion,” presented at the annual meeting of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Interview with Paul Bloom, November 22, 2005. “Wired for Creationism?” The Atlantic Monthly’s Atlantic Unbound.
Paul Bloom, December 2005. “Is God an Accident?” The Atlantic Monthly.
Edward O. Wilson, January 15, 2006. “Let’s accept the fault line between faith and science,” USA TODAY.
Leon Wieseltier, February 19, 2006. “The God Genome,” a review of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett, The New York Times Books.
Michael Shermer, September 18, 2006. “Darwin on the Right: Why Christians and conservatives should accept evolution,” Scientific American.
Steve Paulson, January 31, 2007. “God and gorillas,” Salon.com.
Robin Marantz Henig, March 4, 2007. “Darwin’s God,” The New York Times.
Sean Aqui, March 7, 2007. “The Evolution of Religion,” Blogcritics.org Culture.
Nicholas Wade, March 20, 2007. “Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior,” New York Times.
Terry Gross, March 28, 2007. “Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of ‘The God Delusion,’ on his atheism, creationism vs. evolutionary biology, and the logical unnecessity of a sentient God,” FRESH AIR NPR WHYY.
William Saletan, April 1, 2007. “Morality: All in Your Mind,” Washington Post.
Article from Interviewee
Robert E. Pollack, 2006. Question #3 from “The Religious Obligation to Ask Questions of Nature and the State: Bonhoeffer on the Protection and Dignity of Human Life, in the Context of DNA-based Genetic Medicine Today,” Tenth Dietrich Bonhoeffer Symposium, Berlin, April 30, 2005. Union Seminary Quarterly Report, 60.
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