How religions spread

Religion is a product of evolution, software suggests. (New Scientist article about research by James Dow.)

Now who could argue with software? It’s not as if software can only give out results in the way it’s been programmed to or anything….

By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish

Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.
Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious. (From the New Scientist article)

I am basing my opinion on a cursory reading of a pop-science version of real research that I have only skimmed (and I expect some more careful reader will comment to challenge my surface arguments with facts.) But, I take this to mean that the algorithm seems to indicate that telling convincing lies has evolutionary advantages. No surprise there. Otherwise politicians would have long been extinct.

But, are lies about gods in some other even-more-genetically-advantageous category than just regular lies? This experiment appears to favour the religious only when others help them:

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished

So, this research actually implied that belief in lies was not a successful survival strategy? Unless the goalposts were moved to make it one?

I assume that the arbitrary attractors could arise from activities such as like embedding lies in interesting stories. Some myths are somehow compelling. Narrative is attractive. (The attractiveness of narrative is itself something of an evolutionary mystery.) All the same, I am largely unconvinced by the explanatory power of the arguments, the choice of variables and the specific values assigned to them

However, science being science – i.e. developed through experiment and debate rather than through accepting erroneous beliefs because they come with clear but arbitrary attractive signals – I can test it out. The software can be downloaded under the GNU public licence. This is so admirable a way to conduct and spread research that I have to tip an oversized conceptual hat to James Dow.

1 thought on “How religions spread

  1. Sounds logical. Some of the stupidest (sorry, that sounds cruel: crudulity enhanced?) people I know come from parents who are just as stupid. 😉

    Seriously, though. If a prediliction for credulity enhances breeding oppurtunities, then the genes for that would be selected. How would credulity enhance breeding opportunities? Well, suppose you are a member of an isolated and primitive community. The local strongman is in power. If you willingly believe whatever the local strongman says, you don’t question poor decision-making, you bow down lower than anyone else when praying, the chances of the strongman getting royally pissed at you and killing you or banishing you is small. If, on the other hand, you, through genetic predisposition, question authority, point out stupid decisions and refuse to bow down before inanity, you will be removed from the gene pool.

    This might explain the recent (last 150 or 200 years) growth of free-thinking people and atheists. Liberal democracies protect the opinions of the minorities (or if they don’t protect the opinions, at the very least, they protect the life of the minority). The free-thinker and atheist are no longer cast out but are, instead, allowed to breed. If incredulity is a recessive gene, then the inclusion of the erstwhile outcasts would create more and more questioning minds.

    I had never thought about an evolutionary advantage to a willingness to believe in the absurd. It does make sense, though. Democracy may (slowly) be eroding that advantage.

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