Survival of the Most Pious?
The past and future of religious belief.


John Derbyshire

With his new book, New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade positions himself as a serious challenger to Steven Pinker for the title Best Living Popularizer of the Human Sciences. Wade’s 2006 book Before the Dawn was a masterly survey of current knowledge about our deep ancestry, informed by recent discoveries in genetics and archeology. (My NRO review is here.)

The topic of The Faith Instinct (Penguin, $25.95) is the natural history of religion. Darwin noted that a belief in “all-pervading spiritual agencies” is well-nigh universal among human populations. Why? Religious observances are costly in time, energy, and resources. Why has not natural selection purged out this wasteful behavior? From the point of view of species survival, is there an upside to balance or outweigh the wastefulness? If so, what is it?

Researchers — biologists, anthropologists, psychologists — have been probing the matter for a quarter century now, energized by the hope that parallel research in genetics and neurobiology will provide some hard-science underpinning for whatever answers they come up with. That is still mostly just a hope; but if we have not yet decoded religious behavior all the way down to the genome, the historical and observational evidence we have accumulated makes some theories more probably true than others. Well-arranged by a skillful writer, that evidence also makes for a fascinating read.

There are two current theories to explain the origins and persistence of religious belief. One says that religion is an accidental by-product of our extremely complicated cognitive equipment. Being able to tell when an object is possessed of volitional agency (tigers, enemies) is so vital to individual survival that the ability “slops over,” attributing agency where there is none. A tree, the sun, or a statue can then be believed to have volition and power. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom popularized this point of view in a 2005 Atlantic Monthly article (“Is God an Accident?”). Anthropologists Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer have presented it at book length.

The other theory is that religion is adaptive. That is, on net, human beings who have religious instincts propagate their genes more successfully than those who don’t. The best-known exponent of this point of view is biologist David Sloan Wilson, whose 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral laid out the adaptionist case for a general reader.

The adaptive approach — survival of the most pious, you might call it — has the smaller market share among researchers, mainly because it relies on natural selection working at the group level, a controversial notion long out of favor because of mathematical problems. Wilson and others have recently helped to revive group selection, so that the adaptive theory is now very much in play.

In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade signs up wholeheartedly to adaptionism, tackling some of the counterarguments presented by accidentalists like Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins:

For much of history, emotions like trust and loyalty have generally grown out of a shared religion. And belief in punitive gods . . . is highly effective at getting people to cooperate for the good of society. There is every reason to suppose the cohesion thus attained would be highly adaptive in the struggle for survival against competing societies.

Wade notes in passing that Pinker and Dawkins are both strong critics of religion in general. It’s not clear, though, that atheists are necessarily attracted to accidentalism, and believers to adaptionism. David Sloan Wilson is an atheist; contrariwise, cognitive scientist Justin Barrett, a leading accidentalist, is an observant Christian.