Saturday, February 17, 2007

Darwin and religion

In his latest book, “The God Delusion”, the celebrated science writer and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins presents a hard-hitting rebuttal of all the usual arguments that dyed-in-the wool creationists put across. One of the questions posed by ‘propagandists for intelligent design’ to Darwinians is, “As you claim that everything in this world evolved through natural selection, isn’t it true that religion too was favoured by and was a logical, desired and inevitable outcome of natural selection?”

Dawkins acknowledges that this is a fair question and one that needs to be answered. The point, he says, assumes significance from standard Darwinian considerations of economy. Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste. Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance, rejecting that which is bad, preserving all that is good. If a wild animal habitually performs some useless activity, natural selection will favour rival individuals who devote the time and energy instead to surviving and reproducing.

On the other hand, Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant. It is time-consuming, energy-consuming and can endanger the life of the pious individual as well as the lives of others. Millions of people have been killed and hundreds of wars fought in the name of religion. Religion devours resources on a gigantic scale. A massive cathedral may consume several man-centuries to build, but is never used as a dwelling or for any recognizably useful purpose. Devout people have killed and died for their gods, whipped blood from their backs, sworn themselves to a lifetime of celibacy, all in the name of religion. What is it all for? What is the benefit of religion in the Darwinian sense of ‘enhancement to the survival of the individual’s genes”?

After examining various theories and possible explanations, Dawkins concludes that religion is a by-product, an unintended consequence of another natural process, the indoctrination of children in their formative years.

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival. We survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well-being. Theoretically children may learn by themselves not to go too near a cliff or to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, there is a Darwinian advantage to child brains that possess the rule of thumb: believe, without question, whatever your grown-ups tell you. This is a generally valuable rule for a child and the species. That is why our brains are hardwired to obey elders unquestioningly.

But the flip side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot know that an advice of “Don’t play with fire” is good whereas another advice of “You must sacrifice a goat at the time of full moon, otherwise the rains will fail” is a waste of time, as both admonitions are delivered by the same authorities, in a similar tone and sound equally trustworthy. Both have the same solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience. And, it is very likely that when the child grows up and has children of her own, she will naturally pass on the ‘learning’ to her own children- nonsense as well as sense- using the same infectious gravitas of manner.

On this model, Dawkins argues, we should expect that, in different geographical regions, different arbitrary beliefs, none of which have any factual basis, will be handed down, to be believed with the same conviction as useful pieces of traditional wisdom as in “manure is good for the crops”. Superstitions will ‘logically’ evolve- change over generations- either through random drift or by some sort of analogue of Darwinian selection, given a fair wind by the useful programmability of the child brain.

Evolution of religion, Dawkins concludes, has therefore followed the well-known pattern of the Darwinian process, except that it is not the desired result but an unintended by-product. QED.

Update 05/03/07 : The New York Times has a different and interesting take on this issue. ( via)


Mysorean said...


Sowmya said...

but u haven't said anything about what you think about is conclusions.

Escape.... Great Escape said...

By saying religion was a by product of a control mechanism, Dawkins I feel is once again weakening his stance.

Another way of saying that is, if it were not for the fear and control mechanism (whose offshoot was religion), children would be uncontrollable and generations would not have learnt from previous generations. This argument by Dawkins validates religion.

Would it not be better if people stuck to the original reason for religion and God? Man's inablity to explain natural phenomena kindling his fertile imagination giving rise to wasteful religious practices.

Raj said...

mysorean, hmmm what?

sowmya; what do I think? Th fact that I have published Dawkin's side of the argument and have referred to creationists as 'intelligent design propagandists", must tell you where my sympathies lie.

great Escape : Dawkin's main argument has escaped you. he does not validate religion. far from it. All he says is that it is an unintended by-product of the darwinian process.

Escape.... Great Escape said...

I do not know a lot about theory of evolution. Are there many such 'unwanted' by-products in evolution?

Why I said that was he calls 'religion' part of evolution... (by product of trusting obedience, that made us fit.. so to speak).

Would that mean, it is just natural for mankind to come up with religion? (I might have to read the book to understand what he means though).

Tony F said...

For an evolutionary explaination of religion you must take a meme's eye view. Once the genetic code evolved a human brain capable of IMITATING, a second replicator was unleashed and we have been copying (ie. IMITATING) the best imitators ever since. This has given us our total culture, useful and otherwise. Think of religion this way, as well as catchy tunes and the clumsy QWERTY keyboard. It's obvious. The memes are benefiting from being replicated. Truth and usefulness are not essential to memetic survival. Wasteful ideas which appeal to or combine well with other ideas will automatically profit and survive via human IMITATION.

Raj said...

escape, yes, do read the book. Dawkins has provided a good and simple explanation.

Tony F : Thanks. dawkins himself has used the same example of meme in his book

Suresh said...


{{I do not know a lot about theory of evolution. Are there many such 'unwanted' by-products in evolution?}} - Yeah, incubation of eggs is one such. While some species of birds have evolved to differentiate their eggs from others', some have not. Cuckoos who have evolved to this possibility always lay their eggs on other birds' nests.
While some birds incubate, hatch and even rear the cuckoo chick, other birds would destroy their own nests to get rid of the cuckoo egg. Why? "The cuckoo egg hatches earlier than the host's, and the cuckoo chick grows faster; in most cases the chick evicts the eggs or young of the host species. The chick has no time to learn this behavior, so it must be an instinct passed on genetically."

Because of the variability in understanding their biological functions in terms of evolution, some species have an upper-hand over others and the same with memes (as Tony has pointed out). So evolution by natural selection has numerous unintended bi-products (from self-consciousness to suicide).