February 25, 2010


Spirit level: Why the human race has needed religion to survive: a review of The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures. By Nicholas Wade (The Economist, 12/17/09)

Whatever Darwin’s personal sensibilities, Mr Wade is convinced that a Darwinian approach offers the key to understanding religion. In other words, he sides with those who think man’s propensity for religion has some adaptive function. According to this view, faith would not have persisted over thousands of generations if it had not helped the human race to survive. Among evolutionary biologists, this idea is contested. Critics of religion, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, suggest that faith is a useless (or worse) by-product of other human characteristics.

And that controversy leads to another one. Does Darwinian selection take place at the level only of individuals, or of groups as well? As Mr Wade makes clear, the notion of religion as an “adaptive” phenomenon makes better sense if one accepts the idea of group selection. Groups which practised religion effectively and enjoyed its benefits were likely to prevail over those which lacked these advantages.

Likewise, a Darwinian approach offers the key to understanding Darwinism. It has failed in the course of just 150 years because it did not help the races that adopted it to survive. Groups that practiced religion--known as Americans--have prevailed over those who lacked the advantages: secular Europeans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2010 8:01 PM
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