Monday, January 04, 2010

the god gene

NYTimes | How is a church like a can opener? Among the pleasures of using evolutionary logic to think about matters nonbiological, one is getting to ask questions like that. The evolutionary take on a cultural fact like religion or warfare can cut through the fog of judgment and show how a social institution solves some mechanical problem of human co-existence. What function did intergroup violence serve? What are gods good for?

Nicholas Wade’s book “The Faith Instinct” is at its best when putting us through such exercises and sidelining the by-now tiresome debates about religion as a force for good or evil. According to Wade, a New York Times science writer, religions are machines for manufacturing social solidarity. They bind us into groups. Long ago, codes requiring altruistic behavior, and the gods who enforced them, helped human society expand from families to bands of people who were not necessarily related. We didn’t become religious creatures because we became social; we became social creatures because we became religious. Or, to put it in Darwinian terms, being willing to live and die for their coreligionists gave our ancestors an advantage in the struggle for resources.

Wade holds that natural selection can operate on groups, not just on individuals, a contentious position among evolutionary thinkers. He does not see religion as what Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin called a spandrel — a happy side effect of evolution (or, if you’re a dyspeptic atheist, an unhappy one). He does not agree with the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer that religion is a byproduct of our overactive brains and their need to attribute meaning and intention to a random world. He doesn’t perceive religious ideas as memes — that is to say, the objects of a strictly cultural or mental process of evolution. He thinks we have a God gene.

So how did this God gene flourish? Wade’s counterintuitive answer repurposes an old social-scientific analysis of religion as a saga of biological survival. Rituals take time; sacrifices take money or its equivalent. Individuals willing to lavish time and money on a particular group signal their commitment to it, and a high level of commitment makes each coreligionist less loath to ignore short-term self-interest and to act for the benefit of the whole. What are gods for? They’re the enforcers. Supernatural beings scare away cheaters and freeloaders and cow everyone into loyal, unselfish, dutiful and, when appropriate, warlike behavior.