Friday, September 17, 2010

religious selection and neurobiology | Every now and then, the Darwinian underworld of religiosity rises like the blinding sun. The not-so-secret world of religion and reproductive advantage came to fore when the Texas Department of Protective Services took temporary custody of over 400 children from the compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) near the small city of Eldorado.

Historically, the Darwinian origins of religiosity have drawn little attention from the community of evolutionary psychologists, due in part to the subtle and sometimes dangerous political undercurrents that frame scientific research. This hands-off policy has come to an end, just in time to catch this small sect of 10,000 members with its polygamous pants down. The FLDS has such an aggressive and religiously-tainted reproductive strategy that it has become the smoking gun of Friedrich von Hayek's proposal (1982) that the primary function of religion is reproductive advantage.

The FLDS is most notable by its peculiar adaptation of religious polygamy. Polygamy is a divisive problem for the continuity of social groups, as it produces large percentages of surplus males, with the corresponding negative social consequences. Monogamy is a safety valve for such societies, with only about 20% of the male population actually taking advantage of plural arrangements.

This cross-cultural polygamy estimate is very close to some estimates of the rate of Mormon polygamy in Utah in 1870, about 20 years before the institution of the anti-polygamy laws. By 1910, the rate of polygamy dropped in half, countering some of its negative cultural and genetic consequences: group splintering; lowered age of first-intercourse and conception for females; lower educational levels for females; greater average age of reproductive males; and, higher rates of inbreeding.

The rise of the FLDS, like the rise of Mormonism, follows a long tradition of religious splintering and reproductive advantage. The FLDS was formed after the Mormon renunciation of polygamy, which was punctuated by statehood for Utah in the late 1890s. The formation of the FLDS (and its sister splinter groups) had much in common with the original formation of Mormonism, and indeed, with sect formation in general: elevated male dominance and polygamy (or virtual polygamy); emigration to "promised lands"; high levels of intragroup cooperation and income redistribution; elevated levels of outgroup competition; xenophobia; "prophet" leaders with a privileged relationship to god (and privileged sexual access to the sect's females); high levels of reproductive output; economic endogamy (the favoring of religious insiders in economic transactions); and last but not least, a new variation or a recycling (fundamentalism) of religious doctrine.