Survival of the religious is Darwin's newest fruitfly

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Nov 21, 2005 12:05 AM

The argument between evolution and religion, continuing to roil the nation's politics, is undergoing change. Undergoing evolution, you might say. There's a new (fruit)fly in the ointment of Darwinism, a theory that religious belief contributes to natural selection and benefits human adaptation. (Darwin gets religion.)

David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state, argues that "religiosity" fosters group discipline and could have given our hunter-gatherer ancestors an advantage for survival as they grouped together for worship. This helped them defend against predators at the waterhole, where they became prey on the savannah. Those who survived passed on their genes, increasing the survival of the fittest unto the next generation. Thus "religiosity" became a "useful" genetic trait.

His thesis, as set forth in his book "Darwin's Cathedral," raises provocative and controversial ideas. The ancient cave drawings and paintings have often been interpreted as Cro-Magnon churches for ceremonies replete with icons of religious inspiration, but these interpretations have been based solely on speculation. The Wilson argument rests on a Darwinian analysis of what contributes to evolution. Darwin wrote that tribes with a high degree of fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, always prepared to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would triumph over other tribes and thus be more likely to survive. This view perceives society as a single organism; since religious men and women historically aim to encourage such traits within their community, Mr. Wilson believes they were favored by natural selection. He draws on examples as diverse as Calvinism in Geneva and water temples in Bali.

Support for this theory of survival of the religious is intriguing, though no one has found a gene for religious belief. Those who argue that a disposition toward religious belief can be inherited, nevertheless root their argument in Darwinian terms, perceiving religion as a contribution to moral codes that encourage cooperation for finding food and maintaining health. This makes the practice of religious faith evolutionarily advantageous. 

Support for the Darwinian theory comes from unexpected corners of the religious universe. The French Cardinal Paul Poupard suggested ways around "the mutual prejudice" between religion and science earlier this month at a session of theologians, philosophers and scientists in Rome. He finds the Creation story in Genesis as "perfectly compatible" with the Darwinian theory of evolution. Both accept the idea that the universe did not create itself: "Science and theology act in different fields, each in his own." The Roman Catholic Church has never required a literal interpretation of the Bible for belief in the creation, and it has never condemned the Darwinian theory. "The faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer," the cardinal says, "just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity."

John Silber, the philosopher who is a former president of Boston University, weighs a defense of both faith and evolution in New Criterion magazine. The Big Bang is not an explanation of the origin of the universe, he argues, unless there is an explanation of "what banged." Without such evidence, there is room for faith. "The critical question posed for evolutionists is not about the survival of the fittest but about their arrival," says Mr. Silber. "Biologists arguing Darwinian evolution have been challenged by critics for more than a hundred years for their failure to offer any scientific explanation for the arrival of the fittest."

Jews, as "the chosen people" of the Old Testament, have always been uneasy with the subject. In the second century, Rabbi Akiva suggested that Jewish sons not only inherited their looks, health and wealth from their fathers, but their "wisdom" as well. Centuries later, Moses Maimonides challenged that notion, arguing that it takes "great exertion" to make us who we are. However, he believed that there is no contradiction between the truths which God revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy.

The revisionist arguments that connect Darwinism with religion imbue the human spirit with meaning and purpose while accepting scientific facts that accompany the methodical research of science. They don't offer a lot of laughs, but perhaps one joke can be the last word for now.

Two monkeys, a father and a son, are engaged in conversation when papa monkey hands the younger monkey a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species. "Read this, my son," he says. "It will make a man of you."