Suzanne Fields

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. 


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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