Religion and evolution book showdown

1 minute read

William Saletan reviews Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God, with some discussion of Nicholas Wade’s upcoming book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, in the unfortunately-titled article, “Evolution’s place in a created universe.”

So who's right in this debate? Is religion a product of natural selection, cultural evolution, or God's truth?
Here's one possibility: all of the above.
I agree with Wade that cultural evolution is an exaggerated metaphor. Wright asserts that "just as genes are transmitted from body to body, down the generations, memes are transmitted from mind to mind." But that's a stretch. Memes don't pass from generation to generation the way genes do. One requires only procreation; the other requires parenting and education. For this reason, our cultural inheritance is vulnerable in a way that our biological inheritance isn't.

An interesting thought. What I’d like to see in any of these “evolution of religion” books, is a testable hypothesis. So far, there’s a lot of speculation and storytelling, and extraordinarily little critical thinking, connection with what we know of religion in small-scale prehistoric societies. The review intimates Wright’s story, in the end, is that religion is a side-effect of the evolution of other stuff – an “incidental by-product”.

I’ve got nothing against that idea, but I’d like to see some development of testable predictions. OK, so religion in humans is a “by-product”. By-products (like spandrels) don’t vary freely, they have patterns that can be explained in terms of architectural or developmental constraints, in terms of the cognitive features of which they are side effects. The dimension of variation that does exist should vary, in this case among human societies, in ways that reflect demographic and information constraints. Draw out predictions about these things and test them. Let’s have some numbers.

Until then, these books are pretty much the equivalent of “dog IQ” books. There’s sure a market for them.