Science Talk

Darwin Day Special, Part 2: Evolutionary Psychology and Religion

In part 2 of this special Darwin Day podcast, Hofstra University religion professor John Teehan discusses the study of religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome back for part 2 of our special three-part Darwin Day edition of Scientific American's Science talk. I'm Steve Mirsky. We will continue with another presentation from the Darwin event last week sponsored by the New York Society for Ethical Culture. John Teehan is the associate professor of Religion at Hofstra University. He is the author of the upcoming book, In the name of God: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence. He talked about the study of religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective.

Teehan: I am very pleased to have been invited here to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. 2009 is a momentous year that marks several significant milestones in human history. Besides being Darwin’s bicentennial, it is also bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, born on the very same day as Darwin. More relevant to our purposes here it is, as we are aware, the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, clearly one of the most important works ever written. Perhaps not so well known is that 2009 also marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the great American philosopher, John Dewey. That he came into the world the same year as Darwin’s masterpiece was a fact not lost on Dewey, who, perhaps more than any philosopher of his day, recognized the significance of Darwin’s evolutionary theory not just for biology, but for philosophy and for the study of humanity. John Dewey marked the 50th anniversary of the Origins, in 1909, by writing an essay entitled, “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy.” As this is the 100th anniversary of that essay we will use it to see just how far Darwin’s reach stretches. (Before turning to this, I want to also mention another anniversary being marked this year—2009 is the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Arthur Guinness brewery—and while Guinness wrote no philosophy it would be unfair to deny he has had an impact on academics that continues to this day.)

Charles Darwin saw clearly that his theory of evolution through natural selection held implications far beyond biology, and in particular, that it clashed with dearly held and widely shared religious beliefs of his day. His concern for the religious controversy that was sure to come was at least part of the reason that he delayed publishing his ideas for twenty years, and also goes to explain his extreme caution in discussing the application of his ideas to humans. In the almost 500 page Origin of Species Darwin mentions humans just once, and almost in passing. Near the very end of the book he suggests that as these ideas become further developed, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Darwin could afford to tread lightly on the issue of human evolution because he knew the implications of his work for humans would be lost on no one—and he was right. People immediately picked up on what evolution implied about humanity, and its implications for religion were at the forefront of the controversy.

A major clash between evolution and religion in Darwin’s day is familiar to us, for it is a conflict that still rages today—as stunning as that may be. It is the incompatibility between an evolutionary account of human origins and a Biblical account of human origins. We know all too well the argument from opponents of evolution, that an evolutionary account of humanity descending from a long lineage of pre-human animals through the process of natural selection is an assault on the Biblical account of God making each creature separately—“each according to its own kind”—in six days, no more than 10,000 years ago. And we must admit that the fear that evolution overthrows a literal understanding of Genesis is well founded—evolution does refute Genesis, understood literally. The creationists are right about at least this one thing—actually this is the only thing they get right: you cannot believe in Darwinian evolution and believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, they are incompatible accounts. The situation is in fact much worse for creationists: not only can you not believe in Darwinian evolution and Genesis, but you cannot believe in modern physics, or astronomy, or chemistry, or archaeology, or geology, or paleontology—to name just a few—and a literal reading of Genesis, for all of these sciences point to a dynamic and ancient universe. For creationism to be correct, all of these sciences must be wrong, and not just wrong in some details, but fundamentally flawed. This is a point that rarely gets into public discussion over the teaching of creationism in the science classroom.

The case against a literal reading of the Bible is so overwhelming, that on an intellectual level the evolution/creationism debate is just silly. If it were not for the unfortunate political and social influence creationist wield in our society, we should just ignore these people till they go away. However, because of the ability of religious fundamentalists to influence public school policy we are forced to pay close attention to them.

However, today I want to focus not on the political battles between evolution and creationism, but on the deeper levels of contact between Darwinism and religion. What sometimes gets lost in the heated battles over creationism is that many religions and many religious people do not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Catholic Church, for example, does not, and the Church has no doctrinal disputes with evolutionary science; this goes for many Protestant denominations, as well. Most forms of Judaism have also found little problem integrating Darwinian evolution into their religious worldview. The situation with Islam is more complicated, but suffice it to say there are Islamic voices that have also spoken in favor of Darwinism. In fact, it is interesting to note that the zealousness and intellectual emptiness of creationist attacks on evolution have produced a sort of backlash in certain circles, including the scientific and academic communities. It is now a very popular opinion that there is no conflict between evolution and religion; that as long as one understands that evolution answers questions on empirical matters and religion addresses moral and spiritual matters, there can be no conflict. This view lead the famed evolutionist, and admitted atheist, Stephen Jay Gould to advocate for a “respectful and loving concordat” between science and religion.

I believe that this position, while politically expedient and perhaps strategically wise in the current religious environment, takes a superficial approach to both evolution and religion. Clearly, there are religious traditions that have serious problems with Darwin, and we cannot get around that fact by denying that those traditions are legitimate religions—we may not agree with those religious views, or even respect them, but to millions of people, that is what religion means—and evolution does not fit into their views. So perhaps what people trying to patch things up between Darwin and God ought to say is that there is no necessary conflict between the two, that for many religious views there is room for both. This is more accurate, more respectful of the diversity of religious outlooks. However, this still does not fully recognize just how far Darwinian evolution reaches into the domain of religion. This is what we need to look at.

In 1859, Darwin made a prediction in his conclusion to the Origin. He said, sounding ever so much the seer: “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” This is the insight that so impressed John Dewey. In his 1909 essay Dewey wrote, “Prior to Darwin the impact of the new scientific method upon life, mind, and politics had been arrested...The gates of the garden of life were barred to the new ideas....The influence of Darwin...resides in having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition.” That is, with Darwin it was now possible to develop a truly scientific understanding of human psychology and human morality—and it is here, in evolutionary accounts of mind and morals, that Darwin may have his most significant influence on our understanding of religion.

Darwin’s prediction that psychology would someday be based on a new foundation is beginning to come to fruition. Over the last several decades evolutionary thinkers have laid the foundation for an evolutionary psychology. This discipline works with the premise that Darwin set out 150 yrs ago: the brain is a physical organ and as such it has been subject to the forces of natural selection just as much as any other part of our physical make-up. Therefore our study of the brain must take into account what survival tasks humans needed to accomplish in order to successfully reproduce, throughout the course of our evolutionary history. Just as our hearts and lungs are what they are today because of what tasks they needed to serve in our ancient past, so too, what our brain is today, how it functions today, is a result of its evolutionary history. Given this we should be able to detect cognitive and emotional tools that were designed to serve the demands of evolutionary competition. Researchers from a variety of disciplines have been using this approach for over 40 years to investigate human behavior and beliefs. There is now an impressive body of literature providing an evolutionary account of human sexuality, including mating and parenting strategies, cooperation, social organization, and morality.

Most recently, over the past 15-20 years, many evolutionary theorists have turned their attention to religion.

This is a most fascinating field of study. It is a relatively new field, and as such is subject to all the growing pains and skepticism new fields are prone to. However, in my view the study of religion from the perspective of the cognitive sciences, with evolutionary psychology being a foundational part of that approach, represents one of the most significant developments in the modern study of religion. Clearly this field is too complex and diverse to adequately present in a brief talk, but I would like to give you a taste of how this field is approaching religion, and then talk about what this might mean for religion.

Evolutionary psychology views the brain as a collection of mental tools each of which serves some specific task related to survival or reproduction. One such tool that is particularly important for the study of religion is often referred to as an Agency Detection Device. Research shows, and experience confirms, that the human mind is very sensitive to detecting signs of agents working in the world. By agents I mean beings capable of acting with intention and purpose. For example, I am an agent. My actions and words are intended to serve a certain purpose—to share ideas with you. If one of you were to get up and walk out during the talk, my immediate, intuitive response would to be to view you as an agent; that is I would assume that your actions are intentional and aimed at achieving some goal, that you need to use the bathroom, for example, rather than viewing your actions as random movements. Now, attributing agency to persons is not unusual, in fact it is the typical way we understand human behavior. But we do not simply detect agency when persons are involved. We do it with non-human animals. For example, if your pet cat climbs up on your lap and purrs, you think it wants to be pet, and perhaps even that it loves you, that is, it has acted with intention. This also makes sense because animals are agents also. Your cat climbing on your lap and purring likely does signal an intention to get you to pet him—even if that intention is not conscious.

However, our detection of agency goes beyond animals, we regularly and intuitively attribute agency to inanimate objects all the time. While I was preparing this talk my computer began to show signs of a virus. The program slowed down, pages disappeared, files shut down, and all to make my life more miserable—that damn, stupid computer. I know of course that the computer is not “trying” to do anything, since it is not an agent. Its malfunctions can be adequately explained by the principles of computer technology, the unfortunate impact on my work, merely coincidental. I know this, but that is not how I instinctively responded. We naturally detect agency even when the source is not an agent.

In fact, our Agency Detection Device is even more sensitive than that, not only do we detect agency when there is only an inanimate object to blame, we detect agency when there is no one, or no thing present. Imagine you are lying in bed at night and you hear glass breaking in another part of your home. There are any number of explanations—a tree branch may have broken a window, perhaps a vibration from a passing car has sent a glass bowl crashing off the kitchen counter, perhaps your cat has knocked down a cup. It may be any number of things, but the odds are great that your response will be to interpret this as someone having done something, e.g. an intruder has broken into you home. Humans do not need to actually see creatures or objects act in order to detect agency, and there are very good evolutionary reasons for this.

Agents are very important parts of our world. They have intentions and the power to act on those intentions, and those intentions may be to do us harm. And it is a common fact that agents do not always signal their presence, that is, you cannot always wait until you see that there is an agent present before you act as if there is an agent present. In our example of the breaking glass in the middle of the night, if you wait until you have unmistakable evidence that there is an intruder in your house, you have lost valuable time in responding to protect yourself and your family. When in doubt, the better strategy is to overreact rather than under-react. If you act as if the noise is caused by an intruder you will be better prepared to protect your family if there is an intruder. If it turns out to have been the cat, well, you have given your self a scare, and lost some sleep. On the other hand, if you act as if the noise were the result of the wind, when it is an intruder, the consequences to you and your family may be dire.

Our earliest ancestors lived in environments where they faced such uncertain, yet urgent, situations all the time. They were surrounded not only by dangerous predators but by potentially hostile humans. They regularly faced situations in which under-reacting even once could mean the end not only for themselves, but for their children. The early human walking through the forest and hearing a rustling in the bushes up ahead has a crucial decision to make—it could merely be the wind, or it could be a tiger waiting to pounce. Those who waited for sufficient evidence of a tiger were more likely to end up tiger-lunch. We are all descendents of people who faced with such situations, said “tiger” and ran. Evolution favors those who are overly sensitive to agents.

I am sure you can see where this is going. Humans have developed as an evolutionary adaptation a highly sensitive Agency Detection Tool—when in doubt our default position is to detect the presence of an agent, the more so in situations that are urgent and/or dangerous. In our earliest environments we regularly faced situations that were both urgent and dangerous, and in which there were no clear explanations for what was going on around us. In such situations the human mind is designed to detect agency, and to respond to the situation as if an agent were responsible—and this is not simply an intellectual decision, it is a strategic decision, with emotional overtones. The person who says “tiger” to the rustling in the bushes is not making a merely intellectual decision. He or she is experiencing the fear that comes with facing a dangerous predator, and reacts in a way that is appropriate to such a danger. The fact that there may be no tiger does not change this. The situation, once interpreted as being faced with a predator is experienced as real, and in a deeply felt way, whether or not the tiger exists.

This deeply ingrained, evolutionary strategy for responding to urgent yet uncertain situations is the genesis of belief in gods. The rustling in the bushes may be a tiger, but the rumbling in the sky, or the violence of the thunder, is not so easily explained, but still cries out for an explanation, nonetheless.

The working of our Agency Detection Device is not sufficient by itself to explain all of religion, or even to give a full account of belief in gods. It is but one tool in our evolved mental toolbox that works to generate such beliefs. Evolutionary theorists have identified a number of such mental tools, each of which contributes some piece to the picture that is religion. My own research focuses on evolutionary accounts of our moral psychology. The thesis of my work is that religious moral traditions, for all their apparent diversity, are actually varied expressions of an underlying evolved moral psychology; that despite the religious position that these moral traditions are god given, they can also be explained as the end results of natural selection.

So, what does all of this mean for religion? For one, it means that the challenge presented by Darwin to religion goes well beyond simply requiring us to re-interpret some Biblical passages. The evolutionary analysis of religion offers an account of how it is that humans come to believe in gods, and how they come to believe the things they do about gods. It can also offer an account of why people can be so sensitive to having their god beliefs challenged. In other words, evolutionary theory is now offering us a scientific in-road into our sacred beliefs and values—those areas supposedly reserved for religion. This poses a much greater challenge to religion than simply contradicting Genesis.

Now, one may also question whether a Darwinian account of religion necessitates atheism. Richard Dawkins famously said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist, and certainly evolutionary theories of religion can serve as powerful weapons in the arsenal of atheism. However, I do not believe that accepting this evolutionary account of religion requires one to accept atheism. Curiously, one of the major players in this field, Justin Barrett, identifies himself as a practicing Christian and claims to have no problem reconciling his faith with his science, and he is certainly not the only one to make such a claim. Rather than get into any specific arguments, let me conclude by suggesting what I see to be a way to reconcile evolution and religion.

It has long been suggested that perhaps evolution is simply the means god has chosen to execute his plans for his creation. In response to evolutionary psychology it has been proposed that if God wanted to be known by his creatures then it makes sense that he would arrange evolution to design brains capable of perceiving him. While this may seem plausible to many, I find this response unconvincing. It seems to work with too anthropomorphic a conception of God, and anthropomorphism is clearly an evolved strategy for making sense of a confusing world.

However, it may also be argued that what evolutionary accounts of religion do is to uncover a common human experience of the divine found beneath the diversity of religious traditions; that it suggests that despite the moral conflicts between religions, they are all striving to give expression to a deeper, and commonly shared moral sense—if so, then perhaps this deeper source of our religious traditions is what people refer to as god. In this case, religion becomes the effort to bring out this common thread of our humanity, to find that deeper level of reality that establishes a true connection between people, to uncover the moral path that allows us to seek our good as members of a shared human community. Such a conception of religion would, in my view, fit comfortably with a Darwinian worldview.

There is of course already such a religious worldview, it is called Humanism—and it is no coincidence that the American philosopher most deeply imbued with an evolutionary outlook would also be one of the greatest philosophers of Humanism. What John Dewey recognized is that, contrary to the fears of traditional religious believers, Charles Darwin’s influence would not result in a moral deadening of the world, it would not rob life of its beauty or wonder, nor would it render existence meaningless. Rather by fully integrating humans, and human experience, into the natural world, evolution would make that natural world more truly our home; that by undermining our faith in ancient and unchanging dogma, we would be made more fully involved in charting our own destinies; and by providing a natural grounding for our most cherished values evolution opens of the possibility of imbuing our natural existence with a sense of the sacred. As Darwin said of evolution, “there is grandeur in this view of life.”

Whether or not this is considered religion, such a view of life creates the conditions for developing what Dewey called a “common faith.” Dewey argues that this humanistic faith has always been what is best in religion, but it is too often been lost in the heat of doctrinal battles. How interesting it would be, after all the animosity directed toward Darwin from religious quarters, if in the end his greatest influence on religion turned out to be setting free its better nature. Thank you.


Steve: This has been the second of our three-part Darwin Day series. Also check out the Darwin In-Depth Report at our Web site and tune in for part 3 on February 13th. For Scientific American's Science Talk, I am Steve Mirsky.

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In part 2 of this special Darwin Day podcast, Hofstra University religion professor John Teehan discusses the study of religion from an evolutionary psychology perspective. 

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