Beyond Demonic Memes
Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion
David Sloan Wilson
Skeptic, July 4, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Richard Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful
framework for studying religion. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses
to study any trait. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection?
If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups,
or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural
evolution, since cultural traits pass from person to person, perhaps they
evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human
individuals or groups.
If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can
nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it
was adaptive in the past but not the present. Perhaps the trait is a
byproduct of another adaptation. Finally, the trait might be selectively
neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift.
Dawkins and I agree that these major hypotheses provide an excellent
framework for organizing the study of religion. We also agree that the
hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a complicated process,
and all of the hypotheses might be relevant to some degree. Nevertheless,
real progress requires determining which hypotheses are most important for
the evolution of particular traits.
Few experiences are more
thrilling for a biologist than to discover a complex adaptation. Myriad
details that previously defied explanation become interpretable as an
interlocking system with a purpose. Non-adaptive traits can also be complex,
but the functional nature of a complex adaptation guides its analysis from
beginning to end. Failing to recognize complex adaptations when they exist
is as big a mistake as seeing them where they don't exist. Only hard
empirical work can settle the issue.
Dawkins would probably agree
with everything I have said so far. For religion, however, he argues
primarily on behalf of non-adaptation. Perhaps religious impulses were
adapted to the tiny social groups of our ancestral past, but not the
mega-societies of the present. If current religious beliefs are adaptive at
all, it is only for the beliefs themselves as cultural parasites on their
human hosts. That is why Dawkins calls God a delusion.
Dawkins' skepticism about the group-level benefits of religion, it is
necessary to trace the history of "for the good of the group" thinking in
evolutionary theory. Groups can be adaptive only if their members perform
services for each other, yet these services are often vulnerable to
exploitation by more self-serving individuals within the same group.
Fortunately, groups of individuals who practice mutual aid can out-compete
groups whose members do not.
According to this reasoning, traits that
are "for the good of the group" require a process of between-group selection
to evolve and tend to be undermined by selection within groups. Darwin was
the first person to reason this way about the evolution of human morality
and self-sacrificial traits in other animals. Unfortunately, many biologists
during the first half of the 20th century uncritically assumed that
adaptations evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy without
requiring a corresponding process of natural selection at each level. This
Age of Na´ve Groupism ended thanks largely to two books: George C. Williams'
1966 Adaptation and Natural Selection and Richard Dawkins' 1976 The Selfish
In Adaptation and Natural Selection, Williams affirmed the
logic of multi-level selection but then added an empirical claim: Even
though between-group selection is theoretically possible, in the real world
it is invariably trumped by within-group selection. Virtually all
adaptations evolve at the individual level and even examples of apparent
altruism must be explained in terms of self-interest.
developed by Williams was the concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of
selection. In sexually reproducing species, an individual is a unique
collection of genes that will never occur again. Individuals therefore lack
the permanence to be acted upon by natural selection over multiple
The concept of the gene as the fundamental unit of
selection, for example, is identical to the concept of average effects in
population genetics theory, which averages the fitness of alternative genes
across all of the individual genotypes and environmental contexts
experienced by the genes. A decade later, Dawkins played the role of
interpreter for an even broader audience. Average effects became selfish
genes and individuals became lumbering robots controlled by their genes.
In retrospect, it is hard to fathom the zeal with which evolutionists
such as Williams and Dawkins rejected group selection and developed a view
of evolution as based entirely on self-interest. In the first place, calling
genes "replicators" and "the fundamental unit of selection" is no argument
at all against group selection. The question has always been whether genes
can evolve by virtue of benefiting whole groups and despite being
selectively disadvantageous within groups.
Na´ve groupism is still a
mistake that needs to be avoided, but between-group selection can no longer
be categorically rejected. Claims for group selection must be evaluated on a
case-by-case basis. Group selection can sometimes even be the dominating
evolutionary force. A major transition occurs when selection within groups
is suppressed, making it difficult for selfish elements to evolve at the
expense of other members of their own groups. Selection among groups becomes
a dominating evolutionary force, turning the groups into super-organisms.
Dawkins fully accepts the concept of major transitions, but he pretends
that it doesn't require a revision in his ideas about group selection. Most
important, he doesn't pose the question that is most relevant to the study
of religion: Is it possible that human genetic and cultural evolution
represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups
into the equivalent of bodies and beehives?
Dawkins coined the term
"meme" to think about cultural evolution. Consider genetic evolution by
itself. When a new mutation arises, the total population consists of one
group with a single mutant and many groups with no mutants. There is not
much variation among groups in this scenario for group selection to act
upon. Now imagine a species that has the ability to socially transmit
information. A new cultural mutation can rapidly spread to everyone in the
same group. Culture can radically shift the balance between levels of
selection in favor of group selection.
In this context, the human
major transition probably began early in the evolution of our lineage,
resulting in a genetically evolved psychological architecture that enables
us to spontaneously cooperate in small face-to-face groups. Defining,
motivating, coordinating, and policing groups requires an elaborate system
of proximate mechanisms, something akin to the physiological mechanisms of
an individual organism. Might the elements of religion be part of the
"social physiology" of the human group organism?
One of my projects
is a collaboration with the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who
pioneered the Experience Sampling Method (ESM) which involves signaling
people at random times during the day, prompting them to record their
external and internal experience. I teamed up with Csikszentmihalyi to
analyze some of his past studies from an evolutionary perspective.
These studies were performed on such a massive scale and with so much
background information that we can compare the psychological experience of
religious believers vs. nonbelievers on a moment-by-moment basis. We can
even compare members of conservative vs. liberal protestant denominations,
when they are alone vs. in the company of other people. On average,
religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about
themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term
planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a
moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable,
involved and excited.
Hypothesis testing does not always require
quantification and the other trappings of modern science. Darwin established
his entire theory on the basis of descriptive information carefully gathered
by the naturalists of his day. This kind of information exists in abundance
for religions around the world and throughout history. It should be possible
to use this information to evaluate the major evolutionary hypotheses.
In Darwin's Cathedral, I initiated a survey of religions drawn at random
from the 16-volume Encyclopedia of World Religions, edited by the great
religious scholar Mircia Eliade. By my assessment, the majority of religions
in the sample are centered on practical concerns. New religious movements
usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social
organizations in practical terms and is better served by the new movement.
The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions in the
sample usually make excellent practical sense when judged by what they cause
the religious believers to do.
Jainism is one of the oldest and most
ascetic of all the eastern religions and is practiced by approximately three
percent of the Indian population. Jain ascetics filter the air they breathe,
the water they drink, and sweep the path in front of them to avoid killing
any creature. They are homeless, without possessions, and sometimes even
fast themselves to death. How could such a religion benefit either
individuals or groups in a practical sense?
It turns out that Jain
ascetics comprise a tiny fraction of the religion, whose lay members are
among the wealthiest merchants in India. Throughout their long history,
Jains have filled an economic niche similar to the Jews in Western Europe,
Chinese in Southeast Asia, and other merchant societies. The ascetics obtain
their food by begging but their religion includes so many food restrictions
that they can only accept food from the most pious lay Jain households. When
they enter a house, they inspect the premises and subject the occupants to
sharp questions about their moral purity before accepting their food. It is
a mark of great honor to be visited but of great shame if the ascetics leave
without food. In effect, the food begging system of the ascetics functions
as a policing mechanism for the community. Jains make up one of the most
conspicuously successful communities in India.
obviously dysfunctional based on a little information, such as the sight of
an emaciated ascetic or beliefs that appear bizarre when taken out of
context. The same religion becomes obviously functional based on more
information. This is the kind of "natural history" information that enabled
Darwin to build such a strong case for his theory of evolution, and it can
be used to build an equally strong case for most of the enduring religions
of the world.
Explaining religions as primarily group-level
adaptations does not make them benign in every respect. The most that group
selection can do is to turn groups into super-organisms. Like organisms,
super-organisms compete, prey upon each other, coexist without interacting,
or engage in mutualistic interactions. Sometimes they form cooperative
federations that work so well that super-super-organisms emerge at an even
larger spatial scale.
I share Dawkins' concern about other aspects of
religions. Religions can be ruthless in the way that they enforce conformity
within groups. Most alarming for a scientist, religions can be wanton about
distorting facts about the real world on their way toward motivating
behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. The problem with Dawkins'
analysis is that he doesn't get the facts about religion right. At the
moment, he is just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an
evolutionist and spokesperson for science to vent his personal opinions
AR This is a powerful critique
by a man who knows what he's talking about. I think his case against
Dawkins' polemic is valid.