scilogs Biology of Religion

Biocultural Evolution or Gene-Culture-Coevolution

from Michael Blume, 30. October 2009, 18:39

Every human perception is shaped by underlying assumptions, of which we are aware only partially. For example, Western thinking has been shaped (at least since the classic Greeks) by a strong preference for dualisms: Human and Animal, True and False, Good and Evil, Body and Soul, Brain and Mind, Nature and Culture etc. Although the discovery of evolution clearly bridged these distinctions, they creeped back into place again and again, especially in Western perceptions of sciences. For example, we owe the discovery of distinct cultural traditions among non-human primates to Japanese primatologists (honoured in a beautiful book by Frans de Waal), whose Western successors i.e. as Jane Goodall nevertheless had to fight strong prejudices against giving chimpanzees individual names, attributing them emotions etc. to this day. 

Even now, few people know that evolutionary studies started from the cultural side. The very terms "evolution" and "genetic" were derived from linguists who had explored the common roots and historic rules of change in languages, building linguistic trees and developping early evolutionary concepts, which were then applied i.e. to cultures and religions (as Wallace and Darwin acknowledged). Thus, evolutionary economist and nobel laureate Friedrich August von Hayek once rightfully asserted that any social scientist of the 19th century who had to be taught the meaning of "evolution" as a process of self-organization from proponents of the natural sciences "was not worth his salt".

But during the 20th century, dualism prevailed again, with some reductionists now insisting that evolutionary studies should be restricted to the realms of biology.

Thankfully enough, these times are coming to an end quickly. From a perspective of interdisciplinary evolutionary studies, it can no longer be doubted that the evolution of many complex species took place in a biocultural setting: biological traits leading to cultural artefacts, re-influencing the biological foundations etc. The reproductive advantage bestowed by the neurological and anatomical basis of tool-making or speech is gleaned by concrete, culturally transmitted tools and languages - who are therefore bestowing benefits upon those able to produce and wield them, i.e. influencing their chances of cooperation, survival, getting a mate and raising children etc. 

A depicition of the ongoing process of biocultural evolution, Blume 2009

Starting from the diets humans chose to the tools they began to use, to the languages they spoke and the cultural, musical and religious traditions they devised, many complex interactions of biological and cultural evolution(s) finally have come into focus. A prominent example is the ability to digest lactose (milk sugar), which normally ceases in mammals after their time spans of weaning. But today, most Europeans inherited lifelong lactose tolerance in contrast i.e. to many Asian or African people - because formerly rare mutations among those populations who lived in cultural settings including milk-giving cattle spread within a few thousand years.

Another prominent example is the Skin color, which usually tended to lighten in colder climates with less threat by UV-rays but the danger of shortages in certain vitamines. Some Northern people as the Inuit are defying this rule, having retained comparably darker skins by their diet in fishes and meat rich on those vitamines.

For lots of more examples and studies, you might want to take a look i.e. at the impressive "Genes, Culture, and Human Evolution: A Synthesis" by Linda Stone, Paul F. Lurquin and L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

Evolutionary Studies on Religiosity and Religions

Darwin himself assumed that evolution included the biocultural traits of tool-making, speech, music - and religion. All of them evolved by bestowing (on average) reproductive advantages upon those phenotypes learning to wield them. Curiously enough, many of the most adamant evolutionists are accepting multitudes of findings to almost any traits - but are trying to exlude religiosity (defined as behavior vis-a-vis supernatural agents) from their logic. For psychological or ideological reasons, they are (increasingly desperate) trying to erect another bastion of dualism (i.e. Richard Dawkins with ("Selfish") Genes vs. "Memes") as a kind of a last stand.

But from the perspective of evolutionary studies on religiosity and religions (which are the main focus of this blog), it is perfectly clear that we are in no need of any special theories circumventing universal evolution: Religiosity and religious traditions have been part of our biocultural nature since (at least) the Upper Paleolithic, and successful religions are bestowing (on average) huge reproductive benefits on those humans developping religious practice and affiliation (article, pdf).


* This post is dedicated to @Corneel! Thanks for your lively interest and sound contributions!

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Biology of Religion: David Sloan Wilson and the Importance of Religion for Evolutionary Biology
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  1. Basty Castellio Evolution religion
    01.11.2009 | 00:56

    I try to understand the psychological onerousness of both sides:
    Religious people often think their subject came from heaven therefore it could not be evolved in a natural way, otherwise the self-explanation could become incredible. The most participants of these discussions know these ideas of anxiety, which blocks thinking.
    But it is not better, when evolutionists fear that also (religious) ideas may emerge in the cultural evolution, which *could* fight against evolutionary knowledge. Therefore they *must* ;-) declare, that these ideas could not evolve from natural roots.
    The thinking about evolution maybe very often, not always prudential. But the evolution itself is it prudential? I think it produces also inconsistency, also of fears and thinking...


  2. Corneel thank you
    02.11.2009 | 12:06

    This post is dedicated to @Corneel

    Thanks Michael. Much appreciated!

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