scilogs Biology of Religion

Charles Darwin about the Evolution of Religiosity and Religion(s)

from Michael Blume, 01. July 2010, 21:20
As more and more among us start to explore the evolution of religiosity and religions from a range of scientific disciplines and nations, e.g. in the Evolutionary Religious Studies-network initiated by biologist David Sloan Wilson, I keep wondering about a peculiar fact: Why are so many dedicated evolutionists (and even declared "darwinists") ignorant or silent about Charles Darwin's own thoughts on the matter?

After all, Darwin had studied theology and was interested in all kinds of human behaviors. Thus, it doesn't come as a surprise that he dedicated sections of his works to the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors. In his eminent "Descent of Man" (1871) he wrote (Ch. 2, p. 65):

Belief in God—Religion.—There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.
If, however, we include under the term "religion" the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose.“


Darwin is here (I'd say rightfully!) advocating methodological agnosticism - the evolutionary exploration of religion(s) is neither proof nor denial of God's existence. What's more, he is distinguishing the universal biological trait of religiosity (as belief in supernatural agents) from its cultural forms, e.g. as poly- or monotheism. In fact, he is ascribing the latter explicitly to cultural evolution (Ch. 21, p.395):

“The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator of the universe does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.“

Following a lead by David Hume (which I plan to explore in another blogpost), Darwin was convinced that it was not difficult to comprehend how religiosity arose! He assumed the emergence of animistic beliefs borne out of mental faculties which we name today as HAD (Hyper Agency Detection) and TOM (Theory of Mind) (Ch. 2, p. 66):

“I cannot but suspect that there is a still earlier and ruder stage, when anything which manifests power or movement is thought to be endowed with some form of life, and with mental faculties analogous to our own.“

And Darwin took his dog (and an Ape in another chapter) as comparative examples for pre-religious traits, e.g. in Ch. 2, p. 67:

“My dog, a full-grown and very sensible animal, was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day; but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol, which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog, had any one stood near it. As it was, every time that the parasol slightly moved, the dog growled fiercely and barked. He must, I think, have reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent, and no stranger had a right to be on his territory.”

From here, the evolutionary path seemed pretty clear to him, as he -again- emphasized what we call TOM today (Ch. 2, p. 67):

“The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods. For savages would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves experienced.”

And although Darwin became an agnostic in his later years (while other eminent evolutionist as Alfred Russel Wallace or Antoinette Brown Blackwell retained their religious beliefs), he included religion in his hopefull view of evolutionary progress (!), Ch. 5, p. 184:

“It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.“

To me, it seems to be pretty clear that Darwin would applaud our recent findings e.g. of a partial, genetic heritability of religiosity, the signalling function of religious behaviors, the evolutionary psychology of religious symbolism or the reproductive advantages by religious believers as confirmations of his evolutionary theory. And maybe he would be disturbed by those authors as e.g. Richard Dawkins claiming to have written "Darwinian" books about religiosity and religions - without including any discussions of those original hypotheses Darwin devised himself.

Religious behaviors are partly inherited by genes.



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Comments

  1. Balanus Hopeful view
    04.07.2010 | 11:40
    I keep wondering about a peculiar fact: Why are so many dedicated evolutionists (and even declared "darwinists") ignorant or silent about Charles Darwin's own thoughts on the matter?

    Perhaps, because they agree with Darwin's notion that the development of spirituality and religiosity does not contradict the evolution of man according the general principles of evolution, namely random variation and natural selection.

    For example, Darwin wrote (p. 67): "The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences, is perhaps illustrated by a little fact which I once noticed..." Then he reported about his dog, who barked at a non-existing "strange living agent", just because an open parasol was moved by a slight breeze.

    As Darwin noted further (p. 67): "The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods."

    I think, that's exactly that what most "Darwinists" would say.

    And although Darwin became an agnostic in his later years (while other eminent evolutionist as Alfred Russel Wallace or Antoinette Brown Blackwell retained their religious beliefs), he included religion in his hopefull view of evolutionary progress (!), Ch. 5, p. 184:

    It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.“

  2. Balanus Sorry, once again… :-)
    04.07.2010 | 11:44

    .

    And although Darwin became an agnostic in his later years (while other eminent evolutionist as Alfred Russel Wallace or Antoinette Brown Blackwell retained their religious beliefs), he included religion in his hopefull view of evolutionary progress (!), Ch. 5, p. 184:

    It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.“

    I think, this is a misconception of Darwin's thoughts, because there is no "hopeful view of evolutionary progress" in Darwin's view of evolution. In the paragraph cited Darwin referred only to the fact that man was once in a "barbarous condition" (Darwin). This will become clear if one reads the two sentences preceding that citation.

    "Hence there can hardly be a doubt that the inhabitants of these many countries, which include nearly the whole civilised world, were once in a barbarous condition. To believe that man was aboriginally civilised and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions, is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view..."

  3. Michael Blume @Balanus
    04.07.2010 | 20:44

    Well, I would agree with Darwin that religiosity evolved as any other (successfull trait) - which is neither proof nor denial of God's existence. It's simply part of our nature and culture(s), part of the evolutionary process. And as the reproductive advantages of believers compared to the widespread childlessness of seculars are showing, this natural process is still going on:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...tility-in-the-us-gss-data

    And concering "progress", he spoke against the widespread conception that there had been a blissfull past which was corrupted. Instead, he advocated that "progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.“

    Clearly, the original Darwin took another stance than many self-declared "Darwinists" do today! And I think, concering these questions, he was simply right. :-)

  4. Balanus Darwin vs. Darwinist /@ M. Blume
    04.07.2010 | 23:58

    » Clearly, the original Darwin took another stance than many self-declared "Darwinists" do today! «

    Okay, let's go:

    Darwin: "The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agencies are animated by spiritual or living essences..."

    Darwinist: That's right!

    Darwin: "The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods."

    Darwinist: That's right!

    Darwin: "Hence there can hardly be a doubt that the inhabitants of these many countries, which include nearly the whole civilised world, were once in a barbarous condition."

    Darwinist: That's right!

    Darwin: "It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.“

    Darwinist: That's right!

    And so on and so on...

    Please, could you give me an example of Darwin's notions, which a Darwinist would deny?

  5. Michael Blume @Balanus
    05.07.2010 | 23:10

    Oh, come on! You can't possibly assume that e.g. the most prominent "Darwinist" discussing religion, Richard Dawkins, would speak about the evolutionary success and "progress" of religion!

    Could you just show the pages where Dawkins cited Darwin's respective hypotheses? Or the outcry of fellow Darwinists pointing them out to him? Just show us! :-)

  6. Balanus @ Michael Blume
    06.07.2010 | 00:37

    I only asked for an example of a notion of Mister Charles Darwin, which a today's "Darwinist" would deny.

    (Do you really think, Dawkins would say that there was more often retrogression than progress in the evolution of man? And that knowledge, morals, and religion are no attributes of modern humans?)

  7. Balanus In other words /@ M. Blume
    06.07.2010 | 10:46

    Your claim that Darwinists would not agree with Darwin's theory of the evolution of man implicates that Darwin himself contradicts his own theory of the mechanisms of evolution, i.e., random variation and natural selection.

    In his book "The Descent of Man", Darwin speculates on the development of religion (please note, he does not use the term "evolution of religion"), and as far as I can see, there are no statements contrary to the general evolutionary principles.

    So, what are you talking about?

  8. J. A. Le Fevre The meek, not the timid shall inherit.
    07.07.2010 | 21:53

    Charles Darwin, probably more than any before, set the book to close on the question of divine intervention into the affairs of this space-time continuum. Long suspected by the few, it now seems fairly certain the Hand of God will not be evidenced in the instruments of man. That realization, I suspect, is what turned the father of natural selection to questioning his religious beliefs. Religion, like that proverbial elephant, always in the room, but avoided in polite conversation, is sorely understood. Least of all, it seems, by those closest to it, those most inclined to wield it as a lance or lasso in service to self or country. Neither by those who wrap their lines (or their chains) first in velvet, and believe themselves to be serving a higher purpose.

    Much the pity.

    What Michael does not recognize is that the small truth, like the small lie that is quickly discounted, is casually dismissed. Darwin was well aware of the presence of religion, but never discerned fully its function, and was thus able to discount its significance. By lauding the first, this grandest of human institutions with such faint praise, the audience is not compelled.

    What holds for lies holds too for the truth.

  9. Michael Blume @Balanus
    07.07.2010 | 23:08

    I simply point to the fact that Darwin's original hypotheses concerning the biological and cultural success of religiosity and religions have not been presented, explored and discussed even by those "Darwinists" (as e.g. Richard Dawkins) who wrote entire books about the subject. And I wonder if they didn't read Darwin's fascinating thoughts on the matter in his eminent "Descent of Man", or if they choose to be silent about it. I don't know what would be better.

    You said that Darwinist's would refer and agree to Darwin's respective hypotheses, but as yet you couldn't name a single example.

  10. Balanus Darwinists agree with Darwin /@ M. Blume
    09.07.2010 | 11:10

    » You said that Darwinist's would refer and agree to Darwin's respective hypotheses, but as yet you couldn't name a single example. «

    I have said that a "Darwinist" would agree with (not "refer to") Darwin's notions on the development of religion by natural and cultural processes and examples of Darwin's statements on that topic are given in the following comment:

    http://www.scilogs.eu/...d-religion-s#comment-1227

    I'm still waiting for an example of a notion of Charles Darwin, which contradicts the view of modern "Darwinists".

  11. J. A. Le Fevre @ Michael
    10.07.2010 | 00:06

    I believe R. Dawkins provided his response to this question back in July, ’07, in reply to a similar comment from D. S. Wilson (http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1403). If I may paraphrase: ‘who cares?’ Darwinists of all stripes over the last 150 years have been mostly quiet on the subject of religion from an evolutionary perspective, allowing the opinionated to make ridicules claims (ie: child abuse) without much in the way of documented contradiction in the published literature. With the advocates keeping quiet or having little to claim, all else are free to ignore or worse. Religion could use a strong champion.

  12. Cris Lucretius Presaged Darwin
    10.07.2010 | 18:19

    Michael,

    Your excellent post reminded of one of Hume's major influences, Lucretius. Writing in the first century BCE, Lucretius anticipated not only Hume on religion, but also Darwin on religion. I just blogged about it here:

    http://genealogyreligion.net/...picurean-lucretius

    You may find it quite interesting.

    Regards,

    Cris

  13. Michael Blume @ Cris
    10.07.2010 | 18:58

    Cris,

    that's a truly interesting find! Thank you for that one!

    Concerning Darwin, he referred to Hume's Natural History of Religion, but I will keep an open eye to the possibility that he had read Lucretius, too.

    From the perspective of evolutionary studies of religion, the works of Lucretius seem to emphasize the point that agnosticism or atheism have been possible worldviews from early on. But as they tend to go with very few children (quickly falling below replacement level), they remained in minority positions up until today.

  14. Michael Blume @ J.A.
    10.07.2010 | 19:06

    Yes, I would mostly agree to your post. Although I wouldn't say that religion would need a "strong champion" - as the religious are having kids, it's not them facing the fate of dying out. ;-) In fact, I would say that sciences and evolutionary studies of religiosity and religion are in need of champions, as a field of research which has been neglected far too long.

  15. J. A. Le Fevre Yes, Michael
    11.07.2010 | 17:14

    A strong champion in the professional discourse, as per my context. I think it is safe to say we agree on that as well as the overall success of religion over the centuries.

  16. Balanus Darwin and religion
    12.07.2010 | 10:11

    Boyer and Bergstrom (2008) wrote about "Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion" and mentioned Darwin's "The Descent of Man" only in the introduction as follows:

    "Understanding religion as a result of evolution by natural selection is obviously a more recent research program, even though the first rudiments of such a project can be found in Darwin himself (Darwin 1871)."

    (Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2008. 37:111–130)

    Obviously, Darwin's thoughts on the development of religion are generally considered as "first rudiments" or as "just-so stories" (M. Day, 2008). This may explain, why so many evolutionists are "ignorant or silent about Charles Darwin's own thoughts on the matter".

    (Matthew Day. Godless Savages and Superstitious Dogs: Charles Darwin, Imperial Ethnography, and the Problem of Human Uniqueness Journal of the History of Ideas 2008; 69: 49-70)

  17. Michael Blume @Balanus: Yes
    12.07.2010 | 15:55

    Dear @Balanus,

    yes, I would agree to your notion, that:

    Obviously, Darwin's thoughts on the development of religion are generally considered as "first rudiments" or as "just-so stories" (M. Day, 2008). This may explain, why so many evolutionists are "ignorant or silent about Charles Darwin's own thoughts on the matter".

    And it strikes me as very odd, because debates of evolution and religion had been raging for decades. Instead of exchanging polemics, scientists could have discussed and tested Darwin's original hypotheses - some of which turn out to be very viable! A German text about this, which I have written recently, is in print and due in winter.

  18. H.Aichele The answer of Dawkins
    13.07.2010 | 18:29

    I read the linked answer of Dawkins. I sent it to a friend with some annotations in German. I think it’s possible to bring it here also in English:
    A curious argumentation of RDawkins to say about origins of religion: ”… a page and a half was all I could spare because I had more interesting matters to talk about, for example the ‘moth in the candle flame’ theory".
    Oh yes, his insulting comparisons seemed very important to him. But if someone tries to refute the idea of god(s), it would be of more interest to explain how this (allegedly delusional) idea could evolve. But if he tried this, then it could become evident, that R.Dawkins never earnestly aimed to study and to grasp science of religion.
    If there really was need to spare a chapter, then it would be more appropriate to delete the chapter about the “proofs” of Gods existence. Others, eg I.Kant made it better. Didn’t he know it? Or the odd chapter about the “Zeitgeist” - a shiftless stammering without a stringent analysis.

  19. Michael Blume @H.Aichele
    13.01.2011 | 10:02

    In the meantime, Richard Dawkins gave a kind of a rather disdainful and defensive comment to the evolutionary studies of religion, see here:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/...preading-in-the-gene-pool

    Best wishes!

  20. J. A. Le Fevre Don’t hold your breath
    13.01.2011 | 17:40

    For Dawkins to try a ‘Susan Blackmore’. He has far too much ego and cash flow tied up in his attitude of distain.

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