by Connor Wood

(This post excerpt is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our Winter 2015 series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?” It appears in full at Patheos‘s blog “Science On Religion.”)

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good?

To answer this question, let’s review the arguments about whether religion is adaptive or maladaptive. Keep your wits about you, because this will lead us directly into one of the longest-raging and fiercest battles in contemporary science: the struggle between evolutionary models of group (or multilevel) selection on one side, and traditional, gene-centered models of evolution on the other. Before we embark, though, let’s grab ahold of one all-important thought and hold it close to our chests for the next thousand words or so: religion’s evolutionary adaptiveness (or lack thereof) shouldn’t have the slightest bearing on the epistemic credibility of religious beliefs, or the ultimate goodness of religion. This is for the simple reason that Darwinian evolution is amoral. Evolutionary adaptations are often extremely nasty. Genetically maladaptive behavior can be subjectively wonderful. We should never get Darwinian success mixed up with objective goodness.

Got it? Okay.

In the 1970s, evolutionary biologist and talented science writer Richard Dawkins wrote his bestselling book The Selfish Gene. Ever since then, informed popular understandings of evolution have pretty much focused what happens at the level of individual genes. For Dawkins, organisms are mere “survival machines,” whose real purpose is to carry and pass along genes. It’s a compelling vision: look at a budding sycamore tree through Dawkins’s eyes, and you’ll see a massive, bifurcating scaffold of cellulose, inside of which rest trillions of copies of genes. But that cellulose scaffold doesn’t exist for its own sake. The tree is the vehicle of the genes, which are the ones really in change.

Dawkins was popularizing a new tendency among biologists to focus on individual genes. Prior to the mid-1960s, theorists of evolution such as V.C. Wynne-Edwards had assumed that organisms would somehow act selflessly for the good of their group or the good of “the species.” For example, a population of rabbits might “voluntarily” limit their reproduction to keep from overpopulating a meadow. Many people were comforted by this vision of a self-balancing, intelligent natural world.

The problem was, this way of thinking didn’t make sense.
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