This tale begins with Dr. Michael Blume, an evolutionary biologist who writes Homo religiosus — The Natural History of Religion. His early studies focused on “neurotheology,” or the myriad ways in which naturally evolved aspects of brain-mind give rise to supernatural beliefs. His current studies focus on the second pillar of evolutionary success — reproductive fitness.
Blume has found, to no one’s surprise, that people who belong to historically known and modern religious groups have more children than those who are non-religious or secular. Having made this finding, he then surmises that religion must have evolved because it confers a differential fitness advantage on the faithful. Another way of putting would be to say that the religious out-compete the non-religious in the bedroom and birthroom.
I do not have any problem with Dr. Blume’s data which show that historically known and modern religious groups are more fertile than their non-religious counterparts. It has long been known that organized religions encourage members to marry and reproduce. As Vernon Reynolds and Ralph Tanner demonstrated in The Biology of Religion (1983) (republished in 1995 as The Social Ecology of Religion), the survival of individuals who belong to religious groups often depends on it. There is strength in numbers.
I do have a problem with using Dr. Blume’s data to argue that because modern religions encourage fertility and their members out-reproduce the non-religious, religion must have evolved because it conferred an evolutionary advantage on people living during the Paleolithic. We cannot simply assume that relatively modern cultural-social organizations such as religion even existed in the evolutionary past, let alone project such institutions backwards into deep time and assert they were affecting selection. Blume and I debated these issues here.
Now enter the second scholar referenced in this post’s title: Sue Blackmore. She has quite an interesting background and her interests are eclectic, as is evident from her profile at the Guardian:
Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practises Zen and campaigns for drug legalisation. Sue Blackmore no longer works on the paranormal.
Blackmore is perhaps best known for her popular book, The Meme Machine, which I have briefly examined but not studied. The entire meme thing, from its original presentation by Richard Dawkins to its elaboration by Daniel Dennett, neither convinced me nor captured my imagination. We learned long ago that applying biological principles of evolution to culture history or “cultural evolution” is a bankrupt and misleading enterprise; with this in mind, one might think that equating ideas, symbols or concepts (i.e., “memes”) with genes is an even worse idea. Meme/Gene is a bad analogy and even worse metaphor, and few were persuaded by this speculative overextension of biology into places where it does not belong.
Sue Blackmore was convinced, however, and maintained — as some still do — that religion was a particularly pernicious meme that magically (i.e., non-agentively) replicated itself among humans like a virus of the mind. The ideological and normative connotations are hard to miss. Like Dawkins, Blackmore thinks of religion as a disease — viruses, after all, rarely benefit their hosts.
Recently, however, Blackmore has abandoned her position and made a highly public confession. I first learned about her conversion while browsing Dr. Blume’s blog and reading that after he presented at the Explaining Religion conference (Bristol University), Blackmore had a Damascus Road experience (or Pauline moment):
As I finished my talk at the “Explaining Religion” conference in Bristol, Susan Blackmore added some tough questions – and then admitted on the spot that the religion-virus-metaphor that she had advocated for years was wrong. And since then, she even wrote a post about the subject at Guardian: “Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind: [Dr. Blume’s presentation] at the “Explaining Religion” conference has made me see that the idea of religious belief as a virus has had its day.
Although the “religious belief as a virus” idea never really had a day, except in the minds of a zealous few, I wish to join Dr. Blume in congratulating Blackmore for seeing the light. This illumination, however, does not mean that religion evolved during the Paleolithic because it conferred fertility advantages on believers.