We should thank Tom Rees over at Epiphenom for posting a much needed “rant on the evolution of religion.” What has Tom so worked up? The claim — first made by Michael Blume and now accepted by Jesse Bering — that “religion” evolved because it promotes fertility. Although the press loves the story, Tom correctly calls it nonsense:
There’s been a minor explosion of punditry about the evolution of religion, some of it naive and some of it making my blood boil. It seems that it was Jesse Bering who kicked it off. Before Christmas, he wrote up Michael Blume’s research into religion and fertility. Then in the New Year, Jonathan Leake picked up the story in the Sunday Times. Most recently, Nick Spencer took up the cudgels in the Guardian.
Each of them made me more exasperated than the last! And what is it that’s got them so excited? Well, it’s the idea that the relatively higher fertility rate of the religious in the modern world means that religion is somehow at the apex at the tree of life.
In the remainder of his post, Tom explains in three steps why religion did not evolve as a fertility adaptation. It’s a good start, to which I will add three additional reasons:
1. “Religion” is a modern construct — this social/cultural package did not evolve at some point during the Paleolithic. There was nothing like “modern religion” during the Paleolithic.
2. We cannot study modern religions — which are fundamentally and profoundly different from the supernatural beliefs/practices of Paleolithic humans — and say that because modern religions promote fertility, Paleolithic supernaturalism did the same.
3. The relevant study group for the “evolution of religion” (a terribly misleading phrase for the reason stated in point one) would be Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, not any religious group that has existed since the advent of agriculture.
It should go without saying that studying modern religious groups and projecting them back in time tens of thousands of years — to some imaginary origin point for “religion” — is an invalid method, both logically and historically. But it apparently needs to be said.
The fallacy of this approach is basic and can be highlighted in many ways. I will provide but one example.
It is a proven demographic fact that around the world, people of low socioeconomic status have much higher fertility rates than people of high socioeconomic status. Does this mean that poverty is an adaptation? Obviously not. Neither is “religion.”