Fertility Does Not Explain “Evolution of Religion”

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.”

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6 thoughts on “Fertility Does Not Explain “Evolution of Religion”

  1. Michael Blume

    Thanks for the mention, Chris! You might be interested to read about a new study in population genetics by Prof. Robert Rowthorn, Cambridge, again strengthening the evolutionary picture:

    And if you don’t believe me in that, you might want to check out i.e. Gene Expression.

    Then, let me just adress your arguments to refute the evolutionary perspective. For one, the assumption that religion evolved as early as the lower Paleolithic is not mere speculation, but supported by findings i.e. of burials, cave paintings and figurines overwhelmingly depicting female fertility (!!!). It’s hard to imagine stronger evidence!

    Concerning your “poverty is not an adaptation”, I would like to point out that the opposite is true: We are just not very well not adapted to our current wealthy & educated livestyles. Look at the obesity rates – or the numbers of births in educated strata.

    I understand that it is hard to take for many: But Evolution is not about what we like.

    Although you are free to doubt that religion evolved like i.e. music or speech, I am not aware of any serious alternative theory still in the scientific field. Did it fall from heaven? Has it been brought by UFOs? Darwin himself knew better and rightfully assumed an evolutionary history of religiosity and religions.

    Either you (and Tom, for that) accept evolution as a fact – then it is able to explain every complex human trait. Or you might join a “ranting” ID-proponents. Your third possibility would be to offer any serious scientific theory explaining the emergence of the behavioral trait outside of our species’ evolutionary history. Your choice. :-)

  2. admin Post author

    Hi Michael — great to hear from you and congratulations on getting some nice press coverage for your work! I just saw the Rowthorn article and will post on it soon. For now, it should suffice to say there is no “religion” gene or set of genes.

    Rowthorn begins by stating “everyone knows there is a genetic basis to religion,” which is sort of like saying there is a genetic basis for eating and defecating. Of course there is but this tells us nothing specific about why the human brain-mind naturally generates supernatural beliefs, on which are constructed the cultural scaffolding known as “religion.”

    Yes there are burials, cave paintings, and figurines from the upper (not lower) Paleolithic. These certainly suggest that early humans had some kinds of supernatural beliefs; in all likelihood, these beliefs were similar to the kinds of shamanisms characteristic of hunter-gatherers.

    Here is my main point: such shamanisms are profoundly and utterly different from modern religions. Using one (modern religions) to make assertions about the other (shamanisms) is simply wrong — it does not work logically, and most importantly, the ethnographic record on shamanisms tells us, without doubt, they are two different things. They do not function in the same way, and relationship between hunter-gatherer supernaturalism and fertility is much different (i.e., weaker) than the relationship between most modern religions and fertility.

    Thus, studying modern religions — which did not arise until after the Neolithic Revolution (i.e., agriculture) — to speculate about the evolutionary origins of “religion” misses the point by tens of thousands of years. The propensity for humans towards supernaturalism is a function of brain-mind; religion is an historical and cultural construct. The former is amenable to evolutionary analyses; the latter is not.

    Because the poverty/fertility correlation did not convince you, let me put this another way. Over the past several hundred years, “nationalism” has arguably been the most powerful force in human affairs and culture history — it promotes cohesion, cooperation, and fertility. Do you contend that “nationalism” is therefore an evolutionary “adaptation” that arose through natural selection? I should hope not. Religion should be treated in precisely the same way.

  3. Michael Blume

    Hi Chris,

    of course, religious traditions in the upper Paleolithik were not the same as those of today. I know of no serious scholar saying that – I surely don’t. But obviously, they featured fertility topics very prominently – and thus it is highly doubious to claim that they couldn’t have any of these potentials that we observe among today’s religious traditions (not just “religions”).

    You know, we know almost nothing about paleolithic musics or languages – but nobody would doubt that our ancestors spoke or played music increasingly in ways roughly comparable to our recent ones. Just when talking about religion, a lot of people kind of freak out for whatever reason…

    Then, you had to admit that any complex human trait does have some genetic basis. But you try to point out that evolution couldn’t take part here, although you acknowledge the archaeological findings and the reproductive potential of religious traditions today. Why? Do you have the same doubts concerning music or language? Really?

    Maybe you would like to see what Darwin wrote about our subject. To him, it was entirely clear that any human trait had its evolutionary history – including language, music and religion. And I think he was right on that!

    Hope to meet you on the side of those who are no longer denying evolution of all human traits! 😉

  4. Michael Blume

    Ehm, Chris, let me add a question. You wrote that (non-religious) nationalism had been able to affect fertility. Really? I didn’t find any evidence for that. Even the German Nazis ended up with their crazy “Lebensborn project” as their officers didn’t attain birth rates above replacement level.

    Could you name a single example of a non-religious nationalistic group showing stable intergenerational fertility above replacement level?

  5. admin Post author


    I contend that the brain-mind evolved in such a manner that human have a strong propensity to believe in things that do not exist; these imaginary “things” (whether beings or forces) are supernatural concepts. Belief in the supernatural, however, is not the same as religion. Many people believe in the paranormal but are not religious. The same underlying brain-mind mechanisms are at work. Just because people may be prone to believe in fairies or unicorns, this does not mean they are “religious.”

    It seems to me that a major, and indeed insuperable, problem you face is that the kind of “religion” you study never existed during the Paleolithic, which is when “religion” presumably would have originated. If you take a long, hard look at the ethnohistoric and ethnographic record for hunter-gatherers, you will find (as I have) that their supernatural beliefs are so profoundly different from modern religions that studying modern religions (apples) to theorize about Paleolithic shamanisms (oranges) is futile. Hunter-gatherers are more concerned about population control than they are population expansion. This is an ethnographic fact.

    All this aside, biological evolution is much different from what you seem to be studying, which appears to be a form of “cultural evolution.” Cultures do not, of course, evolve, so I am not buying it when you conflate one with the other.

    Another massive problem facing this line of argument is that modern religions are largely the product of economy, politics, society, history, and other non-biological factors. Given that these are able to largely account for the prevalence and persistence of “religion,” it seems you are studying culture history and calling it biological evolution. I fail to see how you can eliminate confounding variables, the primary one being culture history.

    Let me ask you this. The best estimates for world population 10,000 years ago are approximately 5-10 million people. Today, world population is nearing 7 billion. Are we to suppose that most of this increase in fertility is attributable to religion? Have people been getting more and more religious the last 10,000 years and this increased religiosity explains the exponential population increase?

    The answer of course is no — there are many factors that account for the increased world population and religion is low on this list. These are the kinds of factors that completely confound your analysis.


  6. Pingback: y Favourite Grand 19th-Century Theory of Development of ‘Religiosity’, Fertility Cults in the News and, of course, Giants | Remnant of Giants

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