It is fashionable these days to argue that “religion” is an adaptation that evolved through group level selection. There are mathematical models which show this is possible. Whether these models capture or describe anything real is another story.
For it to work, the group level selection story first requires a kind of systematic and organized “religion” that is historically rather recent. These are the kinds of religions which, through a variety of mechanisms such as intensified morality and supernatural surveillance, enable the formation of groups larger than prototypical hunter-gather bands.
Because these sorts of religions began appearing no more than 5,000 years ago in conjunction with the rise of the earliest city-states, it is reasonable to ask whether the dynamic being described has much to do with evolution, sensu stricto. Group level selectionists tend to conflate biological evolution with cultural change or what they call “cultural evolution.” Some simply jump from one to the other as if there were no differences between organisms and cultures, while others more subtly argue that biology and culture co-evolve.
These group level selection models assume a relatively homogenous and insular group of people who share the same religious beliefs, and that because of these beliefs (along with corollary institutions), the society is stable, competitive, and successful. It sounds good in abstract theory, even if it ignores the messy realities of the historical and human processes by which religions are constructed and contested.
On the surface, Saudi Arabia would appear to be perfect model for group level selectionists. It is an insular society that revolves around a single form of religion: Wahhabist Sunni Islam. The rulers champion religion, the clerics support the rulers, and the people believe. Saudi society, so the story goes, is bound tightly and ethically together by religion.
It’s a great story until one digs deeper and discovers some of the messy realities and variables which group level selectionists always ignore in their models. In this piece on the soon-to-be-without-head Saudi man who had the temerity to tweet about Muhammad, I was reminded of these realities:
While the most vituperative responses to the Hamza Kashgari affair are no doubt rooted in zealous conviction, the reality is that this episode, and particularly the government’s support for the case against him, has little to do with protecting the sanctity of Islam. Rather, the Saudi regime is playing a calculated political game, one that aims to oppress some critics, to outmaneuver others and to bolster its thin claims to religious legitimacy.
Kashgari was hardly a revolutionary, but his views most certainly were. The kingdom’s government is intolerant of free speech, especially anything that challenges political authority. Dissenting religious and political views, including those expressed by Kashgari, are widely shared inside the kingdom. Among the droves of death threats and the cries of angry critics, Kashgari also commands a sympathetic following. Thousands have rallied in his support. And the regime in Riyadh is well aware, particularly in an era of revolutionary upheaval, that a significant number of its subjects bristle against its authority.
The Saudi royal family has long leaned on the country’s senior clerics to stamp its temporal power with the imprimatur of religious legitimacy. But many in the kingdom see through the claim. Pious and agnostic alike consider the royal family corrupt and irreverent. It is commonly held that Riyadh’s assertion of Islamic authority is spurious, a fiction that the government peddles as an excuse to protect its personal fortunes and power. Whether genuine or not, the result has been the empowerment of a class of religious scholars who are committed to protecting their own authority.
It has long been my contention that when we talk about post-Neolithic religions and their effects on societies, evolutionary analyses aren’t very helpful or enlightening. Biocultural co-evolutionary models can neither capture nor describe things like economy, power, politics, cynicism, corruption, and dissent, all of which affect “religion.” Because religion is the key variable in group selection models, this is a problem.
When your primary variable is highly unstable, and can’t even be defined without making unrealistic assumptions about what religion is and how it works, chances are good that your model doesn’t describe anything real.
In this Nature article about Henry Markram’s controversial pitch for a $1 billion brain modeling project, he expresses concerns about modeling similar to those I have about the too tidy models favored by group level selectionists:
At the heart of that approach is Markram’s conviction that a good unifying model has to assimilate data from the bottom up. In his view, modellers should start at the most basic level — he focuses on ion channels because they determine when a neuron fires — and get everything working at one level before proceeding to the next. This requires a lot of educated guesses, but Markram argues that the admittedly huge gaps in knowledge about the brain can be filled with data as experiments are published — the Blue Brain model is updated once a week. The alternative approach, approximating and abstracting away the biological detail, leaves no way to be sure that the model’s behaviour has anything to do with how the brain works, said Markram.