Methodology & “Evolution of Religion”

Over the past decade several books and articles have appeared which purport to explain the “evolution of religion” as an adaptation, usually invoking group level selection as the source. These explanations nearly always depend on the fallacious assumption that if something evolved, it must be have been selected and therefore is adaptive. These explanations also depend on the erroneous idea that post-Neolithic or “modern” religions are similar to Paleolithic supernaturalism and that current functions explain past origins.

These mistakes are the result of methodological ignorance or carelessness. In an ideal world, anyone who writes on the evolution of religion would be required to read Michael Ghiselin’s The Triumph of the Darwinian Method (1969). Many errors could thus be avoided.

“Good scientific investigations employ critical tests of hypotheses by serious attempts to refute them. They do not involve simply amassing data consistent with a particular interpretation, oblivious to whether or not the facts are equally consistent another hypothesis.” (239)

“It is easy to see how a psychologist, attempting to give evolutionary meaning to his data, would tend to use habits of thought quite different from those employed by Darwin. The natural inclination would be to impose an oversimplified evolutionary rationalization upon the observations. The evolutionary theorist, on the other hand, would look at the facts in order to confirm or refute the predictions of his hypothesis.” (210)

Those who do not follow this method (hypothesize, predict, confirm-refute) “completely miss the point of Darwin’s argument: behavioral properties may be mixtures of adaptations and historical accidents.” (211)

“Darwin thought that many behavioral phenomena have resulted through accidents of history comparable to the pleiotropic effects which he discoursed upon at such great length. He did not believe, as many have believed, that all behavior patterns have some adaptive significance, say, as directly serviceable or communicative.” (205)

“It is perfectly true that if a group of organisms had some property, the survival of that group would be favored once the property had been evolved; but this does not explain how that property might have originated.” (57)

The failure to take these ideas seriously has led to a great deal of unrestrained and imaginative storytelling about the “evolution of religion,” unencumbered by more compelling and parsimonious hypotheses that have non-speculative support in the historical record.

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3 thoughts on “Methodology & “Evolution of Religion”

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Well said. Before we argue anything, methodology should be our first effort for agreement.

    Evolutionary Psychology has always been on shaking grounds — heck even “psychology” is tough without adding a layer of confusion. We need to step carefully — and certainly not dogmatically.

  2. J. A. Le Fevre

    The opening (and much of the subsequent) argument makes logical sense only in the case of a first generation, not-so intelligently designed, system. Any model of evolution that comes to mind (biological or industrial) gives any trait that is not selected for a fair chance of disappearing in any subsequent generation. Even a mediocre engineer can work the oversights out of a design given time. From a purely parsimonious perspective, every feature of a mature design should, until a design review indicates otherwise, be considered adaptive. Only selected for features can be counted on to be preserved by the evolutionary process.

  3. R Leakey

    In stead of agreeing or disagreeing, I would like to know about your own researches that falsify the above articulations of ideological (?) selection and adaptation in so called evolution of religion.

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