One of the more popular explanations for the origin of religion goes like this: (1) humans are social animals that live in groups; (2) those groups that have higher levels of cooperation are more successful than other groups; (3) the primary reason that some groups are more successful than others is because they are more coherent; and (4) such groups are more coherent because they evolved a shared religion which promotes “moral” behavior. This is the explanation favored by group level selectionists who assert that religion is an evolved adaptation.
This explanation, such as it is, has always struck me as one of those “Just So” stories of human evolution. This story appeals to some theorists because it accords with modern understandings of what religion is and what religion is supposed to do. Modern understandings of religion, however, have little to do with the evolution of supernatural beliefs that eventually coalesced into something that is recognizably “religious.”
It is a mistake, at step one, to conflate prosocial or “moral” behavior with religion. Prosocial and cooperative behaviors (i.e., the kinds of behavior that are often called “moral”) can arise independently of — and prior to — religion. Although modern religions are greatly concerned with morality and often proclaim themselves to be the source of moral behavior, we cannot assume that proto-religions were similarly constructed. What historically recent religions do and say may be much different than what early forms did and said. We cannot simply project modern forms backwards into deep time.
Ilkka Pyysianinen and Marc Hauser recently published an article (The Origins of Religion: Evolved Adaptation or By-Product?) bearing directly on these issues:
Our central thesis is that the specific, high level of cooperation observed among human populations is only possible because we evolved moral intuitions about norm-consistent and inconsistent actions, and thus, intuitive judgments of right and wrong. As to cooperation, there are numerous non-religious prosocial cognitive mechanisms in humans. All of these evolved independently of supernatural or religious beliefs and operate in similar ways in people with or without such beliefs, including young children who have yet to be inculcated into a religion. [M]ost, if not all, of the psychological ingredients that enter into religion originally evolved to solve more general problems of social interaction and subsequently were co-opted for use in religious activities.
Hauser, who is in the Human Evolutionary Biology Department at Harvard, has over the last few years been doing extensive research into “moral” behavior or normative conduct. One of his primary findings is that all non-pathological humans seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong conduct (which is perhaps akin to a Kantian moral filter).
All the while, I have been following and collecting Hauser’s research, knowing that it tends to disprove the group level selection story which asserts that religion evolved because it promotes “moral” behavior. The dots have now been connected.