Religion as Evolved Adaptation — The Fallacy of Backwards Projection

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Richard Dawkins calls David Sloan Wilson’s theory of religious evolution “perverse.”  As you may recall, Sloan Wilson believes that religion originated as an adaptation giving some groups advantages over others.  These supposed advantages arise from Sloan Wilson’s belief that religious groups are more cohesive, moral, and prosocial than non-religious groups. This is the group level selection theory of religious origins and evolution.

I have read all of Sloan Wilson’s work on religion and my primary objection throughout has been that Sloan Wilson talks about “religion” as if it has always existed in its present form and that it functioned in the past the same ways it functions now.  It is almost as if “religion” miraculously sprang forth, fully formed, at some critical point in the Paleolithic.

Another group level selectionist who views religion this way is the evolutionary psychologist Matt Rossano, whose work I discussed in this post.  In “The Religious Mind and Evolution of Religion,” Rossano makes the following assertions — each of which demonstrates the fallacy of projecting modern religious forms and practices backwards into deep time:

  • In the past (as is true today), religion very likely harnessed powerful social emotions to reinforce social unity and ostracize deviants.
  • Physically and emotionally engaging group-coordinating activities were the essence of pre-Upper Paleolithic religion.
  • Given that the Upper Paleolithic peoples were anatomically modern humans and that religion is a human universal, it seems safe to conclude that religion was present by at least the time of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe.

With respect to the first assertion, it is unwise to assume that what is true today was true in the past.  If history teaches us anything, it is that the present is quite unlike the past.

Regarding the second assertion, we have no evidence that religion existed before the Upper Paleolithic, so we have no way of knowing that pre-UP peoples were engaging in “physically and emotionally engaging group coordinating activities.”  If a group of Pentecostals could travel back in time to missionize groups of archaic Homo sapiens, this claim would have some support.

With respect to the third assertion, we cannot assume that because humans had become anatomically modern 150,000 years ago, they were behaviorally modern.  In fact, there is nothing in the archaeological record which suggests that the first anatomically modern humans were behaving any differently from their predecessors.  This means, of course, that it is not safe to assume “that religion was present by at least the time of the Upper Paleolithic.”

Sloan Wilson and Rossano are telling elaborate tales about the origins of religion.  These stories must be supported by fossils and archaeology.  Using modern forms and understandings of religion to locate its evolutionary origins may make for nice stories but it is bad science.

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3 thoughts on “Religion as Evolved Adaptation — The Fallacy of Backwards Projection

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