The Religion Gene (III)

In my first post on Robert Rowthorn’s paper “Fertility, Religion and Genes,” I focused on its faulty premises and unrealistic assumptions; I also substituted the word “love” for “religion” in Rowthorn’s argument to show that nearly any beneficial and complex human behavioral trait could be explained using the same single gene model. In my second post on the paper, I noted that nearly everyone in the world is already “religious,” so it seems that whatever is causing religiosity has already worked its magic. We don’t really need a model showing that a “religion gene” will spread if religiosity already appears to be fixed in the world’s population.

In this post, I will focus on “predisposition for religion,” which Rowthorn admits is not likely to be governed by a single gene, but is instead “a complex phenomenon likely to be influenced by many genes.” Complex indeed. I think everyone would agree that religion is more complex than diabetes. When scientists search for genes that cause diabetes, they look for thousands of genes or single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), not just one or a few. This issue aside, Rowthorn’s assumption that religion is genetic ignores a massively confounding variable — one which cannot be isolated or controlled: culture.

Regardless of when or where a child is born — and irrespective of whatever genes a child inherits — there is a 99% chance that the child will be born and raised in what we can call a “religious” environment. While the details of the religious milieu differ from place to place and time to time, there is almost no place in the world where a child can raised in a non-religious environment.

And even atheists, a tiny minority living mostly in the West, cannot insulate their children from the nearly universal religiosity of the surrounding culture. There is little that a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris could do, assuming they had children, to prevent them from being exposed to pervasive religiosity or spirituality in the wider British or American culture. It is doubtful that such children would have “atheism genes” that would immunize them from religion.

What would have an effect on their propensity toward atheism would be the things these children had been taught from an early age and the cultural environment in which they live. The same is true of all other children — the vast majority of whom are socialized into religion. Given these facts, why are we even discussing a non-existent “religion gene” or genes?

ResearchBlogging.orgRowthorn, R. (2011). Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2504

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2 thoughts on “The Religion Gene (III)

  1. anonymous

    His is really a ridiculous paper, and disappointing that it would be accepted into any journal at all based as it is on false premises and drawing long conclusions.

    One other point that Rowthorn doesn’t address is: given the fact that all of the major religions have been established for over 1000 years, why is this something we should be interested in now when his modelling extends 40 generations (ie ~1000 years), so whatever he is claiming has apparently already happened…

    I believe that Rowthorn published this paper simply to provide fodder for future anti-immigration writing (see in which he will be able to claim that scientific research has shown that if religious immigrants are allowed to enter the UK then their religion and their genes will take over the population.

  2. admin Post author

    We agree that the paper is not worth much; unfortunately, it got lots of press and combating the media sound-bites is difficult. I think I did two or even three posts discussing just how bad the paper is. And you are right that supernaturalism/religion has been around for a long time — at least 45,000 years. Any suite of genes that contribute to “religiosity” became fixed in modern humans at least that long ago. I contend that it goes much deeper than this and that we are neurobiologically constructed in such a way that supernaturalism is all but inevitable. There is no suite of genes for “religiosity” but there is a suite of genes for the brain; the latter result in a mind that defaults to supernaturalism.

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