May 28, 2008 -- God may work in mysterious ways, but a simple computer program may explain how religion evolved
By distilling religious belief into a genetic predisposition to pass along unverifiable information, the program predicts that religion will flourish. However, religion only takes hold if non-believers help believers out – perhaps because they are impressed by their devotion.
"If a person is willing to sacrifice for an abstract god then people feel like they are willing to sacrifice for the community," says James Dow, an evolutionary anthropologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, US, who wrote the program – called Evogod.
Dow is by no means the first scientist to take a stab at explaining how religion emerged. Theories on the evolution of religion tend toward two camps. One argues that religion is a mental artefact, co-opted from brain functions that evolved for other tasks.
Aiding the people
Another contends that religion benefited our ancestors. Rather than being a by-product of other brain functions, it is an adaptation in its own right. In this explanation, natural selection slowly purged human populations of the non-religious.
"Sometime between 100,000 years ago to the point where writing was invented, maybe about 7000 BC, we begin to have records of people's supernatural beliefs," Dow says.
To determine if it was possible for religion to emerge as an adaptation, Dow wrote a simple computer program that focuses on the evolutionary benefits people receive from their interactions with one another.
"What people are adapting to is other people," he says.
To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.
The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn't spread unreal information.
The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.
Under most scenarios, "believers in the unreal" went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.
"Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them," Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.
Richard Sosis, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, US, says the model adds a new dimension to the debate over how religion could have evolved, which has previously relied on verbal arguments and speculation. But "these are baby steps", he cautions.
Sosis previously found that in some populations – kibbutzim in Israel, for instance – more religious people receive more assistance from others than the less faithful. But he notes that the forces that maintain religion in modern humans could be very different from those that promoted its emergence, thousands of years ago.
Palaeolithic humans were probably far more reliant than modern humans on the community they were born into, Sosis says. "[Now] you can be a Lutheran one week and decide the following week you are going to become a Buddhist."
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