Monday, 27 July 2009

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

baseline assumption: Religion has an evolutionary origin, that is, humans have an inborn drive towards religious thoughts.

the question: I wonder if assuming that the origin of religion is some form of institutionalisation of morality was a mistake. It is fairly straightforward, I would think, that large groups of supersmart chimps would need some form of internalised rules regarding behaviour towards their fellow group members. And thus the evolutionary origin of morality could be explained. But religion is not necessarily an outgrowth of morality. Seeing how missionaries ‘converting the savages’ altered the behaviour of isolated tribes towards their forests, begs the question if the origin of religious thought might not be in the same place: regulating the way people use their environments.

the hypothesis: It seems that people who live in (a) small tribes, (b) seem to follow archaic, or at least very old religions, (c) are isolated from others, and are (d) living in a unique environment, tend to have a set of religious explanations about their environment, and in particular, stories that end up with them not exploiting their resources in a non-sustainable manner. Often, it feels as if the intra-group morality was an add-on to, rather than the centre of these thoughts.

(The societal morality bit would then gain larger prominence as the groups open up forming ever larger sets of populations. Thus the above hypothesis is not necessarily going against the observation that large societies have mass religions with a focus on social norms.)

Thus the hypothesis is that religion evolved as a means to stop overuse of the environment. Those groups of humans that came up with stories of the forest animals being gods and thus limited their hunting would have been in advantage compared to others who did not and thus overhunted leading to starvation. Out of those groups who came up with these stories, those who would have had some form of drive towards such thoughts would have had higher temporal stability to these stories. And norm stability through time would have been the centre to the fitness of such a group behaviour, as the whole point is long term sustainability.

Maybe, the key could have been the halting of tragedy of commons type over-harvesting of difficult to sheriff resources. What you need -- as an evolution designer ;) -- is norm following when the forest people are alone, and less so when the whole group is there to watch over you shoulder.

The caveat is that it is difficult to see how the above could have happened without group evolution of this species…

re evidence. No idea what evidence could possibly be for this, unless a religion gene would be properly found and revealed. But a drive generating religious behaviour would probably be too complicated to be in just one, simple gene. (Although a pill that suppresses the relevant proteins and thus relieves one of one’s religious duties would probably a block buster...) Some more maths re how group evolution was unlikely to have happened could kill this idea off, though.

Yet, despite the silliness of this ‘religion as evolutionary environment protection’ idea, I find it quite appealing.

What’s your view?


here is a batch of people interested in the evolution of religion. many of their sites offer interesting stuff

this is a good overview of the problems of morality and religion

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