[I saw an intriguing post by Gene Callahan at his blog on this topic, and he wrote a longer version here.--RPM]
by Gene Callahan
“Like most summer activities, the frogs’ vocal signaling requires an impressive expenditure of energy, and therefore presumably has an advantage.” — Bernd Heinrich, Summer World, p. 40
So, here is a prominent biologist stating a general rule for evaluating traits: if the trait is expensive in terms of energy required, by default we should assume it provides something important to the species in question. And, of course, the more widespread the trait is, the more we should suspect it is adaptive: it might pop up in one individual or a small group as a fluke that will disappear soon, but if we find that trait surviving in many, many groups across long stretches of time, the odds greatly increase that it confers some advantage.
So, someone who believes evolutionary biology is the cat’s meow, and who finds a widespread human practice, so widespread that we have never encountered a single culture where it is absent, and one into which a huge amount of energy is poured, would have to say it is most likely adaptive, right?
Wrong! Not if the practice is religion: Then this universal, high-energy consuming activity turns out to be a social pathology! (This link is only intended to be representative of the genre: you can find plenty more examples with a little search.) Religion is ubiquitous in human life not because it has helped us to survive, but because it kills us! It is very telling that, when it comes to their bête noire, the rules of evolutionary thinking are suddenly reversed.
Now, it is worth qualifying these remarks in several ways, especially since a 300-comment discussion thread follows the Sunday posts at Free Advice. First of all, there are many non-religious scholars who work from an evolutionary perspective and who do not suddenly abandon the principle Heinrich stated when they turn their attention to religion. (Hayek is a good example.) It is generally only the religion haters who lose their minds on this one topic.
Secondly, to conclude (correctly, I contend) that religion must offer some evolutionary benefits certainly does not mean that any particular religious beliefs are true. The process of evolution is a machine that grinds out survival-enhancing traits, not necessarily truth-finding traits. To see how, at times, it might be adaptive to believe a falsehood, let us consider an animal that needs to defend its young against a large predator. It might be quite adaptive for the animal to have a wildly over-optimistic belief in its own chances of surviving a fight with that predator, because perhaps the fierce but hopeless fight it puts up will give its offspring a chance to escape. A non-believing evolutionary scientist could coherently have just such a view of the role of religion: it’s all a bunch of poppycock, but it’s poppycock that aids human survival by creating hope and fortitude, and enhancing social harmony. And that view is out there, and is much more compatible with evolutionary thinking in general than is the “social pathology” one. But, of course, true beliefs can be survival enhancing as well, so it might well be that the belief in something transcendent helps our survival because it is true.