The Evolution of the God Gene by Nicholas Wade
IN the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, the archaeologists Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery have gained a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.
During 15 years of excavation they have uncovered not some monumental temple but evidence of a critical transition in religious behavior. The record begins with a simple dancing floor, the arena for the communal religious dances held by hunter-gatherers in about 7,000 B.C. It moves to the ancestor-cult shrines that appeared after the beginning of corn-based agriculture around 1,500 B.C., and ends in A.D. 30 with the sophisticated, astronomically oriented temples of an early archaic state.
This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world. Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.
Wade takes a huge intellectual leap when he jumps from religion being nearly universal to thus hard-wired into the human psyche. The earliest scholars could only document religion as a phenomenon through the use of reason and combining syntax with context. Modern humans could just as well call it a very early beta version of logic and empiricism to explain how the universe worked and how man fit into that universe. Religion was the result of and name given to early man’s speculations about himself and his environment . If religion was one thing there would not have been so many of them. It is no coincidence that early religions had much in common with the environment and geography of the people indigenous to a particular location – see Egyptians and sun gods and spirits where religion started to be documented. Most all the gods were male and female and acted much like humans except for supernatural powers. Local gods, who of course showed preference for locals and their physical and social needs came to compete with gods from Egypt’s rulers. Or Norse gods who had light skin and blue eyes and included a god of ice of course, but no god of sand storms. Wade seems to subscribe to the inevitable progress view of history( religion+time= things generally improve) rather than a constant flux of opposing and sometimes interwoven ideas with new information being assimilated and old information discarded or sometimes placed in the back of the closet. The inevitable progress view looks at history’s cross roads and assumes that given an instant replay this or that civilization would have always chosen the same path. There are countless examples, but suppose around 10,000 years ago man, rather than beginning the cultivation of wheat, continued to rely on finding sufficient quantities in the wild. And cultivation did not begin for another 1,000 years, the course of the history we know would have been thrown off by a few degrees or who knows maybe we could have caught up by some leap in technology or maybe we’d all be working in the fields of our overlords. Religion is in many ways simply a way to organize information. A crude first attempt. Imagine if today we tried to use a pinch of every religion or one single best religion to create rocket fuel to launch a satellite. Rocket fuel could never be produced from a belief system. Thus it has limits in its benefits and strict adherence stalls many of the advances we think of we we think about progress. Organized religion may have outlived any practical use, but we keep it because it appears to offer answers. Answers that science can answer, but the believer cannot understand the science. Sometimes religion fills in the gap or more aptly is used by practitioners to fill in gaps of knowledge. Its been suggested by some – the late Norman Mailer for example – that people need religion to scare them into socially acceptable behavior. Even if there is no one universal god we must have the masses believe in one in order to have a sustainable civilized society. The humanist view – in short – is that on the contrary behavior is normative, people learn their behavior which in turn has real world consequences and will behave accordingly. Steal my bread, society sends you to jail. We might swear on a Bible during the process, but like British barristers and their wigs its a tradition extraneous to the results. The rational mind knows that regardless of what one believes in Cairo, New Delhi or Peoria when your finger flips the switch the power comes on because we know how to manipulate electrons, we know we do not need the intervention of a deity to banish the dark. Religion is the result of man’s wiring in which we yearned for and attempted explanations. Man’s circuitry did not evolve from religion. As our yearnings grew and our civilizations became more complicated justified beliefs became essential. Did man have to go through some crude systems of beliefs that provided some benefits to progress. Progress does seem to consist to a large extent of trial and error.
Wade then gets a little into group selection and acknowledges it’s still being sorted out. Edward O. Wilson tends to see some room for it in evolution – groups can provide individuals with benefits such as food and protection of which the individual is not capable. So learning the group rules, which would include their religion, would benefit the chances of promulgating of one’s genes. Again we’re labeling beneficial group behavior, a learned behavior, religion. The only fairly common threads communities of people shared for centuries in the particulars were behaviors, not gods. Maybe this is a semantic argument, but it seems on my reading that Wade wants to put the cart just slightly ahead of the horse. Rather then a “god gene” it seems more likely that we had a gene for inventing ways to make sense of the world.