by Robert Wright

My contention that religious impulses are unlikely to be biological “adaptations” has failed to overawe some readers. I had said that religion in hunter-gatherer societies tends not to focus on moral behaviorthere’s not much discouragement of theft, lying, etc.so it’s not clear how religion in the hunter-gatherer era would have had the socially cohesive effect that “adapationist” arguments tend to presuppose.

One reader wrote: 

It seems to me that there is a pretty deep chasm between hunter-gatherer social patterns and incentives, and those of sedentary, agriculturally-based societies. 

There is indeed. Agrarian societies are bigger and more complex and so have a bigger challenge maintaining social order. And religion in such societies does often address this challenge. Just look at these examples from the chiefdoms of Polynesia. 

The trouble is that the context of the biological evolution of human nature seems to have been hunter-gatherer societies. And certainly all the anthropological evidence suggests that religion had emerged in hunter-gatherer times, before the invention of agriculture. So I attribute the moral character of agrarian religion to cultural evolution, not biological evolution. 


Another reader wrote that my view 

presupposes that the cohesive effect religion has on society comes from its content. That is insufficiently imaginative. The behavioral evidence suggests that human moral impulses are largely tribal. Those in my tribe get special forms of treatment and consideration that those outside my tribe do not. Expand my definition of who is in my tribe, and you expand the number of persons I give that special treatment to, treatment that makes highly adaptive practices like cooperation and commerce easier.  Early religions, even early religions without moral content, may have facilitated the expansion of what counted as one’s tribe.  A narrow definition of tribe meaning (crudely) “those who grew up in my village” gives way to an expanded version of tribe meaning “those who live as I do”, which gives way to a further expanded definition meaning “those who worship the god(s) I do”. If we are already roughly disposed to be nicer to people in our tribe, a religion doesn’t have to instruct us to do so.  It only has to facilitate viewing more and more people as qualifying for the preferential treatment.  In that way, the spread of even an amoral religion would also spread cooperation, commerce, and mutual alliances against outsiders, with all the adaptive benefits those things bring to early societies.

This reader has something in common with the other reader! Again, this posited function of religion wouldn’t seem to apply to hunter-gatherer societies. And the reason isn’t just that “tribe,” as a technical anthropological term, generally implies an agrarian level of social organization. It’s that most observed hunter-gatherer peoples haven’t attained cohesive large-scale social organization. The exceptionssuch as the Native Americans of Northwestern North Americaseem (judging by archaeological evidence) to represent a fairly recent cultural development, too recent to have played a big role in human evolution.  

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