by Robert Wright
Over at Slate, Will Saletan just published a piece that foreshadows an emerging argument over the genetic basis of religion. The question isn’t really whether religion is in the genes, but in what sense it’s in the genes. Is a human proclivity toward religious belief a biological “adaptation”—that is, did natural selection favor religious impulses because religious belief helped preserve genes? Or is religious belief, while in some sense grounded in the genes, more of an accidental byproduct of evolution (a “spandrel” as Stephen Jay Gould used to say)?
I buy the latter scenario, and I explain here how an “accidental” religion could have gotten off the ground back in hunter-gatherer days. The alternative, “adapationist” case will be made by New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade in a book he's publishing in November.
I’m looking forward to hearing how Wade handles something that you’d think is inconvenient from his point of view. If religion was preserved by natural selection because of its cohesive effect on society, as I gather he believes, then why is it that, so far as we can tell, early religion had no real moral dimension?