Evolutionary theory in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular, have tended to align with the modern movement often referred to as the new atheists and humanists. Indeed, the prominence of those such as Dawkins and Dennett encourages a lumping of the two together. This isn’t quite fair. The new atheists are after all activists for a cause, while the evolutionary theorists aspire to scientific inquiry. The latter though have provided rhetorical ammunition to the former. Popular among these claims are Pascal Boyer’s argument that religion is a cultural construct, drawing upon evolved mechanisms, which seem to be misfiring in their creation of a counterintuitive worldview (Boyer, 2002). Dawkins has pretty much characterized religion as pathology: mass insanity, in one case (Dawkins, 2008), and a virus of the mind, in another (Dawkins, 2004).
The impression one would seem to take away from all this is the well-honed theme (meme?) that evolution and religion are ever incommensurable. Yet, even resort to the live-and-let-live position Stephen Gould called the non-overlapping magisteria, the idea that the two could live side by side, focused on the different concerns of facts and values, has been rebuked by Dawkins, arguing that they were incompatible magisteria, claiming the existence of entirely different universes and so premised upon mutually exclusive possible worlds (Dawkins, 2012; Gould, 2011).
Personally, I’ve managed to wind my way through the years of my study of evolutionary theory without getting too caught up in all of this. I’ve always been a bit bothered by the tone of the new atheists, just as I’d been bothered by a similar attitude of defiant certainty among Christians that I’d experienced in my youth. I agreed with a comment I once hear Michael Shermer offer about the counterproductive strategy of trying to change people’s minds through intellectually bludgeoning them (I’m paraphrasing). And, my years of reading Karl Popper had taught me to be cautious about claims of absolute certainty, in any domain, but especially in the name of science. So, when pressed on the topic, I’d identify myself as an “apatheist” and happily carry on.
A new angle on all this, though, has come to my attention and I confess to finding it extremely interesting. I’m not sure yet how far I’ll pursue the inquiry and I’m so close to the start of such a project that only misguided bravado has me venturing to publicly ponder the topic, at all. Still, I suspect there may be something to this and I’d welcome a conversation among those very few people, I suspect, who are equipped and disposed to address the topic with the content and spirit I’m trying to establish, here. To reiterate, if it isn’t clear, these are very exploratory thoughts. Still, conversations, if they’re to start, have to begin somewhere.
I’ve recently taken special notice of, University of Toronto professor of clinical and personality psychology, Jordan Peterson. This began with a controversy over his position regarding a free speech debate. I’ve commented on the same situation, not that I’m unsympathetic to the free speech aspect, but more focused on the legal enshrining of an anti-scientific ideology. I find those developments disturbing. (Anyone interested in that discussion should have a look, here.) In the process though I’ve been inspired to look much more closely at his scholarship and broader theoretical worldview and found myself intrigued. For decades now Peterson has been working his way toward an understanding of religion that is not just compatible with evolutionary theory, contra-Dawkins, nor explained away by evolutionary theory, as per Boyer, but rather founded upon it. (And, contrary to intelligent design, which makes evolution an instrument of religion, rather than its foundation.) Indeed, in Peterson’s treatment, as I understand it, religion is not only a natural outcome of evolution, but a core fitness dimension of evolution among the symbolic species of homo sapiens. In what follows, I’ll do my best to provide a concise and accurate analysis of his theory.
The first move in this analysis is, in the fashion of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to recognize the species-typical character of the mythic archetypes: the stories and more importantly the relationships within those stories, which manifest across human experience, locally and historically. (These archetype stories, of course, are not restricted to religion, appearing in folklore, fairy tales and fables, as well.) From here there is already a danger of going astray. For years I dismissed Jung, admittedly without ever having seriously studied him, because his ideas had been introduced to me through a New Age lens, in which his notion of the collective unconscious was presented as mass telepathy, almost like a sphere of reality that transcended embodied human existence. (A bit, in that regard, not unlike how some in the evolutionary scholarship conceive of culture, ironically.) Such a supernatural turn though is not merely unnecessary, but counter-indicated insofar as it deflects attention from an explanation that is not only credible, but compelling.
In keeping with Cosmides and Tooby’s arguments about innate ideas, Peterson is arguing that fundamental experiences of life, such as dominance hierarchies, dating back hundreds of millions of years, were already sculpted into the nervous and endocrine systems of our ancient lobster-like ancestors. From the beginning of sexuality the basic experience of fitness entailed a nervous system selected to deal with the fundamental facts of existence, e.g., there is a male, there is a female, and there is you. Every organism’s fitness is dependent upon what emerges from that basic reality and a whole range of specific dynamics – e.g., hierarchy climbing, dyadic and triadic orientations, opportunity and threat assessment and response. These emergent qualities of evolved material dynamics become in effect innate ideas or concepts.
Here is how the pioneers of modern evolutionary psychology treat such a prospect: “mutations that cause neural machinery to reliably develop useful, world-reflecting mental contents (or organizing principles, categories, etc.) give their possessors a propagative advantage over blank slate designs that must consider an unconstrained set of possibilities, and are limited to applying the same procedures to all contents” (Tooby, Cosmides, & Barrett, 2005, p. 310). In their article on innate ideas Tooby, Cosmides and Barrett illustrate this claim with an examination of how “value” is intrinsic to such evolutionary processes: fitness itself is the product of the values exhibited in the behavioral choices of any organism. No organism eats just anything or mates with just anyone: it values some options more than others. And this evaluation, as fitness enhancing behavior, is evolutionarily sculpted into its nervous system. Value is not some metaphysic superstrate imposed on behavioral choice through a philosophical pursuit of the good; it inheres in lived experience (Tooby et al., 2005, p. 315ff).
This seems pretty close to the idea that Peterson is promoting. In a 2015 interview he says that religion is evolved knowledge about action. And even more intriguingly, he goes on to say the patterns that govern hierarchy are the place from which ethics derive (Transliminal, 2015). How one treats others, in specific circumstances, determines fitness – as evolutionarily sculpted into the nervous system. This seems to dovetail pretty synchronously with the Tooby, Cosmides and Barrett’s claims about the evolutionary foundations of value. It is, though, because we are a symbolic species (Deacon, 1998), that we elaborate these evolved innate ideas (or evolved modules of our nervous system) about dynamic relationships, into stories, themes and characters. The precise details that ornament such telling will be unique to historical and environmental circumstances, but underpinning them all is a common substrate of evolved dispositions to respond to certain kinds of biologically eternal dynamics. Insofar as the elaborated stories, themes and characters resonate with this deep evolutionary psychology they strike a chord at the very core of our biological being. Among these different narrative and representational manifestations of biological being is what we call religions.
The implication then seems to be that when we religiously worship, we’re expressing reverence for the fundamental dynamics of biological being, sculpted into our cognition over hundreds of millions of years across the expanse of evolutionary experience. As our ancestors had no access to the biological sciences, their only channel for expressing this deep evolutionary psychology was through an anthropomorphic narration. Failing to appreciate the deeper biological underpinnings, and given other kinds of biological forces, including the power of in-group and out-group tensions, the elaboration of such stories wove in tribal sentiments, too. (This is perhaps where Boyer’s insights become applicable.) The upshot has been that a vast array of religions across human time and place, inevitably contextualized by political experience, often drifted far from their evolutionary substrate, corralling those underpinning impulses, even as they often leveraged the core human response toward a variety of diverse strategic purposes.
I’m uncertain whether these last observations would be endorsed by Peterson, but they seem consist with the historical facts. If all this is true, which like any scientific claim is an empirical question, then the ferocity with which the new atheists and humanists excoriate religion is missing something immensely important. The explicitly proclaimed beliefs of most religions are manifestly absurd; to believe in them is literally to believe in magic and the supernatural. It does not follow though that religion is by necessity or even at its core a devotion to magic or the supernatural.
At its core, rather, religion is the expressed reverence of the fundamental dynamics of our biology. More than that, though, it is an attentiveness to the very core of our evolved nature: the deepest substrate of who we are. For the new atheists and humanists to neglect this insight in their anti-religion campaigns is the classic case of tossing out the baby with the bathwater. The loss of such a reverence in the secular age perhaps has entailed a suppression of our nature, working at cross purposes to the fitness benefits for human life and society in striving to articulate – in both senses of the word – human mind and its very biological conditions of possibility. Severed from the politics of tribalism, it might well be, in a world so rapidly (in evolutionary time) ripped from our environment of evolutionary adaptation, religion is a last gasp attempt to ground us in the very biological core of that being, which modern evolutionary theory strives to explain, and so many humanists and social scientists may be in danger of catastrophically denying.
That seems to be the lesson Peterson seeks to impart. How far down that path I’m prepared to go remains undetermined. The perils of the naturalistic fallacy always haunt the halls down which such an expedition would proceed. What I am increasingly inclined to conclude, though, is that the all too often facile dismissal of religion by the new atheists and humanists, including some evolutionary theorists, has not yet done nearly the work necessary to justify the conclusion that they trumpet – and sometimes just a little too smugly.
Boyer, P. (2002). Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Reprint edition). New York: Basic Books.
Dawkins, R. (2004). A Devil’s Chaplain (Reprint edition). Mariner Books.
Dawkins, R. (2008). The God Delusion (Reprint edition). Boston: Mariner Books.
Dawkins, R. (2012, March 16). Council for Secular Humanism. Retrieved December 3, 2016, from https://web.archive.org/web/20120316083637id_/secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=dawkins_18_2
Deacon, T. W. (1998). The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. W. W. Norton & Company.
Gould, S. J. (2011). Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Reprint edition). Ballantine Books.
Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., & Barrett, H. C. (2005). Resolving the debate on Innate Ideas. In P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, & S. Stich (Eds.), The Innate Mind: Structure and Contents. Oxford University Press.
Transliminal. (2015). Religion, Myth, Science, Truth: Dr Jordan Peterson | NEW full-length interview. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07Ys4tQPRis