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Beware Evolutionary ‘Just-so’ Stories About Religious Belief

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January 8, 2011 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul
Beware Evolutionary ‘Just-so’ Stories About Religious Belief

Today's entry was written by Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This post first appeared in The Guardian.

As an evolutionary biologist I am fascinated by the emergence of that suite of cognitive abilities that make us so distinctive from other living species.

There are, however, risks in making up evolutionary "just-so" stories to explain the origins of complex human beliefs, such as religious ones.

For we have virtually no firm knowledge of the details of religious beliefs prior to the invention of writing about 5,000 years ago. Some general (and plausible) inferences can be made based on burial customs, cave paintings, and the like, going back a few tens of thousands of years, but before that the discussion becomes increasingly speculative.

Writing here this week, the psychologist Jesse Bering makes up a wonderful just-so story about "selfish behaviours" being "punished by supernatural agents" thereby promoting "prosocial reputations". Well, who knows, there just isn't any evidence either way. One significant problem with such stories is that they tend towards group selectionism, a biologically problematic notion. Another problem is the ethnocentric slant of Bering's thesis. Evolutionary arguments for the origin of religion always struggle because, as many historians have pointed out, the ideation of "religion" is an invention of the European Enlightenment.

Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism only began to be "religions" when Europeans started to force these categories upon them. As Wilfred Smith comments in The Meaning and End of Religion, the question of whether Confucianism is religion is a question that the west has never been able to answer and the Chinese never able to ask.

If evolutionary arguments fail to convince through lack of data and fuzzy notions of "religion", then fortunately the field of cognitive psychology does much better – relatively speaking. The theorising in this new field is, by common consent, well ahead of the data, but nevertheless has a solid core of significant empirical results. Early developmental human drives and behaviours may be broadly categorised into those essential for survival ("instincts"), such as face recognition, hunger, thirst and suckling – and those for which there appears to be a strong cognitive preference. In this latter category one might include evidence that very young babies can count, acquire a basic knowledge of physics, develop a theory of mind and, following language acquisition, readily accumulate non-reflective beliefs.

Some beliefs are acquired using a presumed "agency detecting device", a mental tool that infers whether an object is an agent or the consequence of agency. Young children, at least in the western context, appear to be natural theists, readily providing explanations dependent on omnipotent god-agency, beginning to distinguish between parental minds/knowledge and god-minds/knowledge by the age of five.

For the sake of argument, let's cut to the chase and say that we accept the whole current cognitive psychology "package". Are we then justified in saying that the innate cognitive tendencies to believe certain things ipso facto rules out their actual existence or validity? It is difficult to know why this should be the case and Bering's stance seems to me unnecessarily Machiavellian on this point ("why the human mind is so easily seduced" … "Theory of mind became the warped lens through which we perceived the natural world" etc). In fact sometimes he sounds like a downright crypto-solipsist.

Take maths, for example. I know of no academic mathematicians who are not either explicit or implicit neo-platonists. They all believe there are mathematical truths that exist "out there" that are waiting to be found. E = mc2 would still remain the case even if humans went extinct. As Eugene Wigner, the physics Nobel Laureate, once remarked: "The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift that we neither understand nor deserve."

Yes, babies display basic numeracy, but this is a long way from quantum mechanics, which is hard work to grasp and counter-intuitive, but both appear to be grounded in an external reality "outside the head".

The innate cognitive ability to count compared with quantum mechanics is as the innate childhood bias to theism is to adult theology. There is a big difference between non-reflective and reflective beliefs. The reflective ability to grapple with quantum mechanics does not thereby nullify the baby's non-reflective ability to count, any more than does an adult's reflective belief in God nullify childhood theism. And evolutionary biology will be of little help in "explaining" human beliefs in either quantum mechanics or the finer points of theology.

Evolution may have delivered tendencies to believe certain things and to disbelieve others. But that in itself does not tell us whether those beliefs are true or not. What evolution has delivered is some big frontal lobes that are essential for rational cogitation; all adult beliefs have to be justified by rational argument. Bering finds the ontological question "rather dull".

Personally I find people who fail to ask ontological questions extremely dull. Thankfully there is life beyond the inside of our heads.

Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Cal - #46406

January 8th 2011

Nice reply.

One problem that evolutioism psychology (EP) has is that they are so many times ignorant of History on their “pronouncements”. When they tackle the phenomenon of “religion”, they always first conjure up a nominal Christianity (aka christendom, churchianity etc), then they go to work on explaining it away. There are always two problems with that:

First, they ignore the religion of pagan groups all over the world and in the past. The religion of the Roman State was harsh and brutal, it was focused and centered all around “selfishness”. It promoted service and sacrifice to the “state”, but every man had to fend for himself/herself against the fickle will of the gods. Each had to bargain his way to a better place in hades. Murder, theft, adultery, all were acceptable if in the right circumstances.

Secondly, what Christ commands to do is not “in the interest of society”. He calls us to follow Him, to be willing to lay down life if need be to serve God. He calls us to stand against culture, to live for the Kingdom, that we will be aliens of this world and that our hope is now (not what EP says is a coping mechanism for death). Eternal life starts now!

Such foolishness weakens biological arguments for evolution.

Cal - #46408

January 8th 2011


it weakens the credibility of arguments for evolution by dragging it down to a lot of the fiction of EP.

Rich - #46443

January 8th 2011

I’ve read Dr. Alexander’s book *Creation or Evolution?* and I enjoyed both his comments on how to read the Bible and his polite mode of writing which rose above the ad hominem attacks quite often found in anti-creationist and anti-ID works.  So I raise the following question in a non-hostile way. 

Dr. Alexander describes himself as “an evolutionary biologist.”  I want to know what this means.  I would have thought that an evolutionary biologist was a biologist whose main area of academic publication and research was the theory of evolution.  Yet when I look up his academic biography, I find that his work has been in molecular immunology and cancer research and lymphocyte signalling and biochemistry and neurochemistry.  The available academic cv of his articles (2003-2008) displays no articles on the subject of evolution.  By using the term “evolutionary biologist,” is Dr. Alexander claiming that Jerry Coyne, Stuart Newman, Lynn Margulis, Richard Lewontin, etc. would recognize him as a colleague in evolutionary theory?  Or is he using the term loosely, to mean “someone trained in the life sciences who accepts evolution”?  I find the elusiveness of the term “evolutionary biologist” somewhat frustrating.

Rich - #46454

January 8th 2011

I hasten to add that I find myself in general agreement with Dr. Alexander’s ruminations in the post above.  In fact, I do not know an ID supporter who would not agree with his remarks against superficial “evolutionary” accounts of religious belief.  Once again it seems that there is much common ground between TE/EC people and ID people.  It is unfortunate that there is so much friction between two camps, who should be allies rather than foes.

I particularly enjoyed this statement:

‘Bering finds the ontological question “rather dull”... Personally I find people who fail to ask ontological questions extremely dull.’

Well said, Dr. Alexander.  Unfortunately, a good number of practitioners in the life sciences do not ask ontological questions.  I find them much more commonly asked by the physicists and mathematicians than by the life scientists (biologists, biochemists, and psychologists).  Dr. Alexander is an honorable exception to this generalization, but I wonder what it is about training in the life sciences, as opposed to physics and mathematics, which so often makes life scientists so detail-focused and so philosophically unreflective.  Perhaps some reform of life science education is in order?

Gregory - #46470

January 8th 2011

From my readings, group selectionism vs. individual selectionism is still hotly debated in biology today. D.S. Wilson is a group selectionist; R. Dawkins is an individual selectionist: two key figures in opposing camps. Gould is often used by N. American commentators & contributors b/c he had feet in both camps.

Whether a misspell or not, I like the expression evolution-ISM psychology. I have not (yet) met an psychologist-evolutionist who is not highly ideological & lowly scientific.

I share Rich’s curiosity @ why D. Alexander calls himself so directly & upfront at the start of the article an ‘evolutionary biologist’.

There is a decided barb at ‘evolutionism (just-so) psychology’ in Alexander’s message. I for one would appreciate him taking this much further or promoting those who do. Alexander is not a psychologist & most specialists have much work to do in grasping knowledges in other academic specialities.

If group, then sociology. Period.

Rich, could you expand more on this ‘life sciences’ lack of philosophy gripe? My guess is ‘Life Sciences’ is used in <20% of University Faculty/Department listings in N.A.. Economics is every much a ‘life science’ as psychology. Or Biology king of 3?

Glen Davidson - #46473

January 8th 2011

I would not call E = mc2 a mathematical truth, rather a physics truth or an empirical truth.  Of course physics relates to mathematics reliably in at least most cases, yet the bases of physics equations are mostly empirical.

As for evolutionary psychology, I think it should be granted that there’s nothing wrong with it in theory.  Unfortunately, it is far too little empirical in practice in the vast majority of cases.

Glen Davidson

Rich - #46487

January 8th 2011


By the life sciences I mean nothing tricky, just standard usage:  the sciences which are concerned with organic things, living things, in their organic, living aspect— hence, biology and biochemistry and related fields, including parts of anthropology (physical anthropology / human genetics), parts of psychology (brain/mind studies, etc.), ecology, paleontology, etc.

Economics and other social sciences are not life sciences.  They are not about living functions and processes as such.

With a few exceptions (mainly among the paleontologists, e.g. Gould), life scientists do not seem to be broad thinkers.  They seem to be narrow technicians.  The great thinkers among the scientists are usually physicists or cosmologists.  I noticed this in my first year of natural science and it was an impression repeatedly confirmed through three degrees and my experience of biologists/biochemists in the blogosphere.  Among the TEs the profoundest ones are almost all physicists/cosmologists (e.g., Polkinghorne).  I suspect that reductionism has something to do with this.  Many biologists are still emotionally in the 19th century, in a mechanistic-materialistic stage of thinking that physics has long since outgrown.

John - #46524

January 8th 2011

“I want to know what this means.  I would have thought that an evolutionary biologist was a biologist whose main area of academic publication and research was the theory of evolution.”

I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t an evolutionary biologist study the PHENOMENON of evolution?

“Yet when I look up his academic biography, I find that his work has been in molecular immunology and cancer research and lymphocyte signalling and biochemistry and neurochemistry.”

Gee, how long does it take to generate a fully-functional, completely specific one of those “protein-protein binding sites” (that Behe claims are so hard to make) using nothing but genetic variation (random wrt fitness) and selection?

And in what system do we observe this beautifully Darwinian phenomenon?

Maryann Spikes - #46526

January 8th 2011

Great article, and great discussion following it

John - #46528

January 8th 2011

“Many biologists are still emotionally in the 19th century, in a mechanistic-materialistic stage of thinking that physics has long since outgrown.”

Project much? After all, you’re here desperately trying to promote a 19th-century view of biology.

As for the materialistic part, you’re perfectly willing to play that card if you can imagine materialistic evidence that you think will help your case, real or not.

You did make a false, materialistic claim that deleting any flagellar gene causes loss of flagellar function.

You did make a materialistic claim about how many “CCCs” it would take to produce whales that had zero basis in what is already known about genetic differences between whales and other mammals:

“Now, to get from an artiodactyl to a whale, you’ve got to have many CCCs.”

Let’s focus the materialism of that claim. Whether you believe it or not, it’s completely materialistic, and therefore in your view, that puts you “emotionally in the 19th century.”

Good thing for all of the children who have died from diseases preventable by vaccination that Andrew Wakefield didn’t feel constrained by mechanistic-materialistic considerations, right? He just made the data up like you do!

John - #46604

January 9th 2011

Rich is actually doing a very twisted kind of science when he makes empirical claims.

He clearly has a hypothesis as to the mechanisms God designed when God designed development.

Rich’s hypothesis PREDICTS that the designs of whales and artiodactyls involve many differences in CCCs.

Then Rich falsely presents the empirical prediction of his hypothesis as a fact. A careful scientist would present the prediction as a prediction.

Then Rich gets angry when others point out that his prediction has no basis in reality. A careful scientist, OTOH, would revise or discard his hypothesis.

If the Word of God was directly written in our genomes by God Himself, why is it that those who make this claim most stridently have the least interest in reading it for themselves? The opposite should be true if they are motivated by true faith.

Rich - #46850

January 10th 2011

Thanks for your confirmation, Sy.

I hasten to add that my remarks weren’t aimed at any individual, and I wasn’t attacking biologists or biochemists as such, or specialists as such, or even narrow specialists as such.  (We all want a narrow specialist at times, to do certain very precisely defined tasks for us.)  I was merely saying that when we are undertaking to discuss grand questions like “the relationship between science and religion” or “how God acts in evolution” or “whether design and chance can be harmonized,” we need a broad and integrative mode of thinking.  Yet it seems that much of science education (and I don’t disparage science as such, which is a great human enterprise)
is not geared to the production of broad and synthetic thinkers.  And it has been my impression that this problem is the greatest in the life sciences, but I don’t want to go after the life scientists as if they are the bad guys; I think it’s a function of modern education in general; the reward system is set up so that people who ask broader questions find it harder to get tenure, and therefore cannot influence curriculum or research.

Essentially I was trying to support Dr. Alexander in his call for ontological reflection.

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