Another dual inheritance convert

Posted on November 27, 2010


Last year, Ryan McKay and Dan Dennett published a BBS target article claiming that it is unlikely that religion could be functional. Ryan has now published a new paper – The Wrath of God – in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B in which he and his coauthors conclude that their results support a dual inheritance account of religion.

The accounts we have considered above pertain to proximate explanation. In terms of ultimate evolutionary explanation, our results are consistent with dual inheritance proposals about religion and cooperation. A number of authors have suggested that the human proclivity for acquiring and transmitting supernatural agent concepts is an incidental byproduct of cognitive mechanisms genetically adapted for other purposes. Others have argued that religions are cultural systems that exploit such byproducts to adaptive effect. If, as our results indicate, the activation of supernatural agent concepts promotes the enforcement of cultural norms of fairness, and if such norms sustain cooperative behaviours within the group, then religions that harness such concepts will enhance the survival prospects of their vectors, thereby contributing to their own survival.

Given that I argued for dual inheritance in my comment to the original BBS article, I like to think I may have had a hand in this change in position. Having said that, I guess that working on religion and cooperation at Ernst Fehr’s lab for a number of months, talking to a great variety of researchers in Oxford and other centres as well as reading the various articles recently published on dual inheritance (including a number of the other comments to the BBS article) might have played a role, too. Possibly.