The second coming of evolutionary explanations of religion I: Historical background

Posted on October 19, 2014


From an early draft of a paper I am working on:

Work within CSR tends to most strongly identify with the multidisciplinary tradition of research into human behaviour that can be traced back to the ethology of Lorenz and Tinbergen in the mid-twentieth century. The vital turning point in that tradition was provided by the publication in 1975 of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology – which sought to bring to bear upon human behaviour the tools zoologists had been developing for several decades to understand the behaviour of non-human animals. While few would now argue that Wilson’s approach was unproblematic it did serve to open up the space for further, often more sophisticated work. Very quickly a number of different approaches were developed and a variety of aspects of human behaviour came under investigation. Religion – given its significance in human societies – could hardly go uninvestigated. And, indeed, by the nineteen-nineties a number of publications appeared examining religion within this new evolutionary, biological paradigm. The phrase ‘cognitive science of religion’ was first used in a publication in the year 2000 by Thomas Lawson and quickly came to be used as the term to identify a community of researchers from a range of disciplines who have sought to examine religion within this paradigm. In the decade and a half since then the group has grown both larger and more cohesive as its members have sought to learn about each other’s work and brought new researchers into the field. At the same time, many researchers whose work fits very well with the theoretical and methodological assumptions of CSR work largely outside of the CSR community.

While any attempt to define CSR is unavoidably tendentious it is none-the-less necessary to try to identify something of the main aspects of the approach. As a first draft it might do to say that cognitive science of religion explains religious behaviours and beliefs in terms of the interactions between cognitive and cultural mechanisms that have been shaped by biological and cultural evolution. This packs rather a lot into a single sentence. So, we should also unpack some of that: 1) The aim is unashamedly to explain, rather than to interpret; 2) Particular behaviours as well as beliefs are under investigation rather than ‘religion’, indeed some people working in CSR think there is no such natural kind as religion; 3) There is an unashamed focus on mechanistic explanation; 4) Cognition and culture are both seen as vital to providing a proper explanation, with ‘mind-blind’ approaches or approaches that consider W.E.I.R.D. people as the norm explicitly rejected; 5) Evolutionary theory provides the theoretical basis for much of the work; 6) Evolutionary dynamics are deemed to explain not just biological history but also cultural history.

Two extreme reactions are fairly common to CSR thus-characterised. The first is that CSR is absolutely revolutionary in that it is taking new methods and new theories and using them to provide answers to basic questions about human behaviour. The second is that CSR offers nothing new given that evolutionary approaches to explanation of human behaviour had been tried before and have been rejected thoroughly many decades ago. Both reactions have something to be said for them. To see what that means it is helpful to consider the ‘pre-history’ of evolutionary explanations to human behaviour and religion in particular.

For many researchers who look at CSR from the outside, the relevant historical context is provided by the work of Spencer, Tylor and Frazer, dating back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Just as the impetus for the most recent work has been to a significant degree provided by Wilson’s book, the impetus for their work was provided by Darwin’s Origin of Species. These early social theorists drew heavily from Darwin’s ideas and sought to explain social change in terms of the evolution of human societies. As such, their work can be obviously seen to be an early analogue of the work now done within CSR on cultural evolution. Likewise, their ideas about religion being caused by erroneous thinking can be judged to stand as analogues to the attempt within CSR to explain religious beliefs and behaviours as due to cognitive by-products. To a certain degree it would be shocking if there were no similarities in the ideas – it would suggest a level of ignorance about religion that is hard to fathom. At the same time it has to be asked to what degree the criticisms of the earlier work carry across to CSR. And the criticism was, at the time, quite sufficient to render evolutionary approaches extinct.

In the current context it is enough to consider two of the criticisms raised by Evans-Pritchard. The first was that evolutionary approaches assumed a linearity to the development of human society that could not be supported by anthropological work – some of which Evans-Pritchard carried out himself, of course. The second, and connected, criticism was that evolutionary approaches assumed a robust notion of progress within social change that could not be made sense of in any reasonable way. Both these criticisms are very much accurate and justified. However, neither of these traits of the early evolutionary explanations of social change come from evolutionary theory. Darwin made it very clear in his work that any notion of progress only makes sense in a very local context so that was is an improved adaptation in the short-term may lead to extinction in the long-term. He also made it very clear that evolution is not a linear process but a branching one with each species forming a new limb on the tree of life. Of course these misinterpretations of Darwinian evolution are still common – witness the popular image of the row of hominids following a modern man – but in the case of Spencer and the others they can be traced to a particular source. Working in the early nineteenth century, August Comte theorised human history as one of a linear development through three basic stages, from a society ruled by magic, through one ruled by religion to one that is finally ruled by science. The ‘evolutionary’ theories of Spencer and the other late nineteenth century theoreticians merely dressed up Comtean progressivism in Darwinian drag, without reworking the erroneous claims contained within. Vitally for our purpose, CSR explicitly rejects progressivism. In so far as there is a cognitive explanation for religious behaviour and beliefs, it lies in the cognitive traits that all humans largely share. In so far as there are relevant cultural differences, they are indicative merely of the different ways that particular religions work within their cultures and are not used to place those societies upon some theorised ladder of social being. Of course, secularisation is still a real phenomenon but it is neither a simple nor an inevitable process.

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