November 3, 2008

The Evolution of Religion in Humans

One Species under God? Sorting through the Pieces of Religion and Cooperation

By Azim F. Shariff

In studying the evolution of religion, one misstep to avoid is treating “religion” as a seamless whole. Religions are complex. More than that, they are complexes, stitched together from many elements that have evolved at different times for different reasons. Some aspects of religion may be, or may have been, individually or culturally adaptive, whereas others may be more analogous to viruses. Asking whether religion, as a whole, is adaptive is a misleading question. For an answer complex enough to do justice to the packages of memes called religions, one needs to look under the hood.

In an attempt at unpacking religion into its composite parts, I will outline three classes of memes which prove useful in understanding the evolution of religion. These are foundation memes, social utility memes and scaffolding memes. Following their brief description, I will use the example of how the fear of supernatural policing agents encourages cooperative behavior to demonstrate how these classes of memes interact and how understanding them can add to discussions in the area.

Foundation memes are aspects of religion that follow directly from the structure of the human mind. Our biologically evolved brains lead us to these inventions, making them exceedingly likely, almost inevitable have called this canalization. Two examples that I explore below are belief in life after death and the tendency to imbue agency to natural phenomena. Though technically cultural ideas, these memes are expected to emerge quite naturally for all people in all cultures. Most importantly, foundation memes provide the canvas material upon which the more elaborate aspects of religion are drawn...

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