Aug 28, 2014
Darwin had a problem with bees. Understanding how evolution might work at the level of individuals was easy. Have an individual whose genes give them an advantage in resisting disease or avoiding predators and on average they will breed more and pass on more of their genes to the next generation. But bees and other social insects weren’t so easy. Kamikaze-like, bees will dive in and sting you, their barbs getting stuck in you and die to save the hive. Of course, when a human being sacrifices their life to save their child, that’s easy enough for evolution to explain. By sacrificing your life for your child, you are helping to ensure that your genes are passed on. But the bee that stings you at a picnic, can’t have children because those bees are sterile. In the Origin of Species, Darwin referred to sterile subgroups as the "one special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my theory.” Nowadays, evolutionary biologists have no problem providing an explanation for this behavior. In fact, the problem is that they have two competing explanations with explanations not just for bees but for how evolution makes sense of religion. Biologists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne argue that the bee gives its life because by defending the hive it is helping to pass on the genes of its closely related hive mates. They deny that natural selection can operate at the level of groups and so large human social organizations (like religion) have no function. Biologists like EO Wilson and today’s guest David Sloan Wilson argue that selection can happen not only at the level of individuals but also at the level of groups. If that’s the case, then our groupishness (including religion) are useful. As you can imagine, the idea that religion could be on balance or even sometimes useful is something that people like Dawkins take issue with. The consequences of this rift are beautifully summed up in Jon Haidt’s Righteous Mind: "To Dennett and Dawkins, religions are sets of memes that have undergone Darwinian selection. Like biological traits, religions are heritable, they mutate, and there is selection among these mutations. The selection occurs not on the basis of the benefits religions confer upon individuals or groups but on the basis of their ability to survive and reproduce themselves. Some religions are better than others at hijacking the human mind, burrowing in deeply, and then getting themselves transmitted to the next generation of host minds. Dennett opens Breaking the Spell with the story of a tiny parasite that commandeers the brains of ants, causing them to climb to the tops of blades of grass, where they can more easily be eaten by grazing animals. The behavior is suicide for the ant, but it’s adaptive for the parasite, which requires the digestive system of a ruminant to reproduce itself. Dennett proposes that religions survive because , like those parasites, they make their hosts do things that are bad for themselves (e.g., suicide bombing) but good for the parasite (e.g., Islam). Dawkins similarly describes religions as viruses. Just as a cold virus makes its host sneeze to spread itself, successful religions make their hosts expend precious resources to spread the “infection.” These analogies have clear implications for social change. If religion is a virus or a parasite that exploits a set of cognitive by-products for its benefit, not ours, then we ought to rid ourselves of it. Scientists , humanists, and the small number of others who have escaped infection and are still able to reason must work together to break the spell, lift the delusion, and bring about the end of faith.” To be clear, Professor Wilson is not saying that religion is here to stay. He is saying that our tendency towards groupishness (including religion) is an outcome of evolution and that in thinking about religion we have to recognize that. Once you understand that perspective, you begin to see how science and religion can finally start talking to each other. Professor Wilson is president of the Evolution Institute (http://evolution-institute.org ) and SUNY Distinguished Professor at Binghamton University. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way we Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. His next book, titled Does Altruism Exist? will be published in 2015 by Yale University Press. The Books Professor Wilson mentioned were Complexity and the art of public policy by David Colander and Roland Kupers, Give and Take by Adam Grant and Evil Genes by Barbara Oakley.