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The aspect of religion that catches the Darwinian Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, is its profligate wastefulness and its extravagant display of baroque uselessness. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’esprits and no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion, i.e. religion is not some weird anomaly. Consequently, Dawkins reflects on this a priori affront to Darwinism.

To illustrate the central idea an animal example is used to drive the point home: Moths fly into candle flames, and it doesn’t look like an accident. They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves. We could label it “self-immolation behavior” and wonder how Darwinian natural selection could possibly favour it. Entomologists (bug-hunters) theorize that night-flying moths use a distant light source, the moon, as a guidance system. They navigate using a constant flight angle to the moon. In cities, where there are many closer light sources, moths become confused and their attempts to maintain a constant flight angle to close light sources cause them to spiral around the light source. The point is that we see only moths hurling themselves at our lights, and we ask the wrong questions. Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead, we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining an automatic fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we only notice on the occasion when it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It never was right to call it suicide; it’s just the application of a good rule of thumb.

Religious behaviour may be a misfiring too, an unfortunate manifestation of an underlying psychological propensity that in other circumstances was once useful. So what is the equivalent to using the parallel rays from the moon as a useful compass? More than any other species, we survive be the accumulated experience of previous generations. Theoretically, children might learn from experience not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains with the rule of thumb: Believe whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents, obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. The argument about child brains and religion is that natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. And this very quality automatically makes them vulnerable to infection by mind viruses. For excellent survival reasons, child brains need to trust parents and trust elders whom their parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the “truster” has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot tell that “If you swim in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles” is good advice but “If you don’t sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, the crops will fail” is bad advice. They both sound the same. Both are advice from a trusted source, and both are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.

Dawkin’s final conclusion: Darwinian selection sets up childhood brains with a tendency to believe their elders. It sets up brains with a tendency to imitate, hence indirectly to spread rumors, spread urban legends, and believe religions, but given that genetic selection has set up brains of this kind, they then provide the equivalent of a new kind of nongenetic heredity, which might form the basis for a new kind of epidemiology, and perhaps even a new kind of nongenetic Darwinian selection. I believe that religion is one of a group of phenomena explained by this kind of nongenetic epidemiology, with the possible admixture of nongenetic Darwinian selection.

Dawkins' answer to the question “What use is religion?” is that religion has no survival value for individual human beings, nor for the benefit of their genes. The benefit, if there is any, is to religion itself. Cheers.

Thanx to Steffen H. (via email) for that pointer.

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