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How did religion evolve?

Feb. 8, 2010
Courtesy Cell Press
and World Science staff

Re­li­gion evolved as a byprod­uct of pre-existing men­tal ca­pa­ci­ties, and not be­cause it ful­filled a spe­cif­ic func­tion of its own—though it can fa­cil­i­tate coop­era­t­ion in so­ci­e­ty, a study con­cludes.

Why re­li­gion emerged among early hu­mans re­mains a source of con­ten­tion among schol­ars. Many sci­en­tists be­lieve re­li­gion is ul­ti­mately based in the brain, but that still leaves un­clear how and why these be­hav­iors orig­i­nat­ed and how they may have been shaped dur­ing ev­o­lu­tion. Some arch­aeo­logists think re­li­gion came about partly as a stra­tegy by some peo­ple to grab pow­er, sim­ply by claim­ing some sort of se­cret know­ledge.

Re­li­gion evolved as a byprod­uct of pre-existing men­tal ca­pa­ci­ties, and not be­cause it ful­filled a spe­cif­ic func­tion of its own—though it can fa­cil­i­tate coop­era­t­ion in so­ci­e­ty, a study con­cludes.


The new stu­dy, pub­lished Feb. 8 in the re­search jour­nal Trends in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ences, takes a some­what diff­er­ent track, ex­plor­ing the link be­tween mor­al­ity and re­li­gion.

“Some schol­ars claim that re­li­gion evolved as an adapta­t­ion to solve the prob­lem of coop­era­t­ion among ge­net­ic­ally un­re­lat­ed in­di­vid­u­als, while oth­ers pro­pose that re­li­gion emerged as a by-prod­uct of pre-existing cog­ni­tive ca­pa­ci­ties,” said study co-author Ilkka Pyysi­ainen of the Hel­sin­ki Col­le­gi­um for Ad­vanced Stud­ies in Fin­land. 

Pyysi­ainen and a co-author, ev­o­lu­tion­ary psy­chol­o­gist Marc Hauser Har­vard Uni­vers­ity, re­viewed the two com­pet­ing the­o­ries us­ing the prin­ci­ples of what they call ex­pe­ri­men­tal mor­al psy­chol­o­gy. 

“Re­li­gion is linked to mor­al­ity in dif­fer­ent ways,” said Hauser. “For some, there is no mor­al­ity with­out re­li­gion, while oth­ers see re­li­gion as merely one way of ex­press­ing one’s mor­al in­tu­itions.” But past stud­ies, the au­thors said, show that peo­ple of dif­fer­ing re­li­gion or no re­li­gion show si­m­i­lar mor­al judg­ments when asked to com­ment on un­fa­mil­iar mor­al dilem­mas. That sug­gests in­tu­i­tive judg­ments of right and wrong work in­de­pend­ently of ex­plic­it re­li­gious com­mit­ments, the re­search­ers ar­gued.

“This sup­ports the the­o­ry that re­li­gion did not orig­i­nally emerge as a bi­o­log­i­cal adapta­t­ion for coop­era­t­ion, but evolved as a sep­a­rate by-prod­uct of pre-existing cog­ni­tive func­tions that evolved from non-re­li­gious func­tions,” said Pyysi­ainen. “How­ever, al­though it ap­pears as if coop­era­t­ion is made pos­si­ble by men­tal mech­a­nisms that are not spe­cif­ic to re­li­gion, re­li­gion can play a role in fa­cil­i­tating and sta­bi­liz­ing coop­era­t­ion be­tween groups.”

This might help to ex­plain the com­plex as­socia­t­ion be­tween mor­al­ity and re­li­gion, the sci­en­tists added. “It seems that in many cul­tures re­li­gious con­cepts and be­liefs have be­come the stand­ard way of con­cep­tu­al­ mor­al in­tu­itions. Al­though, as we dis­cuss in our pa­per, this link is not a nec­es­sary one, many peo­ple have be­come so ac­cus­tomed to us­ing it, that crit­i­cism tar­geted at re­li­gion is ex­perienced as a fun­da­men­tal threat to our mor­al ex­is­tence,” said Hauser.


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Religion evolved as a byproduct of pre-existing mental capacities, and not because it fulfilled a specific function of its own—though it does facilitate cooperation in society, a study concludes. Why religion emerged among early humans remains a source of contention among scholars. Many scientists believe religion is ultimately based in the brain, but that still leaves unclear how and why these behaviors originated and how they may have been shaped during evolution. The new study, published Feb. 8 in the research journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, explores the link between morality and religion. “Some scholars claim that religion evolved as an adaptation to solve the problem of cooperation among genetically unrelated individuals, while others propose that religion emerged as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities,” said study co-author Ilkka Pyysiainen of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in Finland. Pyysiainen and a co-author, evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser Harvard University, reviewed the competing theories using the principles of what they call experimental moral psychology. “Religion is linked to morality in different ways,” said Hauser. “For some, there is no morality without religion, while others see religion as merely one way of expressing one’s moral intuitions.” But past studies, the authors said, show that people of differing religion or no religion show similar moral judgments when asked to comment on unfamiliar moral dilemmas. That suggests intuitive judgments of right and wrong work independently of explicit religious commitments, the researchers argued. “This supports the theory that religion did not originally emerge as a biological adaptation for cooperation, but evolved as a separate by-product of pre-existing cognitive functions that evolved from non-religious functions,” said Pyysiainen. “However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups.” This might help to explain the complex association between morality and religion, the scientists added. “It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence,” said Hauser.