How Sexual Choice Can Explain Religion

In the Mating Mind, there was one section titled “Creative Ideologies Versus Reliable Knowledge” that I found particularly fascinating.  According to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, any animal with delusions about reality should not thrive. How, then, can Darwinian ideas explain the human institution of religion? Consider the following passage.

While natural selection for survival may have endowed us with pragmatically accurate perceptual systems, mate choice may not have cared about the accuracy of our more complex belief systems. Sexual selection could have favored ideologies that were entertaining, exaggerated, exciting, dramatic, pleasant, comforting, narratively coherent, aesthetically balanced, wittily comic, or nobly tragic. It could have shaped our minds to be amusing and attractive, but deeply fallible. As long as our ideologies do not undermine our more pragmatic adaptations, their epistemological frailty does not matter to evolution.

All of those things come to mind when I think about human religion. We’re suckers for narratives and that’s why you should be suspicious of stories. In my opinion, the following passage illustrates this point quite compellingly.

Imagine some young hominids huddling around a Pleistocene campfire, enjoying their newly evolved language ability. Two males get into an argument about the nature of the world, and start holding forth, displaying their ideologies.

The hominid named Carl proposes: “We are mortal, fallible primates who survive on this fickle savanna only because cluster in these jealousy-ridden groups. Everywhere we have ever traveled is just a tiny, random corner of a vast continent on an unimaginably huge sphere spinning in a vacuum. The sphere has traveled billions and billions of times around a flaming ball of gas, which will eventually blow up to incinerate our empty, fossilized skulls. I have discovered several compelling lines of evidence in support of these hypotheses….”

The hominid named Candide interrupts: “No, I believe we are immortal spirits gifted with these beautiful bodies because the great god Wug chose us as his favorite creatures. Wug blessed us with this fertile paradise that provides just enough challenges to keep things interesting. Behind the moon, mystic nightingales sing our praises, some of us more than others. Above the azure dome of the sky the smiling sun warms our hearts. After we grow old and enjoy the babbling our our grandchildren, Wug will lift us from these bodies to join our friends to eat roasted gazelle and dance eternally. I know these things because Wug picked me to receive this special wisdom in a dream last night.”

Which ideology do you suppose would prove more sexually attractive?  We are largely the descendants of Candide, which doesn’t bode well for those of us interested in the truth.

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2 Comments on “How Sexual Choice Can Explain Religion”

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