The evolution of religion and morality: Researchers explore cultural evolutionary roots of religion

Graphic: Caroline Norman

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture (HECC) have received a $3 million grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a project “aimed at exploring the cultural evolutionary roots of religion.”

The Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC) project brings together scholars, both local and international (partner universities include Oxford and Harvard), from a range of disciplines. Researchers from the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences will focus on understanding the complex origins of religious behaviour and morality.

The HECC’s purpose, according to its website, is “to create a research and training hub that will simultaneously advance understanding of the human species within the framework of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and encourage evolutionary scientists to incorporate cultural learning and cultural evolution in explanations of human thought and behaviour.”

The CERC’s primary question, whether religious beliefs and behaviours are linked to within-group solidarity and cooperation, will be the focus of research, from which related questions about cognition and historical/cultural processes may emerge.

UBC researcher and primary investigator of the CERC, Edward Slingerland, calls for consilience between the humanities and the sciences to properly engage the project’s research. In a recent paper titled “Religious Studies as a Life Science” (coauthored by Joseph Bulbulia), Slingerland states, “progress in the study of religion requires extensive collaboration between life scientists and classical scholars of religion.”

Slingerland adopts this view on the study of religion, noting, “while preliminary results from the biology of religion are impressive, much of the science of religion is conducted by scholars who have only a casual acquaintance with religious facts.”

These biologists of religion include Richard Dawkins, who labels religion as a “meme” (i.e., a cultural unit of evolution) or collection of memes. Memes, which include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,” are a possible explanation for the emergence of religion or belief in god.

“God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value or infective power,” claims Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.

Others such as David S. Wilson have theorized religion as the product of multi-level selection, a biological position that claims natural selection works on multiple levels, such as the gene, the individual, and the group.

Slingerland notes three evolutionary models of religion proposed by biologists of religion. Some researchers understand religions as “cultural by-products” and consider religious traits to be “by-products of functional designs.” Dawkins’ memetic theory of religion falls into this group. Others view religion as somehow conferring individual adaptations for cooperation, in which religiosity and associated characteristics are thought to possess survival value for the individual organism. Lastly, the “cultural group adaptations” view asserts that “religious cultures evolve to benefit religious groups.” Wilson’s idea of multi-level selection would fall under this third category.

The CERC is dedicated to bridging an overplayed dichotomy between science and other fields of inquiry. Slingerland states, “biological approaches to religion are not merely optional.” However, classically trained scholars too must inform scientists, as Slingerland cautions, “a science without facts is not a science.”

Ultimately, the CERC is an excellent example of multidisciplinary research and strong Canadian scholarship in a global initiative. These researchers are digging at a fertile bed of knowledge that requires both the modern tools of science and, despite those who deem them outmoded, the tools of religious studies to penetrate and extract rich facts about religion and morality.

The study of religious behaviour and morality provides insight into one of life’s endless forms—the human mind—to which illumination can only make it all the more beautiful and wonderful.

The CERC is expected to report its results in 2018.