Evolutionary Psychology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Bizarre though it may seem, phrenology wasn’t all that far off in one respect at least: the brain has specific domains.

The next approach to the evolution of religion under investigation is evolutionary psychology, a field that studies current psychology based on past evolution.

Adaptive lag

Evolutionary psychologists criticize behavioral ecology for confusing adaptive behavior with adaptations (Laland & Brown, 2002).  An adaptive behavior is one well-suited to its current environment, whereas an adaptation is a genetic change leading to increased fitness.

It is possible for an adaptation to become maladaptive when the environment changes.  This is due to adaptive lag, or the time it takes for genetic change to catch up with environmental change.

Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness

According to evolutionary psychologists, many human adaptations were adaptive in the environment in which they evolved, i.e. the Pleistocene era, but now we live in a different world.  It is entirely reasonable, then, for behaviors optimal in the Pleistocene to be sub-optimal in the present.  They evolved for their Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), not for the environment of today.

Domain specificity

This critique already reveals much about the evolutionary psychology approach.  The key concepts are the adaptive behavior/adaptation distinction, adaptive lag, and the EEA.  A further key concept, which has not yet been discussed, is domain specificity.  Evolutionary psychologists hold that the mind contains modules designed to find quick and efficient solutions to certain problems of significance to our ancestors.  Basically, the mind is like a Swiss army knife, each tool of which is an adaptation suited to reproductive advantage in the Pleistocene (Laland & Brown, 2002).

This notion of domain specificity is supported by research in a parallel field of study: the cognitive science of religion.  Inspired by insights from Chomsky’s theory of transformational generative grammar (TGG), which posits that the mind’s ability to produce sentences never heard before requires an innate language device in the mind, cognitive scientists postulate mental modularity in much the same manner as evolutionary psychologists.

For example, Pascal Boyer (2002) suggests that the mind is predisposed to categorize objects into a shortlist of classes with corresponding attributes.  Objects with unexpected attributes, such as a tree that talks, are therefore surprising and memorable.  An idea such as the Old Testament’s burning bush is thus more likely to be retained in memory and passed on to others than less remarkable ideas.

In a similarly cognitive vein, Stewart Guthrie (1995) has proposed an innate human tendency to perceive agents in the environment, in order to explain anthropomorphism in religion.  These findings from the cognitive science of religion parallel the concept of domain specificity of evolutionary psychology, and expand its applications in the field of religion.

In the next post, we’ll apply these concepts to the evolution of religion.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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