Evolutionary Psychology: Application to the evolution of religion

scientiffic reconstruction of a Homo erectus

The way our mind evolved in prehistorical times affects how we approach religion and culture now.

Drawing on the key concepts of evolutionary psychology discussed last time, we now look at the procedure and applications for the evolution of religion.

As for the procedure of evolutionary psychology, Tooby and Cosmides (1989) provide a six-step method, summarized as follows:

  1. identify a puzzling present-day human behavior,
  2. relate it to the environment of the Pleistocene in order to discover how it was adaptive in the past,
  3. analyze the cognitive processing problems that would have to be overcome to accomplish adaptive functioning,
  4. determine the design features any adaptation would require to solve these problems, and develop a model of the cognitive program structure,
  5. eliminate alternative candidate models via experimentation and field observation, and
  6. compare the model to present-day human behaviors.

Applying it to evolution of religion

Applying this method to religion, it becomes possible to see religions as maladaptive, byproducts of some past adaptation with little or no current adaptive advantage.

This sort of reasoning allows a reply to Durkheim and company that religion may serve no function at all.  In fact, it may be detrimental in our modern environment.  Religious change, then, may be no more than the result of innate psychological modules playing out in response to changes in the environment.

Contrary to the predictions of sociobiology and behavioral ecology, no current reproductive advantage need be discovered, save under Pleistocene conditions.  Rather, it is only necessary to link environmental changes to unchanged adaptations that were once advantageous.  In other words, new religious behaviors could be the same old psychological tendencies responding in altered ways to new environmental conditions.


This counters the problem of behavioral ecology, which made no place for sub-optimal behavior.  On the other hand, it poses a new problem in its place: evolutionary psychology relies on positing past adaptations, but the difficulty of identifying adaptations is well-documented (Rose and Lauder, 1996).  Though Laland and Brown point to some useful resources from genetic evolution, including Sinervo and Basolo (1996) and Orzack and Sober (2001), the challenge is significant.

Another major criticism that has been leveled is that evolutionary psychology may over-emphasize the domain-specificity of the mind.  While quick, efficient modules may offer some advantage, flexibility may be even more adaptive (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Such would be particularly likely if our ancestors needed to survive in a wide variety of environments.

This leads us to a further criticism of evolutionary psychology: it makes considerable assumptions in postulating conditions of the EEA.  Our Pleistocene ancestors inhabited not only African savannah but also rivers, deserts, mountains, the arctic, and so on—a wide variety of conditions.  Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that all mental adaptations occurred during our most recent phase of evolution; indeed, many may have evolved long before Homo sapiens or Homo erectus, going back as far as invertebrate ancestors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Thus, there are significant theoretical problems to be overcome in postulating the non-adaptiveness of certain behaviors, such as religion, based on adaptive lag.  Another approach which allows for non-adaptiveness, but for different reasons, is memetics.

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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