Fellow Cornellian Allen MacNeill has announced that he is taking on another controversial topic this summer, with a course titled Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?. At the heart of the course is a central question – “Is religion adaptive”:
COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).
In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.
To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation. And indeed, in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of the capacity for religion has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering three alternative hypotheses: that the capacity for religion is (1) an evolutionary adaptation, (2) a side-effect of an evolutionary adaptation, or (3) a “mind virus” with no direct evolutionary implications. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.
Obviously, I take an atheist position – that religion was at one point either a beneficial adaptation or a consequence of other cultural phenomenon that were adaptive (albeit very imperfect adaptations); and that in today’s society, many still cling to religion because we are predisposed to be receptive to religious assertions, and to falsely detect higher agencies. (that’s my understanding of evolution of the mind, in any case).
MacNeill closes with a disclaimer of sorts, to keep discussions topical:
We may also talk about whether or not God (or gods, or whatever) exist, but that will not be the primary focus of the course, nor will I allow it to become the primary focus of our discussions. This course isn’t about the existence or non-existence of God (or Darwin or me). It’s about whether or not the ability to believe in things like God (or gods, or whatever) has adaptive consequences. It’s a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for as interesting a summer seminar as last year’s was.
I definitely have to hand it to Allen for coming up with outstanding topics for seminar classes.
Update: Interestingly, a very anti-Darwinism blog takes objection to the topic of a course on the question of whether the capacity for religious experience is adaptive (pingback link in the comments, #2). This same blog rants, in an earlier post, that Darwinism leads to immorality – it’s quite entertaining, from the side of both false assertions and the curiousity of why this blogger addresses modern biology under the strawman label of “Darwinism.” (why ignore genetics, which is very post-Darwin?)