Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Religion

By Wilson, David Sloan | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Religion


Wilson, David Sloan, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


RICHARD DAWKINS AND I SHARE MUCH IN common. We are both biologists by training who have written widely about evolutionary theory. We share an interest in culture as an evolutionary process in its own right. We are both atheists in our personal convictions who have written books on religion. In Darwin's Cathedral I attempted to contribute to the relatively new field of evolutionary religious studies. When Dawkins' The God Delusion was published I naturally assumed that he was basing his critique of religion on the scientific study of religion from an evolutionary perspective. I regret to report otherwise. He has not done any original work on the subject and he has not fairly represented the work of his colleagues. Hence this critique of The God Delusion and the larger issues at stake.

Where We Agree and Where we Part Company

In The God Delusion Dawkins makes it clear that he loathes religion for its intolerance, blind faith, cruelty, extremism, abuse, and prejudice. He attributes these problems to religion and thinks that the world would be a better place without it. Given recent events in the Middle East and even here in America, it is understandable why he might draw such a conclusion, but the question is: What's evolution got to do with it?

Dawkins and I agree that evolutionary theory provides a powerful framework for studying religion, and we even agree on some of the details, so it is important to pinpoint exactly where we part company. Evolutionists employ a number of hypotheses to study any trait, even something as mundane as the spots on a guppy. Is it an adaptation that evolved by natural selection? If so, did it evolve by benefiting whole groups, compared to other groups, or individuals compared to other individuals within groups? With cultural evolution there is a third possibility. Since cultural traits pass from person to person, they bear an intriguing resemblance to disease organisms. Perhaps they evolve to enhance their own transmission without benefiting human individuals or groups.

If the trait is not an adaptation, then it can nevertheless persist in the population for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it was adaptive in the past but not the present, such as our eating habits, which make sense in the food-scarce environment of our ancestors but not with a McDonald's on every corner. Perhaps the trait is a byproduct of another adaptation. For example, moths use celestial light sources to orient their flight (an adaptation), but this causes them to spiral toward earthly light sources such as a streetlamp or a flame (a costly byproduct), as Dawkins so beautifully recounts in The God Delusion. Finally, the trait might be selectively neutral and persist in the population by genetic or cultural drift.

Dawkins and I agree that these major hypotheses provide an excellent framework for organizing the study of religion, which by itself is an important achievement. We also agree that the hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Evolution is a messy, complicated process, like the creation of laws and sausages, and all of the major hypotheses might be relevant to some degree. Nevertheless, real progress requires determining which hypotheses are most important for the evolution of particular traits. The spots on a guppy might seem parochial, but they are famous among biologists as a case study of evolutionary analysis. They can be explained primarily as adaptations in response to two powerful selective forces: predators remove the most conspicuous males from the population, whereas female guppies mate with the most conspicuous males. The interaction between these two selection pressures explains an impressive amount of detail about guppy spots--why males have them and females don't, why males are more colorful in habitats without predators, and even why the spots are primarily red when the predators are crustaceans (whose visual system is blind to the color red), as opposed to fish (whose visual system is sensitive to the color red).

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