Religion Solved, Scientist Says

One of my favorite blogs, GetReligion.org, posted about a very strange story from ABC News , headlined “Religion is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.”  James Dow, an anthropologist at Oakland University, claims to have written a software program that explains how religion evolved.  But, as always, the devil is in the details – or, more accurately, the devil is in the presuppositions.  Here’s how ABC News described the set-up of Dow’s software:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people  those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

 As one of the commenters on the GetReligion post noted, it’s interesting the subtle jump that Dow makes from “unverifiable” to “unreal” information.  Note, too, his clear distinction between “believers” and “non-believers,” when the reality of personal belief is a bit cloudier.  Further, when you consider the communications of actual religious teachers, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Francis of Assissi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., and not hypothetical prehistoric figures like Dow does, it becomes clear that they are not merely “communicating the unreal.”

It’s an interesting experiment, but methinks that Dow could benefit from some philosophy to clarify his terms and examine his presuppositions a bit more closely.  At least he’s upfront about what he is assuming.

Here’s the link to Dow’s actual published study, Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?, published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 11, no. 2 2. 

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