Saturday, July 18, 2020

Religion as a force for natural selection

Buddhist temple, Singapore (Wikicommons – Cattan2011). In Buddhism, family is valued over self, but not strangers over family. Christianity goes farther: strangers are valued over self and family.

Originally, and even today in much of the world, social and economic activity is organized mostly by small groups of related individuals. As a result, a society cannot realize its full potential as it grows larger and encompasses people who are less related to each other. This is the “large society problem.” It has been alleviated by making kinship less important and, conversely, by encouraging forms of sociality that include everyone, and not just close kin. Northwest Europeans and East Asians have gone the farthest down that path.

In a large society, a social norm is less situational and more universal; it transcends the situation and its actors. The same applies to norm-breaking. To break a norm is to offend not only a particular person but also a general principle. In time, the principle may be sanctified, thus becoming even more inviolable. Offenders incur the wrath of the entire community, and not just the victim's family (Berman, 1974). Eventually, these reified norms coalesce into "religion."

Religion is key to the cultural environment of large societies and forces humans to adapt to it, just as they had to adapt to the natural environment of small societies. Unlike the natural environment, however, religion is a human creation. We have conceived an idealized vision of what humans should do, and this vision has rewarded those who do right and punished those who do wrong. In short, we have given religion the powers of natural selection. 

This point is made by the authors of a recent study:

Cultural evolution research on religion has highlighted the role religions play in enforcing large-scale cooperation [...]. Religious beliefs that expand what gods know and care about beyond local concerns and the local group, and increase gods' ability to punish rule breakers, may have contributed to sustaining cooperation at larger scales [...]. These beliefs create the perception that one's bad actions will be punished supernaturally, even if undetected by others, and can expand the circle of cooperation to anonymous strangers. Religions that lay out rules for cooperative behavior, and systems to enforce that cooperation, may create more stable and successful groups [...], perhaps increasing the ability of these groups and their religious beliefs to survive and spread. (Willard et al. 2020)

Thus, over time, there has thus been selection for individuals who respond to religion and willingly comply with its norms. Twin studies show that religiosity is 25 to 45% heritable. As is always the case, the non-heritable component includes everything else, like errors in understanding the question and collecting the data. We therefore have a substantial propensity to learn and obey social norms.

This propensity doesn't act alone. A growing child will develop it to a greater extent in a religious environment than in a non-religious one. The kind of religion also makes a difference.

Christianity encourages altruism

Gene-religion interaction has been shown at the gene DRD4. People are made more susceptible to social norms by the 2R allele or the 7R allele and less susceptible by the 4R allele (Sasaki et al., 2013). Furthermore, this susceptibility interacts with religion in the development of altruism. Using American and East Asian participants, Sasaki et al. (2013) found that 2R and 7R carriers were more altruistic than non-carriers if previously primed by the task of making a sentence from religious-sounding words. Priming had no effect on non-carriers.

These findings were partially replicated by Jiang et al. (2015). Among Singaporeans of Chinese descent, 2R carriers were more altruistic than non-carriers among male Christians, while being the same as non-carriers among women, Taoists, and Buddhists. The authors argue that men have more room for improvement because women start off caring more about others. The authors further suggest that Christianity better supports altruism by offering fellowship, comprehensible texts, and regular activities. Thus, if people are already more susceptible to social norms, they will become more altruistic if their environment is Christian. If, however, their environment is non-Christian, they will be no more altruistic than anyone else.

Because Christianity is better at developing this innate potential, and because this potential differs from one individual to another, altruism will vary much more among Christians than among non-Christians. A Christian society will have far more "super altruists" as a proportion of its population. This can be advantageous. Such people were once priests, pastors, nuns, philanthropists and the like. Before the rise of the welfare state, they provided valuable "collective goods," like education, moral guidance, and care for the sick and elderly. But what happens when a Christian society becomes post-Christian? For a while, there will still be lots of super altruists, but they will no longer be priests or pastors. They will become social justice warriors.

Taoism and Buddhism encourages veneration of ancestors and support for one’s in-group

Willard et al. (2020) studied how different religions affect prosocial behavior among Singaporeans of Chinese descent. Certain religious beliefs seemed to be key:

A moral afterlife

Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity all share a belief that good deeds will be rewarded and evil deeds punished in an afterlife. When cued to think about the afterlife, participants from all three religions expressed a greater willingness to assist strangers.

Veneration of ancestors

Veneration of ancestors is an older stage of religious belief. It began in small societies but can be used to make large societies more workable, as long as everyone shares some common ancestry—or at least a belief in common ancestry.

Participants from all three religions believed that ancestors should be venerated, but this belief was supported much more by Buddhism and Taoism than by Christianity. When participants were cued to think about ancestor veneration, the Buddhists and Taoists expressed a greater willingness to assist their family and their in-group than did participants in the control condition. This effect was absent in the Christians: in fact, they became more willing to assist strangers:

When cued to think about moralized afterlife beliefs, Buddhists showed larger increases across almost all questions than Christians in what they believed was the normative amount to give. This effect is driven by Buddhists claiming weaker norms of giving than Christians in the neutral conditions on many of the questions. Though the moralized afterlife prime produced a greater change here, it brings both groups up to relatively similar normative amounts [...]. The ancestor condition generated weaker prosocial effects for Buddhists and Taoists on allocations to strangers than for Christians. In fact, the Christians showed a stronger effect here than anticipated, and the effects of the ancestor condition were stronger than those of the moralized afterlife condition on all questions. (Willard et al. 2020)


Religion encourages selflessness, but to varying degrees and to varying levels. In Buddhism and Taoism, family is valued over self, but not strangers over family. Christianity goes farther; strangers are valued over self and family. The Christian religion is thus more useful in large societies whose members don’t even pretend to share common ancestry.


Berman, H. J. (1974). The Interaction of Law and Religion. Nashville, Abingdon Press.

Bouchard, T.J. Jr., (2004). Genetic influence on human psychological traits: A survey. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13: 148-151.

Jiang, Y., R. Bachner-Melman, S.H. Chew, and R.P. Ebstein. (2015). Dopamine D4 receptor gene and religious affiliation correlate with dictator game altruism in males and not females: evidence for gender-sensitive gene × culture interaction. Frontiers in Neuroscience 24 September.

Lewis, G.J. and T.C. Bates. (2013). Common genetic influences underpin religiosity, community integration, and existential uncertainty. Journal of Research in Personality 47: 398-405.

Sasaki, J.Y., H.S. Kim, T. Mojaverian, L.D.S Kelley, I.Y. Park, and S. Janušonis. (2013). Religion priming differentially increases prosocial behavior among variants of the dopamine D4 receptor (DRD4) gene. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 8(2): 209-215.

Willard, A.K., A. Baimel, H. Turpin, J. Jong, and H. Whitehouse. (2020). Rewarding the good and punishing the bad: The role of karma and afterlife beliefs in shaping moral norms. Evolution and Human Behavior in press.


Anonymous said...

it would be interesting a study on islam and jewish religion with regars to in-group preference.
just to remark: buddhism originally was ANTI-family urging the novice/monk to leave his family behind at their own (a central objection in ancient indian/asian societies against buddhism) and was strictly non-religious being pasively neutral towards the ruling hinduist religion(s). aftwards it changed its nature into a popular eclectic popular religious mixture :)) said...

Christianity valuing Strangers more than Family is historically false.
In the Bible God tell the Jews to be kind with strangers because they were strangers in Egypt.
The message is "do not mistreat people because they are not your people".

It is twisted in putting strangers (often hostiles) ahead of your family only because there are groups profiting from this (socialists). Priests have no families and have lost their connections with their community. So they are madly looking for some reason to exist.

Peter Frost said...


It would also be interesting to see whether Orthodox Christians value strangers over family. (There are no appreciable numbers of Orthodox Christians among Singaporean Chinese).


That may be historically false. Today, it seems to be true even among "conservative" Christians.

Sean said...

I don't know how you feel about group selection. AOTBE the tighter group wins I think, so one could see the holy men imposing uniformity as having a function irrespective of the content of the beliefs. In his book the Goodness Paradox, Wrangham says in uncontacted tribes living in their original mode of existence, there was harmony within the villages but neighbouring villages were feared, loathed, and fought.

The impression I get is that internal cohesiveness goes with external hostility. We live in a world of states, that is the level at which a conflict can appear.The US limiting the extent of acceptable beliefs making for a tighter group. Hostility to China is growing at the same time there is a new faith being imposed on everyone in the West. said...

neighboring villages compete for resources and so they MUST be feared.
and villages with people unable to cooperate will fall against villages with people able to cooperate.

When the external pressure fall, the competition is inside the village with the people inside the village and people become selfish and uncooperative and aggressive.

There is this experiment (Universe 25) with mouses without natural selective pressure from external sources: abundant food, space, mild climate, etc. It all went to hell and no one could leave. And they all went extinct because they become unable to raise new mouses.

Religion not only create a set of rules to keep harmony but create a "virtual" enemy to rally against. We are the apex predators, so we needs to have an enemy to challenge us continually or we will fall in the same trap.

Sean said...

"Religion not only create a set of rules to keep harmony but create a "virtual" enemy to rally against. We are the apex predators, so we needs to have an enemy to challenge us continually or we will fall in the same trap." I don't know about that, in the Thirty Years War Protestant Sweden was backed by Catholic France. And according to Jane Goodall, chimps make war on other groups and take their territory. They even have a special swaggering walk (march?) for when they collectively go looking for trouble.

The Yamanaya seem to have had a religion that revolved around wolves, but in practice they were killing all the men and taking their women, or perhaps they just had the technology to do it. Chagnon said Yanomamö warfare was about villages stealing each others women. It is not living in the real world to pretend external dangers are "virtual" creations. The same goes for state aggression, thermonuclear weapons notwithstanding, judging by the fact that the USSR went to vast expense to have 10:1 in tube artillery along the border with West Germany by the 80s.

Peter does not seem to think much of Wrangham's theories especially the one about brain size reducing as a side effect of domestication (you can get much of it on Youtube lectures). Anyway, Wrangham's Goodness Paradox book--which I have--talks about an uncontacted tribes in New Guinea, and he says the first people to study them found each village collectively hostile to strangers, yet individually peaceful with killing within the village considered unthinkable. Those who violated that rule were done away with by a mob of their fellow villagers.

The genetic effect of Christianity religion of peace is pacification and growing disinclination to fight. My favourite example of this perception is Byzantine Iconoclasm in which holy relics were flung in the sea and celibate monks were forced to parade hand in hand with women in the Hippodrome. It was ordered by the Emperor after Byzantium suffered military reverses.

By my way of thinking priests and nuns have little in common with Social Justice Warriors, who I see as epitomised by the character of 'Panama Ranger' in Raspail's The Camp Of The Saints. He is described as extremely good looking and charismatic in addition to being fearless: taking on a tank with a flaming bottle of petrol. The mice who could not breed were ugly mice, being genetically degenerate. That girl who threw a Molotov at a NYPD car and is going to get life for it is good looking. This is collective violence released in the genetic elite of a society, as if it was a against a threat to the wider group.

If extra judicial killing of a man who was being violent within the group is the root of altruistic punishment, then SJW are like the ordinary villagers who for most of human history when they have had enough of a homicidal member of their group, unceremoniously dispose of him. That 'we can't trust this murderer not to do it again so he has to go' evolved disposition has been tapped into, and the genius of BLM is to have identified the police collectively as the rogue male.

Modern commercial states were where Protestantism came from, it is probably closer to the activist vigilante spirit that the Catholic church, it certainly seems more orientated to success in the world. No Purgatory for Protestants so sinners are beyond redemption. They regarded Catholics as not Christians at all. Kevin MacDonald in his A People That Shall Dwell Alone described the Puritan mentality and their high rates of public violence.

Sean said...

Comment 1 Anon, Buddhism is like a lot of the so called wisdom of the East inasmuch it aims at ceasing to care very much about anything. Evangelical Christians are taught they might burn in Hell for all eternity, or not. No middle way; the very opposite, as with a personal relationship with God. The Evangelicals are making headway all over the world with people brought up in Eastern religions (and Catholicism) who want a less tepid mode of existence. As I understand it Jewish religion looks forward to practical earthly reward of God's people, not an afterlife. Are Jews for Jesus making many converts?

Michel Rouzic said...

It would be interesting to compare how different religions have affected the evolution of otherwise similar peoples. I'm thinking of the Levantines who had Christians continuously since the beginning of Christianity and Muslims since also roughly the beginning of Islam, come from roughly the same stock and despite living together for ~45 generations have had fairly limited intermarriage, all while having comparable occupations (unlike a caste system) and living in a similar environment. I'm also saying this because being in Lebanon gave me the impression that Christian areas, mostly in the countryside and not necessarily very rich, were nicer and better taken care of than nearby Muslim areas, and that observation was corroborated by locals. I suspect that there is a difference between Islam and Christianity in how it handles charity for the poor that might have made it easier for people who didn't pull their weight to multiply in Islam (Umar ibn al-Khattab's rule seems like it was heavy on the undiscriminating handouts), but that's just a hunch, I'm not really qualified to properly evaluate how their different approaches has lead to different selection pressures.

tomR said...

Religion in Ancient Egypt might as well be a reason they didn't end up ruling the entire ancient world. They just overspent on religion, which meant under spending on warfare. Ancient (pagan) Romans were more pragmatic - they funded stuff mainly after victory, which is after they got a lot of money.

Santo's said...

All mythologies encourage altruism at some extent... paradoxically or not, christian based societies have historically invaded, killed, pilled and destroyed many societies and peoples. What an unusual way to be altruistic... seems majority of christian ones are more hypocritical than truly altruistic. And also many so called progressivists are crypto christians (or believers) and indefinited believers, some of them are very influential figures.

Religion is mostly based on emotional intrusion in pretend to be objective perception, basically irrationality. It's useful (for whom?) because it's part of domestication package humans has been directed. But, in pure intelectual terms, religion is an absolute corruption of human objective understanding of reality. Crudely speaking it's a stupidity by perception, a wrong answer in intelligence test.