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Does Evolution Favor Religion?

By Mark Vernon

I was at a conference just recently, where we told tales of vampire bats that share their blood, bacteria that work together, and monkeys that ease group tensions by making love. It set me thinking about the evolution of morality, for there is one story of it that’s often told, and it begins with a problem. Natural selection favors the best-adapted individual: it’s called survival of fittest. It explains why we feel fear or lust. But how can this ‘selfish’ account of natural selection explain moral emotions like altruism that might lead the individual to abandon their self-interest in favor of others, even to the point of self-sacrifice?

The problem is resolved by pointing out that it’s only the gene that is ‘selfish.’ That take allows for circumstances in which the survival of the individual may not best serve the transmission of the gene. For example, the interests of the gene may be better served if the individual is sacrificed for the sake of the group, when the group is composed of kin—other carriers of the gene. That’d explain why parents will surrender all for the benefit of their children. Alternatively, the gene may be best served if the individual is prepared to form cooperative relationships with others, on the basis that if I scratch your back, you might scratch mine.

Blessed Mistakes

Now, this story accounts for many instances of kin and reciprocal altruism in the natural world. However, it comes unstuck with humans. We look odd from an evolutionary perspective because we will sacrifice ourselves for individuals with whom we don’t share our genes, and when there’s no prospect of the favor being returned. Call it our Good Samaritan tendency.

Read the original article at: Religion Dispatches

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