28 June 2007

Under the big top

I was listening to a very interesting interview with David Sloan Wilson on Quirks and Quarks. Dr. Wilson wrote a book called Evolution for Everyone -- a sentiment with which I agree. That said, I did find some of his comments a little odd.

When asked about the continuing conflicts (real or imagined) between evolution and religion, Wilson described creationism and intelligent design as a "sideshow." He also described books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as a "sideshow." The "main event," Wilson argues, will be the scientific study of evolution as a natural phenomenon. (An article exploring similar ground can be found in the July 2007 American Scientist: "Evolution, religion, and free will" by Graffin and Provine.)

Now, it is no doubt true that there is much very interesting research to be done on religion. Philosopher Dan Dennett has argued that nobody has really tested the contention that more religious people are more virtuous, more giving, more charitable, etc., than less religious people. And that is definitely an important question.

Wilson seems to be arguing that when viewed from an evolutionary perspective, there may be empirical evidence that religion beneficial for some reason or another. Contrast this to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchen's recent book, "How religion poisons everything." Or compare it to Dawkins' suggestion that religions are sorts of intellectual parasites that ride along because of other ways that we think (e.g., a tendency to obey elders).

Wilson seems to think that by bringing religion into the fold of evolution, and by saying that it might -- indeed, probably -- had some evolutionary benefit, there is no longer any conflict between the two.

This misses the mark. What both creationists and atheists care about and are arguing about is not whether religion is beneficial, but whether it is true.

For a lot of people, the question of whether shared worship generates societal cohesion that increases the fitness levels of a group is one of two things.

For some, it's not a question they're interested in. They're much more interested if there is a being who intervenes in human affairs on a regular basis, answers prayers, and has selected certain territories for particular people to live in (say).

For others, the question is interesting but irrelevant. Many people are interested in what society ought to do rather than what society has done. Religion may have been adaptive in the past, and perhaps remains so in the present, but that doesn't mean that other non-religious systems might not be as adaptive, if not more.

I'm completely surprised that Wilson -- and many others, according to the American Scientist article I mentioned earlier -- think that the conflict between religions and evolution can by resolved in this way.

No comments: