February 8, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

The Evolution of Religion – or Vice Versa?

A Harvard professor has evolutionized religion again.  Marc Hauser, the one who trains his little boy to adore Darwin (07/03/2007) and wrote a book on how natural selection created morality (10/27/2006), is now saying that religion is a by-product of our evolution.  “These findings suggest that religion evolved from pre-existing cognitive functions,” he wrote in Trends in Cognitive Sciences,1 “but that it may then have been subject to selection, creating an adaptively designed system for solving the problem of cooperation.”
Science Daily, published this “suggestion” uncritically based on a press release from Cell Press.  Their headline reads, “Morality Research Sheds Light on the Origins of Religion.”  A key element in Hauser’s “suggestion” was that the moral sense seems uniform across cultures.  No one in these articles entertained a different suggestion: that this moral sense came from design, not evolution.  Nor did they indicate how morality could be defined or characterized apart from a religious perspective.
    Phillip Ball at Nature News announced, based on this study, “Morals don’t come from God.”  At first, this sounded like an endorsement of Hauser’s thesis, but Ball only met him halfway.  “The finding that religion scarcely influences moral intuition undermines the idea that a godless society will be immoral, says Philip Ball,” the subtitle reads.  “Whether it ‘explains’ religion is another matter.”  Ball appeared to agree that irreligion does not necessarily lead to an amoral society.  Moral dilemma tests show that people from all walks of life have a basic moral intuition – an innate ‘moral grammar’ that guides their ideas of right and wrong.  He doubted, though, that moral instinct is the place to look for the origin of religion itself.  “It seems hard to credit the idea that the immense cultural investment in religion was made merely to strengthen and fine-tune existing neural circuits related to morality,” he ended.  “Some people place more emphasis on the adaptive rationale for religious symbols and mystical beliefs, rather than morals.”  Ball just indicated that he denies propositional truths have any bearing on religious beliefs.  Any explanation must be sought in evolutionary adaptation.  He seems to admit, though, even that kind of reductionism falls short of explaining religion.  “Yet attempting to explain the origins of such a rich cultural phenomenon as religion is doomed to some extent to be a thankless task,” Ball concluded.  “For to ‘explain’ Chartres Cathedral or Bach’s Mass in B Minor in terms of non-kin cooperation is obviously to have explained nothing.
    For earlier discussions on the evolution of religion, see 11/09/2009 and 05/27/2008.


1.  Ilkka Pyysiinen and Marc Hauser, “The origins of religion: evolved adaptation or by-product?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences Cell Press, 08 February 2010, doi:10.1016/j.tics.2009.12.007.

Hauser is just as religious as his lab rats; he just doesn’t advertise it.  He attends the Church of Darwin – a bigoted hate group (12/12/2009, 05/09/2006, 02/11/2006 commentary) with its own Monday School curriculum (12/21/2005), where he plays the role of High Priest Yoda (09/26/2006 commentary), accompanied by the other bishops Pascal Boyer (10/26/2008) and Daniel Dennett (02/02/2006).  James Dow accompanies on the organ (05/27/2008).
    The way to make Hauser’s belief implode and refute itself is to write a satire on The Evolution of Darwinian Storytelling.  That is what Cornelius Hunter has done on his blog Darwin’s God.  It appears that Hunter turned out the Hahvahd professor’s lights (assuming there were any to begin with).

Update 07/19/2011: It appears Hauser’s undermining of traditional morality has caught up with him.  New Scientist announced, “Disgraced cognition researcher resigns from Harvard.”  Apparently some people who still think morality matters didn’t appreciate Hauser’s scientific misconduct.

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