Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Evolution of the Religious Mind: Groupishness

Religion has played a major role in every human society throughout history. In fact, it is so prolific that some refer to humanity as “homo religious[1].”  Many theists believe this is proof that humans were designed, by God, to seek him out to form a personal relationship for eternity. To these people, there is simply no other plausible explanation. However, many evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists would beg to differ. There are in fact many theories which seek to explain the evolutionary pressures that led to our religious wiring. In the next several posts, I will attempt to piece together some of the more salient explanations.

Humans are wired to live in groups

Humans are social animals, and most psychologically healthy individuals have an innate desire to be a part of something greater. Nationalism, religion, sports teams, corporations, social clubs, and political organizations are all manifestations of this innate behavior. For our ancient ancestors, being a part of close knit groups helped them to survive and pass on their genetic legacy. Groups offer greater protection against predators; cooperation leads to efficiency and synergy; division of labor allows for economies of scale and better quality work; and the sharing of resources ensures the survival of the group even when some of its members have a run of bad luck.

Now, some may ask “what about free riders?” Selfish individuals tend to take advantage of their groups to improve their own chances of survival. They slide on by, while everyone else does the heavy lifting. While it is likely that this phenomenon has always existed, evolution has tended to favor those with group-oriented tendencies. The reason? Groups don’t function well when free-loaders are present, which reduces the probability of survival of all group members. Thus, humans gained a number of evolutionary adaptations that promote pro-social and pro-group behaviors.

Jonathan Haidt: Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is an expert on the psychology and evolution of morality. In a TED video titled “Religion, evolution, and the ecstasy of self-transcendence,” he argued that “the capacity for self-transcendence is just a basic part of being human.”  Transcendence, as he describes it, is a state of selflessness, of interconnectedness, and of feeling uplifted. Humans experience this sensation during religious rituals, drug use, meditation, and war. Yes, war. Few other activities produce such a strong feeling of interconnectedness, of selflessness, and of being part of a greater good than war.

Now, consider two tribes of ancient humans who are battling it out over territory. One is comprised of individuals wired for this feeling of interconnectedness and selflessness. The other is comprised of free loaders. Which one is most likely to prevail? Which one is most likely to have members that would sacrifice their lives for the good of the tribe? Indeed, it is in the group’s best interest to have members who are capable of transcendence. It not only inspires self-sacrifice, but it also creates a bond between group members which motivates further cooperation and thus survival. It is these feelings that religions tend to illicit, cohering its members, and providing the necessary software for personal spiritual experiences.

The Social Brain Hypothesis

The “Social Brain Hypothesis” is a theory developed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar to explain human intelligence. In his paper “Neocortex Size, Group Size, and the Evolution of Language” Dunbar showed that there is a strong correlation between the typical group size of a species and the size of their brain. For humans, Dunbar asserts that we are only capable of maintaining stable social relationships with up to 150 individuals. The same can be said of Neanderthals, who had roughly similar sized brains as humans. For our ancient ancestor Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy) as well as modern apes, typical group sizes range between 60 and 70. If Dunbar is correct, then one of the greatest drivers of the complexity of our minds is the ability to thrive within a social context. In other words, our minds were made for interacting with other human beings. It is the lens with which we view our environment.


“Anthropomorphism”, “Agent Detection”, and “Agenticity” are all terms used to describe a very common human phenomenon: we project human qualities on non human entities. We see human like thoughts and emotions in our pets. We feel like blaming SOMEONE for bad weather (poor weather guy.)  Even atheists feel the need to say “thank goodness” when good luck strikes, even though goodness is merely a word that has nothing to do with anything. Primitive humans believed diseases were caused by demons, droughts by angry deities, and natural disasters by dueling gods. Given the social orientation of our minds developed over millions of years by the evolutionary pressures described above, it is not hard to imagine why we naturally presume the presence of invisible agents. Likewise, it isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to conceive that interactions with these non-existent entities evolved into the modern religions we know so well today.

Humans are social creatures with minds refined by evolution to enforce group-oriented behavior and to view the world as though it were run by invisible agents. It is very plausible that these evolutionary adaptations led to the mystical self-transcendent emotions experienced during religious rituals, and drove us to form relationships with nonexistent deities.


Jonathan Haidt on Altered Consciousness/Transcendence

Social Brain Hypothesis

Michael Shermer on Agenticity

Wikipedia Article on Agent Detection


  1. Just a minor typo: "stable social relationships with upwards of 150 individuals", I think you meant "up to" not "upwards". A more serious comment, I think you are taking an overly simplistic stance on the evolution of cooperation. Although group-selection is the easiest explanation, it is also a minefield and under constant debate.

    Of course, the simple group selection model you've described has been studied formally and can be shown to lead to parochialism (or ethnocentrism) and war. However, you don't necessarily need a group selection argument to have ethnocentrism emerge. Ethnocentrism evolves possible just with arbitrary strategy-independent tags and spatial viscosity.

    I think you are correct in linking ethnocentrism to religion. However, I think it is important to explore this more formally, instead of restricting ourselves to verbal theories. We are trying to do this.

    Sorry for the link spam, but I thought you might be interested. I look forward to more posts from you!

    1. Thank you for your very constructive, illuminating, and positive feedback. I agree this analysis is a bit simplistic, and I'm certainly no anthropologist. Yet, I hope it provides a good introduction into this area of research for the average lay person.