Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Survival of the misfits?

One of the standard arguments for evolutionary psychology is that true beliefs are adaptive whereas misbeliefs are maladaptive. True beliefs confer a survival advantage. Hence, natural selection selects for organisms and species with an accurate perception of the world around them.

Yet you have Darwinians like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who rail against the religionists. Rail against the millions of Christians who deny the theory of evolution. Rail against the billions of religious people around the world.

But that generates a paradox. If misbelief is maladaptive, and religious beliefs are false, then faith is maladaptive. Yet it’s arguable that religionists vastly outnumber atheists.

If, on the one hand, all religious beliefs are misbeliefs, then natural selection is disproportionately selecting for false beliefs. In that case, it’s a highly unreliable belief-forming mechanism.

If, on the other hand, religious beliefs are maladaptive, then shouldn’t natural selection have weeded out most pious hominids a long time ago?

When Dawkins indicts the majority of the human race as deluded, isn’t he simultaneously indicting the reliability of evolutionary psychology? But if, by his own tacit admission, natural selection can’t be trusted to yield true beliefs, then doesn’t that reduce his atheism to self-refuting skepticism?

These aren’t anomalies to a normally reliable process. Not isolated cases or random exceptions. By his own testimony, this is pretty pervasive. So where does that leave the original argument?


  1. Your premise is wrong. While true beliefs are generally adaptive and false beliefs are generally maladaptive, this is not a necessary connection. This is evidenced by phenomena like depressive realism. Based on the major suppositions of EP and evolutionary biology generally, it isn't the truth or falsity that evolution cares about (see Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism), it is whether the belief promotes the fitness of the individual who holds that belief. False beliefs can promote behaviors which promote the fitness of the genes that the individual carries. Since the general trend is for adaptive beliefs to be true, then the onus is on evolutionary psychologists to explain why a false belief would be adaptive. This encounters some roadblocks because group selection has been relegated to the waste bin in modern evolutionary biology, though it is witnessing some resurgence with multilevel selection models advanced by people like David Sloan Wilson (who wrote a book, Darwin's Cathedral, explaining religion using this exact frame work). And group selection is the most obvious candidate for explaining something like religious belief that is very much a social phenomenon.

    Your best bet for criticizing evolutionary approaches to understanding religion would be to emphasize the dearth of empirical work on how religious beliefs promotes the fitness of the individual. And not the direct you're currently taking.

  2. I wonder on what basis Dawkins believes he is not deluded in believing that religionists are deluded.