Wacky Rabbi Sacks: Religion is here to stay because of evolution

December 24, 2012 • 2:25 pm

Several readers sent me this op-ed piece from yesterday’s New York Times. It’s by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, and is called “The moral animal.”  And it pains me terribly for two reasons. The first is my prejudice that religious Jews are not supposed to be as loony as, say, religious Christians or Muslims. Indeed, many “religious” Jews are just a hairsbreadth from atheism.  Well, so much for that notion.

More important, Lord Rabbi Sacks, or whatever he’s called, justifies religion on evolutionary grounds. It’s an evolved phenomenon, so he says, coded in our genes.  And it evolved not by individual selection, but by group selection.  Right off the bat he makes two mistakes: we have no idea whether religiosity is coded in our genes per se, is piggybacking on some other evolved phenomenon (like our willingness to be inculcated as children), or is simply something that appeals because it offers us surcease from our mortality.  The other error is the claim that even if religion did evolve genetically, it did so by group selection, a notion that I’ve criticized repeatedly on this website (search for “group selection” if you’re interested).

So this leads to what Rabbi Lord His Highness Sacks calls a great irony. But first he reveals his agenda by claiming, correctly, that faith is on the run:

At first glance, religion is in decline. In Britain, the results of the 2011 national census have just been published. They show that a quarter of the population claims to have no religion, almost double the figure 10 years ago. And though the United States remains the most religious country in the West, 20 percent declare themselves without religious affiliation — double the number a generation ago.

and then saying that although that’s true, religion holds firm because some people are still religious!:

Looked at another way, though, the figures tell a different story. Since the 18th century, many Western intellectuals have predicted religion’s imminent demise. Yet after a series of withering attacks, most recently by the new atheists, including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, still in Britain three in four people, and in America four in five, declare allegiance to a religious faith. That, in an age of science, is what is truly surprising.

Well, I’m not so sure how many predictions there were in the 1700s of religions “imminent demise,” or how “imminent” it was supposed to be; but Europe has certainly become more secular in the last three hundred years—including Rabbi Sacks’s own country.  Faith is tenacious, and, especially in the U.S. will be slow to wane. But what “different story” are the figures supposed to tell? Rabbi Sacks doesn’t say.

But he does see the tenacity of faith as ironic, for all those nasty atheists accept evolution, and evolution is what accounts for religion!  Oh, the pain!

The irony is that many of the new atheists are followers of Charles Darwin. We are what we are, they say, because it has allowed us to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation. Our biological and cultural makeup constitutes our “adaptive fitness.” Yet religion is the greatest survivor of them all. Superpowers tend to last a century; the great faiths last millenniums. The question is why.

Well, Sacks conflates biological with cultural evolution here; in the strict evolutionary sense, which is apparently what he’s talking about, “adaptive fitness” refers solely to the relative reproductive output of carriers of different genes.  And we have no idea whether religion is coded for by genes. (I rather suspect, given its rapid disappearance in Europe, that there aren’t “genes for religion.”).

Then Rabbi Sacks tells us that Darwin suggested the correct answer: group selection. But as far as I know, Darwin never floated this idea. (Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.**UPDATE: I stand corrected; see below.)

Darwin himself suggested what is almost certainly the correct answer. He was puzzled by a phenomenon that seemed to contradict his most basic thesis, that natural selection should favor the ruthless. Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants. [JAC: Leafcutter ants? Altruism?]

Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals.

Sacks doesn’t say what he means by “hard-wired for empathy,” but if we are, it’s empathy towards members of our clan, not humanity in general. Save via group selection, which only a few biological miscreants still see as efficacious, evolution could not favor a form of pure altruism that compels one to sacrifice your own reproduction to further the survival and reproduction of others.

Lord Rabbi Sacks mentions the debate about this issue, but settles it by fiat in favor of group selection:

The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

First of all, Darwin’s answer to the evolution of religion wasn’t, as far as I know, group selection. He may have speculated about religion in his letters, but I can’t find a discussion of its evolution in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which is where it should be.  I suspect the good rabbi is makng this up, or mistaking D. S. Wilson for Darwin.  And Sacks misleads the reader into thinking that group selection is not only efficacious, but the consensus view of scientists. In fact it isn’t: as far as we know, human “altruism,” insofar as it’s evolved, is really selfish, involving kin selection (the dispensing of benefits to relatives), or a kind of tit-for-tat strategy that evolves via individual selection in small groups (“you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).  Both of these involve individual rather than group selection.

The rabbi then suggests  that, according to Daniel Kahneman, one part of our brain favors altruism, another part selfishness. I haven’t read Thinking Fast and Slow, so I’ll let the readers who have judge this claim, but I suspect that there’s no evidence for it.  And so, according to the scientific data tell us what religion has always maintained:

The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive. The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.

Duh!  Did we need prophets and philosophers to tell us that humans can do good and bad things? We’ve known that ever since the first australopithecines began to ponder each other’s behaviors.

Finally, the rabbi pronounces that human society can’t do without religion, for the “hardwired” tendency to believe is good for our species:

If this is so [evolution, blah blah blah], we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters. . .

Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.

To paraphrase the physicists, Rabbi Sacks’s article isn’t even wrong.  It gets what we know about the genetics of religion wrong; it gets the scientific consensus on group selection wrong; and it gets the notion that we can’t live without religion wrong (I have one answer to this contention: Scandinavia). Why would the New York Times publish this kind of thoughtless and mistaken tripe?

To that I have a four-word answer: “Sacks is Head Rabbi.” To paraphrase what Christopher Hitchens said about Jerry Falwell, you can get all kinds of nonsense published if you can just put the title “Rabbi” in front of your name. But Sacks’s latest nonsense is beyond the pale. It’s so dreadful that it embarrasses me as a cultural Jew.  Jews are simply not supposed to be that stupid—or at least we’re supposed to do our research before pronouncing on biology.  Rabbi Sacks gets an F for effort, and shame on the New York Times.

I’m not the only cultural Jew who feels this way. One of my landsmann friends emailed me this:

This unctuous piece by England’s favorite Rabbi is, in the world of my late grandmother, “a shanda fur die goyim” (“a shame before the gentiles”, i.e., “embarrassing or compromising behavior performed by a Jew where a non-Jew can observe it.”).


UPDATE: Courtesy of Andrew Berry, the Darwin quote has come to light (from The Descent of Man, chapter 5), and it does show Darwin advancing a nascent form of group selection.

It deserves notice that, as soon as the progenitors of man became social (and this probably occurred at a very early period), the principle of imitation, and reason, and experience would have increased, and much modified the intellectual powers in a way, of which we see only traces in the lower animals. Apes are much given to imitation, as are the lowest savages; and the simple fact previously referred to, that after a time no animal can be caught in the same place by the same sort of trap, shews that animals learn by experience, and imitate the caution of others. Now, if some one man in a tribe, more sagacious than the others, invented a new snare or weapon, or other means of attack or defence, the plainest self-interest, without the assistance of much reasoning power, would prompt the other members to imitate him; and all would thus profit. The habitual practice of each new art must likewise in some slight degree strengthen the intellect. If the new invention were an important one, the tribe would increase in number, spread, and supplant other tribes. In a tribe thus rendered more numerous there would always be a rather greater chance of the birth of other superior and inventive members. If such men left children to inherit their mental superiority, the chance of the birth of still more ingenious members would be somewhat better, and in a very small tribe decidedly better. Even if they left no children, the tribe would still include their blood-relations; and it has been ascertained by agriculturists that by preserving and breeding from the family of an animal, which when slaughtered was found to be valuable, the desired character has been obtained.

Turning now to the social and moral faculties. In order that primeval men, or the apelike progenitors of man, should become social, they must have acquired the same instinctive feelings, which impel other animals to live in a body; and they no doubt exhibited the same general disposition. They would have felt uneasy when separated from their comrades, for whom they would have felt some degree of love; they would have warned each other of danger, and have given mutual aid in attack or defence. All this implies some degree of sympathy, fidelity, and courage. Such social qualities, the paramount importance of which to the lower animals is disputed by no one, were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit. When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other circumstances being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. Let it be borne in mind how all-important in the never-ceasing wars of savages, fidelity and courage must be. The advantage which disciplined soldiers have over undisciplined hordes follows chiefly from the confidence which each man feels in his comrades. Obedience, as Mr. Bagehot has well shewn, is of the highest value, for any form of government is better than none. Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.


75 thoughts on “Wacky Rabbi Sacks: Religion is here to stay because of evolution

  1. “Indeed, many “religious” Jews are just a hairsbreadth from atheism. Well, so much for that notion.”

    Or so much for your grasp of the word “many” … as in, not a synonym for “all” or even “most”.

  2. A lot of people over here (UK) haven’t got past the version of evolution popularized by Robert Ardrey (The Social Contract etc.) in the early seventies, which was a group selective approach based on Wynne Edward’s ideas and still don’t get the gene centric view (noone’s heard of Bill Hamilton) & Dawkins’s “Selfish Gene” was widely misunderstood (cf Midgely etc.). That’s probably the basis for Sach’s ideas. Have to say that E.O. Wilson hasn’t helped by muddying the waters WRT group selection recently.

  3. I dispute you here: “The first is my prejudice that religious Jews are not supposed to be as loony as, say, religious Christians or Muslims. Indeed, many “religious” Jews are just a hairsbreadth from atheism.”

    Having lived in Brooklyn, I can tell you that religious Jews are just as nutty as religious Christians. The secular Jews & reformed Jews are the ones who may be a hairsbreadth from atheism.

    Intergroup competition is the basis of Judaism. The histories of the Bible are full of one group overtaking another or being slaughtered based on its religiosity. i would expect a rabbi to believe in group selection.

    1. It’s the same for xians.

      The early xians were very diverse and fought huge battles. The winners got to call themselves the Orthodox and Catholics.

      Then there was the Reformation wars which killed tens of millions and flickered on and off for 450 years.

      Today in the USA, it is between the Catholics, Protestants, fundies, Mormons, JW’s, and an array of smaller cults. A huge amount of missionary work is xians trying to convert…other xians.

      Tebow the quarterback is famous for being a missionary kid. What isn’t mentioned often, is that his family was in the Phillipines to convert the Fake Cult known as the Catholics.

    2. LOL. I grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and had friends who practiced Hasidic Judaism. Their religious services although segregated reminded me of a Pentecostal church service. The singing was very lively.

      1. Sorry, I meant to indicated that the men and women segregated from one another. There was curtail separating them. Cheers.

  4. A big problem with the Rabbi’s argument, besides taking liberties with evolutionary theory and neuroscience, is that the same kind of argument can be made for passively accepting rape or suicide.

    It’s in our genes, it’s been around for so long, it must have persisted because it’s a beneficial adaptation.

    The Rabbi is certainly correct that religion is maddeningly persistent despite all signs that it should by now be defunct. But so is cancer, obesity, war, and all kinds of human stupidity and ailments. Religion certainly doesn’t seem to have made much progress at curing these ills, even though it claims to be the anti-dote to all manner of evils.

    Odd that one should feel the longevity of religion by itself justifies it. Religion dominated over a period of stagnation between the fall of Rome and the advent of the Enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions. In the era when humans have made much progress and abandoned ancient barbarities, religion has been on the wane.

    It seems to me that this is pretty good evidence that whatever comforts religion provides to counterbalance human pain and suffering, it is at best a placebo that we can easily dispense with.

    1. “It seems to me that this is pretty good evidence that whatever comforts religion provides to counterbalance human pain and suffering, it is at best a placebo that we can easily dispense with.”

      The Communist Santa Claus, Marx, is way ahead of you:

      “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

        1. Very nice expression of affection. As I’m sure you know, anyone who has read or listened to Hitchens’ work, knows that he often expressed affection, sometimes even for adversaries.

  5. >> Then Rabbi Sacks tells us that Darwin suggested the correct answer: group selection. But as far as I know, Darwin never floated this idea. (Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.) <<

    See Christopher Boehm's recent book MORAL ORIGINS, pp. 12-13.

  6. Religions come and go. The graveyard of the gods has thousands of them.

    I once did a short study on how religions die.

    The short answer is that they don’t. They wax and wane depending on history for sure. But it takes a long time for them to completely die.

    1. A lot of religions are dead. If you look what happened, they were killed off. The Roman, Greek, and European pagans were persecuted until there weren’t very many and then the last of them were simply massacred.

    There was a thriving branch of xianity, the far eastern Nestorians, Syriacs, etc., going all the way into China. These groups were eradicated by the Mongols and Moslems.

    2. Where that hasn’t happened they can last for thousands of years. The Zoroasterian sun worshippers are still around, although they have been a small minority for centuries.

    I suspect that xianity will last for a thousands years. But it is going to be a small and unimportant religion, sooner rather than later. Projections from trends have the USA going below 50% xian between 2030 and 2040.

    1. I’ve seen this stated several times, but I’m sceptical. The latest good data is from the Pew October report on the rise of the nones, which shows identification with a religious denomination for under-30s at 67% and 30-49 at 77%. Even with optimistic assumptions you simply can’t get to less than 50% for the total adult population in another generation, particularly since under 30s in 2040 are unlikely to comprise more than 20% of the population.

      There is also a mismatch between declining affiliation and firm belief in “God”, with latter falling much more slowly than denominational affiliation (and I won’t even mention weird stats about the high levels of daily prayer).

      I’m not saying good things aren’t happening: they are. But we shouldn’t get ahead of the data, and also exercise caution about how we interpret falling denominational affiliation.

      1. I didn’t make up those numbers. They are what they are.

        US xianity is at 76% of the population right now, down from 90% a few decades ago.

        It’s dropping at around 1% a year by their own numbers. Do the math.

        1. I don’t think atheists/agnostics self reported will ever be all that much. Atheist as a word has a lot of baggage and is a strong position on a continuum of nonbelief.

        But that doesn’t make much difference overall.

        2. The US xians are likely worse off than the numbers say.

        A. A lot of xians are just box checkers, census xians. In some countries, half or so of all xians don’t believe their god exists or that the bible is anything but fairy tales.

        B. The fundie version has hollowed out xianity. It’s mostly right wing extremist politics with a few crosses stuck on for show. Tribal identification.

        They don’t walk their talk, know their own cult dogmas, or have any idea what their magic book actually says.

        C. Actual church attendance runs around 25% to 30% among xians.

        1. National Council of Churches:

          Total church membership reported in the 2011 Yearbook is 145,691,446 members, down 1.15 percent over 2011.

          This is the xian’s own numbers.

          There are some severe limitations to their data. Not all churches report in to the NCC.

          The biggest one is well known. A lot of churches outrageously cook their numbers for political reasons, the Mormons, the RCC, and the SBC among them.

          According to the Catholics, they haven’t lost much because they only count baptisms. Catholic sources say they have actually lost 1/3, 22 million members in the last few years.

          The Mormons do the same, count baptisms. Their own numbers say half of them are inactive, apathetic, or gone.

          The SBC’s, largest Protestant sect, has their own numbers dropping them 50% in the next few decades.

        2. Well, I have “done the math” but not by drawing a linear trend line in my head. My primary data sources are the GSS datasets (1972-2010) and the ISSP datasets, supplemented mainly by relevant Pew reports. And for range of reasons, I don’t believe that prediction is well-supported empirically. I’d be happy to discuss it in further detail, but I’m not sure this is the appropriate forum for that.

          On your second point, I am well aware of the phenomenon of “census Christians”, but that’s not the point I was making. Whether they know anything or not about their dogmas, the fact is American Christians are much more religiose than their counterparts in Britain and Australia (using a standard checklist). What’s more this religiosity seems to extend to the unaffiliated, a much larger proportion of whom say they believe in God than their counterparts elsewhere.

          I agree the US is secularising, but it’s a complex process, and at this stage the data does not support the prediction you are making.

          1. Christianity in the United States – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
            en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_United_States

            Christianity is the most popular religion in the United States, with around 73% of polled ….



            down 1.15 percent over 2011.

            US xians self identify at 73% according to wikipedia. According to NCC down 1.15% last year. This number is consistent in the past and likely an underestimate.

            Do the math. A linear extrapolation is as good as any. We don’t know the future. It could change and be slower. Or faster, IMO, more likely.

            BTW, this is my last comment on this thread. It’s a holiday and I’ve got things I’d rather be doing.

            1. “A linear extrapolation is as good as any.”

              No it’s not. But it’s a point we can take up another day, perhaps.

              1. In the top half of the percentage scale, any deviation from linearity is going to be far below the limits of measurement if we assume a continuous model –

                unless you can decompose the trend into separate processes that you can predict will behave in specific different ways at specific future times…

              2. Yep. Specifically, secualarisation operates by generational replacement. So one takes the levels of Christian adherence for each cohort first and projects that onto the predicted population pyramid for, say, 2030.

                Then empirically estimate the failure rate of faith transmission for the next generation and do likewise. etc.

  7. To paraphrase the physicists, Rabbi Sacks’s article isn’t even wrong.

    Supposedly, this comment is attributed to Wolfgang Pauli.

  8. Upon reading your (I dare say) scholarly summary of Rabbi Lord (His Highness) Sacks’ point of view I recall an article published in the New Humanist Magazine (Volume 126 Issue 2 March/April 2011): http://newhumanist.org.uk/2533/natural-history-of-the-soul-by-caspar-melville-marchapril-2011

    That article is about the book “Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness”, written by Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist and philosopher.

    Let me quote some sentences from the article:

    What is it about consciousness, this “magical” ability to perceive and exult in beauty, meaning and a sense of awe, that confers an evolutionary advantage?

    [Nicholas Humphrey’s] answer is simply that this magical show in our own heads which enchants the world is what makes life worth living: “For a phenomenally conscious creature, simply being there is a cause for celebration.”

    Consciousness infuses us with the belief that we are more than mere flesh, that we matter, that we might have a life after death, that we have a “soul”. All of these are illusions – the magic of his title – but they have real effects, by making us want to live.

    As for religion? In his book [Nicholas Humphrey] argues, “Long before religion could begin to get a foothold in human culture human beings must already have been living in soul land.”

    IMHO Nicholas Humphrey and Rabbi Sacks seem to share some thoughts of how the “evolution” of religion may have started. Maybe the Rabbi has been inspired by Nicholas Humphrey’s book?

  9. @JAC

    “(Rabbi Sacks)gets the notion that we can’t live without religion (which for some bizarre reason the good rabbi equates with God – DC) wrong (I have one answer to this contention: Scandinavia).”

    I have another response: China, and for longer!

  10. There are so many ways that Sacks’s article is wrong I found myself shaking my head in disbelief that a seemingly intelligent person could be so deeply wrong. I find much to proud of in my Jewish heritage, but this nebish makes us look bad.

  11. A smaller percentage of the world’s population is religious than ever before, this is something to be grateful for, and though there may be setbacks the trend is clear and in our favour. I suspect that the advent of improved health care will do much in the US to help the ‘nones’ grow and if you can do something about the gun laws that will do more. Good luck with it!

    1. My thought exactly. If someone claims that we’re ‘hard-wired’ for religion, I would think it behooves that someone to discuss the wiring.

  12. He’s wrong on Darwin and ruthlessness/altruism. The idea is that tribes composed by individuals willing to fight and risk their lives for the collective would do much better in fights against tribes who always let someone else risk their necks. But this isn’t group selection, what Darwin is doing is to argue that a disposition to help your peers is an advantageous trait for you individually. That’s the difference. For Darwin the unit of selection always was the individual.

    1. Me thinks the individual is not the “unit of selection” so much as the method by which genes are spread around. The species does the selecting by the simple means of success. If it proves advantageous, it spreads to the entire species; if not, oh well…

  13. Some religions which do appear to have ‘demised’ since the 1700s might be: Arminians, Socinians, Baxterians, New Americans, Sabellians, Swedenborgians, Athanasians, Arians, Sublapsarians, Supralapsarians, Antinomians, Hutchinsonians,
    Sandemanians, Muggletonians, Anabaptists,
    Paedobaptists, Universalists, Materialists,
    Destructionists, Brownists, Independants, Huguenots, Nonjurors, Seceders, Hernhutters,
    Dunkers, Jumpers.

    And as Rabbi Sacks appears extremely catholic in his definition of religion, we can also observe that we see very little nowadays of these eighteenth century examples of magical thinking: Divination,
    Oniromancy, Sideromancy, Tephranomancy, Botonomancy, Crommyomancy, Cleromancy,
    Aeromancy, Onomatomancy, Arithomancy, Geomancy, Alectryomancy, Cephalomancy,
    Axinomancy, Coscinomancy, Hydromancy, Onychomancy, Dactylomancy, Christallomancy,
    Cataptromancy, Gastromancy, Lecanomancy, Alphitomancy, Chiromancy, Orneomancy, Necromancy, Horoscopy, Astrology, Augury,
    Metoposcopy, Palmistry, the fear of
    Eclipses, Comets, Meteors, Earthquakes, Inundations, any uncommon appearances.

    Both lists courtesy of the Rabbi’s 1700s, though the source escapes me. I’m willing to bet that he was a deist, at the least.

  14. I can well believe that the human tendency to “have religion” may be due to evolution. However (and that’s a big however) it may not be due to selection for characteristics that improve one’s capacity to have offspring. It could be due (to pick an example out of thin air) to an interaction between the genes that give us the ABO blood type system and those that give us as many ribs as we have. An accident, iow.

    And it may not be a good tendency. Rabbi Sacks appears to be assuming that if a characteristic is ultimately due to the action of evolution, it is inherently good.

    In modern societies with evidence-based medicine (you’re sick because of a virus, not a spell cast by the witch doctor two villages over), a tendency to believe in supernatural explanations of the world is counter-productive. Just look at the children who die because of their parents’ fanatical belief in the power of prayer to cure lethal diseases.

  15. It’s been awhile since I read “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, but its thesis is that our minds are composed of two “systems”: System 1 is the auto-pilot that makes decisions with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control; and System 2 is the system that we engage when intense mental activities are required. The Rabbi’s attempt to morph these two systems into “selfishness” and “altruism” is not an interpretation that Kahneman ever intended as best I recall. [A great book, BTW, you should read it].

    1. Actually, Kahneman makes it very clear that these terms “System I & II” are fictional constructs to help us slice the mind up and understand how it works in more anthropomorphic ways. But yes, you’re right, a great book, and the Rabbi completely distorts it.

      1. Rather like Freud’s dissection of the mind into three parts, id, ego, and super-ego. A useful analysis on paper, but don’t hold your breath waiting for the anatomists to discover three new lobes of the brain.

        1. Well no, I’m not holding my breath waiting for an announcement in Science that the brain has two physical parts that correspond to S1 and S2, and I’m pretty sure Kahneman isn’t either. If something in the mind corresponds to S1 and S2 it surely is more like two software modules, not meatware. S1 and S2 are constructs that allow Kahneman (and others) to explain a lot about human behavior and psychology, and given their explanatory power they are very useful whether or not they correspond closely with “software modules” in some sense. In any event the book is a fascinating read and I recommend it to you.

  16. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age.

    How can mendacity be the best antidote to anything?

  17. Does it matter what Darwin thought? The term “disciples of Darwin” is actually quite insulting. We celebrate Darwin because he raised our consciousness on how to address the biggest of questions against the looming blackness of the unknown. We do not expect him to have gotten everything correct. Genes were not even known of at the time. Though we are justifiably in awe of how much Darwin did get right. So forget about what Darwin would have thought. All that matters is what does the current state of evolutionary biology have to say of altruism. And on that count altruism can be accounted for rather well. This Rabbi does seem to have a portion of his understanding on evolution come not from biologists but I suspect the sociologist Herbert Spencer.
    We are a social species. Strong ties to any group, even to the most odious ones, confers psychological and other benefits. That said the religious -feeling all smug running their soup kitchens- do have an especially heavy burden explaining why the net evidence points to their faith being a peculiar catalyst for all manner of human wickedness. They blathered on for century after century on the importance of baptism but were a hindrance in every step toward any meaningful progress, all the while in eternal opposition to seculars, deists and atheists: hostility to science, abolition of slavery, civil rights movement, child beating, women’s suffrage etc. And most of all in the modern world religiosity has a strong correlation with social dysfunction, with the most atheistic countries like Sweden and Denmark being blissful Gardens of Eden.
    I really hope Jerry pens a letter to the Times. This piece of crap is now sitting at the top of their most emailed list. WTF!

    1. Well, I think it matters what Darwin thought to the extent that if more people were familiar with the contents of his books, the creationists wouldn’t get away with lying as much, and people supposed to be scientists figuring out how evolution works wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel as often, or wouldn’t be able to get away with representing facts or ideas recorded by Darwin as stunning new discoveries.

      But mainly, so those who’ve read Darwin can feel superior to people who don’t know what he thought…

  18. First, we have very solid grounds for saying the overall percentage of Brits with “no religion” is in fact around 45%, and we have a good understanding why the Census produces a systematic underestimate. Sacks is not unaware of the academic literature on this, he just chooses to ignore it.

    Second, the notion that complex social phenomenon (such as religion) can somehow be “explained” by biology (an idea promulgated by the sociobiology/evolutionary psychology folk) is what needs to be criticised here. The issue is not that Sacks does it badly; the whole project rests on false premises and a lack of empirical definition of the thing to be explained.

    There is no such thing as religion in general, and the secularisation occurring in most of the developed world is about a withering of particular social institutions as a result of complex cultural changes that have placed them on a collision course with what can be broadly labelled modernity.

    In countries such as Britain and Australia, the “community-building” aspect of religion, which was once a significant social phenomenon, is now virtually extinct, with more than 85% of these populations having no regular contact with churches and their front organisations. Even their core business — hatches, matches and dispatches — has been slipping out of their grasp.

    1. I think the percentage of British “nones” is higher than 45%

      The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey showed that it was all but 50% (iirc).

      And this infographic from the BHA discussing the census results cited a YouGov poll that showed that the percentage who are not religious is 65%. From the same poll, only 29% of the 53% in England and Wales who say they are Christian say they are religious.


  19. While I don’t think religion is hard-wired into the brain, I do think that certain kinds of thinking are. I think our general inquisitiveness and our desire to find solutions to problems have enabled the species to better feed itself/take care of itself, and hence were selected for. I.e. inquisitive people were selected for. People willing to dog a problem to the end were selected for.

    In that context, religion became a way of solving problems. When a better solution comes along, that’s adopted because we are hard-wired to accept the best solution offered (which is not the same as the best solution possible).

    To further complicate the matter, I don’t think there’s a reasonable definition. much less explanation, of free will. (As someone said, he’s waiting for the molecular explanation of free will.) In that context, religion will only last as long as the species finds it useful. In many parts of the world and with many people, that utility has already passed.

    1. Religion shares with science the inquisitive need to explain mysteries. That part of religion that involves hypotheses about the nature and origins of ourselves and our world is a result of early failed scientific inquiry without the benefit of advanced empirical methods. Religion was a kind of intellectual cul-de-sac, which by pretending to have all the answers actually arrested further progress. Growing numbers of our species have the adaptation needed to turn around, exit the cul-de-sac, and persue more fruitful avenues of advancement.

  20. I certainly agree that at least Reform Jews are among the most intelligent religious folks around. (I went to a public high school where they were 2/3rds of the population. Most of the remaining 1/3rd were Quaker, also a fairly cool group.) But this guy seems rather sanctimonious and overly self-confident.

    My least favorite statement by His Lordship is this made !*after*! the death of Steve Jobs: “The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about ‘I,’ you don’t do terribly well.”

    I thought that kind of disrespect for the dead was the specialty of Jerry Falwell.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2063546/Chief-Rabbi-blasts-late-Apple-boss-Steve-Jobs-helping-create-selfish-consumer-society.html )

    1. Isn’t it interesting that leaders of religious congregations are always admonishing people for not thinking of the group? How nice of group leaders to bring that to our attention, using someone’s death as excuse to rant about it.

  21. Have I missed something here? Is the obvious corollary of Rabbi Sacks assertion that religion is an evolutionary construct that religion does not have to be based on any literal truth whatsoever? Thanks Rabbi for that Xmas present. Perhaps we can now get rid of all the objectionable stuff in the bible and cut it down to perhaps, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” I would forgive an awful lot of nonsense from the good rabbi if we could just settle for that!

    1. That’s exactly right – and I wish I had thought of it first.

      As C. S. Lewis, Plantinga et al. have so eloquently argued, if a belief is the result of purely material processes such as evolution we have no reason for supposing it to be true.

      But perhaps the Rabbi doesn’t read Sophisticated Theology.

    2. In reading through the article I did get the impression that the Rabbi was making an entirely pragmatic secular case for religion based only on human social and emotional needs, without any reference to God.

      Whether the Rabbi is an atheist, or whether he just constructed an argument not depending on God in order to try to be persuasive with the secular mind, is less clear.

      Merry Another-Glorious-Day-Off-Work everyone.

  22. interesting quotation on the origins of cooperation – seems to build smoothly from individual towards group selection. What a fine example of Darwin’s deep insight.

    Darwin also thought of allopatric speciation. I. think this in the Origin in the chapter on difficulties of the theory. Perhaps someone can confirm this more easily than I can, working with my Iphone.

  23. I’ve always been curious about this question. It does not seem like the idea can be dismissed out of hand. I have no scientific credentials to comment on it, so I will ask the question: Is it not possible that religion serves a positive evolutionary purpose? It apparently does to me, but does it really?

    I genuinely ask this out of curiosity. I’m an atheist and an anti-theist and an irreligionist, but that does not exclude me from seeing that many aspects of religion and god belief seem to me like it could favor genes being passed on.

    I’m genuinely curious about this question, regardless of the true answer about religion’s role in evolution. I absolutely believe religion is psychologically, socially, and philosophically abhorrent, but genes don’t care about that stuff.

    1. To me it seems pretty obvious that religion was created by humans, and that this was done in ways humans felt were beneficial to them.

      Your question seems equivalent to asking if speaking English or Swahili or Japanese is an evolutionary adaptation. The answer is clearly no, but using language and cultural memory and learning in general are evolutionary advantages. Which language and the particular words and grammar used are historical contingencies. Religion is a historical contingency of how the human mind evolved.

      Religion embodies a wide variety of human strengths and advantages: community, love, healing, explanation of mysteries, group identity and history, and many others. Religion itself does not seem to confer evolutionary benefits, but seems to be cobbled out of these aspects of humanity that were the result of evolution.

      Certainly we now know that for healing and explaining mystery and reality, religion is obsolete and not helpful, though it may have served as a stepping stone in human cultural evolution. The many social and psychological benefits people derive from religion, which have nothing to do with anything divine and everything to do with how the human organism functions, can be found in a variety of family and social contexts. The only thing left in religion, after you strip away the illusion of truth and replace its failures and obsolescences with better modern alternatives, is simply the false comfort that comes from believing you have a powerful invisible friend that loves you, and that you will live forever. Figuring out that these are self-inflicted delusions offering the emptiness of false comfort is the final straw for any ideas that religion confers survival benefits on humans.

      Being ignorant of the true nature of your surroundings and pretending real dangers don’t exist has never been very successful for survival.

      1. Thank Jeff, nice summary.

        I’m not sure I understand the difference in religion embodying the individual evolutionary benefits that you described and actually being an evolutionary benefit itself. That seems like almost a stronger argument that it is. The parts of the whole all are things that would be an evolutionary benefit, but the socially constructed institution that coalesces those evolutionary attributes isn’t itself considered an evolutionary benefit?

        I’m also curious about the extreme value religions place on progeny. You can almost sum up the whole of the Old Testament as a book promoting the patriarchs that are most successful at passing along offspring. I would argue it’s the greatest value presented in the book. The greatest males are the males that are “blessed” with offspring and can spread their seed around and barren females are less than worthless.

        I also don’t think the positive correlation between religiosity and number of children can be as easily dismissed as some people do. I get that correlation doesn’t mean causation, but it certainly doesn’t exclude causation.

        I’m definitely open to the possibility that religion doesn’t have evolutionary advantage, but everything I see points in that direction. I would love to be further educated on the subject, so thanks in advance for those who have direct knowledge of the subject.

        1. “I also don’t think the positive correlation between religiosity and number of children can be as easily dismissed as some people do.”

          Demographers will tell you that religiosity on its own has essentially no effect on fertility rates. There can be exceptions at a community level — ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel come to mind — but these are highly restricted cases.

        2. This looks like concern trolling. If everything you see points in the direction of religion having evolutionary advantages, then you are wearing religious blinkers.

          I’m not sure I understand the difference in religion embodying the individual evolutionary benefits that you described and actually being an evolutionary benefit itself.

          It is exactly like the fact that speaking English embodies the human biological adaptations that enable language, but speaking English is an accidental result of those adaptations.

          Religion is an unnecessary accidental result of qualities that evolved in the human mind. These qualities (curiosity, abstraction, agency detection, etc.) preceded religion. To understand this you must give up any notion that religion is in some sense “true”, or that God exists, or that humans have immortal souls. Otherwise your thoughts will be corrupted and clouded. Once you understand that humans created religion for themselves, you should have no trouble grasping what I said. You have to distinguish, where possible, cultural evolution (the reason speaking English today may have material advantages) from biological evolution (the reason the human brain can effortlessly parse sounds into phonemes, associate concepts and meaning with sounds and syntax, understand and create narrative, etc.)

          Man wasn’t created for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was created for man. And man is free to uncreate the Sabbath when it is no longer needed. This question of whether religion is itself an evolutionary adaptation, or whether evolutionary adaptations resulted in religion is logically similar to Socrates’ discussion of the origins of morality in Euthyphro. It’s a matter of seeing the correct precedence and priority.

          If you really understand and accept evolution you know there is no teleological purpose. Once that idea is clear in your mind I think it is easy to see that religion is an accidental and wholly contingent combination of human cultural factors that are themselves dependent on biological evolutionary adaptations that in no way anticipated religion.

          There is a reason we see some form of religion in every human culture, each unique to a geographic and cultural context, but we see no religion in other species. Yet we see the eye, the brain, the heart, etc. in countless species. And we see some of the glimmerings of human morality and social/tribal rules and hierarchy in other species, especially in primates. This gives you an idea of what is evolutionary vs. cultural.

          Language and culture are evolutionary advantages that are enabled by our biology. Religion depends on language and culture, and is a substantial element of only a few hundred thousand years of cultural evolution, but an insignificant blip in our biological evolution. To see, as you claim, evidence pointing in the direction that religion is of evolutionary value you would need to find evidence that religion makes people materially more successful. And you would have to find a way to explain the big failure during religion’s heyday in European history, or the role political Islam had in crushing the early scientific advances in Arab culture, which is now scientifically a desolate backwater, and will remain so until Islam loosens it’s grip on the mind, as Christianity was forced to loosen it’s grip on European minds during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. During the thousand years or so between when a savage mob of murderous Christian totalitarian thugs killed Hypatia in cold blood in Alexandria, and the first glimmerings of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment that empowered humans to use reason and logic to create and produce substantially improved material conditions, the domination of religion led to a remarkable stagnation and suppression of change and human progress. So contrary to what you see, I see abundant evidence that religion is a damper that snuffs out creativity, growth, progress, innovation, happiness, joy, playfulness, and all the other things that really are part of humans expressing their biologically evolved selves in fulfilling and meaningful ways.

          1. Well, I stated that I’m an atheist, irreligious and anti-theist so the “troll” comment is off-based and so are all the assumptions that you presumed of me. Absolutely wrong on all accounts. You couldn’t be more off-based, so your dismissiveness is unwarranted and borders ad hominem and is certainly straw-manning me because I don’t believe there is teleology in evolution, I don’t believe religion is true, I most certainly don’t believe there is a god and I don’t think evolution has purpose or direction. Not sure who you’re arguing with but it isn’t me, because I never once uttered any of those things about evolution that you brought into the discussion.

            You obviously don’t think there is any way that religion could possibly serve an evolutionary positive function by your answers. I accept that and I’m totally fine with that conclusion, if in fact that is true. Is this a locked-down evolutionary conclusion? I asked in the first place, because this is interesting to me. From what I’ve learned about evolution from Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, et. al. is that obviously evolution happened, but the fine details of evolutionary mechanisms and to what part they play a degree in the process is still rich, fertile ground to be covered. It especially seems fuzzy mechanistically when human social constructs get involved.

            I came here humbly and asked a question that I was genuinely curious about and you kind of acted like a douche. Thanks for being such a stereotype.

            1. Gee, sorry. I think you seriously misinterpreted my tone.

              I thought I was making the only assumption possible when you said that everything you see points in the direction of religion being a beneficial evolutionary adaptation.

              I was trying to respond to that sincerely. If you are open to the idea that religion isn’t a beneficial adaptation, and are an atheist, I simply don’t get how you could only see evidence that religion is a positive beneficial adaptation. So taking that contradiction at face value, I wrote what I thought was the most apt response. Sorry if it was offensive. I didn’t mean to be offensive. I was trying to be honest.

              The very definition of “concern trolling” is to come to a site and represent yourself as being on the side of the general attitude of the forum, when you really aren’t, and then using that as a kind of Trojan horse to persuade others that another view, the troller’s true view, has merit. As far as I could see, your post fit that definition to a tee.

              Perhaps you could explain how you can be an anti-theist AND also believe that religion is a beneficial adaptation. Pretty much by definition and anti-theist believes religion is harmful.

              I found the argument that religious people value progeny more than others to be disingenuous and pro-religion. Gee, if you thought my post was offensive, don’t you see how offensive that argument is?

              Perhaps I misread that too, but to me it demonstrates a lack of understanding of human beings in general, and places an undue amount of credit on the religious mode of thinking. It’s the kind of opinion I’ve only ever heard a religious person express. As far as I can tell religious parents and non-religious parents generally love and cherish their progeny above all other things in their lives, and I’ve never noticed a religious parent valuing their progeny in some way that seems superior to non-religious parents. I think statistics of humans throughout the world and throughout history back that up, but if you know of something that contradicts this observation, please let me know.

              Sorry if I misread you. The only thing I had to go by were the words you typed.

              1. Because I’ve been taught that genes and evolution are value neutral. I personally have values as a thinking human being and a social creature (I think religion is bad), but genes have no say in that value whatsoever. So I don’t think my argument is contradictory at all.

                Irrespective of what I personally think about what evolution should do (weed out irrational religious thought and organizations and use science, reason and logic to determine human interaction), does not necessitate that evolution comply with my wishful thinking (that’s for religious people). To me, thinking evolution needs to match up with my own personal personal conclusions about what is “good” or “beneficial” does not mean the genes around the world are going to comply with that. Because again, genes are value-neutral.

                Does that make sense?

              2. I think the point is that religion is a cultural spandrel, rather like literacy. Evolution did not, and could not, confer a selective advantage on our ability to read and write, which like religion (at least in the sense that the rabbi uses the term) arises after the agricultural revolution when the production of a surplus makes such developments possible.

              3. @skepticalmusic,
                Genes may be value neutral, but people are not. So if I really believed that religion was evolution’s way of benefitting humans, that would effect my values.

                If I actually thought that religion was good for people, that people needed it and that it strengthened them, and that this was a consequence of natural selection, then I would not be an anti-theist, I would encourage religion. But I believe that religion weakens people, and that knowing truth is better and more strengthening than taking refuge in a comforting delusion. And I think religious people feel the same because they are products of the same evolution; they believe that hard truths are better than delusions, but ironically they have been pursuaded that the religious narratives are true. If they felt religion were not true, they would change their views because I believe that evolution has selected for humans that seek the truth. What evolution has not been able to confer on humans is the ability to always be right. We can be wrong and not know it, but I think it’s very unusual for a person to know they are wrong and not take steps to correct it. This does happen for a time because people feel obligations and duties, but eventually people get tired of living a lie.

                So your position, if I understand it, still seems inconsistent to me. To believe that evolution has selected for religious faith because it confers an advantage, yet still be an anti-theist just makes no sense to me.

                Nobody would expect evolution and biology to adjust to their opinions, obviously, but it seems entirely rational to adjust one’s opinion as a result of an understanding of evolution. Your anti-theist opinion on religion seems completely out of line with your sense of evolution’s role in creating religion as a beneficial adaptation. It makes no sense. But it must be a very hard world to occupy to believe God is not real but that people should pretend that he exists because it is good for them to do so because of evolution has made it so. This sounds kind of like living a lie to me. But this may be why you are so interested in this topic, because it seems like to find peace you would want to solve this dilemma somehow.

                You also said that you believe because of religion people place an extreme value on their progeny. This doesn’t square with an understanding of evolution. This extreme value on progeny is biological, it’s human, it’s mammalian, and it is because of this that religion has enshrined this value as a core central human value. There is something wrong if you as an anti-theist are willing to accept the proposition that religious people love and value their children more than other humans simply because they are religious. That is putting the cart before the horse and it’s an opinion that it seems can only be arrived at via the habit of thinking that human values are derived from God and religion, rather than from evolution prior to the advent of religion. This is the opposite of what I believe is true, this is the opposite of what makes logical sense from a genetic and evolutionary stand point.

              4. @Jeff Johnson. I never said I believed that religion was an evolutionary positive, I said there were some things that apparently looked to make it seem that way. I was asking the question as to whether or not it was possible that it was an evolutionary positive. Big difference as to what you’re saying my position is.

                I definitely don’t think I can go with on taking any sort of values from evolution. The way I understand it, what the genes “want” and what individuals “want” can, and often are completely different things. If it was shown that slavery had an evolutionary benefit to humans, (as it seems to in many species of ants)and it was partially due to evolution that humans practiced it for millenia, I still wouldn’t rethink my position on slavery as an institution. Again, I’m not saying it was an evolutionary benefit, just as I’m not saying religion is an evolutionary benefit, but I’m not going to be miffed one way or the other if the evidence pointed that way.

                Perhaps we’re talking about different definition of evolution or different aspects of evolutionary mechanism. When I say “evolutionary benefit (or positive)”, I’m simply saying any mechanism that is used to best pass on genetic information. It is my understanding that that is not to be conflated with a statement like “I think religion is bad because it’s untrue”, or any other reasons I can think of why I think religion is bad.

                Are there not plenty of examples in evolution discussion where the behavior can be “bad” for individuals or groups, but be beneficial to the process of passing on genes? Wouldn’t the previously mentioned slave ants be one such example (an example Darwin himself used in Origin of the Species). Does not the eating of young sometimes have an evolutionary benefit? If these things can have an evolutionary benefit, why would it be such a stretch for me to simply ask the question as to whether or not it is possible that religion has an evolutionary “benefit”. Actually, the eating of young is probably a pretty good analogy to religion 😉

          2. Because “religion” is not a selectable trait but a complex and historically contingent cultural phenomenon. Your entire line of argument is trapped in a category error.

            1. I guess that’s what I’m ultimately asking (again asking, I’m making no argument other than allowing for a possibility): where do we stand in evolutionary theory as it pertains to human social interaction on one level and social institutions on another level. I understand that it gets more complex, but does it exclude the idea that selection is working on these levels.

              You guys keep trying to pretend that I’m making assertions here, which I most definitely am not (the full extent of my knowledge of evolution comes from reading Origin of the Species, The Blind Watchmaker, Greatest Show on Earth and many books and articles on the creationistt/evolution problem).

              I said from the beginning I’m genuinely curious about this, this is a blog of an evolutionary biologist and since most of what I’ve read on evolution is old-school natural selection driven evolution, I’m curious where we stand on human culture and institutions driving the evolution process. I get that it would be complex to figure it out at the level of institutions and the complexity of social interaction might exclude us from exacting a one to one corollary, but could the mechanism exist on that level. I don’t see how it’s a category error on my part to ask if on that level if evolution is at work.

              As you say it’s complex and I don’t dismiss it as easily as @Jeff Johnson saying religious belief is “exactly like language” when it comes to talking about evolution. All analogies break down, especially when dealing as something as complex as these, so the only thing we can say is “exactly” like another is in fact something that is the same (don’t take my word for it ask Aristotle). There’s a category error when just talking about “religious belief” vs. “religious institution”. I’m using it in the broadest sense and simply asking this very simple question “is there a possibility that religion (any component or expression or institution) has an evolutionary ‘benefit’ (facilitates passing on genes)?”

              Guys, I also get that you’re jaded by religious trollers, but you guys are treating me like some religious fanatic when I’m clearly not. One of the reasons this interests me so much is because god-belief and religious belief is so untenable, but it’s so pervasive, I’m only left with the conclusion that it’s strong in other areas and I thought maybe passing on genes was one of them. It seems like a reasonable enough explanation that evolution would have a hand in because of the types of beliefs that make up religious belief would have adaptive benefits. I find it hard to believe that this is not possible.

              So again, is it not possibly that religious beliefs and by extension religion has evolutionary benefit? Perhaps we could actually discuss it this time without everyone getting on their high horse.

              1. Religion isn’t selected for, but organization is. Institutionalized religion is an organizational tool that works due to the herd instinct, a necessary component of any species. But I find it a tad Lamarkian to think that our institutions affect our genes.

                It’s also questionable whether or not anyone has control over our institutions, or themselves, for that matter.

  24. Here’s an interesting article about the brain’s reward systems: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-12-decision-group-effort-brain.html

    There seem to be three different system which cooperate. At least among rhesus macaques. But possibly also among us humans.

    From the article: [T]he monkeys preferred to reward themselves first and foremost.

    But they also chose to reward the other monkey when it was either that or nothing for either of them.

    They also were more likely to give the reward to a monkey they knew over one they didn’t, preferred to give to lower status than higher status monkeys, and had almost no interest in giving the juice to an inanimate object.

    MY COMMENT: To give a reward to a buddy who is lower in rank and status is in my opinion a good religious deed (i. e. I like that sort of deity who created the monkeys in that way).

    But that same deity also created these monkeys to prefer to reward themselves. In my eyes that is an act of selfishness.

    So the animal creating deity seems to give with one hand and retrieve with the other. If the same deity created also the evolutionary process – and I think He/She/It should – then He/She/It is neither consistent nor fair.

  25. Just a thought (because there’s an absence of them around here)… I’m wondering what’s the evolutionary value in genes for gayness? I can see how there might be one for the ‘religious impulse’. I’m not saying religion is in the genes at all, just that I don’t know – and neither do you stunningly arrogant and bigoted shower of trying to find the right word here… oh – ‘humanists’

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