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Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?

Religious people talk about things that cannot be seen, stories that cannot be verified, and beings and forces beyond the ordinary. Perhaps their gods are truly at work, or perhaps in human nature there is an impulse to proclaim religious knowledge. If so, it would have to have arisen by natural selection. It is hard to imagine how natural selection could have produced such an impulse. There is a debate among evolutionary scientists about whether or not there is any adaptive advantage to religion at all (Bulbulia 2004a; Atran and Norenzayan 2004). Some believe that it has no adaptive value itself and that it is just a hodge podge of of behaviors that have evolved because they are adaptive in other non-religious contexts. The agent-based simulation described in this article shows that a central unifying feature of religion, a belief in an unverifiable world, could have evolved along side of verifiable knowledge. The simulation makes use of an agent-based communication model with two types of information: verifiable information (real information) about a real world and unverifiable information (unreal information) about about an imaginary world. It examines the conditions necessary for the communication of unreal information to have evolved along side the communication of real information. It offers support for the theory that religion is an adaptive complex and it disputes the theory that religion is a byproduct of unrelated adaptive processes.

Modern biocultural theories about the evolution of religion can be divided into three categories (Dow 2006):
(1) Cognitive theories that postulate that religion is the manifestation of mental modules1 that have evolved for other purposes (Atran and Norenzayan 2004Boyer 2001, 2003).
(2) Ecological regulation theories that postulate that religion is a master symbolic control system regulating the interaction of human groups with their environments, and, therefore, it has evolved as an adaptive mechanism with this function (Rappaport 1999).

(3) Commitment theories that postulate that religion is a system of costly signals that reduce deception and create trust and cooperation within groups (Irons 2001Sosis 2004)

Defining religion for scientific study is difficult (Dow 2007). One feature of religion that seems to stand out as non-adaptive is the belief in the existence of an unseen, unverifiable world. The existence of gods, spirits, and the like cannot be verified by the senses. A belief in them makes no sense from an common evolutionary point of view. The animal whose conception of the world is out of touch with reality should be eliminated by natural selection. The one whose mental images correspond most closely to the real environment should be one to survive. The primary problem of explaining how religion has evolved through natural selection is the problem of explaining the belief in unreal things.

If religion is adaptive, the beliefs, perceptions, and symbols created by religion must increase human survival and reproduction in some way other than providing useful images of the environment. The impact of religious communication on survival is probably through its effect on social organization.

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