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Compassion and Religion: Darwin’s Unscratchable Itches

If one’s research is in a hole as deep as evolutionary psychology is when accounting for compassion, why not stop digging?

Last Sunday, I pointed to a chapter I wrote in The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos (2021) on evolutionary psychology, best understood as the psychology we have derived from our not-quite-human ancestors.

“Not-quite-human ancestors”? Well, if you believe in conventional evolution theory at all, you must suppose that we have not-quite-human ancestors. Thus, to understand the origin of traits like giving to the Heart & Stroke Fund or subscribing to popular science magazines, we must get back to a point before any such institutions could have existed but there was some sort of dim potential. But we can’t really do that because, as noted last Sunday, there is no such thing as a fossil mind.

Early human minds, from what we can glean of them from ancient culture, don’t really answer the question. If we thawed out a Neanderthal from the permafrost from 50,000 years ago and managed to communicate with him, what might happen?

Here’s one possibility: He turns out to love football, beer, and french fries. He really wants a deer rifle. He is an awesome companion in a deer blind — very quiet and a good shot. Then, one day, sitting for hours overnight in a snowstorm back at the camp, he starts to tell us about his religion… and how he wishes his now-forever lost woman had understood him better…

Have we really got to the bottom of human psychology? Hardly. He could have been born in Ontario, Canada, in 1964 and stepped out of a deer blind somewhere near Peterborough.

And to the extent that we can interpret early human artifacts and symbols at all, they are human artifacts and symbols.

All extant humans have human psychologies. So how are we to gain hard evidence for a not-quite-human psychology that would help us understand the evolution of basic traits? That’s what naturalists would need — at least to start — to explain traits like compassion and religion in wholly evolutionary terms.

Some researchers turn to chimpanzees, on the basis that we are genetically closely related. Sadly, the chimpanzees never invented religion, organized charities, arts, sciences, etc. — the very topics for which we would like an account. Thus, if our behavior is said to stem from our prehuman past, not from our present circumstances, evolutionary psychology remains a discipline without a subject. But let’s look note what evolutionary psychologists have to say about compassion and religion.

Compassion’s goal, from the evo psych perspective, always means spreading selfish genes

Compassion has been called “an anomalous thorn in Darwin’s side” and a “conundrum that Darwinians would need to solve, given their view of the ruthless struggle among living beings for survival.” The evolutionary psychologists’ first step in reframing qualities we often call compassion, self-sacrifice, or quiet heroism, etc., is renaming them. They are now loosely called “altruism.” They are regarded as part of a spectrum in which mindless worker ants pass on their genes by serving their queen instead of having their own offspring.

Giving a helping hand.

Evolutionist William Hamilton described the idea mathematically, calling it “inclusive fitness,” and voila!, it was science. Later, it all exploded into a huge paper war that I cover in the chapter — a paper war that most observers found hard to comprehend. The bottom line is that, in the evo psych view,

A number of less rigorous Darwinian accounts of altruism are also available, usually riffing off Richard Dawkins’s notion of the “selfish gene.” Humans, along with social insects, bacteria, and viruses “share gene products and behave in ways that can’t be described as anything but generous.” Elsewhere, we are told that altruism is just another form of manipulation or that it may be hardwired into our genes (“in the end people are just biological organisms”). Or, on another view, it’s a mating signal; indeed, it gets one more sex partners. It enables co-operative breeding and raising of offspring or otherwise serves “group needs.”

Does it feel like science to you? To me, it feels like emptying Darwin’s wastebasket.

Oxford physiologist Denis Noble observes that Richard Dawkins’s “selfish genes” have no empirical basis in science. Though it is “one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented,” it does not coincide with how genes actually work. David Dobbs makes a similar point at Aeon.

It’s not clear that exceptionally altruistic people are governed by a need to spread their genes. Many are celibate by conviction. But, as we have seen, an evolutionary psychology explanation need not be particularly informative; it can fail to account for obvious facts and still pass muster, as long as it is fully naturalist and does not stray from Darwinism. We will see this again when we look at evolutionary psychology’s account of religion.

Evo Psych: Religion can be good, bad, or useless; the only thing it can’t be is true to reality

That Darwinizing any aspect of human behavior is “scientific” is not doubted among evolutionary psychologists. The question, for them, is how religion functions as an evolutionary adaptation for survival, to which truth claims are irrelevant.

First, it could be a useful adaptation. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt speculates that “there was a long period in human evolution during which it was adaptive to lose the self and merge with others. It wasn’t adaptive for individuals to do so, but it was adaptive for groups.” Others consider religion to be a byproduct, a parasite on useful traits.
But, some theorists see religion as a bad adaptation. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne attributes Americans’ doubt about Darwinian evolution theories to religious faith, which, he claims, correlates highly with social dysfunction. The relationship between religion and adaptation that we can observe in the world around us is mixed so there is no reason to prefer one theory to the other or even to accept the basis of the theorizing: that religion got started because it aids survival.

Religion conflicts global issue

These theories about religion (useful, useless, harmful) have two things in common: First, they typically spill forth with no real engagement with religion. For example, one recent study claimed that believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues. But if it’s that simple, why don’t the many adherents whose religion requires them to do things they don’t like (fast, give more to the poor) and give up what they really like (smoking pot, casual sex) just endow God with more permissive beliefs?

If one’s research is in a hole that deep, why not stop digging? Well, in the case of evolutionary psychology, the hole is the enterprise. To whatever extent religion is not merely the spread of selfish genes, it is necessarily invisible to the evolutionary psychologist.

Surveying evolutionary psychology’s output prompts the thought: It may be the strongest reason to take seriously the idea that not everything about the human being can be explained with reference to evolution.

You may also wish to read: There is no such thing as a fossil mind. A chapter on evolutionary psychology in Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith (2021) looks at the curious discipline of evolutionary psychology. If our behavior is said to stem from our prehuman past, not from our present circumstances, evolutionary psychology is a discipline without a subject.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Compassion and Religion: Darwin’s Unscratchable Itches