The latest “Week in Review” in this Sunday’s New York Times has one of the most odious examples in recent memory of what I call Pop Darwinism—inferring a basis in genetics or natural selection of behaviors that the writer wants to proffer as the norm, e.g., women want one mate while men like to spread it around.
This week’s Darwinian fairy tale comes from a Times science reporter Nicholas Wade who has authored a book on the evolution of religion. Now he may give a fuller explanation of the myriad of assertions that he presents as facts in his book, but all we have in the Sunday Times is the article titled “The evolution of the god gene,” in which Wade states as a factual truth that, “Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”
In staking the claim that religion is in our genes because of natural selection, Wade offers no expert testimony, no proof, nothing but a carefully constructed history of religion as a genetic attribute, in that pop science-and-psych writing style of the hypothetical conjecture.
He tries to get around his lack of facts with an elaborate rhetorical ruse at the beginning of the article. He leads into his various assertions about the natural selection of religion with the findings of two archaeologists in the Oaxaca Valley that lend “a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.” After giving a one-paragraph tour of the findings, Wade writes, “This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world.” He never explains how, never connects the research he cites with his main or ancillary assertions. He then proceeds to write approximately 300 words of fanciful conjecture about the genetic origins of religion, again with no expert citations.
Later on Wade does reference two very prominent scientists when he is making a case for natural selection sometimes favoring groups instead of always favoring individuals. Of course the truth or fiction of this later point has no relevance to a discussion of religion as a genetic attribute.
Perhaps the most intellectually specious parts of the essay are the occasional barbs at atheists who Wade imagines are feeling mighty uneasy with the idea that religion is hard-wired into our genetic code: “For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.”
Wait up, Nick, you’ve got the wrong definition of atheism. Atheists believe that there is no god. Some may find religion useless, but finding religion useless does not define an atheist.
I would have had no problem with Wade’s article whatsoever, and in fact would have found it an enjoyable confection with my Sunday morning tea, if he had liberally sprinkled his statements with three words, “I believe that…” For example, if he had prefaced “Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal” with “I believe that…,” it would still sound like hokum but at least Wade would not be duplicitously presenting his earnest spinning of the origins of religion as scientifically valid fact.