- By Paul Hughes
The process of evolution by natural selection has fascinated me ever since I started reading more in-depth about it a couple years ago. I’ve written plenty about it, so don’t worry—this blog is only tangentially related to the evolution of species (but operates under the assumption that it is how humans came about). In any case, it is necessary to open with a few words regarding the course of the evolution of homo sapiens. In general, we can look at pretty much everything about us and say, “This trait has an evolutionary advantage of __________.” It makes sense, otherwise why would a given trait have stood the test of time (and natural selection)? But I find it very strange when there are two traits that one would think are a byproduct of natural selection, yet do not make sense together. The two traits in question are our natural fear of death (pretty obvious why that came about), and the solely human affinity for religion and, more specifically, the belief in an afterlife. Most people who believe in an afterlife still fear death. But why? Because they nevertheless evolved to do so, regardless of that other trait telling them they have nothing to fear in death.
Now, there are some people who disagree with the idea that religion is just a byproduct of evolution; however, there are perhaps more people who argue that everything about us simply must have come about through evolution by natural selection—perhaps variation might allow for some trait to exist for a short period, but ultimately, if it doesn’t offer an evolutionary advantage, it will disappear. I find myself in the former category. Why, you ask? Why would such a staunch believer in evolution deny a trait’s existence by natural selection? While at first that may seem to be my argument, it actually is the opposite. I would argue that ideas, such as religion, actually do undergo evolution by natural selection of themselves, rather than the thing that originally created them.
This is actually a highly controversial topic among scientists—the evolution of ideas through natural selection (or, to use the term that Richard Dawkins coined in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976,1 the evolution of memes). What? I thought a meme was a funny picture that floated around the social-media-sphere. Well, you’ll see that that isn’t far off from a great example. Scientists define the word meme ever since its creation as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”2 More specifically, I would say an idea (etc.) that is passed on (or replicates, if you will) by means of individual-to-individual interaction but not genetically. In two words… that’s cool. One could argue that evolution by natural selection can take place on anything that has the close-to-but-not-quite-perfect ability to replicate. On the genetic level, this process of not-quite-perfect replication happens to DNA during meiosis, and the effect can be exaggerated by means of sexual reproduction (two individuals’ DNA combining in some way). On the memetic level, this happens through not-quite-perfect communication of an idea between individuals, and perhaps also through the “mutation” of the idea in a given individual’s mind before passing it on once again. To use an example, let’s talk about oh… I don’t know… religion.
Religion obviously is something we would say is a cultural idea that is passed on (not-quite-perfectly) from individual to individual—a meme. I would imagine that the first person to even come up with a religious idea may have started with something simple, like “I make tools, so… the stuff I use to make tools must have been created by someone,” or “Damn, my friend just got killed by that mammoth. But you know what? I bet he lives on… somewhere else… somewhere after death.” A comforting thought, isn’t it? Perhaps the human coming up with the idea had a dream in which his friend interacted with him, “Wow! How did my friend get into my dream? He is alive somewhere!” From there, it snowballs. He talks to his friends and passes on this idea of an afterlife, and his friends tend to like the idea that death isn’t entirely final. So, they tell their children that they will live on even after they die. It isn’t hard to see how a given religion might evolve (and I use the term quite deliberately) from there.
Now, returning to the beginning of this post, we see that while the fear of death and the belief in a life after death seem to fly against each other (in my opinion, there’s no “seeming” about it—they just do), this is the case because both have evolved to be quite a powerful trait within us—just not through the same medium. Which trait ultimately wins out? There are some cases in which people believe in their afterlife so much that they do not fear death (and, in fact, might die as martyrs for their faith), but I would, with much confidence, say that in the vast majority of cases the fear of death wins out. I’m sure many of you are religious, so imagine the following scenario… You are walking down a dark alley at night, and you have the quite common fear of getting mugged; sure, the odds are majorly against that happening, but the fear is still there. Unfortunately for you, on this evening you do get mugged; a man holds you at gunpoint. Is your heart racing? Has your breath quickened? Are you… scared?