When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 and The
Ascent of Man in 1871, he was, rightly, concerned that evolution
by natural selection would be seen as standing opposed to religion.
However, the proposition to be defended here is that he was
mistaken on this point and that religion arose as an evolutionary
adaptation to meet a peculiarly human need:
To maintain important aspects of human behaviour, those that
vary among different groups of humans, sufficiently constant
over a sufficiently large number of individuals and over a
sufficiently large span of time that natural selection, working on
cultural evolution, can act upon them.
• Comparison of Genetic and Cultural Evolution
• Comparison of control of group behaviour in
bees and humans; and the problem of group
• The role of religious prescriptions as the source
of ethics and the building blocks of cultural
• Implications for the “Greening of Humanity”
• Describes the processes by which all
different life forms have developed from
their earliest common ancestor.
• Cyanobacteria and Archaea whose fossils can date from
3.5 billion years BP, are the earliest known life form and
were responsible for creating the first free oxygen in the
atmosphere. Their descendents are still abundant.
The Time Line
The Universe is c. 15 billion years old (1 year)
The Earth is c. 5 billion years old (4 months)
Earliest life – Archaea – arose c. 3 – 3.5 billion ago (11 weeks)
First Vertebrates c. 400–500 million years BP (11 days)
First Mammals c.250 million years BP (6 days)
First Primates c.55 million years BP (32 hours)
First Monkeys c. 30-35 million years BP (19 hours)
Last shared ancestor of man and chimps c. 6 million years BP (3.5 hours)
Origin of Homo sapiens sapiens c.120,000 years BP (4 minutes)
The agricultural revolution occurred c.10,000 years BP (21 seconds)
There have been only c. 4000 generations of Humans
( E.Coli goes through 4000 generations in c.2 months and mice in c.650 years
and their behaviour has probably not changed much over these times- but
humans have gone from the stone age to the silicon chip age)
• Natural selection favours the survival of those
who leave the most progeny that will
• Natural selection works on selective pressures in
the present; it does not anticipate future events
and has no goal.
• The major role of parasitism as a driver of
natural selection is frequently underestimated
• These features apply equally to cultural
“The survival of the fittest”
• This unfortunate term was coined by Herbert Spencer (although Darwin
and Huxley both used it.)
• It is probably at the core of the deep misunderstanding of Darwin by
politicians from Marx to Hitler because it was taken to imply that survival
involved direct conflict between competing groups and that “superior”
groups should therefore regard it as appropriate to try to exterminate their
• This is not inherent in natural selection and is probably not that common in
• For example: the competition between the American grey squirrel and the
native British red squirrel. The loss of red squirrels in the presence of grey
squirrels is due not to direct conflict between them but to the squirrel pox
virus which infects grey squirrels without doing them serious harm, but
which kills red squirrels.
(Pox viruses survive well in drays etc and can there infect the red squirrel.)
• “Culture” used in this sense describes the transmission
of information between individuals and generations by
any means other than through the genome.
• Cultural Evolution has been described in animals (John
Tyler Bonner (1980) “The Evolution of Culture in Animals” New Jersey:
Princeton University Press.) and was originally transmitted by
• In a highly developed form cultural evolution is seen only
in humans and is intimately associated with the
development of language. Oral transmission was
supplemented by writing c. 200 generations ago and by
electronic means from c. 2 generations ago.
• Cultural evolution works through natural selection; but
there are no “cultural species” and no “non-blending”
inheritance; and it quite clearly acts on groups.
• Culturgenes (Wilson) or memes (Dawkins) as
homologues of genes should not be taken too seriously .
Advantages of Cultural Evolution
• Much faster than genetic change
• Can be disseminated further and faster
• Allows greater range of behaviour
i.e. much greater innovation
Would it be possible to encode in the genome how
to fly an airliner or fill in a tax return?
Disadvantages of Cultural Evolution
• Gains are much less secure
• Unlike genetic evolutionary changes
cultural changes are not shared by all
members of the group and in the past
were often confined to the literate elite
(frequently this was the priesthood)
e.g. The Mayas had a sophisticated
civilization but after the Spanish conquest when
the ruling elite was destroyed the remaining
population reverted to the stone age.
• Live in communities where cooperation of
individuals who do different tasks is essential for
• The Queen (fertile female) lays eggs +/- sperm
to give rise to diploid females or haploid males.
• Males (drones) mate with virgin queen on her
• Workers (infertile females) do everything else.
Variations in bee behaviour
• Neat versus untidy builders and cappers
• Aggressive versus docile behaviour
• Industrious versus lazy foragers
• Swarming prone versus swarming averse
• These variations are genetically
determined and not learned
The “re-queening” experiment
• Behavioural variation is entirely genetically
determined and not learned from
surrounding workers as shown regularly
when colonies are given new mated
• This involves “group selection”
• Bees therefore do not have free will (and
therefore have no need for religion).
• Hamilton believed that bees die after stinging an insect
attacking their hive and that this altruistic act is explained by
their 75% genetic identity with their sister workers (which
results from the haploid drones and diploid queen) – “kin
• This gave rise to the “Selfish Gene”; and the rejection of group
selection; both very influential ideas in socio-biology
• Their basis is however all wrong.
Bees do not die when they sting other insects.
Termites (which do not have haploid males) behave in a
similar way to bees.
Virgin queens mate with many drones and workers are not
all from the same “father” (and are not all 75% genetically
Rethinking The Theoretical
Foundation of Sociobiology
(Wilson DS & Wilson EO (2007) Quart Rev Biol 82: 327-348)
“Selfishness beats altruism within groups.
Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.
Everything else is commentary”
i.e Multi-level and group selection have come back in
from the cold.
It is not clear that other sociobiologists (e.g. Richard
Dawkins) have yet accepted this Wittgensteinian
• In contrast to bees, variation in behaviour
between different groups of humans is
determined culturally - not genetically.
• Shown for example by movement of children
between very disparate groups, e.g. New
Guinea Highlands to USA.
(Carleton Gajdusek brought 56 mostly male children back
from Papua New Guinea to live in the United States and
provided them with the opportunity to receive high school and
How natural selection works for cultural
• In bees, genotype -> phenotype which allows selection
by reproductive success
• To allow culturally determined variation in behaviour to
undergo selection the cultural variants need to be
maintained over sufficient numbers of individuals and for
enough generations for selection to be able to act
• Cultural patterns of behaviour have mostly been
expressed as religious prescription
• The generation of these cultural variants and their
enforcement have given religions a vital evolutionary
The Religious Perspective in Time
• Emergence of Homo Sap Sap 120K BP (1 year)
• First burials at Adze Cave, Israel c.100K BP (10 months)
• “Venus figurines” in Europe c. 50K BP (5 months)
• Ritual structures at Çatal Höyük c. 8K BP (3.5 weeks)
monotheistic religion (Akhnaton) c.3360 BP (10 days)
• Extant religions are no older and generally more recent.
• If religion provides the basis for maintaining cultural variation
this must go back much further than any religions we now
• “Virtue, as founded upon reverence of
God and expectation of future rewards
• Virtue encapsulates the behavioural “prescription” – the
thou shalts and the thou shalt nots – which is the core of
all (existing) religions and probably of all earlier ones as
• “Virtue” is essentially the same as “ethics”
• Describes the prescriptive element of a religion
– the fiats and caveats.
• All religions have this prescriptive element in
recognisably similar forms.
Deals with – inter alia -:
diet and health;
inter-personal relations (honesty & truthfulness);
attitudes to work;
attitudes to death and suicide
• Very concerned with increasing population.
Ethical paradigm of all major religions is that of
an endangered species
• Primary obligation of male is to feed and defend
his mate and children
• Primary obligation of female is to breed
• Equivalence of these was recognised in Norse
mythology. Valhalla was reserved for men who
die in battle and women who die in childbirth.
Reverence of God and expectation of
future rewards and punishments
• Many – but not all – religions have a God or
The attributes of Gods vary widely but generally include power and
wisdom superior to those of humans.
• Many – but not all – religions believe in an
afterlife where rewards are enjoyed and
Others believe in reincarnation
• The will of God and the hopes/fears of the
afterlife serve to “enforce” Virtue by a blend of
wish fulfilment and fear fulfilment usually backed
up by various forms of coercion
The superstructure does not
need to be accurate
• Error in the mythical superstructure does not
invalidate the prescription
Apollo’s horses do not pull the sun across the sky each
day but “nothing to excess” was a successful instruction
The power of the injunctions to “love your neighbour”
and “to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” is
unaffected by scepticism about the Virgin Birth or the Trinity or
the resurrection of the body
But it does need to be effective
• If the function of the superstructure is to enforce
one prescription as opposed to another then one
can understand why successful religions tend to
• This does however have a severe downside
giving rise to fundamentalism, persecution and
• A religion showing unlimited tolerance to other
prescriptions would lose its evolutionary function
How does religious (and ethical)
• Clearly not by prophets speculating on what is
advantageous for the survival of the group in the
• A “Popperian” View is that innovations are – like
scientific theories – are random, aesthetic or
• The reasons for their introduction are rarely, if
ever, related to their selective advantage
e.g male circumcision ~ resistance to STD & Ca cervix in female
Implications of religion as an
• A degree of free will must exist.
Individuals and/or groups must be able to choose between
religions for selection to occur.
• Genetic determinism can therefore be
• A religion needs to defend its prescription and
to be intolerant of other religions
This explains why religions typically preach love but practise hate.
• Ethics form the basis of selection
This contradicts TH Huxley’s view that ethics and selection
are in conflict
“Ethics and Evolution” (1893)
TH Huxley (1822–1895),
• As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best--what we call goodness or virtue—
involves a course of conduct which in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic
struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside,
or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his
fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as
possible to survive.
• Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual
of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least
the life of something better than a brutal savage.
• The struggle for existence which has done such admirable work in cosmic nature, must, it appears, be
equally beneficent in the ethical sphere. Yet if that which I have insisted upon is true; if the cosmic process
has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of
ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?
• Let us understand, once for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic
process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.
Huxley regarded ethics as fixed and (probably) derived from God.
This view is now held by those who believe in “Natural Law”
However this does not bear much scrutiny
Historical cultures have held widely different views on, inter alia, slavery,
human sacrifice, cannibalism and suicide.
The view that the fetus is ensouled at conception is of 19th Century origin
The concept of human rights has evolved especially since the European
Enlightenment - “Humanity is an end in itself” - Kant
Those ethical rules that have been selected over many cultures and over
long periods – altruism, respect for human life & dignity, truthfulness and
honesty – form the core of contemporary “universal” ethical prescription
Religious Prescription in a secular World
• Much behavioural prescription ceded to secular law
• Questions of conscience are still left to free vote in UK
• Separation of Church and State widespread but patchy
• It is quite common (among Christians and Jews) to obey
the religious prescriptions, and even to worship God
without believing in his existence. This is an entirely
• It is the norm in secular societies for sceptics to adhere
to the “virtue” of religion while not believing at all.
• Increasing population has undermined the long-standing
ethical paradigm of an endangered species. Mankind is
now an endangering species
• This has had and will need to have implications for:
the unfettered right and duty to breed
the working of democracy between groups
the relationship between man and the physical environment
• Women’s Liberation and Gay Rights are both examples
of the results of this paradigm shift – it is not all bad
• The “secular religions” of the 20th
Century – Nazism and
Communism- demonstrate the difficulties and dangers of
paradigm shifts – something the neo-atheists should
bear in mind
• However: evolutionary speculations do not lend
themselves to prophecy. The future may surprise us all
Implications for the Greening of Humanity
• The essential problem is to control
population growth or even to reverse it
• This will require substantial changes to
contemporary religious and ethical
• All other changes to a green economy are
secondary and will, at best, delay the
anticipated ecological crisis by a few years
The Panglossian Delusion
• The Socratic idea that the human body is perfect
was adopted by the Abrahamic religions
If man is created in the image of God who is clearly perfect, then man too must
• 19th century evolutionary thinkers wished to
replace the perfect divine creation with the perfect
• “That is the one point which I think all evolutionists
are agreed upon, that it is virtually impossible to do
a better job than an organism is doing in its own
environment. (Richard Lewontin quoted in Dawkins “The Extended Phenotype” 1982:30)
Oh no – they don’t!
• The perfection of the human body (and the human
genome) is however a delusion.
Evolution muddles through
• Molecular evolution has very restricted options
for producing new or improved functions. It
needs currently unused “pseudogenes” – usually
produced by gene (or chromosome) duplication
– coding for a finite number of protein domains
• Evolution is analogous to writing Microsoft
software: take modules/domains from various
sites; hitch them together and bench mark them.
If the new gene “works” it is kept.
• Complexity is a side effect of evolution and not a
sign of design, intelligent or otherwise!
Altruism, Kin selection and the
• Difficulty of reconciling altruism with natural
selection already concerned Darwin
• Kin selection - “the evolution of characteristics which favour
the survival of close relatives of the affected individual, by
processes which do not require any discontinuities in the population
breeding structure.” was adopted as explanation.
• Became the basis of the “selfish gene” and the
rejection of group selection in evolution not least
by the sociobiologists (EO Wilson) who
extended the theory also to cultural evolution
and introduced the concept of a “culturgene”
• Lachmann PJ (1983) Why Religions? An Evolutionary View of the
Behaviour of Bees and Men. Cambridge Review 104 22-26
• Lachmann PJ (2009) God: “To Be or Not to Be; That Is Not the Question
(Book review of: God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That
God Does Not Exist by Victor J. Stenger. New York: Prometheus, 2007. 294
pp.) Am J Psychol 122 272 - 278
• Lachmann PJ (2010) Religion - An evolutionary adaptation. FASEB J.
• Lachmann PJ (2010) Genetic and cultural evolution: from fossils to proteins;
and from behaviour to ethics. Eur Rev 18: 297 – 309
Does Goodness (virtue) require the
existence of God?
• “There must be something which is to all beings
the cause of there being goodness and every
other perfection, and this we call God”
• That ethical systems have been expressed in
generally religious form is a tribute to the
persuasive nature of the prescriptive aspect of
religion. However, this says nothing whatever
about the existence, or otherwise, of God.
God: To be or not to be – that is not
There are Gods that certainly did not exist – the rivers and rocks of
primitive religion; the sun; fire; the Gods of Olympus and of Valhalla
There are Gods that certainly did exist
- Oriental and Roman emperors
The existence of the God of Abraham is disputed
There are religions without Gods
- Buddhism (in its original form) was antitheistic; Confucianism
All these religions have been successful.
Gods need to be obeyed; whether they exist matters
Prescriptions - Diet
RC no meat
on Friday &
diet in Lent
Hindus No No Yes
Yes - Only
fins + scales
Hallal rules No
Prescriptions – Reproduction and Morals
Worship Moral Prescription
Buddhists Generally Permissive
Sila:To refrain from taking life;
To refrain from theft;
To refrain from sensual (inc.
To refrain from lying ;
To refrain from intoxicants.
The Ten Commandments;
Variation on many details
Hindus Permissive Prescribed No
to cross sea
Dharma: mercy (refusal of
- renunciation/sense control
(refusal of intoxicants)
- truthfulness (refusal of
gambling and speculations)
- purity (refusal of sex forbidden
Non-violence (Ahimsa); Truth
Jews Generally permissive
"Do not do unto others that which
is repugnant to you" (Hillel);
Much variation between
orthodox and reform groups
Muslims Generally Permissive
Sharia - wide-ranging
prescription. Variation between
Zoroastrians No Prescribed
"Good thoughts, good words,
good deeds" (Humata, Hukhta,
Hvarshta); Asceticism frowned