Biology Magazine

The Sins of an Evolutionary Psychologist

By Cris

In a recent essay on the cult of David Foster Wallace, Nathan Heller notes that DFW’s mature work deals with the crisis of contemporary pluralism: “how to think intelligently and truthfully about the world when that world is full of intelligent and truthful people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought.” While Heller characterizes this as the “basic problem of the postmodern landscape,” it surely is more than this.

It is also a problem in science, which scorns postmodernism and savages it with satire. Science, and those who play in its fields, is chock full of highly intelligent people who adhere to irreconcilable schools of thought. We can only hope that the schoolmasters involved are, as Heller twice notes, thinking truthfully. Those who are not specialists in a particular field and who rely on experts are entitled, at a minimum, to intellectual honesty.

In this regard, it was refreshing to see an evolutionary psychologist recently make a public confession: resurrection apparently does not contradict science because it is beyond natural law. Death, in a special one-off some 2000 years ago, is not really death. This is on good authority of the pope and tradition.

Prior to this confession, I had long been at a loss to understand the stories this evolutionary psychologist has been telling about the “evolution of religion.” Matt Rossano, psychology professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, has been nothing if not prolific on the subject and recently published a book that purports to explain how religion evolved through “supernatural selection.” At least we now know what has been driving Rossano, and that his use of science and anthropology is not disinterested.

Anthropologists are in general agreement that between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, one or several groups of humans living in Africa experienced some kind of breakthrough enabling them increase their numbers, leave the continent, and colonize the world. Who these humans were and where they lived remains something of a mystery. What sorts of advantages these humans possessed also remains something of a mystery.

There is no shortage of plausible hypotheses. They could have been the first group(s) to possess fully fluent language or the capacity for symbolic thought. They may have been technological innovators, crafting better tools, weapons, shelters, and clothing than their predecessors. Some or all these things would have resulted in larger group sizes, which surely played a primary role in their success.

Or, as Rossano would have us believe, they were the first to get religion. This is of course possible. But is it probable? Is it parsimonious? Does the majority of the evidence point in this direction? The answers are no, no, and no.

The evidence is uncertain and equivocal, though you would never know this by reading Rossano’s work. As he selectively presents the evidence, you would think that science has the answers and it all points to the supernatural. We don’t have the answers, and the incredible story Rossano tells about the “evolution of religion” appears to be wishful (or Catholic) thinking.


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