Above: Image © martinwimmer, iStockphoto

Humans have been practicing religion for a very long time. Archaeologists have found human remains between 30,000 and 50,000 years old buried with objects like animal bones! This suggests that even our very distant ancestors believed in some kind of afterlife.

Religion has caused both conflict and cooperation through the ages. So why has it lasted so long? This question has puzzled scientists who study society from an evolutionary perspective, including biologists, psychologists and anthropologists. However, they generally believe that the work of Charles Darwin can offer some answers.

Did you know? A study by evolutionary psychologists found that people who participate in prosocial institutions like markets and major religions tend to act more fairly in exchanges with strangers.

Evolution by natural selection

Darwin developed the concept of natural selection to help explain evolution. That’s the process through which living organisms change from generation to generation. They change by acquiring new traits, including behaviours and abilities.

According to natural selection, the organisms most likely to survive and reproduce have traits that help them face environmental challenges. They pass these traits on to their offspring through their genes, giving future generations a better chance at survival as well.

Did you know? Ten thousand years ago, Neanderthals in western Europe began removing the flesh and organs from their dead before burial. It’s not clear whether this is evidence of cannibalism or funeral traditions.

Prosocial behaviour

So, does natural selection have anything to do with religion? Actually, it might explain why religion has been practised throughout human history. Religion offers groups of people a way to increase prosocial behaviour. This refers to behaviour that promotes cooperation, social acceptance and friendship.

Prosocial behaviour helps members of a group work together and compete with members of other groups. This may be why religion developed, and why it spread. However, unlike the process of natural selection described by Darwin, this one does not have a genetic basis. You don’t inherit your religion from your parents in the same way as your eye colour!

Advantages of religion

Even if you’re not a religious person yourself, you can probably see how a group with shared religious beliefs might have a better chance of surviving than other groups. The group might even be more likely to replace other groups over time.

For instance, the ancient Aztecs believed in a sun god that needed regular human blood sacrifices. This helped drive their military conquests. Beginning in the seventh century, shared Islamic beliefs helped Arab tribes conquer nearby non-Muslim societies. In particular, the idea that there was a single god to which all human beings must submit to inspired groups that had previously fought among themselves to cooperate. A few centuries later, during the Crusades, Christian leaders in Europe used religion as the basis for military alliances. They cooperated to conquer territories from Muslim leaders and to consolidate their power at home.

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Of course, these examples show how religion can promote both cooperation within groups and conflict between them. And religion is just one example of how Darwin’s concept of natural selection can help explain human cultural practices. Can you find any others?

Learn More!

About the development of religion:

About evolution and human behaviour:

Human moral behaviour: Why are people nice to each other? (2016)
Danial Asadolahi, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Danial Asadolahi

I'm from Vancouver, B.C. and am currently working towards my doctoral degree in psychology at Adler University in Vancouver. I've been interested in science from a young age, and strongly believe that a science-based education is key to the health and happiness of human societies worldwide. My scientific interests are broad, ranging from biology and physics to the social sciences (particularly psychology, economics, and sociology). My hope as a volunteer author with Let's Talk Science is to do my best to educate young minds about the wonderful activity that is science, and help increase their scientific understanding of various phenomena.

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