Post No.: 0247
Religion is affiliated with commitment and family values, and therefore religiosity arguably makes a long-term mate more attractive – for women (commitment and fidelity) as well as for men (reducing the risk of cuckoldry). Fidelity is important for both genders, and fidelity is promoted in the major religions of the world today.
In some religions, guarding one’s mate is taken extremely seriously (e.g. covering up married women). Marriage and ‘until death do us part’-type fidelity promotes monogamous pair-bonding and discourages mate-switching too. So these could be cultural innovations that push people against their individualistic genetic instincts (to, particularly for men, switch mates as often as possible), to the benefit of a group’s overall long-term success? Here, I want to add to Post No.: 0217 but concentrating more on the possible reasons for the successful evolution of religions themselves.
Genetic instincts that express in much-changed environments (e.g. rapidly growing population densities) from where and when they mainly evolved can be overly short-term focused or otherwise less than optimal within these newer environments, and so cultural innovations can potentially improve upon our innate behaviours. For example, the instinct to consume as many calories as one can during times of stress/uncertainty was beneficial in historic environments for the survival of our ancestors. But in this modern environment of constant stress, more sedentary lifestyles and easily accessible and plentiful calorie-dense foods and drinks, such an instinct can have grave negative consequences for the health and productivity of a nation. Hence we often need to utilise cultural innovations to create more optimal outcomes for society (from e.g. public education to laws). So marriage is arguably a cultural innovation created to promote internal peace within a large civilised group.
Divorces most commonly occur when a couple’s offspring reaches about 6 years old – when the child is probably going to make it to reproductive age from there but he/she still needs some adult help. But too much mate-switching creates inter-sexual and intra-sexual conflict that could be disruptive within a group. So although it could be genetically advantageous for the relatively few winners in a polygamous or polyamorous society, it’s sub-optimal for the group as a whole, which puts them in danger when it comes to inter-group competition and conflict. (This is not to say that a minority within a group cannot be (peacefully) polygamous or polyamorous but it’d cause a lot of internal group competition and conflict if the majority were fighting for as many mates as they could each personally get. Gorillas with their polygynous mating strategy exist, but gorillas are not thriving in number as well as humans.) Therefore by promoting long-term pair-bonding and fidelity, and discouraging mate-switching – religiosity may benefit the group overall by reducing internal conflict and increasing harmony in terms of sexual selection.
Time and again, we see that serving the best interests for an individual or the short-term frequently works against the best interests for their group or the long-term. These interests often misalign. This is the case with the many environmental issues today, for instance. A social group (which may mean an entire social species in some cases, for which humans are a social species) may still survive for being selfish, antisocial and individualistic but it’ll not optimise or thrive for the overall maximum genetic benefit of the group. So reining in selfishness was and is an adaptive advantage for a group of humans, especially as populations and group sizes grew larger and larger and less like the small tribes of ancestral times.
Learnt culture – in this case religion – can vastly improve on people relying on their raw genetic instincts. And, arguably, the huge extent the human species relies on culture, and this gene-culture co-evolution, is one major reason why humans dominate the planet as complex animals, and can live in groups much larger than Dunbar’s number compared to other primate cousins, who only mainly group due to kin or due to power and brutality – humans love to voluntarily form groups even with non-relatives and without coercion, and that can only happen through cooperation. It’s not to say that humans didn’t genetically evolve with strong natural furry instincts to cooperate and express some fidelity, but religions culturally evolved (or co-evolved with genetic evolution) for many reasons too, and certain specific religions (that enforced certain strong fidelity norms) thrived and expanded throughout relatively recent history as human populations also exponentially boomed during this concurrent time.
A bit of internal competition is fine but not if this weakens the group’s ability to compete against other groups or tackle collective action problems. It’s like a bit of internal competition is healthy for a firm but not if this weakens the firm’s cohesion, creates an internal culture of blaming others for anything that goes wrong, and ultimately hampers its ability to compete against other firms for all the infighting. Within a boat race team, there is internal competition for a place on the team, but if team members are so individualistically selfish that they cheat or sabotage each other in order to get on the team, they’ll individually and collectively suffer overall for being selfish and myopic for not being the best team they can be together when faced with competition against other boat race teams that do internally cooperate well. Countries that historically infought too much often got invaded by foreign powers or simply collapsed from within. And if we’re so selfish that the responsibility to tackle collective action problems is constantly being deferred onto others, such as environmental issues, then we’ll collectively suffer in the long run.
Throughout nature there is indeed competition, but throughout nature group level cooperation, or at least balance and harmony, is ultimately more important. It does no good for your own species if you are the last one standing! Group selection will ultimately matter more to a species than individual selection because if a group survives then it is logically necessary that many individuals within that group will survive, but if an individual survives then it is not logically necessary that enough to make a group will survive. So via natural selection and gene-culture co-evolution, humans evolved to compete but also to ultimately cooperate.
A lot of free-riders (e.g. those who cheat to violate sexual fidelity norms) may become individually successful (have more children in this case), but again, if everyone or the majority of a group were similarly selfish then such a group would risk disintegrating or losing relatively in the face of inter-group competition. So the stable equilibrium for a non-extinct population is one where a group consists of mostly cooperative people or behaviours, with only a relatively few selfish people or behaviours. (Of course, some successful selfish free-riders likely wrote many official histories that got taught to later generations, and will likely write the present and future autobiographies that sell and inspire, to the detriment of their societies overall if too many people listen to them without putting free-riders in their proper contexts! They get revered and take disproportionate individual credit for their groups’ achievements as if they achieved them single-handedly. (There are numerous disgraced people who have/had royal honours, for instance!) Well some great leaders and true heroes aren’t so egocentric yet still the media will focus on them rather than the teams they belonged to.)
However, ingroup cooperation and construction tends to naturally create outgroup competition and destruction! Groups that are too tight, exclusive and push out or don’t welcome dissenters or anyone who seems different can create insularity. People also feel stronger and can therefore feel insolent as a group towards non-member minorities of that group (like bullies only tend to feel cocky when they outnumber their targets). So inter-group competition is also a bad thing for all involved in a small and interconnected world (e.g. violent wars or trade wars between countries).
So we somehow need a way to all come together and recognise that we’re all ultimately part of the same ingroup – that we’re all in/on the same boat/planet and part of the same species. No person is an island entire of him/herself. And although one genetic difference can potentially make a big difference – everyone is still ultimately far more genetically related than unrelated to each and every other person on the planet today, thus it still makes sense for a huge genetic part of everyone to overall cooperate rather than fight when it comes to selection.
The only issue then is how to tackle those free-riders? This could be done by aligning everyone’s interests together tightly i.e. one’s own individual outcome is intrinsically linked to the group’s outcome i.e. ‘if we lose then I lose’ or ‘if we win then I win’, rather than, for instance, ‘if we lose then I’ll just go to my tax haven or otherwise emigrate because I can personally afford to’. We need to understand our common adversaries or problems (e.g. climate change, where if the planet suffers, we’ll all eventually suffer). Well that’s the theory anyway!
Religions, meanwhile, attempt to tackle free-riders via wrathful, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent gods to keep even high-status people in line – as long as they remember and are fearful enough of the believed afterlife consequences of committing any fuzzy sins. Alternatively, enforced secular laws and external regulations with true vigilance and teeth can work too where necessary.
There’s undeniably a lot of ‘what about this?’ and ‘what about that?’ when it comes to critiquing religions, such as forced marriages, marrying cousins and the double-standards of allowing more latitude for men to have multiple partners when it comes to certain sects of certain religions. So I recognise that these theories are highly debatable. However, when applying a scientific or logical analysis onto religions as a whole, we must recognise that religions evolved and grew for a reason(s) – especially the major ones we see today – so it’s not folly to try to infer that they must’ve brought some overall advantages to their members over the religions that came and went or stayed small, and one of those advantages could be in the area of relationship fidelity. Popularity implies success, and success implies it has, or at least had, advantages, at least for its time and place. Religions are successful cultural memes for a reason.
The way things generally were before these current major world religions existed weren’t necessarily better – if they were better then one needs to ask why did those times become generally outmoded? (It’s like, across all cultures, why did more humans start to cook food rather than stay consuming exclusively raw food diets?) We can also blindly follow nature, or what we perceive as being ‘natural and therefore pure and good’, but understand that an estimated 99% of all species that have ever lived on this planet have gone extinct after being able to follow only their genetically-endowed instincts. So culture plays a key adaptive role in our survival and progress, and a major cultural influence is or has been religion.
Many may argue though that we have culturally evolved even better institutions now. New types of more adaptable, secular, institutions can now arguably take over from religious institutions. But secular options might not have ever evolved if it weren’t for religions. All nascent civilisations tend to start with proto-religious ideas that involve superstitions, spirits and rituals rather than go straight into something like constitutions or democracy.
Recognising the controversy of religions shaping marital norms, fidelity and their (overall) advantages for groups as a whole, you can add your views via the Twitter comment button below. The more that is written in this blog, especially on the range of particular subjects explored, the more chance there’ll be views expressed that are challengeable, controversial or even erroneous, and will need to be updated. I recognise this with humility and an open mind. Fluffystealthkitten and I don’t know it all but we haven’t stopped learning yet, and neither should anyone else.