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Conference on religion as an evolutionary byproduct

If you are in the UK, and if you are a postgraduate, there will be a conference on religion as an evolutionary byproduct (the “spandrel” account of religion) at the University of Birmingham on 17 May. They will cover the travel costs of graduate speakers. Contact Naomi Thompson ( by the 30th of April to register an interest and enquire. Steve Clarke, from Oxford, will be keynote speaker.


  1. Porlock Junior Porlock Junior

    The spandrel account of religion. Nice.

  2. jackd jackd

    To the extent that they notice the conference at all, religious apologists will be spilling ink over how the premises are wrongheaded and mistaken and unevidenced and beside the point of *real* religion. I am so not looking forward to seeing those reactions.

  3. bob koepp bob koepp

    jackd –
    I’m not sure who you count among religious apologists, but there certainly are religious believers who are quite comfortable with the idea that religion is a spandrel. Presumably, science is also a by-product of selection. No?

    • Indeed it is, but there’s an epistemic asymmetry between science and religion, and it has to do with error. Science can tolerate only a small amount of error (false positives and false negatives) before it ceases to be science, while religion can tolerate as much as it likes so long as it fulfils other social functions such as commitment signaling. See my paper with Paul Griffiths on this:

      Paul E. Griffiths & John S. Wilkins (forthcoming). When Do Evolutionary Explanations of Belief Debunk Belief? In Darwin in the 21st Century.

      Ever since Darwin people have worried about the sceptical implications of evolution. If our minds are products of evolution like those of other animals, why suppose that the beliefs they produce are true, rather than merely useful? In this chapter we apply this argument to beliefs in three different domains: morality, religion, and science. We identify replies to evolutionary scepticism that work in some domains but not in others. The simplest reply to evolutionary scepticism is that the truth of beliefs (…)

  4. bob koepp bob koepp

    John –
    My purpose in noting that both science and religion are quite likely to be spandrels wasn’t to suggest that they are on a par epistemically. I don’t think the epistemic status of either sort of belief depends in any interesting sense on either religion or science being a spandrel/by-product of natural selection. How could it?

    • Well it could if you adopt, as I do, an evolutionary epistemology (of the non-prescriptive kind).

  5. bob koepp bob koepp

    John –
    practical matters first… When I try to open documents you’ve made available via the web, my Open Office word processor returns mostly gibberish. So I’m wondering what format they are saved in?

    on to theory… My remark concerned the epistemic status of science and religion, which is, presumably, a normative (i.e., prescriptive) matter. Are you saying that a (non-prescriptive) evolutionary epistemology can show us how a practice like science or religion, in virtue of being a by-product of selection, has a (prescriptive) epistemic status? Please explain.

    • They are almost always PDFs.

      As to your question, no. I do not believe in prescriptive epistemology. Success is always contextual and post hoc. If I knew how to find things out without error, I would do it, as would we all. Instead we only know what worked in the past and we inductively infer that such rules will work in the future. Often they do, if the world is cooperative and correlated.

  6. Cris Cris

    It is good to know there are believers who are comfortable with the idea that supernatural beliefs are spandrels, because many of them reject the notion on metaphysical grounds and then conduct their “science” accordingly.

    I too cannot open the linked pdf.

  7. bob koepp bob koepp

    John –
    Thank you for providing a link to an uncorrupted copy of your article.

    I’ve now had the opportunity to examine your argument, and while I am in basic agreement that natural selection will be sensitive to truth-tracking in limited domains, and agree that natural science is such a domain, and that religion is not, I found nothing at all in the article relevant to the question of how being a spandrel/by-product of selection might bear on this issue. It still seems to me that it is very likely that both science and religion are evolutionary spandrels – by which I mean that it is likely that natural selection produced in us various cognitive capacities which underwrite these endeavors in these domains, but that engaging in those endeavors was not part of the natural selective process that drove the evolution of said capacities.

    So my original point stands. If some cognitive spandrels are truth-tracking and others are not, then being a spandrel/by-product is not directly relevant to the question of whether endeavors in a particular domain are truth-tracking. They might be, or they might not be.

    • I tend to agree, but that is because I think truth just is pragmatic success. There is a useful distinction to be made between social tracking and environmental tracking. In both cases one tracks success somewhat directly, but the kinds of success are different. In religion, one tracks social commitment (on the account of religion I prefer; the so-called “honest signalling” account). In environmental cases, however, one tracks some aspects of the physical world. Failure (Type II errors) cannot be long tolerated, because, as Quine wrote, creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a tendency to die before reproducing.

      But I take the point that one can commit a number of Type I errors (false positives) with less direct cost, and so an environmental tracking process by selection will not necessarily be true. This is a kind of Popperian point, although Popper’s absolute division is untenable.

      Now we might ask why we have a warrant for trusting our senses, for example, as a way of knowing the environment. We know we can be misled by them, but if we were misled by them often or by most of them, we could not say we had warrant for our environmental beliefs. We simply would not have a conception of empirical knowledge at all. The fact that our senses give us information that leaves us alive is reason to trust them. It is not reason to be naive realists, though.

      Likewise, science, which begins with some empirical knowledge and refines it by better observations and better testing leaves us with a broader set of beliefs that are reliable in a broader set of conditions and cases. That ain’t cabbage, as they say, but it isn’t the foundation for scientific realism. The truth here is good enough for government work, not some God’s Eye correspondence of representation and reality.

      Understanding what is happening with the cognitive foundations for religion – that it is fundamentally an adaptation for social commitment (at least, some aspects of it are) means that it is not the result of selection for truth tracking (that is, environmental truth tracking). However, it does track features of an environment: the social environment. Get the context and signals wrong, and you can find yourself in trouble. So if religion is a cognitive spandrel, then it is a spandrel for environmental tracking, but not, therefore, tracking of any kind.

      However, I think there is a further distinction: between religion as the expression of selectively favoured social cognition (which would be adaptive) and social cognition that happens to be religious, in which case qua religion, it is not adaptive but a spandrel. In simpler terms, to say something is an adaptation, you have to specify the function for which it is an adaptation. Religion is no more adaptive than dress styles, accents, and sports teams, but identifying those who signal commitment to your social group is enormously adaptive. So qua social commitment detection, religion is adaptive. Qua religion it is not. But…

      Religion is also an evolving historical object in its own right, like languages, clothing styles, and canoe decorations. So some aspect of a religion can be adaptive in the context of the evolution and social ecology of that religious tradition and institutions. But this is not a cognitive adaptation, but uses cognitive dispositions of humans as the substrate, as it were, of that evolutionary process. In this sense, religion is a cognitive spandrel.

      So it really depends on your functional index, context and reference classes.

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