Religions, Genes, Jokes, and other Replicators

God is Watching You, by Dominic JohnsonI just read The Economist’s book review of Dominic Johnson‘s God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. The review suggests “Belief in divine punishment may be inherent and a useful evolutionary adaptation, helping humans overcome selfishness.” But correctly assessing causation within a complex, evolving system (such as a system involving religious beliefs and human nature) can be very tricky. It is easy to project one’s own desires onto the explanation and thereby confuse cause and effect, as I believe has happened in this case. The proposition that religious beliefs have conferred evolutionary advantages and disadvantages–i.e. have had an effect of some kind–seems trivially obvious. Far less obvious, and far more interesting, is understanding precisely how and why that is the case.

Two-thousand years ago, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger, or simply Seneca) astutely observed:

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

That rulers, politicians, and other leaders continue to leverage religious belief to manipulate people is undeniable. But I suggest there is even a greater beneficiary of religious belief: religion itself. Or more precisely, religions themselves.

Evolution works on many levels, a fact that is easily and frequently overlooked. Of course, there are many people that don’t believe evolution is a thing at all. But even among those who accept the fact of evolution, most fail to grasp the extent of its impact.

It is commonly understood that plants, animals, and bacteria evolve. These entities are all subject to selective pressures that result in differential survival rates, leading to the oft-quoted “survival of the fittest” terminology. But it is not only living creatures that evolve. In fact, any replicator can evolve–regardless of whether or not the replicator is a living thing.


A replicator may be defined as any entity in the universe of which copies are made. Notice that this very broad definition does not require that the replicator must be a living thing. Nor does it indicate who or what does the copying. Thus, the term “replicator” covers obvious things such as plants, animals, genes, and viruses. But it also covers less obvious things such as picnic tables, jokes, rock and roll songs, and… religions.

Evolution is simply the accumulation of change, over time, in the characteristics of replicators as copies are made. Thus, a joke originally told about a politician may later be changed–or mutated–to be about a lawyer, or a doctor, or a used car salesman. We can reasonably say the joke evolved.


Where we must be very, very careful, and where many well-intended people misstep, is in ascribing motivation or intention to evolution. When thinking about evolution, it is tempting to say a particular evolutionary change, or adaptation, occurred for a particular reason. But, in reality, this is never the case. Evolution has no goals, no direction.

While it is certainly true that we are often able to ascribe some beneficial (or detrimental) effect to a particular adaptation, the adaptation did not occur for the purpose of achieving that effect. Rather, the utility of an adaptation is ascribed posthoc, by us, as we try to understand and communicate the effects of changes that occurred for no intentional reason at all.

The situation becomes more confusing when we think about adaptations brought about intentionally, by a sentient agent that is doing the copying. Examples include selective breeding of dogs, refining of a joke for a new audience, or redefining religious dogma to embrace cultural norms or to gain Twitter followers. But we can see that even in these cases, there was no intention on the part of the replicator itself. No wolf intended to evolve into a poodle. Or more accurately, no wolf gene ever intended to evolve into a poodle gene. No joke intended to get funnier. And no religion intended to reduce human selfishness.

What we can say, however, is that replicators that presently exist have benefited from adaptations more so than replicators that no longer exist. This is tautologically true. Put another way, adaptations that benefit the replicator survive with greater probability than adaptations that do not. Adaptations that harm the replicator go extinct with greater probability than those that do not.

Extended Phenotypes

This is a subtle but important idea, so please, bear with me. Richard Dawkins introduced this terminology in his book by the same title, The Extended Phenotype. The key idea is that we naturally think of the effect of an adaptation as how it directly impacts the replicator that experiences the adaptation. But we should also think about the indirect effect on other organisms and entities. For example, consider beavers and beaver dams. Beavers carry genes that directly influence the development and operation of beaver bodies. The beaver bodies, thus, are the phenotypes of the beaver genes. But beavers, in the course of their lives build dams, and the nature of these dams is influenced by the nature and behavior of beaver bodies. Thus, beaver genes indirectly influence the nature of beaver dams, which are an extended phenotype of beaver genes.

Religions and Genes

Religions and genes are each a type of replicator. As such, each is subject to evolution, whether by natural or artificial (i.e, intentional) selection. Adaptations in each directly affect their respective phenotypes as well as various extended phenotypes. The relationships between the web of replicators, phenotypes, and extended phenotypes are tangled and complex. But, in each case, the replicators are selfish in the sense that they tend to favor adaptations that increase the replicator, regardless of whether those adaptations are beneficial or detrimental to various phenotypes or extended phenotypes.

Religions and genes favor adaptations that are beneficial to religions and genes. In both cases, it is tempting to look for ways that the replicator benefits humans: genes that create T-cells help us fight off infections, religions that threaten divine punishment help us overcome selfishness, etc. But this is a naive perspective. These replicators will just as “happily” (the are not actually sentient, of course) bring us suffering and death if doing so increases the replicator’s chance of being replicated.

A religion that threatens divine punishment for not following religious dogma may, in fact, reduce the selfish behavior among believers. But that is incidental. The true utility of such a threat is to the religion itself in that it increases the probability that parents will teach their children to follow the religion. A religion that teaches contraception is a sin (divinely punishable) will increase the probability that individuals will have more offspring who will then be taught to follow the religion and who will, in turn, have more offspring who will be taught to follow the religion, … The well-being of the population is not a factor except to the extent it affects the replicator’s reproductive success. Individuals may be poor, uneducated, unhealthy, unhappy, frightened, and even die before old age, as long as they are able to bear offspring and to teach them religion before dying.

Be Skeptical of Evolutionary Intent

Religions, like genes and jokes, are intentionless replicators. Whenever you hear phrases like “overcome”, “helpful”, “striving”, or any term that implies some form of intent in an explanation of the evolution of a replicator, be skeptical. Evolution by natural selection proceeds with blind indifference. It has no intention, no goal, no direction. Any “advantage” or “disadvantage” is an artifact of our posthoc interpretation or explanation of the process and not a goal or intention of the replicator.

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