Do We Need Religion to Survive? Is That Even the Right Question?

Evolutionary Biologist and Science Educator
October 17, 2017

What is the Darwinian survival value of religion? That's not the right question, says Richard Dawkins. To find the right question, he relies on an evolutionary analogy: Why do moths fly into flames? It means instant death, so what's the evolutionary value of this kamikaze behavior? Dawkins delivers a crash course in proximate and ultimate causality, two very important distinctions in biology. Moths evolved to navigate using celestial objects as compasses. The moon and the stars emit parallel light, a very reliable and consistent beam, meaning a moth can fly in a straight line guided by that light. Candle light is an entirely different source that emits light in a spiral... leading straight to the hottest part of the flame. These moths aren't suicidal, says Dawkins, it's a misfiring of an evolutionary trait because of a modern technology in their environment. "The right question is not, 'What’s the survival value of a suicidal behavior in moths?'" he says, "The right question is, 'What is the survival value of having the kind of physiology which, under some circumstances, leads you to fly into a flames?'" There survival value of religious behavior may be at the genetic level, Dawkins suggests, and the proximate question in this case would be: what part of our brain does religion serve, and is religion really the only way that function is manifested? Richard Dawkins' new book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.