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on 11 July 2010
One of the most interesting books I have read recently. Nicholas Wade gives a clear, well written account of the origins and evolution of religion (note: this is NOT a knock-down of religion) with persuasive evidence that it is hereditary. He does not seek to account for the presence/absence of any deities and I recommend it for anyone with an inquiring mind regardless of their faith or lack thereof.
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on 5 February 2011
This was recommended to me by a friend as the most interesting book he'd read; now I see why. This is a wonderful analysis of the history of religion and the role it plays in modern society. It illuminates, challenges and disturbs in a highly-accessible style. As entertaining as any thriller yet much deeper and more relevant. Read it - it will open your mind.
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Nicholas Wade, who also wrote the very fine Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2007) (see my review at Amazon), argues most convincingly here that religion, our sense of spirituality, and our moral instinct have been hardwired into our brains by the evolutionary process. This book, supported in part by the Templeton Foundation, is the first of its kind to put together the body of evidence that accounts for the fact that religion has been part of every known human society while explaining why.

Is religion adaptive in an evolutionary sense? is the first and most important question to be answered. The fact that religion is universal strongly suggests that it is. But until recently this idea was rejected by most biologists including some heavy hitters such as George Williams, Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. But, as Wade points out, Dawkins and Pinker in particular may have missed the boat because of personal biases. Wades writes that their opposition "seems to be driven less by any particular evidence than by the implicit premise that religion is bad, and therefore must be nonadaptive." (p. 67)

Moreover, Williams and Dawkins have been against the idea that religion is adaptive because of their belief that natural selection operates primarily at the level of the individual. For religion to be adaptive in the Darwinian sense, it helps a lot for selection to operate at the level of the group. Wade shows that biologists such as David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson, not mention Darwin himself, support the idea of group selection. Wade presents Darwin's argument from the Autobiography (see page 68) that tribes who had members who were ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the tribe would help their tribe prevail over other tribes without such people. Williams and others came to differ with Darwin by arguing that free-loaders and cheaters only interested in promoting their own genes would out-reproduce the do-gooders. This opinion has held sway in evolutionary biology for a long time, but that is changing. Wade quotes David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson as putting it this way: "Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary." (p. 70)

But how is religion adaptive? Why should those tribes that were religious have out-competed those that were not? Where are those non-religious tribes? The answer is there aren't any. The assumption is that they were driven to extinction by the religious tribes.

Just what is it about religion that confers upon its practitioners such a huge evolutionary advantage? The answer in a word is warfare. The intimate relationship between human warfare and religion is really the crux of the matter. As warfare became more important among human groups competing for scarce resources a greater premium was placed on winning. What religion does so very well is make the tribe more cohesive than it would otherwise be. Edward O. Wilson expressed this are early as 1978 in his book On Human Nature. He wrote: "When the gods are served, the Darwinian fitness of the members of the tribe is the ultimate if unrecognized beneficiary." (p. 184, op. cit.)

One of the most interesting things about religion as revealed in this book is that religion came before language! How can that be? Wade explains that in the most primitive societies, the basis of religion is communal, rhythmic singing and dancing. This singing and dancing can be seen to draw the members of the tribe closer together so that they can act as one with less fear of danger as they are strengthened by the cohesiveness of the group. People could dance and follow rhythms and perhaps sing before they could use syntactic language. We see many animals, especially birds, that perform elaborate dances. Hominids, being social creatures would dance en mass not so much to be sexually selected (although that too no doubt) but to strengthen their ties within the group.

But this ecstatic expression of religion cuts both ways. In historic times religion has become hierarchical, the rituals have become more sedate, and the basis of group membership is based not on ecstatic communal expression but more on shared beliefs. In fact some religions have banned dancing. Wade suggests that this is because the power of the leaders of these modern religions can have their authority threatened by deeper and more immediate appeals to emotion. This might be what is happening in Latin America today with membership in the Catholic Church shrinking while membership in the more demonstrative Protestant churches with singing and even speaking in tongues gaining adherents.

In the latter part of the book Wade traces the birth and growth of various religions including especially the three monotheistic religions from the Middle East. He doesn't see religion as the cause of wars per se, only as a very nice tool for being successful in wars! Finally he looks at the future of religion. He hints at a need for religions that are more in tune with the modern world. Beyond that he does not go.

All in all an excellent book that deserves a wide readership.
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on 25 March 2013
This book covers brilliantly two essential topics related to the history and evolution of faith and religion: early religions, and the three monotheist religions from the Middle East.

Early religions, such as those still practiced today by hunter-gatherer tribes, evolved from the need to unite tribe members in order to make them better at warfare against other tribes. They are based on strongly emotional dance and music rituals binding the whole tribe together and with its gods. Wade convincingly explains how these religions had to be very egalitarian in order to increase the cohesion within the tribe, thereby increasing its military power against rival tribes.

With the advent of sedentism and the job specialisation it required, religion and contacts with gods became monopolized by priests. This eventually led to the establishment of the three monotheist religions. Wades narrates their history, including historical hypotheses regarding the reasons for their creation, and their evolution up to the present days.

Wade shows in a clear and rigorous language how early religion is an evaluative factor, making selection to operate at the level of the group. But he omits to explain how and why religion and associated morals had to evolve from instilling egalitarianism to accepting menial roles in complex societies. This book leaves missing the link from hunter-gatherer to monotheist religions.
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on 13 February 2011
The proposition of this book, that faith is an evolved human trait, is presented in a largely convincing and easily read way. Unfortunately, as the author himself writes, there is a lack of relevant and reliable data available making it hard to analyse the subject matter in a purely scientific way, so there is a fair amount of assumption although the reasoning is generally sound. The relationship drawn between religion and music, dance, dreams and trance is particularly interesting and resonates with modern dance music culture.

The book loses a star for the chapter entitled 'The Tree of Religion' which is an unnecessary and weak attempt at framing world religions as pure fabrication, which actually adds nothing to the wider proposition. Yes there is interpolation and assimilation of texts and other religions into the local culture, but the author damages the trust in the rest of the book's rationale when he attempts to debunk Islam as some kind of conspiracy where its founder didn't even exists, then asserts it as a matter of fact. This leads the reader to suspect that reference material throughout has been selected to match the hypothesis rather than being looked at objectively. The author does manage to recover but the damage is done.

The rest of the book is an interesting and thought provoking read. It is unlikely to convince hardened creationists or atheists who reject the idea of religion being a contributing factor in their evolution, or survival of species being influenced by group fitness.
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on 9 February 2010
Nicholas Wade's "The Faith Instinct" begins promisingly but fizzles out, its argument unproven. It is lucidly written and contains several thought-provoking passages, but it is also padded with whole sections of pop-science banalities.

Wade is a science journalist (New York Times, Nature and Science magazines), not a scientific researcher. He draws on evidence from a broad range of fields, including archeology, sociology, anthropology, biology, neurology, religious scholarship and so on, to build his argument.

Wade argues that since a) religion has been a universal facet of human society for at least 50,000 years and b) religion enhances the survival of societies through building "emotional commitment to the common good" and reinforcing behavioral patterns around such things as planting crops, then c) religion is "written into our neural circuitry" and that it is an "adaptive behavior" which was advanced through natural selection. Neither a) nor b) is an original observation, and Wade is unable to deliver conclusive evidence for c). Science has not, at least yet, established either specific genes or a specific region of the brain associated with religion. He is thus forced to concede that "in the absence of direct evidence about.... genes...(the argument) can only be assessed indirectly." Also, Wade's case rests on theories of group selection, which are not accepted by mainstream evolutionists.

As Wade's main argument runs out of steam, he adds chapters on such things as the marketplace of religion, the ecology of religion, religion and warfare, religion and nation and the future of religion. These chapters are superficial and not particularly original; they contain some interesting snippets but do nothing to clinch his argument. Throughout, he focuses on the group or societal aspects of religion and not on the individual experience of faith or encounter with the spiritual.

There is one area in which Wade recaptures the reader's interest and pokes a stick into an anthill. He takes a wide swing at the" three great monotheisms" and the discrepancies between scriptural versions of history and those developed through historical and archeological research. Christianity escapes only slightly dented, but Judaism takes a direct hit: historically, he pronounces, there was "no exodus from Egypt.... no conquest of the promised land." In other words, there was no Passover. As for Islam, Wade draws heavily on a revisionist school of scholarship (conducted mainly, it seems, by academics with Israeli or German sounding names, some of them wisely pseudonymous) which asserts that there is very little objective evidence for Koranic versions of history: "As for Mohammed, there is a strange paucity of independent historical evidence about his life; some scholars doubt whether he lived in the Hijaz, where Islamic texts locate him, and a few wonder if he lived at all."

Wade justifies these fascinating diversions (I at least am interested in learning more) in the context of his thesis by citing them as examples of how religions mould their narratives to serve societal ends and enhance group survival. Could be, and one is tempted to draw parallels, in light of recent scandals, to our current "secular religion" of climatology. In any case, I recommend that Wade not publish a cartoon version of this "alternative hypothesis about Islam."
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on 4 February 2010
A very thoughtful book- careful logical analysis of the universal "obsession" with the supernatural and the origin of faiths and religions among virtually all of humanity. Making the best of meager early surmises and data on group behaviour, dreams and ancester worship , reaching 50000 years and more into the past of the early humans that evaded from ancstral Africa and the subsequent evolution of beliefs in many forms.
Very well written ,yet each chapter needs careful reflection to fully grasp its significant point,logically presented in the optic of evolutionary biology and behaviour analysis.
An open minded evaluation of the development an obscure "affliction" of humans written for all that can think !
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on 16 September 2014
A good read in terms of Nature/Nurture debate. Wade makes a strong case for religion being innate when describing the human condition. So easy to join in religious practises when it makes no rational sense at all. His ideas explain why religion exists in all societies, even in the most remote areas of the world. Hitherto, this was difficult to argue for non-believers!
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on 14 May 2015
This book explains the genetic origins of how and why religions developed in humans. It also explains the true origins of religious rituals and some highly interesting background on how and who developed the three major monotheisms of today.
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on 29 September 2014
A very important book. It should be compulsory reading for religious leaders, politicians, social workers, judges and anyone else who's job is to make decisions which affect the lives of others.
Ron Winter
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