by Akshat Rathi
Being able to explain simple concepts is hard work. Changing people’s belief systems is even more difficult. Clear explanations are rare and when I find one like the one below, I am compelled to share it. From Richard Dawkins’ 2004 interview:
Was the human brain selected to develop religion?
I don’t know, but my guess is no. The way I would answer that question is to say that the human brain was selected to develop something which manifests itself as religion under some circumstances. If I take an analogy of… well, one that I’m particularly fond of is the tendency of moths to fly into candle flames, and it’s tempting to label that suicidal behaviour in moths, and ask what on earth is the Darwinian advantage of suicidal behaviour in moths. If you put it like that, clearly there isn’t any.
But if you say instead ‘What is the Darwinian survival value of having the kind of brain which under some circumstances leads moths to fly into candle flames?’, then you’re getting somewhere, because then you can say ‘Well in the world where moths evolved, there weren’t any candle flames. The only lights you would see if you were a night-flying moth would be things like the moon and the stars, and they are at optical infinity, which means that their rays are coming parallel. And if you have a rule of thumb in your brain that says ‘Steer a steady angle of say 30 degrees to the rays of the moon,’ that’s a very useful thing to do, because that keeps you going in a dead straight line. That rule of thumb is then misapplied to candles, which are not at optical infinity, where the rays are radiating outwards. And if you follow the same rule of thumb, of keeping an angle of 30 degrees to the candle’s rays, then you’ll simply spiral into the candle and burn yourself.
So we have rephrased the question. We’ve said it was the wrong question to say ‘Why do moths fly into candle flames?’. The right question is ‘Why do they have the kind of brain which in the wild state made them do something which, in the human-dominated state where there are candles, makes them fly into candle flames?’. Now in the case of religion, I think there was something built into the human brain by natural selection which was once useful and which now manifests itself under civilised conditions as religion, but which used not to be religion when it first arose, and when it was useful.