Category Archives: Evolution

Harris Hawk: The Cooperators


Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

At the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum the last raptors we saw in flight were Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)  which I have seen a number of times before.  I was very lucky to have captured an image of this wonderful bird in flight,


This bird is unusual because it is one of the few birds of prey that hunts in packs. As a result, Harris Hawks  are more successful at capturing prey than individuals that hunt alone, but, of course, that means they have to share.

Harris’s are one of only two truly cooperative hunters in the raptor world. They will live in pairs in the tropical areas, or places where prey is abundant. In areas such as the Sonoran desert where prey has a lot of good cover because this desert contains a lot of vegetation,  they have been documented in groups as large as 9 birds.

That is why they are sometimes called ‘wolves of the air‘ taking their turns harrying a rabbit or squirrel and then chasing it out of cover towards other members that catch it. Here at the Museum they did not have to harry prey because the food was laid out for them. Briefly, the commentator giving us information through a loudspeaker tried to trick us into thinking they had found some prey were trying to pursue it into a corner. She soon acknowledged that this was not the case.

Sometimes Harris Hawks have been electrocuted by hydro lines, but sometimes other members of the group will return to help the injured hawk.  Thus, they carry their cooperating to extremes.  This cooperative view of species is sometimes controversial, as some evolutionists believe there is no cooperation in nature, just competition, but I think the better view is that cooperation is real, and Harris Hawks are an example of that.

They also nest in social groups that allows them to bond before they venture out together on hunting raids.


Mass Extinction Events

Cactus on front lawn in San Tan Valley near where we lived this year

Though there have been awesome changes in the Grand Canyon, they pale in comparison to what happened around the world.

As if these changes in the Grand Canyon  were not enough, 5 times in the past, nearly all of life was destroyed. These are called the 5 mass extinction events. The last mass extinction event occurred about 65 million years ago.

This was much earlier than the carving of the Grand Canyon. In that event the dinosaurs who had been ruling the earth met their match and became extinct.  Although there is more than one theory that has been advanced to explain this event, the one most widely accepted by scientists, is the one where it is believed after an asteroid hit the surface of the earth, exploding on impact, creating at first sudden radical changes on our planet, and raising ash and dust that blackened the sky, causing massive loss of lives.  75% of all species living on the earth vanished as a result of this mass extinction, but it was not the most destructive.  That event brought an end to the dominance of the planet by dinosaurs.

Some earlier mass extinction events resulted in an even greater loss of life. One wiped out about 95% of all species on earth. But each time life rebuilt itself as a result of evolution. That is what life does. During those 65 million years some astonishing forms of life were created such as orchids and cactuses.

Orchids (a clump of yellow lady’s-slippers. Manitoba’s most common orchid

Nature always bats last. Thank goodness for evolution.


Religion is a Team Sport


In his book The Righteous Mind,  moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt described religion as a team sport. Haidt compared it to the devoted fans at  universities’s football games. E.O Wilson used a similar analogy to describe ants as what he called eusocial creatures.

Haidt also says such religion is not irrational as many atheists, like the first two I mentioned, assert. Haidt explains that this must have had an effect on our evolution as a species. He calls this evolution by group selection.  I want to point out that evolution by group selection I believe is still controversial. It does not accord with classic Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Religion in a various formats has been around for thousands of years. Such activities over thousands of years must have had some genetic effect, he argues. Is religion hard-wired into us? Is religion baked into our DNA?

This is how Haidt explained it:

“If human groups have been doing this sort of thing since before the exodus from Africa, and if doing it in some ways rather than others improved the survival of the group, then it’s hard to believe that there was no gene-culture coevolution, no reciprocal fitting of mental modules to social practices, during the last 50,000 years. It’s particularly hard to believe that the genes for all those by-product modules sat still even as the genes for everything else about us began changing more rapidly, reaching a crescendo of genetic change during the Holocene era, which is precisely the time that gods were getting bigger and more moralistic. If religious behavior had consequences, for individuals and for groups, in a way that was stable over millennia, then there was almost certainly some degree of gene-culture coevolution for righteous minds that believe in gods and then used those gods to create moral communities.”


Nicholas Wade says it is obvious from looking at these ancient religious practices that they helped groups of people to compete with other groups. He explains the logic of group selection for religious practices this way:

“People belonging to such a [religiously cohesive] society are more likely to survive and reproduce than those in less cohesive groups, who may be vanquished by their enemies, or dissolve in discord. In the population as a whole, genes that promote religious behavior are likely to become more common in each generation as the less cohesive societies perish and the ore united ones thrive.”

Religion survives because it confers an evolutionary advantage on the groups that employ it. Nature selects those groups that are religious!

Isn’t this exactly what sport’s coaches have been preaching for years? Effective teams are more effective than good individuals. Or as Haidt says, “religion is a team sport.”

Haidt says, “Gods and religions in sum, are group-level adaptations for producing cohesiveness and trust. Like maypoles and beehives, they are created by members of the group, and they then organize the activity of the group.”

When groups are able to develop cohesion and trust they can accomplish much more than they could without it. Like the mountainside farmers in Bali I mentioned in an earlier post.

Haidt says that 10,000 years is enough time for such genetic changes to take place, “And 50,000 years is more than plenty of time for genes, brains, groups, and religions to have coevolved into a very tight embrace.”

Haidt says this account of religions (note it is not an account of any one religion in particular, but it could include your favourite religion) has important consequences. Haidt puts it this way:

“In Wilson’s account, human minds and human religions have been coevolving (just like bees and their physical hives) for tens of thousands of years. And if this is true, then we cannot expect people to abandon religion so easily. Of course people can and do forsake organized religions, which are extremely recent cultural innovations. But even those cannot shake the basic religious psychology of…doing linked to believing linked to belonging. Asking people to give up the Earth and live in colonies orbiting the moon, can be done, but it would take a great deal of careful engineering, and even after ten generations, the descendants of those colonists might find themselves with inchoate longings for gravity and greenery.”


Now some of my faithful readers may not like this concept of an evolving religion. On the other hand, one of them has already mentioned that religions evolve, not just people. You may insist on a religion that has been absolutely true without changes for centuries. Just like some people resist the idea that people, or other creatures, evolve at all. Others may find this evolutionary explanation more congenial. What about you?

Darwin’s Cathedral


Nowadays we often think of religion as dividing people. This is the dark side of religion. I will have more to say about this later. It is real and important. But for now I want to concentrate on the light side of religion. This is the side that atheists often ignore. And Haidt, I believe, is an atheist. I am not actually sure of that because nowhere in the book The Righteous Mind that I have been commenting on did he clearly say that.


In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson actually lists a number of ways in which religions have helped groups cohere, divide labor, work together, and prosper. There are many ways, but Jonathan Haidt emphasizes one amazing story. It is the story of rice farmers in Bali.

Rice farming is different from most forms of farming. It requires a lot of cooperation. They must work to create large rice paddies that can be drained at precise time during a planting cycle. As Haidt says, “It takes a cast of hundreds.”

Wilson described how rice farmers capture rainwater that would naturally flow down a steep mountainside. In Bali rice farmers have cooperated to create hundreds of terraced pools in steep mountainsides. According to Wilson, some of those mountains have hundreds of terraced pools. Each must release water into the next one at exactly the right time. How does such a system work?  Haidt says, “At the top of the whole system, near the crest of the volcano, they built an immense temple for the worship of the Goddess of the Waters. And that was the key to it all!”

The lowest level of social organization was what is called a subak, which is actually a group of several extended families that make decisions democratically. Imagine that a business run democratically! We in the west could learn a lot from the Balinese people. Each one of those subaks had its own temple with its own gods. How is that possible? Don’t competing religions have to fight? The answer of course, is why do they have to compete or fight? Actually that is a question not an answer but so what? Each subak then, after democratic decision making, had to do the hard work and they did it “more or less collectively.” Again, that’s important.

Traditionally groups where people have to share a limited resource don’t work well. The problem even has a name; it is so frequent. It is called the problem of the commons. Some people inevitably try to cheat. Let someone else pay for the commons while I take a short cut. Such problems are very difficult to resolve. In many places they lead to fights. Here the subaks each had their own god in their own temple at every fork in the irrigation system. According to Haidt this is how they solved the problem in Bali:

“The ingenious religious solution to this problem of social engineering was to place a small temple at every fork in the irrigation system. The god in each such temple united all the subaks that were downstream from it into a community that worshipped that god, thereby helping the subaks to resolve their disputes amicably. This arrangement minimized the cheating and deception that would otherwise flourish in a zero-sum division of water. The system made it possible for thousands of farmers, spread over hundreds of square kilometers, to cooperate without the need of central government inspectors, and courts.”

Of course, that last bit was going too far. Getting rid of courts meant getting rid of lawyers. Imagine replacing lawyers and courts with gods. This is insane. But incredibly it worked!

Haidt asked some pertinent questions about this:

“What are we to make of the hundreds of gods and temples woven into this system? Are they just by-products of mental systems that were designed for other purposes? Are they examples of what Dawkins called the “time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, rituals, the anti-factual counterproductive fantasies of religion”?


Haidt enlists a powerful metaphor—the maypole. He asks us to imagine a woman with flowers in her hair dancing in a clockwise circle while she holds one end of a ribbon in her hand with one and the other end of the ribbon attached to a pole—a maypole. This is how Haidt describes it:

“She circles the pole repeatedly, but not in a neat circle. Rather, she bobs and weaves a few steps closer to or further from the pole as she circles. Viewed in isolation, her behavior seems pointless, reminiscent of mad Ophelia on her way to suicide. But now add in five other young women doing exactly what she is doing, and add in six young men doing the same thing in counter clockwise direction, and you’ve got a maypole dance. As the men and women pass each other and swerve in and out, their ribbons weave a kind of tubular cloth around the pole. The dance symbolically enacts the central miracle of social life: e pluribus unum.”

From many, one. The motto of the United States. What many believe is the magic of it’s success. It’s almost like magic. No not magic religion—the spiritual. According to Haidt,

“Whatever its origins, it’s a great metaphor for the role that gods play in Wilson’s account of religion. Gods (like maypoles) are tools that let people bind themselves together as a community by circling around them. Once bound together by circling, these communities can function more effectively.”


This is what religion is all about. As David Sloan Wilson puts it: “Religions can exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve on their own.”

This is what religion once did, should do, but doesn’t often do anymore. Now—too often—religion divides rather than connects. That’s why some say God is dead. He doesn’t have to be. You can kill him or bring him back to life.

According to Haidt, relying on Wilson,

“this kind of circling and binding have been doing this for more than 10,000 years. You don’t need moralistic high gods thundering against adultery to bring people together, even the morally capricious gods of hunter-gatherers can be used to create trust and cohesion.”

And with trust and cohesion humans can do incredible things. Things they can never do as individuals. Incredibly good and powerful things; and, of course incredibly bad things.

Religion helps Groups Cohere



I am still trying to explain how 3 atheists, particularly Jonathan Haidt, led me to religion. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt asserts this: “There is now a great deal of evidence that religion does in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems, and win the competition for group-level survival.” I won’t get into free rider problems here. You will have to read the book to get this. The key is that Haidt claims religion gives groups an evolutionary advantage.


Remember Haidt is a scientist. He bases his theory on scientific data, not faith. First, he looked at studies of the history of 200 communes in the United States by anthropologist Richard Sosi. As we all know there are many kinds of communes but what they all have in common is that they are experiments in living cooperatively. In order to survive they have to be able to bind the members of the commune together. This is a key concept. I also want to remind you, as Haidt did not, that the word “religion” comes from the Indio-Asian word religio, which means connection or linkage. Binding in other words. That’s what religions do. That is the common thread. Religion connects people together and even, I would argue, connects us to the world. I have blogged about this earlier.


Communes were often founded by people who wanted to reject the common moral matrix (this is a Haidt expression) in favor of different principles. Many of them were religions but not all. Some were down right evil. Like the Charles Manson commune. Sosi wanted to know why some communes lasted longer than others. He found some very interesting evidence. Only 6% of secular communes were still in existence 20 years after they were founded while 39% of the religious communes made it that long. That figure jumped out at me. Why would that be? Was God on their side? Neither Sosi nor Haidt claimed that.


Sosi looked at all kinds of factors to try to find the common thread. He found that the common factor to the successful ones was that they demanded costly sacrifices from their members. That seems counter-intuitive doesn’t it? People had to give things up to stay in the commune. Things like giving up alcohol, or tobacco, or food for a time, or traditional clothing. The members had to make a sacrifice to stay. This caught my eye even though Haidt did not mention it either. That is this: I have always been struck by the fact that most religions emphasize sacrifice. Some of them to me seem crude. Like sacrificing animals in the Old Testament. Or even people in some other bloody religions like those of Central America. Christianity of course offered the ultimate sacrifice of God’s son. I have always wondered why sacrifices are important or even good. I am still not sure of the answer. I draw to your attention that it is surely no accident that the words “sacrifice” and “sacred” have a common root.

Commenting on the research of Sosi, Haidt said, “For religious communes the effect was perfectly linear: the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.” That to me seemed crazy, but the world of religion is crazy. Sosi had the scientific data to back it up!

But that was not all. Sosi found that secular communes that also demanded a sacrifice were not helped by it. Haidt described the situation this way: “Sosi argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.” There is that word again.

According to anthropologist Roy Rappaport, “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of necessity.” After all who would agree that one can’t eat the food of animals with cloven feet unless there was some religious reason for it. It otherwise makes no sense. If people make a rational evaluation of customs often they don’t add up and are dismissed. With a religious support such irrational customs can be accepted and many members of the commune refuse to follow and eventually the commune breaks up. Ritual practices avoid that problem Even though rational atheists like the 4 Horsemen for example, would reject the practices because reason does not support them. Such practices can establish cohesion in the group to such an extent that it can survive. In fact, according to Haidt, such practices solve one of the hardest evolutionary problems, namely, how can you get cooperation among a group where they are not kin. If they are kin then even if you don’t get to pass your genes along, your genes are passed along by the kin!

This is how, as Haidt put it: “irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group; function…Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds to the arbitrariness of the practice.”

Getting back to natural selection. Haidt argues, based on Sosi, that

Gods really do help groups cohere, succeed, and outcompete other groups. This is a form of group selection…Religions that do a better job of binding people together and suppressing selfishness spread at the expense of other religions, but not necessarily by killing off the losers. Religions can spread faster than genes, as in the case of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries, or Mormonism in the nineteenth century. A successful religion can be adopted by neighboring people or by vanquished populations.”


Haidt touts David Sloan Wilson who was able to “merge the ideas of the two most important thinkers in he history of the social sciences: Charles Darwin and Emile Durkheim. Wilson showed how they complete each other.” Darwin’s idea was group selection. In other words, how groups could be selected to survive by possessing a trait that made it easier for them to survive and pass on their traits to their offspring. That is what an evolutionary advantage is. Wilson then used Durkheim’s definition of religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices” that unites members into “one single moral community.” Religions create cohesive groups that can function like an organism. And that helps them to survive. That is the evolutionary advantage religion gives to groups.

How 3 atheists led me to religion


I have had an amazing experience. Perhaps it was a religious experience. I am having a hard time believing that even though it happened to me. It really seems like 3 atheists have led me to have a religious experience. No that can’t be. Or can it? I’ll show how that happened.

In 2007, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett had a conversation that sparked a religious revolution. Actually it was an anti-religious revolution. All 4 of them were brilliant religious thinkers. They were the 4 most famous atheists in the world and a video of their discussion went viral. The 4 thinkers were later called “the 4 horseman” in reference to the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse in that weird and wacky book of the Bible, Revelations. If you have ever read it you will likely be convinced it was written by someone under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. How could any of these figures lead me to religion? That is a good question.

The first of the atheists was  Daniel Dennett   and his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. And that really is the point. What kind of natural phenomenon is religion? That is step 1 in this process I am describing.

Dennett, like me considers himself to be an evolutionist. He accepts the theory of evolution, as do the vast majority of scientists. It is by now the foundation of science—the most famous and most accepted scientific doctrine perhaps in the history of science. It started out controversially when Darwin wrote his first book on the subject in 1859, Origin of Species.

Darwin is usually credited with originating the theory of evolution. That is not really true. What he did was launch the theory of evolution by natural selection. Other scientists and thinkers had thought of evolution before Darwin but his wholly original concept was that natural selection was the driving force of evolution.

Well what does all of this have to do with religion? I have earlier  blogged that in my view Charles Darwin is the most important religious thinker in the past 500 years. (  But I don’t want to repeat that now. I am here looking at Darwin and evolution and religion with a different lens.

Dennett in his book made a remarkable statement. He said, to an evolutionist like him, religious behaviors “stand out like peacocks in a sunlit glade.” He did not mean that in a complementary sense. It was his view that evolution ruthlessly eliminates costly and wasteful behaviors over long periods of time. He viewed religion as a wasteful phenomenon. Why then was it not eliminated?

Evolutionists always think in terms of long periods of time. Over many generations incredible changes can be seen in many small steps. Small changes over long periods of time bring about astonishing changes. That is evolution. So religion sticks out.

This brings me to the second atheist Richard Dawkins who is probably the most famous of the 4 horsemen. He said, “no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, rituals, the anti-factual counterproductive fantasies of religion.” Again, as you would expect from an atheist, not the most attractive view of religion.

But notice the puzzle here. How could humans have been evolved by natural selection to adopt  religion? Natural selection picks traits that improve the individual’s chances of reproducing. How could religion, as described by these two atheists, have ever been selected? It seems impossible.

You really have 2 choices. One you could admit that religion (or really religiosity) must have been beneficial to humans. Naturally, atheists are usually reluctant to admit that. The second alternative though is much more complicated. There must be some reason that humans somehow came to adopt religions that are self-destructive (according to the atheists). Natural selection wouldn’t possibly do that, would it? Dennett and Dawkins both had complicated explanations for why this happened. Those theories are so complicated it is hard to be convinced by them.

Here comes the third atheist. An unlikely atheist and much less well known and much less of a fundamentalist atheist or militant atheist—Jonathan Haidt. He wrote an amazing book that deals with this fundamental thorny problem (among other thorny problems). This book is called The Righteous Mind and I highly recommend it.  And he comes up with some amazing solutions to this problem, all based on science and in particular his science which is Moral Psychology. He is the one that tried these two contradictory views together and led me to religion. His explanation was much simpler than the 2 atheists and unless you were an atheist trying to prove you are right, this is the theory that you have come up with. In other words, religion is not bad for people; it is actually good for people? It gives people an evolutionary advantage! That is why it was selected.

How can atheists like Haidt get to that position? I will consider that in my next blog post.

Darwin: The Greatest Religious Thinker?


Charles Darwin is reviled by many evangelical Christians. Some of them have suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a godless philosophy that removes the sacred from the world.  I disagree. Not only that, I turn this around 180º. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of great and profound beauty.  In fact, I think it is profoundly religious.

To Darwin, all life is one. All organisms are different branches of the same tree of life. This is a deeply marvellous idea that all of lifeincluding human life, is united on this planet.  There is solidarity to all of life.  I do not find this notion anti-religious.  In fact I would say this goes back to the original root of the word religion from its Indio origin, which was ‘connection.’  This is the original meaning of “religious”.  In fact I would go so far as to say that any so-called religion, which leads to separation of humans from each other, or from all of life, is deeply un-religious.

Typically fundamentalists around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, try from time to time to usurp the meaning of religious to their own narrow purposes. When they try to expropriate the meaning of the world “religious” for their own restrictive and exclusive purposes they ought to be resisted strongly.

The most extreme versions of these religious beliefs have in the past turned to murderous doctrines.  Some famous examples include the Christian crusaders, Muslim terrorists, and Sikh assassins, to name only a few from a vast legion of candidates.  To these people I would suggest that as the button my wife Chris owned  said, ‘When religion turns to hate, it is no longer religion.’  Religion that does not help us to connect with others, or connect with the world, is no religion worth having. It is actually sacrilegious.

Darwin’s views in this sense are fundamentally religious.  In Darwin’s day the claim that humans and chimpanzees had a lot in common was a radical claim.  Remember there was no science of genetics or DNA at that time. Since then of course a lot of confirming evidence has been gathered.  First, there has been substantial fossil evidence which suggests that chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor as Darwin claimed, and as many have been loath to admit ever since.  Remember Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster in the movie about the travelling evangelical preacher who had a chimp on stage and said to the crowd, ‘this may be your uncle, but he sure ain’t mine.’

In the late twentieth century scientists started gathering convincing evidence from DNA, which has led to the same conclusion.  Scientists have found that all living things have DNA.  For example organisms as diverse as frogs, bacteria, and humans all have DNA and the DNA evidence has been used to show how close the various species are to each other.  The DNA of humans and chimps is very similar.  DNA sequences which are read letter by letter indicate that humans and chimpanzees are in fact a stunning 98% identical.  They are basically the same.  Cut from the same cloth.  Scientists in fact now generally believe that the DNA evidence indicates that humans and chimpanzees did in fact have a common ancestor only a few million years ago.  This is very recently on the evolutionary time scale.  This could be compared with humans and rats who also had a common ancestor, but this was more like 80 – 100 million years ago.  This shows that greater changes occur over a greater period of time, but also shows that even humans and rats, which do not feel much fellow feeling for each, once had a common ancestor.

There is even growing evidence that humans and chimpanzees think and act in similar ways.  This is further evidence of their commonality, or close relationship. Researchers have found that chimps can gain complex cognition and even have the ability to count.  They don’t learn to count in the wild, because it is not necessary for their survival, but they can learn to count.  Chimps can even grasp complex notions like the concept of zero. Such evidence too suggests that chimps have a great deal of commonality with humans.  Humans and chimps even share the same blood types.

Many scientists now believe that this evidence points to the fact that chimps and humans did in fact have common ancestor as Darwin suggested.

For some reason the line of development or evolution, which led to humans led to an explosive development of mental capacity.  Natural selection favoured the evolution of organisms that could communicate, manipulate symbols, and construct language.  These were obviously evolutionary advantages for this species.

Some see this view of Darwin’s as basically irreligious since it seems to remove the concept of a divine creator from the world.  It actually doesn’t. Darwin himself believed in God. However, this does not make these views irreligious.  As I have said, I think these views instead demonstrate a fine sense of true religion in its original Indio sense of connection.  Darwin himself said in his monumental Origin of the Species, “there is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the 6th law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”  Darwin did not remove God, but he did naturalize creation.

In my view the thought of Darwin is deeply religious.  Much more than the views of murderous fundamentalists or noisy evangelicals who so often seem to hog the stage.  Even though many people hold that Darwin removed God from science, he found an elemental connection between man and all living things.  I cannot think of anything more religious than that.  And that is what religion is ultimately about.  Connection.  It is not about what narrow beliefs one has about what to eat on what days, or whether the world was created exactly 4004 years ago.  No, religion is about a lot more important things than that, no matter what narrow-minded people think and preach.

Darwin’s view that we are all connected on the tree of life, is contrasted starkly by the views of Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of all religions, that they are superior to all others.  They want to be separate and apart from heathens, to say nothing of all life. They believe that they will go to everlasting pleasure in heaven while others will go to everlasting pain in hell. Such fanatics see an unbridgeable gap between them and other humans, to say nothing of them and other organisms. These are the most profoundly irreligious views imaginable.  Nothing could be more sacrilegious than that. I much prefer Darwin. In fact, I think he was one of the greatest of religious thinkers.