Journal Article

Religion as an Evolutionary Byproduct: A Critique of the Standard Model

Russell Powell and Steve Clarke

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 63, issue 3, pages 457-486
Published in print September 2012 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online January 2012 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Religion as an Evolutionary Byproduct: A Critique of the Standard Model

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The dominant view in the cognitive science of religion (the ‘Standard Model’) is that religious belief and behaviour are not adaptive traits but rather incidental byproducts of the cognitive architecture of mind. Because evidence for the Standard Model is inconclusive, the case for it depends crucially on its alleged methodological superiority to selectionist alternatives. However, we show that the Standard Model has both methodological and evidential disadvantages when compared with selectionist alternatives. We also consider a pluralistic approach, which holds that religion or various aspects of religion originated as byproducts of evolved cognitive structures but were subsequently co-opted for adaptive purposes. We argue that when properly formulated, the pluralistic approach also has certain advantages over the Standard Model.

1Religion as Evolutionary Explanandum

2The Standard Model of the Origin and Evolution of Religion

3Elaborating on the Standard Model: Modules and Spandrels

4A Methodological Comparison of Functional and Byproduct Explanation

5Selectionist Alternatives to the Standard Model

  5.1Religion as an adaptation with a genetic basis

  5.2Religion as an adaptation of cultural groups

  5.3A pluralist view


Journal Article.  11847 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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