The Darwinian View

Darwin day is Feb 12th.

Darwinism has revolutionized the life sciences. But it is still hotly contested and often marginalized in parts of the social sciences and humanities.

This is unfortunate. The Darwinian view is remarkably fecund.

Consider this puzzle about human beings: some are atheists. Were they born that way? Why do such odd people exist?

Dominic Johnson* illustrates the wide range of standard Darwinian ideas that can be applied to puzzles of this kind. At least ten different hypotheses could bear on the issue.

  • Hypothesis 1. There are no atheists: Everyone believes in some supernatural agency, etc., even if some deny it
  • Hypothesis 2. Natural variation (null hypothesis): There is some distribution of individual propensity to hold religious beliefs (from zero to strong belief)
  • Hypothesis 3. Unnatural variation: There is some distribution of life experience or education that favors non-belief or skepticism
  • Hypothesis 4. Frequency dependence: Atheism is adaptive, as long as not too common
  • Hypothesis 5. Exploitation: Atheism is adaptive for those with power
  • Hypothesis 6. Ecological contingency:Atheism/belief are more or less adaptive in different settings
  • Hypothesis 7. Catalysts: Presence of atheists facilitates adaptive advantages of belief
  • Hypothesis 8. Bolstering: Presence of atheists bolsters religious doctrine in the face of skepticism
  • Hypothesis 9. Restraint: Presence of atheists restrains religious doctrine in the face of skepticism
  • Hypothesis 10. Atheism is a religion: Atheists find benefits in common non-belief

I do not know which one is right. Number 2 seems most plausible, perhaps linked to variations in cognitive ability.*

But what I want to emphasize is that this list illustrates the fertility of Darwinism in coming up with potential explanations.


Johnson, D.D.P. (2012) What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non–belief in the evolution of religion. Religion, Brain & Behavior 2 (1): 48–70.

Lynn, R., Harvey, J., & Nyborg, H. (2009). Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 countries. Intelligence, 37, 11-15.


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