The recent "Question of the Week" on the Richard Dawkins Foundation Web Site asked the question
“Is there an evolutionary explanation as to why some groups seem more particularly prone to take life and give their own lives in defense of their religion?”
I submitted the following response, in line with the evolutionary model of human intelligence I am developing on this blog.
Why are humans more intelligent than animals? The answer to this question explains how extreme religious views, including those relating to killing, have evolved.
Every animal splits its time between eating, breeding, surviving predators, and trial and error learning. Social animals learn more because the infant animals learn by trial and error copying their parents. However trial and error learning takes a lot of time and everything learnt is lost when the animal dies. This puts a ceiling on animal intelligence as no species will evolve a brain bigger than it can fill with trial and error learning in an average life time.
Perhaps about 150,000 years ago humans, who already could make simple tools, found a way of breaking through the “animal intelligence” ceiling by inventing a powerful new tool which we call natural language. This allows information to be passed relatively quickly and efficiently from one generation to the next generation. A simple evolutionary change had the effect of converting language into a very efficient “speed learning” tool. The result is that human children bypass the automatic checks in the animal trial and error learning process and automatically accept WITHOUT CHECKING nearly everything they are taught by “responsible” adults.
Once this has happened genetic evolution plays no further significant role and the far faster cultural evolutionary process steps in. This favours groups which have the most effective culture and survival of the cultural group becomes more significant than survival of the individual. From this point onwards genetic evolution will favour individuals who unquestioningly accept the culture promoted by the group.
Of course any successful cultural group will need to include ways to promote harmony among the group and ways to protect the group from outside threats. There will be significant advantages in breeding more members of the group and a successful cultural group would benefit with by encouraging actively breeding females. As slightly more males are born than females males become obvious candidates for more risky activities – including the defense of the cultural group.
This is where Religion comes in. Some species of ants have evolved non-breeding individuals whose sole reason for existence is to fight to defend the colony and there could be evolutionary advantages to any communal species or culture which develops a similar strategy. A culture which over-rides natural survival instincts by promising an ever-lasting paradise to otherwise “surplus” males has taken the first steps towards to genetically evolving the human equivalent of the soldier ant. Conformity within a culture also has survival benefits. Threatening individuals who do not conform with an ever-lasting hell will encourage them to toe the line – while physically dispatching miscreants to the promised hell for the damned strengthens the point.
To conclude: Humans are more intelligent than animals because we invented a speed learning tool we call language. This allows us to pass cultural information rapidly from generation to generation by bypassing our natural animal instinct to trial and error check new ideas. We are especially intelligent because our children accept as factually correct what they are taught by the charismatically wise adults who bring them up. The result is extremely successful as long as the cultural information accurately reflects reality. However the speed-learning modification opens the door for the unquestioning acceptance of sometimes dangerous speculative ideas involving self-sacrifice and killing others based on the alleged and frequently re-interpreted supernatural sayings of long dead charismatic “wise men.”