Book Review: The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures by Nicholas Wade

Review by Bruce Bower

Several recent best sellers in the natural and social sciences have portrayed religious belief as irrational and even downright harmful. In his new book, Wade gives faith a reprieve. He argues that religion served crucial purposes in ancient societies and, via evolution, became ingrained in the human brain.

Wade offers a respectful outlook on humanity’s faith in gods and supernatural powers, while not shying away from the darker side of religious convictions, including wars and inquisitions. But his notion that natural selection equipped human brains with an innate system for learning religion is speculative.

Beginning at least 50,000 years ago, bands of hunter-gatherers acted according to religious rules and rituals, Wade proposes. Religion fostered moral standards that held groups together. The societies that benefited most from the unifying power of shared beliefs outcompeted rivals and thus left more survivors, Wade writes, and so genes underlying a brain-based “faith instinct” proliferated.

Wade, a science journalist, grounds his ideas on two controversial assumptions: that natural selection acts on groups, not just individuals, and that genes can provide the basis for faith.

Wade’s thesis will generate at least as much dispute as has the notion of a language instinct, which he also embraces. Beliefs in higher powers may get built from basic forms of interpersonal and social learning, not from a preset brain circuit, some social scientists argue. Heaven knows, some fascinating research lies ahead.

Penguin Press, 2009, 320 p., $25.95.


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