Jared Diamond on the evolution of religions

Today I heard Prof. Jared Diamond on the evolution of religions. Here is the abstract of the talk:

How can we define religion so as to include all of the customarily recognized religions while excluding other things not normally considered religions? Does religion require belief in God, the supernatural, or moral principles not of our own invention? What do traditional Catholics, atheists professing themselves to be members of organized liberal religions, and tribespeople believing in spirits share with each other that they don’t share with believers in ghosts, astrology and nonreligious moral codes?

Jared Diamond argues that religion has encompassed at least four independent components that have arisen or disappeared at different stages in the development of human societies over the last 10,000 years.

The four independent components that Prof. Diamond listed are as follows:

  1. Explanation;
  2. Standardization of political organization;
  3. Teaching moral precepts; and,
  4. The justification of wars.

According to Prof. Diamond’s own admission, except for the first one, the rest are recent roles for religion, and these are by no means the only roles that religions play/played (nor, I believe, religion is the only institution that plays these roles); more specifically, with the formation of popular societies, religions evolved to take up the roles 2-4 and hence gave an evolutionary edge to those societies. Further, since no traditional society is without some form of religious notion, he also believes that religion must have had some evolutionary role to play in the evolution of human societies.

Now, that leads to an interesting question: what was the evolutionary role of religion in ancient tribal societies if all it did was to provide some explanation of some natural phenomena–creation myths, myths about seasons, animals, etc? As far as I could tell, Prof. Diamond did not answer that question. (A disclaimer: I am not trained in anthropology, or biology, or religious studies; so it is quite possible that Prof. Diamond made some nuanced argument which I missed).

So, on the whole it was a mildly interesting talk, but did not convince me about the role of religion in evolution–if religion did indeed play some role in our evolution, it still is not clear to me what that role is.

Update: It so happens that Coturnix links today to a series of blogposts at Gene expression, which discusses the role of religion in evolution–how it came about, and what functions, if any, it performed.

4 Responses to “Jared Diamond on the evolution of religions”

  1. Biswajit Says:


    You should check out The Heathen in his Blindness by S.N. Balagangadhara to understand what the word “religion” might mean to different cultures. In my opinion, the word is not well defined and any ideas derived from that basis cannot be convincing.

  2. raj Says:

    On the other hand, Richard Dawkins has argued that religion is an unintended by-product of evolutionary processes.

    I had posted on this at http://chennaikaran.blogspot.com/2007/02/darwin-and-religion.html

  3. Guru Says:


    Thanks for the pointer; I will check out Balagangadhara’s book.

    On the defintion of religion, I agree. For example, the moment I say that I do not believe in astrology, it implies that I am an atheist as far as my mother is concerned. I believe Prof. Diamond is also aware of the difficulties; he raised the question whether Buddhism or Confucianism can be considered as a religion, and while answering a question asked if Marxism is a religion, if not, why?


    Thanks for the pointer; as I note in the update to this post, via Coturnix, I also came across this series of blogposts on the evolutionary significance of religion–but I guess it will take a long time for me to go through all the stuff and understand.

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