Human nature consists of more than just cleverness. Humans are capable of love. They are known to sacrifice themselves for other individuals or for collectives. They have an appreciation of beauty. They acknowledge the holiness of God and arrange their lives around their access to the sacred. These four activities—love, self-sacrifice, aesthetics, and religion—all involve value-responses. Each treats an object as something valuable in itself, rather than a mere means for satisfying some pre-existent desire. Love for family, tribe, country, and God obviously have a great deal to do with how we justify our social relations.
How did humans come to experience such powerful motivations? Evolutionary psychology has appealed to natural selection for explanations. The precise form of the theory depends on what is regarded as the subject of evolution. Anything that propagates itself through individuals can experience selection pressure. One could appeal to the selection pressure on genes. So, for example, it is a well-known theory that humans became altruistic through being willing to sacrifice themselves to save their kinsmen; through kin-altruism, the gene effectively sacrifices one copy of itself to save other copies. Others have considered how natural selection will affect the evolution of group life. Groups that encourage individuals to sacrifice themselves for the group—through either patriotism or religion—will be better able to survive and prosper than groups without these means of social control. Finally, it has been suggested that ideas themselves (what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”) are what have adapted to preserve themselves. Memes that find was to make themselves plausible and stifle dissent will propagate further than memes without such defenses. This analysis has been applied most famously to religion. Also, these theories are not mutually exclusive; there’s no reason to think that natural selection hasn’t been working on genes, groups, and ideas simultaneously.
The above theories help explain why whatever it is that makes humans capable of love and religion has become such a big part of us. Their proponents, however, are apt to claim more. It is sometimes claimed, and very often silently implied, that evolutionary psychology has revealed the true nature of love, beauty, etc. So, for example, love may seem to be a response to the value of another person, but really it’s just an impulse directed towards preserving or propagating one’s genes. One may seem to be admiring the beauty of a landscape or a woman, but really one is subconsciously responding to signs of a hospitable climate or a fertile mate. Religion may seem like a response to God’s majesty, but really it’s just an idea using individuals to spread itself like a virus. If these claims were true, they would be devastating for love, aesthetics, patriotism, etc. An essential aspect of each of these things is that they present themselves to the subject as objective responses, as giving an object “its due”. If this aspect is an illusion, then love, beauty, and religion are lies. Rather, they don’t really exist at all.
Before we accept these distressing conclusions, we should ask ourselves if they have really been proved. Is it necessarily true that because X is useful for Y that the use for Y is X’s true nature? No. In fact, there is no logical connection between the two statements at all. Proving, for example, that religion fosters social cohesion does not prove that the true nature of religion is social cohesion. Nor does it prove that religion has no essence except to be whatever it is that fosters social cohesion. Evolutionary psychology cannot establish this connection any more than anything else can.
Let’s try to understand better why it is that people tend to think otherwise. First, an explanation is proposed for why humans have value response X. This is presented as an explanation for X. The explanation offered for why I experience X has to do with things internal to me: my genes, my memes, etc. So X is really determined by the subject (me) rather than by the object (God, my country, a woman, little children, etc). Therefore, X is not really a value response at all; it must be something more like an urge. This is what people are thinking when they say that evolution has revealed what love, altruism, or religion really is. However, it’s not true. It’s also possible that a better analogy for these things than urges would be sense perceptions. Evolution certainly does explain how it is that animals have come to have eyes and ears for seeing and hearing. The explanations, of course, depend on promoting reproductive success. This does not mean, however, that sight and hearing are really illusions, that they aren’t real perceptions of the world. Nothing prevents us from imagining value responses from the analogy with sight. We may imagine that there really is something objectively precious about individual people or communities, or that beauty and holiness are real qualities in the world. We may further suppose that there is some sort of faculty for perceiving these qualities that could be developed by rational creatures. Next, we may grant the evolutionary psychologist’s arguments for why love, patriotism, and the rest promote genetic or group survival. Then this would explain why natural selection would tend to favor a more and more refined sensibility to these qualities, so that men would become more loving, patriotic, religious, and the rest. Just as the usefulness of sight presupposes the existence of light rather than calling it into question, so this explanation presumes that our value responses are what they manifestly seem to be. Scientifically, the urge theory and the perception theory are identical. The difference is that the latter is a philosophically more satisfactory explanation.
The theory of meme propagation requires further comment. The correct way to understand this theory is to see it as a contribution to the sociology of knowledge. It looks at the way ideas propagate and persist in a society while abstracting from the question of whether or not these ideas are true. From some basic assumptions about how ideas spread, one could put together a mathematical model which would apply equally well to the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, the spread of Newtonian physics through seventeenth-century England, or the spread of people quoting Monty Python movies through the contemporary English-speaking world. The differential equation might be pretty much the same as one describing how a virus spreads through an organism or a society, so one could say, if one wanted to be insulting, that Christianity or Monty Python “spread like a virus”. This would tell you nothing, though, about the truth or value of the memes in question. Nor does the fact that people who hold memes like Christianity or Marxism tend to be psychologically invested in their beliefs, or that they discourage disbelief, in itself argue against the truth of these ideas. Such properties can be expected in any socially relevant belief system, as more adequate sociologies of knowledge recognize.