The evolutionary advantage of religion

Martin Nowak

Religions and belief systems have been with us since the beginnings of civilization. What possible purpose could they have from an evolutionary point of view? Some people like Richard Dawkins would dismiss religious beliefs as an outmoded frame of thinking that is untenable in the scientific age. Others would beg to differ and the vast majority of mankind still hold religious beliefs.

As Martin Nowak in the 21 March 2011 issue of NewScientist explains, perhaps we have been too narrow in our analysis of the benefits of religious behavior.

"I see the teachings of world religions as an analysis of human life and an attempt to help. They intend to promote unselfish behaviour, love and forgiveness. When you look at mathematical models for the evolution of cooperation you also find that winning strategies must be generous, hopeful and forgiving. In a sense, the world's religions hit on these ideas first, thousands of years ago."

Now, for the first time, we can see these ideas in terms of mathematics. Who would have thought that you could prove mathematically that, in a world where everybody is out for himself, the winning strategy is to be forgiving, and that those who cannot forgive can never win?"

For more recent ideas from Martin Nowak, see Vimeo.