William Irons

"Morality, Religion, and Human Evolution"

Review by Nathan Bieniek, 2008

Irons, William. “Morality, Religion, and Human Evolution.” In W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman, eds., Religion and Science: History, Method, Dialogue. New York: Routledge, 1996: 375-399.

A passing encounter with sociology or anthropology may lead one to believe that morality, indeed all organized social behavior, is merely a form of social order meant to stave off chaos. This would be morality with a purely social cause. The ancient understanding of morality from a religious perspective, as from one of the Abrahamic religions, for instance, is that both moral and social codes are divinely inspired. Divine morality would preserve social order just as humanly constructed morality would, but religious morality has its primary obligations and motivations oriented around God. William Irons' paper “Morality, Religion, and Human Evolution” affirms the social importance of morality and the importance of religion in maintaining moral codes, but contends that the propensity for moral sentiment and judgment actually has its roots in natural selection.

Irons constructs this theory from his survey of other theorists who have in common two assumptions. First, that evolution naturally selected for morality on an individual level, not on the level of groups; second, that the form of morality selected was primarily that of “reciprocal altruism” and secondarily that of “induced altruism,” the latter of which is coerced or deceptive altruism (375). This sort of morality is useful in that it ties together groups of individuals who are unrelated to one another, and religion is the vehicle by which altruism is endorsed, reinforced and institutionalized. Altruistic morality is successfully institutionalized by religion because it encourages an individual to enter into commitments, or to be committed to certain actions that are socially valuable despite changes in circumstance. This in turn convinces others to engage in behaviors that are beneficial to that individual.

As mentioned above, Irons' constructs his argument from from a survey of theorists who have conducted research on the various components of his theory. So, the majority of his paper, after a brief explanation of “human nature” as comprised of emotional and rational halves, is given over to a review of the different theories the reader recognizes retrospectively as constituting Irons' theory. He uses Robert Frank to explain how natural selection is responsible certain potential moral sentiments, because they solve “problems of commitment” (375), commitments being rationalized behaviors that ensure survival. This leads to a discussion of altruism and its generally accepted evolutionary success due to reciprocity. This in turn leads to an exploration of reciprocity as explained by Axelrod and Hamilton's discussion of game theory. They hold that the decisions people make in play are similar to those they make in real life, so an understanding of game theory lends itself to an understanding of human decision making in general. In exploring the Prisoner's Dilemma and Anatol Rapaport's “Tit for Tat” game, Irons concludes that repeated human interaction leads to reciprocity, because reciprocity has a greater mutual benefit than purely egoistic goals.

Irons complicates the simple moral system that reciprocal altruism developed because that is what was best for all, by adding the concept of indirect reciprocity as put forth by Alexander. Generally, human interaction exists in groups, so we can observe the actions of others and their reciprocity, and decide how to treat those people depending up on their actions. Irons states that we become aware of this dynamic and that others will more likely act altruistically toward us if we are observed acting altruistically in general. Irons also explores the values of punishment and honesty as complicating altruistic reciprocity.

The vehicle of religion is what ties all Irons' moral insights into a cohesive whole. He contends that while religions can be systems of communities commitment to which is demanding and therefore engenders honesty and trust, reciprocal altruistic commitments are more likely to be held if these commitments follow from rules derived from a fundamental understanding of the universe. So religion's more important function is to encourage naturally selected sentiments of reciprocal altruism and color them with a shade of ultimate meaning of factuality.

After a few brief comments about the situation and controversy of sociobiological pursuits such as this one, Irons' concludes, again depending upon Alexander, that reciprocal altruism was selected for, because it allowed for the successful organization of larger groups. Those larger groups were then more likely to survive intergroup competition and even warfare. Therefore, he seem comfortable in making the claim that all modern culture and civilization may have its roots in a religiously reinforced morality of reciprocal altruism, because it allowed larger groups of on non-related people to survive more successfully.

Irons' essay is useful on two levels. First, because of his thought provoking, synthetic explanation of the origin and nature of morality. Second, his synthesis is pulls together diverse sociological, anthropological and biological analyses in order to synthesize a sociobiological theory for the origins of morality and religion (in this way his paper is useful also because of the survey of literature). His interdisciplinary methodology is useful for its ability to provide answers to questions that these individual disciplines cannot supply singly. While his conclusions do nothing to advance or preserve the myriad of Western theology or dogma, it does promote a valuable look at the merits of interdisciplinary studies of religion, morality, sociology, and many of the other social sciences.