Getting Scientific With Religion: A Darwinian Solution . . . Or Not?

Getting Scientific With Religion: A Darwinian Solution . . . Or Not?

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The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.


During the “Intelligent Design” saga explanations of religious phenomena as more or less direct products of Darwinian evolution became popular (e.g. Dennet, 2006; Wolpert, 2006). In contrast, this article argues that a core feature of religion, spiritual experience1, is a nonaptation, a term introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba to refer to a biological feature with no function and consequently no fitness value, a feature which is not a primary product of natural selection (Gould & Vrba, 1982). From this perspective, an evolutionary approach to the nature of mind and spirituality based on a Darwinian definition of self is developed.

Gould and Vrba introduced the term nonaptation to emphasize that not every biological feature has a function or is the product of adaptive processes. Using the root ‘aptation’ to denote a generic biological feature they point out that a new functional feature can arise from a nonaptation being coopted to serve the new function. To the extent that the nonaptation is able to perform its new function without undergoing any selective pressure it is called an exaptation. To the extent that the exaptation is optimised by natural selection to perform its function it is called an adaptation. Existing adaptations too can be coopted for new functions in which case they are also called exaptations and only become adaptations if they are secondarily shaped by natural selection. Nothing in evolution is de novo – only what is already available can be coopted.

Gould and Vrba emphasize the importance of nonaptations as a source of raw material in the evolutionary process:

“…the enormous pool of nonaptations must be the wellspring and reservoir of most evolutionary flexibility. We need to recognise the central role of “cooptability for fitness” as the primary evolutionary significance of ubiquitous nonaptation in organisms.” (Gould & Vrba, 1982, p. 12)

An example they discuss is gene duplication which allows one copy of the gene to perform the original function and the other copy to mutate whereas a mutation in the single original copy would compromise fitness. Initially the duplicate copy is a nonaptation adding no fitness value but it becomes an exaptation if it adds fitness through being coopted for a new function. Thereafter, the exaptation is optimised and is an adaptation. But without the duplication event there is no nonaptive raw material to begin with.

Applying Gould’s and Vrba’s ideas to mind I argue that mind was first a nonaptation which was recruited in the course of evolution as an exaptation and thereafter shaped by natural selection to become an adaptation. I call mind so-adapted Darwinian mind and propose that spiritual mind lies outside of Darwinian mind and that the line between spiritual mind and Darwinian mind is mutually and reciprocally defined by one core evolutionary principle (self-interest) and one core spiritual principle (selflessness).

Mind as we know it, Darwinian mind, is therefore held to be a self-sustaining adaptation wrought from selfless nonaptive non-Darwinian primordial greater mind in the course of evolution. Primordial mind is greater because it is not constrained by Darwinian reproductive survival imperatives and therefore has more degrees of freedom whereas these imperatives impose a strict narrowing of mental focus, a cathexis, upon motivations of desire for stimuli which promote reproductive survival and aversion for stimuli which threaten it (Seymour et al., 2007; Reid Montague & Berns, 2002; Konorski, 1967). At the centre of Darwinian mind, is the Darwinian self defined as the subject position in Darwinian mind, i.e. the subject who experiences motivations of desire and aversion. Thus Darwinian mind/self and motivations of desire and aversion are two sides of the same coin.

I then argue that the emphasis on repudiating desire and aversion, on morality (Neusner & Chilton, 2005) and on self-renunciation (Armstrong, 2006) which characterises serious commitment to the spiritual path are aimed directly at undermining and ultimately transcending Darwinian mind/self in order to reach nonaptive non-Darwinian selflessness, and that this is the essence of spiritual endeavour. At the core of this thesis is the assertion that the creation of Darwinian mind/self from nonaptive mind necessitated linking the subject to motivations of desire and aversion. I emphasize that it cannot be assumed that this cathexis, whereby the subject prioritises motivations of desire and aversion before all else (thereby creating Darwinian mind/self) is an inherent property of mind. On the contrary, it is proposed that this link is an adaptation, a product of natural selection.

The nature of this link is proposed to be a biological predisposition reinforced through learning to respond to pleasant and unpleasant sensations with motivations of desire and aversion. For human beings, in varying degrees, it is possible to systematically reject this response pattern resulting in progressive weakening of this cathectic link. However rejection is not easy because it involves de-identifying with both the Darwinian self and with motivations of desire and aversion (which are construed as separate entities from a mistaken dualistic perspective).

To summarize, this perspective makes it possible to clearly visualise the mental terrain the subject seeking spiritual advancement must cross in order to pass from mundane Darwinian mind/self to sacred non-Darwinian mind. In particular it becomes apparent why this transition accords with typical stages and states of mind encountered along the spiritual path. For example, the model accounts for the extraordinary difficulty of finding and walking this path, expressed by Jesus as follows:

“Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to destruction [Darwinian mind/Samsara] is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it. But the gate to life [non-Darwinian mind/Nirvana] is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it.” (Matthews 13-14)

The narrowness of the gate and the hardness of the way reflect Darwinian mind’s immensely powerful self-protective reflex which resists the subject’s spiritual progress through self-renunciation by generating overwhelming motivations of desire and aversion accompanied by extremely compelling cognitions of self-interest. These reinforce Darwinian mind/self making it exceedingly hard for the subject to resist succumbing to these adaptive, self-sustaining urges. There is extensive evidence for the self’s automatic (Moors & De Hauwer, 2006) self-regulatory (Fitzsimons & Bargh, 2004) properties.  Evidence in support of this self-regulatory protective reflex mechanism can be seen in such instances as the Temptations of Christ and Mara’s temptations of Buddha. Firstly, both are direct attempts to invoke ego and secondly, both occur at the climax of extremely determined and prolonged episodes of self-disciplined ascetic isolation. And of course, both spiritual heroes stand firm in the face of Darwinian mind’s last-ditch efforts to survive.

This approach is also summarised in the form of a model of mental space that is used to explain various other aspects of the spiritual journey in terms of sociobiological and neurobiological principles. But the model also offers fresh insights. Most significantly, it draws a fundamental distinction, on the one hand grouping religion (as it is mostly practiced) with evolved (Darwinian) morality and on the other hand grouping serious commitment to spiritual transcendence (which is much rarer) with transcendent (non-Darwinian) morality . In short, it becomes apparent that for spiritual transcendence to occur, Darwinian morality is necessary but not sufficient – to transcend Darwinian self and reach nonaptive selflessness, self-sacrifice to a degree that transcends the limits of Darwinian explanation is also required.

Philosophical Assumptions

Mind is here defined as mental processes (mental phenomena or mental representations) which the subject may or may not be conscious/aware of which influence concurrent and consequent mental processes. i.e. mind encompasses explicit subjective mental experience as well as implicit objective mental processes2.

My first assumption is that mind has an evolutionary history although I am not concerned about how long this history is (Panksepp 1998, p. 15). There is sufficient evidence that the mind has been finely shaped by natural selection (Dunbar et al., 2005). My second assumption is the attribution of a causal role to motivations of desire and aversion in the Darwinian scheme of things (Panksepp 1998, p. 14). This “folk psychology” belief in the causal efficacy of emotions rests squarely upon a philosophical tradition which includes Aristotle and Hume and is most recently articulated by Mele (Mele, 2003).

Darwinian Mind/Self

An entity I’ll call the physical self was born when life began because as soon as a living entity however simple, has needs where needs are defined as conditions which must be fulfilled to ensure reproductive survival, the entity stands as separate (self-other) from the environment providing these needs. At some point the physical self acquired consciousness (embodied mind) and we can clearly see the mark of Darwinian evolution on consciousness or mind: mental representations of physical stimuli are through the process of natural selection programmed to evoke an adaptive motivational or emotional response of desire for stimuli which promote reproductive survival and aversion for stimuli which threaten it. There is abundant behavioural and neurobiological evidence for a binary (+/-) value system in the vertebrate brain which controls behavioural responses in a global fashion (Seymour et al., 2007; Reid Montague & Berns, 2002; Konorski 1967). Leknes and Tracey (2008) review the evidence for extensive overlap in the neural correlates of pleasure and pain and describe a Motivation-Decision model wherein anything more important to reproductive survival than pain inhibits pain (be it a greater threat or the possibility of a reward) and anything more important than reward (such as an even greater reward or a threat for which action is needed) inhibits desire, thus facilitating adaptive avoidance or approach behaviours. There is good evidence that the �-opioid and mesolimbic dopamine systems mediate the motivational and hedonic aspects of  both pleasure and pain as well as the reciprocal pain-pleasure inhibition described by the Motivation-Decision model.

Therefore, to the extent that an animal’s behaviour is causally motivated by adaptive feelings of desire and aversion one can conclude that its mind has been so shaped through the process of natural selection and one can call such a mind Darwinian mind3.

The term self is here used as a convenient label for the subject position in Darwinian mind, i.e. the subjective entity motivated by desire and aversion. Because the self, defined as the subject position in Darwinian mind,only exists in relation to motivations of desire and aversion, it is called the Darwinian self. cf. Human beings endowed with language express these adaptive motivational responses as “my” motivations and since these self-centric motivations are the product of natural selection, the human self-conscious self which identifies with them is also recognised at its most basic level as the Darwinian self.

Figure 1

Subjective experience alone does not constitute an adaptation. In this model, only the mapping of:

physical reality (stimuli)


sensory organs


sensory neurons


interneurons (brain)


mental representations of physical reality (accompanied by pleasant/unpleasant sensations)


 (i.e. evoking) motivations of desire/aversion


appropriate motor activity (responses)

and finally back onto

 physical reality,

such that the physical organism reacts to physical reality in a way which enhances reproductive survival amounts to an adapted mind.

Darwinian “Unselfishness”

Characterising the Darwinian self as intrinsically selfish is not to say that Darwinian theory cannot account for the evolution of unselfish or altruistic motivations and behaviours. A highly developed body of theory has evolved which successfully accounts for a wide range of such behaviours across an array of organisms from unicells to primates (Sterelny, 2007). Common to all these explanations is the fundamental relationship �b > c where c is the cost and b the benefit of the unselfish behaviour in reproductive terms. The inequality represents the degree to which cooperation is worthwhile, i.e. returns greater benefits than costs which depends upon the stability of the cooperative system. The coefficient � is a measure of this stability, of the likelihood that a cooperator is helping another cooperator and not a free-rider or cheat (Henrich & Henrich, 2006). � may take any form that sustains a stable system of mutual benefit. The most obvious example is parents who help their offspring to mature to reproductive age are repaid in reproductive currency by their offspring who in turn help their offspring and so on. In this case good parenting behaviour is genetically transmitted to the offspring which makes for a very stable system and a high � value. Weaker patterns of genetic relatedness such as between siblings or cousins are also able to sustain cooperative altruism and there are many examples within the animal kingdom (Wilson, 1980). Kin selection refers to those instances where �, the stability of the system, is based on close genetic relatedness (Hamilton, 1964). But genetic relatedness is not a prerequisite for the evolution of cooperative altruism. Any stabilising factor which makes the value of � high enough will do. A well-accepted mechanism for the evolution of unselfish behaviour among non-kin is reciprocal altruism or ‘tit for tat’ (Sterelny, 2007).

That cooperation pays such high reproductive survival dividends makes it a key driving force behind the evolution of social systems. Social groups are better able to detect and defend against predators, share child-rearing duties, pass on cultural knowledge and so on. These social functions required the evolution of novel cognitive abilities (e.g. seeing things from another’s perspective) and emotional states (e.g. contagion, empathy, sympathy) (De Waal, 2006) which enhance the individual’s ability to walk the fine line between cooperation and competition with other group members (De Waal, 1996). The “Russian doll” model (De Waal, 2004) conveys how more sophisticated capacities variously called “social instincts” (Richerson & Boyd, 2005), “moral emotions” (Tangney et al., 200 ) or “moral sentiments” (Smith, 1759/1790), evolved (in evolutionary time) and develop (in a single life-time) from simpler forms. Emotional contagion (the automatic spread of a basic emotional attitude such as fear or excitement) between individuals forms the psychobiological basis of empathy (the automatic mirroring in one individual of another individual’s emotional state). Empathy which is a self-centred experience is in turn the platform for sympathy (the capacity to distance oneself from the empathic experience and see things from the other individual’s point of view).  The neurophysiological basis of these capacities is an active and revealing area of investigation. For example, mirror-neurons were only recently discovered. These nerve cells fire automatically both when the organism is performing an action or when it is observing another individual perform the same action, thereby providing a biological mechanism for empathy (Iacoboni & Dapretto, 2006).

The condition �b > c however makes it plainly evident that social instincts/moral emotions are self-serving and the mind so shaped is clearly Darwinian in nature. This conclusion must however be qualified by the understanding that evolutionary theory distinguishes between distal and proximal causal mechanisms. Distal causation refers to the reproductive calculus whereby the fittest survive irrespective of the actual proximal mechanisms (bodily structures, motivations and behaviours) which render them fittest. It is therefore possible for an organism under a given set of proximal circumstances to experience subjective (i.e. genuine or sincere) unselfish motivations (�bsubj < c) even if it is ultimately or objectively behaving in its own self-interests (�bobj > c). It is however also possible, albeit not universally accepted, that through group selection (Sterelny, 2007) individuals can evolve who make sacrifices over and above that attributable to kin selection or reciprocal altruism (�bsubj < c and �bobj < c, where the cost is relative to individuals who do not make the same reproductive fitness sacrifices, e.g. cheats).

For current purposes it is unnecessary to decide if objectively unselfish motivations exist or not because both self-serving “unselfishness” and self-sacrificing unselfishness at bottom entail motivations of desire/aversion and are therefore intrinsically self-referential and unavoidably generative of Darwinian mind/self. In summary therefore, subjective unselfishness is associated with either objective selfishness(�bsubj < c, �bobj > c) or possibly with objective unselfishness (�bsubj < c, �bobj < c). From now on the first combination will be written as “unselfish” to denote its place as well within Darwinian mind/self and the second sans quotation marks but also recognised as a part of Darwinian mind/self. And for argument’s sake, the possibility of objectively unselfish motivations derived from Darwinian processes will be allowed with the understanding that disallowing them would make no substantive difference to the logic of this paper4.

Primordial, Nonaptive, Non-Darwinian Mind.

The mappings described in Figure 1 are for the most part “hard-wired” by natural selection as evidenced by the fact that every species (to the extent that its behaviour is causally driven by motivations) likes and seeks what is good for it and dislikes and avoids what is bad for it. These mappings are under the influence of many genes and for all the right (i.e. adaptive) mutations to accrue takes time. It is therefore highly unlikely that primordial mind comprised such a chain of adaptive mappings. It is more likely that primordial mind was nonaptive, comprising a form of subjective awareness which does not necessarily resemble any of the kinds of adaptive awareness or motivational states occurring within Darwinian mind (eg. visual awareness, temperature awareness, hunger awareness, loving or hating awareness etc. which are all of clear functional ecological or social importance). Nonetheless primordial mind must have had some property which when coopted in a particular way added fitness thereby constituting an exaptation. Thereafter the action of natural selection further shaped this exaptation to adaptively connect sensory input to motor output via motivations of desire and aversion thereby creating self-serving (i.e. self-sustaining and self-reproducing) Darwinian mind.

Escaping/Transcending Darwinian Mind

Organisms incapable of rational thinking are locked into their desire/aversion mappings, into their Darwinian minds. However humans to varying degrees, are able to exercise a rational point of view, a meta-self capable of seeing Darwinian mind/self for what it is, i.e. a mental program constantly generating emotions of desire/aversion which drag, pull and push the individual hither and thither for adaptive ends. The meta-self corresponds to Mele’s discussion of “human action par excellence” which encompasses a desire to act for superior reasons, high rationality, high self-control, etc. (Mele, 2003, p. 231) and is defined here as that part of the mind which is able to choose how strongly to identify with Darwinian mind/self.

Turning now to religion, we observe that genuine selflessness is a hallmark of spiritual advancement across all major religions (Armstrong, 2006; Ellis, 2000). Renunciation of self-interests and the placing of others’ needs above one’s own is arguably the sine qua non of serious commitment to the spiritual path. So repeatedly insistent are the various scriptures with teachings of selflessness in its various forms of forgiveness, charity, self-sacrifice for others and self-sacrifice for God that its central importance to attaining and maintaining spiritual states of mind is unmistakable:

In the Old Testament God tested Abraham’s devotion and obedience by instructing Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, his only Darwinian hope:

“Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much and…  …offer him as a sacrifice to me.”(Genesis 22)

And God’s gift to Abraham for being prepared to sacrifice his Darwinian future was spectacular Darwinian success:

“…as many descendants as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand along the seashore…” and Abraham’s “…descendants would conquer their enemies”.

From the Quran:

 “He who pardons (the evil done to him) and reforms himself, will receive his reward from God.” (42/40)

And Jesus (famously) taught:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap you on the left cheek too.”  (Matthew 5. 38)

…emphasising that the self- centred “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” response of revenge only reinforces the Darwinian self.

Furthermore, the following two teachings of Jesus are a direct transgression of the two most fundamental priorities of Darwinian evolution, viz. ensuring one’s own survival and the survival of one’s offspring:

“Whoever tries to gain his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it.” (Matthew 10, 39)

“Whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not fit to be my disciple.” (Matthew 10. 37)

Nor did the Buddha mince his words:

“Even if bandits were to sever you savagely with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching.”(Kakacupama Sutra 9)

Such extreme teachings of self-sacrifice are simply not reconcilable with evolutionary theories of unselfishness or with Darwinian mind/self. There is nothing in these statements or vignettes which satisfy the requirements of kin selection, reciprocal altruism or group selection. It is therefore proposed that the nonaptive mental territory beyond the borders of Darwinian mind/self, beyond the rule of natural selection is the province of spirituality, but not as will soon be discussed necessarily the home of religion.

A Model of the Mind

It is now possible to formulate an idealised model of human mental space in terms of five zones which in practice are in flux and overlap one another:

Figure 2

A five zone model of the mind showing differences between Darwinian and non-Darwinian mind in terms of objective factors (second row) and subjective factors (third row). The different categories of morality are shown in the bottom row. See text for details.

Darwinian  Mind


Transition from Darwinian Mind
non-Darwinian Mind


Non-Darwinian Mind


�bobj > c



�bobj < c



�bobj < c

Relative Kenosis


�bobj << c

Absolute Kenosis


Zone 1
�bsubj > c



Zone 2
�bsubj < c



Zone 3
�bsubj < c



Zone 4
�bsubj < c



Zone 5





Evolved Morality


Transcendent Kenotic Morality


Transcended Amoral













In Figure 2, Zone 3 represents the best-case scenario where subjectively and objectively unselfish behaviour can evolve via Darwinian processes. Darwinian Zone 3 and non-Darwinian Zone 4 therefore seem identical, i.e. �bobj < c and �bsubj < c in both cases. There is however a fundamental subjective difference. In Zone 3 subjectively unselfish motivations born from Darwinian processes are present and although objective self-interest is absent (�bsubj < c, �bobj < c) these unselfish motivations still reference Darwinian self, (e.g. “I try to be a good person”) and are therefore associated with Darwinian mind. However in Zone 4 these motivations are part and parcel of an attitude of relative selflessness and are therefore associated with a transition to non-Darwinian mind and spiritual advancement. In short, there is a moral watershed dividing Zones 3 and 4. In Zone 3, when push comes to shove most individuals will make a left-shift to Zone 2 whereas Zone 4 defines either those rare individuals whose commitment to selflessness enables them to resist overwhelming motivations of self-interest which competitive/threatening situations evoke, or it defines those who are sufficiently liberated from the self so as not to even feel overwhelming motivations of self-interest. Such people, each in their own unique way, are experiencing or have experienced a reality which transcends the self, perhaps as a peak experience of ‘the Truth’, Nirvana or The Kingdom of Heaven or perhaps as a less dramatic but more enduring form of spiritual intuition, or perhaps as both. Experience or knowledge of this spiritual truth with its concomitant selflessness constitutes a potent non-Darwinian motivational pull in direct opposition to the self-preserving motivations of Darwinian mind.

But Darwinian mind does not give up so easily and the boundary between Zones 3 and 4 must be crossed more than once. In short, the subject is pulled towards Zone 3 by the adaptive Darwinian desires and aversions of the self and towards Zone 4 by the non-Darwinian epiphany of non-self. But each time the subject holds its ground and does not fall back into Zone 3, it progresses from left to right across Zone 4. Each of these instances is accompanied by deeper ‘realisations’ which strengthen devotion towards non-self and sap the strength of desire/aversion. Ultimately the subject may transcend Zone 4 to Zone 5 where it is totally beyond the reaches of Darwinian mind.

Thus while Zone 3 is characterised by unselfishness and in the seeker by a top-down cognitive attitude of self-renunciation, the distinctive feature of Zone 4 is the spontaneous bottom-up realisation of relative selflessness. Each bottom-up real experience of relative selflessness is a potent basis for intensified top-down self-renunciation, for further de-identification with Darwinian mind/self. The implications of this practical and theoretical distinction for the understanding of morality are next discussed .

Kenosis and Morality

Spiritually motivated suspension of desire/aversion cannot take the form of rejecting the objects of desire/aversion or even of rejecting desire/aversion per se’ because this itself is aversion. Instead the emphasis is on the other side of the coin, on the subject rather than the object and entails neutral-minded disengagement from desire/aversion through self-sacrifice, through de-identifying with Darwinian self. The ancient Greek term for this was kenosis, meaning “emptying of the self” (Armstrong, 2006). Kenosis begins at the junction between Zones 3 and 4 where it is zero and increases towards its maximum in Zone 5. Furthermore, within the current model the spiritual purpose of renunciation of desire/aversion is not because these motivations in and of themselves are “bad” but because their undisciplined presence sustains the Darwinian self and its domination of the mind. Similarly, the spiritual purpose of practising genuine unselfishness is not because it is “good” but to undermine the iron grip of selfish Darwinian self on the mind. In short, the selfish, “unselfish” and unselfish aspects of the self (Zones 1, 2 and 3 respectively) are all self-referencing and hence self-reinforcing. Ultimately however, the spiritual journey ends in liberation from all aspects of the self because spirituality in its fully fledged form is here proposed to be the state of complete selflessnessor “no self”5 which lies in Zone 5 and is amoral beyond good or bad, beyond any Darwinian verbal description. Detailed evidence in support of this formulation is provided by Karen Armstron who traces the histo