By Angus J. L. Menuge

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.1

What is Evolutionary Psychology?
Evolutionary Psychology attempts to extend Darwinian principles to the human mind. According to a leading proponent of the view, Steven Pinker, the mind is a collection of specialized modules “designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life.”2 The two main versions of Evolutionary Psychology may be called the “Selfish Gene Theory” and the “Selfish Meme Theory.” According to the Selfish Gene Theory, the mind has the capacities it does (perception, consciousness, rationality, emotion, etc.) because it served the interests of our selfish genes. The Selfish Meme Theory adds the idea that the content of our thoughts derives from discrete memorable units called “memes.” According to Richard Dawkins,

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body…so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via…imitation.3

Memes resemble genes in that they are reproduced (repeated, copied) with variation (mishearing, paraphrase, translation and other errors of transmission) and exhibit differential fitness (some ideas catch on more than others).

A disturbing consequence of both views is that the picture of an enduring self or agent, who acts for its own reasons, appears to dissolve. Citing the work of Daniel Dennett with approval, Steven Pinker asserts: “[T]here’s considerable evidence that the unified self is a fiction—that the mind is a congeries of parts acting asynchronously, and that it is only an illusion that there’s a president in the Oval Office of the brain who oversees the activity of everything.”4

Religious conviction is also undermined. Richard Dawkins uses evolutionary psychology to explain away supernatural religious beliefs as useful “delusions” or “viruses of the mind.”5

Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival: the analogue of steering by the moon for a moth. But the flip-side of trusting obedience is slavish gullibility. The inevitable by-product is vulnerability to infection by mind viruses… [T]he truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.6

In general, Dawkins argues, religion can be explained “as a by-product of normal psychological dispositions,”7 perhaps “a by-product of the irrationality mechanisms that were originally built into the brain by selection for falling in love,”8 and is a useful form of self-deception because it enables communities to co-operate under some shared goals and guidelines, thus promoting survival.

In what follows, I will first argue that evolutionary psychology undermines its own credentials by discrediting the rationality upon which science itself depends. Then I will show that the attack on religious conviction is merely the most recent version of a favorite ploy of skeptics, the genetic fallacy.

The Battle for the Mind

One reason for doubting that evolutionary psychology can sustain human rationality depends on the details of how humans reason.9 Neither the Selfish Gene nor the Selfish Meme Theory gives a plausible account of our theoretical and practical reasoning. It does not work to claim that human reasoning is distributed among many modules or memes with no supervisory self. For if one module or meme believes that A = B, and another believes that B = C, neither has a good reason to conclude that A = C. For reasoning to make sense, all of the reasons for a conclusion need to be held together within the supervision of a single agent who can see their joint implication. The same point applies to our actions. If our beliefs and desires are distributed in different modules or memes, this would be like Alfonso desiring to improve his opera singing but only Wolfgang (who has no interest in opera singing) believing that the way to improve opera singing is to take voice lessons. Neither Alfonso nor Wolfgang has a reason to take voice lessons since Alfonso does not have the belief about how to satisfy his desire and Wolfgang does not have the desire. It is only if a single agent has both the desire to do something and a belief about how to satisfy that desire, that we can give a rational account of his action.

But this also applies to scientists. We admire scientists because their theories and experiments are designed to achieve certain goals of explanation and prediction. We cannot account for the rationality of a scientist’s own activities if we deny that the scientist is a single agent who combines these goals with relevant beliefs about how to obtain them. Those who wish to uphold the rationality of science would do well to reject Evolutionary Psychology.

A second difficulty for Evolutionary Psychology is The Argument From Reason Against Evolutionary Naturalism.10 This argument, developed by C. S. Lewis11, Alvin Plantinga12, Victor Reppert13 and myself14, cuts deeper than the first argument because it does not depend on the specific details of The Selfish Gene and Selfish Meme Theories: it applies to any naturalistic, evolutionary account of reason. The argument shows that evolutionary accounts of the mind entail that the mind cannot be relied on to discover truth, especially on theoretical matters. As a result, were Evolutionary Psychology true, no one could have good reason to believe it.

As C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga have argued, the most likely prediction of Evolutionary Psychology is Epiphenomenalism, the view that the content of our thoughts (what we believe and desire) has no bearing on our behavior. This is because natural selection only operates on physical behaviors which happen to promote survival. But as work in Artificial Intelligence has shown, a system can improve its responses to the environment by adjusting its algorithms, yet without acquiring thought. Likewise, a primitive creature without sentience can produce better adapted responses without thinking. As Lewis argued, “Such a perfection of the non-rational responses…might be conceived as a different method of achieving survival—an alternative to reason.”15 Now suppose that thoughts did happen to emerge. Since they are not necessary to produce adaptive behaviors, there is no reason why they should. But if our thoughts are not the causes of our behaviors, then it does not matter what their content is. If a creature’s body runs away from lions, it does not matter if it believes that lions are shrubberies, since that belief has nothing to do with its response. But if so, there is no good reason to expect even the majority of our beliefs to be true, and so we cannot rely on our minds for truth about anything.

Suppose that the previous difficulty can be overcome, and that the content of beliefs does play a causal role in producing behavior. Then, granted Evolutionary Psychology, it might seem that we could rely on our own minds. Daniel Dennett confidently affirms that “evolution has designed human beings to be rational, to believe what they ought to believe.”16

However, as Alvin Plantinga and I have shown, this claim is unjustified. Supposing that what we think causes our behavior, Evolutionary Psychology still provides no reason to suppose that our beliefs are mostly true, because natural selection is only interested in what is useful —what promotes the survival of our genes—and not in what is true. So long as they produce adaptive behavior, false beliefs are just as useful as true ones. If the belief that the lion is a shrubbery causes me to run away, it will be selected for. And since, on any topic, there are always far more false beliefs than true ones, it is always more likely that selection will prefer false beliefs that happen to produce adaptive behaviors. But in that case, Evolutionary Psychology still does not predict that we have reliable minds.

Interestingly enough, this point is actually conceded by several proponents of Evolutionary Psychology. For example, Steven Pinker admits that on his view, “our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth.”17 And Lewis Wolpert claims that “our brains contain a belief generating machine, an engine that can produce beliefs with little relation to what is actually true.”18 With no sense of irony, Wolpert later claims that “science provides by far the most reliable method for determining whether one’s beliefs are valid.”19 The problem, of course, is that if our belief forming mechanism favors useful but largely false beliefs, this will also include our scientific beliefs. And even if natural selection could somehow hone beliefs relevant to our everyday survival, so that they were mostly true, this still would not be good grounds to trust recent scientific theories, because they played no role in the survival of our ancestors.

Our ancestors encountered certain problems for hundreds of thousands or millions of years—recognizing objects, making tools, learning the local language, finding a mate, predicting an animal’s movement, finding their way—and encountered certain other problems never—putting a man on the moon…proving Fermat’s last theorem.20

Surviving lions and swamps has nothing to do with the developments of quantum mechanics—or of Evolutionary Psychology itself. Evolutionary Psychology implies that our minds are too unreliable to accept any scientific theory, including Evolutionary Psychology.

The Battle for the Soul

A major premise of Evolutionary Psychology is scientific materialism, which presumes that any observable phenomenon can be explained by material causes. It is taken for granted that beliefs about the supernatural are illusions to be explained away. This, however, avoids any consideration of whether the available evidence supports these religious beliefs. C. S. Lewis diagnosed the fallacy of the debunking approach:

[Y]ou must first show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.21

Leon Wieseltier detects the same problem in Daniel Dennett’s attempts to explain away religious belief.

It will be plain that Dennett’s approach to religion is contrived to evade religion’s substance…. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason….The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.22

Wieseltier’s last point is that if the provision of a materialistic explanation of a belief somehow discredits its truth, then this would apply to all of our beliefs, not just religious ones. Alister McGrath sees the same flaw in Dawkins’ claim that religious beliefs are simply the result of memes, and can therefore be dismissed as viruses of the mind: “If all ideas are memes or the effects of memes, Dawkins is left in the decidedly uncomfortable position of having to accept that his own ideas must be recognized as the effects of memes.”23 So, if having a memetic explanation allows one to assume the falsehood of a belief, this would have to include Dawkins’ own atheism and scientific beliefs as well.

We can distinguish several major problems with evolutionary accounts of religion. Fundamentally, they commit the genetic fallacy, according to which the origin of a belief discredits its content.24 Thus, it is a fallacy to argue that since Josef Stalin was a bad man, everything he said was false. Truth or falsehood does not depend on the source of an idea but on whether or not it corresponds with objective reality, and the only way to determine that is to investigate the evidence. Yet evolutionary psychologists show no serious interest in the best arguments for the existence of God,25 and even less in the powerful case for the historicity of the resurrection.26

Second, evolutionary accounts of religion are not developed according to proper scientific controls. If they were, we would expect equal research on the neurology and psychology of atheists and believers in the naturalistic religion of secular humanism. The fact that only supernatural religions are targeted by these accounts demonstrates unscientific bias.

Third, the assumption that those who have religious beliefs and experiences are somehow psychologically defective has no foundation in fact, as Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary have shown. This has become clear through the use of the latest brain scanning techniques on those who report religious, spiritual and/or mystical experiences (RSMEs).

 [P]eople who have RSMEs, far from being out of touch, are typically mentally and physically healthy. RSMEs are normal experiences that are positively associated with physical and mental health, because they express a natural spiritual function of the human being.27

And finally, evolutionary accounts of human behavior are untestable, pseudoscientific materialistic speculation, as even the renowned materialist geneticist Richard Lewontin admits:

The fact is, not a single study of personality traits in human populations successfully disentangles similarity because of shared family experience and similarity because of genes…. [N]o one has ever measured in any human population the actual reproductive advantage or disadvantage of any human behavior. All of the sociobiological explanations of the evolution of human behavior are like Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories of how the camel got his hump and the elephant got his trunk. They are just stories.28

A major reason these accounts cannot be more than stories is that human beings do not reproduce as much as possible, so we cannot measure the differential fitness of religious ideas.

[W]e have no…way of knowing how many surviving offspring our recent human ancestors would have had if they exercised no voluntary control over procreation… [T]he population studies…on whether people who have RSMEs are better or worse adapted…cannot even be done.29

In a sense, Evolutionary Psychology does not need to be refuted: it seems quite happy to discharge that work by itself. But it is important to show that dogmatic commitment to materialism leads to a self-defeating loss of confidence in human rationality and a corruption of the scientific method. Finally, in dealing with the endless contemporary excuses for not taking religion (and especially Christianity) seriously, we should recall the sage advice of C. S. Lewis:

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the issue ‘True – or False’ into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, or the Spanish Inquisition, or France [or Evolutionary Psychology]…—or anything whatever. You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point…. One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.30

Angus J. L. Menuge (Ph.D.) is Professor of Philosophy and Computer Science at Concordia University Wisconsin. He is the author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science(Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) and editor of C. S. Lewis: Lightbearer in the Shadowlands (Crossway, 1997).


1 C. S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in ed. Walter Hooper, Christian Reflections (London: Fount,
1991), 98.
2 Steven Pinker,
How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 21.
3 Richard Dawkins,
The Selfish Gene, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 192.
4 Steven Pinker, in an interview with Richard Dawkins chaired by Tim Radford, “Is Science Killing the Soul?” Edge 53, April 8, 1999, 12, available on-line at: html.
5 For similar attempts to explain away religion, see Daniel Dennett,
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking Books, 2006) and Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007).
6 Richard Dawkins,
The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 176.
7 Richard Dawkins,
The God Delusion, 177.
8 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 185.
9 For a more detailed defense of the points made here, see my recent paper, “ID, Darwinism, and Psychological Unity,” Philosophia Christi 10:1, Summer, 2008, 119-136.
10 Actually, there are many versions of this argument, but I will here present what I believe is the most central version developed by C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga. For variants of the argument, see the work of Victor Reppert cited below.
11 C. S. Lewis, Miracles Second Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1960), especially chapters 3, 4 and 13.
12 Alvin Plantinga makes this argument in “Is Naturalism Irrational?” ch. 12 of his Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press,
1993). A later version of the same argument, including a technical correction and some helpful simplifications is presented in Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). More recently, Plantinga has responded at length to his critics in “Reply to Beilby’s Cohorts” in ed. James Beilby, Naturalism Defeated: Essays on Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002).
13 Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). This is far and away the best book on the topic for anyone who wants a sound treatment of the topic without excessive technical complexity.
14For a more rigorous defense see my article, “Beyond Skinnerian Creatures: A Defense of the Lewis/ Plantinga Critique of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Philosophia ChristiPhilosophia Christi165 or the related chapter 6 of my Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). 15 Lewis, Miracles, 19. The only caveat I would make is that Lewis overlooks an ambiguity in “rational.” Calculators, computers and robots are highly rational in the sense that they implement rational principles, but they are not rational in the sense that their own logical thinking is the explanation of their output. 16 Daniel Dennett, “True Believers,” in his The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), 33.
17 Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 305. 18 Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 140.
19 Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, 216.
20 Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 304. 21“ Bulverism” in ed. Walter Hooper, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), “God in the Dock,” 273.
22Leon Wieseltier, “The God Genome,” review of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, The New York Times, February 19, 2006, available at: http://www.nytimes. com/2006/02/19/books/review/19wieseltier. html?incamp=article_popular_3&pagewanted=all. 23 Alister McGrath, Dawkins’s God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 124.
24 This point was very well made by John Warwick Montgomery in a recent debate on the rationality of belief in God, in which we both participated, held at University College Dublin, Ireland, October 8th, 2008.
25 Most philosophers find that Dawkins’ treatment of traditional arguments for the existence of God is sophomoric. See, for example, the scathing reviews of The God Delusion by Alvin Plantinga, available at: http:// html , and by the agnostic evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse in Isis Isis 816 | DOI: 10.1086/529280.
26 None of the new atheist scientists engage the defense of the resurrection in the work of such leading apologists as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, John Warwick Montgomery and N.T. Wright. 27Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 278. 28 Richard Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 96, 100. Note that “Sociobiology” is an earlier term coined by E. O. Wilson, but that “Evolutionary Psychology” is the preferred term today.
29 Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’ Leary, The Spiritual Brain, 224.
30 C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock, 101.

(Article first appeared in the Areopagus Journal Nov/Dec 2008 The Mind Body Problem)