Sight Unseen: Are we wired to serve God?
Sight Unseen: Are we wired to serve God?
Are we wired to believe that a higher power keeps an eye on us?

By JEFFREY WEISS / The Dallas Morning News, 8/7/2006 original
Almost every faith centers on a Supernatural Enforcer. An invisible power a god, ancestral spirits or karma rewards those who follow the rules and punishes those who don't.

Why do most religions have this in common? It's not inevitable, after all. A faith with a god who is indifferent toward people is simple to imagine. But it's much harder to find.

Believers will say their religion reflects divine will: that's the way God (or something) planned it.

Refreshments are sold on the honor system in the break room at the University of Newcastle people who get a cup of coffee or tea are supposed to leave money. Researchers found that when they added a picture of eyes above the payment box, more than twice as much money was deposited, compared with weeks when the eyes were replaced by a picture of flowers.

People were subconsciously triggered into acting more honestly, as if they were actually being watched, even though they knew the eyeballs were mere paper and ink.

Those results, published last month in the journal Biology Letters, support a controversial theory that connects prehistoric humans to modern faiths.

The theory says that so many of today's religions feature Supernatural Enforcers because of survival of the fittest. That sort of religion was most successful at prodding people into greater cooperation and honesty, which in turn helped their culture thrive, say the theory's supporters.

If that is true, successful early religions may have developed as they did because of how prehistoric human brains had previously evolved. Our ancestors may have been hard-wired in ways that inclined them to accept the notion of a powerful God (or something) who enforces rules of right and wrong.

Whether this theory gains mainstream acceptance and it's a long way from that it represents an increasingly common science strategy. Evolution started as a theory about biology. It's now used in anthropology, psychology, economics and political science to explain how people behave even how and why they pray.

For this particular theory about religion, scientists started with a hard question: Why are people as honest and cooperative as they are?

In general, people are nicer than they need to be, experiments show. That's not to say some individuals aren't liars or cheats. But many of us show a bit of Good Samaritan, even when we don't know whom we're helping and seem to gain no benefit.

But that seems to contradict evolution theory, because successful individual cheaters should gain a Darwinian advantage. A prehistoric thief who swiped the equivalent of a cup of coffee would have been better off than the honest fellow who "paid" for it. And the thief, by gaining an advantage that improved his odds of survival, would have been more likely to pass on those "selfish" genes.

Relatively successful cultures, on the other hand, seem to be made up of relatively cooperative and generous people. Charles Darwin suggested as much in 1871, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex:

"A tribe including many members who ... were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection."

If that's so, evolution raced in opposite directions, pushing our ancestors toward both selfishness and cooperation. Cooperation may have won by a nose but why?

A rabbi or priest might say it's because we're created in God's image. But some scientists find a more naturalistic answer in the power of religion, specifically the power of a perceived Supernatural Enforcer to nudge people toward cooperation.

That leads to more hard questions: How did the first Supernatural Enforcer religion appear? Is there something about the way people are put together that made that concept more acceptable?

Maybe so.

Scientists agree that human brains pay special attention to faces. And all kinds of critters from tropical fish to jungle monkeys to mall shoppers act more honestly if they think they're being observed, said David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York.

Early humans who were attentive in that way were less likely to get caught and punished for doing something wrong. That made them more likely to pass their genes along, said Dr. Wilson, whose book Darwin's Cathedral uses evolution to explain religion.

Add one more piece to the puzzle: Humans seem to have evolved to jump to conclusions. We often decide we know what's happening before we have all the evidence.

In evolutionary terms, this is a good thing. A pre-human primate who waited to be absolutely sure that the big thing stirring in the bushes was a lion would have ended up as lion chow.

As Homo sapiens developed language and imagination, that gave our quick-triggered brain many more possibilities. If physical explanations weren't good enough, our ancestors' brains automatically, irresistibly came up with other alternatives: A sin explained leprosy. A virgin sacrifice kept the volcano quiet. A prayer brought the rain.

In other words, our ancestors' brains may have been biologically inclined to believe in the supernatural.

"The basic thesis that belief in supernatural beings is a side-effect of evolved agent-detector mechanisms has been widely discussed," said Dan Fessler, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California Los Angeles. "Likewise, the notion that cultural evolution will favor beliefs in omniscient beings if such beliefs enhance group functioning is well known."

And that gets us all the way back to religion and fake eyeballs.

When Melissa Bateson and two colleagues at the University of Newcastle wanted to study honesty, she thought of the break room.

"I had been looking after the coffee and tea in our department for ages," she said.

A sign set the prices for tea, coffee and a bit of milk 30, 50 and 10 pence.

In January, without telling anyone, Dr. Bateson and her colleagues added one feature to the payment sign: They put up a picture of eyes for five weeks, alternating with a picture of flowers for five weeks.

When the eyes were posted, payments averaged 2.76 times larger than the weeks with the flowers.

The experiment confirmed two earlier studies, including one run by Dr. Fessler and a colleague, that used eyes or faces on computer screens. In all three experiments, people faced by even a hint of a face tended to act nicer.

So, putting the links together:

Our ancestors were hard-wired to pay attention to faces and to change behaviors if they were being watched. They were also inclined to believe in supernatural beings.

And they seem to have been programmed to subconsciously respond to the concept of an immaterial supernatural observer as if it were another person which is what the break room experiment demonstrated.

What if a particular tribe had those tendencies so strongly that it developed a religion that told its believers that a power was always watching? Would the very notion of an unseen, powerful watcher prompt more cooperative, generous behavior in people who weren't actually being watched?

Maybe so.

Call it the Santa Claus Effect: "He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake."

"Cues for being watched by people may have 'spilled over' into cues for being watched by anything," said Dominic Johnson, a political scientist with the Princeton Society of Fellows and co-author of several scholarly papers linking evolution and religion.

Would believers in a Supernatural Enforcer have a leg up on other early humans? If so, their culture and their religion would have been more likely to survive.

"I have been arguing that many people are likely to avoid selfish behavior because of concerns for a 'supernatural observer,' " Dr. Johnson said.

"This often seems farfetched to rationalist academics, but there is good evidence that it is important for billions of people across the world."

A few last-minute caveats: Every link in this chain is controversial. Behaviorists, psychologists and biologists have alternate theories about why humans cooperate and practice religion. Even those who agree on the broad outlines disagree about important details.

And even the most fervent proponents say this all adds up to a Darwinian nudge toward niceness, not a shove.

Dr. Bateson wasn't even thinking about religion when she put those eyes up in her break room. But she's thought about it quite a bit since.

"It's interesting," she said, "how often images of people watching you and eyes appear in religious iconography."