I. THE SCIENCE OF RELIGION
It is with trepidation and humility that I come, from the oldest univer-sity in the English-speaking world to what must surely be the greatest.My trepidation is not lessened by the titles that, perhaps unwisely, I gavethe organizers all those months ago. Anybody who publicly belittlesreligion, however gently, can expect hate mail of a uniquely unforgivingspecies. But the very fact that religion arouses such passions catches ascientist’s attention.As a Darwinian, the aspect of religion that catches
attention is itsprofligate wastefulness, its extravagant display of baroque uselessness.Nature is a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching theclock, punishing the smallest waste.
If a wild animal habitually per-forms some useless activity, natural selection will favour rival indivi-duals who devote the time, instead, to surviving and reproducing.Nature cannot afford frivolous
Ruthless utilitarianismtrumps, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.I am a Darwinian student of animal behaviour—an ethologist and fol-lower of Niko Tinbergen. You won’t be surprised, therefore, if I talkabout animals (nonhuman animals, I should add, for there is no sensibledefinition of an animal that excludes ourselves). The tail of a male bird of paradise, extravagant though it seems, would be penalised by females if itwere less so. The same for the time and labour that a male bower bird putsinto making his bower. Anting is the odd habit of birds, such as jays, of “bathing” in an ant’s nest and apparently inciting the ants to invade thefeathers. Nobody knows for sure what the benefit of anting is: perhapssome kind of hygiene, cleansing the feathers of parasites. My point is thatuncertainty as to detail doesn’t—nor should it—stop Darwinians frombelieving, with great confidence, that anting must be for something.Such a confident stance is controversial—at Harvard if nowhere else—and you may be aware of the wholly unwarranted slur that functional
Natural selection, as Charles Darwin said, “is daily and hourly scrutinizing, through-out the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving andadding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportu-nity offers, at the improvement of each organic being...” (
On the Origin of Species
[London: John Murray,