ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And Im Melissa Block.
Over the last few months, we've been airing a series of stories called "The Human Edge," about how we evolved into modern human beings. Today, we hear about religion from an evolutionary perspective. We'll explore how religious beliefs might have helped us become the species we are today.
NPR's Alix Spiegel talked to some scientists who spend their time thinking about whether belief in a supernatural God conferred an evolutionary advantage.
ALIX SPIEGEL: Jesse Bering's mother died of cancer on a Sunday, died in her own bed at 9 o'clock at night. Jesse and his siblings closed her door, then went downstairs hoping that somehow, they might manage to get some sleep.
Dr. JESSE BERING (Psychologist, Queens University, Belfast): You know, obviously we were all terribly upset, and my brother and sister and I were sleeping in the living room downstairs. And at about 7 a.m. - 7:30 or so, the wind chimes outside of her bedroom window started to chime.
SPIEGEL: Jesse remembers waking from his long night and hearing the soft tinkle of these bells. And he remembers thinking that those bells carried a very specific meaning.
Mr. BERING: Seemed to me, sort of intuitively, to be a message from her. And I knew that my brother and sister were thinking exactly the same thing - that she was somehow telling us that she had made it to the other side, that she had sort of cleared customs in heaven, and she was telling us that everything was okay.
SPIEGEL: Now, Jesse was an avowed atheist. He did not believe in any kind of supernatural anything. He was a psychologist, a scientist who believed only in the measurable material world. Still, he couldnt help himself.
Mr. BERING: My mind went there. It sort of leapt there. And from a psychological perspective, you know, as a psychologist, this was really interesting to me because I didn't believe it, on the one hand. But on the other hand, I experienced it.
SPIEGEL: Why is it, Bering wondered, that even a determined skeptic could not stop himself from perceiving the supernatural? It really bothered him. It was a very good question, Bering decided, to take up in his psychology lab.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Mr. BERING: See, you throw it just like that. But now, throw it in - when youre little closer. All right?
(Soundbite of thump and cheering)
Mr. BERING: All right, you did it. Way to go.
SPIEGEL: This is from a video recording of one of the many experiments that Jesse Bering has done in the decades since his mother's death - attempts to tease out how belief in the supernatural affects human behavior.
Bering is a professor at Queens University, Belfast.
In this experiment, children are instructed to throw a Velcro ball at a Velcro dartboard, and told that if they were able to hit the bull's-eye, they'll get a special prize. But then Bering gives them a list of rules that basically make it impossible for them to win the game, unless they cheat. Of course, the researchers dont really let on to this.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Prof. BERING: So you think you can do it? Let me see. I think you can. I think you can. Now...
SPIEGEL: Now, the children in the study were divided into three groups. The first was left alone and told to play the game as best they could. It was the same with the second group, with one difference. The children in the second group were told that there was someone special who was going to watch them. The experimenters showed the kids a picture of a very pretty woman - a character that Bering had made up who, by the way, had the same first name as Bering's dead mother.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Prof. BERING: Maybe you have heard of her. Have you heard of Princess Alice?
We say that this is a picture of Princess Alice. She's a magic princess, and she can make herself invisible - thats what her magic basically is.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Prof. BERING: Do you know what invisible means?
And she's in the room with us right now. She's made her herself invisible, you can't see her. But guess what? She's sitting in that chair right next to us.
SPIEGEL: So that was the second group. And the third?
Prof. BERING: The third group of children are basically shown an experimenter, a human being actually sitting in that chair. So this person takes the place of Princess Alice, this invisible woman.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Prof. BERING: All right. Let's see you do three more, following all the rules. The middle of the target...
SPIEGEL: Now, the question that Bering wanted to answer was this: Which group of these children is least likely to cheat? Remember, theyve been given an almost impossible task.
Well, the first group of children, the totally unsupervised kids, by far cheated the most. But whats surprising is the behavior of the second group.
Prof. BERING: Those children who were under the impression that Princess Alice was in the room with them were just as likely to refrain from cheating as were those children who were actually in the room with a physical, real, live human being.
SPIEGEL: A similar study with adults showed the same thing - that people are dramatically less likely to cheat when they think they might be observed by a supernatural presence.
Now, before I explain why this is important, you should know that Jesse Bering has a credo, a truth he says he's learned over his years of studying this stuff.
Prof. BERING: I've always said that I don't believe in God, but I don't really believe in atheists, either. Everybody experiences the illusion that God - or some type of supernatural agent - is watching them, or is concerned about what they do in their sort of private, everyday, moral lives.
SPIEGEL: Of course, these supernatural agents might have very different names. What some call God, others call karma. There are thousands of names. But according to Bering, they all have the same effect.
Prof. BERING: Whether it's a dead ancestor, whether it's God, whatever supernatural agent it is, if you think that they're watching you, then your behavior is going to be affected.
SPIEGEL: And this is really important. In fact, Bering says that believing that supernatural beings are watching you is so basic to being human that even committed atheists regularly, involuntarily, have moments where their minds turn in a supernatural direction, as his did in the wake of his mother's death.
Prof. BERING: They experience it but they reject it, sort of override or stomp on their immediate intuition. But that's not to say that they don't experience it. We've all got the same basic brain, and our brains have evolved to work a particular way.
SPIEGEL: Bering is actually one of a number of academics scattered around the world who about 10 years ago, started to look more closely at the nature of religious belief. Without directly engaging the question of whether or not God existed, they decided to look at religious belief through the lens of evolution.
You see, in the history of the world, every culture in every location at every point in time has developed some supernatural belief system. And when a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation - kind of like standing upright. That is, something that is so helpful that the people who had it thrived, and the people who didn't slowly died out until we were all left with the trait.
But what could be the evolutionary benefit conferred by religious belief? What does belief in the supernatural get you?
Well, according to Bering and some of his friends, the answer to that question has everything to do with what he discovered in his lab: the way that the kids and adults stopped cheating as soon as they thought that a supernatural being might be watching them. Through the lens of evolution, religious belief sets us on the path to modern life by stopping cheaters and promoting the social good.
Professor DOMINIC JOHNSON (University of Edinburgh): Hi, can you hear me?
SPIEGEL: Yes, is that Dominic?
Dominic Johnson is a professor at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., and one of the leaders in this field. And Johnson says before you can understand the role religion and the supernatural might have played in making us the people we are today, you really have to appreciate just how improbable our modern lives are.
Unidentified Woman #1: Hello.
Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning.
Unidentified Man #1: Hi. How are you?
Unidentified Man #2: Have you stayed with us before?
(Soundbite of conversations)
SPIEGEL: Today, we live in a world where perfect strangers are regularly, incredibly nice to each other. All day long, these strangers open doors for each other; they repair each other's bodies and cars and washing machines. In short, they cooperate.
Unidentified Woman #3: Hi. What can I do for you?
SPIEGEL: This cooperation makes all kinds of things possible. Because we can cooperate, we can build sophisticated machines and create whole cities -communities that require a huge amount of coordination.
Unidentified Woman #4: Enjoy your trip. And thank you for riding Metro.
SPIEGEL: Basically, by cooperating, we can do things that no individual or small group could do.
The question is, how did we get to be so cooperative? For academics like Dominic Johnson, this is a real puzzle.
Prof. JOHNSON: Explaining cooperation is a huge cottage industry. It dominates the pages of top journals in science and economics and psychology. You would think it's very simple. But in fact, from a scientific-academic point of view, it just often doesn't make sense.
SPIEGEL: It doesn't make sense because there's often a tension between the interests of the group, and the selfish interests of the individual.
Johnson gives an example, an experience he recently had in the subway.
Prof. JOHNSON: When I was in New York last, I went down - putting my ticket in the barrier, and some little kid ran in with me and got through the barrier. So he got onto the Metro and didnt pay. Now, we only have the Metro if everyone pays. But there's an advantage for everyone if they don't have to pay themselves.
SPIEGEL: And whats true of the subway is true of everything. Why fight in a war, risk your own death, if someone else will fight it for you? Why pay taxes or reduce your carbon footprint? These all have clear costs. And from an individual's perspective, you and your offspring are much more likely to thrive if you don't get killed in a war or pay your taxes - if you behave like the kid in the subway.
The problem is that even a relatively small number of people who choose to behave like the kid can affect the functioning of the whole.
Prof. JOHNSON: Even a few cheats undermine cooperation.
SPIEGEL: Once people realize that they're paying for the same thing that other people are enjoying for free, they become much less willing to cooperate.
Today, if you cheat - pass on paying Uncle Sam, steal a car - there are systems in place that will track you down and punish you. And this threat of punishment keeps you on the straight and narrow. But imagine if you lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.
Mr. JOHNSON: We know that punishment is very effective at promoting cooperation. But the problem for human evolution, then, is - well, who punished in the past, before we had police, before we had courts and law and government? There wasn't anyone formally to carry out the punishment.
SPIEGEL: In those early communities, then, when someone did something wrong, someone else in the small human group would have to punish them - maybe a leader, maybe just one of the group. But punishing itself is often dangerous because the person being punished probably won't like it.
Mr. JOHNSON: That person has a family. That person has a memory and is going to develop a grudge. So there are going to be potentially quite disruptive consequences of people taking the law into their own hands.
SPIEGEL: On the other hand, if there are gods or a god who must be obeyed, these strains are reduced. After all, the punisher isn't a vigilante, he's simply enforcing God's law.
Mr. JOHNSON: You have a very nice situation. There are no reprisals against punishers. And the other nice thing about supernatural agents is that they are often omniscient and omnipresent.
SPIEGEL: If God is everywhere and sees everything, people behave. They curb their selfish impulses even when there's no one around because with God, there is no escape.
Mr. JOHNSON: God knows what you did. God is going to punish you for it. And that's an incredibly powerful deterrent. If you do it again, he's going to know. And he's going to tally up your good deeds and your bad deeds, and you will suffer the consequences either in this life or in an afterlife.
SPIEGEL: So the argument goes that as our human ancestors spread around the world in bands, keeping together for food and protection, groups with a religious belief system survived better because they worked better together.
We are their descendants. And Dominic Johnson says their belief in the supernatural is still very much with us.
Mr. JOHNSON: Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions. They don't do things which they consider bad because they think they'll be punished for it.
SPIEGEL: Of course, these are all just ideas, with no real way to confirm any of it. Unfortunately, it's not possible now to rewind the movie, so to speak, and see what actually happened. And so these speculations will remain just that -speculations.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.