Will The Religious Out-Breed Us All?

Thanks to long-time reader and contributer Ari Schwartz for bringing this to our attention.

“It is widely agreed that religion has biological foundations—that belief in the supernatural, obedience to authority or susceptibility to ceremony and ritual depend on genetically based features of the human brain.” Thus does Robert Rowthorn begin his paper on “Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model” with a falsity. Thus we are not later surprised to learn that Rowthorn has “proved” that the religious—whatever they are, poor things—will out-breed the “normals”, to the extent that the genes of the enlightened folks will be watered down with, well, with holy water.

If what Rowthorn said was false, what is true is that some have said that religion has biological foundations. One reading makes this trivially true: we are biological creatures with brains that allow us to think up religious thoughts. But that’s not what Rowthorn has in mind. He says “religion promotes the evolution of genes that predispose people towards religious belief or behaviour.” Got it? Religion itself makes people religious. Sigh. This is what happens when people read Dawkins with minds far too open. Suddenly, any idea sounds good, no matter how illogical.

How’s it work?

For religion to influence genetic evolution it must convey some kind of selective advantage. Such an effect might come about through social bonding via ritual, formation of group identity through myth, honest signalling through participation in costly ceremonies and adherence to social norms through love or fear of God.

Religion—which must be sentient, like a meme; or something—also makes people fertile. That’s what scares the bejesus—and the Jesus—out of Rowthorn. “The more devout people are, the more children they are likely to have.” He’s particularly fearful of them Amish who have a “total fertility rate of 4.8”. Why, if that sort of rate keeps up, the world will be flooded with beautiful hand-made quilts, not to mention the glut of various sauces and jams that even now squirt like a fire hose out of Lancaster, PA.

Remember the good old days? When national or royal academies of science would only publish articles of value and intrinsic worth? Papers which were insightful and had a reasonable chance to not only be true, but were untainted with mind-rattling gibberish? Maybe my glasses are rose colored, but surely a work like Rowthorn’s would never have passed the bar of the Royal Society even twenty years ago, a time when even the John Birch society would have rejected this man’s wild thesis.

Just for a start, Rowthorn has forgotten the Quakers, the thousands upon thousands of Catholic priests, nuns, and brothers, the growing population of Buddhist monks, Shinto priests, and myriad other holy men and women of various stripe whose main goal in life is not to pass on their religious genes. Even though we have no (or almost no) chromosomal material from any of these exceedingly religious people, yet we are able to replenish their stock year upon year. How can this be?

Nowhere does the economist Rowthorn—he is on the Faculty of Economics, Cambridge—acknowledge the idea that those Amish breeders are less well off than his presumably barren but richer colleagues. There is bountiful evidence that wealth is a bar to pregnancy, and not just personal wealth, but that of a community. The better off a region (or country) is, the fewer the kids the ladies of that region like to have. The love of money trumps the love of babies.

And how come the religious haven’t taken over by now, forcing their beliefs down our throats (the main fear of those discussing this paper on Slashdot)? Defections, says Rowthorn. Yes, even though the religious gene is pernicious, yet some people are able to overcome its influence. The people able to accomplish this miraculous feat—they become what they are not by sheer force of will, even though their wills were under the control of their genes—might be said to have been born again. They abandon their Earthly genes and adopt Enlightened memes which overpower their genes. Or something.

Perhaps it’s overwork or overexposure to economical equations that accounts for people like our Rowthorn. All those formulas have a way of inducing a sense of self that can be unhealthy. Maybe that’s why economists don’t have a lot of kids. I think I’ll model this.


  1. Er.. Married Quakers are not necessarily celibate, and some I know have large families. Are you certain you wish to include them in that list?

    In the distant past many Friends shared a belief the only purpose of coitus was for procreation, but I’m told that view has liberalized somewhat in the past several decades.

  2. Robert Rowthorn’s views on “Religion, fertility and genes” are as relevant and earth-shakingly important as Tiger Woods’ views on the various methods of brain surgery. Maybe even lesser so.

    If Rowthorn had merely expressed himself in a Blog, etc., it would be no big deal. Just another rambling rant from a pajama-clad wannabe pundit-philosopher. But to publish his paper as serious work output vastly overestimates his talent to apply logic and analysis to a chosen subject. Do you think he understands just how inane and opinionated he has demonstrated himself to be? Intelligently stupid. What a waste of several professors’ time and effort.

  3. Briggs


    I beg their pardon. I meant Shakers, not Quakers.

  4. Rich

    Rowton says, “it assumes that fertility is determined entirely by culture, whereas subjective predisposition towards religion is influenced by genetic endowment.”

    Had he said, “It assumes that fertility is influenced by genetic endowment, whereas subjective predisposition towards religion is determined entirely by culture.” I’d have thought he was merely stating the obvious. Perhaps that’s where he started and thought, “I’ll swap the predicates. What fun!”

  5. Ray

    Orwell pointed out that a certain amount of intellectual sophistication is required to believe nonsense. It’s like Marx’s theory of history as a metaphysical force. Only the intellectuals believed that.

  6. Ken

    Men at some time are masters of their fates:
    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
    But in ourselves,that we are underlings.

    This paper reflects an age-old issue, one Shakespear & many others have observed & remarked about: people, for the most part, do not want to be accountable.

    In ancient times astrology allowed one to “blame the stars” — one’s lot in life was due to an accident of timing for which they were not responsible.

    Fast forward to the present and “genes” serve as the scapegoat….whatever “genes” are. While we know what a gene is, we really don’t know much about what they do, when & how they’re triggered, etc. Notice that the “scapegoat du jour” (today its “genes”) is something founded on common wisdom/knowledge that is also somewhat arcane, uncertain, and undboutedly malleable?

    We KNOW with certainty that genes DO play a signficant part in forming one’s personality — about 50 percent, give or take about 10 percent. But that other 50 percent (give or take) allows for a huge amount of self-mastery & self-determination consistent with, or despite, one’s genetic inclinations. At least, that’s what a number of competent psychological studies suggest (and they “suggest” …. not quantify precisely & infallably).

    So here’s a clue: authors that cite genes as THE basis for a behavior are in effect displaying a sort of inevitable fatalism that is just an excuse, usually an excuse for “its not my fault.” The corrollary is, sadly, even worse: “Its your genes fault, not yours” leads quickly to, ‘so we won’t bother trying to improve things…or…inspiring you to do so either.’ Its anti-intellectualism.

  7. Papasan

    “This is what happens when people read Dawkins with minds far too open. Suddenly, any idea sounds good, no matter how illogical.”

    My impression is that Mimi Dawkins and his ilk believe that everything is possible and that any possibility must exist in some universe or other across the Landscape — except for one possibility: that God could exist or be responsible for anything that we see. (I wouldn’t hold God responsible for certain things we cannot see such as the imagined multiverses that allows Dawkins to believe all improbable concepts except the one that angers him so much.)

    With this as the mindset, why would Rowthorn bother to care about logic or evidence? Along with Ken’s idea the “genes” are the new excuse, there appears to be another excuse at play, which is that any dig at religion is deserved by the unenlightened religious and no standards are required for publication by or applause from the enlightened brights/intellectuals.

  8. Old joke: what do economists (engineers, lawyers, insert group name here) use for birth control?

    Answer: their personalities!

    So maybe Rowthorn is onto something. It’s the old nature or nurture conundrum, but it is possible that his unattractive personality was written in his genetic code, and impelled him to become an irascible economist as well as loveless. Or it could have been his upbringing. In either case, his irreligiousity seems hardly to blame. As Briggs implied, Rowthorn could have become an irascible abstinent priest, or even an engineer.

  9. Francisco

    In 2003, Richard Dawkins proposed to his followers the word “bright” (as a new noun) to refer to the special set of people who are entirely free from religious proclivities. He proceeds to test this new noun in various phrases, and the result leaves him very satisfied: “I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn’t it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can’t imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright.”

    This proposal makes for very entertaining reading. It is hard to believe it wasn’t done as an act of self-parody. This is Dawkins, the Man himself, speaking in The Guardian with all his comic authority.

    Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new “gay”. Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
    Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn’t it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can’t imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright. The website http://www.celeb-atheists.com/ suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. Brights constitute 60% of American scientists, and a stunning 93% of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Fellows of the Royal Society) are brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can’t admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet brights. As with gays, the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so. People reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as a bright.
    Geisert and Futrell are very insistent that their word is a noun and must not be an adjective. “I am bright” sounds arrogant. “I am a bright” sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is puzzling, enigmatic, tantalising. It invites the question, “What on earth is a bright?” And then you’re away: “A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view.”
    “You mean a bright is an atheist?”
    “Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.”
    “Oh, I get it. It’s a bit like ‘gay’. So, what’s the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?”
    “What would you suggest?”
    Of course, even though we brights will scrupulously insist that our word is a noun, if it catches on it is likely to follow gay and eventually re-emerge as a new adjective. And when that happens, who knows, we may finally get a bright president.
    • You can sign on as a bright at http://www.the-brights.net/. Richard Dawkins FRS is Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. His latest book is A Devil’s Chaplain.
    ***end of quote**

  10. Sander van der Wal


    I’m quite sure that the standards required for the publication of Rowthorn’s ideas are no worse than the standards required for the publication of the Bible, or any other religious text.

  11. Tstm

    @Sander van der Wal

    You are “quite sure” – so it must be true then.

  12. Papasan

    @Sander van der Wal

    Really??? Your supposition shows significant ignorance of what is involved in publishing a translation of the Bible and an over estimation of what it takes to get an article like Rowthorn’s published.

  13. Sander van der Wal


    “Quite” is a British figure of speech.


    I am not concerned about the quality of the book, but about the quality of its contents. Rubbish theories deserve all the scorn they get, but there is not a single reason to make exceptions for some of them.

  14. obiwankenobi

    No idea if these data are accurate; but would not bet against them.


    since Vatican II…

    The following statistics are originally from Kenneth Jones’ Index of Leading Catholic Indicators:

    Priests. After skyrocketing from about 27,000 in 1930 to 58,000 in 1965, the number of priests in the United States dropped to 45,000 in 2002. By 2020, there will be about 31,000 priests–and only 15,000 will be under the age of 70. Right now there are more priests aged 80 to 84 than there are aged 30 to 34.

    Ordinations. In 1965 there were 1,575 ordinations to the priesthood, in 2002 there were 450, a decline of 350 percent. Taking into account ordinations, deaths and departures, in 1965 there was a net gain of 725 priests. In 1998, there was a net loss of 810.

    Priestless parishes. About 1 percent of parishes, 549, were without a resident priest in 1965. In 2002 there were 2,928 priestless parishes, about 15 percent of U.S. parishes. By 2020, a quarter of all parishes, 4,656, will have no priest.

    Seminarians. Between 1965 and 2002, the number of seminarians dropped from 49,000 to 4,700–a 90 percent decrease. Without any students, seminaries across the country have been sold or shuttered. There were 596 seminaries in 1965, and only 200 in 2002.

    Sisters. 180,000 sisters were the backbone of the Catholic education and health systems in 1965. In 2002, there were 75,000 sisters, with an average age of 68. By 2020, the number of sisters will drop to 40,000–and of these, only 21,000 will be aged 70 or under. In 1965, 104,000 sisters were teaching, while in 2002 there were only 8,200 teachers.

    Brothers. The number of professed brothers decreased from about 12,000 in 1965 to 5,700 in 2002, with a further drop to 3,100 projected for 2020.

    Religious Orders. The religious orders will soon be virtually non-existent in the United States. For example, in 1965 there were 5,277 Jesuit priests and 3,559 seminarians; in 2000 there were 3,172 priests and 38 seminarians. There were 2,534 OFM Franciscan priests and 2,251 seminarians in 1965; in 2000 there were 1,492 priests and 60 seminarians. There were 2,434 Christian Brothers in 1965 and 912 seminarians; in 2000 there were 959 Brothers and 7 seminarians. There were 1,148 Redemptorist priests in 1965 and 1,128 seminarians; in 2000 there were 349 priests and 24 seminarians. Every major religious order in the United States mirrors these statistics.

  15. Repair_Man_Jack

    John Derbyshire over at Takimag wrote a scare piece about this. He started off with did you know Osauma Bin Ladin’s father had X-Bazillion kids??!!!!

    Did The Derb know Muslim men can have more than one wife? It is important to this analysis for reasons beyond religious point-scoring. In a polygamous culture, a few men get lot’s of “sassifaction,” while a whole lot more of them pull their puds. A lot of the people having Gazillions of kids could be either Ilamic or Mormon. To assume that you can assume without loss of generality that every Muslim has gazillions of kids because OBL’s dad does, leads you dangerously far into the land of logical fallacy.

  16. Briggs

    Repair Man Jack,

    Thanks. I had never heard of Taki’s before.

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