Whether they believe in God, evolutionary biologists may need to pay closer mind to religion. That’s because religious beliefs can shape key behaviors in ways that evolutionary theory would not predict, particularly when it comes to dealing with disease, says David Hughes, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. In a presentation here yesterday at the 13th Congress of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology, Hughes and colleagues reported that some of today’s major religions emerged at the same time as widespread infectious diseases, and they propose that the two helped shape one another. The same dynamics may be reflected today in how people in Malawi deal with the AIDS epidemic.

Although not a religious person, Hughes has long been fascinated by the power of religion to get people to behave in ways they might not have otherwise, and in particular to extend help to nonrelatives, even at a significant cost to themselves. An extreme example of this is when someone tends to the sick, risking infection and, at least in earlier times, death as a result—a behavior that doesn’t make much sense from an evolutionary perspective, particularly if the sick person is not kin. For evolutionary biologists, “the question is not whether religion is correct on the issue of a God, but rather how people behave thinking there might be a God,” Hughes explains.

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