What the Grinch Can Tell Us About Evolutionary Psychology
The Grinch helps us understand the evolutionary function of religion.
Posted Nov 15, 2018
Dr. Seuss had many a great insight into the nature of being human. If you want a poignant set of insights into the evolutionary function of religion, you need look no further than How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A grouchy, nasty, selfish fellow, the Grinch concocts a plan to steal all of the presents from all of the kids of Whoville before Christmas morning. And, worse, he plans to take them for himself! This caricature of greediness and selfishness embodied in the Grinch speaks to several human archetypes. He’s mean, rude, and without compassion. He’s not in it for the greater good by any means.
So, of course, the rest of the story is pretty much etched in the fabric of our culture by this point. The Grinch serendipitously bumps into Cindy Lou Who ("who was no more than two") when she genuinely mistakes him for Santa Claus—a much more generous soul than he. The Grinch seems to feel some pangs of guilt. He tells her something of a white lie as to why he is shoving all of the toys up the chimney—and then he takes off, in true Grinch-like fashion.
Christmas famously comes in any case right on Christmas morning as scheduled, and all of the Whos celebrate gleefully and with appreciation, in spite of the lack of presents. The Grinch’s heart famously grows by three sizes upon learning of this news. He gives back all the toys and makes good with all of the Whos.
So there you have it: The Grinch in a nutshell. And, believe it or not, this American classic helps illustrate an evolutionary take on why religion exists.
The Evolutionary Function of Religion
In his intellectual tour de force, Darwin’s Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson (2002) illuminates the basic functions of religion from an evolutionary perspective. According to David, religion, which appears in any and all human societies that have been studied, has two important dimensions. The vertical dimension addresses the supernatural—the what’s-up-there dimension of religion. This is the stuff that religious folks are asked to accept based on faith. Supernatural deities, splitting of seas, reincarnation, and the like. Sometimes, the content of this dimension may seem strange to frame as possible. In fact, almost by definition, elements of the vertical dimension of any religion are impossible to reconcile with observable data. And so you have the "Hellfire exists because we as Christians believe it; it’s in our books and we learn about it at church"—that kind of thing.
For David, the vertical dimension of religion pertains to the proximate causes of religion—in other words, the immediate factors that make people religious. These include things like belief in a positive afterlife, belief in an all-powerful and good god, etc. These are things that encourage people to do the right thing.
However, for David, the ultimate function of religion pertains to social control. He calls this the horizontal dimension of religion (as it extends across people). Religions have extensive codes about human behavior and social relations. Respect your mother, don’t kill, don’t trespass on your neighbors, be kind to strangers, treat others as you would treat yourself or your own family, share with others in need.
A core feature that undercuts all of these rules is essentially this: Subordinate your selfish interests to the greater good. If you can create a religion that gets people to act in the interest of others and, ultimately, in the interest of the greater good, you will have a population of altruists with relatively few folks showing all-out selfish tendencies. And, of course, this is exactly what groups need to thrive. So religion’s ultimate function, then, can be conceptualized as getting people to work toward the interests of the broader group (via social-control or horizontal mechanisms)—partly by getting them to believe that some all-powerful deity is keeping an eye on their actions (i.e., the vertical dimension of religion).
Interestingly, this evolution-based approach to religion connects well with the work of positive psychologists Graham and Haidt (2010), who acknowledge the evolutionary origins of religion and morality and who argue that religious practices ultimately serve to unite people in forming communities based on shared moral principles.
So let’s go back to our friend the Grinch. In short, the Grinch starts out as selfish and ends up as other-oriented. And we as audience members like this shift. We are humans, and we like others whom we can expect to be working on our behalf and on behalf of the greater good. And we often find those who are only working in their own self-interests to be repulsive. These facts about social perception connect closely with Wilson’s take on the evolutionary psychology of religion. What sparked the Grinch to have a change of heart? The coming of Christmas—which is, for Christians, of course, a pretty important religious holiday, signifying the birth of Christ.
Seuss actually gets into what evolutionists would refer to as both proximate and ultimate mechanisms that relate to the Grinch’s famous turnaround. Remember, the Grinch wasn’t a nice guy until “his heart grew three sizes.” Think about that! In this case, as is often used in our lexicon, a big heart is used metaphorically to represent a compassionate, other-oriented mind or overall pattern of behavior. And this is exactly the kind of proximate mechanism that religions incorporate to facilitate the ultimate outcomes of actual other-oriented behavior.
Anthropological research on the evolutionary origins of religion often uses the sharing of food as a standard exemplar of other-oriented behavior. And how does the story of the Grinch end? The Grinch, he himself, carves the roast beast—for everyone in Whoville.
(This post includes content from my upcoming book, Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin's Guide to Living a Richer Life.)
Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (2019; forthcoming). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Graham, J., & Haidt, J. (2010). Beyond Beliefs: Religions Bind Individuals Into Moral Communities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 140-150.
Seuss, T. (1957). How the Grinch Stole Christmas. New York: Random House.
Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.