The Evolution of Belief?

29 November 2006

Christians and other religious adherents oftentimes claim that the universal tendency to believe in God is itself evidence for God’s existence, what I will call the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion. Where else does such a predisposition come from? In every corner of the globe and every span of human history, belief in God, immortality, and salvation have occupied the human mind. This makes a good deal of sense if God has purposely created us with a tendency to believe, but atheists have no plausible explanation for the origin, development, and thriving of religion.

Or do they? With the development of neuroscience and the biological theory of evolution, many people are seeking to find alternative explanation for the extent of belief. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his book Breaking the Spell, has recently suggested that modern religions have evolved from ancient folk beliefs, and biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, has defended the idea that religious beliefs are self-replicating cultural memes that originated as byproducts of evolutionary selection processes.

Which side of the debate is right? And if people like Dawkins and Dennett can explain religion naturalistically, then is belief in God irrational after all? Are Christians simply caught under the spell of ancient folklore and embracers of a delusion?

Are the Naturalistic Theories Plausible?

If you want to develop an evolutionary theory of the development and flourishing of religion, the natural tendency is to look for ways in which religion is beneficial. After all, if our ancestors received some sort of benefit from religious beliefs, then natural selection may have assisted in the spread of religion. 1

From the standpoint of human survival, then, is religion really beneficial? Dennett suggests in Breaking the Spell that credulous humans who believed in the supernatural were more susceptible to the placebo effect, and therefore were more likely to be healed by shamans and mystics. Other possible benefits of religion include stress alleviation (particularly in the face of death) and community bonding links.

However, the evidence that religion offers an overall survival advantage seems to be quite weak. Dawkins, while claiming that there is some evidence that religious belief protects people from stress-related diseases, is skeptical of the general claim;

“Is religion a placebo that prolongs life by reducing stress? Possibly, although the theory must run a gauntlet of sceptics who point out the many circumstances in which religion causes rather than relieves stress. It is hard to believe, for example, that health is improved by the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence…In any case, I find the placebo theory unworthy of the massively pervasive worldwide phenomenon of religion.” 2

Many theories offered for why religion is so widespread fail to really explain the central issue of why people are inclined to believe in the first place. It is commonly claimed that religion is used by rulers and politicians to control the masses; this, however, does not explain why people are predisposed to religious belief and it does not explain the absolute origin of belief either. Unless it can be shown that religion is generally useful, at least early on in the evolutionary history of man, then the naturalistic project of explaining religion will fail.

However, Richard Dawkins has pointed out the religion may not be advantageous per se, rather, it may simply be a byproduct of other things which are beneficial. Dawkins’ own theory is that religion is the byproduct of two separate phenomenon. The first is the tendency, especially for children, to be gullible. Dawkins claims that “For excellent reasons related to Darwinian survival, child brains need to trust parents, and elders whom parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the truster has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad.” 3 The second tendency is our predisposition to dualism and our presumption of intentionality. Thus, humans (especially children) naturally believe that there is a soul or a me within the body, which is separate from the body, and they also assume that naturalistic phenomenon are for some purpose (for example, a child will naturally believe that clouds are for raining).

Thus, people are naturally predisposed to believe that there is an over-arching reason, or intentionality, behind things like rain, lightning, thunderstorms, and disease. This tendency led to the development of religious beliefs. Since children are gullible, these beliefs spread quickly and can infect an entire population after a few short generations.

Is this theory plausible? I must admit that while the theory may not have significant evidential backing, it does seem a relatively reasonable theory about the origin of religion. And Dawkins’ theory is by no means the only one.

Is Religion a Delusion?

Assuming that Dawkins’ account (or a similar one) is generally correct, or at least plausible, does that mean that religion is refuted? If we can trace our tendency of belief in God to psychological dispositions inherited from our ancestors, then shouldn’t we simply admit that belief in God is foolish?

Absolutely not. Even if philosophers and scientists like Dennett and Dawkins were perfectly successful in creating a theory of the emergence and flourishing of religion, this would not constitute rational grounds to dismiss religion as a fantasy. 4 To make this claim would be to commit the genetic fallacy. This fallacy occurs when someone attempts to reduce the significance or truth value of an idea to an account of its origin. The merits (or lack thereof) of religion must be considered on its own accord. So, even if Dawkins et al. are correct, it is of little relevance to Christian belief (except to perhaps undercut the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion).

Moreover, the fact that Dawkins and company can construct some sort of internally consistent theory for the prevalence of religion is not, in my view, all that impressive. Consider that Dawkins, who thinks that religion is a harmful phenomenon that, all things being equal, would tend to be weeded out by natural selection, is still able to build a theory that explains how it has flourished. What sort of human behavior couldn’t, with some degree of creativity and imagination, be explained with references to natural selection and supposed evolutionary mechanisms?

Imagine, for instance, if religion were in fact a very rare phenomenon, exhibited by only about 5% of human beings throughout history. Would evolutionary theorists have any difficulty explaining this tendency? In all likelihood, they would argue that religion is selected against by natural selection due to its tendency to cause war, encourage sacrifice, and divert resources and effort to religious activities. This would be a simple, elegant explanation, arguably much more simple and elegant than the theory offered by Dawkins. Evolutionists are only forced to offer theories such as Dawkins’ because, in fact, almost everybody throughout history has been religious. Thus, evolutionary theory can apparently “explain” human behavior whether 5% of people are religious or 95% are. This suggests to me that the existence of an evolutionary story is not itself a very impressive thing- evolutionary rationalizations can explain almost anything.

Consider another example; some human beings and other animals have committed supererogatory, self-sacrificial acts. One particularly powerful example of this type of behavior occurs when a soldier throws himself on a grenade to save a group of his comrades. Humans throughout the ages have been known to commit such suicidal acts of generosity. Yet, what possible act could be a more uncomfortable fit for the evolutionary naturalist? How on earth has evolutionary processes produced a tendency, any sort of tendency, for such irreversible acts of self-sacrifice? The soldier who throws himself on the grenade cannot even be rewarded for his self-sacrifice. Evolutionists like Dawkins will explain this behavior as byproducts of other, ultimately selfish, biological motivations. However, if no human or animal ever committed a supererogatory, self-sacrificial act, this fact would fit very well with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The fact that evolutionists can “explain” this behavior only proves that evolutionary stories can account for just about any conceivable human behavior. The fact that religion can be “explained” with such reasonings is thus not all that impressive- it is expected.

Is the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion Refuted?

So, the fact that evolutionists have offered a rationalization for the existence of religion is both unimpressive and not relevant to whether or not religion is true. But, doesn’t this discount the Argument from the Prevalence of Religion (hereafter APR)? We have a naturalistic explanation, however contrived it may be, and so we have no need to hypothesize our tendency to believe in God as coming from God Himself.

Strictly speaking, I think that this is mostly true. I am not a huge advocate of the APR, primarily because it is too easy for people to come up with alternative explanations or rationalizations. However, it is worth noticing that the existence of “naturalistic” explanations does not completely undermine the force of the APR. After all, who is to say that God didn’t use naturalistic processes, to whatever degree, to shape us so that we end up susceptible to believing in Him?

Consider the recent debate about whether or not there is a so-called God gene in our brains that predisposes us to belief. Geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer’s controversial book, The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes, postulates that human beings have a gene which is largely responsible for our belief in God. Although some religious laymen and theologians object to the idea, Hamer dismisses any relevance for atheism- “Religious believers can point to the existence of god genes as one more sign of the creator’s ingenuity — a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence.” 5

Hamer is correct, the existence of a tendency to believe in God, even if discovered to be caused naturalistically, could still plausibly be considered evidence for God’s existence.

Defending the APR

So, is the Argument from the Pervasiveness of Religion a successful one? In my opinion, it is only marginally so. In other words, while the APR does increase the likelihood of God’s existence, it is a very weak inductive argument that should be used with caution. Personally, I would not use it to argue my case against a staunch nonbeliever, and I would not use it in a public debate. Several problems minimize the force of the argument.

The Varieties of Religious Belief

Although it is true that humans have a tendency to be religious, these religious beliefs and ideas have varied widely. If almost every person believed in an omnipotent, omniscient, monotheistic god, then the case for the APR would be quite strong. However, religious beliefs take many forms, including polytheism, pantheism, and spiritual “life forces.” There is simply not a large degree of similarity between religious beliefs, which tends to argue against a single Creator providentially giving humans the propensity to believe.

The Existence of Naturalistic Alternatives

Although, as I have argued, the existence of naturalistic accounts of the origination of religion do not strictly disprove the APR, the fact that there are alternatives reduces the persuasiveness of the argument. Of course, this depends on the plausibility of the proposed naturalistic explanations. The naturalistic alternatives are more successful at rebutting the APR if they can be shown to be contingently likely to occur in any given life-containing universe.

Basically, naturalistic alternatives are not very good at rebutting the APR if the naturalistic alternatives themselves were unlikely to occur in the first place. For example, an evolutionary theory of the natural development of religion is unavoidably going to contain some natural contingencies. In other words, certain things are going to have to happen in the development of life, the brain, and the mind in order for the explanation to work.

To illustrate this, Dawkins’ postulates that religion is partly the result of the gullibility of young children being selected for by natural selection. However, there are several contingent natural facts (i.e., facts about the world which could have been otherwise) that must be in place for this to work. For example, human children need to be vulnerable for a relatively long time. If children developed much more quickly, then the need to blindly listen to elders would be reduced, and critical thinking and rationality, not gullibility, would be selected for. So, in summary, the more the naturalistic scenario relies upon natural contingencies, the more likely that the natural realities were designed or planned, in part or in full, by God. 6

Conclusion

Many people are content to explain away religion as the result of evolutionary development. However, these theories only speak of the origin of religious belief and do not touch on religion’s truth value. To assume otherwise is to commit the genetic fallacy. Additionally, even the existence of a persuasive naturalistic account of religious development does not necessarily undercut the Argument from the Pervasiveness of Religion. Nevertheless, the APR is a weak inductive argument for God’s existence at best and should thus be used with caution.

NOTES:

1. In fact, one does not even have to accept evolutionary theory in order to accept this line of reasoning. Even the most staunch anti-evolutionists admit (rightly so) that natural selection is a real phenomenon and that it can have a real effect.

2. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (2006) pp. 167-168

3. Ibid, p. 176

4. I am not necessarily implying that Dawkins, Dennett, or others are arguing in this way. It is perfectly legitimate for them to construct a theory about the origination of religious belief, either out of curiosities sake or out of an attempt to refute the theistic Argument from the Prevalence of Religion. However, if they make a jump from explaining the origination of religion to dismissing religion, then they are committing a fallacy.

5. See http://snapshot.jkn.com/762278.861739079987.

6. Dawkins’ hypothesis, so far as it goes, seems to rely on relatively few unlikely natural contingencies. Thus, if one grants that the hypothesis is persuasive, then it argues relatively strongly against the APR.




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  1. All in all a very good article, although a bit behind on the current track of evolutionary theory.

    The problem I see is that people persist in thinking of evolution as a survival mechanism for a single creature. It is not. It is a survival mechanism for traits, for a species. Lets say that a creature sacrifices its life. In doing so, two lives are saved. Now, these two creatures are familiar to the first creature: they are in it’s family, and are more likely to have the same gene for self sacrifice. Now, some other family, one that doesn’t have the gene, loses two of its members, since none of them were willing to sacrifice. The sacrificing members are more likely to live, and pass on their DNA.

    Also, the use of “survival of the fittest” has been kind of bent. It is not just strongest, it is best in a certain area that has to do with survival or breeding. This can mean some very strange things.

    For example, the Holstein cow has become a species reliant on us. Due to the fact that we decide what breeds, a good measure of “fitness” for these cows, is in fact, “deliciousness”.

    A lot of this is covered in one of Dawkins’s earlier books earlier books, “The Selfish Gene”. It’s fairly informative, and pretty much just a science book, as opposed to his more recent anti-religion books.

    I agree that the APR seems to be a particularly weak argument. It’s always seemed to me like an over-elaborated appeal to the populous. If there were any argument that could be labeled as God-of-the-Gaps, this would be it. I don’t think that any of this evolutionary information disproves God, but it does help point out the lack of grounding for the APR argument.


    — Nate    Jan 16, 10:40 PM    #
  2. Arguably, religion could thrive even if it provided no benefit, or were even harmful. It needn’t even arise from beneficial traits!

    Suppose one person came up with a fantasy that was to become an early religion, and became convinced that “something bad would happen” if it weren’t believed. This sense is common among people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Now, Pascal’s Wager has been in people’s heads long before Pascal proposed it, so this person would have no reason not to spread the word.

    In other words, religious memes could propagate simply because there’s little or no obvious, immediate harm in believing, and some sense of comfort, community identity, or meaning in doing so.

    – “However, if no human or animal ever committed a supererogatory, self-sacrificial act, this fact would fit very well with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The fact that evolutionists can “explain” this behavior only proves that evolutionary stories can account for just about any conceivable human behavior.”

    If no animal ever sacrificed itself to save its children, it would suffer a major loss of fitness.

    And acts of altruism can be explained, first, by a selfish gene mechanism as Nate described above, and second, by the argument from beneficial cooperation.

    People who are altruistic would, in a small community, be noted for altruism. People who are selfish, in contrast, would get little cooperation from others. As social creatures, we benefit greatly from mutual back-scratching. So it makes sense for us to evolve to:

    1) Be charitable to others, and

    2) Recognize others who are good to us, and seek justice when others are cruel to us.

    What, then, of the soldier who throws himself on a grenade for people not at all genetically related to him, who will never get a chance to return the favor? Well, on an evolutionary scale, the grouping together of very unrelated people is likely a recent invention – much like the grenade. Anyway, a behavioral pattern that’s fitness-enhancing under ordinary circumstances may still stick with us in extraordinary circumstances.

    In short, we have no evidence here one way or the other.


    Paul    Apr 21, 09:11 AM    #
  3. This artical makes some good points, but the idea of using religion in human history to proove it’s existance, is a very niave statement. This concept leaves out the fact that almost all religions before the rise of Christianity were polytheistic, barbaric, and many times involved the practice of human sacrifice to the gods.

    These early religions do not display the charactaristics Christians claim as their faith. Many of these cultures didn’t believe in any afterlife (an important docterine of Christianity.) During the Roman era, Christianity rose to power by using many pagan traditions to convert the Roman citizens. Christian holidays like Christmas were introduced in place of pagan celebrations like the winter solstace. Humans have a natural inclination to make things more significant than they really are. We have always looked for answers, and most Christians would agree that they have been wrong for the majority of human existance. Why are we so sure that we’re right now?


    Travis    Jan 15, 06:19 AM    #
  4. Good article.

    I’m sure Dawkins could also find an evolutionary rationalization for my tendency to fart like a demon.


    Paul Robotham    Mar 2, 02:54 PM    #
  5. Considering the source, I think this a really good article.

    Some obligatory nitpicking:

    1) “In every corner of the globe and every span of human history, belief in God, immortality, and salvation have occupied the human mind.” I think “god or gods” is more accurate than “God”, but I can let that slide given the audience. :)

    2) “This suggests to me that the existence of an evolutionary story is not itself a very impressive thing- evolutionary rationalizations can explain almost anything.” – Credible scientific ones certainly can’t. I’m sure the common person in the street can say, “I wonder how that came about, perhaps it was because…”, but to have a proper evolutionary explanation you would need evidence and it looks to me that all contemporary scientific descriptions of evolutionary adaptation also contain a mathematical foundation (e.g. Evolutionary Stable State theory).

    3) “Thus, people are naturally predisposed to believe that there is an over-arching reason, or intentionality, behind things” – I don’t really think you give the notion of intentionality enough coverage. If you see something blink in the corner of your eye, it is better to think it might have the intention of a tiger than to assume it was just a rock.

    4) “Consider that Dawkins, who thinks that […], all things being equal, [religion] would tend to be weeded out by natural selection” – Doesn’t sound much like Dawkins to me… Citation?

    5) “Assuming that Dawkins’ account (or a similar one) is generally correct, or at least plausible, does that mean that religion is refuted?”. No, it’s pretty obvious that it shouldn’t. The claims have to be taken on their own (and indeed are). I’m not sure who would say otherwise? However, whether you assume that existence of a supernatural being is true or false, it is still certainly interesting to wonder how those beliefs came about.

    6) “Humans throughout the ages have been known to commit such suicidal acts of generosity. Yet, what possible act could be a more uncomfortable fit for the evolutionary naturalist?” Not at all. That is covered very well by kin selection, and thereby extended to more general social bonding. It seems obvious to me that there is a misunderstand of evolution here in at least this respect. It is about survival of genes, not individuals. If I gave my life for my children, that benefits my genes, not me, and it is genes that are important from a survival standpoint. Genes that are more likely to sacrifice their current body to save other newer copies of those genes would be positively selected. There really seems to be a misunderstand this (rather subtle) point by the sentence: “The soldier who throws himself on the grenade cannot even be rewarded for his self-sacrifice.”

    7) “So, the fact that evolutionists have offered a rationalization for the existence of religion is both unimpressive and not relevant to whether or not religion is true.” This is a bit of a straw man, I’m not aware of anyone who have seriously thought about it would suggest it does :)

    8) “postulates that human beings have a gene which is largely responsible for our belief in God” – if he says that, I assume he means “gene” is a very non-scientific sense…

    9) “In other words, while the APR does increase the likelihood of God’s existence[…]”. – Why? Weren’t you arguing earlier in the article that explanation for APR has no baring on the truth of a gods existence? Looks like somebody committed their own fallacy :)

    10) “For example, human children need to be vulnerable for a relatively long time. If children developed much more quickly, then the need to blindly listen to elders would be reduced, and critical thinking and rationality, not gullibility, would be selected for.” – That seems to me to be exactly the wrong way round. Children are gullible for that amount of time exactly because that is the optimal amount of time that works. Getting closer to that amount of time is what would have been selected for.

    Anyway, let me say again, I think this is a good article, but I think somebody should read some more evolutionary biology and then write it again :)


    — Kieron    Nov 28, 03:48 AM    #
  6. first off, believing all of that THEORIES that go against monotheism, to me is way more ridiculous than believing in God. For example someone who would rather believe in the astronomical chances of a spontaneous creation.

    Secondly, true atheism is a controdiction in itself, for the simple reason that you have to believe God exists, to not believe he exists.
    and lastly, the simple truth is that your never going see God until you go to Him, if you havent accepted Christ as your Lord and saviour, then you will probably live your life blinded by the worlds “science” and/or “reasoning”


    — mull miller    Jan 11, 10:04 AM    #
  7. “Secondly, true atheism is a controdiction in itself, for the simple reason that you have to believe God exists, to not believe he exists.”

    One of the most foolish things I have ever read. This logic can easily be extended on any mythological non-existent being you want. Do you believe in fairies? No? Well obviously you must since you must believe fairies exist in order to not believe they exist. So according to your logic you must, by necessity, believe in dragons, leprechauns, griffins, elves, and every deistic pantheon in existence.

    Absolute foolishness.


    Robert    Apr 3, 01:37 AM    #
  8. It is, I think, rather important that everyone recognise that memes here are synonymous (almost) with ideas, that is their survival (for “survive” read “replicate”, for “survival” read “replication”) is not actually dependent on their inherent “goodness” or “truth”, only their ability to replicate themselves, like genes. A gene will survive if it can. This does not mean that an individual will survive if it can but will do what is best for its genes (which, admittedly, normally do have their “gene machines”, their hosts, their human bodies surviving as a matter of genetic importance – it’s vital that human survival is not the goal, genetic survival is). Hence we find altruism (see Dawkins’s Selfish Gene), disease in old age, the menopause, etc. These are not for individual survival but genetics survival.

    Memes are the same; they will survive if they can. And as we are the “gene machines” for genes, that which allows them the fighting chance at survival, we are, for memes, “meme machines”, that which allows memes to survive. Memes dwell in our minds but long for expression and to replicate in someone else’s mind. So that the “Happy Birthday” song is a very good meme for it has replicated the world over and continues to replicate. It’s catchy tune, necessity at parties, ease of replication, use in English (the most commonly known language), etc. all allow it great ability to replicate and thus survive. Of course, it doesn’t do anything does it. It is just something we do at certain times. In fact, it’s virus-like. It takes up our time and space, strains our voices, etc. and gives nothing back. It has hijacked our minds and vocal cords, using (or abusing to continue in my needlessly violent tone) our ability to speak for its own gain, allowing itself to replicate while benefiting us not at all, save through social acceptance which comes from knowing the song – something no-doubt caused by its prevalence in the first place!

    The “Happy Birthday” virus is not dissimilar to the “appendix” virus. This gene has managed to remain in our bodies by not doing us a great deal of harm but not being of any use to us at all! It was originally, of course, but since becoming redundant has simply sapped our energy and often failed to remain stable causing illness and possibly death. What a cruel organ. What a cruel gene. But all-too-similar, perhaps, to the meme of religion.

    This may have served us well in the past, or it may have not. It may have been the by-product of something else. It may have been an appendix (left over but enjoying its continuance) or “Happy Birthday” (which has hijacked our ability to think and speak). Personally, I side with Dennett (that is, am of the opinion that it must have some evolutionary advantage) but that is not necessarily the case. Religion (that is prizing faith, uplifting dogma, praising loyalty to god or a way of life, spreading “the good word”, etc.) actually has survival built in to it; religion makes a virtue of its continuance, that is it brings satisfaction (however misplaced or, perhaps, true!) to those “meme machines” (humans) who spread the meme of religion. Plus, just as the sheep was very smart indeed to acquire the shepherd for through doing so it gained protection, constant food, continuance of its genes, etc., religion was very smart to acquire theologians, holy texts, indeed those willing (be they theist, atheist, agnostic, or whatever!) to discuss it as we are doing at the very moment. The meme is highly successful even if useless! I do not plan to make an argument either way for that case, i.e. the truth of religion, for, as you can see, it does not actually matter, what does is only that the religion (or Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.) meme is highly successful for the meme is specialized, cleverly evolved, and has cunningly used all the high-fidelity means of continuance at its disposal in us — we are brilliant “meme machines”.

    Atheism is a meme too, as is scientific empiricist thinking, etc., etc. Memes are not for bad things, I should stress, they just are for things, ideas, etc.. Atheism has as its attributes, things like provable facts and science, which are trusted meme complexes in themselves, and thus survives well. However, theism is also very good at survival for the opposite reason, it has cunningly made faith an attribute of itself and thus one needs not have reason for belief in god, or Christ’s resurrection or whatever (that’s not to say that one cannot have it, but that it is not necessary like claims are in science, etc.). Really, memes survive true or not. Provable truth actually helps, obviously, but if it is cancelled out by faith in truth then it is not vitally important. After all, be it good or not, belief in the importance of truth is a meme in itself. If other memes contradict that and are better able to multiply as a result then truth need not be a factor to survival. Lamentable as that is, for I personally value truth more than much more, it is memetics.

    The other point I briefly desired to make was that if religion were a minority affair, if only five per cent (the example percentage used above) of humans “believed” (that is, were the carriers of the meme) then one would still require a genetic and memetic explanation for the phenomenon. That Jehovah’s Witnesses exist, that the constantly small Jewish population exists (indeed the latter is probably a better example, having survived despite everything for so long!) should be a case in point and I do not need to say any more, I think.


    SuchaWistfulEye    Apr 18, 02:18 AM    #
  9. “not very impressive”
    is a not very impressive argument.


    Samuel    May 6, 06:56 AM    #
  10. I think that one of the things that Dawkins fails to realize with his theory that religion is spread by gullible children is that Christianity happens to be the world’s fasted growing religion. This is not by births, but by converts. Adults from all walks of life in every corner of the globe are embracing Christ’s message. Rationality is all about making conscious decisions. So these adults are making very conscious rational decisions to follow Christ. So therefore this cannot be not irrational


    Tim    Jul 26, 01:56 PM    #
  11. Just a reminder that this argument does not work from EITHER side of the table. Also, evolution need only concern itself with survival up to the point of viable offspring, not nessesarily health, happiness, comfort, or stability. Evolution, unlike our general perception of it, does not promote or encourage, it weeds indescriminately. Only those who happen to pass on there genes are spared, as everybody dies, so only those who successfully procreate matter to evolution.


    Don    May 13, 02:32 AM    #
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