Argument from survival

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An argument from survival proceeds something like this:

  • Seemingly inexplicable or even counter-rational cultural habits (e.g. ritual, taboo) survive because, at one or more points in history, those habits became important to the survival of that culture.
  • Further, we cannot know in advance which of those habits within our culture may prove, in the future, to be vital to its survival.
  • Therefore, we should not dismiss seemingly irrational or destructive cultural habits simply because they seem like a bad idea to us, in the moment.
  • Therefore, it is acceptable to base decisions solely on cultural traditions, such as religion, without subjecting them to rational analysis.


  • The statement that "we cannot know which of those habits may be vital to us" blatantly contradicts the premise that those habits only survived due to their role in one or more past events; if the events happened in the past, surely there will be historical evidence of them.
  • Cultural tradition may be surprisingly right sometimes, but it has never been shown to be right more often than it is wrong – and certainly it has never been shown to be right more often than rational analysis.
  • At what point do we allow our critical judgment to override cultural (e.g. "faith-based") practices and beliefs? This argument has a very fuzzy edge, and can easily be extended to allow "faith" to override whatever it wants to. Where do you draw the line?
  • The survival of a particular set of habits may not have been due to their benefit to the carrier (i.e. the culture or individuals within that culture), but instead may have been due to the particularly meme-ish traits of the customs within which those habits are embedded (as pointed out in somewhat different terms on page 191 of The God Delusion).
    • For example: Without rational analysis, how do we know that memes which seemingly are integral to a particular faith were not, in fact, planted there by people more concerned with their own survival than with the survival of the infected culture? Take, for example, Dispensationalism – one of the key doctrines of what is claimed to be "roots" or "back to the basics" Christianity in the United States (i.e. Christian "fundamentalism"). It is in fact a recent invention, and can even be traced back to a specific person. An unquestioning approach to faith would have allowed this fact to slide casually into obscurity, and hence we might have assumed that Dispensationalism was somehow vital to the survival of some culture at some point during history.
  • Rational analysis allows for the possibility of including the weight of such cultural pre-dispositions in the overall decision, for example:
    • "Hmm, cultures throughout history have frowned upon X; we'd better take a closer look at it and see what has happened in the past to cultures which decided that X is ok." (as in the first objection above)
    or, less analytically:
    • "Hmm, we have a strong cultural taboo against X, so even though it seems ok given our scientific understanding, and even though we've decided that this taboo is unnecessary and should be reversed, we should probably move cautiously in doing so, and be prepared for complications."
  • Our culture is now substantially different – far more complex, more connected, more knowledgeable, and more capable – than any previous culture in history. To assume that something which was true for prior cultures (from which such cultural habits supposedly evolved) must also be true for our culture is dubious at best.


  • This is a form of argument for survival, wherein a particular decision within a particular group of people is supported on the basis that it is necessary for the survival of that group.
  • It is also arguably a form of appeal to nature – which argues from a presumption that something which has originated "naturally" is superior to that which is "unnatural" – if we consider that it values cultural habits for which we have no rational basis (and which therefore may be considered more "natural") over decisions based on rational analysis.
  • This argument is at least partly based on the nascent area of memetic theory, to wit: Certain memes survive because they symbiotically confer survival traits on the populations they successfully infect; not knowing which of the many culturally-transmitted memes are the important ones, we should resist the temptation to cure ourselves of any of them in order to ensure that we gain the benefit of those few memes which may be vital for our survival.


  • Extropy Institute: "Philosophies of life rooted in centuries-old traditions contain much wisdom concerning personal, organizational, and social living. Many of us also find shortcomings in those traditions. How could they not reach some mistaken conclusions when they arose in pre-scientific times? At the same time, ancient philosophies of life have little or nothing to say about fundamental issues confronting us as advanced technologies begin to enable us to change our identity as individuals and as humans and as economic, cultural, and political forces change global relationships."