Darwin’s Cathedral

David Sloan Wilson

“I’ve found that when you go beyond the superficial definitions of religion, it’s very difficult to distinguish anything fundamental about religion that is not also fundamental to other social organizations. For example, the concept of sacredness, and the existence of a symbolic system that distinguishes the sacred from the profane, extends to many other social organizations.”

Evolutionary biologists have tended, Wilson writes, “to regard ancestral human groups as mere collections of self-interested individuals.” The groups themselves are seen as mechanisms that individuals manipulate for their own purposes, and not as “societal organisms” in themselves. This question of focus is fundamental to the dispute over group selection. If you are committed to the idea that there is no evolution above the individual level, then groups are irrelevant to fitness. To use Wilson’s example, the difference comes down to whether you see a lot of individual birds flying together, or you see a flock of birds. Once you’ve seen a flock, you can then easily see that there are many flocks. Once you’ve seen many flocks, you’ve achieved the point of view of group selection.

At the end of the first chapter, “The View from Evolutionary Biology,” Wilson summarizes his central thesis:

Natural selection is a multilevel process that operates among groups in addition to among individuals within groups. Any unit becomes endowed with the properties inherent in the word organism to the degree that it is a unit of  selection. The history of life on earth has been marked by many transitions from groups of organisms to groups as organisms.

“From groups of organisms to groups as organisms” — from the earliest appearance of multi-cellular life to the uncounted connections among the constituents of the human brain — is such a fundamental path for the development of complex life, Wilson argues, that to deny that possibility in human evolution makes no sense.

Wilson’s extended argument that multilevel selection should be taken seriously consumes the entire first third of the book. It’s only after these eight-five pages that Wilson begins to address religion directly.

His approach begins with a presentation of what he calls “an argument from design.” In this chapter, he examines the doctrinal details of Calvinism, looking for evidence that the creed’s fully articulated rules and proscriptions function as a guide to achieving and maintaining group solidarity. Of course he finds this evidence, describing the “God-people” relationship developed by Calvinism as “a belief system that is designed to motivate [desired] behaviors.”

Wilson adds importantly that it isn’t doctrine alone that makes a religious group cohere and persist. For that, you need rigorous policing of that doctrine, including punishments (here and eternally) and rituals that identify those in and those out of the fold. He quotes Martin Buber, who said “Where there is no discipline and excommunication there is no Christian community.” Wilson writes that “Calvin’s church was elaborately protected by a system of social controls designed to eliminate deviant behavior.”

The next chapter, “The Secular Utility of Religion: Historical Examples,” includes three analyses — the water temple system of irrigation in Bali, the Jews, and the early Christians. Most interesting of the three to me was Wilson’s analysis of the differences among the four official gospels. Many more gospels were written and discarded. What made these four attractive to the early church?

In an interview published in the New York Times shortly after the book’s publication, Wilson said: “When you compare the gospels that eventually made it into the New Testament with the many competing gospels that were rejected, what you find is that those that made it in were the ones that were best as blueprints for various early Christian communities.” The sometimes stark differences “were not the result of the passage of time, or of memories fading.” Instead, Wilson argued, “These Gospels were serving the needs of different Christian communities in different social environments. They’re fossils of local adaptations.”

In the next section of Darwin’s Cathedral, after dismissing “rational choice” theory as merely “predictive” and neither interested in nor informative about the mechanisms of human choice and social behavior, Wilson presents an alternative, “adaptationist approach.”

… the adaptationist program is free to explore the real proximate mechanisms that cause religious groups to function as adaptive units. Perhaps homo economicus will emerge as the final answer, but perhaps he will not.

Wilson writes:

Multilevel selection theory allows us to explain … religion … as one of the most important proximate mechanisms that evolved to enable groups to function adaptively. A group will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group.

In the next chapter, Wilson spends considerable time on the “ultimatum game” versions of co-operation. They’re very well-known now, but a decade ago Wilson felt the necessity to explain at some length the evolutionary viability of the various “tit-for-tat” strategies.

The psychological insights we’ve gained from the “ultimatum game” and many other laboratory and field studies lead Wilson to the conclusion that “one of the keys to the success of religion is its emphasis on the moral equality of those in the community.” In the same New York Times interview, Wilson observed that “religious believers often compare their groups to an organism, or a beehive.”

You might be rich, and I might be poor, but in some sense you’re no better than me. This guarded egalitarianism may be fundamental to the willingness of people to cooperate with others, including those who are unrelated to them, and to become the primate equivalent of a eusocial species like bees or ants.

There are few objective thinkers who doubt that religion plays an important social role, despite the fact that its supernatural claims are entirely fanciful. And an increasing number of scholars have adopted, to greater or lesser extent, the idea that religions serve as poster-child mechanisms for the claim that human evolution is multilevel, a product of both individual and group selection.

So I became a little impatient with Wilson’s frequent asides into the politics of evolutionary biology. There is a persistent combativeness in the writing, and to that extent I was distracted from the discussion. That’s too bad, for that discussion is insightful and thought-provoking, whether you agree with all of his argument or not.

Yet, at the time of publication and perhaps even now, ten years later, Wilson’s defensiveness may be more necessary than I think that it is. Consider, for example, the recent furor over the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth (reviewed here recently). Near the end of Darwin’s Cathedral, the author takes a final swipe at his anticipated critics:

Those who regard themselves as nonreligious often scorn the other-worldliness of religion as a form of mental weakness. How could anyone be so stupid as to believe in all that hocus-pocus in the face of such contrary evidence? This stance can itself be criticized for misconstruing and cheapening a set of issues that deserves our most serious attention as scientists and intellectuals.

Wilson writes that “much religious belief is not detached from reality if the central thesis of this book is correct. Rather, it is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.” Besides, he argues, nonreligious belief systems “might still distort the facts of the real world as thoroughly as the Four Gospels of the New Testament.” He cites patriotic histories and the purpose-driven “intellectual traditions and even scientific theories of past decades” as examples.

Wilson’s final position on religion is straightforward. As empirical truth-statements, religions are entirely false. As group-level adaptations that promote and cement sociality, they are an entirely real.


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