During the last two decades, biologists discovered the topic of religion. Some got really interested in its evolution. Others discovered that they could sell far more books if they depicted evolution as the alternative to religion, giving the public sale-enhancing bashings. As a doctor, teacher and author in the scientific study of religion (German: Religionswissenschaft) I've encouraged my colleagues and students not to resent biologists delving into "our" field of expertise, but to seek out the interdisciplinary dialogue wherever possible. If evolutionary theory is true (about which I am fully convinced) then evolutionary studies are our very best way to understand religion. And if evolutionary theory wouldn't be able to explain the emergence of religious beliefs and behaviours, the theory would have failed.
During the last years, cognitive studies of religion became a lively branch of evolutionary studies. But then, the ensuing consensus integrating modules such as Hyper-Agency Detection (HAD), Theory of Mind (TOM) and Reputation Management started to stagnate, especially as many cognitive scientists hesitated to widen their scope.
Sometimes people ask me why I am using Twitter (as @BlumeEvolution). Prejudices go as "There are only people babbling around." - "There's nothing relevant you could say in 140 letters." - "It's only used by celebrities promoting their worthless musics." etc.
Well, I disagree. As I started to use Twitter, I started to play around by searching for scientific information. And I found people such as Karla Segura @CRKarla who (re-)tweeted links to science-related news: More than 70.000 up to now, and counting! And I could easily follow her, instead of, say, Lady Gaga. Now, I was able to learn from Karla's researches into the world wide web and to retweet those findings that would be of interest to my followers, too. She could do the same - building a tiny scientific connection in an expanding network.
Then, there are other active scientists such as Fabrice Leclerc @leclercfl, who is not only (re-)tweeting science-related findings, but also publishing a regular "online-paper" with evolution-related topics based on Tweets: The evolution daily.
For me, these aggregations are not only interesting - they are valuable. Think about it: Evolutionary studies are extremely interdisciplinary, ranging from diverse studies on animals and humans, to genetics, mathematics, cultural studies and metaphysics (such as philosophies and theologies). And the same is true with my field of research, evolutionary studies on religion (ERS). Twitter helped me not only to find Jonathan Haidt's great TED-talk but also an essay he wrote on CNN about his atheist appraisal of religion. And I found a way not only to retweet those findings of special interest to ERS, but also to aggregate these for other readers. As religion-editor of "Evolution This View Of Life", I am tweeting special recommendations to Haddasah Head @Haddie who might put them on the ETVOL-religion shelf for free access to everyone!
So, yes, Twitter can be mindless chatter, and it can be "just for fun". But it can be a good and enjoyable way to find and share scientific informations from various fields, being a part of the global stream of scientific communication. That's why I am happily using and recommending it! I even added a mission to my profile: Twitter needs more science tweets!
Another step in the increasingly dynamic history of evolutionary studies of religion has been taken: The respective TED-Talk by Jonathan Haidt has been seen more than 20.000 times on the first day of its appearance on YouTube. And it's worth every minute!
More than ever, the brilliant team with active members such as Robert "@RobertMKadar" Kadar and Hadassah "@Haddie" Head is experimenting with new media possibilities such as videos. Here, leading evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is introducing into the dynamic field of evolutionary studies of religion.
After seeing this well-done tutorial, I decided to add a web-interview and sent him some questions.
1. David, as a leading evolutionary biologist, you initiated the
"Evolution - This View of Life" (ETVOL)-online-magazine which
"approaches anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective".
Why did you do that?
professional life is devoted to expanding evolutionary science beyond
the biological sciences to include all aspects of humanity--in my own
research, in higher education (EvoS), and in the formulation of public policy (The Evolution Institute).
The idea for an online general interest magazine was conceived by one
of my graduate students named Robert Kadar, and it has been an excellent
adventure working with him to make it a reality.
2. Evolutionary Biology has
been a field of intensive debate during the last years. Together wih
only a few allies, you brought group or multilevel selection
successfully back into science after it had been condemned and tabooed
for decades. What do you think - why have colleagues such as Richard
Dawkins have been so active in suppressing empirically viable perspectives for so long?
will have a good time conducting an autopsy on the group selection
controversy (they're already starting in books such as The Price of Altruism by Oren Harmon and Evolutionary Restraints by
Mark Borello). I play the role of historian myself in a series of posts
on my "Evolution for Everyone" blog titled "Truth and Reconciliation
for Group Selection" (start here).
Two major points are worth emphasizing. First, when a large group of
people reaches a consensus that they regard as foundational, it's hard
for them to reconsider, in science no less than other walks of life.
Second, evolutionary theory's individualistic swing in the middle of the
20th century was part of a more general swing toward individualism in
western culture and other branches of academia such as economics.
Evolutionists have been biased by the culture of individualism in the
20th century, much as Darwin and his contemporaries were biased by
Victorian culture in the 19th century.
In your new and partially autobiographical book "The Neighborhood Project", you are reflecting on the
growing sceptisicm among your formerly Protestant family.
Nevertheless, you contributed with "Darwin's Cathedral" heavily to the
now-dynamic field of evolutionary studies of religion. And you won me
over as the religion-editor for ETVOL arguing that the topic should not
be excluded. Why do you think that religion is an important field in
My mother and novelist father (Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and A Summer Place)
were not religious but they had a strong sense of morality, so "do
unto others" was instilled in me as strongly as in most religious
believers. When I started to learn about evolution in college, I was
told that group selection, the most straightforward theory for
explaining the evolution of altruism, had been rejected. I took that as a
challenge. I was also attracted to the study of humans from an
evolutionary perspective from the beginning. I guess you could say that I
had an appetite for controversy!
After decades of studying group
selection and human evolution, it only made sense to study religion from
an evolutionary perspective. It's amazing how fast the field of
Evolutionary Religious Studies has advanced since the publication of
Darwin's Cathedral, thanks to talented people such as yourself and your
great work on the effects of religion on human fertility.
4. In the United States,
evolutionary theory is quite offen criticized on religious grounds. In
Europe, most people accept evolution concerning plants and animals, but
especially older scientists are rejecting it quite often when applied to
human phenomena for the fear of reductionism and social darwinism. Do
you have good advice in dealing with such fears?
in relation to human affairs earned a bad reputation during the late
19th and early 20th century, especially with respect to the
justification of social inequality. As a result, most human-related
disciplines have avoided evolutionary thinking since before most of the
current experts were born. Yet, all human-related academic disciplines
strive for consilience--consistency with other branches of knowledge.
In essence, everyone has been saying "My ideas are consistent with
evolution, without requiring much knowledge about evolution." When this
unstated assumption is put to the test, many ideas in the human-related
disciplines fail the consilience test. The best way to allay fears about
evolution is to show how modern evolutionary science can be used not
just to understand, but also to improve the human condition.
I couldn't agree more. Evolution rocks, and I am looking forward to contributing more to Evolution: This View of Live (ETVOL)! Thank you very much for promoting science, cooperation and evolutionary studies, David.
Others disagree, claiming that evolutionary studies are presenting a distinct worldview incommensurable with their religious teachings. Rejecting evolutionary theory for the sake of their written creation myths, these people are called creationists. As surveys among various denominations are showing, members of some religious traditions are more ready to embrace evolutionary studies than others.
But there is still another perspective on the subject of Evolution and Religion: The scientific studies on the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors themselves. Where did they come from? How are they influencing human lives and cultures? Are our genes and brains hard-wired for religious and spiritual experiences?
Ever wondered why so many people are investing lots of hours into social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Blogs, vying for some more "friends", "followers", comments or clicks?
It's long been assumed that the reason is our evolutionary history. Whether we are studying obtaining food, organizing security, labour or - the feature most distinguishing us from other primates - cooperative child care, our species learned to rely on social cooperation for successful survival and reproduction. In fact, Charles Darwin dubbed "Man" as a "Social Animal" - although he was not yet aware i.e. of the importance of cooperative childcare. Now, a new Harvard-study by Coren Apicella et al. explored social networks among the contemporary hunters and gatherers of the African Hadza - and found them to resemble those we are building in "modern" ways, too.
And as a special feature, the colleagues not only featured the results on print, but also with a well-done video-presentation. Enjoy!
Friedrich August von Hayek (1899 - 1992) was one of the most prominent economists of the 20th century, scientifically taking a stand for liberalism and fighting nationalistic and internationalistic versions of socialism in Europe and abroad since his eminent "Road to Serfdom" (1944). Here is a nice "economy-rap", depicting the debates between him and (students of) John Maynard Keynes (1883 - 1946). Please note their trainers Ludwig von Mises (1881 - 1973) and Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 - 1834), as well as appearances of Ben Bernanke and Carl Levin. Enjoy the show.
F.A. von Hayek as an Evolutionist
Far less known than Hayeks image as a free-market-economist is the root of his scientific perspectives and arguments: Evolution. Coming from an Austrian family deeply embedded in natural sciences as well as philosophy (i.e. he served together with his nephew Wittgenstein in the army and read the first drafts of the tractatus) Hayek urged his fellow economists to study real humans instead of the "spectre" of homo oeconomicus.
In 1952 he published "The Sensory Order" about the evolution of human perception, preceding contemporary works on neurocognition and evolutionary psychology by decades.
F.A. von Hayek about the Evolution of Religion
In his last decade, the professing agnostic Hayek turned to the subject of religion and started to explore it from his evolutionary perspective. Personally, I would count his German lecture of 1982 about the topic at Klessheim castle and his final chapter "Religion and the Guardians of Tradition" in his final book "The Fatal Conceit" (1991) among the most important works in this field and time. For example, he rightfully observed the reproductive potential of religious groups.
Of course, you should find out for yourself! But if you were interested for a start, I discussed and tested some of his hypotheses here: