scilogs Biology of Religion

David Sloan Wilson and the Importance of Religion for Evolutionary Biology

from Michael Blume, 30. January 2011, 12:04

The first scientist to propose testable hypotheses concerning the biocultural evolution of religiosity (biological predisposition to behave towards superempirical agents) and religions (cultural traditions relating to superempirical agents) has been Charles Darwin. But although some classic scholars of religion such as Emile Durkheim fruitfully worked in that field, it finally succumbed to heated polemics of religious vs. antitheists as well as the natural vs. social sciences. Until some years ago, when it was finally brought up again by evolutionary biologists for the sake of their own field...

For example, you might have heard about Richard Dawkin's theoretical framework of the "Selfish Gene", whereas genetic "selfishness" pitted phenotypes of all kinds against each other - including women and men (in the "battle of sexes"), siblings (for access to the families resources) and mothers and children (struggling for more or less parental investment). According to this framework, cooperation could only evolve in the strict conditions of genetic competition, kin selection and (seldom) reciprocal altruism. Therefore, cultural phenomena such as celibacy served Dawkins as the very epitome of "Memetics" - the belief that cultural traditions would evolve into genetically parasitic forms such as "religions".

David Sloan Wilson and the Jain Ascets

Welcome the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson - one of the increasing number of evolutionary biologists first wondering and then doubting whether the "Selfish Gene"-metaphor turned out to be scientifically viable. In more and more cases, the amount of cooperation and altruistic behavior among animals and Homo sapiens turned out to be far beyond those levels that Dawkins and his followers would have thought possible. And what about these celibates, who obviously did not (or seldom) reproduce?

David Sloan Wilson explored the case of the Jain Ascets, whose Digambar branch expected them to forfeit family and sexual relations as well as almost any possesions including clothing.


Didn't they constitute a case of "memetic" evolution? No. David discovered that the Jain Ascets served their communities as a kind of religious & trust-building police. By inspecting Jain lifes and families and accepting or rejecting food as a result, the ascets did not only symbolize and reinforce the religious values of the tradition. They also fostered trust and acceptance among the devout, contributing to the success and survival of Jain live throughout India - constituting a cooperative potential far above anything "Selfish Gene"-theoreticians would have thought possible!

To David and a growing number of colleagues, religious traditions, networks and communities turned out to be a rich field of cultural group selection, reshaping and enhancing the chances for prosocial behaviors and traits. "Darwin's Cathedral. Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society" constituted an early breakthrough to this new perspective.

The Importance of Evolutionary Studies of Religion for Evolutionary Biology

Here is a new lecture opting for an evolutionary perspective on understanding human nature and culture - as the intertwined magisteria they have always been.

Therefore, evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions turn out to be not only of specific importance to scholars in social or cultural sciences, in theologies or philosophies. They are also on the center stage concerning our understanding of evolutionary processes in general, of building variation and cooperation, of understanding evolutionary success even beyond reproductive advantages (which are bestowed by successful religious traditions as well!). And it is quite ironic to see very unlikely alliances emerging i.e. among religious fundamentalists such as answersingenesis and some antitheist scholars such as Richard Dawkins or Tom Rees jointly (and increasingly desperately) ranting against evolutionary studies of religion in order to protect their respective worldviews. But others such as Susan Blackmore showed the integrity and courage to accept the empirical evidence. It seems that this time, the scientific field cannot be muzzled again as it has been during the first half of the 20th century. Or as Razhib Khan from Gene Expression has put it:

As you can see, the big picture is this: religion wins! Assuming…. And what are the assumptions?

1) Religious people have higher fertility. This is true!

2) Religiosity exhibits heritability. This is true!

Combine these two, and you have an excellent ingredient for natural selection to drive a trait and its underlying alleles to fixation. The question is not if, but when.


Or, as David Sloan Wilson put it once: Let's bring on more of the (empirical) legwork!

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  1. Corneel homo sapiens?
    01.02.2011 | 13:49

    Come on, Michael, I told you before:

    Homo sapiens

  2. Michael Blume @Corneel
    01.02.2011 | 14:19

    How dare I? Hint gracefully taken, fault corrected. And a heartfelt: Thank you!

  3. Paul Netman Not when
    02.02.2011 | 11:47

    The question is not if, but when.
    I'd be rather interested how.

  4. Michael Blume @Paul Netman
    10.02.2011 | 22:07

    How religiosity is affecting demography is part of several studies, for example of this one exploring the case of the Old Order Amish and other traditions:

    And a directory of respective studies from other scholars in the field may be found here:

    Best wishes!

  5. Mitchell Diamond Group selection
    17.02.2011 | 19:43

    I've read Darwin's Cathedral. I don't mind Wilson's plea for open-mindedness to multi-level selection, but being open to it is very different from establishing group selection as a viable evolutionary theory. It seems to me that he invokes group selection as a means to provide an evolutionary account for religion, a worthy goal. I would be much happier, though, if group selection could be shown more definitively in non-human animals first before using it as the basis for religion in the extremely complex human animal. Any theory where humans are the primary beneficiary is highly suspect.

  6. Michael Blume @Mitchell Diamond
    17.02.2011 | 19:52

    Personally, I am most fascinated by those approaches exploring potential effects of "cultural" group selection. After all, we Homo sapiens seem to be almost instinctive founders and joiners of various groups - ranging from tribes to villages, sports teams and parties to Facebook-networks and scientific faculties etc. pp. I could imagine that many advantages of belonging to various groups could be an effect of cultural abilities such as speech, musicality or religiosity. For example, the fertility effects of religiosity seem to be very closely related to religious affiliation, that is: to belonging to distinct, pro-natal groups.

  7. Mitchell Diamond Group Selection @ Michael
    18.02.2011 | 05:46

    Absolutely, humans are social which deserves lots of research. But is social behavior selected for at the group level or the individual level? What does "cultural" group selection mean? All human behavior is a mix of innate and learned behavior. Are the social behaviors of wolves, elephants, and chimps evidence of group selection, individual selection, both, or undetermined? I believe human social behavior derives from the same biological mechanisms as other social mammals. Culture is an overlay, an added layer. Music and religion are like language this way. We're all going to get it; it only depends on which culture we're raised in, but the essence is the same. The origins of religion must be biological and adaptive first, then cultural.

  8. Michael Blume @Mitchel
    18.02.2011 | 08:14

    Yes, it seems that we are fascinated by the same sets of scientific questions! :-)

    Concerning the evolution of religiosity and religions, which is my field of research, I would argue that the trait started as a combination of byproducts (still) evolving into an exaptation. David's assumption that Religion could be of high interest to evolutionary sciences may be right.

  9. Mitchell Diamond Group selection
    18.02.2011 | 21:36

    So I wonder if you can point me to some academic articles that evaluate the status of group selection. My Internet search so far has turned up some articles that create theoretical statistical models for how group selection *could* work, but what I'm hoping for is actual animal models to support it. Without that, a lot of this group cohesion and by-product theory is built on a house of cards.

  10. Michael Blume @Mitchell
    18.02.2011 | 22:57

    Here are some key academic resources on (cultural) group selection.
    *E.O. Wilson, "Sociobiology. The New Synthesis. 25th Anniversary Edition", Harvard 2000

    *Schaller, Norenzayan et al. (Eds.), "Evolution, Culture and the Human Mind", Psychology Press 2010

    *De Waal, Tyack (Eds.), "Animal Social Complexity. Intelligence, Culture and Individualized Societies", Harvard 2003

    You might also want to check out David's Homepage and Blog for more articles and books on the subject. The Homepage:

    The Blog:

    Finally, I would like to add that the notion of religiosity being adaptive doesn't depend on group selection-models. Instead, the reproductive advantage of the religiously affiliated can be explored by very diverse perspectives, cp.:

    The focus of this blog post has been to acknowledge the rising interest of evolutionary biologists in religiosity and religions.

    Best wishes!

  11. Michael Blume @Mitchell II.
    18.02.2011 | 23:17

    As you asked for an academic article, I am glad to have found the pdf of an article by D.S. Wilson and E.O. Wilson in American Scientist whose german version catched my interest in the field:


  12. Mitchell Diamond Group selection
    18.02.2011 | 23:18

    Thanks! This will keep me out of your hair for awhile.

  13. on on
    23.02.2011 | 10:59
  14. Penny Subject
    17.11.2011 | 15:02

    Attractive element of content. I simply stumbled upon your blog and in accession capital to say that I get actually enjoyed account your weblog posts.

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