scilogs Biology of Religion

David Sloan Wilson on Evolutionary Studies of Religion

from Michael Blume, 03. March 2012, 11:06

The online-magazine Evolution: This View of Life did get a new (and, if I might say, awesome) look. For example, the recommendation of John Jacob Lyons, who is a regular commentator here, about presenting the number of comments to each post has been fulfilled. You should check out the fresh page!

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?
My 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?
Historians 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.

3. 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 evolutionary studies?
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?
Evolution 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.

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Natur des Glaubens: Der Biologe David Sloan Wilson zur Evolutionsforschung der Religion


  1. John Jacob Lyons David Sloan Wilson's (DSW) Analysis of Evolutionary Drivers
    05.03.2012 | 17:11

    Given that a particular organism exhibits a trait that appears to be adaptive [or neutral], DSW suggests six evolutionary mechanisms that may have been at work over evolutionary time.

    Individual selection and cultural selection appear in his list but I want to suggest another mechanism - an interaction between these two factors - that does not appear in the list. You may have guessed that I am referring to Genetic Priming that I introduced to this blog on 24 March 2011. See the list of 'Top Read Posts' on the right-hand side of this page. Click on "The Genetic Priming".

    I suggest that Genetic Priming starts to kick-in as soon as an organism hits upon a behaviour that turns out to be consistent and adaptive. This sets up an inter-generational positive feedback loop between the adaptive behaviour and the genome that eventually results in all organisms in the species being genetically primed for the adaptive behaviour. Just a simple trigger from the environment is then needed for the adaptive behaviour to be manifested. Examples range from nest-building in birds to our own predilection for religious behaviour.

    Over several years, I have had informal (verbal/ email) endorsement for the principles of Genetic Priming Theory from several eminent scientists including Prof.Daniel Dennett (Philosopher/ Evolutionary Theorist) and Prof. Sir Patrick Bateson (Biologist). Our very own Dr.Michael Blume has certainly shown interest(?)

    I realize that I need empirical testing before I can publish formally but devising/ expediting such tests has proven to be the block to date.

    I would like DSW to read/ comment on this post Michael. Does he read 'Biology of Religion'?

  2. mormon David Sloan Wilson on Evolutionary Studies of Religion
    06.06.2012 | 07:57

    Thank you for the information you shared with us. I'm just visiting some sites to read interesting article and i found your topic and its really great. Thumbs up for this.

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