scilogs Biology of Religion

Is Hans Rosling right? Religion and Fertility between and within Nations

22. May 2012, 21:40

Readers of this blog might have noticed that my main focus of research (and those of colleagues such as Eric Kaufmann) has been the reproductive potential of religiosity. Lots of data and studies have conclusively demonstrated that the religious tend to have - on average - more children than the secular.

Religion & Demography, Enste


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Richard Dawkins, David Sloan Wilson, Jerry Coyne - Biologists debating Religion

21. May 2012, 22:36

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.

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Robert McCauley: Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

23. April 2012, 23:16

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.

Not any more. With "Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not", Robert McCauley managed to connect the field with contemporary debates in surprising as well as convincing ways.


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TED-Talk by Jonathan Haidt on Religion, Evolution, and the Ecstasy of Self-Transcendence

16. March 2012, 21:18

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!

See Jonathan Haidt's TED-Talk on Evolution: This View of Life!

* (Extended) German Version of this post here.

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David Sloan Wilson on Evolutionary Studies of Religion

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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Friedrich August von Hayek about the Evolution of Religion

19. January 2012, 21:48

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:

"Von Hayek and the Amish Fertility. How religious communities manage to be fruitful and multiply. A Case study", in: Frey, Ulrich (Hrsg.), "The Nature of God - Evolution and Religion", Tectum Verlag Marburg 2010 

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Is someone informed about the philosopher William Graham (1839 - 1911)?

12. January 2012, 09:28

Today, I want to use this scilog in a new way: As a tool for presenting a question. I stumbled upon the topic while preparing a German book about Charles Darwin's works on religion & evolution. In his last year, the great Victorian became captivated by a book on the topic and wrote to its author William Graham:

Dear Sir

I hope that you will not think it intrusive on my part to thank you heartily for the pleasure which I have derived from reading your admirably written `Creed of Science,’ though I have not yet quite finished it, as now that I am old I read very slowly. It is a very long time since any other book has interested me so much. The work must have cost you several years and much hard labour with full leisure for work.

Read the full letter at the Darwin Correspondence Project (Letter 13230).

Intrigued, I started to read the book "The Creed of Science" myself, which is available in print as well as in open-access-directories.

Although a quotation from this Darwinian letter to Graham started a heated debate about the contradictions of atheistic naturalism by Alvin Platinga, I couldn't find much information about the author. He seems to be virtually unknown not only to German libraries and handbooks of philosophy, but also to the Internet including Wikipedia. According to the preface of 'The Creed of Science', William Graham has been Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Queen's College, Belfast.

Could you help out?

Therefore, I wanted to ask abroad if someone out there is having some bibliographic informations or scientific references to William Graham (1839 - 1911). Please don't hesitate to post a comment or contact me via my homepage.

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The Neighborhood Project by David Sloan Wilson

09. October 2011, 20:26

Applying evolutionary studies to human politics? Socialised as a German scientist, I winced on the spot. But then, I began to read "The Neighborhood Project" - and became more than convinced. For years, the eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has embarked on adventurous quests to broaden evolutionary studies into classic humanities - working together with scholars of literature, education and religion. In the captivating, autobiographic parts of "The Neighborhood Project", he is explaining why - his father has been the great novelist Sloan Wilson, who remained deeply curious about human emotions and behaviors throughout his life. After decades of doing scientific studies on plants and animals, his son finally came home.


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The Cultural Evolution of Religion by Ara Norenzayan and Will M Gervais

18. September 2011, 11:11

Some readers of this blog may have met the post about Ara Norenzayan and his outstanding work on evolutionary studies of religion. Now, Ara has joined with another (evoluttionary) social psychologist - Will M. Gervais - for a fascinating article:

Ara Norenzayan & Will M. Gervais (University of British Columbia): The Cultural Evolution of Religion (2011)


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A chat with David Sloan Wilson about Evolutionary Studies of Religion and ETVOL

06. September 2011, 23:28

One of the interesting experiences in doing a German as well as this English scilog about evolutionary studies of religion is to meet the dominant prejudices: While in the German blogosphere antitheist radicals tend to fight any studies exploring the field because of their fear of findings supporting adaptive scenarios, this English speaking blog is currently flooded by American-Catholic fundamentalists trying to fight evolutionary studies of humanity in general. But then, neither secular nor religious extremists managed to stop evolutionary sciences during the last century - and I happily assume they will not be able to do it in our time. ;-)

One of the reasons for my evolutionary optimism resides in the encouraging activities of David Sloan Wilson, rightfully one of the most popular evolutionary biologists around and author of famous books such as "Darwins Cathedral", "Evolution for Everyone" and now (and to be reviewed here) "The Neighborhood Project - Using Evolution to Improve my City".


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