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Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society Paperback – June 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

God or evolution? Though the debate about our origins has swirled in epic controversy since Darwin's time, David Sloan Wilson bravely blends these two contentious theories. This has been tried before, of course, mainly by religious intellectuals. What makes Darwin's Cathedral stand out is that Wilson does not pursue the classic "intelligent design" argument (evolution is God's hand at work), but instead argues that religion is evolution at work.

Wilson sees religion as a complex organism with "biological" functions. He argues that the social cohesiveness of religion makes it analogous to a beehive or a human body--and, in fact, religious believers sometimes employ these metaphors. He writes, "Thinking of a religious group as like an organism encourages us to look for adaptive complexity.... Mechanisms are required that are often awesome in their sophistication." To Wilson, therein lies the astonishing complexity of religion, just as in the biological world.

Following Wilson's argument requires understanding the rudiments of evolutionary biology; a smattering of theology, history, anthropology, sociology, and psychology is helpful, too. But the reasoning isn't as challenging as Wilson warns in the introduction. For educated readers, it's an accessible book.

In just 260 pages, Wilson can't begin to do justice to the broad swath of intellectual work he's cut out for himself. And ultimately, the book's main failing is its simplicity. In addition, his approach to religion is so clearly an outsider's that he is unlikely to win many converts. Adaptive-mechanistic explanations of forgiveness and altruism may be intriguing to the atheist in the ivory tower, but they are likely to elicit little more than a bemused and passing interest from believers. --Eric de Place --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Viewing religion from an evolutionary perspective, Wilson (biology and anthropology, Binghamton Univ.) argues that religious belief and other symbolic systems are closely connected to reality in that they are a powerful force in motivating adaptive behaviors. Disconnecting religion from its reliance on supernatural agents as a defining principle, he posits human religious groups as adaptive organisms wherein processes like group selection, evolutionary pressures, and moral systems come into play, offering a new avenue for interpretive insights. To his credit, Wilson looks for a middle ground in this complex confluence of biology, sociology, anthropology, and religion: "I think group selection can explain much about religion but by no means all." He depends heavily on Darwinian theory, sociologists like Rodney Stark, and symbolic thinkers like Emile Durkheim and Terrence Deacon. He ultimately argues for the power of symbolic thinking as a sophisticated adaptive advantage alongside factual thinking. Wilson's readers should be prepared for a tightly argued, highly academic yet satisfying read. Sandra Collins, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 268 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226901351
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226901350
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #311,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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118 of 126 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on October 31, 2002
Format: Hardcover
It has become inescapable to see ourselves as having evolved for group living. In "Origins of Virtue," Matt Ridley described the overall situation admirably well, and concluded that selfish organisms can evolve mechanisms that exploit the advantages of living together in groups, so long as those mechanisms don't sacrifice too much for the individual. The great fountain of selfish gene imagery, Richard Dawkins, once wrote that Ridley's book could well serve as a followup to "The Selfish Gene" as applied to human beings. So there is little doubt that even a theory based on "selfish genes" can be seen as explaining behavior that takes advantage of living in groups.
David Sloane Wilson first acknowledges that traits which promote us to sacrifice ourselves "for the good of the group" are unlikely to spread in a population. He find great value in fields like evolutionary psychology for finding innate human psychological traits that promote individual reproduction and survival. However, he also takes a thought provoking look at important transitions in evolutionary history and finds that under certain special conditions, individuals become united and begin to function in a very real sense as a larger organism. Genes become united into chromosomes, cells become organisms, organisms become hives.
None of this is new so far of course. What is unique is the claim that some of these transitions cannot be explained without having some form of competition between groups whose traits are widely divergent. The basic problem is that behavior that allows one group to fare better than another must also allow the individuals to survive and reproduce within their own group.
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65 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on January 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you have an opinion about religion, or belong to a religion, most people disagree with you; there is not a majority religion in the world. And surely not all religions can be factually correct, since there are fundamental disagreements between them. So, how is it that all those other, incorrect religions exist and seem to help their members and their societies? There must be something they offer beyond a factual representation of gods and the cosmos (and when it comes down to it, if you belong to a religion, yours must be offering something more as well). If religions do help their members and societies, then perhaps they are beneficial in a long term and evolutionary way, and maybe such evolutionary influences should be acknowledged and studied. This is what David Sloan Wilson convincingly declares he has done in _Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society_ (University of Chicago Press): "I will attempt to study religious groups the way I and other evolutionary biologists routinely study guppies, trees, bacteria, and the rest of life on earth, with the intention of making progress that even a reasonable skeptic must acknowledge."
To Wilson's credit, he has written carefully about both scientific and religious issues, and readers with an interest in either field will find that he has covered both fairly. His coverage of the science involved begins with an interesting history of "the wrong turn" evolutionary theory took fifty years ago, when it deliberately ignored the influence of group selection.
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Farrell on February 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book is a well-written, highly entertaining conjecture on the possibility that group selection has played an important role in the emergence of religion in human societies. As an evolutionary biologist, I must dispute those who have suggested that group selection is fallacious and has been generally discarded by biologists. In fact I give a lecture on the subject in an undergraduate class on evolution. Evolutionary biologists as eminent as Stephen Jay Gould have supported the view that group selection has played an important role in evolution. Predictions based on mathematical models for group selection have been made and confirmed. Many biologists accept it as a given. In the words of University of Vermont geneticist Charles J. Goodnight, its "proven. A done deal. We know it works." Many biologists who came of age in the sixties were widely influenced by the excellent book, Adaptation and Natural Selection by George Williams, and are unable to give up their biases. But even Dr. William's views on group selection are more nuanced these days. Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man but he hardly speaks for all of those who study evolutionary biology. This book, and Dr. Wilson's previous book, Unto others, are excellent primers for those with open-minds who are iinterested in the possibility that there is more to life than the selfish gene.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Dubious Disciple on October 28, 2011
Format: Paperback
Can evolutionary methods be used to study the development of religion? David Sloan Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion evolved because of the advantages it confers on those who share in it. Religion may even have contributed to humanity's rise as the dominant animal on earth. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religion in particular, on the same playing field as biological entities.

Group selection long ago became passé among evolutionary biologists, but it may be time for its revival. In the 60's, it was believed that evolution takes place entirely by mutational change. Since then, it has been shown that evolution also occurs along a different pathway: by social groups becoming so functionally integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. So why aren't groups--particularly religious groupings--receiving the attention they deserve in the evolutionary field?

Wilson wants to study religious groups in the same way biologists study guppies, bacteria, and other forms of life. Does the rational choice theory fit religion? Functionalism? Using Calvinism as his primary case study, he determines that characteristics of social groups can be predicted via group selection theory.

Intelligent and cutting edge, Wilson does have something to say, but this is not an easy read; it reads like a university thesis, scholarly and reference-infested. It's not because the theory isn't fascinating, but because I had a hard time concentrating on the presentation, that I ranked it only three stars.
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