11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Sound central argument, but not easy to like,
This review is from: Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Paperback)
This is a hard book to like. David Sloan Wilson is not a particularly clear writer, but that's not the main problem. What frustrates is his inability to restrain himself from taking potshots at other researchers. What comes through clearest is not his theory about the evolutionary basis of religions, but his disdain for those with differing theories. Many, he repeats, should be consigned to the "rubbish heap of history." Elsewhere he refers to a whole collection of other theories as a "wilderness". Many theorists are reviewed in a way that fails to elucidate but merely serves to set up convenient foils for Wilson.
Through the first half of the book, Wilson often claims facts not in evidence, making a reader trying to follow his arguments increasingly doubtful. One of the most salient and crucial examples is when he writes: "cultural evolution increases the potency of selection among groups and decreases the potency of selection within groups", when he seems to have just convincingly demonstrated the opposite.
I lead with these comments only because they weigh so heavily to the early parts of "Darwin's Cathedral" and repeatedly distract attention from his actual arguments. But when he puts aside his need for demeaning others, Wilson can get to the point. His main thesis is that religious groups are organisms and as such they can evolve adaptive behavior through the same mechanisms as other organisms.
To accept this, you must first be convinced that selection and adaptation can be found to operate at levels other than the individual. Despite Wilson's endless attention to the history of countervailing views, this is generally accepted by evolutionary theorists. Nonetheless, much of "Darwin's Cathedral" consists of laying out the case for group-level selection.
Wilson argues this from essentially two directions. In one, he demonstrates that in fact genes, cells, and human beings are organisms made up of other organisms. At almost any level you wish to apply Darwinian constructs, you find not an individual but an organism. Thus thinking of groups of human beings (or even groups of groups) as subject to evolutionary design and adaptation should not be a conceptual leap. This, he argues, has been convincingly demonstrated. Secondly, he subjects various religious disciplines (most prominently Calvinism, Judaism, and early Christianity) to the test of whether their characteristics can be predicted from a theory of group selection. He finds that they can.
One of his best turns of phrase is that "rational thought is itself a Darwin machine". But, he says, the competition between the products of rational thought is not just within an individual brain, but within groups. This turns out to be an essential part of his argument that successful religions are the adaptive results of group selection.
Some of Wilson's examples meander and weave past the markers of relevance and comprehension. But his chapter-length treatment of Calvinism in its original historical context is especially effective in demonstrating and conforming to Wilson's central arguments. He succeeds in using Calvin's catechism to convince us of his larger argument that religions must be exclusionary and demanding in order to survive group-level competition. Wilson's logic and writing are at their best here.
"Darwin's Cathedral" is full of provocative and in some cases compelling ideas. A reader may end up not liking David Sloan Wilson's writing style very much, and feel in a self-congratulatory mood when making it all the way through his book, but the main argument seems a sound contribution to the development of a theory of an evolutionary basis of religions.
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Initial post: Jan 6, 2013 8:36:59 AM PST
Montgomery Maxwell says:
"David Sloan Wilson is not a particularly clear writer, but that's not the main problem."
Wilson is an extraordinarily lucid writer.
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