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5.0 out of 5 stars Durkheim's Revenge (?), October 31, 2002
This review is from: Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (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. So self-sacrificing behavior that makes a group of berzerkers unbeatable in battle against other groups has a hard time taking root _within_ the group of berzerkers unless it also serves them there. Wilson claims that the bias against seeing selection occurrring at multiple levels, especially by the way genetic fitness calculations are averaged, prevents most biologists from seeing "group selection" when it does occur. He then proposes that the missing piece is human moral systems themselves, which provide mechanisms that lower the cost of behavior "for the group" in terms of individual fitness.
For example, social controls such as rewards and punishments are known to strongly foster cooperation even though cooperation is very fragile otherwise. We have tended to see this either in terms of individual self-determination or entirely in terms of social pressure. Wilson's view allows a middle ground, of innate traits which social controls can leverage powerfully to produce cooperation. Wilson's main point is that such traits probably require a multi-level selection theory to explain.
Wilson uses scholarly study of religion from a variety of fields to illustrate how human behavior shows evidence of forming groups as adaptive units in the evolutionary sense. This was an idea that was proposed by Darwin (thus "Darwin's Cathedral") and seen as fundamental by many social scientists, but was roundly rejected for the difficulties it brings into population models of evolution. In addition, the recent critiques often brought to bear on social science sometimes tend to see social science concepts such as those of Emile Durkheim as something needing to be slashed and burned rather than just seen in a new light. Wilson takes a new look at Durkheim's functionalist view of society and the various critiques of it, and finds plenty of archaic ideas, but also notes that the central theme of religion serving to unify human groups remains out of the ashes.
In Darwin's Cathedral, Wilson compares his view of religion as something that unifies human groups with the competing views of religion as a collection of arbitrary Gouldian "spandrels" or byproducts of evolution, the view that religion is a form of catchy imagination, and the Dawkinsian view that religious beliefs are mental parasites, and makes his case very well. He is very careful in his analysis and pulls from a wide range of scholarly material to make his case that, provided we are very careful about how we measure Darwinian fitness and very careful not to look for group selection where behavior can be explained otherwise, we can explain aspects of human behavior that simply can't be explained in terms of inclusive fitness for the genes of our relatives or even by playing games of reciprocal altruism.
Wilson makes many of the same points as Pascal Boyer does in "Religion Explained," but seems to tie things together more neatly with his theoretical framework. Since he is not limiting himself to psychological adaptations that solely promote individual survival and reproduction, Wilson has the added flexibility to pose adaptations for punishment and reward that serve social ends, which makes for much more elegant and powerful theory that explains a wider range of phenomena such as the tendency of human beings to see themselves readily as members of groups, their willingness to punish defectors, the the joy most of us get out of finding that we've helped someone else.
The only problem with this book is that Wilson takes on too much of a task here for one slim volume. The data on human religion is massive. I'm reminded of Frazer's classic "Golden Bough" and how virtually no one has ever actually read it all the way through in its single highly condensed volume, much less the dozen or so volumes he originally wrote. And yet he makes his point. Wilson also makes his point, and then draws from the massive data but seems to suffer in trying to navigate it all. He spends a lot of time looking at Calvinism from various angles for example. Everything he reviews seems to help him support his theory of religion as adaptive and unifying, but there is so much more to look at that in the end it feels oddly incomplete.
This is wonderful interdisciplinary theoretical work that deserves much more followup than a single person can possibly give it.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 11, 2007 8:33:47 AM PDT
Nicely done. I would also recommend Matt Ridley's "Origins of Virtue", which is cited in the review.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 7, 2015 10:17:03 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 7, 2015 10:29:51 PM PST
Tom says:
The proposition that religious ideas are "mental parasites" implies the Blank Slate assumption, i.e., that there is a pure mental substrate taken over by something else impure to it. Well, what is that purity? What is its nature or character? Anyone postulating that will inevitably be projecting the ideal he has come to appropriate. My guess is Dawkins assumes something like the myth of the 'pure individual' here as postulated by the modern philosophers from Descartes to Hobbes to Locke. Steven Pinker has shown how insidious the Blank Slate continues to be in western thinking. It seems rather that moral sentiments are part of an evolved human nature, and these can be focused and strengthened by the cultural binding of an explicitly developed religion (from the Latin ligare, to bind). For example, the natural need to move about freely becomes a moral focus enshrined in an American religion of "freedom", where it becomes an advantage to each individual in a group that the others are committed to respecting and preserving the principle. Traditional religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, emphasizing obedience to other principles, are not any more "parasites" than this, but merely appear so, seeming outmoded or no longer advantageous with the advent of the modern religion of freedom.
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