New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

David Sloan Wilson


Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Wilson is an advocate of multilevel selection in evolution. Together with Elliot Sober, he argues that the case against group selection has been overstated. Groups that co-operate may out-compete those that don't, so groups may act as vehicles for genes in the same way as individuals.

In this book Wilson applies his theory to religion. We can understand religion, he suggests, as having been produced by cultural evolution to generate more co-operative and cohesive groups. In his introduction he says that he aims to treat religious groups as organisms, an idea he means to be a serious scientific concept. But although he intends to write science, he hopes he will be read by religious believers as well as by secularists.

Although he is an atheist he is respectful of religion and describes a feeling of awe when contemplating how it evolves. He regards religion, in fact, in much the same way as he regards a biological organism— as something wonderful that evolution has produced. He doesn't shrink from speaking of beauty and power in connection with religion,

The first chapter, on evolutionary biology, sets out the multilevel selection position from which Wilson will approach individual religions. "Natural selection is a multilevel process that operates among groups in addition to among individuals within groups." But Wilson wants to avoid going to extremes: "I think that group selection can explain much about religion, but by no means all."

Chapter 2 takes the view from the social sciences and concerns the question: are religions adaptive— do they have a function? In spite of a century of debate there is no agreement about this basic matter. Wilson thinks there is a plausible case for approaching religion, and other social systems too, in this way, and he discusses the pros and cons in this chapter. It is fairly densely written and the twists and turns of the argument are not always easy to follow.

Chapters 3 and 4 consist largely of an examination of numerous kinds of religion in the light of the foregoing. Calvinism gets a chapter to itself. Wilson finds that the religion Calvin founded in Geneva can be understood in functional terms; even its seemingly irrational features are comprehensible. "For all its otherworldliness, Calvinism caused its community of believers to behave adaptively in the real world, which is all that evolution can be expected to accomplish." Wilson also looks more briefly at other religions, including the water temple system of Bali, Judaism, and the early Christian Church, all of which he thinks are adaptive in different ways.

Chapter 5 is about the modern scientific literature on religion and seeks to show that evolutionary thinking offers a new perspective, though Wilson admits that the case is not yet proved. As he says, he has been working at it, single-handed, for only three years! Chapter 6 examines the role of forgiveness in Christianity as an adaptive strategy. Chapter 7 looks beyond religions to human social systems in general.

Wilson says he has written the book for all kinds of readers, academics and non-academics alike. I'm not sure he fully succeeds in this: the thread of the argument is not always easy to follow and the tone is more academic than popular. But Wilson's take on religion is different from most of those around at present and repays reading for that reason alone.

10 June 2010

%T Darwin's Cathedral
%S Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
%A Wilson, David Sloan
%I University of Chicago Press
%C Chicago
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-226-90134-3
%P 268pp
%K religion, evolution

New Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects