Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

David Sloan Wilson

Language: English

Pages: 268

ISBN: 0226901351

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


One of the great intellectual battles of modern times is between evolution and religion. Until now, they have been considered completely irreconcilable theories of origin and existence. David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral takes the radical step of joining the two, in the process proposing an evolutionary theory of religion that shakes both evolutionary biology and social theory at their foundations.

The key, argues Wilson, is to think of society as an organism, an old idea that has received new life based on recent developments in evolutionary biology. If society is an organism, can we then think of morality and religion as biologically and culturally evolved adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals? Wilson brings a variety of evidence to bear on this question, from both the biological and social sciences. From Calvinism in sixteenth-century Geneva to Balinese water temples, from hunter-gatherer societies to urban America, Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. He also includes a chapter considering forgiveness from an evolutionary perspective and concludes by discussing how all social organizations, including science, could benefit by incorporating elements of religion.

Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies. Astoundingly, Wilson shows that they might be literally correct. Intended for any educated reader, Darwin's Cathedral will change forever the way we view the relations among evolution, religion, and human society.

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fact that cultural evolution in our species facilitates group selection probably reflects the fact that cultural evolution is itself a product of genetic evolution. This example also illustrates why familiar sounding terms such as “imitation” need to be clarified before they can be predictive. Imitation at a small (within groups) scale causes selfishness to be emulated while imitation at a large scale (across groups) can cause altruism and other group-advantageous behaviors to be emulated. There

simple but profound in its implications.19 It shows that genetic evolution does not invariably lead to the kind of modularity that excludes open-ended processes. Instead, it can create processes that are themselves evolutionary and therefore capable of providing new solutions to new problems. Plotkin (1994) has aptly termed these processes “Darwin machines,” two words that reflect the essential components of an evolved system that includes evolution within its own structure. “Machine” indicates

to evolve Darwin machines. Cultural evolution can be seen in part as a Darwin machine in action, highly managed but nevertheless genuinely open-ended in its outcome. Confront a human group with a novel problem, even one that never existed in the so-called ancestral environment, and its members may well come up with a workable solution. The solution might be based on trial and error or on rational thought. However, rational thought is itself a Darwin machine, rapidly generating and selecting

practical terms without appealing to supernatural agents and other beliefs that to a nonbeliever seem detached from reality? Religion attracts the attention of scientists (and often the scorn of nonbelievers) in part because it seems to flaunt the canons of scientific thought. For many people, the otherworldly nature of religion is more interesting and important to explain than its communal nature. One possibility is that religions are naive scientific theories, attempts by simple people to

appears to solve the fundamental problem of social life at the individual level. An entire lexicon of words describing social control in human life has been borrowed to describe genetic and developmental interactions; “sheriff” genes, “parliaments” of genes, “rules of fairness,” and so on. The laws of genetics and development, which originally referred merely to general patterns, have acquired an eerie resemblance to the other meaning of the word law—a social contract enforced by punishment.10

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