On David Sloan Wilson’s “Darwin’s Cathedral

Cosmologists explain how the universe came to be; astrophysicists tell us how stars were born; geologists explore how rocks were formed; and biologists figure out how the variety of species arose. Philosophers, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, and others try to explain how religion emerged in human societies.

In this book, an eloquent professor and ardent practitioner of biology offers a cogent and insightful path-breaking theory to account for the powerful institution of religion which has done, and continues to do, much good and great harm to human civilization. Examining through the probing microscope of evolutionary biology, David Sloan Wilson presents a compelling case to explain religion in terms of an “organismic concept.” He takes inspiration from Darwin’s scientific analysis of adaptation at the biological level, and extends it to the more complex cultural phenomenon of religion.

Normally when we think of an organism, a bacterium, an insect or an animal comes to mind. Wilson extends the notion and defines an organism as any “group of elements that behaves adaptively with respect to many traits.” From this perspective, a society may be regarded as organism, and so can the adherents of a religion. Just as individual organisms (creatures) adapt themselves to the environment for their own good and propagation, so does a group of people, such as the players in a football team, or the members of a religious community, for the constituting members are organically interconnected.

Wilson does not accept the old notion that “groups always function as adaptive units.” But this does not make him reject group selection altogether. Rather, he explores in depth the notion of multilevel selection theory which is a more sophisticated version in which groups evolve into adaptive units only when special conditions are met.

Using this powerful paradigm Wilson offers reasonable explanations for many of the apparent inconsistent features of religions, such as preaching peace and fighting wars, extolling the Golden Rule and encouraging genocide. In other words, rather than condemn hurtful religious doctrines, he explains them as natural consequences of multilevel selection techniques for group adaptation.

Any objective analysis of religion reveals elements of irrationality which are ingrained in it. This often perplexes the external observer who is unable to figure out how rational beings can actually function under blatantly unreasonable belief-systems. Wilson reminds us that the gold standard we should use to measure religious behavior is not rational thought but adaptation.

He recognizes that human beings, whether as individuals or as groups, often do behave in ways that are not really biologically adaptive. And he sets up an adaptationist program for systematically and scientifically analyzing such behavior so as to provide a framework in terms of which one can better understand religion and other group characteristics. In this context, he considers two separates aspects in the study of religion: the predictive and the productive. The first tries to explain religious groups simply in terms of their basic biology: survival and reproduction. The second is related to mechanisms which are unnecessary for the prediction of adaptive behavior, and yet underlie that behavior.

He considers functionalism to be too limiting, noting that “dysfunction can be as complex and locally stable as function.” He goes at length to argue that it is useful to separate functional and intentional explanations.

Wilson draws striking parallels between bees building hives, ants procuring food, and humans gathering in groups to adapt. This is not like tracing our ancestors to apes, as Darwin did, but revealing how all creatures great and small, conform in their different ways to certain basic biological laws.

Often one wonders how religion survives in a scientific age: after all, there is a great body of evidence that shows that some of the tenets of religions contradict the basic results of science, while others are blatantly false. This paradox may be cleared, explains Wilson, if we recognize that knowledge and correct understanding of the environment aren’t the only requirements for adaptation: sometimes irrational beliefs may also serve this purpose. In other words, illusions can sometimes be helpful.

Wilson applies his organismic concept of religion to a detailed examination of Calvinism. His is certainly one of the first scientific analyses of a well-founded religious system from an evolutionary perspective. In the course of this analysis, he suggests that the religious tolerance that came much later in European history “may itself have been an important factor in the evolution of still larger adaptive social organizations.” One wonders why this has not occurred in many other religious societies. In any event, he concludes from his examination that the development of Calvinism “provides powerful support for the organismic view of religion.” I will admit that I did not find some of the arguments presented here as adding much weight to the general thesis of the book. Perhaps a more general analysis of Islam or Hinduism would have been more helpful here. Indeed, the absence of any serious reference to these major religious traditions or to Buddhism is a glaring lacuna in the book.

On the other hand, he analyses Balinese religion in terms of its adaptation factors with respect to water, and feels that this provides another convincing example of group adaptation, though he does not refer to the Hindu metaphysical roots of that religion. Indeed, it would be interesting to see a more detailed application of his framework to the problem of explaining the origins of transcendence in religious systems, although he does this tangentially here and there. But there is no explicit reference to, let alone explanation of, the thirst for transcendence which characterizes many religions.

Wilson applies his theory to the exclusivity (non-proselytizing nature) of Judaism without considering the possibility that it could have arisen from a chosen-people conviction. But then, he would argue that such a conviction may also be explained within the adaptation framework. In this touchy context Wilson articulates a non-scientific, but enlightened moral injunction: “Most of us, perhaps all of us, are capable of restricting our moral conduct to a subset of the human race and of behaving instrumentally towards outsiders. This generalization applies to all human groups and should never be used as a tool of aggression against members of a given religion such as Judaism.”

Though, like most scientists, he is categorical in saying that William Harvey was wrong in imagining God as the designing agent for the circulatory system, by and large Wilson is respectful of religions: after all, how can a biologist be disrespectful of something that has evolved in nature? His goal in this book is certainly not to expose the faults and flaws of religion, but to understand and explain them from an evolutionary perspective. And he does this remarkably well.

Wilson’s claim that the origin of the word religion reflects “the essence of the thesis of the book” is a needless, and also inaccurate, additional support he seeks for the ideas he has effectively expounded from purely scientific considerations. His etymology of the word religion is not quite accurate: By translating only the ligare (to bind) part, he argues that the goal of religion, as per the thesis of his book, is to bind people together. In fact, the re (back) prefix in the word is what characterizes religion. As per one popular etymology, religion is an enterprise to bind us back (revert) to the gods, while its opposite is necligens: not binding to the gods, whence the word negligence. Some have also suggested that the word legere: to read, is what gave rise to the word. In this context, he also mentions the non-existent word religate; the actual word is relegate which comes from Latin words meaning, to send back, and it has nothing to do with binding. Furthermore, the etymological significance of religion is relevant only in the Romance-Christian languages. The words for religion in Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit, for example, have nothing to do with binding or binding back.

Wilson recognizes that he is talking about “science in motion,” admits that there are “inconsistencies and loose ends” in what he has developed and proposes, acknowledges that his own ideas are as yet only tentative in that they need further exploration for firmer grounding. In all of this he speaks like a true scientist, and with the wisdom and modesty of one who is launching a major new vision. In the process of presenting that vision, he takes the reader through many significant developments in current evolutionary literature, agreeing with some, challenging others, and developing yet others. This, by itself, is a worthy contribution to general science literature because, by his readable style and clarity, Wilson brings within reach of non-specialists some very important developments in technical evolutionary biology, and makes them fascinating and relevant in a context that should be of interest to a great many educated people. And for this alone he is to be commended. But, of greater scientific import is the fact that he has marshaled so many facts and arguments, and presented them with such lucidity, erudition, and scientific solidity that the core of his thesis is very persuasive. This is not to say that other experts will not quibble, or even seriously disagree, with his provocative thesis here and there. That is in the nature of scientific progress.

David Sloan Wilson already enjoys the respect of his colleagues in the field, and a good reputation as a no-nonsense scientist for his significant contributions to the field of evolutionary biology. This book will certainly win him more accolades. It is also likely to provoke further investigation along a new line of research for the elucidation of one of the most complex, intriguing, and important dimensions of human civilization, namely religion. And the same analysis may be extended to other institutions as well, such as science and politics.


About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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