International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

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

by David Sloan Wilson

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

This work argues that modern evolutionary biology is the key to understanding the existence and nature of religion. It does so by arguing for a holistic view of the evolutionary process, seeing religion as a crucial feature in the success of human societies. It is therefore, by implication, set firmly against those who would argue that religion is at most an unfortunate by-product of the evolutionary process, a virus or something worse.

David Sloan Wilson is the leading contemporary proponent of the “group selection” perspective on Darwinian evolution. This sees groups – in the case of humans ranging from families through societies to the whole species – as entities that can in themselves succeed or fail, and that therefore can have adaptations (features that help in survival and reproduction) that benefit the group even over the individual. It is a position opposed to the “selfish gene” perspective of Richard Dawkins. It is also a position set firmly against a purely cultural perspective on evolutionary processes, such as those mediated through Dawkins’s notion of “memes.” Wilson sees biology and culture working together to promote evolutionary fitness.

Wilson takes the society in early sixteenth-century Geneva as an example of group selection in action, promoting religion. This was the period when the Reformer Jean Calvin established his distinctive form of the Protestant religion. Wilson argues that there were good evolutionary reasons for the success of the ideas of a man who was initially very much an outsider. Before Calvin, the city was in discord with little proper social functioning. After Calvin, ostensibly in the name of religion, there was organization, and proper attention was paid to such issues as education and health care. Wilson recognizes that, in respects, Calvinism took a toll, particularly on non-believers, but he argues that this is proof that the good, needs, or desires of the individual can be outweighed (or even swamped) by the good of the group.

Wilson then goes through a number of other societies or groups, including Ancient Jews and early Christians to confirm the basic outlines of his thinking. Here, and he argues in all similar systems, one sees the functional utility of religion for the group. Seemingly pointless rules of behavior and ritual actually work to promote group harmony and ultimately the success of the society. There is feedback here, with the success of the groups with accepted behaviors being reflected in the biological disposition of the members to accept imposed rules, and thus in turn being ever more willing to work in (religiously backed) rule-governed societies.

Completing his discussion, Wilson turns to the specific topic of forgiveness. He argues that this is not some ethereal, counter-adaptive phenomenon, but a practice deeply rooted in human evolutionary biology. It works to solidify in-group cohesiveness, particularly by isolating those who refuse to conform and by rewarding those who will conform, and can even function as a recruiting tool to bring outsiders into the group.

It is important to see that Wilson is promoting a thoroughly empirical approach to religion and, rightly, he regards his book as an invitation to test his thinking against an ever-broader knowledge of actual religious belief and practice. Its message is not a substitute for theology but a complement.