What does evolution really have to do with religion? David Sloan Wilson argues that it’s time to find out.

August 28, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, is a runaway bestseller.  Dawkins is a relentless one-man religion wrecking-crew.  He carries a sharp knife for the many arguments that religions are somehow useful or worthy.

But isn’t religion sometimes good? Doesn’t religion sometimes heal the sick and feed the poor?  When it comes time to complement religion, Dawkins tends to give only backhanded complements.  When people are good, they are not really good because of religion.  To the argument that religion makes people happy, Dawkins cites George Bernard Shaw’s words: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”  (Page 167).  Indeed, Dawkins really doubts whether religion is worthwhile at all:

It is hard to believe, for example, that health is improved by the semi-permanent state of morbid guilt suffered by a Roman Catholic possessed of normal human frailty and less than normal intelligence. . . . . the American comedian Kathy Ladman observes that “All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”

When it comes time to applying evolutionary theory to religion, Dawkins doubts that religion is an evolutionary adaptation. He suspects religion is only a wretched byproduct of evolution.

Moths fly into the candle flame, and it doesn’t look like an accident.  They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves.  We could label it “self immolation behavior” and, under the protective name, wonder how on earth natural selection could favor it. … the insect nervous system is adept at setting up a temporary rule of thumb of this kind: “steer a course such that the light rays hit your eye at an angle of 30°.”  Though fatal in this particular circumstance, the moth’s rule of thumb is still, on average, a good one because, for a moth, sightings of candles are rare compared to sightings of the moon.  We don’t notice the hundreds of moths that are silently and effectively steering by the moon or a bright star, or even the glow from a distant city.  We see only moths wheeling into our candle, and we asked the wrong question: why are all these moths committing suicide?

Applying this byproduct theory to religious behavior, Dawkins observes that most people hold beliefs that “flatly contradict demonstrable scientific facts.”  They hold these beliefs “with passionate certitude.”  Why? Perhaps, writes Dawkins, natural selection has built child brains for us.  Brains “with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them.  Such trusting obedience is viable for survival: the analog of steering by the moon for a moth.”  (Page 176).

Unfortunately, this sometimes helpful tendency can be infected by “mind viruses.”  Religious leaders pick up on this vulnerability and take advantage of it.  Religion even seems to be a byproduct of several normal psychological dispositions.  Citing Pascal Boyer, Dawkins argues that religion can also be seen as a byproduct for the mis-firing of various mental modules, “for example, the modules for forming theories of others’ minds, for forming coalitions, and for discriminating in favor of in group members and against strangers.”

At bottom, it is clear that, for Dawkins, religion is not an adaptation.  For this reason, Dawkins argues that we should not expect that practicing a religion will make us better off as an individual or a society.  Hence, his unrelenting attacks on religion. 

But is it really so clear that religion is a harmful byproduct of evolution?  In “Beyond the Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins Is Wrong about Religion,” David Sloan Wilson argues that Richard Dawkins’ critique, “however well-intentioned, is . . . deeply misinformed.”  D.S. Wilson further argues that Dawkins’ book fails to actually apply evolutionary theory to religion.  Yes, Dawkins is an expert in evolution.  On the other hand, in The God Delusion, Dawkins is writing as “just another angry atheist, trading on his reputation as an evolutionist and spokesperson for religion to vent his personal opinions about religion.”  D.S. Wilson argues it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work to see whether religion might, indeed, be an adaptation.

The key, according to D.S. Wilson, resides in the theory of group selection, which can be a significant evolutionary force and sometimes even a “dominating evolutionary force.” 

It turns out that evolution takes place not only in small mutational change, but also by social groups and multi-species communities becoming so integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right.  The cell biologist Lynn Margulis proposed this concept in the 1970s to explain the evolution of nucleated cells as symbiotic communities of bacterial cells.  The concept was then generalized to explain other major transitions, from the origin of life as communities of cooperating molecular reactions, to multicellular organisms and social insect colonies.

Where can you find these “super organisms”?  One place is your own body, a highly integrated group of cells, where most of the cells are prevented from springing off into new organisms.  “Organisms are literally the groups of past ages.”

D.S. Wilson argues that human genetic evolution combined with rapid cultural evolution (including religion) “represents the newest example of a major transition, converting human groups into the equivalent of bodies and beehives.”

How is it that human communities have shifted the balance between the levels of selection to favor group selection?  Human communities have all of the following:

The ability to rapidly and socially transmitted information, enabling one group to become very different from other groups in the overall population.

The ability to monitor the behavior of others.

The ability to communicate social transgressions through gossip.

The ability to easily punish or exclude transgressors at low cost to the punishers.

The ability to define, motivate and coordinate individuals.

The result of these human social tendencies is “the primate equivalent of a beehive or an ant colony.”  The bottom-line question is whether religion is “part of the social physiology of the human group organism.  Such a super organism would be able to quickly eliminate less groupish competitors.” D.S. Wilson criticizes Dawkins for Dawkins failure to consider this possibility. It might be, says Sloan Wilson, that groups of religious people are better off.  Is it possible that religious communities make better “human group organisms?”  The evidence is tantalizing:

On average, religious believers are more pro-social than nonbelievers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long term planning rather than gratifying to impulsive desires.  On a moment by moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited.  Some of these differences remain even when religious and nonreligious believers are matched for the degree of pro-sociology.  More fine-grained comparisons reveal fascinating differences between liberal and conservative Protestant denominations, with more anxiety among the liberals and conservatives feeling better in the company of others than when alone.

Evolutionists need to get to work to consider this evidence, according to D.S. Wilson.  Though humans do not evolve to feel good, perhaps religious communities are better tuned for the jobs of survival and reproduction in a way that relates to their happier ways.  “Perhaps religious believers are happily unaware of the problems that nonbelievers are anxiously trying to solve.”

One testable proposition is that religion designed to benefit the whole group would be different than a religion designed to benefit only some individuals at the expense of others.  Indeed, D.S. Wilson argues that the majority religions are centered on “practical concerns, especially the definition of social groups in the regulation of social interactions within and between groups.” He reminds us that multicellular organisms “are already groups of groups of groups.”

Again, D.S. Wilson argues that much research needs to be done and he doesn’t hide his frustration with his colleagues for failing to do the work.  “All aspects of religion have so far received much less attention than guppy spots from an evolutionary perspective. The entire enterprise is that new.”  He reminds us that intergroup conflict, detestable though it seems, might be serving as an important selective force among human groups.  Some elements of religion might be serving as adaptations for war.

D.S. Wilson is yet ever-wary of religion in a way that very much aligns his critiques of religion with that of Dawkins.  Just because religion might be an adaptation, this does not make religion benign.  “The most that group selection can do is turn groups into super organisms.”  In the process of doing their work, religions enforce conformity in a ruthless way.  They cause us to distort reality and they motivate aggressive behaviors toward other groups.  And not all religions have gods.  Sloan Wilson reminds us of the existence of the many “stealth religions,” other ways of distorting factual reality, “such as patriotic histories of nations and other nonreligious ideologies.”

At bottom, D.S. Wilson is challenging Dawkins and other evolutionists to continue working as evolutionists when they study religion, rather than using the cachet of science to engage in well-publicized (and often well-deserved) rants.

Richard Dawkins responded to D.S. Wilson’s article here.  D.S. Wilson replied here.


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Category: Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Michael says:

    New Scientist has a long piece by David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson arguing for group selection.


  2. Erich Vieth says:

    At Edge.org, David Sloan Wilson wrote an article about his belated appreciation of complexity theory and how it dovetails with group selection:

    I didn't get the complexity revolution until I read James Gleik's Chaos: Making A New Science, which I regard as one of the best books ever written about science for a general audience. Suddenly I realized that as complex systems, higher-level biological units such as groups, communities, ecosystems, and human cultures would almost certainly vary in their phenotypic properties and that some of this phenotypic variation might be heritable. Complexity theory became a central theme in my own research.


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