Book review: Darwin’s Cathedral

by David Sloan Wilson


Can evolutionary methods be used to study the development of religion? David Sloan Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion evolved because of the advantages it confers on those who share in it. Religion may even have contributed to humanity’s rise as the dominant animal on earth. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religion in particular, on the same playing field as biological entities.

Group selection long ago became passé among evolutionary biologists, but it may be time for its revival. In the 60’s, it was believed that evolution takes place entirely by mutational change. Since then, it has been shown that evolution also occurs along a different pathway: by social groups becoming so functionally integrated that they become higher-level organisms in their own right. So why aren’t groups—particularly religious groupings—receiving the attention they deserve in the evolutionary field?

Wilson wants to study religious groups in the same way biologists study guppies, bacteria, and other forms of life. Does the rational choice theory fit religion? Functionalism? Using Calvinism as his primary case study, he determines that characteristics of social groups can be predicted via group selection theory.

Intelligent and cutting edge, Wilson does have something to say, but this is not an easy read; it reads like a university thesis, scholarly and reference-infested. It’s not because the theory isn’t fascinating, but because I had a hard time concentrating on the presentation, that I ranked it only three stars.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>