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Written By David Sloan Wilson
at the Binghamton University.
Presented by Juliann and InKee.
Evolutionary Approach
 Social behavior can evolve by either within-group
selection (individual) or between-group selection
(collective), which are adaptive hypotheses.
 If the trait is not a product of natural selection then another
set of hypothesis is needed to explain its existence, these
are maladaptive or non-adaptive hypotheses.
“Quantitative methods refine but do
not define scientific inquiry.”
It’s important to remember evolution is a
multifactorial process.
D.S. Wilson’s question is “How did religion
evolve” and his approach to understand is
one of comparison, investigation and
historical assessments throughout a variety
of religions.
Religion as Adaptive:
Religion as Non-Adaptive
• Group-Level Adaptation
• Genetic Lag
• Individual level adaptation
• By-Product
• Cultural parasite
 Wilson speculates the possibilities in order to clarify
the exploratory research to come. In the case of
adaptive hypotheses
Religion as Adaptation
 Group-level adaptations benefit the
whole group compared to other
 Individual-level adaptation benefits
individuals, compared to other
individuals within the same group.
 Cultural parasites benefit cultural
traits without regard to the welfare
of human individuals or groups.
Religion as Non-Adaptive
If religion is now a product of genetic lag, it
could be that the traits associated with religion
might have been adaptive in a past
environment, but not in the present
Advancements in transportation.
Small related groups.
Large (mostly) unrelated groups.
Religion as Non-Adaptive
 Alternatively religion could be seen as a by-product of
traits that are adaptive in nonreligious contexts.
In Sum
These various concepts of religion are so
different that it would be surprising if they
could not be empirically discriminated from
one another.
 Then a methodical elimination of hypotheses should
eventually produce the most accurate theory.
 Thus the question in this study becomes “What are
religious groups not?”
Central Thesis
Religions are largely (not entirely) grouplevel adaptations.
 Religions provide a set of instructions for how to
behave, to promote cooperation among group
members, and to prevent passive freeloading and
active exploitation within the group.
 The study looks at religious ‘ideals’ and excludes the
event of “corrupt” religions.
Methods – Selection
 Religions were chosen via random sampling, to
avoid selection bias.
 Wilson then located the number to see if the religion
on that page met criteria, if not he would page
forward until he met a religion that did.
 Though this process produced some biases, sespite
these the selection bias was avoided, and regions
were chosen at random without the group-selection
theory in mind.
Methods - Review
 The encyclopedia only included a small amount of information
for each religion.
 The main work of the survey involved gathering as much
information as possibly about each religion, and evaluating
it with respect to the major evolutionary hypotheses.
 Wilson recruited 35 undergraduate students by enrolling them
in a 4-credit class titled “Evolution and religion”.
 In addition to reading Wilson’s book “Darwin’s Cathedral”,
participated in discussion on the subject, and were then
assigned to 1 of the 35 religions to research.
 Students then culminated a bibliography and narrative
answers to 32 questions addressing key issues.
 These analyses were then used as a guide for Wilson to read
the primary literature.
Methods - Analysis
Indus valley
The Secular Utility of Religions
 In the by-product hypotheses the expectation is that
religions by themselves do not produce practical
benefits. The random sample does not support this
 The majority of religions in this sample are
centered on practical concerns. They are thoroughly
rooted in the practical welfare of their groups.
The Proximate/Ultimate Distinction and
the Otherworldly Aspects of Religion
 “If religions are so practical, then why are they so
 Evolutionary theory offers a robust alternative
through the distinction of ultimate and proximate
 Both ultimate and proximate causation are required
to explain an adaptive trait fully; one cannot exist
without the other.
The Proximate/Ultimate Distinction and
the Otherworldly Aspects of Religion
 Ultimate Causation: A religious believer
helps others, which may often contribute to
her group.
 Proximate Causation: The believer feels
desire to serve a perfect being who
commands her to help others.
The Proximate/Ultimate Distinction and
the Otherworldly Aspects of Religion
 Thus when trying to explain a given feature of a religion,
the primary question is not “Is it rational” or “Can it be
empirically verified” but “What does it cause people to
 If the feature motivates adaptive behaviors then it is fully
consistent with a functional explanation.
 If it fails to motivate adaptive behaviors then it is a
nonfunctional explanation is warranted.
 The system for social rules and guidelines is necessarily
complex because the adaptive behavior is necessarily
context-sensitive. Proximate/Ultimate distinction
provides a very robust explanation that supports a varied
In Sum
 The proximate/ultimate distinction theoretically
enables otherworldly and practical dimensions of
religion to be reconciled with each other. The key
question is: What do the otherworldly elements of
religion cause people to do?
 Wilson has made an empirical claim based on the
survey that the otherworldly and practical
dimensions of religion are indeed tightly yoked to
each other.
Group-level Benefits, Individual
Benefits, or Cultural Parasites?
 Religion is inherently group- and other oriented.
 Religious groups that “get their act together”
outperform other religious groups.
 Benefits of religion tend to be public goods.
 When they fail, religious believers are regarded as a
corruption of religion.
 Must solve the problem of passive freeloading and
active exploitation within groups, especially by
Group-level Benefits, Individual
Benefits, or Cultural Parasites?
Two major ways that religions fall apart
1) The first is by becoming victims of their own
success. Once a religion generates wealth by
collective action, its members no longer need each
other and leave.
2)A second way is by becoming exploitative, such
that some members benefit more than others.
Group-level Benefits, Individual
Benefits, or Cultural Parasites?
 Since natural selection is always based on fitness
differences, group-level adaptations can evolve only
by some groups contributing more to the gene-pool
or culture-pool than other groups.
 Darwin pointed out that N/S at the individual level
does not always take the form of nature red in tooth
and claw. A drought-tolerant plant out-competes a
drought-susceptible plant in the desert, even though
they do not directly interact with each other.
Group-level Benefits, Individual
Benefits, or Cultural Parasites?
 Competition among groups took place through
differences in recruitment, retention, and birth and
death processes.
 The random sample provides NO support for the
cultural parasite hypothesis because religions are
designed to promote the welfare of their members.
Jainism : A Challenge and Its
 Jainism posed the greatest challenge to the grouplevel adaptation hypothesis.
 Jain renouncers have dozens of food restrictions and
ascetic values. Some fast themselves to death.
 But these beliefs and practices contribute to the
secular utility of individuals and groups.
 Fasting in young women increases their marriage
 More religious devotion in men raises the status of
the family.
 Most religions in the sample have secular utility.
 The practical benefits are inherently group-and other
 In other cases the practical side is obscured by the
otherworldly side of religion, but these can be largely
reconciled through the proximate/ultimate distinction.
 Religions don’t parasitize human individuals and groups.
 Rather enhance between-group selection and restrict
within-group selection.
 Between-group selection can take the form of direct
conflict, but it usually takes other forms.
 How might using Wilson’s book “Darwin’s Cathedral” to learn
preliminary Evolutionary perspectives on religion affect the data
collection of the students?
 Do you think being in a “class” in which you are graded would affect
your perspective?
 Wilson did not rely on the student’s data; he only used it to guide his
own research and readings. Do you agree with this method or how do
you think the student’s bibliographies should have been used?
 Do you think that the 35 religions used showed a wide enough variety,
why or why not? How would you control for this in a future study?
 Do you agree with the dismissal of the other hypotheses, or do you feel
that Wilson was perpetuating a confirmation bias?
 ((other questions))