April 20, 2015

Religion as an Evolutionary Organism

Charles Darwin’s legendary voyage around the globe, aboard The Beagle began December 27th 1831, and ended five years later on October 2nd 1836. And it was this voyage, as we know it today, which helped bring forth a theory unlike any other before: the theory of evolution. With it, a science was now possible that could account for the functional organization and complexity of life without appeal to the guidance of a divine hand. Instead of William Paley’s watchmaker, rather, the process of natural selection explained the apparent design in nature. Whether purely at the level of the gene/mind (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Boyer & Bergstrom, 2008; Pinker, 2012), or also at the level of the group (Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, in press; Wilson, 2002; Fedyk, 2015), that natural selection is a primary mechanism behind this functional organization is a disciplinary axiom. However, to a degree, there is a polarization around both of these conceptualizations.1 Nonetheless, ‘religion’ and other meaning making systems might have an evolutionary explanation at the level of adaptation. The ongoing debates withstanding, in this podcast Thomas Coleman asks evolutionary biologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson (DSW): ‘Can religion be known as an evolutionary organism?’

Dr. Wilson answers this question in the affirmative. He begins the podcast by giving a brief overview of his research studying religious groups as adaptive units, specifically discussing his work directing the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project. Next, DSW introduces the field of evolutionary religious studies, explaining that ‘all aspects of humanity can be understood, in some sense, as a product of evolution’. Further still, Wilson mentions some terms used in evolutionary frameworks such as ‘inclusive fitness,’ and ‘group selection’, which he suggests are ‘all equivalent’ explanations towards explaining ‘solid citizen behavior’ (i.e. altruism). Rather than ‘religion’ being some sui generis category, in which the blind forces of natural selection carefully pick out ‘religions’ and only ‘religions’, DSW notes: ‘what’s more general than religions, are meaning systems… every human is not religious, religion is one kind of meaning system’.  Wilson goes on to support the idea that functional groups are necessary for a science of religion. He puts forth some examples of evolutionary hypotheses on religions that have been tested, yielding both confirmations and rejections of these hypotheses. In closing, DSW emphasizes that the theory of evolution should not be held in conflict with the religious understandings it seeks to explain.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, natural history documentaries, baking utensils and more.


For example, see the article published in Nature by Nowak, Tarnita and Wilson (2010) and the five published responses from 117 scholars and scientists combined.

  • Boyer, P., & Bergstrom, B. (2008). Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion. Annu. Rev. Anthropol.,    37(1), 111-130. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085201
  • Fedyk, M. (2015). How (not) to bring psychology and biology together. Philos Stud, 172(4), 949-967. doi:10.1007/s11098-014-0297-9
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Willard, A., Slingerland, E., Gervais, W., McNamara, R., Henrich, J. (in press). The Cultural Evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences.
  • Pinker, S. (2012). THE FALSE ALLURE OF GROUP SELECTION | Edge.org. Edge.org. Retrieved 14 March 2015, from http://edge.org/conversation/the-false-allure-of-group-selection
  • Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L.  Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Wilson, D. (2002). Darwin’s cathedral. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.