Kevin MacDonald reviews David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral

Date: Sun Dec 29 2002 - 00:54:19 EST

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    Subject: Kevin MacDonald on David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral

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

    By David Sloan Wilson. University of Chicago Press, 1427 East 60th Street
    Chicago, IL 60637, 2002, 268 pp., ISBN 0-226-90134-3, Hardback, $25.00

    Reviewed by Kevin MacDonald, Department of Psychology, California State
    University-Long Beach, Long Beach, CA 90840-0901 [Email:].
    Forthcoming in the Human Ethology Bulletin.

    David Sloan Wilson is something of a quixotic figure in the field of
    evolutionary approaches to human affairs. For most of his professional
    life he has battled what has become a rigid orthodoxy against seemingly
    hopeless odds. The orthodoxy is that natural selection operates more or less
    exclusively at the individual level, and that natural selection between
    groups is a trivial phenomenon that has not left any important mark on the
    architecture of the human mind or on human history. It is a topic that the
    vast majority of evolutionists simply relegate to unquestioned dogma-their
    eyes glazing over at its mere mention. After all, it was the seeming
    resolution of the debate over individual versus group selection that gave
    rise to the revolution in evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s. We're
    talking basic, bedrock theory here-an area where changes are not to be taken
    lightly. And if the past is any indication, the continued life of this
    orthodoxy will not change with the publication of Darwin's Cathedral. But, if
    so, it won't be because the arguments and
    data compiled by Wilson are not compelling. In any case, Wilson is
    confident of the future of groups in evolutionary thought: "I believe that
    future generations will be amazed at the degree to which groups were made to
    disappear as adaptive units of life in the minds of intellectuals during the
    second half of the twentieth century" (p. 46). I can only agree

    Wilson's basic claim is that religions are organisms designed to attain
    evolutionary ends of survival and reproduction. Religious organisms achieve
    these aims because of group selection processes in which religious groups are
    favored because they are able to successfully promote behavior that is
    individually disadvantageous. Particularly important for the viability of
    individually disadvantageous behavior in groups are social controls,
    conceptualized here as a form of low cost altruism. Group selection has
    always had to deal with the albatross that people and other
    organisms do not voluntarily engage in self-sacrificing behavior-at least not
    readily and not very often. In the absence of social controls, egoistic
    behavior is expected to replace altruism, leading to the expectation that
    there will be a strong residue of egoism as a holdover from our evolutionary
    heritage. However, groups can impose controls that enforce public goods, such
    as paying taxes or submitting to authority, and people can develop groups
    where even the leaders are thoroughly scrutinized to ensure that group
    interests prevail over individual interests. Such controls-termed secondary
    public goods-are low cost, and their low cost effectively cuts "the Gordian
    knot by partially relaxing the trade-off between group benefit and individual
    cost. Social control mechanisms are obviously relevant to religious groups,
    which are based on much more than voluntary altruism" (p. 20). Via social
    controls effective
    groups may be developed with significant degrees of ingroup altruism even in
    the absence of high levels of genetic overlap. The result is "a complex
    regulatory system that binds members into a functional unit" (p. 25).

    Besides social controls, religion is characterized by an ideological
    superstructure-the beliefs that often seem exotic but, as Wilson
    exhaustively details, often function to motivate group-benefiting
    behavior. Rather than depend exclusively on an elaborate set of social
    controls maintained by monitoring and punishment, group-benefiting social
    behaviors are often voluntarily engaged in because not to do so is to risk
    the wrath of God or incur some other spiritual cost. For example, Calvin
    developed a belief system that stressed motivated compliance to authority.
    As such, it may be regarded as an adaptation-in this case, a way of
    creating a cohesive group by lowering the cost of monitoring individual
    behavior: "If religious faith plays a role in motivating [behaviors such as
    obedience to authority], and if these behaviors cause the group to function
    as an adaptive unit, then faith counts as an adaptation" (p. 102). Thus by
    developing compelling ideologies that motivate altruistic, group-benefiting
    behavior, and by monitoring and enforcing compliance, human groups are able
    to overcome the profound tendencies toward egoism that have generally
    prevented the evolution of similarly cohesive, altruistic groups among
    Evolutionists who acknowledge the importance of groups as functional units of
    selection are also less inclined to adopt that other dogma of
    contemporary Darwinism: evolutionary psychology and its commitment to a human
    psychology composed more or less exclusively of domain specific mechanisms
    designed to solve problems recurrent in our evolutionary past.
    Here Wilson points to the incompleteness of such a psychology. Indeed, the
    "jukebox theory" of cultural variation promoted by Tooby and Cosmides (1992)
    seems little more than a hopeful gesture rather than a serious attempt at
    theorizing. It seems utterly incapable of even the most rudimentary
    explanation of religion in its many varieties. I agree with Wilson that in
    addition to modules designed to solve evolutionarily recurrent problems, the
    mind also contains a variety of open-ended mechanisms for solving novel
    problems, chief among them general intelligence (MacDonald, 1991; Chiappe &
    MacDonald, 2003). As Wilson notes, a prime function of human groups is to
    solve novel problems of adaptation in a constantly changing environment:
    "Confront a human group with a novel problem, even one that never existed in
    so-called ancestral environments, and its members may well come up with a
    workable solution.
    The solution might be based on trial and error or on rational thought" (p.
    31). Interestingly, Wilson explicitly describes Calvin, who designed the
    religion that bears his name, as a former scholar and as more intelligent
    than his theological adversaries (p. 90). Surely the design of Calvinism as
    an adaptive system of beliefs and social controls was the work of a highly
    intelligent person; few people would have the intelligence and other talents
    required for devising a belief system that resulted in Geneva, a city of
    13,000 people, functioning effectively as an organized group. (The same might
    be said for the priests who designed the Jewish religion while exiled in
    Babylon 2600 years ago, or the 19th-century founders of Mormonism.)

    Nevertheless, intelligence is not the whole story. Religious beliefs are
    often the height of irrationality-Wilson's example is Calvin's belief in the
    imminent coming of Jesus. Besides intelligence, open-ended belief-generating
    mechanisms are of critical importance. As Wilson documents, religious
    beliefs, combined with methods of monitoring and enforcing social norms, can
    have an extraordinary effect on social organization and can result in higher
    levels of between-group selection than could possibly exist in other species.
    It goes without saying that people need not be conscious of the role of their
    beliefs and norm-monitoring in producing successful groups.

    An important issue is whether the mechanisms underlying human abilities to
    enforce social controls and their proclivity to adopt religious ideologies
    evolved as a result of natural selection for altruistic groups. Or were such
    mechanisms simply a by-product of natural selection for domain general
    mechanisms that evolved for other reasons, such as solving novel problems, as
    suggested above. After all, ideologies, including at least some religious
    ideologies, often rationalize egoistic behavior, and social controls have
    often been used to enforce despotisms. It is the very open-endedness of these
    mechanisms that makes them at once so powerful and so dangerous-powerful
    because they can rationalize and enforce virtually anything-from the Soviet
    Union of the Gulags to the cohesive, peaceful bands of friends and neighbors
    that typified early Christianity; and
    dangerous because they may lead to behavior that is highly maladaptive at the
    individual or at the group level: people may be socialized or constrained to
    do things that are massively opposed to their own interests (slavery comes to
    mind), and their group may be poorly designed to achieve long term success.
    Religions, like all human social organizations where social controls and
    ideologies play an important role (i.e., virtually all human social
    organizations), are experiments in living. Nevertheless, there is every
    reason to suppose that the power of these domain general mechanisms may also
    be utilized to rationally construct vehicles of adaptation that would
    reliably further individual and ethnic group interests over the long run,
    even in the multi-cultural complexity of the modern world.

    I do not want to give the impression that the only psychological
    mechanisms relevant to religion are the open-ended, domain general
    discussed here. Wilson's emphasis is on the sociology of religion draws him
    away from the psychology of groups for the most part, but he does review
    research on social identity theory as a set of psychological mechanisms that
    result in positive perceptions of ingroups and negative perceptions of
    outgroups. Other more domain specific psychological mechanisms related to
    ethnocentrism and other manifestations of group allegiance are also
    undoubtedly important for a complete psychological analysis of religion
    (MacDonald, 2003)..

    Groups are notoriously prone to the ingroup/outgroup thinking that
    motivates self-righteous violence-not surprising if groups evolved as a
    result of between-group competition. Here Wilson describes the "dark side" of
    groups-their tendency to compete with other groups, to go on wars of conquest
    and to even exterminate people from outgroups. Whatever else one might say
    about group selection theory, it does not result in portraying humans as
    altruists simplicitur. Humans are sometimes altruistic within their own
    group, but only with the support of powerful ideologies and social controls
    that motivate compliant, group-serving behavior, and always in conflict with
    a great deal of backsliding-the creeping egoism that always lurks in the

    The balance of the book describes religions as imperfect groups-imperfect in
    the sense that they often approach but seldom attain the pure level of
    altruistic group functioning that is often idealized in religious thought.
    This is because of the pull of egoism: Whatever evolved tendencies human
    might have to participate in well-functioning, cohesive and even
    altruistic groups, there are also powerful tendencies toward egoism that must
    be constantly monitored and controlled.

    Calvinism is given a chapter-length treatment as a paradigm of a religion
    that functioned to achieve secular utility. Other religions described include
    the Water Temple system of Bali, Judaism, and the early Christian Church. In
    all of these cases Wilson shows that religion functions to organize groups in
    very practical ways to achieve secular ends.
    Particularly interesting is the discussion of early Christianity based on the
    work of Rodney Stark (1996). Early Christianity emerges as a non-ethnic form
    of Judaism that functioned as a way of producing cohesive, effective groups
    able to deal with the uncertainties of the ancient world.
    The ancient world was a very unpredictable place indeed, characterized by
    natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, rioting, epidemics, brutal
    military campaigns against civilians, famines, and widespread poverty.
    Navigating this world was greatly facilitated by co-religionists ready to
    lend a helping hand and to establish economic alliances. Wilson has no
    hesitation in supposing that Christian charity in extending aid to fellow
    Christians suffering from the plague involved altruism, as indeed it did.
    But the result was that more Christians survived these disasters than did
    Pagans: Christianity was adaptive at the group level. The adaptiveness of
    Christianity also stemmed from its emphasis on several attitudes that were
    notably lacking in the Roman Empire: encouragement of large families,
    conjugal fidelity, high-investment parenting, and outlawing of abortion,
    infanticide, and non-reproductive sexual behavior. The bottom line is that
    Christian women did indeed out-reproduce Pagan women. Other obvious examples
    of religiously mandated fertility and family-promoting values in
    the contemporary world are the Amish and Hutterites, the Mormons, and
    Orthodox Jews. All of these religions are characterized by social controls
    and religious ideologies that promote adaptive behavior at the group level.

    Finally, Wilson has a very enjoyable writing style. The following passage is
    a good illustration, and it sums up his view of religions as intricately
    adaptive biological entities:

    Biologists frequently express a feeling of awe, bordering on religious
    reverence, toward the intricacies of nature; the cryptic insect that
    exactly resembles a leaf, the fish that glides effortlessly through the
    water, and the amazing physiological processes that allow organisms to defy
    the forces of entropy. The organismic concept of groups makes possible a
    similar sense of awe toward religion, even from a purely evolutionary
    perspective. (p. 4)


    Chiappe, D., & MacDonald, K. B. (2003). The Evolution of Domain-General
    Mechanisms in Intelligence and Learning. Psychological Inquiry, 14(4).

    MacDonald, K. B. (1991). A perspective on Darwinian psychology: The
    importance of domain-general mechanisms, plasticity, and individual
    differences. Ethology and Sociobiology, 12, 449-480.

    MacDonald, K. B. (2003). An Integrative Evolutionary Perspective on
    Ethnicity. Politics and the Life Sciences, in press.

    Stark, R. (1996). The rise of Christianity: A sociologist reconsiders
    history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    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 (pp. 19-136). New
    York: Cambridge University Press.

    Kevin MacDonald is Professor of Psychology at California State
    University-Long Beach. He completed his doctoral research at the
    University of Connecticut in the Department of Biobehavioral Sciences. His
    research has focused on evolutionary psychology, especially evolutionary
    approaches to human development and personality psychology. He also
    studies groups and ethnic relations from an evolutionary perspective.

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