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Winter Books

Biologist looks at religion’s evolutionary value

by David Sloan Wilson
University of Chicago Press, 268 pages, $25


There has been much discussion in recent years on whether institutionalized religion has a future. We hear people expressing their convictions that “religion” has been a con, a quest for power over people, pie in the sky escapism, brainwashing, superstition or an institutionalized form of repression that impoverishes believers.

Elements of truth and personal experience underlie these convictions. The importance of this book is its caution to us: Yes, but wait, look, examine carefully, there’s a lot more to it. And the lot more is being offered by a professor of biology and anthropology intent on treating “the organismic concept of religious groups as a serious scientific hypothesis.”

Religious groups, Wilson says, act like organisms that are “a product of natural selection by which they acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments.” Wilson’s central thesis is that, acting in this way “around the world and across history, religions have functioned as mighty engines of collective action for the production of benefits that all people want.”

It is fascinating to read an expert in the field of evolutionary biology bringing his expertise to an analysis of the value of religion.

For the generalist reader, this is heavy going, especially in the first two chapters, but well worth the patience as the author sets up his framework: “I will attempt to study religious groups the way I and other evolutionary biologists routinely study guppies, trees, bacteria and the rest of life on earth, with the intention of making progress that even a reasonable skeptic must acknowledge.”

Gradually, the framework takes shape. Religious groups function as adaptive units through the coordinated action of individuals. A moral system is important for regulating behavior. Moral systems are frequently expressed in religious terms: “Supernatural agents and their relationships with humans can be explained as adaptations designed to enable human groups to function as adaptive units.” Whether the religious terms point to an existing reality is not the issue. What is important is the function of such belief in organizing human behavior to work for a better here and now.

The chapter on Calvinism demonstrates how “Calvinism is designed to make a human community function as an adaptive unit.” Wilson believes some critics of religion too easily dismiss religion as a naïve effort to explain the unknown -- to be given up when knowledge tells us differently or gives an explanation:

Rational thought is treated as the gold standard against which religious belief is found so wanting that it becomes well-nigh inexplicable. Evolution causes us to think about the subject in a completely different way. Adaptation becomes the gold standard against which rational thought must be measured alongside other modes of thought. In a single stroke, rational thought becomes necessary but not sufficient to explain the length and breadth of human mentality, and the so-called irrational features of religion can be studied respectfully as potential adaptations in their own right rather than as idiot relatives of rational thought.

In the adaptation process, symbolic thought is every bit as important as rational thought. Symbolic thought is central to human evolution and mentality and as such lies at the centre of “all human social life.” When the power of the sacred is linked with symbol, respect is commanded and this helps to organize behavior. A good example of this is found in the writing of the gospels when “historical veracity was subordinated to the symbolic use of narratives about people and events to motivate action.”

Skeptics who focus on and scorn religious “hocus-pocus” are missing the point. Religious belief is not detached from reality: It is about motivating behavior and should be studied as such. Wilson calls attention to two forms of realism: factual and practical. To focus on the factual only is too one-sided, and it then becomes too easy to dismiss people who stray from the factual as mentally weak. But with religion as an organism organizing human behavior we are not dealing with mental weakness, but rather “the healthy functioning of the biologically and culturally well-adapted human mind.”

Rationality is not the key to this healthy functioning; adaptation is the key. Evolution is about trade-offs in which becoming better in some respects requires becoming worse in others. There is a trade-off with factual knowledge because in itself factual knowledge is not enough to motivate “adaptive behavior.” At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality motivates people much better:

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.

There is cause for much reflection on that last sentence. It echoes the wisdom that is in this book, wisdom that can help us consider the importance of religion in a valuable framework. We can all surely agree with Wilson that, “Some of the most beautiful and moving elements of religion come not from cosmic struggles and invisible gods but from the vision of a better life on earth.”

Michael Morwood is author of Tomorrow’s Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium (Twenty-Third) and Is Jesus God? (Crossroad). Morwood lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife.

National Catholic Reporter, October 4, 2002