Darwin's Cathedral

Summary of: Darwin's Cathedral

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Wilson argues that religious systems (sets of belief and moral codes) are biological adaptations that allow individuals to act collectively and survive in distinct social and economic contexts relative to other groups.

Disciplines

Publication Reference

Published in/by
University Of Chicago Press
Date
October 1, 2003

Findings

  • Moral systems, beliefs that articulate right and wrong conduct, are central to unifying groups and fostering their collective actions.
  • Groups coordinate a community of activities (health, education, welfare) through which individuals can play out their morally directed behaviors and from which the group benefits.
  • Cultural evolutionary success is a function of in-group “forgiveness” and out-group “retaliation.”
  • Adaptation not only alters the organism or group but also alters the environment that determines what counts as adaptive.

Wilson argues that religious systems (sets of belief and moral codes) are biological adaptations that allow individuals to act collectively and survive in distinct social and economic contexts relative to other groups. He uses evolutionary biology concepts, such as group level selection and fitness, to show that religion has a functional purpose that allows groups to survive and reproduce. He focuses on phenotypic variation (observable and measurable traits) as key to group selection. Here he points to the social sciences, particularly Durkheim and functionalist thinking, (which declined in popularity at about the same time in social sciences as group level selection declined in the sciences) to argue that religion has a secular utility, i.e. it gets people what they want inside and outside of religion. Moral systems, beliefs that articulate right and wrong conduct, are central to unifying groups and fostering their collective actions. Behaviors that lead to the “right conduct” depend on open-ended psychological and cultural processes that are intimately linked to local environment (social, political, economic context). Wilson says that moral systems are not only innate psychological mechanisms, but are traits that are finely tuned through selection to the environment.

Wilson examines Calvinism in depth to show how Calvin's catechism is a set of codes of conduct that enable the people of Geneva during Calvin's lifetime to act as a coordinated, collective social organism and survive a chaotic, difficult time. Four elements of Calvin's catechism are: faith, forgiveness of sin, preparation for the second coming, and internalization. His reasoning goes like this: if religious faith plays a role in motivating the interpersonal behaviors (obey thy neighbor, obey thy pastor, pay your taxes, don't swear false witness, etc.), and if these behaviors cause the group to function as an adaptive unit, then faith counts as an adaptation.

Part of the social organization of this moral system is the set of mechanisms that prevent subversion from within the group (as Ostrom suggests about free riders). Calvinism employs methods for mutual criticism that polices the group—the “head” and “body” of the church. It also employs a form of decision-making at a group level in which no one person can impose his will. Also the group coordinates a community of activities (health, education, welfare) through which individuals can play out their morally directed behaviors and from which the group benefits.

Here is a summarizing quote about Calvinism:

“Calvinism is an interlocking system with a purpose: to unify and coordinate a population of people to achieve a common set of goals by collective action. The goals may be difficult to define exactly but they include what Durkheim referred to as secular utility—the basic goods and services that all people need and want, inside and outside of religion. The interlocking system includes explicit behavioral prescriptions, specific theological beliefs, and a mighty fortress of social control and coordination mechanisms.” P.118

Other examples of secular utility that Wilson describes are:

Water Temple System in Bali: Water system is a complex terracing system, in which each branch is used and maintained by a subak (a group of hunter-gatherer size). Each subak has a temple which reinforces metaphysical and practical aspects. The religious beliefs give an authority to the system that allows the Balinese to continue a centuries old, complex system—control pests, rebuild irrigation sections, regulate rice planting, etc.

Judaism: Isolating mechanisms (no intermarrying, high genetic relatedness, no major conversion efforts) helped to reinforce coordinated actions of Jews even during diaspora.

Early Christians: a tiny sect of 1000 in year 40 which grew into a major portion of the Roman empire by 350, when Emperor Constantine converted himself. Christianity provided a culturally defined membrane that isolated Christian community from the chaos of the outside world (plagues, violence, Roman attack, etc.), but allowed highly organized self-sustaining social interactions to take place within the group. Christians were active in conversions (unlike Jews) that enlarged their numbers (and provided a better quality of life for converts) and also differed from Romans in reproductive practices (Romans valued patrilineages, practiced female infanticide, male to female ratios very high, which led to shrinking population). Christian women had large families, more survived, and women had higher status level, and percentage in society. Christians developed and practiced nursing techniques that during plagues helped them survive. Motivated by forgiveness, Christians were more likely to provide food, water, and comfort to sick and dying even at risk of their own life, which caused them to have a higher survival rate than Non-Christians. Moral and social standing increased martyrdom. (This is a good example of a social dilemma that is resolved through moral systems and emotional drive for altruism.)

Wilson explains forgiveness as a complex adaptation (also found in the animal kingdom) —he explains Axelrod's work and the TFT games and their variations. He shows how the four Gospels are four versions of instructions, contextualized in time and space, for how to behave within and across groups. In this sense, forgiveness has many faces. What appears to be forgiveness within group and appears as retaliation outside of group is explained functionally within particular contexts.

A final quote on the cultural evolution of “unifying systems”:

“Phenotypic variation within and among groups is radically different than genetic variation and makes group selection a very strong force. Phenotypic variation is all that natural selection sees genes code for psychological traits that cause people to adapt different behaviors with great flexibility and also alter the environment that determines what counts as adaptive—Human evolution is a feedback process between traits that alter the parameters of multilevel selection and traits that evolve as a result of the alteration.” P.223.

Morality is central to the feedback process.