Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson

Posted on November 20, 2007


I have finally read David Sloan Wilson’s book Darwin’s Cathedral. Wilson, whom I have already mentioned numerous times, tries to explain religion as a group-level adaptation, by giving an evolutionary interpretation of Durkheim’s functionalism. I really like the book for a number of reasons. First of all, Wilson shows a generosity towards other researchers, even when they disagree profoundly, that is all too rare. At the same time, he has a very broad understanding of the various strands of research into religion and is able to bring them together into a fairly coherent whole. Secondly, Wilson’s approach seem to me to generally fit with the kind of naturalist/pragmatist direction from which I am coming.

Of course, there are certain things that I think could be improved upon in Wilson’s position. In particular, I worry that he is too willing to accept adaptationist and evolutionary psychological claims. Mind you, his views on these approaches are far from naive and he is well aware they are limited in scope. I do wish that he had made more use of evo-devo and cultural evolution ideas. Not having done so, however, he is hardly behind the times, given that both those research programmes are still in diapers. In fact, as I already noted, his familiarity with the relevant recent work is staggering and my complaints are minor.

The more substantive issue that reading Wilson leaves me wondering about is how to fit my own subject of study into the picture he draws. Despite the similarity between our approaches, Wilson seems to close off the space for a discussion of magic. The reason is that in the last section of the book he seem to associate the sacred with the social, where Durkheim thought of magic as practices relating to sacred things but used for personal benefit. Looking at the whole of the last chapter it is both more philosophical and seemingly less carefully stated than the rest of the book. While it might pass muster in a weaker book, in Wilson’s case it sticks out somewhat as reminiscent of the final paragraphs of essays written by good students who’d none-the-less run out of steam. Wilson tries to compare religion to other systems which unify societies – a task which must be undertaken at some stage – but he only manages to make some general (and problematic) suggestions.  I am quite sure that it should be possible to clean up this bit of Wilson’s argument and, in the process, to bring magic back into the picture. I already have some ideas but they are still ill-formed and I will have to think quite a bit more about them before putting them into any kind of form more authoritative than blog entries.