Diamond on Wilson

Posted on November 30, 2007


I have just come across a New York Review of Books review of Darwin’s Cathedral. The review was written by Jared Diamond. Getting Diamond to review Wilson was the perfect choice as both exhibit a rare breadth of knowledge, depth of understanding and intellectual modesty. Diamond writes:

Obviously, the main subject of Darwin’s Cathedral—religion—is widely contentious. In addition, many of the subjects on which Wilson draws to interpret religion—subjects such as group selection, adaptation, hypothesis testing, and how to “do” science— are contentious among scientists. Discussions of these subjects tend to be partisan, oversimplified, and riddled with misstatements. A great virtue of Wilson’s book is the scrupulous fairness with which he treats controversial matters. He is careful to define concepts, to assess both their range of applicability and their limitations, and to avoid posturing, misrepresentations, exaggerated claims, and cheap rhetorical devices. Thus, Wilson’s book is more than just an attempt to understand religion. Even to readers with no interest in either religion or science, his book can serve as a model of how to discuss controversial subjects honestly.

He could just as well be talking about his own books. But, of course, he wouldn’t.

Diamond’s review is worth looking at not just for what it says about Wilson’s book but for what Diamond has to say about religion, especially the examples from Papua New Guinea that he is most familiar with. In particular, Diamond talks about four elements that have over time become linked in ‘modern’ religions: explanation, standardised organisation, moral rules for in-group behaviour, moral rules of out-group behaviour.