Groups, religions and evolution

Posted on December 1, 2008


As part of my course on superstitions, I’ve been looking at DS Wilson’s 2005 Human Nature article testing evolutionary hypotheses and find that the more I think about it, the more worried I am about its soundness. In particular, I am concerned about the methodology Wilson uses in that study. He’s looking at a sample of ‘religious systems’ which he defines “as a recognizable group of people with beliefs and practices that can be distinguished from other beliefs and practices”. This means that a system is actually a group. This, it seems to me, becomes potentially problematic when the thesis Wilson tries to check is whether religion is a group-level adaptation as opposed to being non-adaptive or adaptive on a different level. The reason is that for any group to persist over time it must include mechanisms to maintain its cohesion in the face of internal and external pressures. By looking at religions at the group level Wilson prejudices his study to focus upon these mechanisms. As such, it would be shocking if he had not found any evidence for how religions help to maintain religious communities. It would entail finding groups organised around a set of beliefs that, none-the-less, play no role in maintaining those groups. This problem does not mean that the group-adaptation theory of religion is incorrect – I think there’s much more evidence for it.

My second worry is more general and is one that I touch on in my forthcoming Skeptic article. Wilson tends to have a fairly positive view of religion as a way to create mutually-supportive communities. All too often what he writes seems to conflate what is adaptive with what is desirable. He also does not seem to pay sufficient attention to the difference between what is good, in whatever sense, for the group and what is good for the individual. Both points can be made with the potential example of communist or fascist societies which pay little attention to individual rights or desires. Clearly, it can not be that successful group pay no heed to individual needs. After all, groups can only survive if their individual members don’t die off. But there’s a world of difference between survival and the kind of flourishing that people living in societies such as the EU would hope for. The relevance of this point to religious communities comes down to the question of whether one can distinguish acting for the good of a religious community as opposed to acting for the good of other members of that community. I tend to get very uncertain of my ground at this point as I recognise that I am stepping into issues that I have very limited familiarity with. However, it seems to me that for the group-selection thesis to make sense, Wilson must be able to distinguish the above two kinds of behaviour. The alternative would be that group selection reduces to a mix of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, etc. If that is the case, though, it is not enough for Wilson to show that members of a religious community often assist other members of that community. Yet, that seems to be his main kind of evidence for religion being a group adaptation.

The second line of argument runs over much of the ground covered by the on-going debate between the Dawkins and Wilson sides on group selection but focusses it on the question of religious groups, i.e. what I am particularly interested in.