ESF funding application

Posted on May 10, 2010


It’s another of those cases where I wish I were more superstitious. I have submitted an application to the European Science Foundation for funding to organise a workshop on dual inheritance models of religion and now have to wait till November to find out if my application was successful. The attraction to cross my fingers is there (just as there was with the KLI application) More importantly, the long wait is seriously inconvenient, I have to say, given that I hope to organise the meeting before the next summer – it will leave very little time to co-ordinate the schedules of all of the people who will be invited. Still, if it works out, it should be a very interesting meeting:

The highly innovative and multidisciplinary work carried out over the last decade on evolutionary explanations of religion has mostly followed two avenues: the cognitive by-product and the pro-social adaptation approach. The cognitive by-product approach focuses upon the cognitive mechanisms underlying religious beliefs and argues that such beliefs come about as the result of the working of normal cognitive mechanisms whose actual function is unrelated to religion (Robert McCauley and Ilkka Pyysiäinen are among the most significant representatives of this approach). A well known example of this work is the idea of a hyperactive agency detection device – a mental module whose extreme sensitivity, though adaptive, leads to the positing of supernatural entities. The pro-social approach, instead, examines the role religious beliefs play in motivating altruistic behaviour (Richard Sosis and David Sloan Wilson have worked on two lines of research that develop this approach). It argues that religious beliefs are functional and assist in maintaining cohesive communities that manage to effectively curb free loading.

While it originally seemed that these are competing accounts, the last year or two have witnessed the emergence of efforts to combine them (the most significant work in this direction has been done by Scott Atran, Joe Henrich and Ara Norenzayan but similar accounts have been suggested by some others). One plausible approach is to argue that religious beliefs were originally simply a cognitive by-product but that they have come to be exapted for pro-social purposes. Significantly, it appears that to develop such an account it is necessary to make use of a sophisticated dual inheritance explanation – while religious beliefs qua cognitive by-products can be explained in terms of genetic evolution, it seems implausible to argue that the pro-social account could be explained in terms of anything other than cultural evolution (theoretical accounts of cultural evolution having been pursued by Susan Blackmore and Eva Jablonka). In part, this will require the reassessment of the relationship between religious and other supernatural beliefs, some which may provide examples of by-product beliefs that have not been exapted to social purposes. The complexity of this approach means that, to properly develop this exciting and novel line of research, it is necessary to bring together researchers into religion from both within and outside of cognitive science of religion and scientists working on dual inheritance accounts of human behaviour in general. That is the aim of the proposed workshop: to clarify what a dual inheritance model of religion would look like, the issues it would come up against and the existing evidence for it.