Later this month I am to give a talk at the Religions: fields of research, methods and perspectives conference in Krakow, Poland. This is the abstract of the talk I plan to give there:
Social function of religion in the light of contemporary evolutionary theory
Traditional accounts of social function, such as used in structural functionalist accounts of religion, have been plagued by a number of significant problems. Although functionalism has historically been connected to evolutionary biology, I will be arguing that it has not been connected enough, and that the old problems have either effectively been dealt with by drawing upon the resources of modern evolutionary theory or, in some cases, those resources open the way towards a solution.
I will consider three kinds of problems. The first is connected to the very notion of function – which has historically been somewhat vague and overly broad. Work in modern biology helps to clarify this by providing two clearly defined and connected concepts of function: one based upon evolutionary adaptation and the other upon maintenance of organismic integrity. The second kind of problem arises due to function being deemed to be social – which has been hard to reconcile with individual-level analysis. Here, work on multi-level selection and gene-culture coevolution provides a sophisticated way into the network of issues. Finally, the third kind of problem results from the need to relate social function to other aspects of the phenomenon under investigation. In this case, much-needed assistance is provided by work on the various kinds of questions that need to be answered to provide a full evolutionary account of any trait.
Of course, key to modern evolutionary theory’s ability to deal with problems connected to the concept of social function are the theoretical resources that evolutionary biologists have developed. However, a vital aspect of this fecundity is that these concepts have been connected to concrete experimental methods that, in large part, can be modified to be applied within the social sciences. In effect we face the very real possibility of rapid developments in what had been a somewhat neglected approach to religion.