"Religions potentially offer practical, social, and motivational benefits to their adherents.
October 23, 2002 9:45 AM   Subscribe

"Religions potentially offer practical, social, and motivational benefits to their adherents. But religions differ among themselves in the degree to which they motivate their adherents to have children, to rear those children to become productive members of society, and to convert or kill believers in competing religions. Those religions that are more successful in these respects will tend to spread, and gain and retain adherents, at the expense of other religions." So says Jared Diamond in his review of David Sloan Wilson's book, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, which views religion from an evolutionary perspective. Another writer interested in the evolution of religions is Toby Lester, who examines how present-day religious movements are "mutating with Darwinian restlessness."
posted by homunculus (5 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you homunculous, Jared Diamond is one of my favorite authors, though I disagree with him on many issues.

I especially love the paradoxical dynamic expressed in his unlikely partnership with the tribes of New Guinea. This cultured Leftist academic and his head-hunter friends gives us great scenarios like this (from article/emphasis mine):

'Interestingly, among New Guineans, religion is never invoked to justify killing members of an out-group. Many of my New Guinean friends have described to me their participation in genocidal attacks on neighboring tribes. . .'

Hah! It's like:

'Hey there ol' chum, how'd that genocide go today?'

'It went super, amigo!'

'Fan-tastic. So, anyway, did'ja hear about. . .

One thing that may surprise readers is that this book might be just as controversial on the secular Left as it will be on the religious Right- but for different reasons.

The conclusions that Sloan's book draw about religion as an evolutionary strategy are very similar to the trilogy of books by academic Kevin Mcdonald that use the same 'evolutionary-psychology' approach to describe Jews as a racial purity cult. Something you may not be too surprised to find, hasn't been received too enthusiastically on the Left.

Among McDonald's controversial conclusions are that the anti-Semitic attitudes found in many societies across time were largely logical reactions to Jewish behavior, and that Jewish culture encourages Jews to act in ways that are 'good for Jews'. McDonald argues that Jews often deceive themselves into thinking that they are acting altruistically, when in fact their motives are often selfishly based on preserving the Jewish race at the expense of others.

That said David Sloan Wilson is the only author yet to use Macdonald as a factual source.

It gets stranger.

You might interpret this to mean that Wilson and those who admire Wilson are of stereotypical right-wing hate breed. The truth is exactly the opposite! Sloan's most favorable support in the evolutionary community comes from the Marxist left including Richard Lewontin,Stephen Gould, and Leo Kamin.

The conflict boils down to the controversy in evolutionary theory between followers of 'selectionism' (the type used by gould, lewontin, and macdonald) and adaptionism (the more modern and popular paradigm).

What happened? Well scientists such as Gould, fell behind in the 70's as more progressive evolutionists such as EO Wilson and Richard Dawkins started applying sociobiological theorys to mankind. Marxists like Gould and Lewontin didn't like what they considered to be the reactionary (racist/sexist) implications of the newer models of evolutionary thought. Unfortunately, as the evidence mounted in support of the newer model, the Marxists discredited themselves by ignoring more and more it, until they fell completely behind and science moved on without them.

The truest irony of this whole ordeal is that the older models of evolutionary thought are not only false, but that they can be used to support equally reactionary ideas (as seen with Macdonald)!!! And so we learn that if we ignore science in the name of morality, we end up losing both.

Here is a Slate dialogue with John Tooby, cofounder of the discipline of evolutionary-psychology where he discusses Macdonald's work and why he believes it (and by extension Sloan's book) fails to be scientific according to modern evolutionary paradigms.

(read Mon-Fri, it's quite interesting)
posted by dgaicun at 12:01 PM on October 23, 2002

Great additional info, thanks dgaicun!
posted by thekorruptor at 12:10 PM on October 23, 2002

it's interesting to compare and contrast religion and nationalism (and party affiliation :) esp in the current situation! benedict anderson writes thusly:
It is probably fair to say that all organized societies in former times depended (in part) for their cohesion on visions of the past which were not too antagonistic to one another. These visions were transmitted by oral tradition, folk poetry, religious teachings, court chronicles, and so forth. What is extremely hard to find in such visions is intense concern about the Future. When nationalism entered the world late in the eighteenth century, however, all this changed fundamentally. The accelerating speed with which social, cultural, economic and political change took hold, motored by the industrial revolution and modern communications systems, made the nation the first political–moral form which based itself firmly on the idea of progress.
and in an interview:
why isn’t there a single democratic society covering the entire globe, or why aren’t there 300 million democracies in the world? The answer to this of course, in our time, is nationalism. Which is not about process, and it’s not even about rational interests in many cases, but is about collective solidarity and collective imagination.
howard bloom wrote some interesting stuff on group selection and global brains as did jesper hoffmeyer on swarm semiotics and more generally biosemiotics :)

also going beyond religion and nationalism samuel bowles and herbert gintis recently published a paper on the origins of human cooperation,
Central to our explanation will be human cognitive, linguistic, and physical capacities that allow the formulation of general norms of social conduct, the emergence of social institutions regulating this conduct, the psychological capacity to internalize norms, and the basing of group membership on such non- kin characteristics as ethnicity and linguistic behavior, which facilitate highly costly conflicts among groups.
while it's also interesting to note its treatment in literature (xpost), like in justin denzel's boy of the painted cave or john gardner's grendel, as well as sam vaknin's explication on the role of the artist.

"Why is there something, when there could have been nothing?"

it could be there really is nothing!
Because everything is attracted to everything else by gravity, that gravity is acting, in effect, as negative energy. Add together the negative gravitational energy in the universe and the positive energy (including all the mass around), and the result is zero. Or so Dr Linde and Dr Vilenkin assert. And observations of the amount and distribution of stuff in the universe do not contradict them. Given that the universe actually consists of nothing at all, explaining its existence becomes rather easier. The separation of the nothing into energy and gravity is a result of the uncertainty principle.
it's just that we're not certain of it :D
posted by kliuless at 1:39 PM on October 23, 2002

Homunculous, Dgaicun, Kliuless - my hat's off to you three. This has to be the best post/thread I've read in weeks. No time now, I'll just have to stuff it in my cheeks like a squirrel and stash it in my special nut cache for future consumption. I guess Mefi-ites are unschooled in sociobiology (which is, I would assume, the scientific field of this discussion). Keep up the great work!
posted by troutfishing at 3:16 PM on October 23, 2002

What troutfishing said. I too remove my hats (one for each of you) and will mull this thread over. Glad I stopped in to see what was going on.
posted by languagehat at 8:36 AM on October 24, 2002

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