Monthly Archives: April 2013

Sociobiology: Application to the evolution of religion

Darwin thought natural selection applied to human culture as much as biology.

With the key concepts of sociobiology in their toolkit, researchers employ the following procedure: first identify a puzzling behavior, then examine it from the point of view of the gene’s single-minded interest in its own replication, whether via its host or a relative with an identical copy of the gene.  Game theory may be invoked to explain how behaviors that appear contrary to the gene’s interest at first glance may in fact be consistent with it if they form an evolutionarily stable strategy.

Applying sociobiology to the evolution of religion

These conceptual tools offer valuable insights into the problem of religious change.  The gene’s eye view suggests that the interests ultimately served by religion may not be those of the individual devotee or society, but those of the unit of selection itself, the gene (or the meme, but discussion of that will be saved till we come to memetics).  As the gene’s only interest is replication, any function served by a religion must be traced ultimately to reproduction, whether through the individual host or through kin with the same gene.  The social and psychological functions proposed by the likes of Durkheim, Malinowski, and Geertz may be mechanisms behind religious change if they affect reproduction among followers.  Therefore, a sociobiological approach to religious change would have to tie variation in religious behaviors to the reproductive advantage of genes.  It may be that religions are sets of behaviors that together form evolutionarily stable strategies enabling cooperation among followers, leading in turn to increased reproduction (a thesis similar to that proposed by David Sloan Wilson [2003]).  These strategies would become unstable if the environment to which they were adapted changed.  It could then be predicted that variations in the environment affecting reproduction lie behind changes in religions.


While the field of sociobiology thus offers exciting new insights into religious behavior, it has recently been toppled by controversy.  Dawkins was cautious in applying insights to human behavior, but not E. O. Wilson (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Bold speculations on such controversial topics as homosexuality, sex, class, and race provoked reaction.  Critics, still haunted by the specter of Social Darwinism, accused the field of reductionism, genetic determinism, justification of the status quo, concoction of just-so stories, and dilettante speculation (Laland & Brown, 2002).  These charges, some of which may be justified, created such a storm of controversy that “sociobiology” has become something of a dirty word today.  In its stead, several new fields carry on certain of its aspects under different names, methods, and theoretical assumptions.

The next post will discuss human behavioral ecology.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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Sociobiology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

Natural selection… of behavior?

In the 1960s, a number of researchers, inspired by ethologists such as Lorenz and Tinbergen, began to examine behaviors puzzling from an evolutionary perspective, such as non-reproductive and self-sacrificing behavior.  Williams, Trivers, Hamilton, and Maynard Smith contributed foundational work for an approach dubbed “sociobiology” by E. O. Wilson and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.  While sociobiology has recently fallen from favor due to a variety of controversies analyzed by Laland and Brown (2002), many insights remain powerful for an evolutionary approach to religion.

The gene’s-eye view

The essential insight of sociobiology is the gene’s-eye view.  From the perspective of the gene, whose only “interest” is to maximize its own replication, many behaviors that were confusing from an individual or species perspective became comprehensible.  For example, menopause may seem at odds with the reproductive interests of individual women, but it makes sense from the gene’s point of view if post-menopausal women are able to help the reproductive success of the grandchildren whose genes they share.  Essentially, it doesn’t matter to a gene whether reproduction is achieved via its host individual, or via other individuals with an identical copy of the same gene.  All that matters is reproduction, period.  It follows that individuals will behave in ways that maximize the replication of their genes wherever they are found, whether in themselves or in others.  This idea is known as inclusive fitness (a.k.a. kin selection).


Another behavior illuminated by taking a gene’s-eye view is altruism, or helping others at a net cost to oneself.  To explain this, sociobiologists point out that altruism may increase reproductive success if aid in return can be expected in the future.  Game theory models show that while cheaters who default on favors owed stand to gain the most in the short-term, those who cooperate at first and thereafter return favors tit-for-tat win out in the long-term.  The latter is an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), meaning that if all members of a population adopt it, no other strategy can replace it.  In this way, sociobiology attempts to make sense of altruism, or rather a specific subset of such behavior called reciprocal altruism (cooperation under the principle of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”).

Evolution of religion

In the next post, we’ll look at how these key concepts can be put to work in the study of the evolution of religion.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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Does religion serve a function in the evolution of religion?

Is religion a garden that grows just because it can, or does it serve an evolutionary function?

Evolutionary approaches to the study of religion suffered in the last century, due in no small part to the lingering specter of Social Darwinism (Laland & Brown, 2002).  As a result, much of the research currently available comes from the social sciences.  David Sloan Wilson (2003) considers the data from the social sciences useful, analogous to that of the naturalist field research on which Darwin based his theory of natural selection.  In this spirit, this paper will utilize a social sciences concept particularly compatible with evolutionary approaches: function, or the secular utility provided by religion to its adherents.

The social sciences and functionalism

Durkheim introduced the notion of function in 1912 by suggesting that religions “unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them” (Durkheim, 2001).  Malinowski retorted that religion’s function was not social but psychological.  He saw religions as helping humans deal with a “range of anxieties, forebodings and problems concerning human destinies and man’s place in the universe” (Malinowski, quoted in Wilson, B. C., 1998).  Navigating between these, Geertz combined social and psychological functions as follows: “[religion is] (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 1973).

Relevance to the evolution of religion

The hypothesized functions of religion, of which these are only a small sample, are fertile for evolutionary analysis: they may well be the means by which religions attract followers at the individual or societal level—the honey that attracts the bee, as it were.  On the other hand, religion may be a byproduct of evolutionary processes, serving no adaptive function in the modern context.  Thus, methodologies may be illuminated by comparing how they deal with the question of adaptive function.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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Evolution of religion: Why do religions change?

Religions focus on the changeless, yet Japanese Buddhism bears little resemblance to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama. Why do religions change?

It is a paradox of history that religions, those self-proclaimed guardians of unchanging eternal truth, are themselves subject to change.

Modern Judaism bears little resemblance to the temple religion of ancient Israel, nor Japanese Buddhism to the religion founded by Siddartha Gautama in the fifth century B.C.E.  Further, a whole host of variations on these religions and others have appeared throughout history, only some of which survive.  An analogy to genetic evolution is readily apparent.


Why do some religions proliferate, while others die out?  Why do those that survive change over time?  What are the mechanisms by which religions change in a selection process akin to genetic evolution?  These are the questions at the heart of this research project.

This series seeks a methodology by which these questions may be fruitfully explored.

Approaches to the evolution of religion

This post introduces a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

In due course, five evolutionary approaches will be explored:

  • human sociobiology
  • human behavioral ecology
  • evolutionary psychology
  • memetics
  • gene-culture coevolution

These do not exhaust the approaches available, yet they set the stage for much of the field today, and complement the Cognitive Science of Religion well.

Each methodology will be described, its essential concepts and procedures examined, and its value for the project at hand evaluated.  A conclusion is reached by measuring the approaches against the design features required by a methodology capable of addressing the problem of religious change.


To cut down on needless repetition, references for the entire series will be listed once only.  Please refer back to these references for future posts.

Blackmore, S. J. (2000). The meme machine. Oxford University Press.

Boyd, R. & Richerson, P. J.  (1985).  Culture and the evolutionary process.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Boyer, P. (2002). Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books.

Brodie, R. (2009). Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Hay House, Inc.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: a quantitative approach. Princeton University Press.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray (1st edn. Repr. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ; 1981).

Dawkins, R. (1976).  The selfish gene.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1993). Consciousness explained. Penguin.

Dennett, D. C. (2007). Breaking the spell: religion as a natural phenomenon. Penguin.

Durham, W. H. (1992). Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity. Stanford University Press.

Durkheim, É. (2001). The elementary forms of religious life (C. Cosman, Trans.).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, C. (2009). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Guthrie, S. (1995). Faces in the clouds: a new theory of religion. Oxford University Press US.

Idinopulos, T. A., & Wilson, B. C. (1998). What is religion?: Origins, definitions, and explanations. Boston: Brill.

Laland, K. N., & Brown, G. R. (2002). Sense and nonsense: Evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, A. (1998). Thought contagion: how belief spreads through society. Basic Books.

Orzack, S. H. & Sober, E.  (2001).  Adaptation, phylogenetic inertia, and the method of controlled comparisons.  In: Adaptationism and Optimality.  Ed. S. H. Orzack & E. Sober.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rose, S. & Lauder, G. V.  (1996).  Adaptation.  San Diego: Academic Press.

Sinervo, B. & Basalo, A. L.  (1996).  Testing adaptation using phenotypic manipulations.  In: Adaptation.  Ed. M. R. Rose and G. V. Lauder.  San Diego: Academic Press.  Pp. 149-85.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1989).  Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part I.  Theoretical considerations.  Ethology and Sociobiology 10:29-49.

Wilson, B. C. (1998). From the lexical to the polythetic: A brief history of the definition of religion. In What is religion?: Origins, definitions, and explanations (pp. 142-162). Boston: Brill.

Wilson, D. S. (2003). Darwin’s cathedral: evolution, religion, and the nature of society.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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This blog is being repurposed

Hagia Sophia

Like the Hagia Sophia, a basilica turned mosque turned museum, this blog is getting a new role.

They repurpose buildings, so why not blogs?

From now on, this blog will focus on my academic interests: evolutionary and cognitive approaches to the study of religion and nonreligion.

Why the change?

I’m no longer pursuing search engine optimization as a career path.  Instead, I’m working my way toward application to a Ph.D program in the Cognitive Science of Religion.

The posts on SEO will stay, but further posts will focus on my academic research.

Evolutionary and cognitive… er, what?

Evolutionary and cognitive approaches to religion and nonreligion.  It’s a mouthful, I know.  But the posts to come should make it clear enough.

If you’re interested in how religions evolved and how they appeal to our evolved minds, this is the place for you.  If you’re interested in how nonreligious institutions and movements evolve and take the place of religions, this is also the blog for you.

New topics

Specifically, topics will range across:

  • Evolutionary Religious Studies
  • Cognitive Science of Religion
  • Secularity and Nonreligion
  • Culture and Cognition
  • a variety of related issues of the mind, fundamental to the fields above
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