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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