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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