Behavioral ecology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

English: Caricature of Charles Darwin from Van...

Darwin’s theory of natural selection, ridiculed in its day, is now a mainstay of behavioral sciences

Arising from anthropologists responding to criticisms of sociobiology, behavioral ecology attempts to understand why certain behaviors become prevalent in societies.  Ethnographic records provide the main source of evidence in this endeavor.

Optimization strategies

The theoretical assumption is that behaviors may have current adaptive functions.  In any given environment, natural selection will have culled sub-optimal

behaviors, leading those that optimize exploitation of resources to predominate.  If such exploitation leads to increased lifetime reproductive success, it is reasonable to assume natural selection toward a genetic predisposition to maximize resources.  The task, then, is to look at behaviors in relation to the environment, uncover the conditions that explain why a given behavior strategy is optimal, and construct mathematical models predicting the behaviors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Adaptive tradeoff

Such models may become quite complex, as individuals rarely deal with only one factor at a time.  For example, climbing to a certain cliff abundant with fruit

trees may maximize food intake, but this must be balanced by the risk of falling during the climb, which in turn must be balanced by the increased social status of being the one to succeed at such a bold venture.  When all these factors are considered, the optimal strategy may appear very different than at first glance.  What may appear sub-optimal with regard to one factor, may prove optimal when other factors are incorporated into the model.  This notion is called adaptive tradeoff.

In the next post, we’ll look at applications for 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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