Tag Archives: coevolution

Conclusion: Design features of an adequate method for the evolution of religion

In the end, what is needed to study the evolution of religion?

Having explored a number of methodological approaches to the evolution of religion, including sociobiology, behavioral ecology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution, we now conclude by outlining what is demanded by an adequate method.

Together, these four key evolutionary approaches to religion greatly advance a general methodology for studying religious change.  Sociobiology lays foundational concepts, refined and problematized by behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution.

Design features needed for an adequate method for studying the evolution of religion

Yet significant challenges remain.  It may prove beneficial to generate a list of design features required by a satisfactory methodology, to evaluate what’s been accomplished and what remains for further research.

As defined at the outset, the basic question driving this project is how and why specific religions change over time: why some religions achieve hegemony while others lose out, how religions establish themselves and then change to maintain popularity across time, and by what mechanisms religions are selected for the halls of greatness or the dustbins of history.

To address this basic question, an adequate method requires the following design features:

1)  Links to genetics

A major dividing line between methodologies is whether religions change primarily as a consequence of genetic evolution (sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology), or whether religions evolve in their own right (memetics, coevolution).  The first design feature is thus a means of determining whether or not specific religious changes can be linked to genetics.  Coevolution, with its mathematical models measuring genetic and cultural influences, seems the only methodology capable of determining this.  The remaining design features assume that the influence of culture is not zero, i.e. that religions evolve in their own right and exert significant power of their own.

2)  Terms conducive to evolutionary analysis

Religions must be conceptualized in terms conducive to evolutionary analysis, i.e. as units of information subject to differential replication constrained by relative fitness.  The concept of the meme, utilized by both memetics and coevolution, fulfills this design feature.

3)  Appropriate perspective

The proper point of view must be taken.  In considering religions, the method must take a religion’s-eye view, as it were.  The interests of religions, i.e. their own replication, must be the ultimate point of reference.  Again, memetics and coevolution offer this design feature.

4)  Appropriate environment and fitness relations

The proper environment must be identified, with fitness defined in relation to it.  In keeping with the religion’s-eye view, the environment to be considered must be first and foremost that of the religion itself, not that of its host.  Since memes reside in the human mind and replicate by leaping from mind to mind via communication, the proper environment can only be the human mind.  Consequences for the individual’s survival and reproduction are important but secondary to the immediate survival and replication of the meme itself.  It is possible for a meme to replicate rapidly due to high fitness in the mental environment, while lowering the host individual’s genetic fitness in its environment as a consequence (Dennett’s “parasitic” relationship, or Durham’s “opposition”).  This is similar to how flu viruses flourish, and there is no reason to suggest memes cannot do likewise.  Thus, an adequate method must consider the appropriate environment.  Memetics and coevolution are the prime candidates offering this design feature once again.

5)  Differences in the mental environment

Differences in the mental environment affecting the receptivity and productivity of certain memes must be accounted for.  These differences may be genetic, involving innate predispositions toward certain types of information.  They might also be cultural, resulting from previously-established memes causing an individual to become more or less receptive to certain other memes.  For example, acceptance of a certain religion may dispose an individual to prefer ideas that conform to that religion’s worldview while rejecting those that do not.  Evolutionary psychology and the cognitive science of religion provide for genetic differences through the concept of domain specificity, while memetics and coevolution account for cultural differences.

6)  Differences affecting replication

Differences affecting the process of replication must be considered.  Memes leap from mind to mind via communication, and differences in modes of communication may influence the process.  For example, transmission via the spoken word is limited in time and space in ways that transmission via the written word is not.  In addition to the mode of communication, the context of communication may also influence the process, such as the status of the speaker or the popularity of the behavior among peers.  Behavioral ecology addresses to some extent under the rubric of ecological costs and benefits, as does coevolution with its exploration of the role of conformity in the process of group selection.

7)    Relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences

The relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences must be evaluated as precisely as possible.  With all these factors of genetic and cultural selection complicating the equation, a means of final evaluation becomes crucial.  Only coevolution, with its rigorous mathematics, proves adequate for this feature.

8)  Adaptive and maladaptive behavior

The difference between currently adaptive behavior and maladaptive behavior resulting from adaptive lag must be identifiable by objective techniques.  While common sense may suppose it easy to tell adaptive from maladaptive behavior, this has proven anything but the case.  Perhaps the mathematical models of coevolution will solve this dilemma, but it waits to be seen.

9)  Religion distinguished from other forms of culture

Religion must be distinguished from other forms of culture, and the corresponding unique evolutionary conditions analyzed.  This is another point which common sense might consider a simple matter, but a century of debate over the definition of religion has produced no consensus (Wilson, B. C., 1998).  A major fault of David Sloan Wilson’s theory, which holds that religions function to motivate cooperation within groups, is that it fails to distinguish religions from other secular institutions fulfilling the same function.  An adequate method must identify the unique characteristics of religions, and analyze the unique evolutionary conditions that correspond.  None of the methods considered in this paper succeed particularly well at this.  Further research must address this issue.

And the winner is…

An adequate methodology for studying religious change must include these design features at least, if not more.

Coevolution is the clear winner, offering more necessary features than any other.

Yet numerous features remain unaddressed.  Numbers seven and eight call out for answers.  There is a clear need for further research if the problem of religious change is to be engaged.


In the end, why do some religions proliferate, while others die out?  The answer may lie in the relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences affecting the fitness of religions considered as memes.  Innate psychological predispositions, cultural preferences, and environmental conditions may all play a part.  As for the extent of the parts they play, time will tell if mathematical models may sort out the complications.

Only research applying an adequate method with the right design features may solve the mystery of why some religions achieve hegemony while others are consigned to the dustbins of history.

Only such a method may explain why the very guardians of eternal truth are themselves subject to change.


For bibliographical references for this series, see the initial post.

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

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Gene-culture Coevolution: Application for the evolution of religion

This is an image of the American anthropologis...

David Sloan Wilson has resurrected the notion of group selection, and believes religion may play a crucial role

Having introduced the key concepts of gene-culture coevolution last time, we now explore their utility for studying the evolution of religion.

Application for the evolution of religion

Like Boyd and Richerson, David Sloan Wilson (2003) puts credence in the notion of group selection (discussed last time).  He believes intrinsic motivation and enforcement via reward and punishment enables sufficient conformity for group selection to occur, and that religions play a key role in motivating this conformity.

Religions, according to Wilson, fulfill the function identified by Durkheim, i.e. uniting a people into a moral community conducive to cooperation.  As was revealed by sociobiology’s application of game theory, those who cooperate by reciprocal altruism fare better overall than those who do not.  Religion, therefore, may function to establish and normalize reciprocal altruism as an evolutionarily stable strategy in a group, which would increase the fitness of the group over those adopting lesser strategies.

This would suggest that religious change may be driven by the optimization of motivation toward reciprocal altruism, a process occurring in groups of people responding to changes in their environments and circumstances as well as to competition with other groups.  Group selection may thus prove a crucial concept for understanding religious change.

The key concepts of coevolution contribute much to a theory of change in religion.  Cultural selection, guided variation, and biased cultural transmission refine previously established concepts, and group selection introduces an entirely new dimension to the equation.  Further, rigorous mathematical models address the problem posed by memetics, that of failing to discern the relative influence of genes and memes.  The models pit the relative strengths of memes against their genetic counterparts, as precisely as possible.


Unfortunately, these models also make coevolution a difficult approach requiring considerable math, which may detract from its growth as a method.  Laland and Brown report that coevolution remains a small coterie of researchers, and no well-established procedure exists at the time of their writing (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Nevertheless, this method, more than any other, shows promise for addressing the problem of religious change.  It incorporates many of the useful concepts from the other approaches already considered, while enhancing the level of rigor and introducing new concepts.

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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Gene-culture Coevolution: Key concepts for the evolution of religions


This is a reproduction of the map made by Luig...

This is a reproduction of the map made by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in his book The history and geography of human genes. It displays the genetic relationship between human populations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The principle thesis of gene-culture coevolution (a.k.a. dual-inheritance theory) is that genes and culture both contribute to evolution in the case of humans.  Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marc Feldman at Stanford led the way in this field, and were later joined by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson at UCLA.  To determine precisely the relative contributions of genes and culture, these researchers began to create highly technical, detailed mathematical models.


Cultural selection vs. natural selection


Coevolution begins with a distinction between cultural selection, which operates by the differential replication of the meme, and natural selection, which affects culture by the differential reproduction of a meme’s host as a consequence of having it (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981).  These concepts clearly distinguish two different mechanisms by which cultural entities, including religions, may change.


Durham (1991) expands on this by identifying at least five ways in which these mechanisms interact.  The first two are genetic mediation, whereby cultural variation is driven by genetic differences, and cultural mediation, in which cultural differences drive genetic evolution.  The latter has been used to explain the spread of genes for lactose absorbance among Europeans due to the cultural habit of dairy farming (Durham, 1991).  The other three interactions, enhancement, neutrality, and opposition, are similar to Dennett’s three symbiotic relationships: mutualist, commensal, and parasitic, respectively.  In these five ways, genes and culture interact to produce human behavior.


Guided variation


As for the means by which memes change, analogous to mutation among genes, Boyd and Richerson (1985) propose guided variation, or the process by which cultural information about a behavior is received and then modified by the individual on the basis of personal experience.  This concept seems to fall short of the mark, however, as it begs the question of what causes the individual to make these modifications.  A more thorough meme’s-eye view interpretation might posit that modification decisions result from competition and interaction among memes within the individual’s mind, as part of the normal processes that constitute human consciousness.  Indeed, Dennett has proposed that consciousness may be none other than the result of memes modifying their environment, i.e. the human mind, to better suit their needs (Dennett, 1993).


Biased cultural transmission


In any case, variation exists among memes, and certain forces influence choice between alternatives.  This is called biased cultural transmission (Boyd & Richerson, 1985), which comes in two types.  First, direct bias predisposes the individual to prefer certain types of information, “based on their judgments about the properties of the variants themselves” (Boyd & Richerson, 1985).  This may well result from genetic adaptation resulting in innate psychological predispositions, as theorized by evolutionary psychology.  It may also result from other means, such as prior integration of certain memes modifying reception of other memes.  For example, someone who has accepted the Creationism meme will thereafter prefer memes consistent with that worldview.  The other type of biased transmission is indirect bias, a.k.a. frequency-dependent bias, whereby the probability of accepting a meme is influenced by its prevalence in the population.  Humans have a tendency toward conformity, and this significantly affects the spread of memes in a group (Boyd & Richerson, 1985).


Group selection


This leads to yet another important concept in coevolution, group selection.  This form of selection has been disfavored by biology for some time, but recent studies suggest it may play a greater role than previously thought.  The main problem is that group selection requires that traits of individuals within a group remain relatively consistent over time, but within-group variation destabilizes these traits, such that group selection seems possible only under exceptionally rare conditions.


Boyd and Richerson (1985) propose that conformity provides the means by which within-group variation is overcome in the case of cultural evolution.


The next post will apply these concepts to 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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