Tag Archives: dual inheritance theory

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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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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