"Darwin's Cathedral"

From: Ray Recchia (rrecchia@mail.clarityconnect.com)
Date: Thu 22 May 2003 - 22:53:21 GMT

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    The other day I finished up "Darwin's Cathedral" by David Sloan Wilson
    (2002). I've also read the excellent review by William Benzon at http://human-nature.com/ep/reviews/ep012841.html I think it is a good book and should be on the reading list of anyone interested in memetics and religion.(Keith Henson are you reading this?) Whether Dr. Wilson calls what he is doing memetics or not, he is clearly examining a very specific element of culture through the lens of evolution.

    Wilson is a proponent of group selection theory and I'm still a bit ambiguous on whether this concept is valid. The thrust of his argument is that groups will be selected for when the advantages of being a free rider are outweighed by the overall negative impact of free riding on the group. Thus if free riding would make it more likely for a genetic type to survive within the group by a factor of two, but the negative impact of free riding decreases the survival of the group as a whole by a factor of say six, the net result is a decrease in the overall frequency of free riders thus allowing for group selection. I think criticisms concerning group boundaries are valid. If an element can escape the group and reproduce independently or in another group then group selection fails. The only aggregate organizations I can think of in nature are things like multicellular organisms and insect hives in which the elements are limited by group only reproduction. (ie. the hive queen, and gametes in multicellular organisms)

    I do like his notion of treating religion as a sort of tool to create responses from humans that are different than those our natural tendencies would result in. If you accept the ideas of evolutionary psychology, our emotions and psychological response systems were set up for a species of tribal hunter-gatherers. In my own way of thinking anger, lust, and love can be seen of as tools that cause us to do things in a way that promoted our survival in the specific environments our ancestors lived in. Religion can allow us to get past the limitations of our own motivations by creating supernatural systems that act as a sort of extra layer on top of our regular motivations. Thus the promise of a reward in the afterlife can cause Christians to give assistance to one another to an extent they otherwise wouldn't. Although a particular set of religious beliefs may not be true it may cause those hold advantages by modifying behavioral responses so that they are more effective tools for survival.

    Wilson's main focus then is on religions as complex tools for creating behavioral modifications within groups of people. In keeping with his group selection theory he is interested in how religions cause people to act as groups. Thus he looks at how religions treat people inside and outside the group differently, and how punishment and forgiveness are used to prevent free riding within the groups.

    And he really has done his research. He claims that he spent three years working on this book and the effort shows. He analyzes several tribal groups, Judaism, early Christianity, Calvanism, and Korean immigrant Christianity in the U.S. He also alternatively attacks and praises different the theories of different sociologists and anthropologists, reviving a functionalist theory currently out of favor while using the data supplied by those who count themselves as among its detractors. As an example he explains how recent research has shown that a worship of water gods in Bali has helped create a very efficient system for managing agriculture, with temples as acting as local distributors of water. The internal belief systems alter motivation to make the whole thing run smoothly.

    I think that Wilson would have benefited from conceptualizing memetically. It hard to tell at times whether Wilson talking about enhanced survival of cultural institutions or the people who form the membership of those religions. A discussion of the differences between vertical and horizontal transmission of religion as a meme would have been useful. In cultural evolution group selection would occur on a collection of memes not on a group of people. Unless the particular genes of the people having a religion predisposes them towards religious belief of a certain sort, it is the memes that are being selected for and not the genes.

    On the internal, external meme discussion I believe that Wilson's book clearly demonstrates the advantages of considering an internal model. Wilson sees religion as advantageous because it alters and conforms psychological motivation, something that would be difficult to study using a purely behavioral model. The difference in behavior results from a belief in allegedly imaginary beings that exist within the minds of worshippers.

    I may more to say on this book later but I think I'll stop here for the moment.

    Ray Recchia

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