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Unmasking Darwin’s Cathedral:
It’s Not Just About Religion

A review of David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2003, University Of Chicago Press).

FROM THE MARK OF ZORRO TO SPIDERMAN, literature, film and comic books have exploited the storyline of a super-hero disguised as a milquetoast: a self-indulgent fop, a mild-mannered newspaperman, or a terminal geek.

Biologist David Sloan Wilson could hardly be likened to a milquetoast and neither could his acclaimed book Darwin’s Cathedral. In fact it is a major contribution to a highly visible and sometimes bitterly controversial debate. Wilson advances the thesis that organized religion, for the most part, is not an irrational phenomenon, much less a non-functional cultural “spandrel.”

In many ways Wilson contradicts the many skeptics of religion. Religious organizations, he says, perform an important adaptive role in human societies. They represent culturally-evolved “workarounds” that often provide unifying, coordinating, and supportive functions for large-scale human groups. In other words, moral systems may contribute significantly to our biological survival and reproduction. Other evolutionary theorists have made similar arguments over the years (Sir Arthur Keith, Edward O. Wilson, and Richard Alexander come to mind), but none (to my knowledge) has proposed it as a testable scientific hypothesis or marshaled an array of concrete evidence in support of it.

Wilson’s thesis, however, unwittingly masks an accomplishment that is much more far-reaching and, I would argue, ultimately more important. In effect, Wilson has completed the theoretical scaffolding for the scientific revolution that the other well-known Wilson (Edward O.) began with the publication of his landmark 1975 book Sociobiology. E.O. Wilson had hoped to transform the social sciences, but, in retrospect, he did not have the theoretical tools to complete the job. D. S. Wilson, in showing that religious organizations may well be biological adaptations, has now brought the single most important feature of human societies—our plethora of functionallyorganized social groups, ranging from families to football teams, large-scale corporations and even governments—unequivocally into the evolutionary paradigm. Thanks to Wilson’s dogged efforts over the years to resurrect group selection as an important evolutionary mechanism, we now have the basis for a full-fledged bio-sociology—or sociobiology as the late John Paul Scott (the originator of the term) meant it to be used. Darwin’s Cathedral provides a model for how to pursue an evolutionary social science.

E. O. Wilson, in his discipline-defining volume, outraged many social scientists of the day (and some of his biologist colleagues as well) with a claim that sounded like pure disciplinary hubris. Evolutionary biology, Wilson wrote in his introduction, was destined “to reformulate the foundations of the social sciences.” He suggested that the humanities and social sciences should be re-conceived as “specialized branches of biology.” Most flagrant of all, was his famous claim in the final chapter on the evolution of humankind that human behavior is governed by invisible “epigenetic rules” (though Wilson didn’t actually deploy this term until a subsequent book). In short, our genes are ultimately in charge. To many social scientists, this sounded like Social Darwinism déjá vu. The very term “sociobiology” became an epithet in some quarters.

The most serious problem with E. O.Wilson’s newborn sociobiology, though, was not its inflammatory rhetoric, nor even its attempt to biologize human behavior. The root problem was that Wilson’s formulation, and his basic claim for his new discipline, was constricted in several ways by the reigning theoretical paradigm of the time— Neo-Darwinism. First, Wilson presupposed that cooperation and social organization in nature were based on altruism. Indeed, in the introduction to his massive tome, Wilson made the surprising assertion that altruism was “the central theoretical problem” of sociobiology. Wilson was not alone in this view. Along with many other biologists of the 1970s, including George C. Williams, William D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins and even David Sloan Wilson in his early writings, E. O. Wilson assumed that social cooperation (read altruism) was greatly constrained by the inherent “selfishness” of living organisms. Wilson even parroted Hamilton’s early contention (though both theorists later changed their views) that there are only three categories of social behavior: altruism, selfishness (meaning actions that exploit another organism) and “spite.”

Accordingly, Wilson and many other theorists assumed that group selection in favor of cooperation/ altruism would work only if it could overcome the countervailing pressure of individual selection, which would inevitably favor selfishness, cheating and spite. (Of course, this constricted view of cooperation overlooked the entire category of win-win “mutualism,” which characterized the many symbiotic relationships between members of different species, as well as the many forms of mutually-beneficial social cooperation among conspecifics that were later “discovered” by the so-called game theorists of the 1980s.) Wilson even devoted an entire chapter of his encyclopedic volume to “Group Selection and Altruism,” where, ironically, he presaged the “multi-level selection” paradigm that has become popular in recent years. Nevertheless, Wilson concluded that group selection could occupy only a “very narrow ‘window’” in evolution. (Other theorists, like George C. Williams, were even more disparaging.) The most promising opportunities for explaining the evolution of social behavior, Wilson believed, were Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory (or “kin selection” in Maynard Smith’s term) and perhaps Robert Trivers’s “reciprocal altruism.” Many social scientists were not impressed.

Later on in Sociobiology, in his chapter on humankind, E.O. Wilson opined that ethics, religion and culture were likely to be adaptive; religions evolve to advance the welfare of their practitioners, he suggested, anticipating the other Wilson’s thesis a quarter of a century later. Even more surprising was his assertion that, in human evolution, individual selection and group selection might have been mutually “reinforcing.” (In fact, this was also Darwin’s view in The Descent of Man, and it was shared by such distinguished evolutionary theorists as R.A. Fisher, Julian Huxley, Sir Arthur Keith and, more recently, Richard Alexander.) However, Wilson’s speculations about human evolution were ad hoc and ultimately unpersuasive, given his theoretical inclinations.

The sea change that led to David Sloan Wilson’s ultimately more successful attempt to account for social behavior in human societies was a result of several convergent tidal shifts. For one thing, Wilson is a beneficiary of the growing realization that much, if not most, social behavior is both cooperative and selfish, even in the immediate, “proximate” sense; it involves the production of functional synergies that are mutually advantageous. This is clearly the case with the vast array of symbiotic partnerships in nature, more of which are being discovered all the time. And it is reflected also in the many successful game theory models of social cooperation. These models share the basic assumptions that the participants are unrelated to each other (thus tacitly contradicting a key tenet of inclusive fitness theory) and, more important, that cooperation is mutually beneficial (indeed, the synergies are routinely quantified in the payoff matrices). There are many examples in the natural world.

Equally important, the problem of “cheating,” once viewed as an almost insurmountable obstacle to cooperation in nature, has been deflated in importance by the many models (and innumerable field studies and experimental tests) showing that “punishments” of various kinds can (and do) curtail the tendency to cheat (or “defect” in game theory parlance). Moreover, it is now increasingly evident that many forms of cooperation, in nature and human societies alike, are self-policing, because the “goods” can only be produced through the interdependent actions of the participants. Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, in their 1995 volume on The Major Transitions in Evolution, utilize a metaphor from rowing to illustrate this point. If two oarsmen are rowing a boat in tandem, each with two oars, it is possible for one of the oarsmen to slack off (cheat) without preventing the boat from reaching its goal. This represents the classic game theory paradigm. But if the two oarsmen are seated side-by-side, each with only one oar, then both oarsmen must pull their full weight or the boat will go in circles.

In other words, social cooperation and sociality, both in nature and in humankind, very often depends not on kinship or altruism but on economics, or the material costs and benefits and how these are distributed. As David Sloan Wilson’s arguments for group selection matured over the years (his initial paper appeared in the same year that Sociobiology was published), he ultimately gained traction in the debate by adopting this more liberal interpretation. Wilson also coined the term “trait group selection” to convey the idea that group selection operates on any functionallyimportant adaptation that represents the joint product of two or more interacting genes, or genomes, or individuals. Indeed, group selection (along with functional synergy, I might add) provides the explanation for why we have interdependent genomes and complex multicellular organisms. And the very same principle applies also to the evolution of “superorganisms.”

So why do I call Darwin’s Cathedral a landmark in sociobiology and the social sciences? It’s not just that a revitalized group selection paradigm (what I like to call “Holistic Darwinism”) enabled David Sloan Wilson to fully apprehend the evolutionary significance of organized human groups. Even more important for the future of an evolutionary social science was Wilson’s shift of focus from the “ultimate” level—where natural selection and the evolved genetic substrate of human behavior are the primary concern—to the “proximate” level, where the immediate problems of adaptation (i.e., survival and reproduction) are the issue.

Wilson himself is a bit defensive about this approach. He points out that Darwinian fitness is, strictly speaking, a relative concept; it depends on the context and the nature of the competition. He also frets about the challenge of translating a given social behavior, or organization, in a human society into the “currency” of Darwinian fitness. But, in fact, the prospect for an evolutionary social science is stronger than he supposes.

First, as Wilson himself argues, fitness per se is not the primary issue when the focus is on the proximate level. Rather, the concern is with the concrete “bioeconomic” problem of meeting basic survival and reproductive needs in a given context. This is not fundamentally different from the challenge that confronts ethologists and behavioral ecologists in the research relating to adaptation in other species. But, more important, there have been some significant efforts over the years, most notably in the so-called “survival indicators” program, to spell out in detail the menu of “basic needs” that define the problem of adaptation in human societies. In the survival indicators framework, no less than 14 primary needs “domains” have been identified and documented, both for individuals and groups/populations. Hence, a concrete analytical paradigm already exists for assessing biological adaptation. (An in-depth article of mine on this project, entitled “Biological Adaptation in Human Societies: A ‘Basic Needs’ Approach,” appeared in the new Journal of Bioeconomics in 2000.)

In sum, it is now possible to “reformulate the foundations of the social sciences” in a rather different and perhaps more productive way than E. O. Wilson may have envisioned. Wilson stressed the ultimate level in evolution. But it is also possible to build a bio-social science that is focused on the proximate problem of biological adaptation. This allows us to plug the social sciences directly into the evolutionary paradigm, and vice versa. As David Sloan Wilson points out, rational choice economics, a dominant influence in the social sciences of the 20th century, has no substantive content; many neo-classical economists are clueless about the biological imperatives that shape the agendas of most human beings most of the time.

Likewise, classical “functionalism” in mid-20th century sociology had the right methodology but the wrong problem. It is not about the survival of social systems, or “pattern maintenance” in sociologist Talcott Parsons’s well-known euphemism. It’s about the relationship between social systems and the biological survival of its members, and any others who may happen to be impacted; in other words, how the system contributes to, or detracts from, the biological (functional) imperatives in human societies. (In a highly symbolic act of interdisciplinary reconciliation, Wilson finds the pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim’s functionalism very compatible.) Some biologically-oriented anthropologists have done a commendable job of getting the adaptation problem into better focus, but the cleavage between these anthropologists and their rejectionist colleagues in cultural anthropology shows that the battle is far from won.

Thus, the theoretical revolution in the social sciences that E. O. Wilson launched remains an active combat zone, but David Sloan Wilson has pointed the way to victory.

About the author

Dr. Peter A. Corning is at the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Palo Alto, California. His varied career has included a tour as a naval aviator, a stint in journalism as a science writer for Newsweek, a Ph.D. in the social sciences, post-doctoral training and research in biology and behavior genetics, several years of teaching in Stanford University’s interdisciplinary Human Biology Program, and broad private sector experience as a senior partner in a Silicon Valley consulting firm. Currently director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Corning is a member of several scientific organizations and a past president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He has also published more than 150 research papers and articles and four books. Most recent is Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

One Comment

  1. Colin Wells says:

    I’m a big fan of Michael Shermer and David Sloan Wilson, but I can’t say that I found this article at all helpful. In the first place, it’s poorly written. What’s with the pointless intro, for example? If David Sloan Wilson has nothing in common with a comic-book superhero, why start the piece with a reference to comic-book superheroes?

    But (as is so often the case) the poor writing reflects poor thinking, too. In dismissing the question of how social systems evolve as “the wrong problem,” Peter Corning merely demonstrates the narrowness of his own reductionist perspective. It may be the wrong problem for a biologist, in other words, but it’s not the wrong problem for historians and others who seek answers to precisely such questions. Scientists like David Sloan Wilson can tell us how religion evolved, perhaps. But it takes a historian (or someone acting as one) to tell us how a particular religion has evolved–and only the worst sort of crabbed scientistic fundamentalism could possibly dismiss that as “the wrong problem.” Surely there’s room in the broad tradition of rational inquiry for more than one sort of problem?

    For an example of how Darwinian thinking can be applied to historical (i.e. cultural) evolution, see my article “How Did God Get Started?” in the Fall 2010 issue of Arion, Boston University’s journal of humanities and the classics, at

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