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Religion Red in Tooth and Claw

Karen Steudel Numbers, Ronald Numbers

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. David Sloan Wilson. viii + 268 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2002. $25.

On the first page of this purported contribution to the scientific study of religion, David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, announces his "audacious" goal:

The purpose of this book is to treat the organismic concept of religious groups as a serious scientific hypothesis. Organisms are a product of natural selection. Through countless generations of variation and selection, they acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.

Because of the description of organisms developing over "countless generations" as products of natural selection, and because the book begins with an extensive discussion of evolutionary biology, readers might understandably expect an evolutionary explanation of religious development. They would be disappointed. Although Wilson sees religion as "a product of evolution that enables groups to function as adaptive units," his goal in this book is the not-so-audacious one of justifying the treatment of religious groups as "organisms."

Even fellow biologists may find Wilson's argument idiosyncratic. Most evolutionary biologists think of natural selection as occurring either at the level of the individual or at the level of closely related kin. For example, to explain a female's tendency to defend her offspring, they point out that, should she fail to do so, the genes that predisposed her to treat her offspring cavalierly would not be passed on to succeeding generations because those offspring would not survive. However, a female that cares for her offspring assiduously is likely to see more of them—and thus more of her genes—continue to exist. Biologists do recognize a third level of selection, group selection, but they usually see it as occurring only under circumstances so specialized that they render this mechanism relatively insignificant.

Wilson, in contrast, strongly advocates the importance of group selection, which for him includes kin selection. Thus he goes to great lengths to convince readers that religious groups constitute "organisms" that are sufficiently independent of one another that their behavioral predispositions, rather than those of the individual members, are selected. "Cultural evolution," he argues, "can be seen in part as a Darwin machine in action." However, when it comes to determining the fate of populations, biological selection is less likely to be important for humans than for other species. Human culture and technology tend to mitigate natural selection. In modern society, people are fairly commonly found who have genetic characteristics, from myopia to diabetes, that would be fatal in most species. Natural selection acts only on heritable traits. Many behaviors have some genetic predisposition, but to posit that the wide variety of religious views have a genetic basis seems absurd. To escape this absurdity, Wilson resorts to a second idiosyncrasy: He downplays the role of genetics in evolution. He repeatedly stresses that "there is more to evolution than genetic evolution." But, if so, then why spend so much time talking about group selection?

Eager to have his speculations pass for science, and believing that "science is a feedback process between hypothesis formation and testing," Wilson presents four historical "tests." He devotes an entire chapter to Calvinism in Geneva in the 1530s and a second chapter to three much briefer examples: the water-temple system of Bali, Judaism and the early Christian church. Not surprisingly, each example—based on little more than a quick dip in the relevant historical literature—gives some evidence of adaptive complexity but tells us virtually nothing about the evolution of these groups. After all of his theoretical talk about the centrality of group selection, he focuses on only one decade in the life of early Calvinism and finds it sufficient to argue that "Calvinism provides an opportunity to study cultural adaptation to recent environments rather than genetic adaptations to ancient environments." Indeed, this could be said of any social organism: baseball teams, political parties or corporations. Wilson seems to have picked religious organizations merely to be provocative, not to understand what is distinctive about them.

As far as we can tell, Wilson's "scientific" theory possesses no predictive value beyond the tautology that all religious "organisms" will be culturally adaptive. Historians of religion have been saying the same thing, in different words, for generations. Religions have prospered for any number of reasons, from evangelism and conversion to high birth rates and political conquest. Given the plethora of prophets in early-19th-century America, why did only three—Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism), Ellen G. White (Seventh-day Adventism) and Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science)—succeed? Will treating these groups as organisms give us a clue? Smith encouraged large families, even polygamy; White frowned on sexual activity of all kinds and tried to limit the frequency of intercourse even within marriage. All three encouraged an abstemious lifestyle, but otherwise it is hard to see where biology might have played a decisive role.

Or take the religious success story of the 20th century: the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. A minuscule American movement at the beginning of the century, it exploded in the face of persecution and ridicule, and by the turn of the millennium it included more than one-quarter of the two billion Christians worldwide. Believers typically attributed this growth to the "baptism of the Holy Ghost," but most scholars have looked elsewhere for an explanation. The story, as it is beginning to emerge, varies from continent to continent. As Grant Wacker has shown in his brilliant recent study, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001), physical healing, emotional release, assurance of salvation and the general perception "that the Pentecostal experience made daily life better" all played a part. Unless one credits the efficacy of divine healing with allowing Pentecostals to live and breed longer than they would have by turning to modern medicine, the role of biological evolution is difficult to detect.

It should be obvious by now that we find Darwin's Cathedral unconvincing, both biologically and historically. It is not so much that it's offensive or wrong as that it is irrelevant to a useful understanding of religion. Wilson offers his interpretation as an alternative to the rational-choice theory of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, authors of The Churching of America, 1776–1990 (Rutgers University Press, 1992) and other works. These sociologists view consumers of religion as making "rational" (even if false) choices about such issues as heaven and hell and thereby determining the winners and losers in the economy of Christendom. Whatever popularity rational-choice theory has enjoyed among social scientists, it has fared badly among experts in the history of religion. We suspect that the same fate awaits Wilson's venture.

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