Kevin MacDonald, Ph.D.

CSULB, Department of Psychology

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

By David Sloan Wilson. University of Chicago Press, 1427 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, 2002, 268 pp., ISBN 0-226-90134-3, Hardback, $25.00

Reviewed by Kevin MacDonald
Human Ethology Bulletin, in press.

David Sloan Wilson is something of a quixotic figure in the field of evolutionary approaches to human affairs. For most of his professional life he has battled what has become a rigid orthodoxy against seemingly hopeless odds. The orthodoxy is that natural selection operates more or less exclusively at the individual level, and that natural selection between groups is a trivial phenomenon that has not left any important mark on the architecture of the human mind or on human history. It is a topic that the vast majority of evolutionists simply relegate to unquestioned dogma -- their eyes glazing over at its mere mention. After all, it was the seeming resolution of the debate over individual versus group selection that gave rise to the revolution in evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s. We're talking basic, bedrock theory here -- an area where changes are not to be taken lightly. And if the past is any indication, the continued life of this orthodoxy will not change with the publication of Darwin's Cathedral. But, if so, it won't be because the arguments and data compiled by Wilson are not compelling. In any case, Wilson is confident of the future of groups in evolutionary thought: 'I believe that future generations will be amazed at the degree to which groups were made to disappear as adaptive units of life in the minds of intellectuals during the second half of the twentieth century' (p. 46). I can only agree wholeheartedly.

Wilson's basic claim is that religions are organisms designed to attain evolutionary ends of survival and reproduction. Religious organisms achieve these aims because of group selection processes in which religious groups are favored because they are able to successfully promote behavior that is individually disadvantageous. Particularly important for the viability of individually disadvantageous behavior in groups are social controls, conceptualized here as a form of low cost altruism. Group selection has always had to deal with the albatross that people and other organisms do not voluntarily engage in self-sacrificing behavior -- at least not readily and not very often. In the absence of social controls, egoistic behavior is expected to replace altruism, leading to the expectation that there will be a strong residue of egoism as a holdover from our evolutionary heritage. However, groups can impose controls that enforce public goods, such as paying taxes or submitting to authority, and people can develop groups where even the leaders are thoroughly scrutinized to ensure that group interests prevail over individual interests. Such controls -- termed secondary public goods -- are low cost, and their low cost effectively cuts 'the Gordian knot by partially relaxing the trade-off between group benefit and individual cost. Social control mechanisms are obviously relevant to religious groups, which are based on much more than voluntary altruism' (p. 20). Via social controls effective groups may be developed with significant degrees of ingroup altruism even in the absence of high levels of genetic overlap. The result is 'a complex regulatory system that binds members into a functional unit' (p. 25).

Besides social controls, religion is characterized by an ideological superstructure -- the beliefs that often seem exotic but, as Wilson exhaustively details, often function to motivate group-benefiting behavior. Rather than depend exclusively on an elaborate set of social controls maintained by monitoring and punishment, group-benefiting social behaviors are often voluntarily engaged in because not to do so is to risk the wrath of God or incur some other spiritual cost. For example, Calvin developed a belief system that stressed motivated compliance to authority. As such, it may be regarded as an adaptation -- in this case, a way of creating a cohesive group by lowering the cost of monitoring individual behavior: 'If religious faith plays a role in motivating [behaviors such as obedience to authority], and if these behaviors cause the group to function as an adaptive unit, then faith counts as an adaptation' (p. 102). Thus by developing compelling ideologies that motivate altruistic, group-benefiting behavior, and by monitoring and enforcing compliance, human groups are able to overcome the profound tendencies toward egoism that have generally prevented the evolution of similarly cohesive, altruistic groups among animals.

Evolutionists who acknowledge the importance of groups as functional units of selection are also less inclined to adopt that other dogma of contemporary Darwinism: evolutionary psychology and its commitment to a human psychology composed more or less exclusively of domain specific mechanisms designed to solve problems recurrent in our evolutionary past. Here Wilson points to the incompleteness of such a psychology. Indeed, the 'jukebox theory' of cultural variation promoted by Tooby and Cosmides (1992) seems little more than a hopeful gesture rather than a serious attempt at theorizing. It seems utterly incapable of even the most rudimentary explanation of religion in its many varieties. I agree with Wilson that in addition to modules designed to solve evolutionarily recurrent problems, the mind also contains a variety of open-ended mechanisms for solving novel problems, chief among them general intelligence (MacDonald, 1991; Chiappe & MacDonald, 2003). As Wilson notes, a prime function of human groups is to solve novel problems of adaptation in a constantly changing environment: 'Confront a human group with a novel problem, even one that never existed in so-called ancestral environments, and its members may well come up with a workable solution. The solution might be based on trial and error or on rational thought' (p. 31). Interestingly, Wilson explicitly describes Calvin, who designed the religion that bears his name, as a former scholar and as more intelligent than his theological adversaries (p. 90). Surely the design of Calvinism as an adaptive system of beliefs and social controls was the work of a highly intelligent person; few people would have the intelligence and other talents required for devising a belief system that resulted in Geneva, a city of 13,000 people, functioning effectively as an organized group. (The same might be said for the priests who designed the Jewish religion while exiled in Babylon 2600 years ago, or the 19th-century founders of Mormonism.)

Nevertheless, intelligence is not the whole story. Religious beliefs are often the height of irrationality -- Wilson's example is Calvin's belief in the imminent coming of Jesus. Besides intelligence, open-ended belief-generating mechanisms are of critical importance. As Wilson documents, religious beliefs, combined with methods of monitoring and enforcing social norms, can have an extraordinary effect on social organization and can result in higher levels of between-group selection than could possibly exist in other species. It goes without saying that people need not be conscious of the role of their beliefs and norm-monitoring in producing successful groups.

An important issue is whether the mechanisms underlying human abilities to enforce social controls and their proclivity to adopt religious ideologies evolved as a result of natural selection for altruistic groups. Or were such mechanisms simply a by-product of natural selection for domain general mechanisms that evolved for other reasons, such as solving novel problems, as suggested above. After all, ideologies, including at least some religious ideologies, often rationalize egoistic behavior, and social controls have often been used to enforce despotisms. It is the very open-endedness of these mechanisms that makes them at once so powerful and so dangerous -- powerful because they can rationalize and enforce virtually anything -- from the Soviet Union of the Gulags to the cohesive, peaceful bands of friends and neighbors that typified early Christianity; and dangerous because they may lead to behavior that is highly maladaptive at the individual or at the group level: people may be socialized or constrained to do things that are massively opposed to their own interests (slavery comes to mind), and their group may be poorly designed to achieve long term success. Religions, like all human social organizations where social controls and ideologies play an important role (i.e., virtually all human social organizations), are experiments in living. Nevertheless, there is every reason to suppose that the power of these domain general mechanisms may also be utilized to rationally construct vehicles of adaptation that would reliably further individual and ethnic group interests over the long run, even in the multi-cultural complexity of the modern world.

I do not want to give the impression that the only psychological mechanisms relevant to religion are the open-ended, domain general discussed here. Wilson?s emphasis is on the sociology of religion draws him away from the psychology of groups for the most part, but he does review research on social identity theory as a set of psychological mechanisms that result in positive perceptions of ingroups and negative perceptions of outgroups. Other more domain specific psychological mechanisms related to ethnocentrism and other manifestations of group allegiance are also undoubtedly important for a complete psychological analysis of religion (MacDonald, 2003).

Groups are notoriously prone to the ingroup/outgroup thinking that motivates self-righteous violence -- not surprising if groups evolved as a result of between-group competition. Here Wilson describes the 'dark side' of groups -- their tendency to compete with other groups, to go on wars of conquest and to even exterminate people from outgroups. Whatever else one might say about group selection theory, it does not result in portraying humans as altruists simplicitur. Humans are sometimes altruistic within their own group, but only with the support of powerful ideologies and social controls that motivate compliant, group-serving behavior, and always in conflict with a great deal of backsliding -- the creeping egoism that always lurks in the background.

The balance of the book describes religions as imperfect groups -- imperfect in the sense that they often approach but seldom attain the pure level of altruistic group functioning that is often idealized in religious thought. This is because of the pull of egoism: Whatever evolved tendencies human might have to participate in well-functioning, cohesive and even altruistic groups, there are also powerful tendencies toward egoism that must be constantly monitored and controlled.

Calvinism is given a chapter-length treatment as a paradigm of a religion that functioned to achieve secular utility. Other religions described include the Water Temple system of Bali, Judaism, and the early Christian Church. In all of these cases Wilson shows that religion functions to organize groups in very practical ways to achieve secular ends. Particularly interesting is the discussion of early Christianity based on the work of Rodney Stark (1996). Early Christianity emerges as a non-ethnic form of Judaism that functioned as a way of producing cohesive, effective groups able to deal with the uncertainties of the ancient world. The ancient world was a very unpredictable place indeed, characterized by natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires, rioting, epidemics, brutal military campaigns against civilians, famines, and widespread poverty. Navigating this world was greatly facilitated by co-religionists ready to lend a helping hand and to establish economic alliances. Wilson has no hesitation in supposing that Christian charity in extending aid to fellow Christians suffering from the plague involved altruism, as indeed it did. But the result was that more Christians survived these disasters than did Pagans: Christianity was adaptive at the group level. The adaptiveness of Christianity also stemmed from its emphasis on several attitudes that were notably lacking in the Roman Empire: encouragement of large families, conjugal fidelity, high-investment parenting, and outlawing of abortion, infanticide, and non-reproductive sexual behavior. The bottom line is that Christian women did indeed out-reproduce Pagan women. Other obvious examples of religiously mandated fertility and family-promoting values in the contemporary world are the Amish and Hutterites, the Mormons, and Orthodox Jews. All of these religions are characterized by social controls and religious ideologies that promote adaptive behavior at the group level.

Finally, Wilson has a very enjoyable writing style. The following passage is a good illustration, and it sums up his view of religions as intricately adaptive biological entities:

Biologists frequently express a feeling of awe, bordering on religious reverence, toward the intricacies of nature; the cryptic insect that exactly resembles a leaf, the fish that glides effortlessly through the water, and the amazing physiological processes that allow organisms to defy the forces of entropy. The organismic concept of groups makes possible a similar sense of awe toward religion, even from a purely evolutionary perspective. (p. 4)


Chiappe, D., & MacDonald, K. B. (2003). The Evolution of Domain-General Mechanisms in Intelligence and Learning. Psychological Inquiry, 14(4).

MacDonald, K. B. (1991). A perspective on Darwinian psychology: The importance of domain-general mechanisms, plasticity, and individual differences. Ethology and Sociobiology, 12, 449-480.

MacDonald, K. B. (2003). An Integrative Evolutionary Perspective on Ethnicity. Politics and the Life Sciences, in press.

Stark, R. (1996). The rise of Christianity: A sociologist reconsiders history. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19-136). New York: Cambridge University Press.