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Darwin’s Cathedral: David Sloan WIlson or, How far does evolution spread?

David Sloan Wilson - This View Of Life

David Sloan Wilson



I feel as if I have never completely understood religion, though I am an Anglican and a believer. There are so many reasons for this incomplete understanding: rational temperament, a secular age, and a skeptical mind. Despite every modern influence, which largely act as justifications for materialist just-so stories, I have experienced mental events that are outside of the framework of  18th century Humean phenomena. I believe in God because I have done a lot of acid in my youth and felt the mystery and the outside edges of the power. I trust my experiences. These may be inadequate motives for the priest and the skeptic alike. I do not care: they are mine.

Another reason for not understanding religion is that it is like marriage: it has to be experienced. Hence pick your idea of God carefully. And to remind: Meister Eckhart said, “God is not an idea”. Hence the difficulty.

Which brings me to David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society.  I have found it a slog, not because it is excessively complicated or jargon-ridden. Quite the opposite: it is clear. What he is arguing is difficult to understand, for me at least, because Wilson takes issue with two Very large Ideas of  contemporary thought at the same time.

First, it concerns evolution in the Darwinian sense of that term. We are used to evolution being understood at the genetic or the biological level. For materialist purists like Dawkins, evolution is entirely a genetic affair, where the proteins dance to the tune called by the genes, and religion for men like him is so much mistaken balderdash.

The second level of Wilson’s arguments takes issue with a number of schools of interpretation of religion that seek to understand it in every manner except that which it truly is, says Wilson: as a system of behaviour and thought that is highly adaptive – that is, promotes fitness and survival, and which encourages in-group cooperation, trust, cohesion, and group strength. Wilson does not use these words to denigrate religion. He uses words drawn from sociology and anthropology without trying to say that these words define religion, or that secular utility of religion is its essence.

In short, Wilson takes issue with two streams of thought. One, that evolution is confined to the biological. Dawkins and Ernst Meyer would seem to think evolution is confined to the biological. We are so accustomed to this restrictive idea of evolution that it takes some adjustment to see what the issue is. I can hear David Berlinski in my head, asking in his Bostonian drawl about some broadly held tenet of modern nonsense: “really? Really?”. I recall Rupert Sheldrake talking about believing in “a radically evolutionary universe”, where even the laws of nature evolve and thus, are better thought of as habits than as laws.

Wilson inhabits a radically evolutionary understanding of reality.

Religion is a subject that depends radically on what explanatory stance is taken towards it. By explanatory stance I refer to theory: is it exploitation? A mirage? A by-product? A functional response to the free-rider problem and social coordination?

To illustrate the problem of theory Wilson cites Darwin exploring the geology of a Welsh mountain valley with a view to finding fossils.

“We spent many hours in Cwm Idwal, examining all the rocks with extreme care, as Sedgwick was anxious to find fossils in them; but neither of us saw the trace of wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley. If it had still been filled by a glacier, the phenomena would have been less distinct than they are now.”

To cite Einstein, “theory determines what is observed.” The study of religion is peculiarly fraught with this risk. Darwin failed to see evidence of glaciation because he had not the idea to guide him. Many a scholar seeking to explain religion is equally blind, says Wilson.

The difficulty of Wilson’s thesis (religion is adaptive in an evolutionary sense) lies in the number of foxholes of opposed ideas he has to clear out before his theory prevails. Unfortunately for the reader, the number is great, and they are resolutely defended.

The second and lesser difficulty is the name that Wilson has chosen for his ideas of evolution: multilevel selection theory. It is called ‘multilevel’ because it sees evolution occurring at the genetic, biological, individual and group levels. It might well have been more sexy to call it the “radically evolutionary theory“, which would have thrown the burden back on the materialists who see evolution as applying to the genetic level only.

David Sloan Wilson is making many proposals regarding evolution and religion in his book Darwin’s Cathedral and it is beyond the scope of this short essay to describe them all. It continues to impress me with its profundity, coherence, and sympathy for what religion actually accomplishes. Above all  – from my perspective – Wilson combats the Dawkins idea that religion is a form of mental parasite.

Wilson looks like a Presbyterian minister,  talks like a well educated Yankee, and  lives in New York state. He is a great scholar and expounder upon Darwin, yet it takes a while to understand that what he is saying is fundamentally important, possibly because he looks like he could be a cousin or neighbour. He looks so ordinary, and he asks and answers such important questions.

He has overturned the gene-centric evolutionary model. He has re-founded our understanding of religion in evolutionary terms. He has been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, and has been vindicated by the passage of time. More people should know of him and his work.


Wilson in real life talks here.

And gives a speech at UBC here.



Quotations from David Sloan Wilson:

“For me, the failure of religion to achieve universal brotherhood is like the failure of birds to break the sound barrier.”

[to make a bird fly faster than sound] “you will need to discover a design breakthrough that was missed by the natural selection process….When we criticize a religion or a social system for failing to perform better or to expand its moral circle still wider, we often implicitly assume that the problem is like a broken wing with an easy solution….Improving the adaptedness of society may require appreciating the adapted sophistication that already exists.” [p.217-218]


“Much religious belief does not represent a form of mental weakness but rather the healthy functioning of a biologically and culturally well-adapted mind. Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with other forms of thought….If there is a trade-off between two forms of realism, such that out beliefs can become adaptive only by becoming factually less true. then factual realism will be the loser every time…..It is the person who elevates factual truth  above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.” [at p 228]


and now we go over the edge….

This is what the evolutionary theorist Donald Hoffman says in his book “The Case Against Reality” “What you see is an adaptive fiction”.  

Hoffman has taken the adaptiveness argument to its logical extreme. Evolution is there to guide us to adaptive behaviour, not to elucidate reality. The Hoffman argument treats the representations we experience in the same light as icons on the desktop. The voltage changes inside the computer that cause email to be written are forever hidden from the user. Adaptedness gives us the desktop, not the innards.

And this is the point that Stephen Pinker does not quite get in his book “Rationality”.

So many theories, so little time.





Is David Berlinski the smartest person in the world?

I don’t know. I do not have the wit to figure it out. But he has a clear sharp and deeply well informed mind. Treat this conversation as a part of your liberal education, in the proper sense of that word. His book Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions sticks a skewer or two into some targets, such as Richard Dawkins, who badly need a skewering. His other books are highly recommended too.

If you want a very short indication of why I think he is so smart, hear his exposition of innate capacities residing in human beings at 28:30. How is it that a child taken from an Amazonian tribe of head hunters could be sent to be educated in Boston and that, as a real possibility, it could eventually excel in mathematics at the MIT. We can can conceive of such a thing happening, however unlikely. What does it mean for the Darwinian theory of evolution that a whole set of capacities can lie dormant in a human being for 50 or 500 thousand years and suddenly be evoked by a change of circumstance? How come the kid from a tribe of head-hunters never exposed to civilization could, if taken out of that circumstance, excel in mathematics, or, for that matter, at diplomacy?

One has only to think about this possibility for a minute to realize that Darwin’s theory is radically incomplete. Gigantic features of human life cannot be explained by evolutionary theory.

And that is just an example.