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Darwin’s Cathedral

Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

One of the great intellectual battles of modern times is between evolution and religion. Until now, they have been considered completely irreconcilable theories of origin and existence. David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral takes the radical step of joining the two, in the process proposing an evolutionary theory of religion that shakes both evolutionary biology and social theory at their foundations.

The key, argues Wilson, is to think of society as an organism, an old idea that has received new life based on recent developments in evolutionary biology. If society is an organism, can we then think of morality and religion as biologically and culturally evolved adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals? Wilson brings a variety of evidence to bear on this question, from both the biological and social sciences. From Calvinism in sixteenth-century Geneva to Balinese water temples, from hunter-gatherer societies to urban America, Wilson demonstrates how religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone. He also includes a chapter considering forgiveness from an evolutionary perspective and concludes by discussing how all social organizations, including science, could benefit by incorporating elements of religion.

Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies. Astoundingly, Wilson shows that they might be literally correct. Intended for any educated reader, Darwin’s Cathedral will change forever the way we view the relations among evolution, religion, and human society.

268 pages | 9 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2002

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

Philosophy of Science

Religion: Religion and Society

Sociology: General Sociology

Reviews

"As always, Wilson writes well and clearly and in a stimulating and provocative style. The book is interesting and important, and there can be no higher praise. . . . I applaud the approach taken by Wilson, and I urge you to read Darwin's Cathedral."

Michael Ruse | Science

"What kind of Jekyll-and-Hydra-headed beast is this thing called religious faith? In the view of Wilson . . . a very natural and very powerful beast indeed, and one that helps explain humanity's rise to global dominance. Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion—with all of its institutional, emotional, and prescriptive trappings—ranks as a kind of mega-adaptation: a trait that evolved because it conferred advantages on those who bore it."

Natalie Angier | New York Times

"Obviously, the main subject of Darwin's Cathedral—religion—is widely contentious. In addition, many of the subjects which Wilson draws to interpret religion—subjects such as group selection, adaptation, hypothesis testing, and how to 'do' science—are contentious among scientists. Discussions of these subjects tend to be partisan, oversimplified, and riddled with misstatements. A great virtue of Wilson's book is the scrupulous fairness with which he treats controversial matters. He is careful to define concepts, to assess both their range of applicability and their limitations, and to avoid posturing, misrepresentations, exaggerated claims, and cheap rhetorical devices. Thus, Wilson's book is more than just an attempt to understand religion. Even to readers with no interest in either religion or science, his book can serve as a model of how to discuss controversial subjects honestly."

Jared Diamond | New York Review of Books

"Thoughtful and provocative. . . . Wilson turns to religion, which, he claims, can be explained only by group selection. According to Wilson, a religion is the human equivalent of a pack of lions: by cooperating as a group, people attain benefits beyond their reach as individuals."

Times Literary Supplement

A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year

Times Literary Supplement

"This is a rare work of science, both hard and social, that approaches religion from a positive perspective. As such, almost everyone . . . will undoubtedly take issue with it. But is not provocation one of the reasons books are published? . . . . I think this would be a fascinating book to discuss in a book club."

Herman A. Peterson | Catholic Library World

"By forcing us to consider religious faith as a crucial factor in human evolution, Wilson simultaneously invites us to celebrate the beauty and motivating power of religion."

Robert C. Fuller | Religious Studies Review

“It is not until biologist Wilson published Darwin’s Cathedral that the evolutionary study of religion appears to have passed a Rubicon. . . . Fifteen years after . . . , Wilson continues to make substantial contributions to the evolutionary study of religion. . . . We appreciate and celebrate the fifteen-year anniversary of Wilson’s seminal theoretical contributions in Darwin’s Cathedral, which propelled the contemporary evolutionary study of religion forward. We hope that his current work has a parallel impact, encouraging collaborative fieldwork, which will ultimately advance the empirical study of religion.”

Religion, Brain & Behavior

Table of Contents

Introduction: Church as Organism
1. The View from Evolutionary Biology
2. The View from Social Sciences
3. Calvinism: An Argument from Design
4. The Secular Utility of Religion: Historical Examples
5. The Secular Utility of Religion: The Modern Literature
6. Forgiveness as a Complex Adaptation
7. Unifying Systems
Notes
Bibliography
Acknowledgments
Index

Awards

American Academy of Religion: American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence
Shortlist

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