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on February 9, 2003
This book is a well-written, highly entertaining conjecture on the possibility that group selection has played an important role in the emergence of religion in human societies. As an evolutionary biologist, I must dispute those who have suggested that group selection is fallacious and has been generally discarded by biologists. In fact I give a lecture on the subject in an undergraduate class on evolution. Evolutionary biologists as eminent as Stephen Jay Gould have supported the view that group selection has played an important role in evolution. Predictions based on mathematical models for group selection have been made and confirmed. Many biologists accept it as a given. In the words of University of Vermont geneticist Charles J. Goodnight, its "proven. A done deal. We know it works." Many biologists who came of age in the sixties were widely influenced by the excellent book, Adaptation and Natural Selection by George Williams, and are unable to give up their biases. But even Dr. William's views on group selection are more nuanced these days. Richard Dawkins is a brilliant man but he hardly speaks for all of those who study evolutionary biology. This book, and Dr. Wilson's previous book, Unto others, are excellent primers for those with open-minds who are iinterested in the possibility that there is more to life than the selfish gene.
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on January 2, 2003
If you have an opinion about religion, or belong to a religion, most people disagree with you; there is not a majority religion in the world. And surely not all religions can be factually correct, since there are fundamental disagreements between them. So, how is it that all those other, incorrect religions exist and seem to help their members and their societies? There must be something they offer beyond a factual representation of gods and the cosmos (and when it comes down to it, if you belong to a religion, yours must be offering something more as well). If religions do help their members and societies, then perhaps they are beneficial in a long term and evolutionary way, and maybe such evolutionary influences should be acknowledged and studied. This is what David Sloan Wilson convincingly declares he has done in _Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society_ (University of Chicago Press): "I will attempt to study religious groups the way I and other evolutionary biologists routinely study guppies, trees, bacteria, and the rest of life on earth, with the intention of making progress that even a reasonable skeptic must acknowledge."
To Wilson's credit, he has written carefully about both scientific and religious issues, and readers with an interest in either field will find that he has covered both fairly. His coverage of the science involved begins with an interesting history of "the wrong turn" evolutionary theory took fifty years ago, when it deliberately ignored the influence of group selection. Especially if one accepts that there is for our species not only an inheritance of genes, but also an inheritance of culture, evolutionary influence by and upon religious groups, especially in light of the examples Wilson discusses, now seems obvious. For instance, evolution often studies population changes due to gains and losses from births, deaths, and in the case of religion, conversion and apostasy. The early Christian church is shown to have made gains compared to Judaism and Roman mythology because of its promotion of proselytization, fertility, a welfare state, and women's participation. There is a temple system in Bali dedicated to the water goddess essential for the prosperity of the rice crops; "those who do not follow her laws may not possess her rice terraces." The religious system encompasses eminently practical procedures for promoting fair water use and even for pest control. Religious morality is shown to build upon the principles of the famously successful computer strategy Tit-for-Tat. There is a significant problem, of course, in religions' dealing with other groups; it is not at all uncommon for a religion to teach that murdering those who believe in other religions is different from murdering those inside one's own religion. There is a degree of amorality shown in such competition, no different from the amorality that governs the strivings of ferns, sparrows, and lions.

Wilson's many examples are fascinating and easy to take, but _Darwin's Cathedral_ is not light reading; although Wilson wanted to write a book for readers of all backgrounds, he has not "'dumbed down' the material for a popular audience," and admits that there is serious intellectual work to be done in getting through these pages. There is valuable and clear writing here, however, and a new way of looking at religion which may become a standard in scientific evaluation.
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on June 30, 2003
... I learned something extremely important and I'd like others to know about it.
If it is the case that mutually beneficial cooperation amongst group members will tend to defeat the survival strategy of competing groups who cannot get their cooperative act together, then we need to know about it. Those of us who feel overwhelmed by greed and dominance can take a great deal of solace from the fact that research is finding simple, good-natured cooperation amongst group members... self-selected by whatever criteria are mutually acceptable... create within their group a strategic competitive advantage.
In some cases the group in question is a religious group and in other cases the group is military or polical or economic. The specific purpose of the group matters less than the fact of orchestrated activity by rational means.
Religion is not the only issue, nor the most important issue. Dr. Wilson makes it clear early in the book that what's at stake here is the ultimate fate of the species. Can we learn this lesson of cooperation that natural selection teaches us in time to preserve the species as a whole, or not?
I have spent much of my adult life with the most pessimistic of conclusions on this question. For the first time I believe that the process of natural selection may itself be a model that can be learned from and turned to survival advantage for our species. Sure, the odds remain against our ultimate conquest of the obstacles before us, but David Sloan Wilson has given us good reason to hope... and to struggle ever more vigorously against the forces of deterioration that challenge us.
I read this book after coming away from "Do Unto Others" which Dr. Wilson co-wrote with philosopher of biology, Elliott Sober. The philosophical credentials Dr. Wilson brings to "Darwin's Cathedral" are impeccable. The two volumes together have transformed my conclusion about the future of the human species, and may well transform yours...
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on October 31, 2002
It has become inescapable to see ourselves as having evolved for group living. In "Origins of Virtue," Matt Ridley described the overall situation admirably well, and concluded that selfish organisms can evolve mechanisms that exploit the advantages of living together in groups, so long as those mechanisms don't sacrifice too much for the individual. The great fountain of selfish gene imagery, Richard Dawkins, once wrote that Ridley's book could well serve as a followup to "The Selfish Gene" as applied to human beings. So there is little doubt that even a theory based on "selfish genes" can be seen as explaining behavior that takes advantage of living in groups.
David Sloane Wilson first acknowledges that traits which promote us to sacrifice ourselves "for the good of the group" are unlikely to spread in a population. He find great value in fields like evolutionary psychology for finding innate human psychological traits that promote individual reproduction and survival. However, he also takes a thought provoking look at important transitions in evolutionary history and finds that under certain special conditions, individuals become united and begin to function in a very real sense as a larger organism. Genes become united into chromosomes, cells become organisms, organisms become hives.
None of this is new so far of course. What is unique is the claim that some of these transitions cannot be explained without having some form of competition between groups whose traits are widely divergent. The basic problem is that behavior that allows one group to fare better than another must also allow the individuals to survive and reproduce within their own group. So self-sacrificing behavior that makes a group of berzerkers unbeatable in battle against other groups has a hard time taking root _within_ the group of berzerkers unless it also serves them there. Wilson claims that the bias against seeing selection occurrring at multiple levels, especially by the way genetic fitness calculations are averaged, prevents most biologists from seeing "group selection" when it does occur. He then proposes that the missing piece is human moral systems themselves, which provide mechanisms that lower the cost of behavior "for the group" in terms of individual fitness.
For example, social controls such as rewards and punishments are known to strongly foster cooperation even though cooperation is very fragile otherwise. We have tended to see this either in terms of individual self-determination or entirely in terms of social pressure. Wilson's view allows a middle ground, of innate traits which social controls can leverage powerfully to produce cooperation. Wilson's main point is that such traits probably require a multi-level selection theory to explain.
Wilson uses scholarly study of religion from a variety of fields to illustrate how human behavior shows evidence of forming groups as adaptive units in the evolutionary sense. This was an idea that was proposed by Darwin (thus "Darwin's Cathedral") and seen as fundamental by many social scientists, but was roundly rejected for the difficulties it brings into population models of evolution. In addition, the recent critiques often brought to bear on social science sometimes tend to see social science concepts such as those of Emile Durkheim as something needing to be slashed and burned rather than just seen in a new light. Wilson takes a new look at Durkheim's functionalist view of society and the various critiques of it, and finds plenty of archaic ideas, but also notes that the central theme of religion serving to unify human groups remains out of the ashes.
In Darwin's Cathedral, Wilson compares his view of religion as something that unifies human groups with the competing views of religion as a collection of arbitrary Gouldian "spandrels" or byproducts of evolution, the view that religion is a form of catchy imagination, and the Dawkinsian view that religious beliefs are mental parasites, and makes his case very well. He is very careful in his analysis and pulls from a wide range of scholarly material to make his case that, provided we are very careful about how we measure Darwinian fitness and very careful not to look for group selection where behavior can be explained otherwise, we can explain aspects of human behavior that simply can't be explained in terms of inclusive fitness for the genes of our relatives or even by playing games of reciprocal altruism.
Wilson makes many of the same points as Pascal Boyer does in "Religion Explained," but seems to tie things together more neatly with his theoretical framework. Since he is not limiting himself to psychological adaptations that solely promote individual survival and reproduction, Wilson has the added flexibility to pose adaptations for punishment and reward that serve social ends, which makes for much more elegant and powerful theory that explains a wider range of phenomena such as the tendency of human beings to see themselves readily as members of groups, their willingness to punish defectors, the the joy most of us get out of finding that we've helped someone else.
The only problem with this book is that Wilson takes on too much of a task here for one slim volume. The data on human religion is massive. I'm reminded of Frazer's classic "Golden Bough" and how virtually no one has ever actually read it all the way through in its single highly condensed volume, much less the dozen or so volumes he originally wrote. And yet he makes his point. Wilson also makes his point, and then draws from the massive data but seems to suffer in trying to navigate it all. He spends a lot of time looking at Calvinism from various angles for example. Everything he reviews seems to help him support his theory of religion as adaptive and unifying, but there is so much more to look at that in the end it feels oddly incomplete.
This is wonderful interdisciplinary theoretical work that deserves much more followup than a single person can possibly give it.
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on November 7, 2002
I found this to be an extraordinary book....Dr. Wilson combines impeccable science in his own field with a widespread interest and respect for scientific fields other than his own and has the unique ability to synthesise their offerings into his own understanding and ongoing inquiries. The author has an obvious and contagious relish for ideas, and unlike many authors has not attempted to write "gospel" but has hoped to start, and even explicitly invited dialoque. What makes Dr. Wilsons book additionally unique, is not only the depth and breadth of his ideas and research but his unique style of writting. Rarely is immaculate and lucid scientific discourse, great humor, and poetic expression found in one volume, as is the case here. The book from conception to execution is a thought provoking delight, whatever preconceptions regarding evolution or religion you bring to it's pages. You do not have to be a scientist to enjoy this book, only a person who enjoys the challanges of good ideas masterfully presented
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HALL OF FAMEon December 2, 2002
A passionate advocate for his cause, Wilson expresses it in temperate language. His cause is known as "group selection." It's a concept of evolution that he admits is "out of vogue" today. Group selection has been displaced by variants of "the selfish gene" - genes driving individual organisms in competition for resources. Most of the advocates of evolution by organisms are still with us, and Wilson lines them for review like a stern general inspecting troops. He passes along these ranks with a moue of severe displeasure. But in a book promoting religion as the finest expression of group selection, Wilson must keep rein on his passions. He treats these miscreants as simply misguided - more disappointed than angry. He offers conciliation with his opponents by garbing "group selection" in a new cloak he calls "multi-level" selection. He sees this idea as a compromise. In reality, it's a pious fraud.
If it wasn't clear that this book is intended as serious science, it might be considered a hoax. Wilson attempts to reconcile evolutionary biology with the social sciences to build a case for religion's evolutionary roots. This has been attempted before, of course, but Wilson provides some new twists. He rejects Susan
Blackmore's idea that religion is a meme, even refusing to use the term. He likes religion, and tries to give it a Darwinian foundation. To do so, Wilson reverts to the outdated thesis of "society as an organism." He provides false portrayals of social roles among animals [birds, mostly] he then attempts to project some aspects of social animals onto humans. Assessing "primitive" societies in relation to the modern life, he attempts to build a case for the evolutionary roots of religion. His thesis, however, is built on a porous foundation.
As a professional biologist, Wilson makes some perplexing assertions. Citing bird groups with "callers" and "foragers" he presents these as fixed roles. In fact, the callers must forage, while foragers must stand watch through a rota. Otherwise the group will not survive. In religion, "callers" [priests] remain fixed in their part supported by the remainder of the group. For group selection to work in evolution, the groups require reproductive isolation. Religions, for all their rigidity at times, can represent a wide, diverse population. In the evolutionary process, this is too wide and mobile a target. Wilson contends instead that religions "evolve" through competition with each other. This idea wholly ignores the multitude of non-deistic or animist adherents in "non-Western" societies around the world. As the book progresses, "religion" in the general sense tends to be displaced by "Christianity." Christianity, maladaptive though it is at times, Wilson credits with attracting adherents as no other religions do. Evangelism, then, becomes the tactic used to enlarge and enhance the group.
Inevitably, one surmises, one species is to be identified with one religion.
Wilson's evenhanded tone is the redeeming feature of this book. In some cases, he even apologises to other authors if he's misinterpreted them. His scholarship is wide, reflecting the scope of his interest. He presents various positions, including his own with clarity and precision. However, his argument is too tenuous. Group selection wasn't rejected by science because it was a fad, genetics demonstrated its invalidity. Wilson may wish to resurrect it, but he hasn't accomplished that miracle here. His Christian stance allows him to treat his opponents gently, but he doesn't refute their assertion that group selection is biologically groundless. Even less does the history of religion support it. Wilson is careful to note "religion" goes well beyond the role of "gods," acting as a social construct. With this, he takes us from biology to morality. It's compelling reading, but He's deft with words, slipping the old "genetic determinism" charge against those not guilty of it. He struggles to downplay genetic input as the primary cause of evolutionary change, but fails to provide a structure to replace it. It was all spelled out by natural selection's original architect. Darwin's cathedral was built brick by brick - it isn't a modular construction.
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on December 31, 2002
First of all I admire David Sloan Wilson's attempt to blend Darwinian evolution with theism - mainly because it's such an enormous undertaking. However, with that said, I believe he falls short of his intention. That's because it's not possible to get an 'ought' from an 'is'. In other words, evolution is an explanation of what is, what was, and what may be to come, but it does not step into the realm of what should be (morality). In fact, evolution cannot provide ethical principles which are transcendant of the natural realm.
A) Wilson argues that religion is evolution at work. This is a difficult claim to defend. For one thing Wilson states that, "Thinking of a religious group as like an organism encourages us to look for adaptive complexity.... Mechanisms are required that are often awesome in their sophistication." However, there are numerous counter-examples, which show that many religious ideals have not adapted/changed, but have stood stone still through the centuries. Judaism is full of examples. Additionally, the Dead Sea Scrolls are a prime example.
B) Wilson sees religion as a complex organism with "biological" functions. He goes on to claim that if society is an organism we can then think of morality and religion as biologically and culturally evolved adaptations. If this is true, then there is no ultimate truth (right or wrong) regarding morality or religion. The current versions are simply that, current versions. Perhaps one unintended consequence of viewing morality in this light is that rape/murder/molestation may or may not be 'wrong' in future generations. Wilson's hypothesis does away with any moral principles and replaces them with the 'in' or fashionable ethic of the day. Society is left with no means of determining 'progress' since all change must be equally 'good' as there is nothing outside the system by which to measure against. That's a tough position to consistently live out.

C) Wilson argues that religious belief and other symbolic systems are closely connected to reality in that they are a powerful force in motivating adaptive behaviors. However, this does not necessarily disconnect religion/theism from a right correspondence with a supernatural agent as a defining principle. Just because religion can be a powerful motivating force does not mean that the religion is not true.
D) Wilson posits human religious groups are adaptive organisms wherein processes like 1. group selection, 2. evolutionary pressures, and 3. moral systems come into play. Moral systems? Where do such moral systems come from? It seems Wilson evokes morality as a brute fact, but doesn't explain where morality originates. Furthermore, Wilson never addresses where the system of evolution itself comes from - a systems, which is highly organized, structured, and very productive.
In short, Wilson makes numerous assumptions, which are not adequately defended on a rudimentary/grass-roots level. His claims are sweeping, but when evaluated they appear to be rather unhinged.
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on November 28, 2002
this scholarly look at the social, cultural and religious implications of evolution gives the reader some insights and connections of one science to another but never arrives at any conclusion or view of where to go next. the one thing for sure is that the author has an ego.
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