The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection

The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection

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By Michael Dowd:

2012 promises to be a pivotal year for proponents of group selection and multi-level selection theory.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to read and comment on an early draft of a book by Jonathan Haidt that will be published next month. Titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I immediately perceived that this book has enormous practical implications for how economic, social, and political leaders attempt to solve civilization-scale problems.

Over the past few days, I have become aware of two more forthcoming books that likewise will further our understanding of human social evolution: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm. All three of these books make the case that group level selection is needed to explain human morality.

The purpose of this post is to give you a preview of these three books—and to draw your attention to several previously published books and essays grounded in the same paradigm shift, and which therefore deserve renewed attention in this pivotal year.

What they all have in common is the realization that we are in the midst of a significant expansion in evolutionary thinking, beyond the confines of individual- and gene-level selection to what has come to be called “multi-level selection theory.”

Especially with respect to what enabled humans to cooperate in numbers far greater than instinctive kin affiliation and reciprocal altruism would support (and thus to evolve large-scale social structures), it turns out that “good-of-the group” traits actually do play a profoundly significant role.

Multi-level selection theory also makes abundantly clear that the power and pervasiveness of religions in human societies throughout the world is by no means an aberration. Religion is not, as some of the New Atheists would like to believe, merely a “virus”—propelled to advance and expand its own existence at the expense of its hapless host. Rather, religion, historically, was a profoundly important adaptive feature. Without it, group cohesiveness and the motivation of individuals to die for their tribe or state or nation would likely never have emerged from the palette of instincts we inherited from our prehuman ancestors. And without that kind of motivation, a group will not be able to defend itself against the incursions of neighboring (or long-distance conquering) cultures.

On this point, there may be no more important background reading than David Sloan Wilson’s work, especially his magisterial Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, which was published in 2003. In addition, Wilson chronicles the history of the debate in a New Scientist “Instant Expert” article, “Evolution of selfless behavior.” He also summarizes the current state of the field in a 2011 Evolution article, co-authored with Omar Tonsi Eldakar: “Eight Criticisms Not to Make About Group Selection”, introduced here. For even more background, see Wilson’s “Homage to George Williams and the Last Gasp of Individualism” I, II, III, IV, V; “Truth and Reconciliation for Group Selection” I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX; “137 Co-authors Can’t Be Wrong—and That’s the Problem,” and his posts holding Jerry Coyne to account for his claims about group selection and cultural evolution (also here).

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It is vital to remember that religion is about right relationship to reality, not the supernatural! As noted philosopher of religion Loyal Rue reminds us, religion is not about God. He writes:

The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if live in right relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.

Again, in contrast to the assumptions made by some of the New Atheists, just because prescientific manifestations of religion necessarily posited supernatural beings and forces does not mean that religions of today and tomorrow need do so. Religio, after all, means “to link together.” Religions (past and future) provide the over-arching world pictures that link all aspects of known reality, that attempt to answer all questions of meaning, and that therefore provide “personal wholeness” and “social coherence.”

Personal wholeness and social coherence are adaptive necessities. Now that there is no longer any possibility for human groups to migrate away from their despoliation of home landscapes (e.g., salinization of soils owing to irrigation, or massive erosion of mountains slopes due to overgrazing of livestock or overharvesting of trees), religious worldviews are called upon to fulfill one more functional need: ecological integrity.

Thanks to the evidential knowledge accumulated by modern science, all three functions can now be fulfilled by secular worldviews inspiringly conveyed (i.e., “religious naturalism”).

If you scoff at the possibility of a thoroughly secular religion ever coming into being, I highly recommend Loyal Rue’s scholarly 2006 book, Religion Is Not About God. In 2000, in fact, he offered a compelling example of how evolution itself could form the basis of a modern-day, thoroughly naturalistic religion. This was his 160-page popular book, Everybody’s Story: Wising Up to the Epic of Evolution.

Similarly, I recommend David Sloan Wilson’s 2007 book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives; Joan Roughgarden‘s 2010 book, The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness; and Allen D. MacNeill‘s chapter, “The Capacity for Religious Experience Is an Adaptation to Warfare.”

Finally, lest anyone assume I am opposed to the New Atheists, know that I am profoundly grateful for the evolutionary role they are playing in helping (nay, forcing) our stodgy old (all-too-often dysfunctional) religions to catch up with the wealth of knowledge that science now offers. As you can see here, listen to here and here, or read here and here, I regularly share with religious audiences of all kinds my appreciation for, and tremendous debt of gratitude to, the New Atheists.

So, let me now whet your appetite for the three books forthcoming this year that will continue the work of advancing our understanding of how human societies evolve by (a) multi-level selection (individual traits selected for “the good of the group”) and (b) the unique powers of religions to foster large-scale group cohesion and a spirit of sacrifice (with or without “God”). Here they are:

1. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (publication date: March 13, 2012). Haidt is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis.

Description: A groundbreaking investigation into the origins of morality, which turns out to be the basis for religion and politics. The book is timely (explaining the American culture wars and refuting the “New Atheists”), scholarly (integrating insights from many fields), and great fun to read (like Haidt’s last book, The Happiness Hypothesis).


“A remarkable and original synthesis of social psychology, political analysis, and moral reasoning that reflects the best of sciences in these fields and adds evidence that we are innately capable of the decency and righteousness needed for societies to survive.” (Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University)

The Righteous Mind refutes the “New Atheists” and shows that religion is a central part of our moral heritage. Haidt’s brilliant synthesis shows that Christians have nothing to fear and much to gain from the evolutionary paradigm.” (Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution)

“Haidt’s research has revolutionized the field of moral psychology. This elegantly written book has far-reaching implications for anyone interested in politics, religion, or the many controversies that divide modern societies. If you want to know why you hold your moral beliefs, and why many people disagree with you, read this book.” (Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University, author of The Science of Evil)

The Righteous Mind is an intellectual tour de force that brings Darwinian theorizing to the practical realm of everyday politics.” (Christopher Boehm, University of Southern California, author of Moral Origins)

“Here is the first attempt to give an in-depth analysis of the underlying moral stance and dispositions of liberals and conservatives. I couldn’t put it down and discovered things about myself!” (Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of The Ethical Brain)

Comment by Michael Dowd: In an early draft of his book, Haidt crafted a lovely analogy to illustrate the difficulties that advocates of “multi-level selection” are facing in their encounter with the reigning paradigm of individual- and gene-level selection. In a passage that didn’t make it into the final manuscript (but you can savor here), after outlining four distinct lines of evidence in support of multi-level selection, Haidt illustrates how unique humans are in the animal kingdom (with respect to good will beyond kin selection and reciprocal altruism) while poking fun at those who argue against group-level selection in human societies by pointing to examples of where it doesn’t exist among other animals:

Imagine going to the zoo with a friend who has never seen a giraffe and doesn’t believe they are real. He declares: ‘It is possible in theory for an animal to have a neck longer than ten feet. But I shall endeavor to prove that such long necks do not in fact exist.’ Your friend takes you to see lions, bears, elephants, snakes, and penguins. He takes measurements at each exhibit, each time exclaiming, ‘No long necks here!’ Each time you say, ‘Enough! Can we go to the giraffe house now?’ But your friend doesn’t seem to hear you.

Human beings are the giraffes of altruism. Yes, most of human nature was shaped by natural selection operating at the level of the individual. Most, but not all. We have a few group-related adaptations too, as many Americans discovered in the days after 9/11. We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90% chimp and 10% bee. If you take that claim metaphorically (not literally), then many of the groupish and hivish things that people devote their lives to doing will make a lot more sense. It’s almost as though there’s a switch in our heads that activates our hivish potential when conditions are just right.

2. The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson (publication date: April 9, 2012). Wilson, one of the world’s preeminent biologists, is the author of more than 25 books, including Sociobiology and the Pulitzer Prize–winning On Human Nature.

Description: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In a generational work of clarity and passion, one of our greatest living scientists directly addresses these three fundamental questions of religion, philosophy, and science while “overturning the famous theory that evolution naturally encourages creatures to put family first” (Discover magazine). Refashioning the story of human evolution in a work that is certain to generate headlines, Wilson draws on his remarkable knowledge of biology and social behavior to show that group selection, not kin selection, is the primary driving force of human evolution. He proves that history makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology. Demonstrating that the sources of morality, religion, and the creative arts are fundamentally biological in nature, Wilson presents us with the clearest explanation ever produced as to the origin of the human condition and why it resulted in our domination of the Earth’s biosphere. 90 illustrations.


The Social Conquest of Earth is a huge, deep, thrilling work, presenting a radically new but cautiously hopeful view of human evolution, human nature, and human society. No one but E. O. Wilson could bring together such a brilliant synthesis of biology and the humanities, to shed light on the origins of language, religion, art, and all of human culture.” (Oliver Sacks)

“Wilson’s newest theory … could transform our understanding of human nature—and provide hope for our stewardship of the planet. … [His] new book is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities … . Its impact on the social sciences could be as great as its importance for biology, advancing human self-understanding in ways typically associated with the great philosophers.” (Howard W. French, The Atlantic)

“A monumental exploration of the biological origins of the human condition!” (James D. Watson)

“Once again, Ed Wilson has written a book combining the qualities that have brought his previous books Pulitzer Prizes and millions of readers: a big but simple question, powerful explanations, magisterial knowledge of the sciences and humanities, and beautiful writing understandable to a wide public.” (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel)

Comment by Michael Dowd: Wilson, in his 1998 masterpiece, Consilience, urged natural scientists, social scientists, and scholars within the humanities to welcome rather than fear advances in knowledge that would ground each field within the knowledge base of the nested level of reality from which it emerged (e.g., chemistry emerging from physics, biology from chemistry, social dynamics from biology, and so on). Who would have guessed that, in pursuit of consilience between the biological and social sciences, Wilson would co-author a landmark paper in 2007 with evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (no relation) that would overturn one of the ideas he himself had pioneered in the 1970s? The title of that paper is “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology.” (Connie and I actually read an early draft of that paper when we were visiting David Sloan Wilson in his home in Binghamton, NY.) The abstract of the paper depicts multi-level selection as key:

Current sociobiology is in theoretical disarray, with a diversity of frameworks that are poorly related to each other. Part of the problem is a reluctance to revisit the pivotal events that took place during the 1960s, including the rejection of group selection and the development of alternative theoretical frameworks to explain the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors. In this article, we take a “back to basics” approach, explaining what group selection is, why its rejection was regarded as so important, and how it has been revived based on a more careful formulation and subsequent research. Multi-level selection theory (including group selection) provides an elegant theoretical foundation for sociobiology in the future, once its turbulent past is appropriately understood.

3. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm (publication date: May 1, 2012). Boehm is director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and a professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Boehm is the author of several previous books, including Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.

Description: For three decades, genetic altruism has been cited as the dominant theory to explain the paradox of human generosity; experts claim our altruism is limited to close kin. But Moral Origins tells a different story. By studying the social and natural environments of primates, Boehm has devised a convincing new hypothesis: as autonomy-loving humans became large game hunters, severe group punishment began to genetically favor individuals with superior self-control. Essentially, bullies and free-loader types were killed or expelled from social bands because they interfered with the survival of others in the group. This social bias singled out highly altruistic individuals as preferable marriage partners, political allies, and group leaders—what Boehm calls “social selection.” The result was the first stirrings of conscience, and the genetic effects eventually led to a fully-developed sense of shame. Rigorously researched and expertly argued, Moral Origins offers a new evolutionary paradigm of human generosity and cooperation. With its new perspective on the forces that shaped human morality, it offers insight into some of the toughest problems of our time—dealing humanely with those who transgress, and, perhaps, realizing how to prevent them from going bad to begin with.

Comment by Michael Dowd: This is my first encounter with the work of Boehm. I eagerly await his book.

Originally published on The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity: Conversations at the Leading Edge of Faith.