Evolutionary Religious Studies

"Is 'Do Unto Others' Written Into Our Genes?" This is the title of a September 18 New York Times article by journalist Nicholas Wade.

Here the bright new field of "evolutionary religious studies" comes front and center. The article analyzes a 2006 book, The Happiness Hypothesis, by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt (pronounced "Height").

I am anxious to get a copy of this book, as it seems to build new and alluring bridges between liberal and conservative religious perspectives. And it does so precisely by tracing the evolutionary history and adaptive value of five broad categories of religiously sanctioned "moral intuitions".

Within no more than a few years, I predict, religious conservatives and liberals alike will be clamoring to put to use in their own teachings new findings drawn from evolutionary psychology, evolutionary brain science, and evolutionary anthropology. More, both conservatives and liberals will come to depend on these new sciences for helping them (perhaps for the first time) understand the real-world, adaptive value of tenets held by their religious opposites.

Evolutionary biologist and author David Sloan Wilson is at the center of this revolution. The pivotal role that David and others, like Pete Richerson and Rob Boyd, have played in broadening modern darwinian thinking to include "group selection" is the reason why religious tenets (finally!) can be studied as evolutionary adaptations essential for group cohesion. (See "Beyond Demonic Memes: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion", David Sloan Wilson's critique of Dawkins' view of religion, on evolutionary grounds, in a recent issue of eSkeptic.)

I met David Wilson last January in Hawaii, where I was one of the evening plenary speakers at the first International Conference on the Evolution of Religion (see picture on right with Dan Dennett, Bill Irons, and myself on a yacht). Having written three highly acclaimed books, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (co-authored with Elliot Sober), Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, and Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, David came to the gathering as a leading light. His enthusiastic endorsement of my presentation made it easy for other scholars (a veritable Who's Who in the field) to also respond positively, despite my thoroughly nonacademic and admittedly evangelical and effusive presentation style!

Then, just a few weeks ago, Connie and I were guests at the home of David and his wife, Anne Clark, also a gifted scientist, in Binghamton, New York. We thrived on the rich exchange of ideas during our visit, and were honored to accept his invitation to add our names to the internet directory that David and his EvoS students are assembling of individuals (mostly academics and independent scholars) active in the field of "Evolutionary Religious Studies".