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Inspirational evolution: Tracing the taproot of religion

“True love means growth for the whole organism, whose members are all interdependent and serve each other. That is the outward form of the inner working of the Spirit, the organism of the Body governed by Christ. We see the same thing among the bees, who all work with equal zeal gathering honey.” — Ehrenpreis (1650)

David Sloan Wilson has made a career out of addressing controversial issues in evolutionary theory.

The professor of biological sciences with a joint appointment in anthropology is best known for championing a theory called multilevel selection, a theory that posits that adaptations can potentially evolve at all levels of the biological hierarchy — from genes to ecosystems. This idea became a heresy in the 1960s and Wilson has been arguing in its favor ever since he wrote his first paper on the subject as a graduate student in1975.

His most recent paper on the topic will be published in the May issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution. “Multilevel selection has finally become part of mainstream science, with implications that extend the length and breadth of biology and the human sciences,” he agreed.

But now, nearly 30 years after beginning his research, Wilson has embarked on a new challenge to show that evolution and religion are not far different. In his latest book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, released in 2002, Wilson joins the two topics in a process of proposing an evolutionary theory of religion that shakes both evolutionary biology and social theory at their foundation.

“Evolution provides the framework for studying our own species as well as the rest of life,” said Wilson, who joined Binghamton University’s faculty in 1988. “There is nothing that humans do, including practicing their religions, which cannot be approached in some sense of an evolutionary prospectus.”

Wilson touches on theology, psychology, history and anthropology, among others, as well as biology, seeking a unified theory of human behavior — evolution on one end and an explanation of religion on the other. Wilson decided to study religion from a multilevel evolutionary perspective nearly five years ago, resulting in the book, which begins with a passage that compares a religious group to a single organism and a social insect colony. According to Wilson, this metaphorical comparison can be treated as a serious scientific hypothesis. “The ability of human groups to function as adaptive units is a product of biological and cultural evolution in which the traits associated with religion play an important role,” he said. The key, he said, 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, he questions if we then can think of morality and religion as biologically and culturally evoked adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals.

Wilson presents a variety of evidence to bear on the question, from both the biological and social sciences. Using examples from Calvinism in sixteenth-century Geneva to Balinese water temples, from hunter-gatherer societies to urban America, Wilson shows how religions have enabled people to achieve collective action that they could never do alone.

Wilson’s book has been well received not only in academic circles but also in some religious circles. “This is not as strange as it might sound,” Wilson said, “because many values associated with religion are affirmed from an evolutionary perspective.” He has become a frequent speaker in science and religion fora throughout the nation and recently visited St. John’s University in Minnesota, a Catholic university and the oldest Benedictine monastery in America, where his lecture and a conversation with a group of faculty and monks was filmed for a National Public Television production.

Wilson’s interests are not limited to multilevel selection. “At any particular time, my graduate students and I can be studying anything from microbial communities, to shyness and boldness in fish, to gossip in humans,” he said. “The wonderful thing about evolution is that it provides a single conceptual framework that can be applied to any subject relevant to biology and human affairs.”

In one project published in the current issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Wilson studied physical attractiveness from an evolutionary perspective with Kevin Kniffin, his former graduate student in anthropology now at the University of Wisconsin.

“We show that people evaluate the physical attractiveness of people they know very differently than strangers,” he said. “If you like someone or if they are contributing to a shared goal, they appear more beautiful to you, apart from their physical features. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective if beauty is an assessment of fitness value and the value of a social partner is influenced by non-physical in addition to physical traits.”

In addition to his research, Wilson directs EvoS, BU’s new campus-wide evolutionary studies program, which is designed to allow any undergraduate or graduate student to learn the basic principles of evolution and their wide-ranging implications in parallel with their major or research concentration. “There has always been a transdisciplinary community of faculty at BU whose research and teaching are informed by evolution,” Wilson said. “However, EvoS organizes this community and makes it available to students in a way that is unique.”

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