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A Beginner’s Guide to Evolutionary Religious Studies

BeginnersGuide The downloadable file at right (PDF) provides an introduction that can be read without any prior training in evolutionary theory. In addition, here are some quick answers to questions that are frequently asked about evolutionary theory in relation to religion and other aspects of human behavior.

Why is the field of evolutionary religious studies so new?

From the very beginning, Darwin and his colleagues were keenly interested in studying all aspects of humanity from an evolutionary perspective, including religion. However, this inquiry led in directions that can be recognized as false in retrospect. Cultural evolution was envisioned as a linear progression from “savagery” to “civilization,” with European societies most advanced. Herbert Spencer and others used evolution to justify a hierarchical society (“Social Darwinism”). Janet Browne’s magnificent 2-volume biography of Darwin and his times (Voyaging and The Power of Place) suggest that these views were inevitable against the background of Victorian culture. Instead of challenging the support that evolutionary theory lent to these views, the theory as a whole became off-limits for many human-related disciplines during most of the 20th century. The controversy surrounding the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975 illustrates the tenor of the times. The modern study of humans from an evolutionary perspective represents a “fresh start” that is based on a much more sophisticated body of theory and knowledge from the biological sciences and bears almost no resemblance to earlier “evolutionary” theories. The field of evolutionary religious studies is part of this broader trend.

How can something as cultural as religion be studied from an evolutionary perspective?

It is typical to portray terms such as “culture” and “learning” as alternatives to terms such as “evolution” and “biology.” According to this formulation, evolutionary theory can explain other species and certain aspects of humans, such as our desire to eat and mate, but not other aspects, such as our rich cultural diversity. This formulation makes little sense from a modern evolutionary perspective. Culture and learning are manifestly important in our species, but they need to be understood from an evolutionary perspective rather than being regarded as an alternative. The capacities for learning and culture require an elaborate architecture that evolved by genetic evolution. Moreover, learning and cultural change can be regarded as fast-paced evolutionary processes in their own right. The bottom line is that evolutionary theory provides a framework for understanding cultural diversity in addition to biological diversity.

If cultural evolution refers to any kind of cultural change, doesn’t it explain nothing by explaining everything?

Consider an analogy with genetic evolution, which is defined as any kind of genetic change, whether by mutation, selection, drift, linkage disequilibrium, and so on. It is important for the definition to include everything to provide a complete accounting system for genetic change. The definition is not empty because specific categories of change are determined on a case-by-case. Thus, we might decide that guppy spots (and their associated genes) evolve primarily by selection, that mitochondrial genes evolve primarily by drift, and so on. Similarly, it is important for the definition of cultural evolution to be all-inclusive to provide a complete accounting system. What saves it from being empty is a number of meaningful sub-categories that can be determined on a case-by-case basis.

What is the relationship between evolutionary theory and other theoretical perspectives, such as Marxism, rational choice theory, or functionalism?

Most scholars and scientists who study religion are not young-earth creationists. They expect religion to be natural phenomenon that can be explained without invoking supernatural agents. They fully accept the theory of evolution, including humans as a product of evolution. Thus, they implicitly assume that their particular theoretical framework is consistent with evolutionary theory, without requiring much knowledge about evolutionary theory. For example, rational choice theory assumes that human behavior can be explained in terms of individual utility maximization. When pressed for an explanation, a rational choice theorist would presumably say that utility maximization evolved as a genetic or cultural adaptation—those who failed to maximize their utilities were not among our ancestors. In this fashion, when the axioms of any given naturalistic perspective are questioned, they involve assumptions about evolution. Unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect) these assumptions can be improved by a sophisticated knowledge of current evolutionary theory. In this fashion, other theoretical perspectives become integrated into evolutionary theory rather than providing an alternative. Virtually all naturalistic theories of religion that were developed without using the E-word can be given a formulation within evolutionary theory, enabling them to be compared with each other more productively than before.