Animals evolve. People evolve. Can groups evolve?

Connor Wood

The pond-skater

Welcome back! This is the third installation of my series on religion and group-level evolution. Last time, we left off with the raging debates between scientists who champion kin selection and those who swear by group selection. Group selection is the idea that cooperative behaviors – like caring for others’ offspring or loudly warning neighbors about predators – evolved by competition between groups. By contrast, kin selection, or inclusive fitness, insists that altruistic behaviors evolve strictly to benefit relatives. For example, when a mother babysits her sister’s child, she may seem generous and giving, but she’s actually being genetically selfish – peer through the illuminating lens of inclusive fitness theory, and you’ll find that she’s just caring for a little package of copies of her own genes.  [Read more...]

Religion and evolution, part deux

Connor Wood

Gray Cranes

After a pleasant sojourn with ISIS in my last post, it’s time to get back to the question of whether religion is an evolved adaptation. In my last post on the evolution of religion, I mentioned that there was a brewing conflict between group selection and inclusive fitness models in biology. Did I say conflict? I meant outright, total war. Far be it from me to over-dramatize a scientific quarrel, but this one doesn’t need to be over-dramatized; it’s already plenty dramatic. From massive letters of protest signed by hundreds of biologists to name-calling to bald accusations of irrelevance leveled against major intellectual figures, the group selection/inclusive fitness debates are the major scientific conflict of the young 21st century. Grab some popcorn, okay?

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Anthropology, not demagoguery, is the way to understand ISIS

Connor Wood

ISIS Man 600x314

Recently, I started a series of blog posts on the evolution of religion. Those posts will start back up next time, but this week I’m stopping the presses to share something more important: Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist who studies religious terrorism, recently addressed the UN Security Council on the subject of ISIS and Islamist violence, and the message he brought was one the world desperately needs to hear.

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Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?

Connor Wood

Light bulb evolution

If you’ve ever had roommates, you know the frustration of realizing that not everyone is contributing equally. If you’re the one who’s always emptying the dishwasher or cleaning the bathroom, pretty soon you start to feel taken advantage of – because you are being taken advantage of. This commonplace fount of roommate resentment is about as mundane as it gets, but it’s also a timeless example of the huge, thorny cooperative dilemmas that have faced human societies since time immemorial. How does a group get everyone to contribute to the common good? How do you discourage free riders? Many researchers think that religion plays a key role in solving these difficult problems, which implies that religion might be an adaptation for group living. But if so, does that necessarily mean religion is good? [Read more...]

Is belief in heaven good for you? No. Yes. Maybe.

Connor Wood

Devil and angel drawings

One of the oldest stories in the book is the eternal tension between the individual and society. From restraining impulses to maximizing personal happiness, what’s good for the collective isn’t necessarily what’s good for the individual – and vice-versa. In the past couple of years, psychologists studying religion have discovered a fascinating new expression of this age-old tension: belief in heaven is good for individuals, but bad for societies – while belief in hell has exactly the opposite effects. These studies are well-designed and their results are compelling. But they don’t offer any easy answers. [Read more...]

Comments aren’t for atheist evangelism

Connor Wood

Important news update: I’ve changed the comments policy at Science On Religion. As of today, I’m only accepting comments that make substantive points about the content of articles. Criticisms and disagreements will be heartily welcomed, but one-note screeds for particular ideological positions – especially, but not limited to, Internet atheism – won’t be. If I determine that someone’s mission on my comments board is to hammer on his or her own views without any intention of taking part in substantive discourse, that person will be booted. Some of you (whoever you are) may disagree strongly with this new stance, and you’re perfectly within your rights to feel that way. But it doesn’t change my policy.

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Why the religion-science dialogue needs secular religious studies

Connor Wood

Science and Faith

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a one-day conference on religion and science in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The conference brought together scientists, religious leaders, and academics to discuss religion and science in the context of some of today’s pressing issues – such as climate change. But the mood wasn’t anxious. Instead, participants relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company, fleshing out their stances on religion and science while hearing witty talks from experts. At one point, though, it dawned on me that I was possibly the only conference attendee whose expertise was in the study of religion itself. What could academic religious studies offer to the religion-and-science dialogue? [Read more...]

Michael Shermer thinks he’s more moral than you

Connor Wood

Portrait of clueless man against red background

Remember how Europeans used to spend practically all their free time roaming around, conquering other people’s countries, and talking about superior how their culture was? Isn’t it great that those days are over? Oh, wait – they’re not. Michael Shermer, atheist extraordinaire and publisher of Skeptic magazine, has recently published a book arguing – literally – that Western societies are more moral than other cultures, because Westerners are better at abstract thinking. Shermer seems like a decent person (really). But history’s tragedies are made possible by decent people, and in his new book Shermer commits all the same sorts of moral fallacies that have powered cultural chauvinism since the days of Rome.  [Read more...]

Is willpower really a finite resource?

Connor Wood

Willpower

Over the past decade or so, there’s been a big groundswell in empirical research on religion. This is a good thing, because it means now we can actually point at data to answer questions about what role religion plays in culture, or whether religion is here to stay.* But just because empirical psychologists and cognitive scientists are publishing data-heavy papers on religion doesn’t mean everything they say is the gospel truth (pun intended). One recent paper shows that even our most cherished scientific conclusions can turn out to be red herrings, thanks to publication bias, cherry-picking results, and good old human error. [Read more...]

America’s public ritual gone terribly wrong

Connor Wood

Dark days for football

Last year around this time I wrote a piece, “Holden Caulfield and the Super Bowl,” in which I shook my finger at the smarmy geek-culture “Sportsball” meme. Sportsball, a word that conveys how very, very little speaker the proud speaker knows about sports, is a fine example of the conspicuous disdain of sports generally among certain educated types – those whose sense of personal identity derives solely from their being educated. For the rest of us, who have other, less desperately insecure sources of identity,* sports can be a welcome exercise in imagination and play. However, there’s truth to be found in more curmudgeonly descriptions of the Super Bowl as a “late-capitalist orgy of excess and jingoism.” Last night’s Super Bowl exhibited some of the worst aspects of ritual gone wrong. [Read more...]


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