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Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  317 ratings  ·  44 reviews
One of the great intellectual battles of modern times is between evolution and religion. Until now, they have been considered completely irreconcilable theories of origin and existence. David Sloan Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral takes the radical step of joining the two, in the process proposing an evolutionary theory of religion that shakes both evolutionary biology and soci ...more
Paperback, 268 pages
Published October 1st 2003 by University of Chicago Press (first published 2002)
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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Nebuchadnezzar
David Sloan Wilson has made an interesting, if ultimately flawed, attempt to apply multi-level group selection to the study of human evolution and religion. Perhaps it's because the standards of this genre seem to have become non-existent in recent times, but I almost feel bad ragging on Wilson here. Quite unlike your average evolutionary psychology tract, Wilson's work is very much informed by the scholarship in religious studies and anthropology. There's much more to be had in this than many o ...more
Savyasachee
TL;DR: Treat this book as a textbook and take your time reading it. It's brilliant, but the author's thesis is new, untested, and requires a lot of validation.

This book deserves more than a 3/5. David Sloan Wilson opened my eyes to a whole new way of applying a skillset consisting of math, evolutionary biology and economics to the study of human society. Actually, that is a misnomer. I had no conception of what it takes to really study religion before I began reading this book and thus, Darwin's
...more
Katja
Nov 27, 2014 rated it liked it
This book should come with a warning – the first two chapters are terrifically boring and can probably be safely skipped. Wilson spends the first 100 or so pages (in a 230-page book) summarising in some depth evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. This has the frustrating effect of Wilson constantly telling you for 100 pages what he’s going to talk about but seemingly never getting there (I can hear Monty Python in my head yelling, “get on with it!”). These first two chapters are also ...more
Jeremy Lyon
Apr 17, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
The main thrust of David Sloan Wilson's argument in this book is that religion (and other human cultural institutions) can be meaningfully analyzed from an evolutionary perspective, that in certain circumstances it makes sense to discuss the purpose of religion as it applies to the adaptive fitness of human beings.

To make that argument he has to show that a lot of what the Academy believes about evolution, on the one hand, and social science, on the other, is either inaccurate or misguided. To t
...more
Clif
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy, science
Science and religion in our time are boxers in the ring. Is it possible to bring the two together in a way that makes one appreciate both?

Darwin's Cathedral has achieved this seemingly impossible task. David Sloan Wilson looks at religion as a practical adaption, a way in which a group of human beings can fit itself better for survival. This useful aspect of religion is something that has no connection with the factual authentication of beliefs, quite the contrary, as Wilson states when speaking
...more
Peter
Sep 16, 2009 rated it liked it
Interesting but somewhat labored thesis that religions, like other human social structures develop according to an evolutionary model based on developing and nurturing characteristics that make then functionally more likely to persist. These characteristics are called group adaptive as they are played out in behaviors and actions which may not necessarily be to the advantage of the individual but are to the advantage of the group. Wilson breaks this theory down to specific characteristics which ...more
Dan Gorman
May 30, 2017 rated it liked it
A very solid and thought-provoking book, with major implications for the evolution of culture and the effects of group selection on how we think & behave. But as a non-biologist, I did not fully understand all of its contents. This is a book I would like to read in a seminar or book club with a few scientists participating.
Peter Makai
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Demonstrates our religious nature better than Dan Dennett. Nuff said.
Jukka Aakula
Apr 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Reread the book.

My review from 2006 https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-re...
...more
Jonathan Tweet
Aug 01, 2016 rated it really liked it
Evaluates religion from a naturalistic perspective, as a system for coordinating social behavior.
Arihant Chawla
Apr 29, 2020 rated it liked it
3.5
Very ambitious attempt at proving the hypothesis of organized religion as adaptive units of evolution. and treat the organismic concept of religious groups as a scientific hypothesis and try to explain them using multilevel Darwinistic selection theory
The author makes the claim that religious groups are Darwin Machines which are both the result of and a log in the machine of evolution and can adapt to cultural, political, environmental etc factors.

The central dichotomy revolves around ideal
...more
Leonardo
Sep 17, 2018 marked it as to-keep-reference
Reading Wilsons Darwins Cathedral is like taking a journey to Spaceland. You can look down on the vast tapestry of human cultures and see why things are woven in the way that they are. Wilson says his own private hell would be to be locked forever into a room full of people discussing the hypocrisies of religion, for example, that many religions preach love, compassion, and virtue yet sometimes cause war, hatred, and terrorism. From Wilsons higher perspective, there is no contradiction. Group se ...more
Ron
Jan 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
A brave and practical case made for the evolutionary value of religion.

I felt hints of Spenglerian thought in his story, although less fatalistic.

Favourite quotes:

"I have already commented that religious injunctions such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are clearly adaptive at the group level. It is almost embarrassingly obvious that groups who obey these rules will function well as adaptive units, compared to groups that do not. The more one learns about Judaism, the more this impre
...more
Silvio
Aug 19, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Religion as something special

It was a hard read for me, maybe a little bit above my "paygrade". David Wilson have done a nice work trying to apply evolutionary science based hypothesis to the study of religion. One is group theory, which is not mainstream supported by other evolutionary biologists (my understanding and I could be wrong). Also he uses some of the conclusions to defend religions in general against the position of new atheists: this is a low point for me at least. However he notes
...more
Adam Karapandzich
Dec 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
Although I'm fascinated by the subject, Wilson's presentation of it was not enjoyable. This is perhaps the dullest book I've ever read on evolution. There are too many instances of extended quotes, examples, and tangents that don't progress the narrative. There is no deep dive into the actual evolution of religion itself either. It's almost as if humans didn't have religion, magically received it, and religion evolved from there. ...more
Iulian
Jan 23, 2021 rated it really liked it
The author changed my mind on the importance of multi level selection and within it the group selection. The author brings great critiques to the existing theories of religions. However, his thesis still needs mlre work and more debates from peers.
Steve Hegge
Oct 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Dry, academic.
Riversue
Mar 08, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Best book I have read on the subject. I'm now diving through the bibliography to learn more. ...more
Jacob van Berkel
Sep 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: people interested AND patient
Recommended to Jacob by: Jonathan Haidt
Shelves: religion
Jonathan Haidt on this book's thesis:
When opponents of evolution object that humans are not mere apes, they are correct. We are also part bee.
And I liked the thesis. But the book, as a book, not so much. Especially the first 85 pages or so were quite the slog.
...more
Tomas Kristofory
Feb 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Sloan Wilson applies his multilevel selection scenario to outline an analysis of the evolution religions. It is just an outline, not an inquiry. An outline goes as follows. A withing-group selection occurs in originary small tribes. In more populous groups there prevails a between-group selection because of the need to cooperate in larger groups. An adaptationist argument applies here. Sloan Wilson traces adaptationist argument from Durkheim on. Religions help societies adapt to their environmen ...more
Lee Harmon
Oct 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Can evolutionary methods be used to study the development of religion? David Sloan Wilson, a renowned evolutionary biologist, proposes that religion evolved because of the advantages it confers on those who share in it. Religion may even have contributed to humanity’s rise as the dominant animal on earth. By studying religious concepts in their group settings (religions are well known for their in-group morality and out-group hostility), Wilson places the evolution of social behavior, and religi ...more
Lea
Feb 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Wilson's argument that religions can be understood in evolutionary terms as organisms unto itself, provided one understand evolution in multi-level terms, is clearly laid out and lucidly articulated.

There were places where I wondered if his generalizations were too broad. For instance, he has an interesting explanation for why Judaism has been so widely persecuted yet just as widely enduring over time and place, but it doesn't seem to apply to the state of Israel. It seemed an oversight that he
...more
Bill Pritchard
Jul 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Wow did this book take me a while to finish. Densely written, wonderfully researched, Dr. Wilson takes Religion on a test drive when viewed thru a scientific method - starting with Darwin and then to modern scientific thought and analysis. No, this is not a book that debunks Religion - in fact it is the opposite. It is an attempt to attach Religion to the communities that raised it from a cult to a sect to a Religion. The sections on the concept of Forgiveness were especially well done. But unle ...more
Michael
Jun 13, 2016 rated it liked it
An interesting premise, (basically that religion is a group level evolutionary adaptation, not altogether different from the group selection that occurs in eusocial insects), but one that is laboriously explained. I understand that it is an academic book and that Wilson's aim is to be as thorough as possible, but I found his style repetitive and his examples to be somewhat sparse. I came out of reading the book agreeing with him, and I think that religion can be most effectively hypothesized thr ...more
Andrew
Nov 01, 2007 rated it liked it
The author makes a good case that religion allows societies to form groups that can then undergo group selection. However I feel the author did not make a great case for the existence of group selection itself. I also felt the author did not explain very well what the source of genetic variation is that selection can act upon in religious groups. But if we can believe the author's assessment of previous religious theory in sociology or anthropology it seems his thesis has a lot to offer in terms ...more
Nicolai
Aug 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
this is a refreshing view from an evolutionary biologist that sees religion from an evolutionary biology perspective (a church is an organism). it is much more accepting of religion as a biological function than writings of for example dawkins.

dawkins takes a genes eye view of everything and blieves it to be the only unit of selection .

sloan wilson believes in multi-level selection

gene
genome
organells
cell
organism
family
interpretive group
society
species

u highlighted a load of suff n this book
Denise
The first two chapters almost did me in, I was ready to drop the book and move on to other material. I did manage to finish; I'm not entirely sure it wouldn't have been better to leave off after the second chapter.

The history is engaging, the group selection analysis inadequate. His analogies do not work and his examples inconclusive.
...more
Niels
Dec 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
While it takes some time and effort to really get into this book, Wilson delivers a stunning argument for the evolution and (continued) existence of religion. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful in convincing this molecular biologist, Darwin's Cathedral is a great read with a great many eye openers. ...more
Ed
Feb 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing
A marvelous account of the evolutionary value of religion. I had seen this book cited in other books I read and thought I would go to the source code. It really presents a convincing case for the evolution of religious belief and its value for survival.
Nigel Stanger
This was an interesting book, but reads too much like a thesis to have broad appeal. The concept of religious groups as adaptive units is interesting, however, and would go a long way towards explaining the persistence of religion.
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David Sloan Wilson has been a professor of evolutionary biology at Binghamton University for more than twenty years. He has written three academic books on evolution, authored hundreds of papers, some with E.O. Wilson, and his first book for a general audience was Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think. ...more

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