From edition

Review of Three Books on Evolution and Religion

Books under Review:

The Faith Instinct. How Religion Evolved and Why it Matters by Nicholas Wade. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. 310 pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-228-5.

The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques edited by Joseph Bulbulia, Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Genet, and Karen Wyman. Santa Marguarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2008. 406 pp. ISBN 0-9788441-1-4.

The Biology of Religious Behavior. The Evolutionary Origins of Faith and Religion edited by Jay. R. Feierman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2009. xix+301 pp. ISBN 978-0-313-36430-3.


The three books under review are part of a rash of recent books exploring biological and evolutionary aspects of religion. Together they make clear that the field is awash in ideas but has little systematic research. Although the field is in its (second) infancy, students of politics and culture should not ignore the potential implications if an evolutionary understanding of religion takes root.


Review of Three Books on Evolution and Religion

Politics and religion are both combustible topics on their own, and when linked as they often are today, the discussion can be incendiary. On the other hand, cool dispassionate discussion, research, and analysis of religion are valuable and much needed. Religion was first brought under the evolutionary umbrella well over a century ago. Today, in the wake of the sociobiological revolution, the persistent evolution vs. creation/ID controversy, the resurgence of religiously grounded conflicts and fanaticism, generous funding from the Templeton Foundation, the phenomenal growth and popularization of evolutionary psychology, and the imaging methods of neuroscience, biological and evolutionary accounts of religion have moved from an esoteric backwater to a major publishing frenzy, attracting many scholars and popular science writers. As with politics and gender studies, many writers on religion find they have great insights to urgently convey without needing to actually know much about the diversity of religious scholarship, religious history, theology, psychology of religion, anthropology, and so forth. Conversely, those wanting to develop or critique biological ideas seem to be a bit uninformed, if not actually confused, about modern evolutionary theory and scientific methods, let alone ecology, ethology, comparative psychology, and neuroscience. These books show the enthusiasm of those attracted to the field and the limitations that result. In other words, this is a fascinating time to both explore and assess the field.

In The Faith Instinct Nicholas Wade provides a compact and useful introduction to some of the major current ideas on the evolution of religion, including the controversy as to whether religion is an adaptation or the byproduct (spandrel) of other adaptations or features of our psychology and biology. While much of the historical survey of the early evolution of religion, especially the discussion of the roles of shaman, trance, dance, ancestor worship, morality, and so on in the origins of religion, is interesting and well-written, it is necessarily speculative. In the process Wade does compactly introduce evolutionary ideas such as group selection, costly and hard to fake signaling (asceticism, fasting), and sexual selection. He also provides a brief history of Judeo-Christianity and Islam. However, Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and those of China are greatly slighted. Daoism, Zen, and Shinto are not even in the index!

The Faith Instinct is a compact treatment useful for a beginning course introducing evolutionary ideas into religion with its over 300 endnotes and compact index. The last chapter on the future of religion claims that religiosity is, in fact an inherited instinct, though less overtly expressed in educated elites and secular states today, and that religions are becoming progressively more moral and less militaristic. Furthermore, religious teachings, “negotiated with the gods,” have played major roles in national and cultural identity, strengthened the social fabric (particularly in times of crisis), and provided an essential conservative repository of “the practical rules of moral, military and reproductive behavior, the distilled collective wisdom of leaders past and present as to the guiding principles most likely to ensure a society’s survival” (p. 277-278). I hear echoes of Edmund Burke.

The other two books under review are the results of meetings. The Evolution of Religion (Evolution) consists of 50 short papers from an international gathering held in Hawaii in 2007. The Biology of Religious Behavior (Biology) was based, in part, on a symposium on this topic held in Italy in 2008. It has 15 chapters, which are longer than those in Evolution. Three authors contribute to both volumes.

Evolution organizes the many short contributions into 8 sections on topics revolving around basic evolutionary issues, adaptation, tribalism, signal faking, cognitive, emotional, and neuroscience issues, methodology, and philosophical/theological premises. There are conflicting chapters on whether religions are really evolutionarily adaptive or byproducts of other adaptive or psychological mechanisms (also preoccupations of the other two books). Authors with all sorts of backgrounds and various levels of expertise focus chapters on a bewildering diversity of topics such as fire walking, paradise, adolescents, war, sexual selection, Hare Krishna, Sartre, and the soul. Lots of intriguing ideas are presented but, understandably, little closure is reached. The lack of an index makes using the book to compare contrasting approaches to similar topics virtually impossible.

There are too many ideas to highlight, so I will just mention one from the chapter by David Kydd. He develops  the idea of the ‘rachet effect,’ the notion that cultural niche opening innovations have a snowballing effect when accurately transmitted through imitative processes. Some major ones in human evolution, such as use of fire and invention of the handaxe, could have led to supposing that departed ancestors watch over the implementation of their innovations in the next generation. Thus a supernatural niche is born. While an intriguing idea, as a scientist I wondered how to test this and the myriad other ideas thrown out in this volume, so I turned with some hope to the section of papers on methodology. This was rather disappointing. Indeed, I venture the depressing conclusion that none of the seven chapters offer useful guidance to researchers, unless it is sufficient to throw out suggestions such as the value of looking at religion from ‘multidimensional’ perspectives, incorporating individual differences, using cognitive psychology, doing brain scans, considering kin selection theory, and so forth. There are, however, some occasional insights suggesting that the field is as primitive as many of the religious practices described in the book. For example, Gibson and Barrett note (p. 334) the need for “experimental methods and techniques that get beyond the explicit and normative sort of pronouncements” often found in studies of religion, and they call on psychologists to help. Having taught a Psychology of Religion course for several years now, I find that much of this literature is of limited application to evolutionary and biological questions. Most of the field is dominated by social psychologists wary of evolutionary and biological approaches to religion. In addition, the field’s reliance on survey methods and Christianity is problematic.  Finally, in a book purportedly on science, and evolution certainly is a scientific field, in 50 chapters I found only a dozen tables, many containing no data whatsoever, no graphs, and not even photos or drawings of religious phenomena. A photo of Darwin is on the cover of the book, however.

Turning to the Biology book, I had greater hopes, since the volume was more derived from biology and human ethology in particular. The chapters in this book actually have more depth  and treat issues such as gaze and attention, ritualization, ethological concepts of appetitive and consummatory behavior, costly signals, and cooperation. Again, however, the wealth of ideas discussed stands in sharp contrast to the limited testing of them. In fact, one chapter, whose lead author, Lyle Steadman, also appeared in Evolution, is titled “Developing a Testable Definition of Religious Behavior.” Certainly such a definition would be useful, and defining religion has had a long and checkered history. The definition offered is remarkably concise: religious behavior is the “communicated acceptance of a supernatural claim” (p. 31). How it is to be tested is not discussed. I wonder if water dowsing would fit.

In the Biology book I found two chapters that presented graphs and quantitative data in addition to one chapter containing a simplistic diagram of feeding behavior along with a strange diagram of string patterns purportedly comparing DNA and sacred texts, cell function and human societies. For a book focused on religious behavior there was not a single photograph or drawing of actual behavior other than on the dust jacket. The two chapters with graphs both focused on cooperative behavior. One was a computer simulation, but the other chapter, by Yamamoto, et al., the longest in the book, actually reported some fascinating experimental data comparing Brazilian evangelical Christians, Catholics and atheists in a sharing game played, purportedly, with those of similar or different beliefs. Some of the interesting results were that the evangelicals and atheists both preferred to play preferentially with those holding similar beliefs, but evangelicals more so than atheists. On the other hand, both groups shared equally with others across all belief groups, but atheists were more generous to atheists than were evangelicals to co-religionists. The experiment was an informative test of ingroup vs. outgroup solidarity and would be interesting to replicate in cultures with different religious mixes.

Finally, the Biology book does contain a quite useful and thorough 31 page index. But this also allowed for gathering some informative data. Irenäus Eibl-Ebesfeldt, acknowledged in this book as the founder of human ethology and an inspiration for the book, is barely cited at all. Given the fact that the book largely ignores the kind of descriptive analyses of human behavior in natural settings that he pioneered, this is understandable. But there is also no citation of E. O. Wilson or sociobiology. Ecology is not in the index, nor are Reynolds or Tanner, authors of an excellent book, chapters of which I assign to my students, that look at religious practices cross culturally and throughout the lifespan. But then again, Charles Darwin, who wrote considerably on religion and morality, is not in the index either! In fairness, however, Darwin is mentioned in the text in several places.

Many distinguished authors took part in these volumes. Much traditional scholarship and comparative religious information is provided, though rarely systematically. From the evidence in these books the evolution and biology of religion, as a field, has some way to go before it can be considered scientific. Neither book, I fear, will be effective in convincing scientists that the field is making useful advances, or convincing traditional scholars of religion or social science that evolutionary and biological approaches provide more useful stories about religion than those they are using already. And this is a pity, as I am convinced that consilience, as E. O Wilson envisions it, is at the basis of understanding the human condition.

What is going on, it seems to me, is that the field of religion and evolution is in its second infancy, having never matured from its first one. A major failing, in my view, is the avoidance of taking a good look at the history of thoughtful discussion of evolution and religion in the past. The current books are sources of some stimulating ideas, but they are eerily reminiscent of the intense interest in applying Darwinian ideas to all sorts of phenomena in the decades following publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Many of these failed due to the lack of appropriate methods and conceptual clarity, as was true of writings around the same time on animal minds and play. But many of these writers had, as in the fields of evolution of mind and play, some very useful ideas that were not recognized as such for many decades. I fear the same is true with religion. The 19th century writers had no predecessors to build on. Those of the 21st century do not have quite the same excuse.

Consider just one example. In writing a review of ethology, comparative psychology, and instinct from a historical perspective many years ago (Burghardt, 1973), I mentioned a particularly balanced and insightful book titled Instinct and Reason by Henry Rutgers Marshall (1898). This volume was largely ignored by behavioral scientists, perhaps because it focused on the instinctive and evolutionary aspects of religion. In fact, the subtitle was “An essay concerning the relation of instinct to reason, with some special study of the nature of religion.” Marshall even was aware of the adaptation vs byproduct controversy of today! But one should not, perhaps, be surprised that a book today titled The Faith Instinct ignores not only Marshall but the host of other writers on evolution and religion that participated in the first outpouring of evolutionary religious enthusiasm. It is even sadder when this literature, and the theories propounded and discussed, often in quite sophisticated ways, is ignored by the many authors of these two scholarly volumes. Perhaps they have explored and mined this literature elsewhere, but their omission here is telling indeed. For those interested in religion and evolution, these books are valuable for learning where the field is at today. I hope it progresses into a true adolescence and puberty with an accelerated life history.


Burghardt, G. M. (1973). Instinct and innate behavior: toward an ethological psychology. in The Study of Behavior: Learning, Motivation, Emotion, and Instinct. Pp. 322-400. (J. A. Nevin & G. S. Reynolds, eds.). Scott, Foresman: Glenview, Ill.

Burghardt, G. M. (1985). Animal awareness: Current perceptions and historical perspective. American Psychologist 1985, 40, 905-919.

Burghardt, G. M. (2005). The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Marshall, H. R. (1898). Instinct and Reason. Macmillan: New York.

Reynolds, R. & Tanner, R. (1995). The Social Ecology of Religion. Oxford Univ. Press: Oxford.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilence: The Unity of Knowledge. Random House: New York

This entry was posted in Reviews and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues