DARWIN’S CATHEDRAL, Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, by David Sloan Wilson. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. 233 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Softcover; $14.00. ISBN 0-226-90135-1.


Over one hundred years ago, psychologist William James delivered his Edinburgh Gifford Lectures on “The Variety of Religious Experience” (TVORE). A committed empiricist, James respectfully examined a wide variety of individual experiences, remaining (see lecture XX, page 509, of the 1929 Random House edition), agnostic, if not atheistic. It was not until six years later, in his book “A Pluralistic Universe,” that he came to a different stance, as William Dean describes in chapter 4 of his recent book, “The American Spiritual Culture.” (1)


David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University, offers a companion book to James, investigating religion using the tools of evolutionary biology. Seeing all culture as an organism, he argues that individual religious bodies within it are best analyzed as adaptive groups (Four other competing models are discussed and rejected). Claiming that symbolic thought is what separates humanity from the animal kingdom, he differentiates between two types of realism, factual and practical. Science, he argues, has chosen factual realism as its “god,” but evolution indicates that  following practical realism, even though it may not be based on “facts,” is often a superior course of action.


This book is heavy reading (as is James’ TVORE), but it is well worth study. One need not agree with Wilson’s assessment of the gospels as “poor history” to gain the same kind of understanding of religious organizations as James provided of religious experiences. Wilson’s conclusions appear on page 228:


“Those who regard themselves as nonreligious often scorn the other-worldliness of religion as a form of mental weakness. … This stance can itself be criticized for misconstruing and cheapening a set of issues that deserves our most serious attention …


“In the first place, much religious belief is not detached from reality … . Rather, it is intimately connected to reality by motivating behaviors that are adaptive in the real world … . It is true that many religious beliefs are false as literal descriptions of the real world, but this merely forces us to recognize two forms of realism; a factual realism based on literal correspondence and a practical realism based on behavioral adaptedness. An atheist historian who understood the real life of Jesus but whose own life was a mess as a result of his beliefs would be factually attached to and practically detached from reality.


“In the second place, much religious belief does not represent a form of mental weakness but rather the healthy functioning of the biologically and culturally well-adapted human mind. Rationality is not the gold standard against which all other forms of thought are to be judged. Adaptation is the gold standard against which rationality must be judged, along with all other forms of thought. Evolutionary biologists should be especially quick to grasp this point because they appreciate that the well-adapted mind is ultimately an organ of survival and reproduction. If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time (Wilson 1990). To paraphrase evolutionary psychologists, factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.


“In the third place, disparaging the otherworldly nature of religion presumes that nonreligious belief systems are more factually realistic. It is true that nonreligious belief systems manage without the gods, but they might still distort the facts of the real world … . We know that this is the case for patriotic versions of history, which are as silly and weak-minded for people of other nations as a given religion for people of other faiths.”


In Wilson’s analysis, there is much of value. I recommend this book highly; it is another “keeper.” Unlike James, Wilson did not include comments on his own religious beliefs. I wish he had done so. Such a practice was more acceptable in years past, but in this case the reader must speculate on his own.


(1) See my review of Dean’s book in PSCF, September 2003, Vol 55, Number 3, page 207.


Reviewed by John W. Burgeson,

1114 East 4th Ave,

Durango, CO 81301.


Submitted to PERSPECTIVES January 8, 2004. 741 words.