Reviewed: ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ by Dr. David Sloan Wilson
So, when I decided that I would write a book review blog for Science Brainwaves I was a mere three pages through the introduction of ‘Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society’. With such a grandiose title I should have been more prepared for the gruelling task I had undertaken by opening the front cover. This book is no light summer read to be enjoyed over a glass of something cold and alcoholic; it demands the attention of your finest neurons. Nonetheless, if you stick to your guns, it is more than worth the effort.
The idea Dr. David Sloan Wilson is selling to the reader is that a successful religion functions to make its followers work better as a group. In turn, this helps a religious group outcompete a non-religious group and allows the group to dominate and reproduce in just the same way as with the natural selection we know and love. But surely religions can’t ‘evolve’ like trees, or dinosaurs or humans? Well the idea is that religions culturally evolve – the beliefs and practices that constitute a religion change and grow over time. Those beliefs and practices that lead a group to be successful will naturally stick around, while those that put their group at a disadvantage will be lost to the mists of time.
This seemingly simple idea is examined from every which way, from the point of view of evolutionary biology and from the point of view of the social sciences, while a convincing array of examples are presented, from the smallest tribal faiths to the biggest religious behemoths. The length that Wilson goes to in order to defend his thesis may be enough to put off a reader with only a mild interest. However, if like me you find the phenomenon of religion fascinating, then you will find ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ engaging and thought provoking. I found myself coming out of the book with a new found respect for the incredible complex constructs that religions are, though even more amazed by the power of evolutionary processes.
Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, and you might be forgiven for thinking his book on religion would constitute a full frontal attack of the Richard Dawkins variety. However, Wilson is quietly respectful of religious believers, and spends more time chastising militant atheists than pointing out any foibles of religious belief. This is a refreshing change from the tirades of the atheist brigade, although ultimately Wilson’s thesis is pretty damning for the truth of beliefs in gods and supernatural stuff – religious beliefs don’t need to be true in order to motivate any group-beneficial behaviours. Whether or not you think Wilson’s got it right, there’s certainly a lot here to make you think.
Wilson does warn the unwary reader that he hasn’t dumbed down. Yet despite some thorny content, his style remains very readable throughout and he resists using more technical terminology than is necessary, leaving only the concepts for you to get your mental teeth into. The result is that by the end you feel a little exhausted, and ready for a Dan Brown or two, but also satisfied that nothing was out of your league. If you have a penchant for talking about religions over a pint, and fancy a challenging new year read to forget the fact that it’s January, I would heartily recommend ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’.
Next to be reviewed: ‘Life Ascending’ by Nick Lane (much easier I’m hoping…)