The Emergence and Evolution of Religion By Means of Natural Selection by Jonathan H. Turner, Alexandra Maryanski, Anders Klostergaard Petersen, and Armin W. Geertz is both innovative and anachronistic. While the book presents cutting-edge research that links the evolution of neurological structures that allowed for increased sociality among humans to the emergence of religion, its discussion of the sociocultural evolution of religion hearkens back to long-refuted theories of sociocultural evolution from the nineteenth century, in particular the evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer. Conceptually, the book consists of two halves. The first half describes what the authors refer to as “Darwinian” or “non-teleological” selection. The main argument made in this section of the book is that religion emerged as the consequence of “pre-adaptations” for increased sociality among early hominins.1 The authors posit that the subcortical regions of the hominin brain, responsible for the experience and regulation of emotion, enlarged as they transitioned from the relative safety of forests onto savannahs where they were more vulnerable to predation.2 The enlarged subcortical areas increased the range of emotions experienced by hominins. The increased range of emotions from the enlarged subcortical regions strengthened and intensified social bonds, which allowed the average size of hominin social groups to increase. In order to handle the larger palate of emotions experienced by hominins, an increase in the size of the neocortex occurred that allowed for the development of several traits that are sine qua non for the development of religion, including language, increased capacity of mimicry, the ability to make causal attributions, and abstract thought, which allows humans to conceptualize a supernatural realm. The second half of the book describes four types of teleological (goal-directed) evolution, which are: Type-1 Spencerian Selection; Type-2 Spencerian Selection; Durkheimian Selection; and Marxian Selection. Each type of selection is named for the scholar that the authors argue first employed that type of selection either “explicitly or implicitly”3 (14). Each type of teleological selection is distinguished by 1) the level of competition that the selected traits influence, and 2) the specific types of traits that are being selected for. For example, Type-1 Spencerian Selection influences competition between societies and selects for traits that resolve “adaptive problems” for which there are “no existing sociocultural variants capable of managing these problems” (150). Conversely, Durkheimian Selection influences competition within societies and selects for traits that advantage individual religious organizations as they compete for resources with other religious organizations within an overall “niche” that is created by individuals seeking resources from religion (e.g., a sense of community) and sub-niches (e.g., churches that cater to a specific sociodemographic group) within the overall niche. The major contribution of the book is that it challenges two major notions within sociology regarding the origins and development of religion. First, it challenges the notion that evolutionary biology has no value when trying to explain the origins and development of religion. This notion likely stems from now-discredited theories of unilineal evolution that viewed “Western Civilization” as the pinnacle of social evolution. These views, famously supported by several of sociology’s founders, including August Comte and Herbert Spencer, were linked to scientific racism and the eventual emergence of the eugenics movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The authors easily refute this notion with the use of cladistic analysis. Drawing on evidence from primatology and cognitive neuroscience, their analysis reveals that humans possess neurological characteristics (i.e., enlarged subcortex and neocortex) not present in other extant ape species, which allow for the development of religion. Because these traits are present in humans and not present in other extant ape species, they likely emerged after the lineages of humans and other extant ape species diverged 13–16 million years ago. The second notion that the book challenges is the notion that theories of biological evolution alone are sufficient to explain the presence and diversity of religion in human societies. The authors argue that a multifaceted approach to explaining the evolution of religion that includes both biological evolutionary explanations and sociocultural evolutionary explanations is needed to sufficiently explain the presence and diversity of religion in human societies. They are less successful in their efforts to challenge this notion for three major reasons. First, the arguments put forward to support the existence of teleological selection lack the level of empirical support that exists for the arguments surrounding non-teleological selection. While several of the theories explaining the different types of teleological selection seem plausible, it’s not unreasonable to think that other, equally plausible explanations could explain these same phenomena. Second, the idea that more “fit” societies (and religions) persist while less “fit” societies (and religions) collapse ignores the wide variety of factors, including random chance, that determine the success or failure of a given society or religion. For example, a random change in the climate (e.g., a sudden drought) can devastate a society, leading to social and economic collapse (or cause people to turn away from a faith). Concurrently, a society (or religion) with similar characteristics that did not experience the random change in climate could persist and be deemed more “fit.” Finally, the assumption that modern religions had to evolve from simpler forms is a relic of the nineteenth century. While we know that biological evolution likely started with simple, unicellular life, there is no reason to think that cultural elements, which begin in the minds of humans, had to start in a more simplistic form than is present today. Overall, this book is most useful for scholars interested in understanding the current evidence and theories linking biological evolution and the development of religion in human societies. And while the sections on teleological selection are interesting, they can largely be taken with a grain of salt or ignored altogether. Footnotes 1 Ancestors of modern humans that are not shared with other extant ape species. 2 They were forced to make this transition as their forest habitats receded due to climatic changes. 3 Though on page 14 the authors acknowledge that some of the names used are both ironic and possibly misleading. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social Forces – Oxford University Press
Published: May 16, 2018
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