The emergence and evolution of religion is a comprehensive attempt at explaining the path followed by “bio-socio-cultural” evolutionary processes leading to the emergence and progressive institutionalization of one of the virtually universal components of human beings’ way of life: religion. The authors are sociologists and scholars in religion studies, and this is certainly reflected in the book’s pages (in both general ways and more specific ones that will be addressed below). However, the book is not “just” a sociological account of religion; for about the first half of the book, the focus is on the long biological-evolutionary journey of primates and hominins, setting all the necessary pre-conditions for religion to emerge and evolve. This first half of the book (Chapters 1 to 5) offers an accessible and accurate account of the main evolutionary trends at play in the evolution of our lineage, from the appearance of the early primates (55 million years ago), to the branching of the hominoid lineage of apes and hominins (24-28 million years ago), to the great apes (orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees) and the intricate evolution of Australopithecines and genus Homo. The first five chapters are not only interesting per se, but also specifically for scholars in science and theology, as they really offer a useable account of the evolution from which H. sapiens emerged. Of note are two tables (pp. 128-29, at the beginning of Ch. 6), where the authors summarize the ten pre-adaptations and the fifteen behavioural propensities that are crucial for the emergence of religion and that are established by the long evolutionary journey “directed” by Darwinian selection, as described in the first five chapters. With Chapters 6 and 7, the book comes to focus directly on the processes “making Homo sapiens religious” (p. 130). Here the social dimension gets central stage, and religion is regarded from what I would characterize as an “institutional standpoint” – though “institutional” here should be understood in a sufficiently broad sense encompassing also the first social arrangements of hunter-gatherers based on the institution, indeed, of the nuclear family. From here, the book leads the reader up to recent (certainly relative to the emergence of primates 55 million years ago) historical happenings such as the transition to so-called “Axial-age” religions (sixth century BCE), the Spanish conquest of Americas in the sixteenth century, or the contemporary-history case of the war in Sri Lanka.
In a sense, therefore, the first half of the book concerns the emergence of religion, whereas the second half focuses on the evolution of religion. However, the two halves are not “formally” divided into separate parts of the book; indeed, they are held together … “by means of natural selection” – the book’s subtitle. Natural selection constitutes the fil rouge of the entire book; it plays a key role both in the first half – more biologically- entred and addressing the emergence of religion – and in the second half – more sociologically-centred and focusing on the evolution of religion. Already in the first half, natural selection is the main notion: “the Darwinian portion of our analysis focuses on how the brain became rewired; hence, the other forces of the Modern Synthesis on evolution – that is, mutations, gene flow and genetic drift – are less important than directional natural section, which selects on existing traits in the phenotype of individuals…” (p. 47). This sentence captures very well what the authors do in the “Darwinian portion” (the first half) of the book – though certainly does not capture the richness and vividness of the arguments offered.
The second half, as mentioned, moves to the societal evolution of religion. Here, the dynamics considered are no longer in the realm of “Darwinian selection”, but there are still selection processes, and still “natural” on the author’s account: “Once we leave Darwinian natural selection on individual organisms and shift analysis to what Herbert Spencer termed superorganisms – that is, organizations of organisms into societies – the nature of selection changes. It is still ‘natural’ in the general sense of being endemic to patterns of social organization …. Therefore, … we need to understand the distinction among the types of selection that are not Darwinian … to take account of the fundamental differences in evolution between human superorganisms and individual organisms” (p. 48).
One of the most insightful features of the book is the definition, by the authors, of four types of non-Darwinian natural selection active at the level of superorganisms and regulating the evolution of religion (i.e. the historical processes of change, competition, spread and “extinction” of religious forms across human societies). The four types are: Spencerian selection type 1, Spencerian selection type 2, Durkheimian selection, and Marxian selection, thus labelled after the scholars who first proposed the basic mechanisms at the core of each of the four types (Herbert Spencer, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx). These types of non-Darwinian natural selection are complexly defined in the book, thanks in part to detailed diagrams, and progressively clarified, thanks to brief but well-presented accounts of actual historical cases. To give the reader at least a glimpse of how these selection types are defined, the following points may be helpful.
• Type-1 Spencerian selection – addressed in Ch. 7 – occurs in human superorganisms when adaptive problems occur for which “there is no existing variants of social structures or cultural codings that can deal with” those problems (p. 26). The teleological character of this kind of selection is stressed, as the individuals in the social structures are pushed to invent new variants. An analogy with “Lamarkian” processes is outlined, as the invented new variants are acquired by the individuals and social structures and then passed on to next generations. It is important to stress that, besides the societal level just mentioned, the authors propose that Type-1 Spencerian selection also includes person-level selection pressures that derive from the fact that individuals within superorganisms are not passive entities but are characterized by agency (something related to the abovementioned teleology). Such person-level selection pressures are triggered by what the authors define as “need- tates and behavioural propensities” of individuals (p. 30).
• Type-2 Spencerian selection – treated in Ch. 9 – occurs when, in response to Type-1 pressures, regulatory polity evolves and inequalities increase within the society, so that religion evolves to legitimate polity and consequent inequalities. Religions, then, spread through geopolitical warfare, thus becoming a legitimating force for conquest and control. The spread of a religion through this type of selection process may assume a more coercive (imposing) or a more co-opting (reconciling) stance towards pre-existing religious forms in the areas where the religion concerned tends to spread.
• Durkheimian selection – described in Ch. 8 – intervenes when religious “cult structures” become fully institutionalized, so that they can be regarded as “units under selection by more Darwinian-sounding mechanisms” (p. 35). Here the cult structures compete within a given “resource niche” (which includes both material and non-material resources), so that the fittest structures expand within the niche, whereas individuals pertaining to less fit cult structures either migrate to other niches, or create a new resource niche. This leads to an increasing social differentiation. Such niche-related selection is labelled as Durkheimian by the authors as Durkheim was the first to import Darwinism into sociology. However, Durkheimian selection is distinguished from the strictly Darwinian one mainly because the entities under selection are “goalseeking corporate units” (p. 37, emphasis added). It is important to stress that Durkheimian selection holds as long as the conflict remains within the religious realm.
• Marxian selection – considered in Ch. 10 – is the fourth type of non- Darwinian selection proposed by the authors. Here, “the key point is that certain conditions lead to conflict that falls outside the bonds of Durkheimian selection because the conflict is over the very institutional systems – economy, markets, polity, law, and religion – that often regulate Durkheimian competition over resources” (p. 41). Though the authors clearly acknowledge the limits of Karl Marx’s original proposal, labelling this type of selection as “Marxian” is rooted in the fact that the basic dynamics are those of conflict between distinct portions of a given larger society. The contraposition is spelled out, by the authors, in terms of the conflict between the dominant organization in a society and what they define as “social movement organizations” (SMOs). The outcome of such a conflict is always a change in institutional organization. If the dominant organization wins the conflict, then institutional changes to increase social control are implemented; if the SMO(s) win the conflict, then the earlier dominant system is changed and the new institutional arrangement has the potential to be exported to other societies affected by high levels of injustice and complaint. It is important to stress that religious cult structures often play a key role in such Marxian-type processes as they usually have higher levels of organization and identity than non-religious emerging SMOs.
Obviously, much more could – and perhaps should – be said about this very interesting book, but reasons of space force me to add just a couple of considerations. The first is on the first half of the book that, as understandable, extensively addresses the evolution of the brain from primates to H. sapiens, and on the behavioural propensities ensuing from brain evolution.
Brain evolution is very often investigated from the viewpoint of the evolution of the neocortex, as this is the brain’s part where higher cognitive capabilities (such as, e.g., language and consciousness) are implemented. Turner and colleagues, however, put an unusual but important emphasis on the “subcortex” (especially the limbic system) where emotions are mainly processed. The reasons for this are twofold: i) they argue that without the growth of those sub-cortical structures prior to the increase in the neocortex, and without the possibility of an “palette of emotions”, the neocortex increase would have been hindered and perhaps even useless; ii) emotions are essential to inter-individual and social dynamics, including those at the core of religion. Chapter 4 offers a detailed discussion of the evolution of emotions, and I think this is a valuable and highly informative part of the book.
The second, brief consideration, concerns the prominence given to selection processes throughout the book. One of the motivations for this is offered by the authors themselves. “Our goal is to expand and extend the power of evolutionary theorizing rather than remaining confined within the limitations of evolutionary theorizing in biology, strictly speaking. […] To expand inquiry and yet maintain some continuity with biology, we focus on the main mechanism of evolution – selection.” (pp. 46-7, emphasis added).
This is certainly a good move: I am convinced that topics in the humanities, social sciences, and in Science & Theology as well, cannot avoid a serious and frank confrontation with the life sciences in general. Moreover, as we have seen, the book offers a really extended conception of “natural selection”, which turns out to be illuminating for understanding the evolution of religion. My only worry as to this, is that selection does not explain everything; and in the case of religion (and of human culture in general) it may risk missing the most important part, the one related to creativity, invention and planning, i.e. dynamics that play a crucial role in human societies and their evolution. It is not by chance that, as we have mentioned, the authors acknowledge that the distinctive feature of the non- arwininan types of selection proposed in the book is the teleological character of the “human superorganisms” as well as of the agency of rganisms (persons) constituting them. Again not by chance, at the very end of the book, in the Epilogue, the authors state that “Emphasis on selection is not, of course, the only explanation of religious evolution, but is nonetheless a useful one that adds to the power of social science explanation” (p. 246). I think that the ability to address what is behind, or beneath, selection – always in terms coherent with the most recent advances in the life sciences – will add supplementary power to the study of human religion and culture.
That said, the book reviewed here represents a key contribution, both for the number of detailed proposals the authors forward, and for the amount of information the book offers to an interdisciplinary readership. I am sure that many ESSSAT friends and scholars engaged in different parts of the study of science and theology will find this book significantly helpful for their own research (as it has been for me).
Pontifical Antonianum University, Rome
Reprinted from ESSSAT News and Reviews, n. 27:4 (December 2017), pp. 24-28.