Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?
ANNOUNCEMENT: Seminar in History of Biology
AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill
COMMENTARY: Allen MacNeill
First the announcement, followed by a brief commentary:
I am very excited to announce the following course, to be offered this summer in the six-week summer session at Cornell University:
COURSE LISTING: BioEE 467/B&Soc 447/Hist 415/S&TS 447 Seminar in History of Biology
SEMESTER: Cornell Six-Week Summer Session, 06/26/07 to 08/02/07
COURSE TITLE: Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?
COURSE INSTRUCTOR: Allen MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University
COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).
In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that “…a belief in all-pervading spiritual entities seems to be universal.” A century later, Donald Brown, in his encyclopedic analysis of human universals, noted the same thing: that the capacity for religion is a universal trait, found in all human cultures. However, there is considerable individual variation in this capacity, ranging from people whose entire lives revolve around their religious beliefs to those who entirely lack them.
To an evolutionary biologist, such pan-specificity combined with continuous variation strongly suggests that one is dealing with an evolutionary adaptation. And indeed, in the past few years the publication of hypotheses for the evolution of the capacity for religion has become an explosive growth industry and a hot topic of debate. In this seminar course, we will take up this debate by considering three alternative hypotheses: that the capacity for religion is (1) an evolutionary adaptation, (2) a side-effect of an evolutionary adaptation, or (3) a “mind virus” with no direct evolutionary implications. We will read from some of the leading authors on the subject, including Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Newberg, and David Sloan Wilson. Our intent will be to sort out the various issues at play, and to come to clarity on how those issues can be integrated into the perspective of the natural sciences as a whole.
In addition to in-class discussions, course participants will have the opportunity to participate in online debates and discussions via the instructor's weblog. Students registered for the course will also have an opportunity to present their original research paper(s) to the class and to the general public via publication on the course weblog and via THE EVOLUTION LIST.
INTENDED AUDIENCE: This course is intended primarily for students in biology, history, philosophy, and science & technology studies. The approach will be interdisciplinary, and the format will consist of in-depth readings across the disciplines and discussion of the issues raised by such readings.
PREREQUISITES: None, although a knowledge of comparative anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and general evolutionary theory would be helpful.
DAYS, TIMES, & PLACES: The course will meet on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:00 to 9:00 PM in Mudd Hall, Room 409 (The Whittaker Seminar Room), beginning on Tuesday 26 June 2007 and ending on Thursday 2 August 2007. We will also have an end-of-course picnic at a location TBA.
CREDIT & GRADES: The course will be offered for 4 hours of credit, regardless of which course listing students choose to register for. Unless otherwise noted, course credit in BioEE 467/B&Soc 447 can be used to fulfill biology/science distribution requirements and Hist 415/S&TS 447 can be used to fulfill humanities distribution requirements (check with your college registrar's office for more information). Letter grades for this course will be based on the quality of written work on original research papers written by students, plus participation in class discussion.
COURSE ENROLLMENT & REGISTRATION: All participants must be registered in the Cornell Six-Week Summer Session to attend class meetings and receive credit for the course (click here for for more information and to enroll for this course). Registration will be limited to the first 18 students who enroll for credit.
REQUIRED TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):
Atran, Scott (2004) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 388 pages, ISBN #0195178033
Boyer, Pascal (2002) Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religion. Vintage Books, paperback, 448 pages, ISBN #0099282763
Dawkins, Richard (2006) The God delusion. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 416 pages, ISBN #0618680004.
Dennett, Daniel (2007) Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. Penguin Books, paperback, 464 pages, ISBN #0143038338
Newberg, Andrew & D'Aquili, Eugene (2001) Why god won't go away: Brain science and the biology of belief. Ballantine Books, paperback, 240 pages, ISBN #034544034X
Wilson, David Sloan (2003) Darwin's cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press, paperback, 268 pages, ISBN #0226901351
OPTIONAL TEXTS (all texts will be available at The Cornell Store):
Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, hardcover, 1,706 pages, ISBN #0393061345
Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Irenaus & Salter, Frank (1998) Indoctrinability, ideology, and warfare: Evolutionary perspectives. Berghahn Books, hardcover, 490 pages, ISBN #1571819231
Fitzduff, Marie & Stout, Chris (2006) The psychology of resolving global conflicts: From war to peace: Volume 1: Nature vs nurture. Praeger Security International, hardcover, 354 pages, ISBN #0275982084
Guthrie, Stewart (1995) Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford University Press, paperback, 336 pages, ISBN #0195098919
Hamer, Dean (2005) The God gene: How faith is hardwired into our genes. Anchor, 256 pages, ISBN #0385720319
Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. (2006) Why we believe what we believe: Uncovering our biological need for meaning, spirituality, and truth. Free Press, hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN # 0743274970
Persinger, Michael (1987) Neuropsychological bases of god beliefs. Praeger Publishers, 175 pages, ISBN #0275926486
Wolpert, Lewis (2006) Six impossible things before breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief. W. W. Norton, 243 pages, ISBN #0393064492
I realize that putting myself in between such formidable opponents is perhaps asking for trouble...but I couldn't possibly get into any more trouble than I did last summer, could I? Once again, we shall rush in where angels fear to tread, and consider a very topical topic. As was the case last year, I invite anyone with an interest in the question posed as the title of this blog to consider taking this course, or at least sitting in on our discussion online. We will have an online course blog, where any and all comments, criticisms, suggestions, and other trivia will be roasted and toasted...so long as they are civil. As for accusations that I'm biased, let me say upfront that I (like almost everyone else) have an opinion on the question: I believe (based on my research into this question) that the answer is "Yes" and that the specific context within which the capacity for religious experience has evolved is warfare...but we'll talk all about that this summer.
We may also talk about whether or not God (or gods, or whatever) exist, but that will not be the primary focus of the course, nor will I allow it to become the primary focus of our discussions. This course isn't about the existence or non-existence of God (or Darwin or me). It's about whether or not the ability to believe in things like God (or gods, or whatever) has adaptive consequences. It's a fascinating topic and I hope that enough people will sign up for the course with opposing viewpoints on this subject to make for as interesting a summer seminar as last year's was.
So, watch this space; when the course blog goes up, I will announce it here and provide links to all and sundry. And remember:
"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." – Voltaire