"The Whole Mass a Paradice"

By de Waal, Frans B. M. | Natural History, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

"The Whole Mass a Paradice"


de Waal, Frans B. M., Natural History


Is religion an adaptation that enables groups to function as single units?

While many people have (begun to worry about religious fanaticism and the violence it injects into the world, a biologist has decided to probe the evolution of religion. In doing so, David Sloan Wilson (no relation to entomologist Edward 0. Wilson) compares organized religion to insect societies: harmonious and cooperative on the inside, intolerant of the outside.

Parallels between human and insect societies are far from new. As early as 1714, Dutch philosopher Bernard de Mandeville achieved widespread fame with his lengthy poem The Fable of the Bees (subtitled Private Vices, Publick Benefits), in which he compared civilization to a beehive wherein all individuals happily gratify one another's pride and vanity:

Thus every Part was full of Vice

Yet the whole Mass a Paradice;

Religions are the purported enemies of vice. The Taliban's religious police force, given the Orwellian title General Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, meted out floggings to women who allowed their faces or ankles to show. Fundamentalist Christians in the West are similarly intolerant, as illustrated most recently by the Reverend Jerry Falwell's comment that gays and lesbians are partly to blame for the 9/11 attacks. Yet somewhat surprisingly, Wilson does not dwell much on the coercive side of religion-not even when he discusses John Calvin's tightly controlled religious enclave in sixteenth-century Geneva. Wilson prefers to emphasize the cooperative and altruistic aspects of religious groups and their benefits for believers. Religion, he says, is a good thing for those who abide by its rules.

The argument is twofold: that organized religions function much like beehives or ant colonies, in which all members contribute to the greater good (sometimes at a cost to themselves but mostly to their benefit); and that the tendency to build such solidarity must have evolved by means of group selection. The first point is interesting and new, whereas the idea that selection can operate on entire groups-not only on individuals or on clans of close kin-has been offered many times before by the author (and is still regarded by many biologists as slightly heretical). If one group out-reproduces another and if groups don't mix-so the reasoning goes-the genes enabling the first group to do better will spread.

The book's strength is its convincing argument that religious groups often act like a single organism. We learn about Calvinism (in impressive detail), Judaism, early Christianity, established churches, modern sects, and a system of temples and aqueducts on Bali that are dedicated to the water goddess in the island's crater lake. The emphasis is not on what kind of gods) people believe in, or on how they worship, but rather on what they get from religion.

French sociologist and philosopher Smile Durkheim used the phrase "secular utility" for benefits derived from belonging to a religious community. Quite in contrast to the antireligious obsessions of biologists such as T. H. Huxley and Richard Dawkins, the attitude Durkheim held was that something as pervasive and universal as religion must serve a social purpose; he would have shaken his head at the idea of religion as a maladaptive, parasitic "meme." And even though Wilson sees religions as misrepresenting reality, he agrees with Durkheim that they permit human groups to function as harmonious units: "Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone. …

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