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Darwin’s Cathedral: why religion is “impressively good” for the group

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I recently finished Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson [Kindle]. Wilson is a prominent evolutionary biologist who is a big, if not the biggest, advocate for group selection (the theory that Darwinian natural selection acts not only on individuals but also groups from families to communities to nation-states). In this book, Wilson explains organized religion with an array of academic research, case studies, and evolutionary biology 101, and does a great job explaining how religions arose and why they are so widespread, lasting, and useful.

Below are my themes and takeaways from the book. Where relevant, I’ve included a book excerpt and a thought or question about how this relates to businesses (because my eventual goal is to help businesses learn from organized religions).

Later, I’ll write articles sharing specific information and case studies from Darwin’s Cathedral that I think are helpful for business leaders making important decisions.

Enjoy! Please email me if you have any questions.

DSW = David Sloan Wilson

1. Religion is a subset of spirituality, which DSW defines as feeling connected to something bigger than you

Spirituality is in part a feeling of being connected to something larger than oneself. Religion is in part a collection of beliefs and practices that honor spirituality.

Steve Jobs is the exemplar of someone who could connect buying a phone to the feeling of participating in something bigger than yourself

2. DSW believes religions are “impressively good for the group”; while group selection, aka multi-level selection, fell from favor in the second half of the 20th c. but is experiencing a revival of sorts today

There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Companies like GE and Google are impressively good for their groups, too (both employees and customers)

3. There are many different theories of how and why organized religion came into existence, including economic theories, theories of individual selection, and theories of group selection

Stark and his colleagues study religion from the perspective of economics and rational choice theory. Religion is envisioned as an economic exchange between people and imagined supernatural agents for goods that are scarce (e.g., rain during a drought) or impossible (e.g., immortal life)

4. Emile Durkheim was a giant in the academic study of religion; he saw religion as a relationship between the sacred and the profane

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church…”

Businesses, too, have forbidden beliefs and practices, such as talking about certain events in their past, and moral values which may differ from society at large.

5. DSW provides case studies of many organized religions that fit his theory, from Judaism to Calvinism to the Korean Christian Church in America

According to Stark, early Christianity had exactly the same appeal for Jews during the Roman period and also for gentiles who admired the Jewish faith (numerous enough to be given the name of “God-fearers” at the time) but who could not become full-fledged Jews.

Calvin’s passion for setting a moral example of selflessness is well known, culminating in his burial in an unmarked grave

6. As groups grow, mechanisms like organized religions become more and more important to ensure they don’t devolve into chaos and violence and everyone-for-themselves

moral communities larger than a few hundred individuals are “unnatural” as far as genetic evolution is concerned because to the best of our knowledge they never existed prior to the advent of agriculture. This means that culturally evolved mechanisms are absolutely required for human society

Businesses also help achieve this: the smooth functioning of large groups to achieve a shared set of goals. But rarely do businesses motivate millions of people to do this, or perhaps billions as we see in today’s Islam and yesterday’s Catholicism

7. Although rational thought is seen as the gold standard, adaption is a better, more practical standard

Rational thought is treated as the gold standard against which religious belief is found so wanting that it becomes well-nigh inexplicable. Evolution causes us to think about the subject in a completely different way. Adaptation becomes the gold standard against which rational thought must be measured alongside other modes of thought.

Similarly, how a business operates is less important, in the long-run, than how it performs (along metrics like profits, share price performance, and growth)

8. There are practical, measurable benefits to being part of an organized religion: more social ties, more life satisfaction, reduced crime

The results showed a positive relationship between religious involvement and both the number and quality of social ties. The average person who attends church several times a week enjoys roughly 2.25 more nonkin ties than the person who never attends.

I’m sure similar benefits can be seen (and may have already been measured) in many companies, large and small.

9. Just as businesses serve different marketplaces and the market’s invisible forces of supply and demand are at work, so too in organized religions

Religious denominations seem to have a life cycle. They begin as sects or cults, grow into churches, give rise to offspring sects, and then mysteriously senesce, to be replaced by their own offspring or by new cults.

Businesses also have their own life cycles, and it further reminds me of this Gandhi quote:

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win

10. Science, too, can be viewed as a form of religion

One could say that factual knowledge is the god of science. In every other respect science might be just like all other unifying human social organizations, including religion.

That’s it. Stay tuned for more essays about Darwin’s Cathedral and “the religion of business”. Thanks for reading!


If you have a comment, email me or discuss on Reddit and Hacker News. Thanks!

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