Sunday, June 19, 2011

the exploits and adventures of david sloan wilson

David Sloan Wilson is an eminent evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York. He is an atheist "but a nice atheist", he assures us, and he is interested in the study of religion from an evolutionary viewpoint and the use of evolutionary principles to develop community development programs.

I believe we can all learn something from him.

the biology of religion

Evolutionary scientists believe that species have developed by adaptation via natural selection. Traits that lead to greater survival and a greater number of offspring are likely to come to predominate in a species. In some cases, the process has been demonstrated, in others it is yet to be demonstrated. The process is hypothesised to work in several different ways: an adaptation may benefit the individual (e.g. making it stronger or faster), it may benefit the group (e.g. making it more stable and united) or it may benefit a parasitic carrier such as a disease organism.

Religious belief is an aspect human cultures that evolutionary biologists have studied. Mostly they don't make any judgment on the truth of religious belief (some biologists studying religion in this way are theists, some are atheists), they are simply looking at human traits from a neutral scientific viewpoint. Believers may think this to be a limited, and perhaps limiting, viewpoint, but this doesn't necessarily make the study invalid.

David Sloan Wilson is at the forefront of this research. He has for example studied the role of ascetic holy men in the Jain religion in India. He has also researched the role of religious belief in the US, finding that compared to non-beievers, believers are happier, have higher self esteem, are more altruistic towards their surrounding community (Wilson uses the word 'prosocial' for this) and use their time more productively.


Of course there are disagreements among the scientists. For example, some accept that group selection is important, others downplay its role. Wilson was critical of Richard Dawkins' book, 'The God Delusion' because Dawkins ignored the current scientific work on the biology of religion, which shows that religious belief appears generally to be an adaptive trait that confers advantages on believers - Dawkins chose to follow the line that religious belief is parasitic, even though the scientific research doesn't point to that.

community development

Wilson lives and works in the city of Binghamton (population: almost 50,000), which includes some socially depressed areas and overall was recently voted by its residents as one of the least attractive cities in which to live. Some years ago, Wilson decided to see if he could apply his ideas on 'prosociality', altruism and natural selection to improve the quality of life in Binghamton.

As this article reports, it has been a challenging project, and has had its critics. Wilson conducted surveys that allowed him to draw a 'prosociality' map of the city - showing sociable and cooperative neighbourhoods as mountains and more selfish or disfunctional areas as valleys. He has gathered information on community attitudes to minority groups and the effects of community associations, and collected DNA samples and oral histories. And because he sees religion as one of the main ways that prosociality is developed, he spent time surveying churches and interviewing church members, with the aim of determining which churches might best fulfil a community development function.

From this he was able to identify areas that needed help to develop a more cooperative culture and civic pride. He began with the idea of using evolutionary principles of reinforcement of desirable behaviours so that these behaviours will evolve naturally. For example, he set up a competition for neighbourhoods to compete for funds for a new park in their area by coming up with the best concept, and reinforcing desirable school behaviours wit incentives (snack foods, toiletries, etc).

But it isn't all working out as he might have planned:

  1. Some neighbourhoods couldn't get organised enough to prepare a park plan, so the competition gave way to simple support for new parks. But when one park was completed, few people visited it.
  2. Some of his 'evolutionary' approaches seem little different to the incentives commonly offered by parents, teachers, economists or politicians.
  3. His involvement with the churches has been criticised by some as actually supporting the churches (his involvement in meetings with one church appears to have increased membership), an odd result for an atheist academic.
  4. It appears to some that he has crossed the line between research and social welfare.

what does it all mean?

Wilson is apparently unperturbed by the criticisms. When some aspects of the parks program failed to achieve, he shifted focus and kept going. There is so much worthwhile to do. "When you compare what I am doing here with furiously pounding away on my typewriter about that arcane debate, I think I made the right choice," he says.

Wilson's work with the churches is perhaps the strangest outcome of his involvement with Binghamton. His studies are examining which churches are most likely to grow, and why - asking questions of what people experience at church and how that connects with prosociality. He is finding, distressingly for him, that the more open, liberal churches that may be best for developing community cohesion are tending to decline whereas the more hardline churches are more likely to grow. Some of his academic colleagues question the value of this 'research' and suggest he may have become too involved with the people he is researching, but he has an obvious affection for the members of the church he has spent most time with so far, and says "I'd love this church to grow". This only makes his atheist critics even more concerned, some expressing opinions like "he's too soft on religion".

But I feel encouraged by seeing this academic getting involved in improving human lives. Research is, after all, only a means to an end of knowing the truth and then applying it, and wellbeing studies show that people are most fulfilled when spending significant time working for a cause that they see as more important than themselves. David Sloan Wilson appears to have found that true in practice. May his exploits and adventures continue to shed light!


  1. He sounds like a pretty good guy to me. Not overly influenced by his peers, and his motives seem kind. They probably *are* kind. I'm a reluctant atheist myself, and here most nights on the computer I find myself asking Google if God Is Real.

  2. Thanks for your comment AK. I'd be interested to know why your atheism is 'reluctant'? And what are you learning from your googling?


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