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category: Religion

The Evolutionary Significance of Religion: Multi-Level Selection

Post: March 3, 2012 7:40 pm
Author: Michael Dowd         Source: Metanexus

2012 promises to be a pivotal year for proponents of group selection and multi-level selection theory.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to read and comment on an early draft of a book by Jonathan Haidt that will be published next month. Titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, I immediately perceived that this book has enormous practical implications for how economic, social, and political leaders attempt to solve civilization-scale problems.

Over the past few days, I have become aware of two more forthcoming books that likewise will further our understanding of human social evolution: The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson and Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm. All three of these books make the case that group level selection is needed to explain human morality.

The purpose of this post is to give you a preview of these three books—and to draw your attention to several previously published books and essays grounded in the same paradigm shift, and which therefore deserve renewed attention in this pivotal year.

What they all have in common is the realization that we are in the midst of a significant expansion in evolutionary thinking, beyond the confines of individual- and gene-level selection to what has come to be called "multi-level selection theory."

Read more at Metanexus


Post: March 5 2012 11:49 am By: JOHN JACOB LYONS

Given that a particular organism exhibits a trait that appears to be adaptive [or neutral], David Sloan Wilson suggests six evolutionary mechanisms that may have been at work over evolutionary time.

Individual selection and cultural selection appear in his list but I want to suggest another mechanism - an interaction between these two factors - that does not appear in the list. I am referring to Genetic Priming that I introduced to the ‘Biology of Religion’ blog on 24 March 2011. See

I suggest that Genetic Priming starts to kick-in as soon as an organism hits upon a behaviour that turns out to be consistent and adaptive. This sets up an inter-generational positive feedback loop between the adaptive behaviour and the genome that eventually results in all organisms in the species being genetically primed for the adaptive behaviour. Just a simple trigger from the environment is then needed for the adaptive behaviour to be manifested. Examples range from nest-building in birds to our own predilection for religious behaviour.

Over several years, I have had informal (verbal/ email) endorsement for the principles of Genetic Priming Theory from several eminent scientists including Prof.Daniel Dennett (Philosopher/ Evolutionary Theorist) and Prof. Sir Patrick Bateson (Biologist). I realize that I need empirical testing before I can publish formally but devising/ expediting such tests has proven to be the block to date.