The Evolution of Religiosity


and Human Coalitional Psychology

Legend of the Nile (1937) by Paul Klee

Dr. Paul J. Watson

Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology & Evolutionary Psychology

University of New Mexico

Department of Biology, 110 Castetter Hall

Fall Semester 2014

3-credit hours


Course is cross-listed so that students may enroll for credit under three programs:

Biology 419/519

(sections: 009; CRN# 45302 and

45303, respectively)


Religious Studies 447

(section: 001; CRN# 42824)


Peace Studies 340

(section: 005; CRN # TBD)

Note: The 447 seminar status of this course in the Religious Studies Program allows it to count toward fulfilling the "advanced seminar requirement" for a RS major or minor.


Be sure to contact me if you have difficulty registering.

Meeting Times: Mondays and Fridays 1:00-2:30 PM.

Classroom: Room: 57, Department of Biology, Castetter Hall.

Office hours: Monday 10:00-12:30; Friday 10:00-12:30; off-hour office or cafe appointments always may be arranged.

See below for a downloadable 2013 SYLLABUS, subject to changes at the margins...

Adaptive changes will be made to the 2014 syllabus, as i never teach the course the same way twice.

The texts we used in 2013 were excellent, but there is a brand new possibility:

"Human Nature and the Evolution of Society," (2014), by Dr. S.K. Sanderson, which I'm considering.


The course offers a comprehensive, nuanced, materialist analysis of all aspects and varieties of religious behavior and inner experience. The course is for mature students dedicated to regular attendance and thoughtful analytical discussion and writing.

Modern Darwinian theory will be explained and critically applied throughout the course to elucidate the evolutionary origins, maintenance, and probable (IMO) elaboration of religiosity, driven directly by natural selection during human evolutionary history. In other words, the course will include multiple explanations of how religions, and the pan-cultural "religiosity instincts" that drive us almost inexorably to create them, are highly functional, evolutionary adaptations - products of diret natural selection - not just "cognitive by-products" or other sorts of "cognitive-emotional junk."

Many students who first approach this course with deep skepticism concerning what the natural sciences can say about religiosity end up being highly impressed by previously unimaginable, cogent, testable explanations of human religious belief, feeling, and behavior now available from the field of evolutionary behavioral biology. Aspects of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience will be discussed to explain how and why natural selection designs human minds instinctively receptive to religious cultural influences.

Expect a strictly non-ideological, biology-oriented course that will help diverse students think in incisive new ways about religion and, more broadly, the astoundingly varied, conditional, and socially and ecologically sophisticated workings of the human mind. Your mind. The course is appropriate for mature undergraduates and graduates majors or minors in Biology, Anthropology, Psychology, Religious Studies, and Philosophy. The course is designed to help anyone with a serious curiosity about the human condition, scientific and introspective "seekers of truth," to take advantage of the extremely powerful objectifying influence available from the intellectually coherent, evidence-based modern Darwinian theory of mind and nature. Background in key basic and mid-level theories of evolutionary behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology will be provided as needed, in course context; this should be beneficial to students with and without biological backgrounds.

Relatively mainstream as well as newer unpublished perspectives on the biological evolution of cross-cultural religious predilections will be explored. A full range of scientific perspectives will be considered. Cognitive by-product (epiphenomenalist), memetic, and functionalist (adaptationist) evolutionary hypotheses covering pancultural manifestations of religiosity will be thoroughly discussed and integrated. By the end of the course it will be clear to the student how religious and proto-religious thinking could have gotten started in our hominid ancestors. Further, it will be shown how natural selection could have taken hold of various instincts and cognitive-emotional adaptations, mostly relevant to navigating the complexities of human social life, tuning and dovetailing them to increase their social and ecological utility and their tenacious intrapsychic grip upon us.

Humans have evolved a "super-social" way of life that I refer to as complex contractual reciprocity. A major emphasis of this course will be elucidating what this way of life entails, and how religiosity could have been selected for, genetically and culturally, to support individual and cultural success in dealing with CCR's incredible opportunities and demands. For some recent writings that help portray the human social context in which I feel the evolution of religiosity must be understood, see (1) "Ties That Bind" pieces from page 449 and 497 of the 1/26/12 issue of Nature and (2) the "Adapted to Culture" piece from page 297 of the 2/16/12 Nature issue.

Another recent paper that would make for great summer reading to help prepare you for modern sociobiological emphasis of the class is by Pat Barclay, "Strategies for cooperation in biological markets, especially for humans." This is from the top evolutionary psychology journal, "Evolution and Human Behavior" (May 2013, v34 (3), pp.164-175).

An impressive array of human cognitive traits were selected for in the context of contractual reciprocity and other aspects of human ecology, which contribute to cross-cultural religious drives and experiences. These cognitive traits (1) guide our extraordinarily flexible subjective perceptions of reality, (2) modulate the dynamics of our life-sustaining coalitions, (3) underpin the formation and communication of credible (hard-to-fake) social commitments and personal needs, (4) control our moral deliberations and reasoning about relationships, and (4) are pivotal in canalizing systems of rules governing social exchange contracts. We shall also consider religiosity's possible adaptive significance for the generation of willpower, enhanced intelligence, and improved health.

"Evolution of Religiosity" is a biology course, so we'll not be spending class time on evangelical atheist or anti-religious material. Religiosity is taken as a biological feature of the mind, or at least a deeply ingrained biological potential of it, analogous to language and other cultural learning. The course is about understanding the evolutionary origins as well as the functions of religiosity. We are not about judging it - no more so than a course on, say, bees and wasps would judge them for their venom-injecting stingers used in hunting and defense, or a course on spiders would morally critique their use of silken webs to capture prey. Our group's mandate will be to help each other honestly pursue self-knowledge and fresh, cogent, scientifically informed views of religion's evolved place in human mental and social life, in all its contradiction-laden beauty and horror. Come gain experience using the "ultimate" evolutionary level of analysis to understand the inner and outer world you live in and to see more deeply into the covert yet functional relationship between your conscious and unconscious mind, with special emphasis on the natural phenomenon of religion.

To help you get a more concrete notion of course content, here is an essay appearing on, "Is Rationality the Enemy of Religion?," reflecting upon a recent paper in Science, "Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief." The link has comments by readers below it; scroll down and you'll see a comment by your's truly dated 5 may 2012. You can see another essay and longer comment stream on this same paper at the Scientific American website, entitled, "Losing Your Religion"," where my comments are numbers 92 and 93. If these kinds of things interest you, you might like this course.

Here is another discussion, on the Nature web site, that is in line with the spirit of the course. I do not think "group selection" processes produce genetic evolution, but fierce cultural group selection does occur, and religious groups have tended to win out in worldwide cultural competitions. Culture is recognized in modern Darwinism as an aspect of the human evolutionary environment, so it naturally effects genetic evolution. I bring up these added points to alert students to the fact that all manner of cultural considerations are perfectly subject to modern biological analysis, as will be evident in this course.

The course will prepare students to see the relevance of many findings in cognitive neuroscience for the understanding of the role of religion in human social life. For example, take this recent essay in the NYT, "When Truisms Are True." In the context of the course, we would talk about implications of such research findings for the effectiveness of repeated religious ritual, entailing stereotypical movements and speech/song, for cryptically constraining the creativity of participants in thinking outside a (beautifully decorated) box about morals, norms, and values of their group. In contrast, other religious practices may enhance individual creativity, perhaps in more tactical domains of life.

As another example, the course will offer a novel full fledged ultimate (not just proximate) explanation of placebo effects offered in religious (and other) contexts, effects that may have health effects today and may have been of great importance in our evolutionary past. We will go beyond the standard proximate explanation that religious participation reduces stress and so increases health via favorable immune system effects. WHY (!), and in what context, does religious behavior reduce stress? Why does intercessory prayer for the ill sometimes make them worse? These things cannot be understood without analyzing religiosity instincts of humans in the broader context of human coalitionary psychology.

What do you think about "spiritual practice" outside the context of involvement in an organized religion? We'll discuss many such questions, and there always will be a scientifically meaningful theoretical basis for developing relatively objective and testable perspectives. This will be a course in which your questions about religion and your own mental / emotional life can be addressed, so please be prepared to participate.

Yes, this course is offered, in unprecedented fashion, forBiology, Religious Studies, or Peace Srtudies credit. Lectures, readings, and associated discussions will cover a very wide sampling of empirical and theoretical literature.

I emphasize questioning. Student-to-professor and student-to-student questions and challenges will be encouraged throughout. Such interchanges will reflect the fact that this is a science course, which necessitates the respectful sharing of reasoned viewpoints, all offered in a comradely spirit of devising tests of opposing propositions about religion as a natural phenomenon. The content of our discussions partly will derive from “point lists,” electronically handed in by every student at the beginning of each week; these will be graded and cumulatively account for a sizeable portion (about 40%) of each student’s final grade. I will help choose the most stimulating and burning points to raise from these writings, asking their authors to verbally state and expand on them, and calling on the class to discuss them. See the downloadable 2013 syllabus, below, currently in the process of being revised, for more information on course format, requirements, and grading.

The evolutionary focus of the course is not designed to dissuade students of their religious views. Indirectly, it will cause any thinking student to ponder the source of their views. It will also cause any participating student to question innate and learned assumptions about how their minds operate, “who they really are.” In many ways this is a course about the cryptic relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, the shifting dreamworlds it causes us all to live in, and the possibilities of escape, which biological knowledge improves.The Golden Fish, Paul Klee, 1925.

Again, I emphasize that the course will provide rigorously materialist, biologically reasoned analyses of multicultural aspects of religiosity. Many competing and complimentary points of view concerning religion as a natural phenomenon will be explored, I hope vividly. All of our work together will be informed by modern evolutionary psychological theory and applicable discoveries about human mental organization from the evolutionary cognitive neurosciences. The course will open potentially disquieting questions for many students with religious and non-religious world views and "self-models." Expect penetrating questions to be opened and illuminated about the reasons for and sources of our beliefs, behaviors, and our dearest most sacred inner experiences.

Class time will not be taken debating belief or faith-based supernatural views of reality, such as whether or not "spirits" and kindred entities actually exist; untestable claims do not logically compete with scientific perspectives. However, the class will be a safe place to share and analyze actual experiences regarding religious thought patterns and emotions. I know I've had some. You can be a materialist, and a Darwinian, and still recognize, perhaps all the better, that there is an extraordinarily worthy life-project, available uniquely to humans, entailing the pursuit of unromanticized objective self-knowledge.

"Man's possibilities are very great. You cannot even conceive a shadow of what man is capable of attaining..."  G.I. Gurdjieff

COURSE ORGANIZATION: After a couple introductory weeks of interactive lecture, we will spend our Monday meetings in roundtable discussions based (1) on our various readings and (2) questions that arise for students related to lecture material. I will call on students to comment on chapters based on "point lists" they have written during their readings, and which will be handed in before each Monday meeting via email attachment. Our Friday meetings will be centered on lectures and discussion led by myself, but during which students will be invited to chime in, question, challenge, etc. In the end, you will get (1) a diversity of views on the evolution of religiosity from Bulbulia, (2) a relatively integrated and ultimately adapationist single-author explanation from Rossano and or Sanderson, and (3) my personal views on the evolution of religiosity, developed over the past 25 years.

The course requires a good deal of thoughtful writing, on the basis of which I try to provide extensive "personalized" oral and, as student time and effort warrant, written feedback to students. Besides the weekly point lists mentioned above, there is a required term paper (see syllabus). No late work will be accepted except due to illness or emergency.

There were two required texts for 2013: (1) "The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques" (2008), edited by J. Bubulia et al. Each week, students will lead discussions covering one or more of the diverse succinct essays collected in this excellent book; and (2) "Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved" (2010), by Matt J. Rossano. For 2014, as mentioned above, we may use, S.K. Sanderson's new (2014) "Human Nature and the Evolution of Society" as a main text. I think we'll use Rossano again too. You can get Kindle editions of both. Students will pick chapters from other recent collections of essays on the evolution of religion, like Bulbulia et al., to present to class and get term paper ideas / references; all this will be discussed early in the semester.

There is also a wonderful chapter on religion, which we'll certainly be reading and discussing early in the course, present in the new book, "Human Social Evolution: The Foundational Works of Richard D. Alexander" (2013). Alexander freshly wrote this chapter specifically for this volume. I'll provide a PDF to the class. An excellent complimentary paper recently out in the journal "Human Behavior and Evolution," Crespi and Summers (2014), Inclusive fitnesss theory for the evolution of religion, will also be a great addition to our course reading and discussion. Actually, these will probably be our first two class readings (comment added 6-30-14).

As time allows, we also will read selections from other recent books authored by evolutionary psychologists with various perspectives, such as "The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion" (2008), by Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer, "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior" (2009), edited by Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhövel, For those who would like more examples of course content, a previous text for the course is still valuable: "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" (2002), by cognitive anthropologist, Scott Atran, from the "Evolution and Cognition Series" of Oxford University Press; also here is a downloadable condensation Atran's views (in PDF format), published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Atran and Norenzayan, 2004). There may also be some chapter readings from from "The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology" (2005), edited by David Buss (see below).

My colleague Andy Thomson M.D. recently published a succinct book on the evolution of religion entitled, "Why We Believe in God(s)." The book provides a highly accessible introduction primarily to non-adaptationist evolutionary accounts of religion. The course goes well beyond what Thomson covers, but the book provides a quick introduction mainly to anti-functionalist scientific perspectives on religion. Why not read it today?

Robert Trivers is a leading evolutionary theoretician who, among other key contributions, provided the first thorough Darwinian portrayal of the unconscious mind, which offers a monumental advance over the bold but misguided analyses provided by Freud. Trivers has a new book out on deception and self-deception. An understanding of why natural selection has designed minds to construct subjective models of reality is crucial for understanding religion. Triver's book is written for a general audience and would be an excellent preparation for this course. Here are some reviews of the book from (1) the New York Times, (2) the journal Nature, and (3) the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Download the 2013 Syllabus, version 19 August 2013, in PDF format.

Here are additional PDF's of some likely readings from outside the main text.

Please try to read these three items before our first class meeting:
(1) Boyer, Pascal. 2003. Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function. TRENDS in Cognitive Science 7 (3) 119-124.

(2) Animal Behavior - From Encyclopedia Britannica Online, authored by two top Cornell University behavioral ecologists, Tom Seeley and Paul W. Sherman; very helpful background for the course and an excellent read! (html version).

(3) Opening pages from one of our adjunct texts, which you do not need to purchase, Bulbulia et al., 2008: "Note from the Publisher," "Preface:Bringing the Evolution of Religion into Being," and "Introduction: Religion in Eden."

Probable readings from the Buss Handbook include:
The Buss Handbook Foreward, Introduction and Afterword.
Chapter 26: The evolution of morality, by Dennis Krebs (pp. 747-768; pp 22).
Chapter 5: Controversial issues in evolutionary psychology, by Edward Hagen (pp. 145-171; 27 pp).
Chapter 1: Conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology, by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (pp. 5-63; 59 pp).
Chapter 3: Domain specificity and intuitive ontology, by Pascal Boyer and Clark Barrett (pp. 96-113; 18 pp).

Page updated 30 June 2014.