The Evolution of Religiosity and Human Coalitional Psychology

Legend of the Nile (1937) by Paul Klee Fall Semester 2009

Students may enroll under: Biology 419/519 or Religious Studies 347/547

3 Credit Hours

Mondays and Fridays 1:00-2:30 pm

Castetter Hall (Biology) 107

Dr. Paul J. Watson

Research Assistant Professor

Department of Biology, 110 Castetter Hall

An incisive materialist analysis of all aspects of religious behavior and experience from the point of view of modern Darwinian theory. NOT an Evangelical Atheist Rant! Background in key basic and mid-level theories of evolutionary psychology will be provided. Cognitive byproduct (epiphenomenalist) and functionalist (adaptationist) evolutionary hypotheses covering pancultural manifestations of religiosity will be discussed and integrated.

The role of human religious instincts in the dynamics of coalitions, the formation of social commitments, the nature of moral deliberations, and our reasoning about social exchange contracts will be emphasized. We will also examine religiosity's significance for the generation of willpower: the resolve to sacrifice small near term rewards to more successfully undertake individual and group projects with large long term payoffs.

The course is offered, in unprecedented fashion, for either Biology or Religious Studies credit (undergraduate or graduate) and will be taught in a hybrid lecture and discussion format. Lectures and readings will cover a sampling of key empirical literature in addition to giving needed theoretical background. The first half of each meeting will be predominantly lecture and the second half discussion.

I emphasize questioning. Both student-to-professor and student-to-student questioning 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 will derive, in a disciplined yet nonrigid fashion, from “point lists” handed in by every student at the beginning of each class; 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 papers, asking their authors to verbally state and expand on them, and calling on the whole class to discuss them. See the syllabus for much more information on course format, requirements, and grading.

The main required text will be "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" (2002), by cognitive anthropologist, Scott Atran. This is part of the Evolution and Cognition Series, from Oxford University Press.  For 2009 I am reducing the readings from Buss (see below) and adding a second text: "The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion." (2008) by evolutionary psychologists Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer. This book is part of the Series "Studies in Comparative Social Sciences," published by Paradigm Press.

Some of the non-textbook readings, including select chapters from "The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology" (2005), by David M. Buss, are available below (distributed as PDF computer files; see below)

Syllabus v.27 August 2009 available here. Please note the schedule of lecture topics is still evolving; lecture topics will continue to do so, to an extent, throughout the course, as I attempt to lead you down a cutting edge path. The other information on course requirements offered in the syllabus is pretty well set. The DRAFT downloadable syllabus is in MS Word format.
Here are the PDF's of our readings from outside the textbooks for the first several weeks of the course. See the syllabus (updated 8-09-2009) for the exact reading schedule (subject to further revision).

Please read these two papers before our first class:
(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 - A brand new entry in Encyclopedia Britannica Online 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).

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 27 August 2009.