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

The 12th edition of this course is being offered Spring Semester 2018

3-credit hours


This web site still is undergoing minor reconstruction for the Spring 2018 edition of the class (last revision, 12/26/17). But, in its current state it will still give you a clear idea about what this course entails. The biggest changes for 2018 simply will be what papers we discuss, especially during the first few weeks of class, as some important publications have come out since I last taught the course. Also note that the UNM Extended Learning website, which will be made available to classroom and online students near the beginning of the course will be where you obtain up to the minute readings and plans for the course. Watch for an email from Extended Learning alerting you about how to gain access to that course web site.

This course is cross-listed so that students sitting in the classroom, and "synchronous online" students (i.e., those remotely logging in to our meetings, in real time, using UNM Learn's ZOOM technology), may enroll for credit under any of three academic programs, namely, Biology, Religious Studies, or Peace Studies (see below)

Notes: (1) 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. (2) The Peace and Global Justice Studies Program (PCST) sections of the course are approved for students enrolled in the UNM Business School's Innovation Academy!

Please, call me with any enrollment questions at 505-681-3391 for immediate attention!

BIOL 419/519

(419-004, CRN# 46089 [in classroom] or 419-006, CRN 46090 [online]) and

(519-002, CRN 46091 [in classroom] or 519-003, CRN 46092 [online])


RELG 447

(RELG 447-001, CRN# 46093 [in classroom] or RELG 447-002, CRN 46094 [online])


PCST 340

(PCST 340-002, CRN# 46620 [in classroom] or PCST 340-004, CRN# 46621 [online])

Be sure to contact me via email if you have difficulty registering.

If you are an online ZOOM student, you are expected to tune in from whereever your remote location may be during the real-time class, (this is a "synchronous online" class; see the online UNM web link below) so you can (1) interact with the instructor and fellow students to help create "group genius" and (2) thus promote your own absorption of the material. Also, ZOOM students, be sure to look for instructional emails from the UNM Extended Learning Center, prior to the first day of class, so that you'll know exactly how to log in successfully by 11:00 AM MST on the very first Tuesday of class. I expect all students to be punctual, occupying their real or virtual seats by 11:00 AM. Actually, all students will be using the web site provided to the class by the UNM Learn Extended Learning Center in a variety of vital ways, so EVERYONE please become familiar with it. Check out the UNM Online Learning site. For example, once the class begins, we will be using the messaging tool provided on our unm.learn course website for all email communications, not the UNM general email system. Once the course begins, and you are fully enrolled, I cannot promise to respond in a timely manner to emails sent to me using the general UNM email system.

Meeting Times: Tuesday and Thursday 11:00 - 12:15.

Classroom: Room: 214 Mechanical Engineering (i.e., MECH; building # 122).

Office hours: Office hour meetings bolster your grade directly and indirectly, and are highly encouraged for everyone. They are especially important if you find it difficult to speak in class, either in general (try to overcome that) or about a sensitive topic of personal importance to you. Office hours for UNM Learn (online) will be available at the same times as for students visiting my office in the flesh. Office hour meetings allow me to customize explanations of certain slippery, nuanced concepts for your individual psyche. Office hours will be held Monday 10:00 - 12:30 (incl., Jan. 15th), Tuesday & Thursday, after class, 12:30 - 2:30, or by special appointment as necessary. I highly value office hour conversations, so we shall see how these times work out for students and modify the schedule as needed.

The course is for mature students dedicated to the pursuit of fundamental self-knowledge. Join this course, made up of students with diverse backgrounds, for a respectful and sincere, principled and evidence-based exploration of our amazing, globally-shared intrapsychic design. The course offers information vital to understanding our pan-cultural religious inclinations, but also more general insights about conscious and unconscious structure of mind that can help to deeply inform individual and organizational efforts to promote desperately needed positive human cultural evolution. The course offers a comprehensive, nuanced, scientific materialist, modern Darwinian analysis of all aspects and varieties of religious behavior and inner experience. We shall cover the evolutionary origins of human religiosity, as well as ways that natural selection may have favored the evolution of powerful adaptations for religiousness, across cultures, during the course of human evolutionary history.

To get a better sense of the course, keep reading. Also, you'll find a downloadable Fall 2016 Syllabus below. But, again, when it is made available, go to the UNM Learn web site for the most up-to-date course "mechanics" info; what you find there supercedes everything on this web site. I have a general plan for the course, but, adaptive changes will be made to the order and rates of subject matter covered. Except in broad outline, I never teach this course the the same way twice - it depends on the needs and spirit of the class. This is why the syllabus does not contain a rigorous schedule of discussion topics. Once started, the class becomes kind of a living thing, at least for me. Student curosities and concerns, expressed in weekly writing assignments and discussions, shift my instincts about where to go next, as does hot new literature that sometimes appears during the course. We eventually cover everything possible about the evolutionary origins and potential adaptive significance of religiosity, especially in relation to human coalitional psychology (i.e., the adaptive design of the human psyche enabling astute management of specific relationships, as well as the effective and efficient navigation of the social networks we all depend upon for individual survival and reproduction (i.e., gene replication and "inclusive fitness").

Our "textbook" for 2018 will be evolutionary psychologist Matt Rosanno's "Supernatural Selection" (2010). Get it from Amazon or a similar source ASAP, and, I suggest, go ahead and start reading it. (Note: It will not be available at the UNM Bookstore.) A Kindle version is available as well as used copies. "Supernatural Selection" has its limitations, is a few years old, and the course will provide a much broader view of religiosity than does this book. But, "Supernatural Selection" still stands alone as the only single-author attempt at constructing a multifaceted, integrated adaptationist account of religion, and it is very readable for a broad audience. Some of its major tenents are in basic agreement with my own views of the role of religion in social life in that Rosanno emphasizes that religion is fundamentally involved in establishing and maintaining relationships. We'll try to see deeply into the complexity of its role in that.


This course offers a comprehensive, nuanced, scientific materialist, Darwinian analysis of all aspects and varieties of religious behavior and inner experience.

The course is for mature "on-site" and "virtually on-site," synchronous online ZOOM students, who are dedicated to the pursuit of fundamental self-knowledge. I expect maximal real time attendance, from both in-class and online studets, and that everyone will do their best, with some instructor faciliation, to actively participate in thoughtful, principled, analytical discussion, paper presentations, and writing. The course is designed to bring about an in-depth understanding of the evolutionary biology of "religiosity," the package of instincts and cognitive designs that lead humans, pan-culturally, to create all sorts of religions and, how these instincts and resulting religions relate adaptively to fundamental aspects of human social life.

It is important that you understand the following. Our course is not going to deal with untestable propositions concerning the existence of supernatural entities; these will not be discussed. Nor is it about whether religion is morally good, bad, or neutral. Rest assured, the course has no evangelical atheist agenda. Careful questions about variation in religion's adaptive significance in diverse traditional versus modern social and ecological contexts are fair game. Nor is this course about the cultural relationships between religion and science. We are not going to debate, for example, whether or not they are non-overlapping magisteria (sensu S.J. Gould). This course IS all about the deep biology of religion. We will also use the study of our innate religiosity as a portal for understanding the design of the human psyche more broadly.

The course covers recent papers on the evolutionary psychology and evolutionary cognitive neuroscience of religiosity, as well as a variety of state-of-art testable hypotheses about the origins and adaptive significance of human religiosity. Religion, religiosity instincts, and certain more general underlying evolved design features of the human psyche are examined in a non-judgmental way that, just like, for example, a course on spider biology would cover the origins and adaptive significance of spider webs and the different types of spider silks, or a course on mammalian carnivores would cover the adaptive design of fangs and carnassial (meat-shearing) teeth. The course will elucidate, for ALL serious students, the evolutionary origins, maintenance, and probable adaptive (i.e., fitness-enhancing) elaborations of religiosity by natural selection during the vastness of human evolutionary history. Thus we will discuss multiple explanations of how religions, and the enabling religiosity instincts, which drive us almost inexorably to create them, potentially are highly functional evolutionary adaptations - products of direct natural selection, and not just "cognitive by-products" or other sorts of maladaptive or non-sensical "cognitive-emotional junk."

Don't let any of the fancy terms above scare you off. I've am dedicated to offering all this material to a broad audience with diverse backgrounds. So, pertinent modern Darwinian theory will be thoroughly explained and you will learn how to critically apply it to human behavior throughout the course. You just have to help me out when a concept does not yet make sense to you by asking questions.

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 and very new ways about religion and, more broadly, the astoundingly sophisticated, and socially and ecologically responsive, 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 pre-course, Christmas break 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, for Biology, Religious Studies, or Peace and Global Justice Studies (PCST) credits. The course is also now approved for students enrolled in the Business School's Innovation Academy (these students would sign up for the PCST section). For the second year, it is also available as a distance-learning course. Lectures, readings, and associated discussions will cover a very wide sampling of empirical and theoretical literature.

I emphasize questioning. Student-to-professor and sincere respectful student-to-student questions and challenges always will be encouraged. Such interchanges will reflect the fact that this is a science course, which necessitates the cooperative sharing of alternative 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 student "Point Lists," These should be in front of you during every class to help you bring up things of special interest to you during class. "Point Lists" also will be handed in, electronically, by every student at the beginning of each week (i.e., every Tuesday, before class). Point Lists and, especially, your active use of them in class, will be graded and account for a sizeable portion of your final grade; these is more discussion of "Point Lists" below.

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 deep yet largely cryptic relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, the shifting dreamworlds this relationship causes us all to live in, and the possibility of reducing the grip of this adaptively subjective dreamworld, which I contend biological knowledge of ourselves improves. Why bother with this? To live more consciously, with more genuine intentionality, and more consistently according to consciously chosen goals and values.The Golden Fish, Paul Klee, 1925.

Again, I emphasize that the course will provide rigorously materialist, biologically reasoned analyses of multicultural aspects of religiosity. We shall explore many competing and complimentary points of view concerning religion as a natural phenomenon, 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 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.

Again, class time will not be taken to debate 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 plenty. 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: Much of our time will be centered on lectures and discussion led by myself, but during which students will be invited to chime in, question, and challenge, copiously, Each student will also perform a 15+ minute presentation based on one or more papers from the "course library." I hope to foster an atmosphere that generates "group genius." In the end, you will get (1) a diversity of views on the evolution of religiosity from lectures, papers, and discussion, (2) a relatively integrated evolutionary adaptationist single-author thesis from the Rossano text, and (3) my extensive personal views on the evolution of religiosity, developed over the past 25+ years of being (a) a Darwinian interested in human social behavior and (b) a student / practitioner / member of contemplative traditions often associated with religion.

After a couple weeks of interactive introductory lecture, we will move into even more discussion-centered sessions based on my continued talks, readings, and Questions (broadly defined) that arise for students as they encounter class material. These vital mission-critical Questions will be succinctly captured in your weekly "Point Lists" Put simply, "Point Lists" are like a journal that you keep containing thoughts and qustions that arise, for you, while formally and informally pondering course material each week, both inside and outsdie of class. You produce a new journal chapter 1-2 pages long each week. Each point contained therein usually just consists of a 2 or 3 clear sentences - maybe just one. A "Point" may come up during concentrated reading or analysis of what has happened recently in class, or something that occurs to you during conversation with friends or family, or even that rises up during diffuse daydreaming. Write them down and bring that journal to class every session. You should generate 1-2 pages per week. I may call on students to share a Point from their journals during class. But you should bring them up yourself as much as possible, in class or during office hours. They allow me to respond to your most salient questions and curiosities. You will hand in a copy of each week's new "Points" before each Tuesday meeting via email attachment.

So, the course requires a good deal of thoughtful writing, mostly in the form of the above-mentioned Point Lists, on the basis of which I try to provide "personalized" in class oral feedback (preferred) and, as student time, effort, or wish for privacy dictate, oral feedback during office hours. I believe there will also be a required term paper, which may or may not expand on your presntation topic (see syllabus).

There is a thoughtful chapter on religion, which we'll certainly be reading and discussing early in the course, presented in the recent 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.

As time allows, we also will consider 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, and "The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques" (2008), edited by Joseph Bulbulia, et. al

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 2016 Syllabus, v.23 August 2016, 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 50-Chapter source of presentation papers, 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 last updated 26 December 2017.