The Evolution of Religiosity and Human Coalitional Psychology

Legend of the Nile (1937) by Paul KleeFall Semester 2009

Biology 419/519 (!) or (!) Religious Studies 347/547

3 Credit Hours

Monday and Friday 1:00-2:30 pm

Castetter Hall (Biology) 107

Dr. Paul J. Watson

Research Assistant Professor

Department of Biology, 110 Castetter Hall

NOTE: This summary and the downloadable syllabus have not yet been 100% revised for the Fall 2009 version of the course, but the themes and format will be very similar.

A pure materialist analysis of all aspects of religious behavior and experience from the point of view of modern Darwinian theory. Although modern Darwinism allows atheists a large degree of intellectual fulfilment in relation to explaining and understanding the world, and a new more aggressive breed of atheism is emerging partly in response to belief-centered anti-intellectual movements within certain religious camps (e.g., intelligent design), and partly due to major terrorist activities that at least superficially appear to be religiously motivated, this course is not designed to be an attack on religiosity. Rather we will seek to understand without judgment the origins and possibly crucial adaptive functions of religious practice and experience. This course is about building self knowledge in a domain of human social, political, and sexual life so powerful that its lack almost certainly will lead to ever more dire consequences for humanity and also, I think, compromised emotional and intellectual horizons for individuals.

Cognitive byproduct (epiphenomenalist) evolutionary hypotheses that probably best serve to elucidate the ancient evolutionary origins of religiosity will be discussed and integrated. Functionalist (i.e., adaptationist) roles of pan-cultural human religious instincts will also be deeply considered. We will discuss how and why at least some components of our innate attraction to religious belief and practice, despite their possibly "accidental" origins, may have been tuned by natural selection to play adaptive, maybe even essential roles in human social life. These include the related functions of regulating (1) coalitional dynamics, (2) formation of honest social individual and group commitments, (3) processes of moral deliberation, and (4) our reasoning about social exchange contracts. We will also examine religiosity's significance for the generation of willpower, the resolve to sacrifice small near term rewards in order to more successfully undertake individual and group projects with large long term payoffs.

The course is offered for either Biology or Religious Studies credit (undergraduate or graduate). On the Biology side, the course is being "upgraded" from a traditional 402/502 topics course to a 419/519 "permanent" topics course - a new category. It allows students registering for Biology credit to take this course for degree credit no matter how many 402's and 502's they already have taken. Also, its going to be classed in this new niche as a course in "Interdisciplinary Science."

Regardless of how you register, the background you need in basic and middle level theories of evolutionary biology and psychology will be provided, in course context. Usually both biology and non-biology students benefit from an interactive review of these key concepts and their application; those that already have them down pat can help me teach them to those who don't. The course will be taught in a hybrid lecture and discussion format. The first half of each meeting will be predominantly lecture and the second half discussion. Lectures and readings will cover a sampling of the more outstanding recent empirical literature.

Throughout my class meetings I emphasize questioning. Professor-to-student, student-to-professor, and student-to-student questions and intellectual challenges always will be encouraged. Our interchanges will be disciplined, informative, and constructive, and hopefully fun, imaginative, and pioneering - all reflecting the fact that this is a science course. This is a course about us, so the sharing of experience can also be of value. But whatever one's subjective experience or beliefs might be, science necessitates the respectful sharing of reasoned viewpoints, offered in a comradely spirit of that includes the collaborative devising of critical tests of opposing propositions, in our case propositions about general features of religiosity and specific religious practices as natural phenomena.

The content of our discussions partly will derive from written “point lists” handed in by every student at the end of each class; these will be graded and cumulatively account for a sizeable portion (about 40%) of each student’s final grade. Point lists are developed by each student primarily as they do their weekly reading, but also as they consider any other class material in the context of their daily experience of themselves and others. 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.

There shall be two main required texts: (1) "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; (2)
The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success (Studies in Comparative Social Science) (September 30, 2008) by evolutionary psychologists by Lyle B. Steadman &, Craig T. Palmer; Paradigm Publishers.

For 2009 I also am considering an adjunct text in its new 9th edition, "Animal Behavior, An Evolutionary Approach," by John Alcock. This text does a fantastic job of presenting the incredible success of the evolutionary adaptationist program of research across diverse animal species, including humans, and in elucidating the functions of behavior across virtually all fitness domains (foraging, habitat selection, mate choice, social partner choice).

There also will be readings from several chapters of "The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology" (2005), by David M. Buss (distributed as PDF computer files; see below).

We will also be reading a summary of the work of George Ainslie from the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, "Precis of Breakdown of Will", which will help us get a handle on the willpower problem and religion's possibly ancient role in helping to solve it.

Course Syllabus v.23 April 2009 available here. Please note the schedule of readings and lecture topics is still evolving, and will do so to an extent throughout the course. The downloadable syllabus is in MS Word format.
Here are the PDF's of chapter readings from the Buss EP Handbook for the first several weeks of the course. See the syllabus for the exact reading schedule (subject to further revision for 2009).

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 5 February 2009.