David Sloan Wilson - Religion and Other Meaning Systems

Even though I'm not as vociferous about my antagonism toward religious belief as people like Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne or Bill Maher, my feelings on the subject are probably not all that different from theirs. Arguing about supernatural nonsense on ethical terms is easy, and it's only in cases of forced special pleading and unjustifiable double standards that we are willing to let religiosity get away with things that we would not grant to any other kind of ideology or belief system.

But here is a possible risk that we secularists ought to be careful about: if we want to be able to explain why religions exist and thrive, we can't let our opposition to religion be the guide. It's easy to want to argue, a la Richard Dawkins, that religion is probably just a by-product of a natural instinct to want to trust parental figures because overall that tends to work out better than the alternative. It's also easy to argue, a la Daniel Dennett, that maybe religion is the cultural and memetic equivalent of a virus that seeks to further its own interests without regard for those of its host.

Such maybes are interesting, but without more than anecdotal evidence, they are fun speculation but not very scientific. Enter David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist from Binghamton University, who has been working on the scientific study of the evolution of religion (among a plethora of other cultural phenomena) for at least a decade.

In the following fascinating and thought-provoking lecture, he clarifies a lot of important evolutionary concepts, such as the distinction between proximate and ultimate explanations, neatly organizes the different kinds of hypotheses offered to explain the evolution of religion (and other meaning systems), explains how they can be framed scientifically so as to be testable, and continues to discuss some of the evidence supporting a few of these hypotheses. The man doesn't know how not to be interesting :)

And just in case the youtube version disappears at some point, here's the original:

In the interests of full disclosure, I studied evolutionary theory under Dr. Wilson, who is objectively awesome, so no bias here :)
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