Dominic Johnson
University of Oxford

The Role of Religion in the Evolution of Cooperation and Conflict

Project Description:

My research at CTI will focus on three interconnected projects. First, I will complete a book manuscript on the role of supernatural punishment in human evolution. Cooperation is widely regarded as critical to the evolution of human beings, but explaining the subordination of self-interest for the benefit of others within the logic of Darwinian selection has proven difficult. One widely agreed solution is the punishment of non-cooperators, and this book project explores the possibility that beliefs in supernatural punishment, whether real or not, promote Darwinian fitness.
The second project explores the role of religious diversity in evolution. The “cognitive science of religion” (CSR) literature suggests that religious beliefs and behaviors arise from deep-seated cognitive mechanisms shared by all human beings, and that different religions share a common set of fundamental characteristics. While offering important insights, CSR has drawn attention away from religion’s extraordinary variation. Without variation, there can be no differential selection and thus no evolutionary change. Variation itself, therefore, is likely to serve important functions in the evolution of religion.
Third, I will develop a new book proposal on the role of religion in the evolution of human conflict. This deliberately turns the common appeal to religion’s role in the evolution of cooperation on its head. While there is almost a consensus that religion has played an important role in the evolution of cooperation, it has rarely been asked what this cooperation was for. This project will look at the role of religion in the evolution of human conflict. 

Dominic Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. He received a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford in evolutionary biology, and a Ph.D. from the University of Geneva in political science. Drawing on both disciplines, he is interested in how new research on human biology and evolution is challenging theories of politics, conflict, and cooperation. He was formerly Professor of Biopolitics at the University of Edinburgh, and a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard, Stanford and Princeton Universities. Recent publications include “The Evolution of Overconfidence” (Nature, 2011) and “What are atheists for? Hypotheses on the functions of non-belief in the evolution of religion” (Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2012).