Evolution, Human Nature, and Cooperation: Religion as a Source of Social Norms and Group Identification
Humans are remarkable organisms for many reasons, not least of which is how much we cooperate with each other. These high levels of cooperation may be attributable in part to a process of gene-culture coevolution. I am particularly interested in two forms this process may have taken during human evolution. First, selection may have favored individuals who allowed their behavior to be shaped by social coordination norms. Second, cultural group selection (a process distinct from and contrasting in many ways with biological group selection) may have favored the evolution of a flexible coalitional psychology. Religion may have played a particularly important role in this process in at least two ways. First, religion is a source of social norms, and the literature on religious conversion shows that religion’s spread and maintenance are often enhanced by its ability to provide solutions to coordination problems. Even religious skeptics often celebrate religious holidays because they solve a common coordination problem: When best to get together with large numbers of friends and family? Second, religion may provide a uniquely powerful way of defining groups and of enhancing feelings of solidarity within them. One key to this process may be the signals of commitment that religious believers send to each other. Religious conversion may also shed light on cultural group selection and our flexible coalitional psychology.
Lee Cronk is a Professor in Rutgers University’s Department of Anthropology. Cronk’s approach to the study of human behavior incorporates both evolutionary theory and the concept of culture. He has conducted fieldwork in East Africa and the Caribbean on such topics as cultural change, ethnicity, parental care, courtship signaling, and risk pooling. The focus of Dr. Cronk’s current research is cooperation. Together with Dr. Beth L. Leech of Rutgers’ Department of Political Science, he is the co-author of Meeting at Grand Central: Understanding the Social and Evolutionary Roots of Cooperation, which will be published during the fall of 2012 by Princeton University Press.