Post One: Identifying an Appropriate Biological Paradigm

To begin my Monroe research I have conducted research on various theoretical models that could be used to analyze religion. The two major theories that are often cited as possible candidates are Kin Selection (KS) and Mulitlevel Selection Theory (MLS). Quantitatively the two theories are formally equivalent. However, they suggest very different causalities, so I have been attempting to choose the correct paradigm for my own sociobiological analysis of the Apocalypse of John.

After reading extensively, I stumbled across an article by professor Joseph Bulbulia who states that religion seeks to solve two basic adaptive problems: getting along with others and getting along with ourselves. To me, this seemed like a concise summation of the possible evolutionary benefits of religion, so I chose to follow his train of thought. As Bulbulia says, religion is an effective adaptation that increases cooperation within groups. Thus, I decided to use this as a criteria for choosing a sociobiological model.

With the condition that I derived from professor Bulbulia’s discussion of the religious impulse, I was able to choose MLS as the most appropriate biological paradigm for my study. Unlike KS, which asserts that cooperation is done only for indirect fitness, MLS supposes a system of punishments and rewards that lower the relative cost of altruism. For instance, theft is made less likely by the threat of imprisonment, so individuals become less likely to steal. Alternatively, birds that do not perform warning calls are often punished by group members. This view seemed more in line with the professed collective nature religion, as there is usually an emphasis placed on the group and getting along with others. As such, I began to examine the history of MLS and its possible implications for the sociobiological study of religion.

Derived from group selection, which was a theory that was discredited in the 1960’s, MLS has recently gained widespread respect. It has been previously assumed that the conditions necessary for the group level of selection to overcome the individual level of selection were unrealistic. Richard Dawkins famously articulated this view in his book The Selfish Gene, stating that individual selfish actors would always invade and overcome cooperative groups. The insight of MLS, though, is that groups that develop social controls that punish selfish behavior make invasion of selfish individuals much more difficult. Further, groups that cooperative successfully normally out compete groups who do not.

Religions place a large emphasis on promoting social controls. The ten commandments, the 613 Mitzvoth, and many other moral codes all outline specific behaviors that are punishable. Apocalypticism in particular offers an especially poignant punishment for failing to follow religious tenets: the rejection from the afterlife. At the time, many other religions did not have a concept of life after death, so this became an especially powerful social control.

I will now turn my attention to researching apocalypticism and providing a more complete synthesis of sociobiological and religious thought.


  1. acgerhard says:

    I’m curious as to why you’re approaching the question from a social point of view rather than an individual one. It’s an absolutely valid perspective and fits well with what you’re doing, but it’s different from a lot of what I’ve seen regarding prophet traditions.

    Namely, that there’s some biological imperative towards seeking patterns and re-enacting them, like Skinner’s superstitious pigeons. And, hence, that prophecies persist because humans imagine/hallucinate/dream/trance strange visions, and we can’t help but try to interpret them. It’s especially poignant in something like all the various divination traditions around the world, and given the fact that most of the bible’s prophets, like Isaiah, focus on more near-term doom and destruction (perhaps another example of the social control).

    I’d also be interested to know if you’ll be exploring martyrdom as part of this, especially in regards to the early Christians. Is the same apocalyptic pressure enough to push communities towards that kind of self-sacrificing altruistic behavior, or is that better modeled by another system/hypothesis?