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Evolution, religion and the nature of society

12 August 2005

Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society

The scientist whose research provided the first credible revival of Darwinian Group Selection Theory since it was largely demolished in the mid-twentieth century is visiting The University of Auckland's Faculty of Science this month.

One of the world's most distinguished evolutionary biologists, Professor David Sloan Wilson from Binghamton University, New York, will be in Auckland as a guest of the School of Biological Sciences and the Department of Psychology, as well as being a University of Auckland Distinguished Visitor.

Professor Wilson, whose expertise is in population biology, will talk about "Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society" at a public lecture at the University on 24 August.

In a book with the same title, he explores the evolution of religion from a biological point of view. He takes the radical step of bringing together evolution and religion to offer an evolutionary theory of religion that challenges the foundations of both evolutionary biology and social theory.

According to Professor Wilson, the key is to think of society as an organism. Evolution is about how some individuals survive and others don't. "Darwin's Cathedral" is about how some groups survive and others don't.

His hypothesis argues that natural selection operates on more than one level (the individual and the group). His work shows that groups vary, as do individual phenotypes. Phenotypes are the visible characteristics of an organism that are produced by the interaction of genetic characteristics and the environment.

Professor Wilson says that natural selection favours certain "group phenotypes" over others. Religion is one of the phenotypes at the group level and both group phenotypes and individual phenotypes co-evolved.

Chair of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Auckland Professor Paul Rainey says the Faculty is delighted to be able to host the visit of a scientist of Professor Wilson's standing.

"A visit to the University by a researcher and thinker of Professor Wilson's calibre is an important occasion for staff and students. The breadth of experience and diversity of thought that Professor Wilson has to offer is rarely encountered among the top scientists of today and we are honoured to have him here."

About Professor David Sloan Wilson
Professor David Sloan Wilson is Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, New York. He is an evolutionary biologist who studies humans in addition to other species. Beginning with a deep knowledge and rigorous investigation of population biology he has expanded the horizons of evolutionary theory to encompass a broad range of human activities, from the individual to the societal levels. Beyond biology, his thinking has ranged broadly over human history, psychology, economics, sociology and religion to explore the implications of evolutionary theory for the human condition.

Professor Wilson's books - The Natural Selection of Populations and Communities, and more recently Unto Others: the Evolution of Unselfish Behaviour and Darwin's Cathedral - have generated much academic and public interest.

Topic: Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society
Date: 7.30pm, August 24, 2005
Venue: Lecture theatre LIB B15, The University of Auckland Library, Alfred St, Auckland Central
Registration: Free; open to the public.


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