Dissertation, Australian National University (2019)

Carl Brusse
University of Sydney
The origins of human social cooperation confound simple evolutionary explanation. But from Darwin and Durkheim onward, theorists (anthropologists and sociologists especially) have posited a potential link with another curious and distinctively human social trait that cries out for explanation: religion. This dissertation explores one contemporary theory of the co-evolution of religion and human social cooperation: the signalling theory of religion, or religious signalling theory (RST). According to the signalling theory, participation in social religion (and its associated rituals and sanctions) acts as an honest signal of one’s commitment to a religiously demarcated community and its way of doing things. This signal would allow prosocial individuals to positively assort with one another for mutual advantage, to the exclusion of more exploitative individuals. In effect, the theory offers a way that religion and cooperation might explain one another, but which that stays within an individualist adaptive paradigm. My approach is not to assess the empirical adequacy of the religious signalling explanation or contrast it with other explanations, but rather to deal with the theory in its own terms – isolating and fleshing out its core commitments, explanatory potential, and limitations. The key to this is acknowledging the internal complexities of signalling theory, with respect to the available models of honest signalling and the extent of their fit (or otherwise) with religion as a target system. The method is to take seriously the findings of formal modelling in animal signalling and other disciplines, and to apply these (and methods from the philosophy of biology more generally) to progressively build up a comprehensive picture of the theory, its inherent strengths and weaknesses. The first two chapters outline the dual explanatory problems that cooperation and religion present for evolutionary human science, and surveys contemporary approaches toward explaining them. Chapter three articulates an evolutionary conception of the signalling theory, and chapters four to six make the case for a series of requirements, limitations, and principles of application. Chapters seven and eight argue for the value of formal modelling to further flesh out the theory’s commitments and potential and describe some simple simulation results which make progress in this regard. Though the inquiry often problematizes the signalling theory, it also shows that it should not be dismissed outright, and that it makes predictions which are apt for empirical testing.
Keywords Evolution of Religion  Cultural Evolution  Signalling  Formal modelling  Modelling and explanation
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DOI 10.25911/5d7a2dc0e8c62
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Convention: A Philosophical Study.David Kellogg Lewis - 1969 - Cambridge, MA, USA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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