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Dr. Paul J. Watson

University of New Mexico

Department of Biology, 235 Marron Hall
Instagram @drpjwatson

The Biology Department is engaging in a comprehensive review of its course offerings.

The Spring 2024, 17th edition of this course was canceled. Along with some other seminar offerings, the course's future is pending a decision by the Biology Department's curriculum committee as to its quality or merit, and perhaps whether it fits into the department's overall teaching mission. I am hoping for a positive decision and optimistically plan to begin teaching Evolution of Religiosity again in the Spring of 2025.

3-credit hours; Tuesday & Thursday 11:00 - 12:15

Format: live and Interactive. Discussion-friendly lectures, ad libitum discussion, and student presentations.

This course is cross-listed so that students may enroll for 3-credits under any of four academic programs, namely, Biology 419.004 or 519.004 (CRN's: 48931 & 48932, respectively); Psychology 450.008 (CRN: 59826); Religious Studies 447.003 (CRN: 59679); Peace and Global Justice Studies 340.002 (CRN: ?????).

Contact me if you have trouble enrolling.  I commonly issue registration overrides for students with serious interest.

As I use the word, "religiosity" denotes the diverse evolved cognitive traits of humans that interact to render us so receptive to supernaturally imbuded narratives and belief systems. Our pan-cultural religiosity is in turn responsible for the cultural evolution of religion across societies. This course offers a comprehensive, nuanced, nonjudgmental, scientific materialist, Darwinian analysis of all aspects and varieties of religious behavior and experience. That will include your experiences, or seeming lack thereof, if you choose to share. We shall cover the evolutionary origins of human religiosity, as well as principled, testable evolutionary adaptationist hypotheses concerning religiosity, that is, the many ways that natural selection may have enhanced our original, primordial religious proclivities and caused them to evolve into an integrated set of powerful adaptations for religious belief that solve vital reproductive problems for individual humans, often by enhancing, indeed supercharging, the effective and efficient functioning of the uniquely human and pan-cultural form of sociality, "complex contractual reciprocity,"

The focus on developing an evolutionary biological understanding of religion and our underlying instincts for being religious is the focus of the course. You could also consider this to be a course on human cognitive ecology. For most students, the course is also going to be about self-discovery, potentiated by evidence-based perspectives on human nature from modern evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, along with introspective self-experience.

Either way, I am very excited to offer this class again, making hard core biological perspectives on cross-cultural aspects of religiosity available to a broad student audience. I am lucky to be in a position to give this class my undivided attention during the entire Spring semester, so I assure you we will have ample opportunity to interact both inside and outside of class and I will do everything I can to help you get your time, attention, and money's worth!

This web page always is undergoing minor reconstruction, currently the case for the Spring 2020 edition of the class. But even in its current state, it will give you a clear idea about what this course entails. The biggest changes for 2020 will entail how we handle the required "Course Journal" (formerly referred to as "weekly point lists," if you run across that term anywhere in previous course descriptions), and what papers we present and discuss, since a handful of important new publications come out every year.

Please, email me at or call me at 505-681-3391 with any enrollment questions or to set up a face-to-face appointment about course structure and content.

I highly value office hour conversations. Office hour meetings bolster your grade directly and indirectly, and are highly encouraged for everyone. Since participation in class discussions counts for 30% of your course grade, they are especially important if you find it difficult to speak in class, either in general, or about a sensitive course-related topic of personal importance to you. But for everybody, office hour meetings allow me to customize explanations of certain slippery concepts for your individual psyche; these meetings can be extremely important for you to get the most out of this class.

Note that being in class on time and very consistent attendance will also have a strong impact on your understanding of course ideas and, accordingly, your grade. A full grading scheme can be found at the bottom
of this web page.

The course is for mature students interested in the deep biological underpinnings of religion, as well as in the pursuit of fundamental self-knowledge. Join this course, made up of students with diverse backgrounds, for a respectful and sincere, principled, evidence-based exploration of our amazing, shared intrapsychic design. The course offers information vital to understanding our pan-cultural religious inclinations, but also more general insights about the conscious and unconscious structure of mind from evolutionary cognitive psychology that can help to deeply inform individual and organizational efforts to promote urgently needed positive human cultural evolution.

What about a syllabus? I generally do not publish a schedule detailing our lecture / discussion topics. Yes, of course I have a general plan for the course, but adaptive changes will be made along the way affecting the order and speed of subject matter covered. Except in broad outline, I never teach this course the the same way twice. How it goes depends on the needs and spirit of the class. Once started, the class becomes kind of a living thing for me, and student curiosities and concerns affect my decisions about where to go next, as does new literature that demands attention and which sometimes even appears during the course.

We eventually cover everything possible about the evolutionary origins and potential adaptive significance of religiosity, especially in relation to "human coalitional psychology" (i.e., the adaptive design of the human psyche enabling astute management of multiple, interacting, specific relationships, as well as effective and efficient navigation of the social networks we all depend upon for individual survival and reproduction (i.e., gene replication and "inclusive fitness").

A major reading for 2022 will be evolutionary psychologist Matt Rosanno's "Supernatural Selection" (2010). Get it from Amazon or a similar source ASAP, and go ahead and start reading it. (Note: It will not be available at the UNM bookstore.) A Kindle version is available as well as used copies. "Supernatural Selection" has limitations, is aging a bit, and the course will provide a much broader view of religiosity than it does. But, "Supernatural Selection" still stands alone as the only concentrated single-author attempt at constructing a multifaceted, integrated adaptationist account of religion. It is very readable for a broad audience. Recent students overwhelmingly think it is a valuable read in the contet of the course. Some of its major tenants are in basic agreement with my own views, by I will expand on all of them. I think Rossano is correct in presenting a prime role for religion in human social life, and as being fundamentally involved in establishing and maintaining relationships. We'll try to see deeply into the complexity of its role in this and other domains of human existence.

Extended Summary

This course offers a comprehensive, nuanced, scientific materialist, Darwinian analysis of all aspects and varieties of religious behavior and inner experience. The course also will prepare students to see the relevance of many findings in evolutionary cognitive neuroscience for the understanding of the role of religion in human social life. This will be a course in which your questions about religion and your related mental / emotional reality can be analytically yet respectfully addressed, so please be prepared to participate.

The course is for mature students dedicated to the pursuit of fundamental self-knowledge. I expect maximal real time attendance, from both in-class and online students, and that everyone will do their best, with some instructor facilitation, to actively participate in thoughtful, principled, analytical discussion, paper presentations, and writing. The course is designed to bring about an in-depth understanding of the evolutionary biology of "religiosity," the package of instincts and cognitive designs that lead humans, pan-culturally, to create all sorts of religions and, how these instincts and resulting religions relate adaptively to fundamental aspects of human social life.

It is important that you understand the following. Our course is not going to deal with untestable propositions concerning the existence of supernatural entities. Nor is it about whether religion is morally good, bad, or neutral. Rest assured, the course has no evangelical atheist agenda. Careful questions about variation in religion's adaptive significance in diverse traditional versus modern social and ecological contexts are fair game. Moreover, this course is not about the cultural relationships between religion and science. We are not going to debate, for example, whether or not they are non-overlapping magisteria (sensu S.J. Gould), or histories about how science and religion have interacted, per se. This course IS all about the deep psychobiology of religion. And, we will use the study of our innate religiosity as a portal for understanding the design of the human psyche more broadly.

The course covers recent papers on the evolutionary psychology and evolutionary cognitive neuroscience of religiosity, as well as a variety of state-of-art testable hypotheses about the origins and adaptive significance of human religiosity. Religion, religiosity instincts, and certain more general underlying evolved design features of the human psyche are examined in a non-judgmental way that, just like, for example, a course on spider biology would cover the origins and adaptive significance of spider webs and the different types of spider silks, or a course on mammalian carnivores would cover the adaptive design of fangs and carnassial (meat-shearing) teeth. The course will elucidate, for ALL serious students, the evolutionary origins, maintenance, and probable adaptive (i.e., fitness-enhancing) elaborations of religiosity by natural selection during the vastness of human evolutionary history. Thus we will discuss multiple explanations of how religions, and the enabling religiosity instincts, which drive us almost inexorably to create them, potentially are highly functional evolutionary adaptations - products of direct natural selection, and not just "cognitive by-products" or other sorts of maladaptive or nonsensical "cognitive-emotional junk."

Don't let any unfamiliar terms above scare you off. I've am dedicated to offering all this material to a broad audience with diverse backgrounds. So, pertinent modern Darwinian theory will be thoroughly explained and you will learn how to critically apply it to human behavior throughout the course. You just have to help me out when a concept does not yet make sense to you by asking questions.

Many students who first approach this course with deep skepticism concerning what the natural sciences can say about religiosity end up being highly impressed by previously unimaginable, cogent, testable explanations of human religious belief, feeling, and behavior now available from the field of evolutionary behavioral biology. Aspects of evolutionary cognitive neuroscience will be discussed to explain how and why natural selection designs human minds instinctively receptive to religious cultural influences.

Expect a strictly non-ideological, biology-oriented course that will help diverse students think in incisive and very new ways about religion and, more broadly, the astoundingly sophisticated, and socially and ecologically responsive, workings of the human mind. Your mind. The course is appropriate for mature undergraduates and graduates majors or minors in Biology, Anthropology, Psychology, Religious Studies, and Philosophy. The course is designed to help anyone with a serious curiosity about the human condition, scientific and introspective "seekers of truth," to take advantage of the extremely powerful objectifying influence available from the intellectually coherent, evidence-based modern Darwinian theory of mind and nature. Background in key basic and mid-level theories of evolutionary behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology will be provided as needed, in course context; this should be beneficial to students with and without biological backgrounds.

Relatively mainstream as well as newer unpublished perspectives on the biological evolution of cross-cultural religious predilections will be explored. A full range of scientific perspectives will be considered. Cognitive by-product (epiphenomenalist), memetic, and functionalist (adaptationist) evolutionary hypotheses covering pancultural manifestations of religiosity will be thoroughly discussed and integrated. By the end of the course it will be clear to the student how religious and proto-religious thinking could have gotten started in our hominid ancestors. Further, it will be shown how natural selection could have taken hold of various instincts and cognitive-emotional adaptations, mostly relevant to navigating the complexities of human social life, tuning and dovetailing them to increase their social and ecological utility and their tenacious intrapsychic grip upon us.

Humans have evolved a "super-social" way of life that I refer to as complex contractual reciprocity. A major emphasis of this course will be elucidating what this way of life entails, and how religiosity could have been selected for, genetically and culturally, to support individual and cultural success in dealing with CCR's incredible opportunities and demands. For some writings that help portray the human social context in which I feel the evolution of religiosity must be understood, see (1) "Ties That Bind" pieces from the 1/26/12 issue of Nature and (2) the "Adapted to Culture" piece from page 297 of the 2/16/12 Nature issue.

Another recent paper that would make for great pre-course, Christmas break reading to help prepare you for modern sociobiological emphasis of the class is by Pat Barclay, "Strategies for cooperation in biological markets, especially for humans." This is from the top evolutionary psychology journal, "Evolution and Human Behavior" (May 2013, v34 (3), pp.164-175).

An impressive array of human cognitive traits were selected for in the context of contractual reciprocity and other basic aspects of human ecology, which contribute to cross-cultural religious drives and experiences. These cognitive traits (1) guide our extraordinarily flexible subjective perceptions of reality, (2) modulate the dynamics of our life-sustaining coalitions, (3) underpin the formation and communication of credible (hard-to-fake) social commitments and personal needs, (4) control our moral deliberations and reasoning about relationships, and (4) are pivotal in canalizing systems of rules governing social exchange contracts. We shall also consider religiosity's possible adaptive significance for the generation of willpower, enhanced intelligence, and improved health.

"Evolution of Religiosity" is a biology course, so, again, we'll not be spending class time on evangelical atheist or anti-religious material. Religiosity is taken as a biological feature of the mind, or at least a deeply ingrained biological potential of it, analogous to language and other cultural learning. The course is about understanding the evolutionary origins as well as the functions of religiosity. We are not about judging our species religious inclinations - no more so than a course on, say, bees and wasps would judge them for their venom-injecting stingers used in hunting and defense, or a course on spiders would morally critique their use of silken webs to capture prey. Our group's mandate will be to help each other honestly pursue self-knowledge and fresh, cogent, scientifically informed views of religion's evolved place in human mental and social life, in all its contradiction-laden beauty and horror. Come gain experience using the "ultimate" evolutionary level of analysis" to understand the inner and outer world you live in, and to see more deeply into the covert yet functional relationship between your conscious and unconscious mind, with special emphasis on the natural phenomenon of religion.


I do not think that so-called "group selection" processes produce genetic evolution, but fierce cultural group selection does occur, and religious groups have tended to win out in worldwide cultural competitions. Culture is recognized in modern Darwinism as an aspect of the human evolutionary environment, so it naturally effects genetic evolution. I bring up these added points to alert students to the fact that all manner of cultural considerations are perfectly subject to modern biological analysis, as will be evident in this course.


The course will offer a novel full-fledged ultimate (not just proximate) explanation of placebo effects offered in religious (and other) contexts, effects that may have health effects today and may have been of great importance in our evolutionary past. We will go beyond the standard proximate explanation that religious participation reduces stress and so increases health via favorable immune system effects. WHY (!), and in what context, does religious behavior reduce stress? Why does intercessory prayer for the ill sometimes make them worse? These things cannot be understood without analyzing religiosity instincts of humans in the broader context of human coalitionary psychology.

I emphasize questioning. Student-to-professor and sincere respectful student-to-student questions and challenges always will be encouraged. Such interchanges will reflect the fact that this is a science course, which necessitates the cooperative sharing of alternative reasoned viewpoints, all offered in a comradely spirit of devising tests of opposing propositions about religion as a natural phenomenon. The content of our discussions, partly, will derive from a required Course Journal. These should be used to keep track of thoughts and questions concerning the course that come up between class meetings. Ponderings recorded in your Journals should be in front of you during every class to help you bring up things of special interest to you. Your journals also will be handed in, electronically, at the end of the course. Journals, and especially, your active use of them in class, will account for a portion of your final grade.

The evolutionary focus of the course is not designed to dissuade students of any religious views they may hold. Indirectly, it will cause any thinking student to ponder the source of their views. It will also cause any participating student to question innate and learned assumptions about how their minds operate, “who they really are.” In many ways this is a course about the deep yet largely cryptic relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, the shifting dreamworlds this relationship causes us all to live in, and the possibility of reducing the grip of this adaptively subjective dreamworld, which I contend biological knowledge of ourselves improves. Why bother with this? To live more consciously, with more genuine intentionality, and more consistently according to consciously chosen goals and values.

Again, I emphasize that the course will provide rigorously materialist, biologically reasoned analyses of multicultural aspects of religiosity. We shall explore many competing and complimentary points of view concerning religion as a natural phenomenon, All of our work together will be informed by modern evolutionary psychological theory and applicable discoveries about human mental organization from the evolutionary cognitive neurosciences. The course will open potentially disquieting questions for students with religious and non-religious world views and "self-models." Expect penetrating questions to be opened and illuminated about the reasons for and sources of our beliefs, behaviors, and our dearest most sacred inner experiences.

Again, class time will not be taken to debate belief or faith-based supernatural views of reality, such as whether or not "spirits" and kindred entities actually exist; untestable claims do not logically compete with scientific perspectives. However, the class will be a safe place to share and analyze actual experiences regarding religious thought patterns and emotions. I know I've had plenty. You can be a materialist, and a Darwinian, and still recognize, perhaps all the better, that there is an extraordinarily worthy life-project, available uniquely to humans, entailing the pursuit of unromanticized objective self-knowledge.

"Man's possibilities are very great.

You cannot even conceive a shadow of what man is capable of attaining..."

G.I. Gurdjieff


Much of our time will be centered on lectures and discussion led by myself, but during which students always will be invited to chime in, brainstorm, question, and challenge copiously! Each student will also perform a 15+ minute presentation based on one or more papers from the "course library." I hope to foster an atmosphere that generates "group genius." In the end, you will get (1) a diversity of views on the evolution of religiosity from lectures, papers, and discussion, (2) a relatively integrated evolutionary adaptationist single-author thesis from the Rossano text, and (3) my extensive personal views on the evolution of religiosity, developed over the past 25+ years of being (a) a Darwinian interested in human social behavior and (b) a student / practitioner/member of contemplative traditions often associated with religion.

There is a thoughtful chapter on religion, which we'll certainly be reading and discussing early in the course, presented in the recent book, "Human Social Evolution: The Foundational Works of Richard D. Alexander" (2013). Alexander freshly wrote this chapter specifically for this volume. I'll provide a PDF to the class. An excellent complimentary paper recently out in the journal "Human Behavior and Evolution," Crespi and Summers (2014), Inclusive fitness theory for the evolution of religion, will also be a great addition to our course reading and discussion.

As time allows, we also will consider selections from other recent books authored by evolutionary psychologists with various perspectives, such as "The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion" (2008), by Lyle B. Steadman and Craig T. Palmer, "The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior" (2009), edited by Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhövel, and "The Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, & Critiques" (2008), edited by Joseph Bulbulia, et. al

For those who would like more examples of course content, a previous text for the course is still valuable: "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" (2002), by cognitive anthropologist, Scott Atran, from the "Evolution and Cognition Series" of Oxford University Press; also here is a downloadable condensation Atran's views (in PDF format), published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Atran and Norenzayan, 2004). There may also be some chapter readings from the 2nd edition of "The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2nd edition" (2015), edited by David Buss.

(1) Attendance will be taken each class period: 30% of grade (i.e., maximum of 30 points out of 100 possible). I reserve the right to drop students from the course who accumulate 3 unexcused absences during the first three weeks of the course. I may make videos of class sessions available to students with excused absences - proof of timely viewing will erase absences from your record. Absences inevitably affect your participation grade negatively, however. Do not sign up for this course if you do not intend to aim for outstanding attendance.
(2) Participation in class discussions, contributions to our "group genius": 20% of grade.
(3) Presentation of a pre-approved empirical paper to the class; 20 minutes in duration. Can be done any time during the semester. You can pair up with another student and deliver a 30+ minute tag-team presentation if the chosen paper warrants. Possible papers are chosen from the extensive course library, which will be available for examination and upload during the first week of class. Or, find your own paper! 15% of grade.
(4) Mid-Term of short 2-4
sentence "essay" answers. This exam will concentrate on main ideas from Rossano textbook, "Supernatural Selection," and closely related material from class. 15% of grade.
(5) Journal consisting of weekly musings you potentially wish to share and questions you may ask in class or office hours. There may be a course TA in 2022 who will participate in our meetings grade and provide feedback on your journal writings bi-weekly or personally. Thoughtful substance counts much more than volume. I will check on the existence of substance of Journals during Week 2, during the Mid-Term class meeting, and during Finals Week. Note that the way you get feedback and additional course credit from your Journals is by using them to help you participate in class and to help support substantive Office Hour conversations. 20% of grade.
(6) Office Hours can 
provide you with copious extra credit points depending on the cumulative time and substance of our conversations over the semester. There is no formal limit to the number of points you can earn by coming to office hours. The only caveat is that you must not try to make up with poor attendance by coming to office hours. Regardless of your background, I am here to work with you individually and in small groups to understand and knit together the ideas of the course as you desire.

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