Religion as an Adaptive System

Project summary: This project is aimed at uncovering the dynamics of the religious system. Religion may best be understood as an adaptive complex of traits incorporating cognitive, affective, behavioral, and developmental elements. These traits derive from pre-human ritual systems and were selected for in early hominin populations because they contributed to the ability of individuals to overcome ever present ecological challenges. By fostering cooperation and extending the communication and coordination of social relations across time and space, these traits served to maximize the potential resource base for early human populations, thereby benefiting individual fitness. The religious system is an exquisite complex adaptation that serves to support extensive human cooperation and coordination, and social life as we know it.


Funding: John Templeton Foundation, European Science Research Council, and Center of Theological Inquiry



Forthcoming Sosis, Richard. The ABC’s of Evolutionary Signaling Theory and Religion, in The Routledge Handbook of Evolutionary Approaches to Religion, eds. Yair Lior and Justin Lane. London: Routledge Press.
Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis The Roots of Intergroup Conflict and the Co-option of the Religious System: An Evolutionary Perspective on Religious Terrorism. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion, eds. J. Liddle and T. Shackelford, pp. 265-281. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2020 Sosis, Richard. Four Advantages of a Systemic Approach to Religion. Archive for the Psychology of Religion 42: 142-157.
2020 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis. The Systemics of Violent Religious Nationalism: A Case Study of the Yugoslav Wars. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 14: 45-70.
2020 Sosis, Richard. The Last Talmudic Demon? The Role of Ritual in Cultural Transmission. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 375: 20190425.
2019 Wood, Connor and Richard Sosis. Simulating Religions as Adaptive Systems. In Human Simulation, ed. Saikou Diallo. Wiley Press.
2019 Sosis, Richard. The Building Blocks of Religious Systems: Approaching Religion as a Complex Adaptive System. In Evolution, Development & Complexity: Multiscale Models of Complex Adaptive Systems, eds. G.Y. Georgiev, J.M. Smart, C.L. Flores Martinez, and M. Price, pp. 421-449. New York: Springer.
2019 Sosis, Richard Why cultural evolution models need a systemic approach. In Evolution, Cognition, and the History of Religion: A New Synthesis, eds. A. Klostergaard Petersen, I.S. Gilhus, L.H. Martin, J. Sinding Jensen, and J. Sorensen, pp. 45-61. Boston: Brill.
2016 Shaver, John, Benjamin Purzycki, and Richard Sosis Evolutionary Theory and the Study of Religion. In The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion, eds. M. Stausberg and S. Engler, pp. 124-136. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2016 Sosis, Richard. Religions as complex adaptive systems. MacMillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks on Religion. Mental Religion: The Brain, Cognition, and Culture, ed. N. Clements, pp. 219-236. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan.
2016 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis. The Roots of Intergroup Conflict and the Co-option of the Religious System: An Evolutionary Perspective on Religious Terrorism. In Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion, eds. J. Liddle and T. Shackelford. Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2015 Purzycki, Benjamin G., Jordan Kiper, John Shaver, Daniel Finkel, and Richard Sosis. Religion, in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, eds. R.A. Scott and S.M. Kosslyn, pp. 1-16. New York: Wiley.
2014 Kiper, Jordan and Richard Sosis. Moral intuitions and the religious system: an adaptationist account. Philosophy, Theology, and Science 1: 172-199.
2014 Sosis, Richard and Jordan Kiper Religion is more than belief: What evolutionary theories of religion tell us about religious commitment, in Challenges to Religion and Morality: Disagreements and Evolution, eds. M. Bergmann and P. Kain, pp. 256-276. New York: Oxford University Press.
2014 Shariff, Azim, Benjamin Purzycki, and Richard Sosis. Religions as Cultural Solutions to Social Living, in Culture Reexamined: Broadening Our Understanding of Social and Evolutionary Influences, ed. A.B. Cohen, pp. 217-238. Washington, DC: APA Books.
2014 Sosis, Richard and Jordan Kiper. Why religion is better conceived as a complex system than a norm-enforcing institution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 37: 275-276.
2014 Purzycki, Benjamin, Omar Haque, and Richard Sosis. Extending Evolutionary Accounts of Religion beyond the Mind: Religions as Adaptive Systems, in Evolution, Religion, and Cognitive Science: Criticaland Constructive Essays, eds. F. Watts and L. Turner, pp. 74-91. New York: Oxford University Press.
2013 Purzycki, Benjamin and Richard Sosis. The extended religious phenotype and the adaptive coupling of ritual and belief. Israel Journal of Ecology and Evolution 59: 99-108.
2011 Purzycki, Benjamin and Richard Sosis. Our Gods: Variation in Supernatural Minds, in Essential Building Blocks of Human Nature, eds. Ulrich Frey, C. Stormer, K.P. Willfuhr, pp. 77- 93, New York: Springer.
2010 Finkel, Daniel, Paul Swartwout, and Richard Sosis. The Socio-Religious Brain: A Developmental Model, Eds. R. Dunbar, C. Gamble, J. Gowlett. Proceedings of the British Academy 158: 287-312.
2010 Purzycki, Benjamin and Richard Sosis. Religious Concepts as Necessary Components of the Adaptive Religious System, in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Philosophy: Evolution and Religion, ed. Ulrich Frey, pp. 37-59, Marburg, Germany: Tectum Verlag.
2009 Sosis, Richard. The Adaptationist-Byproduct Debate on the Evolution of Religion: Five Misunderstandings of the Adaptationist Program. Journal of Cognition and Culture 9: 315-332.
2009 Purzycki, Benjamin and Richard Sosis. The Religious System as Adaptive: Cognitive Flexibility, Public Displays, and Acceptance, in The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behavior, eds. Eckart Voland and Wulf Schiefenhovel, pp. 243-256, New York: Springer-Verlag Publishers.
2009 Sosis, Richard and Ulrich Schnabel. The Adjusted Belief: What makes a religion successful? in The Pope in the Crossfire: Extrapolate back to Pius or the Council? (in German), ed. Til Galrev, pp. 165-167, Berlin: LIT Verlag.
2008 Sosis, Richard and Candace Alcorta. Militants and Martyrs: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion and Terrorism , in Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, eds. R. Sagarin and T. Taylor, pp. 105-24, Berkeley: University of California Press.
2005 Alcorta, Candace and Richard Sosis. Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature 16: 323-359.
2004 Sosis, Richard and Candace Alcorta. Is Religion Adaptive? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27:749-750.