Boy Scouts, Giant Sea Turtles, and the Evolution of Other-Oriented Behavior

Boy Scouts, Giant Sea Turtles, and the Evolution of Other-Oriented Behavior

In writing about why EvoS is such an outstanding academic program, David Wilson (2007) takes on three major misconceptions about evolution. These being that it is:
1. overly scientific and, thus, beyond comprehension for many people.
2. somehow pernicious and evil, to be used for abhorrent social agendas.
3. not relevant to one’s everyday life.

In this post, I address this third point.

As an evolutionist, I’m woefully beyond help. I can’t help but see everything in my world in terms of evolutionary principles. At a Board of Education meeting recently, I saw parents speaking up for the future of their children – clearly taking steps to ensure the success of their progeny. On a recent hike in the Gunks, I saw pockets of forest filled with giant hemlocks – taking over an ecological niche along a stream that would otherwise belong to several varieties of oaks that typify the forest. All summer long, as the corn and sunflowers disappeared – somewhat gradually – in my garden, an opulent groundhog implemented an evolutionarily advantageous strategy for surviving – quite well, in fact. I pulled a single pumpkin from the garden this year … but I digress …

While my own experience seeing evolution everywhere may be somewhat pronounced, I don’t think it’s unique. EvoS students regularly report having this same perspective applied to questions and problems across life domains. This fact may well be the core secret of the success of EvoS programs, now proliferating around the world like groundhogs on a pumpkin farm.

As a parent, I see evolution every time I think about either of my kids. Megan, 8, and Andrew, 5, are just the thrill of my life – and spending time with them and watching them grow genuinely comprise the primary focus of my attention at this life stage. And taking an evolutionary approach really adds to my understanding of who they are and why they do what they do.

Recently, I’ve become somewhat (yes, only somewhat!) intrigued by religious practices. As a highly secular, evolutionist, atheist who was not bar mitzvahed because I came from a lineage of skeptics, I’m not exactly the most religious person you might know. But my training as an evolutionist tells me that there’s something to religion. While evolutionarily informed theories of religion vary a good bit, I’ve become particularly interested in David Wilson’s (2007) conception of religion as having both a vertical dimension (dealing with the relationship between people and the supernatural) and a horizontal dimension (which pertains to how people interact with others – and the nature of social structures that encourage or discourage certain social behaviors).

In his discussion of these two dimensions of religion, Wilson makes the point that the horizontal level – comprised of a religion’s rules – is all about social interactions and social control – ultimately encouraging behaviors that promote among-group selection at a cost to within-group selection. Briefly, such social controls encourage people to be nice to others at a cost to themselves.

And religion after religion, in fact, has a good bit of this kind of “self-sacrifice for the broader group” thing going on. Jesus dying on the cross is likely the ultimate icon of this sort of other-oriented behavior – but it plays out throughout scripture in a host of religions that cut across typical geographical and cultural divides (Wilson, 2002).

Why religion, then? Why would it have evolved and come to typify our species. Successful religious groups, compared with less-successful groups, have been effective at getting their members to invest time and energy for the good of the group – at a cost to themselves. A group that does this kind of thing well will outcompete alternative groups – and come to proliferate any shared niche.

For Wilson, religion is deeply rooted in who we are – and the benefits it provided our ancestors were exactly the kind of benefits described here. Belonging to a successful religious group meant (a) that your group was likely to succeed and that (b) you and your family were likely to benefit accordingly. Group benefits trickle down to the individual.

From this perspective, then, humans have a long history of being indoctrinated into groups with several seemingly arbitrary hierarchies and social rules. These rules, traditionally framed in terms of specific religious principles, encourage group-oriented behavior and discourage individual-oriented behavior. The main lesson of such perspectives is self-sacrifice and putting the goals of the group above the goals of the individual.

I have to admit, I kind of like that! This is how I try to organize nearly all things I’m involved in. Known for its “help each other out” culture, I like to think that NEEPS is built on norms that parallel some of these fundamental features of religious organizations – encouraging group oriented behavior and discouraging selfish behavior. Maybe this is why NEEPS has been so successful.

I’ve become particularly interested in thinking about these parallels with religion with regard to raising my kids. At nearly six years old, Andrew is a positive force. He’s pretty much boy as boy can be – but he’s got a nice combination of softness, creativity, and humor to round him out. We love him. But I will say that he may not always engage in other-oriented behavior. And I’m starting to see that secular parents, such as Kathy and me, may need to take special steps given the evolution of other-oriented behavior. Religion has been the primary conduit for facilitating other-oriented behavior for generations of humans. We now are capable of having no religion. On one hand, this is great – we can think of ourselves as enlightened, and we feel we sort of “truly” understand questions such as what the universe is about and where we fit in it. That’s nice. But there may be a cost.

When it comes to fostering other-oriented behavior, religious parents have a leg up. They have the church, the preacher, the modeling of other-oriented behavior and, if that’s not enough, they have the Bible – filled with comments and parables that underscore the benefits of other-oriented behavior.

I think that secular parents may need to take specific and proactive actions to help their kids develop other-oriented ways.

Andrew started doing Boy Scouts this semester. Well, really, it’s “Tiger Scouts” – but you get the deal. He and a bunch of other 5 and 6-year old boys head to the basement of our local Catholic Church a few times a month. They stand in line. They sit in line. They are told to be quiet. They are asked to describe a situation in which they showed gratitude. They are asked to describe a situation in which they showed respect. They salute the American flag.

Yes, of course, a small part of me thinks this is almost like brainwashing! But Andrew seems to naturally connect with it – and I see a side of him in there that is very admirable. There’s not a lot of “I want this!”; “You took that from me!”; “Give me that!”; etc. Rather, there’s an implicit but powerful understanding that Andrew – and the others – will follow orders from the leaders. And you can quickly see the group benefits that will follow. Apparently, they have plans to build cars for an upcoming soap box derby. That’d be hard for one kid to do – not so hard for a well-organized group. They’re going to create a rocket and blast it into the air. Disciplined, other-oriented, respectful, behavior on the part of the kids will surely help make this happen.

Given the conspicuously non-religious nature of our household, I’m (tentatively!) seeing Tiger Scouts as a good thing for Andrew. To develop as moral beings, we need early life lessons in sacrificing oneself for the broader group or community. You don’t have to be religious to have your kids learn these lessons – but having them take part in long-standing, organized groups, such as the boy scouts – even if there may be some religious undertones – may help shape the kind of other-oriented patterns that will help make them solid and dependable citizens of the global community.

Speaking of the global community, I’m proud to say that Andrew is engaging in self-sacrificing behavior right now. His birthday party is coming up (November 1). Given my effort to encourage other-oriented behavior – along with my effort to reduce clutter, I’ll admit – I’ve proposed to Andrew that we could ask his friends to not bring presents but to, rather, consider donating money to a particular charity that is dear to Andrew’s Heart. Andrew recently visited the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, FL, and he quickly indicated that he wanted this center to be the target of any such donation efforts. The Center brings in and rehabilitates various sea turtles that have been injured by the fishing or boating industries of Florida. We visit the Center regularly and Andrew loves it there. (To donate, go to!)

I’m thinking of this whole thing in evolutionary terms – teaching him at a young age to value outcomes that benefit the broader community and help others (turtles, in this case) while exerting a cost on himself (by not getting presents). Mind you, there are caveats – he will get presents from family members – and I have strong faith that between his birthday, Hanukkah, and Christmas, he’ll get his usual share of 500 or so presents that don’t fit in the house (slight exaggeration here!). But he is excited about the save the turtle campaign – and we’ve got to support that. When other-oriented behaviors meet positive emotions, things are good.

Shaping other-oriented orientations in kids is one of the main evolutionary hurdles faced by all humans. Religion likely can help – but if you’re a little creative and take advantage of community resources, there may even be room for secular parents to raise upstanding, dependable, and other-oriented leaders of tomorrow who care greatly about the broader global community.

Andrew, I’m proud of you! Happy Birthday my man!


Wilson, D. S. (2002). Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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6 Responses to Boy Scouts, Giant Sea Turtles, and the Evolution of Other-Oriented Behavior

  1. Avatar John Umland says:

    My son just moved up to boy Scouts this year. I’m glad I can help as a leader. Unfortunately for atheist parents, I don’t think BSA allows atheists to be leaders. At least that’s what I remember reading, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m wrong.

    However, I just finished the book Atheist Delusions by Dave B. Hart. He seeks to prove that other-centered atheists are self-delusional. I’m posting exceprts at my blog. Whether that’s true or not, I’m glad to see your endeavours to live that way and raise your kids that way.

    God is good

  2. This is a beautifully written and reflective post, as is very fitting for the topic. It makes a very important point–so often, religion is the only alternative to the consumer/market ethos that only encourages individualism and discourages empathy (as does much of the educational infrastructure, with its emphasis on individual achievement and competition). For those of us with young children who don’t have a religious affiliation, this does pose a problem, and this post really got me thinking more seriously about ways to facilitate other-oriented behaviors in my girls. Thanks, Glenn!

  3. GG–this is lovely–especially for its self-disclosure and intimacy…Have you read Randy Nesse’s edited book ‘Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment’? Bill Irons has a chapter called ‘Religion as Hard-to-Fake Sign of Commitment’ and after I read it, it forever changed the way I looked at religion. It also explained my attraction to people who are spiritual and/or religious in some fashion–people who participate in ritual, other-oriented behavior, who feel connected to something beyond themselves. For a while i got interested in Religious Naturalism–an org and movement that the biologist Ursula Goodenough founded…For naturalists and evolutionists this is the closest thing to getting the benefits of Tiger Scouts without a deity. Happy bday, Andrew!

  4. Rose Chang Rose Chang says:

    This point about teaching morals and group-oriented behavior in the absence of religious affiliation is a good one, and probably something you might be more interested in as a parent. I too have considered ways I can start volunteering with Enso in tow already. But getting a 6 year old to say no to gifts, that is pretty impressive. Good luck Andrew!

  5. Avatar Matthew F. Tabor says:

    I’ve spent considerable time debating on message boards about links between evolution and the devolopment of religion, but surprisingly I’ve somehow managed to overlook this valuable point, so thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    I’m also an atheist and rejected religion at a young age, but still consider myself to be a rather other-oriented person despite that fact. On the other hand though, I was a Tiger Cub myself about 19 years ago and am now an Eagle Scout :-)

  6. Avatar Field Notes says:

    An enjoyable and informative post! It gives me some ideas for how to encourage other-oriented behavior in my little monkey, who will also be growing up in a secular, evolutionist family.

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