Humans are uniquely able to cooperate in groups of unrelated individuals. This capacity is expressed most spontaneously in small groups but can be extended to large groups with the help of culturally evolved mechanisms, which are sometimes but not always religious in character. What are the design features that enable groups of people to function as adaptive units? Why are the cultural elements that contribute to functional organization religious in some cases and secular in others? We will address these foundational questions by integrating two research programs that are already well established in their own right. The first is based upon the work of Elinor Ostrom and her associates, for which she was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. Ostrom has shown that the management of common resources need not result in a tragedy; groups of people are able to manage their own affairs if certain key design features are present, which she has articulated in considerable detail and validated with a large empirical database. The second program is the study of religions and other cultural systems from an evolutionary perspective. The emerging field of Evolutionary Religious Studies is articulating in considerable detail when a given element of religion qualifies as an adaptation, when it is adaptive at the group level, and so on. Ostrom and her associates have not yet examined the specific contribution of religion to the design features that enable human groups to manage common resources or more generally to manage their own affairs. We therefore propose to address this particular question, using and building upon the extensive databases that have already been assembled by Ostrom et al., and analyzing the data with the conceptual tools provided by the field of Evolutionary Religious Studies. By integrating these two research programs, the role of religion in the functional organization of groups can be understood with a high degree of resolution.
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