Book Reviewers and Their Victims

A Reply to Ambasciano


  • Stephen K. Sanderson University of California



Adaptation, By-products, Anxiety, Life History Strategies, Big Gods


The article offers a rebuttal to Ambasciano’s commentary on my book Religious Evolution and the Axial Age (Sanderson 2018) included in this same issue of the Journal of Cognitive Historiography. Ambasciano gets much of my overall argument right, but on many specifics misunderstands or misrepresents me and others. One of his most consequential misrepresentations is his charge that I offer a kind of panadaptationism. I am an adaptationist, but certainly not a panadaptationist. I freely concede that there are elements of religion that cannot be regarded as adaptations. Connected to this point, Ambasciano contends that adaptationism is not the default starting point for evolutionary analysis and recommends instead the evolutionism of Stephen Jay Gould – the “gold standard” of evolutionary theory, Ambasciano believes—which holds that most evolutionary change consists of constrained by-products. But Ambasciano fails to recognize that Gould is an odd-man-out among evolutionists, most of whom emphasize natural selection and adaptation.

Author Biography

Stephen K. Sanderson, University of California

Stephen K. Sanderson is a comparative sociologist and sociological and anthropological theorist who has authored or edited 14 books in 21 editions and over 60 articles in journals and edited collections. Sanderson is a research fellow at the Institute for Research on World-Systems at the University of California at Riverside, USA.


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Baumard, N., A. Hyafil, I. Morris, and P. Boyer. 2015. “Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions.” Current Biology 25(1): 10–15. DOI:

Murdock, G. P. 1967. Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. DOI:

Sanderson, S. K. 1990. Social Evolutionism: A Critical History. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Sanderson, S. K. 1995. Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Sanderson, S. K. 2001. The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Sanderson, S. K. 2007. Evolutionism and its Critics: Deconstructing and Reconstructing an Evolutionary Interpretation of Human Society. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Sanderson, S. K. 2014. Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Sanderson, S. K. 2018. Religious Evolution and the Axial Age: From Shamans to Priests to Prophets. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Turner, J. H., A. Maryanski, A. K. Petersen and A. W. Geertz. 2018. The Emergence and Evolution of Religion by Means of Natural Selection. London and New York: Routledge. DOI:



How to Cite

Sanderson, S. K. . (2022). Book Reviewers and Their Victims: A Reply to Ambasciano. Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 6(1-2), 172–179.



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