A couple months ago I noted a class that Allen MacNeill was preparing to teach during summer session here at Cornell, titled Evolution and Religion: Is Religion Adaptive?. More specifically, it sought to address the question “Is the Capacity for Religious Experience Adaptive” in a seminar format, with readings of Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer, David Sloan Wilson, Newberg and D’Aquili, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Personally, I found Atran and Boyer to be the most thorough and on-target of the bunch, but maybe that’s just me.
Anyway, the 6-week course has ended. I didn’t have to (since I was just sitting in, not taking the course for credit), but I wrote a short paper for the end of the course myself. That paper (.doc) will be below the fold:
Religion and Ethnocentrism: Social Selection of, and within, Religions
A cursory glance at the origins of human society includes the observation that religion, or at least the capacity for religion, has evolved from earlier propensities. It appears to many that the capacity for religion can be neurologically described as arising from a “loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain.” It has also been observed that religiousness is a nearly universal phenomenon amongst humans, to some degree or another, and the degree of this religiousness varies widely, from passive acceptance of their various societal norms to radically sociopathic and self-destructive behavioral patterns. This scenario – the fixation of a species characteristic from pre-existing propensities, displaying a normal distribution in the population – strongly suggests that this capacity has been (and may be still) selected for within that population.
Many explanations have been proposed over the years to explain the prevalence of religions in human societies, centering over the uncertain possibility that the capacity for religiosity is adaptive. Among these are the possibilities of (1) religion is a group-level adaptation, reinforcing social cohesion; (2) religion is an individual-level adaptation, directing human behavior; or (3) religion as a cultural “parasite” that often evolves at the expense of human individuals and groups (Wilson, 2002, p.45). While some combination of those three is also a possibility, and indeed more likely, all of these possibilities require a more rigorous explanation of the mechanisms by which religion may have positively impacted adaptive fitness. How might that have occurred?
Birth of Religion in Tribalism
By making possible the belief that a supernatural entity knows the outcome of all actions and can influence such outcomes, that one’s “self” (i.e. “soul”) is not tied to one’s physical body, and that if one is killed in battle, one’s essential self (i.e. soul) will go to a better “place” (e.g. Heaven, Valhalla, etc.) the capacity for religious experience can tip the balance toward participation in warfare. By doing so, the capacity for religious belief not only makes it possible for individuals to do what they might not otherwise be motivated to do, it also tends to tip the balance toward victory on the part of the religiously devout participant. This is because success in battle, and success in war, hinges on commitment: the more committed a military force is in battle, the more likely it is to win, all other things being equal. [MacNeill, 2006]
In early human cultures, this connection between religion and warfare probably was manifested as tribalism, which served for the individual as a cultural or ethnic identifier. Tribalism is today treated synonymously with the term ethnocentrism. Indeed, many tribes refer to themselves with their language’s word for “people,” while referring to other, neighboring tribes with various epithets. For example, the term “Inuit” translates as “people,” but they were known to the Ojibwe by a name translating roughly as “eaters of raw meat.” This fact is often cited as evidence that tribal peoples saw only the members of their own tribe as “people,” and denigrated all others as something less. In fact, this is a tenuous conclusion to draw from the evidence. Many languages refined their identification as “the true people,” or “the real people,” suggesting that there were other people, who were simply inferior. In this, it is merely evidence of ethnocentrism, a universal cultural characteristic found in all societies.
The term “tribalism” taken in the sense of societal structure usually carries a connotation that society is not only divided into smaller groups, but that these groups are actively hostile towards one another. Thus, “tribalism” as a social structure connotes a society divided in civil conflict between myriad small groups. The anthropological debate on warfare among tribes is unsettled. While certainly found among horticultural tribes, an open question remains whether such warfare is a typical feature of tribal life, or an anomaly found only in certain circumstances, such as scarce resources (as with the Inuit) or among food producing societies. There is also ambiguous evidence whether the level of violence among tribal societies is greater or lesser than the levels of violence among civilized societies. Tribalism as a sense of identity, on the other hand, can clearly play a strong role in motivation for aggressive wars, and this is another reason to draw a distinction between the two definitions of the word.
The result is that tribalism and ethnocentrism help to keep individuals committed to the group, even when personal relations may fray (Salter, 2002). This keeps individuals from wandering off. Thus, ethnocentric individuals would have a higher survival rate — or at least, with their higher commitment to the group, more opportunities to breed. Further, The tendency of members to unite against an outside tribe and the ability to act violently and prejudicially against that outside tribe likely boosted the chances of survival in genocidal conflicts. Logically, a distinct divide between ones own group (in-group) and other groups (out-group) fosters the ability of the individual to interact with members of those groups in a manner that is equally distinct: one being altruistic or selective for kin (or fictive kin), the other being violent (Christie, 1998; Kelly, 2000).
Adolescence of Religion in Civilization
As MacNeill (2006) writes, religion “supports and facilitates the participation of group members in tribal conflicts” quite well. Indeed, one might call modern nationalism a revival of prehistoric tribalism – the parallels are remarkable (just substitute nationalism for tribalism in the passages above, for instance). But while primitive religions and tribes were essentially synonymous, modern religions are most definitely not synonymous with their national identities, even though they may use similar social hierarchies and motives. It is likely that one of the major changes in the social environment (i.e. culture) was the invention of agriculture, enabling larger groups to cohabitate in the first cities, where civilization could develop. Tribes became nations, and communal living was replaced with separate family units that cooperate and interact to lesser degrees. Religion, however, remained a group activity of the locality, with the construction of usually elaborate community buildings and structures for places of worship. It further adapted to accommodate the ownership of land, hierarchies of authority in larger cities and states, and more formal behavioral prescriptions. And both civilization and religion have been spread by invasion, conversion and trade, which stood to profit from the previously existing psychology of tribal warfare described above. Indoctrination or conquering of rival cities and states, in particular, both reinforced and benefited from concepts attributed to religious fervor. And civilizations have often used religion to justify their action, claiming for example that the uncivilized are primitives, savages, barbarians or the like, which should be subjugated by civilization. As with the case of tribal warfare, warfare between these rival city-states created a social environment in which the capacity for religion was highly adaptive, at least for those city-states which reign victorious.
Jared Diamond adds to this connection between religion, warfare and civilization in Guns, Germs and Steel, by detailing the rise of doctrinal religions in lower Mesopotamia some 6,000 years ago, complete with increasingly stratified authoritarian hierarchies and state-level literate societies. Diamond takes his description to the slightly cynical degree of describing the Sumerian civilization as a kleptocracy, in which the citizenry were essentially taken advantage of (p. 277). That the religious leaders would have gained in wealth and political control as a result of institutionalizing religion is beyond doubt, but the value of large-group social cohesion, as for state religions in states or nations, should not be underestimated (Durkheim, 1912, p. 44). Afterall, the assured inclusion of a devout member in the society can be a powerful insurance policy in an uncertain world, and particularly in times of great misfortune (e.g. famines, epidemics, wars, and natural disasters). Scott Atran elaborates by generally characterizing the function of religion: “Emotionally-motivated self-sacrifice to the supernatural stabilizes in-group moral order, inspiring competition with out-groups” (p. 268).
Religious devotion can further be described as “costly, hard-to-fake commitments.” In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this is most broadly exemplified by the myth of Abraham, who was commanded by his god to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Despite the costliness of such an act (i.e. killing one’s own son), or perhaps because of it, others in Abraham’s community presumably saw that he was prepared to put the interests of his god above that of his own prosperity (Atran, 2002, p.145). This act solidified his social inclusion in an act of self-sacrifice, where other members of the community become motivated to indirectly reward him later should he need it, and elevate his social standing (i.e. by reciprocal altruism; see also fictive kin). The beauty of the Abraham myth is that he got to have his cake and eat it too – Abraham did not ultimately have to go through with the act. The same can be said for any member of the group during times of social stress (e.g. war, or death in general), when individuals often invoke supernatural entities for both guidance and salvation in the face of their eminent deaths.
And interestingly, in large city-state societies we see the codification of religious prescriptions and mythologies, committed to text as inscrutable foundations for their societies. It is probably no mistake that the first languages coincided with the origins of agriculture and civilization in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley, where state religions and authoritarian hierarchies may have first begun to form. The same is true of architecture, which arose first and foremost to enable the elaborate constructions important to religions (e.g. the Egyptian pyramids). Such texts (and perhaps constructions) likely facilitated the spread of city-state religions through trade and indoctrination, at least for the literate religious authorities to use as reference material.
It seems at least plausible that the inventions of agriculture, cities, politics, literacy, etc., contributed to the institutionalization of religion, establishing a social structure recognizable to us today. All of these developments influenced the sociopolitical environment – or to use Atran’s description, the evolutionary landscape – which could have selected for the adoption of newer religious systems over old ones. Related changes in religion may include the shift from animism to polytheism, along with revised ways of representing deities, passing along mimetic concepts, and otherwise effect human behavior in new ways. This is explicitly a group selectionist argument that I make here for religion, and while group selection has been derided by various evolutionary biologists since the mid-1960’s (Williams, 1966), the principles of kin and fictive kin selection have been shown to be mathematically scalable to selection at the group level (Hamilton, 1975).
Importantly, selection can act simultaneously on the individual and the group, and decisions of both the individual and its group influence the evolutionary landscape – and therefore the selection – of the other. Only religions that serve the interests of both the individual and the group, at least when it counts (i.e. during times of social stress), will therefore be selectively retained. Generally, however, religions are social entities, and while the capacity for religious experience may be an individual trait, religions themselves can only be understood at the level of the group. So in the next section, I will discuss the competition and selection of competing religious concepts, but let me first restate the individual’s situation clearly: that whatever the counterintuitive or counterfactual nature of religious beliefs, it seems likely that such beliefs are adaptive to the individual within a religious group, all else being equal. And it’s clear why – for the entirety of the genus Homo, and before it along the primate lineage, the costs for not fitting in with the social unit were tremendous (e.g. exclusion or death).
Selection of Societies and Religions
While it is difficult to apply this group selectionist view to all religions since the invention of agriculture (inadequate records, unfamiliarity with Eastern religions, etc.), I regrettably will confine the discussion to the ancient Roman Empire, and the evolution of Judaism to Christianity at around the same time period. I say regrettably, because this sole example creates just what others have done before – another just-so story. As a result, the remainder of this paper will be venturing deeper into the realm of speculation, plausible though it may be.
Having said that, the example of ancient Rome is extremely relevant, involving a highly successful society caught in the middle of significant political, economic, religious, philosophical and technological innovations that we have largely retained to this day. As I’ve said more generally, the religion at the time surely did not cause the success of Roman expansion, nor did it cause the other changes, but it is probably no mistake that they all happened in concert. And in the case of religion, the polytheistic system of the Roman pantheon appears to have served to assimilate conquered cultures, at least from the group perspective. This is apparent because of how the Romans treated gods of the regions that they defeated: usually by bringing them into the pantheon to be adopted as a Roman god, resulting in a unification of supernatural entities to worship, under the primary god of Rome itself (i.e. Jupiter) (Turcan, 1997). This was possible because of the common use of idols to represent gods up until this time, which enabled a symbolic (or in some cases, literal) absorption of those gods into the pantheon.
The most notable example of a religion during the Roman era which resisted assimilation into the pantheon was that of the Jews, perhaps precisely because their religion forbid idolatry. Of course the survival of their religion intact resulted in their persecution after being conquered, such that being a member of that faith was decidedly non-adaptive, at least for a time. The religion itself, however, did survive independent of the pantheon, where others did not. Significantly, the devotion of this religion’s members probably was strengthened as a result of the persecution, not weakened – not because of the characteristics of Judaism but because stress (e.g. persecution) reinforces the strongly-held emotions that religion feeds off of. Christianity followed this same path, with the exception that it spread more quickly, and was later adopted in the early 4th century as the state religion of Rome upon Constantine’s conversion.
It is also notable that the switch from the old paganism to Christianity involved the retention of successful pagan concepts, including the mechanism of the pantheon: but instead of a house of worship devoted to gods, they became devoted to saints. As such, the capacity for focusing on separate representations within the religions was retained, but still united under a single figurehead. Merged with the political, economic, and technological prowess of the Roman empire, Christianity then became the dominant religion in the Western world by far. It succeeded so much that it diversified into a vast number of sects and denominations, not to mention evolving again into Islam.
Importantly, all of these religions retained the role of ethnocentric identifiers, as well as the incorporation of “costly hard-to-fake commitments,” doctrines, authoritarian hierarchies, and other characteristics having their roots in tribalism and nationalism. And when these concepts are broken down (ethnocentric identifiers, in particular), the consequences appear to eventually be further succession of new forms of religion.
In summary of religion and group selection:
- Groups compete with other groups
- Within groups, it is in individuals’ best interests to fit into their groups’ social structures
- It is in groups’ best interests to motivate its individuals in certain ways
- Groups that have motivated members, and successful interactions with competing groups succeed, and we call the ways that this occurs religion, for lack of a better term
Epilogue: What is Religion Evolving Into?
Since the expansion of the Judeo-Christian model of monotheism, not much changed for a while, until notable a shift towards secularization. Atran dates the beginning of secularization of Europe effectively to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which wound down the horrendously long and violent religious conflict known as the Thirty Years War (p. 275). Coinciding with peaceful settlement during the Renaissance were trends towards tolerance (and away from ethnocentric exclusion of other groups), literacy (following the invention of the printing press), secular Rule of Law (ever since the Magna Carta), and science (especially by the Enlightenment). Generally speaking, we began to interact, communicate, and trade with other ethnicities more and more, reducing the role for religion at the level of survival.
While our out-group prejudices are still alive and well (e.g. racial, religious, etc.), they are today less than ever before in history. As a consequence, we no longer need to make costly, hard-to-fake demonstrations of commitment to receive the benefits of social inclusion – we now have “inalienable human rights,” to quote the Declaration of Independence. Nor do we need to appeal to “full-access strategic agents” (Boyer, p.165) to deal with socially stressful situations (e.g. famines, epidemics or natural disasters) when we have science to guide our agricultural, healthcare, and emergency response sectors. Russell (1948), Popper (1950), Diamond (1997) and Dawkins (1998) all champion this sentiment.
To be sure, humans still require something to believe in – however, it just doesn’t have to be a supernatural entity (i.e. a personal god), and the commitment to society need not be so costly. There is no reason why belief in philosophical principles cannot substitute nicely, including concepts of decency (humanism), science (empiricism) and Rule of Law (including the Bill of Rights). These concepts represent a new ideology with which to supplant religious concepts, or out-compete them at the group level, and the capacity to adjust to such changing conditions is adaptive so far as we can peer into the future.
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- Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.
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- Dawkins, Richard. 1998. Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Darwin, Charles. 1871. The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex. New York: Appleton.
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- MacNeill, Allen. 2006. The Capacity for Religious Experience is an Evolutionary Adaptation to Warfare. In Fitzduff and Stout (eds.) (2006) The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace: Volume 1: Nature vs. Nurture. Praeger Security International, chapter 10, p.257-84.
- Popper, Karl. 1950. The Open Society and its Enemies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Williams, George C. 1966. Adaptation and Natural Selection. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
- Wilson, David Sloan. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press