Monday, 27 July 2009

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

are environmental constraints the origin of religion?

baseline assumption: Religion has an evolutionary origin, that is, humans have an inborn drive towards religious thoughts.

the question: I wonder if assuming that the origin of religion is some form of institutionalisation of morality was a mistake. It is fairly straightforward, I would think, that large groups of supersmart chimps would need some form of internalised rules regarding behaviour towards their fellow group members. And thus the evolutionary origin of morality could be explained. But religion is not necessarily an outgrowth of morality. Seeing how missionaries ‘converting the savages’ altered the behaviour of isolated tribes towards their forests, begs the question if the origin of religious thought might not be in the same place: regulating the way people use their environments.

the hypothesis: It seems that people who live in (a) small tribes, (b) seem to follow archaic, or at least very old religions, (c) are isolated from others, and are (d) living in a unique environment, tend to have a set of religious explanations about their environment, and in particular, stories that end up with them not exploiting their resources in a non-sustainable manner. Often, it feels as if the intra-group morality was an add-on to, rather than the centre of these thoughts.

(The societal morality bit would then gain larger prominence as the groups open up forming ever larger sets of populations. Thus the above hypothesis is not necessarily going against the observation that large societies have mass religions with a focus on social norms.)

Thus the hypothesis is that religion evolved as a means to stop overuse of the environment. Those groups of humans that came up with stories of the forest animals being gods and thus limited their hunting would have been in advantage compared to others who did not and thus overhunted leading to starvation. Out of those groups who came up with these stories, those who would have had some form of drive towards such thoughts would have had higher temporal stability to these stories. And norm stability through time would have been the centre to the fitness of such a group behaviour, as the whole point is long term sustainability.

Maybe, the key could have been the halting of tragedy of commons type over-harvesting of difficult to sheriff resources. What you need -- as an evolution designer ;) -- is norm following when the forest people are alone, and less so when the whole group is there to watch over you shoulder.

The caveat is that it is difficult to see how the above could have happened without group evolution of this species…

re evidence. No idea what evidence could possibly be for this, unless a religion gene would be properly found and revealed. But a drive generating religious behaviour would probably be too complicated to be in just one, simple gene. (Although a pill that suppresses the relevant proteins and thus relieves one of one’s religious duties would probably a block buster...) Some more maths re how group evolution was unlikely to have happened could kill this idea off, though.

Yet, despite the silliness of this ‘religion as evolutionary environment protection’ idea, I find it quite appealing.

What’s your view?


here is a batch of people interested in the evolution of religion. many of their sites offer interesting stuff

this is a good overview of the problems of morality and religion

Thursday, 23 July 2009

institutionalised celibacy

What is the role of institutionalised celibacy in the emergence of societies with large population size?

1. Every human group - at least after the big expansion phase - needs to have some form of population control. Non-contraception, this can take varied forms: abandoning new born babies (before the costly emotional attachment), head hunting pre-puberty girls (the number of women being the limiting factor in child births), frequent wars between neighbouring villages (say, triggered by 'the curse' that the other village/tribe had put on the crops and thus resulted in bad harvest and the expectation of the coming shortage), human sacrifice rituals (often it is young women who are deemed to be witches to be killed, although sometimes it is young men), or removing a section of the population from procreation by some form of permanent or temporal ban of sexual activity.

2. It seems that there might be significant difference among the above forms of population control, in terms of cost to the society. This cost might vary a lot along population size. That is, a set of small villages with mostly separate social networks could have a headhunting tradition without it being too disruptive to the stability of their societies. The destabilisation effect would be more costly in a large society where texture of the social network is more evenly distributed.

3. It seems that out of all the possible non-contraception forms of population control, the institutionalised celibacy stands out as being ideal for large small-world societies. You reduce the number of children from a part of the population, without the destabilising effect that would come from killing them. At the same time, you can use them in one of the many non-family functions that large societies give rise to.

4. Institutionalisation of this merge between celibacy and societal functions for a group of people provides temporal stability to the function, and could also reduce the cost of it.

5. Some form of institutionalised celibacy evolved in many different cultures independently, and it seems that the time of the appearance of these institutions coincided with population expansion. If this was to stand, it would be a great support to the above argument.

I am not sure what the consequence would be for the global society. Maybe there is not much, given the contraception technology becoming dominant. In this case, there would always remain some cultural remnants of the different forms of the celibacy institutions, perhaps getting occasionally stronger in times of resource shortage, but gradually eroding. Or perhaps there will be a new wave and form of it, maybe along some global green political issue -- although it is unlikely to be 'instinctive' as even if we subscribed to group evolution, any form of genetic evolution would be impossible for the relevant groups size.

What do you think?