Behavioral ecology: Applications to the evolution of religion

2012 Behaviour Matrix copy

Functional models can get rather complex in behavioral ecology.

As we saw last time, the major concepts added by behavioral ecology are optimization strategies and adaptive tradeoffs.  Equipped with these tools, the procedure is to identify a behavior, analyze its reproductive advantages relative to its tradeoffs, and thereby discover the factors that make it an optimal strategy.

Applying it to the evolution of religion

Applying this method to religion, it becomes possible that religious behaviors, which may appear bizarre and suboptimal at first glance, may be optimal when all factors are taken into account.

For example, a sacrifice of oxen made to a deity may appear costly on the face of it.  However, such a lavish offering may confer status, and with it attractiveness to mates, such that the act may in fact be the optimal strategy in terms of reproductive success.  This kind of multi-factorial cost/benefit reasoning may help uncover the functions behind specific religious behaviors, leading to insights of why religions change.


As with sociobiology, it may be predicted that changes in religious behaviors may be linked to reproductive advantage.  Behavioral ecology would add that the link can be found in ecological factors.  Specifically, it could be predicted that ecological changes affecting underlying costs and/or benefits modify the equation, thus necessitating religious change to maintain optimal advantage.  This methodology thus adds detail to our work-in-progress theory of religious change.


Yet behavioral ecology is not without its faults.  A major criticism is that it leaves little room for the possibility of non-optimal behaviors.  Whatever appears sub-optimal may be explained as optimal by some later discovery (Laland & Brown, 2002).  There is no clear way to decisively determine that a behavior is sub-optimal.  If one’s hypothesis is that a behavior is optimal, there must be a way to disconfirm this, else the effort must be considered scientifically invalid.  Thus, it would be a mistake to incorporate behavioral ecology into a theory of religious change unless this problem is resolved.

Another complaint is that behavioral ecology confuses adaptive behavior with adaptation.  This charge has been leveled by evolutionary psychology, the methodology discussed next.

The next post will investigate evolutionary psychology.

This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.

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