Tag Archives: evolution of religion

Key terms for study of the evolution of religion

Terms are key in the study of religions.

It’s important to take care with terms in the study of religions.  This post goes through some of the most basic and common, and how I use them.  I conclude with a statement on general methodological stance.

religion vs. religions

First, let’s distinguish “religion” from “religions.”  Where the word is used in the singular, it indicates religion as a natural class (with all the attendant problems that entails, as we shall see).  In the plural, it indicates the collective body of historical phenomena lexically defined as belonging to that class.  The unsatisfactory nature of this terminology is acknowledged.  An attempt is made to speak in historical terms whenever possible, using the plural form.  The natural class, in the singular form, is reserved for specific engagements with the concept of religion as such.

God vs. god(s)

Second is the distinction between “God” and “god(s).”  The capitalized singular form is reserved for specific engagements with concepts of the divine posited by historical monotheist traditions.  Gender may or may not be specified, depending on the tradition in question (while this issue is significant to religious studies, it is extraneous for the specific purposes of this paper).  Un-capitalized, the word refers to any divine entity, monotheist or otherwise, deriving from any historical tradition, and connoting any gender.  The words “deity” and “divinity” are occasionally substituted as synonyms.

fitness vs. benefit

Third, with regard to evolutionary processes, “fitness” and “benefit” must be distinguished.  The former applies solely to differential success at replication in an evolutionary context.  The latter denotes a wider variety of boons, including but not limited to reproductive value, potentially including items of value to human individuals but neutral or even detrimental to reproductive success in the game of evolution.

methodological agnosticism

Finally, the general approach of this paper is “methodological agnosticism.”  That is to say, this paper looks at the concrete historical manifestations of religions, and does not comment in any way on the metaphysical realities posited by specific theological traditions.  The latter is placed in brackets.

Tagged , , , ,

Conclusion: Design features of an adequate method for the evolution of religion

In the end, what is needed to study the evolution of religion?

Having explored a number of methodological approaches to the evolution of religion, including sociobiology, behavioral ecology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution, we now conclude by outlining what is demanded by an adequate method.

Together, these four key evolutionary approaches to religion greatly advance a general methodology for studying religious change.  Sociobiology lays foundational concepts, refined and problematized by behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture coevolution.

Design features needed for an adequate method for studying the evolution of religion

Yet significant challenges remain.  It may prove beneficial to generate a list of design features required by a satisfactory methodology, to evaluate what’s been accomplished and what remains for further research.

As defined at the outset, the basic question driving this project is how and why specific religions change over time: why some religions achieve hegemony while others lose out, how religions establish themselves and then change to maintain popularity across time, and by what mechanisms religions are selected for the halls of greatness or the dustbins of history.

To address this basic question, an adequate method requires the following design features:

1)  Links to genetics

A major dividing line between methodologies is whether religions change primarily as a consequence of genetic evolution (sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology), or whether religions evolve in their own right (memetics, coevolution).  The first design feature is thus a means of determining whether or not specific religious changes can be linked to genetics.  Coevolution, with its mathematical models measuring genetic and cultural influences, seems the only methodology capable of determining this.  The remaining design features assume that the influence of culture is not zero, i.e. that religions evolve in their own right and exert significant power of their own.

2)  Terms conducive to evolutionary analysis

Religions must be conceptualized in terms conducive to evolutionary analysis, i.e. as units of information subject to differential replication constrained by relative fitness.  The concept of the meme, utilized by both memetics and coevolution, fulfills this design feature.

3)  Appropriate perspective

The proper point of view must be taken.  In considering religions, the method must take a religion’s-eye view, as it were.  The interests of religions, i.e. their own replication, must be the ultimate point of reference.  Again, memetics and coevolution offer this design feature.

4)  Appropriate environment and fitness relations

The proper environment must be identified, with fitness defined in relation to it.  In keeping with the religion’s-eye view, the environment to be considered must be first and foremost that of the religion itself, not that of its host.  Since memes reside in the human mind and replicate by leaping from mind to mind via communication, the proper environment can only be the human mind.  Consequences for the individual’s survival and reproduction are important but secondary to the immediate survival and replication of the meme itself.  It is possible for a meme to replicate rapidly due to high fitness in the mental environment, while lowering the host individual’s genetic fitness in its environment as a consequence (Dennett’s “parasitic” relationship, or Durham’s “opposition”).  This is similar to how flu viruses flourish, and there is no reason to suggest memes cannot do likewise.  Thus, an adequate method must consider the appropriate environment.  Memetics and coevolution are the prime candidates offering this design feature once again.

5)  Differences in the mental environment

Differences in the mental environment affecting the receptivity and productivity of certain memes must be accounted for.  These differences may be genetic, involving innate predispositions toward certain types of information.  They might also be cultural, resulting from previously-established memes causing an individual to become more or less receptive to certain other memes.  For example, acceptance of a certain religion may dispose an individual to prefer ideas that conform to that religion’s worldview while rejecting those that do not.  Evolutionary psychology and the cognitive science of religion provide for genetic differences through the concept of domain specificity, while memetics and coevolution account for cultural differences.

6)  Differences affecting replication

Differences affecting the process of replication must be considered.  Memes leap from mind to mind via communication, and differences in modes of communication may influence the process.  For example, transmission via the spoken word is limited in time and space in ways that transmission via the written word is not.  In addition to the mode of communication, the context of communication may also influence the process, such as the status of the speaker or the popularity of the behavior among peers.  Behavioral ecology addresses to some extent under the rubric of ecological costs and benefits, as does coevolution with its exploration of the role of conformity in the process of group selection.

7)    Relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences

The relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences must be evaluated as precisely as possible.  With all these factors of genetic and cultural selection complicating the equation, a means of final evaluation becomes crucial.  Only coevolution, with its rigorous mathematics, proves adequate for this feature.

8)  Adaptive and maladaptive behavior

The difference between currently adaptive behavior and maladaptive behavior resulting from adaptive lag must be identifiable by objective techniques.  While common sense may suppose it easy to tell adaptive from maladaptive behavior, this has proven anything but the case.  Perhaps the mathematical models of coevolution will solve this dilemma, but it waits to be seen.

9)  Religion distinguished from other forms of culture

Religion must be distinguished from other forms of culture, and the corresponding unique evolutionary conditions analyzed.  This is another point which common sense might consider a simple matter, but a century of debate over the definition of religion has produced no consensus (Wilson, B. C., 1998).  A major fault of David Sloan Wilson’s theory, which holds that religions function to motivate cooperation within groups, is that it fails to distinguish religions from other secular institutions fulfilling the same function.  An adequate method must identify the unique characteristics of religions, and analyze the unique evolutionary conditions that correspond.  None of the methods considered in this paper succeed particularly well at this.  Further research must address this issue.

And the winner is…

An adequate methodology for studying religious change must include these design features at least, if not more.

Coevolution is the clear winner, offering more necessary features than any other.

Yet numerous features remain unaddressed.  Numbers seven and eight call out for answers.  There is a clear need for further research if the problem of religious change is to be engaged.


In the end, why do some religions proliferate, while others die out?  The answer may lie in the relative strengths of genetic and cultural influences affecting the fitness of religions considered as memes.  Innate psychological predispositions, cultural preferences, and environmental conditions may all play a part.  As for the extent of the parts they play, time will tell if mathematical models may sort out the complications.

Only research applying an adequate method with the right design features may solve the mystery of why some religions achieve hegemony while others are consigned to the dustbins of history.

Only such a method may explain why the very guardians of eternal truth are themselves subject to change.


For bibliographical references for this series, see the initial post.

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

Tagged , , , , ,

Gene-culture Coevolution: Application for the evolution of religion

This is an image of the American anthropologis...

David Sloan Wilson has resurrected the notion of group selection, and believes religion may play a crucial role

Having introduced the key concepts of gene-culture coevolution last time, we now explore their utility for studying the evolution of religion.

Application for the evolution of religion

Like Boyd and Richerson, David Sloan Wilson (2003) puts credence in the notion of group selection (discussed last time).  He believes intrinsic motivation and enforcement via reward and punishment enables sufficient conformity for group selection to occur, and that religions play a key role in motivating this conformity.

Religions, according to Wilson, fulfill the function identified by Durkheim, i.e. uniting a people into a moral community conducive to cooperation.  As was revealed by sociobiology’s application of game theory, those who cooperate by reciprocal altruism fare better overall than those who do not.  Religion, therefore, may function to establish and normalize reciprocal altruism as an evolutionarily stable strategy in a group, which would increase the fitness of the group over those adopting lesser strategies.

This would suggest that religious change may be driven by the optimization of motivation toward reciprocal altruism, a process occurring in groups of people responding to changes in their environments and circumstances as well as to competition with other groups.  Group selection may thus prove a crucial concept for understanding religious change.

The key concepts of coevolution contribute much to a theory of change in religion.  Cultural selection, guided variation, and biased cultural transmission refine previously established concepts, and group selection introduces an entirely new dimension to the equation.  Further, rigorous mathematical models address the problem posed by memetics, that of failing to discern the relative influence of genes and memes.  The models pit the relative strengths of memes against their genetic counterparts, as precisely as possible.


Unfortunately, these models also make coevolution a difficult approach requiring considerable math, which may detract from its growth as a method.  Laland and Brown report that coevolution remains a small coterie of researchers, and no well-established procedure exists at the time of their writing (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Nevertheless, this method, more than any other, shows promise for addressing the problem of religious change.  It incorporates many of the useful concepts from the other approaches already considered, while enhancing the level of rigor and introducing new concepts.

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.

Tagged , , , ,

Gene-culture Coevolution: Key concepts for the evolution of religions


This is a reproduction of the map made by Luig...

This is a reproduction of the map made by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in his book The history and geography of human genes. It displays the genetic relationship between human populations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The principle thesis of gene-culture coevolution (a.k.a. dual-inheritance theory) is that genes and culture both contribute to evolution in the case of humans.  Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marc Feldman at Stanford led the way in this field, and were later joined by Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson at UCLA.  To determine precisely the relative contributions of genes and culture, these researchers began to create highly technical, detailed mathematical models.


Cultural selection vs. natural selection


Coevolution begins with a distinction between cultural selection, which operates by the differential replication of the meme, and natural selection, which affects culture by the differential reproduction of a meme’s host as a consequence of having it (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981).  These concepts clearly distinguish two different mechanisms by which cultural entities, including religions, may change.


Durham (1991) expands on this by identifying at least five ways in which these mechanisms interact.  The first two are genetic mediation, whereby cultural variation is driven by genetic differences, and cultural mediation, in which cultural differences drive genetic evolution.  The latter has been used to explain the spread of genes for lactose absorbance among Europeans due to the cultural habit of dairy farming (Durham, 1991).  The other three interactions, enhancement, neutrality, and opposition, are similar to Dennett’s three symbiotic relationships: mutualist, commensal, and parasitic, respectively.  In these five ways, genes and culture interact to produce human behavior.


Guided variation


As for the means by which memes change, analogous to mutation among genes, Boyd and Richerson (1985) propose guided variation, or the process by which cultural information about a behavior is received and then modified by the individual on the basis of personal experience.  This concept seems to fall short of the mark, however, as it begs the question of what causes the individual to make these modifications.  A more thorough meme’s-eye view interpretation might posit that modification decisions result from competition and interaction among memes within the individual’s mind, as part of the normal processes that constitute human consciousness.  Indeed, Dennett has proposed that consciousness may be none other than the result of memes modifying their environment, i.e. the human mind, to better suit their needs (Dennett, 1993).


Biased cultural transmission


In any case, variation exists among memes, and certain forces influence choice between alternatives.  This is called biased cultural transmission (Boyd & Richerson, 1985), which comes in two types.  First, direct bias predisposes the individual to prefer certain types of information, “based on their judgments about the properties of the variants themselves” (Boyd & Richerson, 1985).  This may well result from genetic adaptation resulting in innate psychological predispositions, as theorized by evolutionary psychology.  It may also result from other means, such as prior integration of certain memes modifying reception of other memes.  For example, someone who has accepted the Creationism meme will thereafter prefer memes consistent with that worldview.  The other type of biased transmission is indirect bias, a.k.a. frequency-dependent bias, whereby the probability of accepting a meme is influenced by its prevalence in the population.  Humans have a tendency toward conformity, and this significantly affects the spread of memes in a group (Boyd & Richerson, 1985).


Group selection


This leads to yet another important concept in coevolution, group selection.  This form of selection has been disfavored by biology for some time, but recent studies suggest it may play a greater role than previously thought.  The main problem is that group selection requires that traits of individuals within a group remain relatively consistent over time, but within-group variation destabilizes these traits, such that group selection seems possible only under exceptionally rare conditions.


Boyd and Richerson (1985) propose that conformity provides the means by which within-group variation is overcome in the case of cultural evolution.


The next post will apply these concepts to the evolution of religion.


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.


Tagged , , , ,

Memetics: Applications for the evolution of religion

English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger L...

Many memeticists have posed religions as viruses of the mind, but Daniel Dennett reminds us they can just as well be beneficial symbionts.


Having explored the key concepts of memetics last time, we now explore its applications for the evolution of religion, as well as criticisms of the field.


Parasitic religions


From the meme’s eye view, it appears plausible that religions could be parasitic entities.  Religious behaviors may serve none of the functions proposed by the social sciences, but may instead serve the function of replicating memes.


Of course, it could just as well be the case that memes cooperate with their hosts toward mutual benefit, serving functions for both meme and gene.  Daniel Dennett reminds us that there are three types of symbiotic relationships: mutualist, commensal, and parasitic.  In a mutualist relationship, both entities benefit, as in the case of the bacteria living in the human intestine, without which we could not digest food.  In a commensal relationship, the one is at least not harmful to the other, as with barnacles growing on the sides of whales.  It is only in a parasitic relationship, such as that of flu viruses infecting humans, that harmful exploitation emerges (Dennett, 2007).  If religious memes exist in symbiosis with humans, it could take the form of a mutualist or commensal relationship, not just a parasitic one akin to a virus.




Yet the virus is exactly the model many memeticists have employed (e.g. Lynch, 1998; Brodie, 2009).  It is perhaps this paranoid-sounding analogy that has most prevented memetics from being taken seriously.  While it has attracted a wide audience among popular readers, it has made little impact on academics.  A number of other criticisms have been leveled, but Laland and Brown suggest that most of them are also true of evolutionary theory in general.  For example, memetics has been faulted for the meme’s apparent lack of clear boundaries and propensity to merge one into the other, but in all fairness it is also difficult to tell where one gene ends and another begins (Laland & Brown, 2002).


A more serious charge is that memetics does not yet account for the possibility that our minds may more readily accept some memes than others.  Something like the innate modules of evolutionary psychology may predispose us toward certain memes.


Furthermore, memetics does not yet offer a way to clearly determine the relative strengths of genetic and memetic interests.  Without the clear incorporation of genetic interests, we are left with the same problem as the standard social sciences model: the mind becomes a blank slate equally receptive to all content, with culture explaining everything and biology nothing.  A method to weigh the relative power of genes and memes in a given situation is needed.


Despite these criticisms, and poor esteem by academia, memetics shows particular promise for understanding religious change.  From the point of view of religions, which may themselves be understood as complexes of memes or memeplexes (Blackmore, 2000), replication may be maximized by employing various strategies to attract followers, who may in turn pass on the religion to offspring and others to whom they proselytize.  The functions proposed by Durkheim, Malinowski, and Geertz may be how religions attract followers at the individual or societal level.  Religions offer the fulfillment of functions in exchange for propagation, in a largely if not entirely unconscious manner akin to how flowers offer honey to a bee in exchange for the spreading of its pollen.  At the same time, religions compete against other religions to fulfill these functions.  Religions may change in order to deal with changes in functional needs of followers as well as to contend with competing religions.  In many cases, the exchange between religions and followers may be more or less equitable, i.e. a mutualist relationship.  In other cases, however, conditions may make it more profitable from the religion’s perspective to exploit its followers, resulting in a parasitic relationship.  The situation would thus be a dynamic relationship between followers and their needs on the one hand, and religions considered as memes on the other.


Something is still left out of the equation here, though.  Just because memes have their own interests does not mean they are able to overpower genes.  As suggested by the criticisms above, memetics must account for genetic influence.  The power of genes to enforce their interests may be greater than, less than, or equal to that of memes.  Further, relative power may well be different in different environments and situations.  Finally, the way that genes express their influence, whether through psychological modules that predispose humans toward certain memes, or by some other mechanism, remains to be explained.  Thus, memetics leaves our theory of religious change incomplete until genes are factored back into the picture.  An approach that responds to this problem is gene-culture coevolution.


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.



Tagged , , , ,

Memetics: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

English: This is a pertinent image of Dawkins ...

Coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, the concept of memes has become wildly popular


The next approach to the evolution of religion in our investigation is memetics, a controversial field that has drawn harsh criticism.




When Richard Dawkins wrote his influential work on sociobiology, The Selfish Gene, he included a chapter proposing that genes may not be the only objects of evolution by selection.  Theoretically, any replicator in an environment of differential success may evolve by the same process.  Units of cultural information, or memes as he called them, are such replicators (Dawkins, 1976).  Dawkins was not the first to propose this, as Darwin himself supposed that language evolved (Darwin, 1871).  Yet it was Dawkins’ term that caught on, and now there is a fledgling science of memetics.


A meme, according to Dawkins, is an idea or parcel of information that replicates itself by leaping from mind to mind, evolving under the selection pressures of limited mental capacity.  Examples are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (Dawkins, 1976).  Like genes, memes have only one interest: their own replication.


The meme’s-eye view


Since Dawkins was a sociobiologist, it should come as no surprise that the procedure of memetics closely resembles that of sociobiology.  It is the role of the memeticist to take a meme’s-eye view, looking at how behaviors serve the interests of the unit of selection, which in this case is not the gene but the meme.  No longer is genetic reproduction the only factor to which behaviors must ultimately be traced, as it was with sociobiology.  Now they may be traced to memetic replication.  The implication is that some behaviors may serve the interests of memes only, and may in fact be detrimental to the interests of genes, let alone to the conscious desires of the individual people that are their hosts.


The next post will apply these concepts to the evolution of religion, and explore criticisms of memetics.



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.


Tagged , , , , ,

Evolutionary Psychology: Application to the evolution of religion

scientiffic reconstruction of a Homo erectus

The way our mind evolved in prehistorical times affects how we approach religion and culture now.

Drawing on the key concepts of evolutionary psychology discussed last time, we now look at the procedure and applications for the evolution of religion.

As for the procedure of evolutionary psychology, Tooby and Cosmides (1989) provide a six-step method, summarized as follows:

  1. identify a puzzling present-day human behavior,
  2. relate it to the environment of the Pleistocene in order to discover how it was adaptive in the past,
  3. analyze the cognitive processing problems that would have to be overcome to accomplish adaptive functioning,
  4. determine the design features any adaptation would require to solve these problems, and develop a model of the cognitive program structure,
  5. eliminate alternative candidate models via experimentation and field observation, and
  6. compare the model to present-day human behaviors.

Applying it to evolution of religion

Applying this method to religion, it becomes possible to see religions as maladaptive, byproducts of some past adaptation with little or no current adaptive advantage.

This sort of reasoning allows a reply to Durkheim and company that religion may serve no function at all.  In fact, it may be detrimental in our modern environment.  Religious change, then, may be no more than the result of innate psychological modules playing out in response to changes in the environment.

Contrary to the predictions of sociobiology and behavioral ecology, no current reproductive advantage need be discovered, save under Pleistocene conditions.  Rather, it is only necessary to link environmental changes to unchanged adaptations that were once advantageous.  In other words, new religious behaviors could be the same old psychological tendencies responding in altered ways to new environmental conditions.


This counters the problem of behavioral ecology, which made no place for sub-optimal behavior.  On the other hand, it poses a new problem in its place: evolutionary psychology relies on positing past adaptations, but the difficulty of identifying adaptations is well-documented (Rose and Lauder, 1996).  Though Laland and Brown point to some useful resources from genetic evolution, including Sinervo and Basolo (1996) and Orzack and Sober (2001), the challenge is significant.

Another major criticism that has been leveled is that evolutionary psychology may over-emphasize the domain-specificity of the mind.  While quick, efficient modules may offer some advantage, flexibility may be even more adaptive (Laland & Brown, 2002).  Such would be particularly likely if our ancestors needed to survive in a wide variety of environments.

This leads us to a further criticism of evolutionary psychology: it makes considerable assumptions in postulating conditions of the EEA.  Our Pleistocene ancestors inhabited not only African savannah but also rivers, deserts, mountains, the arctic, and so on—a wide variety of conditions.  Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that all mental adaptations occurred during our most recent phase of evolution; indeed, many may have evolved long before Homo sapiens or Homo erectus, going back as far as invertebrate ancestors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Thus, there are significant theoretical problems to be overcome in postulating the non-adaptiveness of certain behaviors, such as religion, based on adaptive lag.  Another approach which allows for non-adaptiveness, but for different reasons, is memetics.

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.

Tagged , , ,

Evolutionary Psychology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Bizarre though it may seem, phrenology wasn’t all that far off in one respect at least: the brain has specific domains.

The next approach to the evolution of religion under investigation is evolutionary psychology, a field that studies current psychology based on past evolution.

Adaptive lag

Evolutionary psychologists criticize behavioral ecology for confusing adaptive behavior with adaptations (Laland & Brown, 2002).  An adaptive behavior is one well-suited to its current environment, whereas an adaptation is a genetic change leading to increased fitness.

It is possible for an adaptation to become maladaptive when the environment changes.  This is due to adaptive lag, or the time it takes for genetic change to catch up with environmental change.

Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness

According to evolutionary psychologists, many human adaptations were adaptive in the environment in which they evolved, i.e. the Pleistocene era, but now we live in a different world.  It is entirely reasonable, then, for behaviors optimal in the Pleistocene to be sub-optimal in the present.  They evolved for their Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), not for the environment of today.

Domain specificity

This critique already reveals much about the evolutionary psychology approach.  The key concepts are the adaptive behavior/adaptation distinction, adaptive lag, and the EEA.  A further key concept, which has not yet been discussed, is domain specificity.  Evolutionary psychologists hold that the mind contains modules designed to find quick and efficient solutions to certain problems of significance to our ancestors.  Basically, the mind is like a Swiss army knife, each tool of which is an adaptation suited to reproductive advantage in the Pleistocene (Laland & Brown, 2002).

This notion of domain specificity is supported by research in a parallel field of study: the cognitive science of religion.  Inspired by insights from Chomsky’s theory of transformational generative grammar (TGG), which posits that the mind’s ability to produce sentences never heard before requires an innate language device in the mind, cognitive scientists postulate mental modularity in much the same manner as evolutionary psychologists.

For example, Pascal Boyer (2002) suggests that the mind is predisposed to categorize objects into a shortlist of classes with corresponding attributes.  Objects with unexpected attributes, such as a tree that talks, are therefore surprising and memorable.  An idea such as the Old Testament’s burning bush is thus more likely to be retained in memory and passed on to others than less remarkable ideas.

In a similarly cognitive vein, Stewart Guthrie (1995) has proposed an innate human tendency to perceive agents in the environment, in order to explain anthropomorphism in religion.  These findings from the cognitive science of religion parallel the concept of domain specificity of evolutionary psychology, and expand its applications in the field of religion.

In the next post, we’ll apply these concepts to the evolution of religion.

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.

Tagged , , ,

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.

Tagged , , ,

Behavioral ecology: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

English: Caricature of Charles Darwin from Van...

Darwin’s theory of natural selection, ridiculed in its day, is now a mainstay of behavioral sciences

Arising from anthropologists responding to criticisms of sociobiology, behavioral ecology attempts to understand why certain behaviors become prevalent in societies.  Ethnographic records provide the main source of evidence in this endeavor.

Optimization strategies

The theoretical assumption is that behaviors may have current adaptive functions.  In any given environment, natural selection will have culled sub-optimal

behaviors, leading those that optimize exploitation of resources to predominate.  If such exploitation leads to increased lifetime reproductive success, it is reasonable to assume natural selection toward a genetic predisposition to maximize resources.  The task, then, is to look at behaviors in relation to the environment, uncover the conditions that explain why a given behavior strategy is optimal, and construct mathematical models predicting the behaviors (Laland & Brown, 2002).

Adaptive tradeoff

Such models may become quite complex, as individuals rarely deal with only one factor at a time.  For example, climbing to a certain cliff abundant with fruit

trees may maximize food intake, but this must be balanced by the risk of falling during the climb, which in turn must be balanced by the increased social status of being the one to succeed at such a bold venture.  When all these factors are considered, the optimal strategy may appear very different than at first glance.  What may appear sub-optimal with regard to one factor, may prove optimal when other factors are incorporated into the model.  This notion is called adaptive tradeoff.

In the next post, we’ll look at applications for the evolution of religion.

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.

Tagged , , ,