This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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On The Turning Tide

This year’s Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meeting in Boston (November 8-10) hosted the 6th consecutive suite of sessions devoted to biological and evolutionary approaches to religion (the BEAR sessions) organized by Jay Feierman. Jay has worked tirelessly to keep the conversation going and this year’s sessions included three sections with presenters whose work represents cutting edge research and innovative theoretical perspectives. Evolutionary explanations of religion are drawing more and more traction. As we observed, the next generation of researchers who presented at this year’s meeting provided evidence for why this mode of inquiry is worthy of attention.

After Wesley Wildman’s (Boston University, Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion) demonstration of the utility of computer simulations for understanding the emergence and stability of costly religious behaviors, Connor Wood (Boston University) took us from the computer to the lab as he described preliminary results of an ongoing project examining the complex relationships between status, synchrony, and cooperation. His work seeks to assess whether or not ritualized synchrony has differential effects on generosity between high-status and low-status individuals. Luke Matthews (Activate Networks, Inc.) did a remarkable job of spelling out ways in which we can test various evolutionarily-motivated predictions by discussing the methods and results from one of his papers published in Religion, Brain and Behavior. He and his co-authors examined sixteenth-century Anabaptists and found a co-occurring phylogeny of violence advocacy in the history of Anabaptist groups. Matthews evaluated alternative explanations for the persistence of violence in religious groups—cultural transmission or socioecological factors like economy and political structures—and found more evidence for understanding religious violence as human responses to inherited socioecological conditions. Matthews also reviewed his recent publication in Human Nature. This work suggests that cultural badges that signal in-group religious membership evolve and change at key junctures in the cultural phylogenetic development of Christian denominations; when groups break away from other groups, their religious badges change in content as well. Moreover, the more distinct a religious denomination is (i.e., the more distant a denomination is from other denominations’ shared features), the higher its’ constituents estimated biological growth. In other words, culturally distinct religious traditions are likely having relatively more offspring.

At another session, Megan Shen (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) examined the types of moral reasoning involved in religious expression and described evidence that religious primes trigger out-group focused moral reasoning among the religious, but decreases it among the nonreligious. In another study, she found that religiosity (i.e., degree to which individuals commit to religious traditions) doesn’t correlate with the kind of moral reasoning people emphasize. However, religious fundamentalism and political ideology do predict individuals’ emphasis of loyalty, authority, and purity and showed no relationship with harm and fairness. In another talk on moral reasoning, Larisa Heiphetz (Morality Lab at Boston College) examined the developmental trajectories of the links between morality, religious beliefs, and social preference. One of her projects demonstrates that over time, children begin to prefer others who explain their own behavior according to their own upbringing—while religious people are fairly consistent throughout development, slightly preferring other religiously motivated people, nonreligious people develop notably strong preferences for others with secular motivations for moral behavior. Developmental work such as this sheds light on the ontogeny of religious thought and behavior, and the formation of in-group preferences.

At the meeting there was, of course, a healthy dose of skepticism toward evolutionary approaches to religion, a considerable amount of which stemmed from standard Two Cultures problems. However, despite disagreements it was also obvious that the sciences and humanities are still able to inspire each other. For instance, drawing from one of his papers, Benjamin Abelow’s talk conveyed that people forge a cognitive model of childhood trauma, and this model is imposed onto religious narratives. In our discussions with Dr. Abelow, we were excited to learn about how his work in comparative religious studies may reveal universal features in the construction and function of mythology. This reminded us that the central concerns of cognitive anthropology remain important—as ever—for the evolutionary study of religion.

As for our own talks, we represented the ethnographic end of things. While John discussed his work conducted in the sandy beach villages of Fiji, Ben presented data from his fieldwork in the snowy mountains of the Tyva Republic in southern Siberia. John described life history theory and its utility for explaining variance in ritual behavior across the lifespan and within social groups, whereas Ben’s talk synthesized his recent work on how people reason about gods’ minds. John’s data show a clear division between investment in traditional kava practices and investment in the local Methodist church, finding that young, low-ranking males are engaged more in kava drinking rituals as a means to achieve higher status within that sub-tradition, whereas higher ranking males invest more heavily in Christian ritual. He interprets this behavioral variance as the result of adaptive decision-making; men appear to be making the best of their current life history conditions. Ben presented evidence that even though Tyvan spirit-masters are not explicitly moralistic in the Abrahamic sense (i.e., don’t steal, don’t kill, etc.), such domains are indeed salient among Tyvans when reasoning about what their local spirits know and care about. Moreover, hypothetical individuals who engage in rituals (rituals are what spirits do care about according to the tradition), are perceived as being more trustworthy in interpersonal relationships (e.g., returning lost wallets and borrowed money, babysitting, etc.).

If readers are interested in participating in 2014’s BEAR session (Indianapolis, IN), they can contact Jay Feierman at jay.feierman84 [at]

Benjamin Grant Purzycki
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture, University of British Columbia

John H. Shaver
Post-Doctoral Research Fellow
Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion, Masaryk University


Join the discussion


  1. Michael Blume says:

    Thanks for the report! I enjoyed it, will take some time for the papers and already started to share it.

    All the best!

  2. Bryan Atkins says:

    Greetings Good Doctors Purzycki and Shaver,

    Thanks for this . . .

    I would argue that religions’ origins are likely simultaneously physics and evolution based.

    This concept is based on the idea that information-in-relationship is, if not THE fundamental reality, then A fundamental reality . . . that entities, whether rocks, trees, ideas, gov’t institutions, constitutions, or quantum computers, are simultaneously nouns and verbs, simultaneously aggregate information structures and information processors.

    And that code, condensed aggregate information structures that process information, yields greater speed, accuracy, and power of information processing. Code, whether genetic, religious, legal, monetary, or software, is organically generated infrastructure for complexity increases, part of what information has been doing across the earth’s 4.5-billion-year evolutionary history. (Suspect that physicist David Deutsch may address this phenomenon in his exciting work-in-progress “Constructor Theory.”)

    As software code writer Charles Simonyi has said, “Software is distilled complexity . . .”

    Genetic code is relationship information technology, a type of distilled complexity for bio aggregate information structures. Religious, legal, monetary, etiquette, (etc.) codes attempt to be the same for culture.

    More info here:

    Thanks again . . .