This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
FIND tvol:
Religion through an Evolutionary Lens: A Conversation about Dominic Johnson’s “God is Watching You”
IN THIS ARTICLE
Culture Religion
Richard Sosis
Richard Sosis
James Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology and Director of the Evolution, Cognition, and Culture Program at the University of Connecticut.
Dominic Johnson
Dominic Johnson
is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford

This View of Life is pleased to present the transcript of a conversation between our religion editor, Richard Sosis,  James Barnett professor of anthropology at Connecticut College, and our politics editor, Dominic Johnson, the Alistair Buchan professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, about the role of the supernatural in religion on the occasion of the release of Dominic Johnson’s book, “God is Watching You.” The interview took place last winter and its contents transcribed here.

Richard Sosis: Dom, thanks for joining me. We’re here to discuss your new book, “God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human,” recently published by Oxford University Press. The obvious place to start is asking you what motivated you to write the book. And why did you choose to write it as a trade book?

Dominic Johnson: In terms of the original motivation, it’s quite a straightforward story. Back then in the early 2000s I was a biologist working on the evolution of cooperation and sociality in animals. That led me into the huge literature on cooperation and game theory, which transcended the human and animal literatures. Everyone was interested in how cooperation evolved in nature in general—human beings were just a special case of a much bigger problem. At the time, Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter’s famous paper in Nature on the role of punishment in promoting cooperation in public goods games had just been published and people were admiring the power of punishment, but puzzling over why and when people would punish. In modern society, punishment for free-riding is institutionalized, but in the human evolutionary past, it is not clear who would have punished or even whether people did so very often. Ancestral human communities didn’t have governments, police, and courts to do the punishing. From a cursory reading of the hunter-gatherer literature, however, it seemed obvious that there was another hugely important source of punishment: supernatural agents. There have long been gods and spirits around which people routinely believed would sanction them for transgressing social norms.  It seemed that if we wanted to understand the role of punishment in human evolution then we needed to take seriously the idea that people might have feared punishment from sources other than fellow humans. So that was the original motivation—supernatural punishment offered a remarkable solution to the problem of cooperation. Where the evolution of cooperation literature had halted at an impasse, religion seemed to offer a bridge.

Sign up for our newsletters

I wish to receive updates from:
Newsletter



As to whether to make it a trade book, yes it was a conscious decision. Religion is big news, for all sorts of reasons, rather than just an academic curiosity, and I think it is important to bring the discussion of religion’s origins, functions, and psychology to a wider audience. Evolutionary approaches have a lot of fresh insights to offer a crowded field, and these need airing. So the book is taking religion seriously, and trying to put it in a context that anyone can engage with. Another reason was to provide a counterpoint to the “New Atheists”, who are presenting a scientific account of religion as a parasitic meme, something with misguided aims and negative consequences. While we may agree that there are negative aspects to religion, there are clearly many good aspects too, and we need to look at both. I wanted to present to a wider audience the alternative view that from a scientific, evolutionary perspective, you don’t have to see religion as a parasitic meme. It could be highly adaptive. So I was keen to point that the same underlying scientific perspective—evolution and natural selection—could lead to a very different stance on religion from Richard Dawkins and other New Atheists. I thought that message needed communicating to a wide audience.

RS: There is certainly a side of academia that stays within the ivory tower and keeps ideas among themselves. We are also moving to an age, however, where academic ideas are regularly translated into public forums, but such forums usually don’t present the full story. This is a nice opportunity to show what’s going on behind the scenes in the academic study of religion and the cognitive and evolutionary sciences of religion.

When I teach courses on religion I always remind my students that religion has deep evolutionary roots and has been part of humanity for a long time. Like humanity in general, it is both good and bad.

DJ: That’s right. “Good” and “bad” doesn’t necessarily mean adaptive versus maladaptive. Evolution often selects for nasty behaviors, if they increase Darwinian fitness, like predation and fighting. The same logic can be applied to aspects of religion—traits with positive outcomes can be favored (e.g. within-group cooperation), as can traits with negative outcomes (e.g. out-group competition). Either of these may promote Darwinian fitness for a given believer (or group). The key thing is that evolutionary theory generates novel predictions about the adaptive functions of psychological and cultural traits—irrespective of whether they are judged “good” or “bad”. This means we can study religion from a new scientific perspective; we can test hypotheses and alternative theories that compete with the parasitic meme idea.

RS: Those are great points. I agree. Throughout “God is Watching You,” you make a very compelling case for the prevalence of “negativity bias” in human cognition. As humans, we are more responsive to negative events than positive ones and you present a host of studies that support this. But despite this bias, religions are becoming more positive with less emphasis on supernatural punishment and greater emphasis on supernatural rewards and this-worldly rewards. Some, when they read your book, might suggest that this poses a challenge to the supernatural punishment hypothesis. What do you make of the trend and how would you respond to such a critique?

DJ: That’s a great question, and one that came up a lot in the year you and I spent at the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton, where we were surrounded by several theologians. Most of these scholars were western Christian theologians who strongly played down the importance of punishment in their view of (Christian) religion, but I think there are clear reasons why this is the case. The first point to note is that the book tackles the question of the origins and evolution of religion—all religion—a history that comprises perhaps 10,000 or more different religions across cultures, and the book presents evidence that across numerous indigenous, historical, and contemporary world religions, belief in supernatural punishment is widespread and important (including Christianity in many eras and regions). Modern western Christianity may be an exception.

However, it might be an exception that proves the rule. Rather than just casting this (obviously important) case aside as an “outlier”, we might usefully borrow from behavioral ecology. As with any adaptive trait, we do not expect it to always be universally present or expressed at the same level among all individuals or among all environments. Some things are universal – we all have two legs, for example. But other traits are adaptations that respond flexibly to the environment, such that we expect to see them present (or amplified) where they’re needed and absent (or suppressed) where they are not. So if the argument is that supernatural punishment is a trait selected for in environments where you need to promote cooperation, we should expect to see it where cooperation is difficult or in great demand. Oddly enough, nobody has actually tested this basic prediction yet. We have plenty of studies putting people in a lab, and asking whether perceptions of supernatural agents make subjects cooperate more. We have lots of nice results suggesting that might be the case, but what no one has really done is compare societies in different regions, or tracked the same society over time, to see whether supernatural punishment becomes more salient when cooperation is harder or in greater demand. My prediction, to return to your specific question, is that in modern liberal thinking—particularly, western Europe and North America—a lot of the quotidian concerns and problems that have faced us in the past (security, sustenance, diseases) have been eliminated, and we have governments to look after us. In such a bountiful environment, we don’t need gods anymore so much to do what they used to do—and people don’t seem to want to be told that God will punish them for their hedonistic lifestyles. So I actually think that, rather that a problem for the theory, it is a prediction of it. Where societies start to afford luxuries to their citizens and establish reliable forms of secular monitoring and punishment, we should expect religious parallels to gradually fade. I know that perspective won’t satisfy many people, but that’s the logical prediction and it’s yet to be tested.

RS: Yes, the anecdotal evidence seems to point in that direction, but as you say, a more systematic and rigorous testing of the ideas would certainly be worth pursuing. You’ve done some cross-cultural work but I get the sense that such work is ultimately challenging. You have a study which tried to explore supernatural punishment in the cross-cultural record. Could you describe that research?

DJ: I looked at the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of 186 pre-industrial societies around the globe (see “God’s Punishment and Public Goods.“) All such comparisons involve assumptions and uncertainties, but it offered a remarkable opportunity to test the hypothesis with a large sample of societies. The data provided a proxy for belief in supernatural punishment, which is the extent of belief in “moralizing gods” (the more moralizing they are, the more likely they are to sanction transgressions), which I could then use to see whether this was associated with measures of cooperation in these societies—and indeed it was in important respects. It was very interesting but left open many questions. It suggested that various indices of cooperation were higher among societies that believed in gods that were more moralizing, but we didn’t know if belief in supernatural punishment, specifically (rather than just belief in moralizing gods), was greater among societies with more cooperation, or indeed among societies in which cooperation was more difficult to achieve or in greater demand. Ideally, therefore, we needed further tests which somehow estimated the intensity or difficulty of collective action problems, and whether we find more supernatural punishment where those problems are harder to solve.

Yasha Hartberg’s et al.’s recent study in Religion, Brain & Behavior started getting at this more clearly because they looked at supernatural punishment beliefs and whether they correlate with the degree of cooperation found among different societies that had to cooperate over common shared resources. The prediction was strongly borne out, and explicit beliefs in supernatural punishment for transgressions were critical.  Other new work by Joseph Watts and colleagues also offer powerful new evidence that supernatural punishment beliefs may have fostered increases in social cooperation in human evolutionary history.

By the way, the model for this is your own paper “Scars for war” where you explicitly found an index for the amount of cooperation that one would expect to be needed—the intensity of warfare—and then whether that intensity of warfare predicted the amount and permanence of scarring among warriors and their initiation rites. That was the perfect test. You had a theory, not only what would lead to what, but the extent to which you should find the trait expressed, given variation in local selection pressures. So you provided this behavioral ecological insight for us with scarification rites and inter-group competition, but we still don’t have that for supernatural punishment and within-group cooperation.

RS: Yes. Obviously my own biases are towards behavioral ecological models and recognizing that traits adapt to local environments. This is the type of behavioral variation which is at the core of behavioral ecological exploration. I’m in full agreement and that’s a great response. I really like how you distinguished between your previous cross-cultural work and Yasha Hartberg’s recent study in Religion, Brain & Behavior.

DJ: Yes, there is more work to be done but innovative new data and analyses are emerging, and a new generation of remarkable scholars. I reported on many of these in the book, but also made efforts to give stories or examples that could help clarify the argument for a wider audience. Not all of these made it into print though. I had one anecdote in the book that got taken out, which was supposed to apply the behavioral ecological argument to the puzzling case of modern Christianity, with its absence of emphasis on punishment. I argued that it made sense that the God of the Old Testament was more punishing that the one described later, since in that setting of feuding kingdoms, territorial conquest, and risk of annihilation, cooperation was not only hard to achieve but also more important—indeed, critical to survival. In the New Testament and going forward in recent centuries, people did not, and certainly today in western democracies, do not face the same mortal dangers. One can therefore argue (or hypothesize anyway) that the punishing God of old was highly adaptive in that setting, especially one of high intensity intergroup conflict where within-group cohesion and cooperation was vital and the costs of failure severe. No such extreme collective action problems persist for individuals in our societies today (it certainly does in many other societies, and between states at the international level).

RS Interesting. We seem to be on a current trend with diminished supernatural sanctions in religions. For example, when you look at levels of belief in hell or the devil they seem to be waning over the past century. I don’t know whether we have reliable data from earlier times, but we have historical accounts that could certainly tell us something.

DJ: You’re certainly right about these other trends as well, at least in the west. However, I am not convinced it is a unidirectional downward trend. If we stop thinking about Europe and North America and start thinking about what’s happening in the rest of the world, we quickly cease asking about Christianity or Judaism and ask instead about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on. Is it true that people—humanity as a whole—are believing less in supernatural punishment? I’m not sure that would be true on a global scale. Karma is as clear a case of supernatural punishment (positive and negative karma are both important) as anything in traditional views of a Christian Hell, and Islam is pretty clear on supernatural sanctions for violations of religious and ritual obligations. And populations adhering to these religions are expanding rapidly. There is data comparing global religious affiliations between 1900 and 2000 showing that the proportion of adherents to the major world religions has been increasing, not decreasing. Even within western Christian societies too, data suggest that some important aspects of religious belief may be on the rise rather than in decline. One study in the US found that while on the whole religion had declined in terms of adherence to official religions, the percentage of people who believed in some kind of judgment day, and a specific punishment for sin, had actually increased in recent years. So religion as a whole might be contracting or softening in western societies, but the core of people who believe in supernatural punishment concepts remains significant or by some measures has been growing. In short, when we look elsewhere in the world, and even when we look in more detail within our own western societies, religion may be being challenged by secularization but concerns about supernatural punishment are alive and well.

RS: Okay, great. So another critique that you’ve already encountered concerns the critique you’ll get from my own field, which is anthropology. Throughout your book you emphasize that human cognition is primed for supernatural beliefs and that atheism is hard work. Obviously you’re building on extensive studies by Pascal Boyer, Jesse Bering, Justin Barrett, and so forth, but some would argue that religions do not simply spontaneously emerge but rather require significant cultivation. This is why religious communities view the training of children as particularly important, and obviously this is something Dawkins himself has been concerned about. So what is your response to the cultural determinist who claims that cognitive biases have little to do with the endurance and maintenance of religion?

DJ: It’s an important question. But I think it has a good answer – and that is the key word, “religion”. I don’t think anyone in the academic field of evolutionary religious studies is arguing that religion, per se, has some sort of hard wired cognitive determinants at all. Rather, there is widespread consensus that there are cognitive mechanisms which can manifest themselves in the kinds of beliefs that become organized in a cultural narrative as “religion” (and likewise, these same mechanisms contribute to a variety of other, non-religions phenomena, such as superstitions, or beliefs in ideological or philosophical ideas). But what is important is that religious beliefs do not take on an infinite variety of forms. Instead, hard-wired cognitive mechanisms delimit the scope of beliefs that human brains tend to entertain, and this leads to recurrent patterns in religious beliefs and rituals. Around the world and across history, one can see many commonalities amidst the diversity. So anything does not go, and the cultural determinist must look to psychology and evolution to account for these regularities.

So overall I agree entirely with the critique (and I don’t see it as a critique). You have underlying cognitive mechanisms which act as precursors to certain types of belief, but which then take on all sorts of manifestations in the socio-cultural phenomena that we call religions. So I don’t see a problem there—evolution and psychology are a part, albeit an important part, of the story. Of course, this is a similar situation with other psychological or behavioral traits in humans and other animals as well. For example, we know birds can change their behavior in different environments, such as altering their foraging strategy depending on availability of resources. When we study animals, we don’t have problem with the idea that underlying cognitive mechanisms and decision-making strategies are important and yet adapt to different local environments, but many people seem to deny that evolved human behavior can be equally malleable—they see it as a kind of deterministic argument that rules out any role for culture. No biologist would claim any such thing. The other thing to keep in mind of course is that while we learn from our parents and others, bringing in culture heavily, learning itself is nevertheless a process involving many underlying cognitive mechanisms themselves, some of which are precisely concerned with what kinds of things we learn and how and when we learn them. Learning is not a free for all. It’s feeding inputs into cognitive templates, and some things don’t fit. All I’m saying here is building on what other people have said much more eloquently.

RS: Yes, that’s well put. I guess one direction I thought you might pursue in response to this is the emergence and persistence of religions – not just cognitive biases but the actual practice of specific types of religions – in places where religions have been intentionally suppressed by governments. On the one hand, I agree entirely; on the other, there is this surprising fact that religion seems to emerge even in places where there are efforts to stamp it out.

DJ: Absolutely. When you look at what has been going on in China, where religion is officially banned, or indeed in previous such experiments in Albania or in the Soviet Union, it may be possible to prevent people from displaying religion, but history seems to show that it’s impossible to prevent everyone from holding religious beliefs or practicing it in secret. This offers striking evidence that even decades of suppression cannot destroy the urge of humans and human groups to practice religion. Some combination of cognitive dispositions that predispose us towards religious beliefs, regardless of one’s environment, but also the cultural influences that provide a narrative to conform to, make religion a powerful and pervasive phenomena that cannot be erased. This is not an accident either. I would invoke the adaptive importance of the “stickiness” of certain cultural ideas — the ones that stick around are probably not sticking around just by chance. They’re sticking around because they’re serving some useful purpose and are thus conserved by selection. Now Richard Dawkins would say they don’t have to serve any purpose or utility, they literally just have to be sticky and that mere stickiness means they survive and propagate. The idea is that they could just be hard to shake, or hard to forget, or hard to replace with something different. However, the adaptationist version of the argument is that successful ideas are sticky not just because they were sticky before, but because they help people psychologically or reproductively, and positive selection on individual fitness advantages keep them around.

RS: So let’s use that as a segue to discuss your evolutionary approach. One of the interesting things in your book is that in the first part there is definitely an emphasis on what you describe as biological evolution. Later in the book, however, you focus on cultural evolution. Where do you see the balance between biological and cultural evolution when trying to understand religious beliefs and practices?

DJ: Both are important parts of the story. It might be useful here to separate my book form Ara Norenzayan’s book “Big Gods.” In broad terms, Ara’s book is about the cultural adaptation of religion in the expansion of human societies in the Holocene, that is, about 10,000 years ago to the present. By contrast, mine focuses on individual adaptation and the origins of religion, and what adaptive purpose it might have served in the earlier Pleistocene period, that is, among the small scale hunter-gather societies in which the human lineage evolved biologically. That’s the main difference.

As soon as the Holocene kicks in, I have no doubt that cultural evolution became an important driver of change. For me, however, the bigger puzzle remained explaining the origins and functions of religion before we got to those large, settled societies, where religion was already such a clearly important social glue. The challenge was to come up with an individual level explanation for why religion might be adaptive—that is, for individual Darwinian fitness. How could imaginary beliefs that incur significant costs in terms of time and energy survive the ruthless mill of natural selection? I think it can be a bit too easy sometimes to come up with a cultural evolutionary explanation of a trait—as it often is with any sort of group selection-level argument. If a trait is individually costly, but you assume group selection, then you can explain the costs away easily and ask instead what benefit it has for the group, outweighing any individual costs. Moreover, we rarely have an empirical test demonstrating that this is occurring. So I think the core challenge of providing an evolutionary account of religion remains.

We know that cultural evolution is possible and occurs, but how far back does cultural evolution go? It may go a long way back, extending to tool use for example, but we don’t know how powerful it was. What we do know is that individual level selection has always been powerful, going back to the dawn of life on Earth. So why not start with individual selection and see how far we can get. Having been trained in zoology in Richard Dawkins’ own department, my first line of thinking when tackling any adaptive is, right, so what’s the gene’s eye perspective on this? My challenge with the book was therefore to see if we could come up with an explanation for why religion is adaptive without resorting to group selection, without resorting to even cultural group selection. That’s the focus of the book.

The other thing to note is that the individual adaptation story can explain the expansion of human society (in principle, and without or in addition to cultural group selection). But I don’t think it works the other way around. You can’t take Ara’s argument and use that to explain the origins of religion and cooperation in hunter-gatherers, it doesn’t work. The Big Gods argument only works for big societies. So I would argue that a theory for why fear of supernatural punishment can reduce self-interest and promote cooperation in a small group, as well as promoting cooperation in large groups, has broader explanatory power than an explanation which relies purely on cultural evolution in big groups, and cannot extend far backwards into human evolutionary history, nor explain how religious beliefs emerged in the first place among small, hunter-gatherer groups.  So I like to think my fear of supernatural punishment hypothesis is somewhat broader and more inclusive in scope.

RS: You’ve offered a helpful framing of the important contributions that both of you have made to the literature; clarifying the differences but also recognizing that both theories have strengths in certain areas that we are trying to understand.

DJ: That’s the best way of putting it. I think Ara specifically speaks to the era of human civilizations and the growth in human societies. I think supernatural punishment can explain a lot of what’s going on there too, but they are clearly complementary mechanisms during the Holocene period. However, since there is little doubt that cultural evolution was occurring among groups during the Holocene, this mode of evolution may have been particularly fast and powerful in promoting cooperation beneath the threat of supernatural punishment, and that’s what Ara beautifully explains.

RS: Both of you are consistent and in agreement with the idea that supernatural punishment and big gods preceded the rise of large-scale societies. Ara’s had to respond to critics who argue that the causal arrow goes in the opposite direction, specifically that large scale societies ultimately produced big gods. It might be more difficult to argue against the supernatural punishment hypothesis however, as you’ve described the evidence for supernatural punishment in hunter-gatherer societies, suggesting a longer history. How would you respond to this?

DJ: Basically the argument is, is the arrow running this way or that way? I think its ultimately a false argument because causal processes are probably running both ways. There would most likely (as with other phenomena) be co-evolution between cultural manifestations of the characteristics of gods and spirits, and social organization. So yes, I agree that it was largely agriculture and domestication and divisions of labor which arrived on the scene, and enabled societies to become big. But everyone agrees that once you’re big you’re faced with these major game-theoretical problems of free riders and second-order free riders and who punishes etc., something has to be done to preserve cooperation in large, anonymous groups. You can’t just have agriculture but keep the old social systems designed for tiny groups, with everyone jammed together and failing to solve the inherent collective action problems. The cooperation problem has got to be solved along the way otherwise the agricultural revolution will fail in its social dimension. I see it as incremental steps in societies becoming more cohesive and bigger, probably aided by religion but enabled as well by underlying resource distributions, which made it possible for people to coalesce together to begin with. I don’t think it can be an either/or. At the end of the day, the problem of cooperation had to be solved as societies got big, but not afterwards, because then they could not have gotten big to start with.

There’s a nice study by Joseph Watts and colleagues looking at Austronesian/ Polynesian religions and they distinguished moralizing high gods (akin to Big Gods) from local, supernatural punishment beliefs. Using reconstructed language family trees and inference on historical divergences, they were able to test hypotheses about which traits preceded others. What they found was that there wasn’t a lot of evidence that moralizing high gods preceded political complexity in these societies (their measure of big societies), but that local supernatural punishment from smaller gods and spirits did precede political complexity. Hence, we have remarkable evidence that political complexity emerges among societies with an established system of supernatural punishment, but then moralizing high gods might then follow as a kind of cultural reinforcement that becomes extended to a larger and larger group size. These are important questions, and new techniques are providing new insights. I don’t think we should be dogmatic about saying one led to another, I think the world is messy and we have to deal with that.

RS: Well put. A brief plug for Joseph Watts and his colleagues, who did this phylogenetic work. Joseph wrote an excellent piece for TVOL and I encourage readers to explore that piece.

Let’s take this discussion into a more speculative realm. Where do you see religion heading? I know you are not presumptuous enough to play the role of prophet, and projection is risky business, but do you have any sense where things might be heading?

DJ: One thing we can be fairly sure about is demographics. In Europe, and I’m in the UK, people are obsessed by secularization and they see this as the future, with the inevitable spread of democracy and secularization around the world. However, we know from global datasets that secular nations are reproducing much more slowly than nations which are religious. However many new atheists secularization may win over, the overall secular population is decreasing pretty rapidly relative to more religious populations around the world. So religion is not in decline. It may be in Europe and some other western countries but at the bigger picture level, it’s on the rise. It’s hard to argue or interfere with demographics because they’re powerful, grinding, long-term processes, which tend to have significant inertia. Of course, within these societies new babies may not grow up to believe the same as their parents, so the population numbers are not the same as the numbers of believers, but the point is that the correlation is high.

As well as changes in sheer numbers of religious adherents, there are also interesting changes in beliefs themselves. Churches in Europe are becoming more liberal all the time. In England you can show up occasionally for Christmas carols and wine and you don’t have to believe anything. Some evidence, as you yourself have provided, shows that churches that demand more of their patrons counter-intuitively survive better over time. Elsewhere in the world, and indeed within western countries too, we have seen a rise in fundamentalism. So even within the existing religions there are interesting dynamics going which again suggests that secularization is not the only game in town.

The third thing I find interesting is how religions adapt and change over time. We touched on this briefly before but in the book I talk about China and Mexico as examples of places where for one reason or another people have left, or been denied, mainstream religions and very quickly come up with new forms of religion. But these new forms are once again not random, rather they seem to serve very specific purposes for the community—not least solving collective action problems. It seems to me that although we might not be able to predict any precise changes in the future of religion, the one thing we can predict is that religion will be there, and will take on new forms. Like life itself, it is never extinguished, it just keeps changing. I have a chapter in the book on new forms of religion (called, ironically, “A World Without God”). I was conscious when I was writing it that the phenomenon of changing religious beliefs is of course not specific to supernatural punishment. All theories of religion would have something specific to say about what kinds of religion, or what kinds of practices and beliefs within them, are likely to thrive or fail in the future. It would be interesting to think through in more detail how religious changes over time will provide natural experiments to test predictions of our theories of religion. I suspect you can do this for your area of ritual as well. For example, people who are now practicing religion online, or in other ways that have shed real community experience, might be predicted to fail by your theory of religion (unless that real-people social bonding aspect is somehow substituted by something else). So there are interesting predictions to be made about the future of religion. We haven’t done much thinking about that.

RS: Well, that’s a great idea. We’ll put our predictions in an envelope and open them in a decade to see how we’ve done.

Maybe we’ll wrap it up with one final question. The book was obviously just published, but like all books your manuscript was with the publisher for some time  before it hit the stores. Since you submitted your final manuscript to the publisher have any new results been published that have further supported your argument, or alternatively have forced you to rethink your argument? Is there anything not in the book which you wish you had included?

DJ: The main news stories since the book was published are the remarkable studies by Watts et al., which we mentioned earlier (using phylogenetic methods and suggesting that belief in supernatural punishment preceded the change to more socially complex societies). Then there’s the study by Ben Purzycki and colleagues in Nature finding that, across 8 societies around the world, individual belief in moralizing and specifically punishing gods predicted the extent to which people would share resources with strangers of the same religion. Together, these two studies probably provide the best evidence yet that belief in supernatural punishment is a powerful promoter of cooperation and played a role in human evolution.

RS: Let me thank you for your time and insightful answers. I hope your book has much success. I enjoyed reading it very much. As you know, I read a version of the manuscript before it was physically published. Prior to this interview I thought I would just skim some sections of the book to refresh my memory. But I couldn’t. Once I picked up the book it was too engaging and I had to read it all the way through.   It is a very helpful contribution to the literature and I hope it receives the recognition it deserves.

DJ: Wow, that’s a remarkable honor. Thank you for looking at the book and taking the time to do this interview. You’ve been incredibly supportive throughout the long slog and without your brilliant work I’m not sure I would ever have got into it or stayed in the game. From one behavioral ecologist (originally) to another, your work helped me see how an evolutionary perspective could help to illuminate such a complex phenomenon as religion.

1 Comment

Join the discussion

One Comment

  1. Helga Vierich says:

    Trickster gods, who make bumbling errors and are thwarted by humans sometimes, seem to me to be common in man hater-gatherers, Perhaps the idea of a punitive god as an early form of social control might be modified? I suggest a more than cursory look at hunter-gatherer sacred stories – this might be informative as well as hilarious.

    This is a story of some antiquity among the forager group, the Kua, which I studied in the Kalahari. The story was told over much raucous laughter, even from the children who joined our party by the fire. It is roughly translated from notes (1978/9).

    The Creator looked down one day and saw a party of young women going gathering. He wanted to see more of the last one, for she was beautiful. So the Creator materialized into a man. At first he was very small, no more than the size of a preying mantis. He ran after the women, keeping himself hidden and watching the girl he liked and lusting after her. (The story teller at this point put his hand to his groin and made a rising motion with stiff fingers and everyone roared with laughter.)

    He followed for hours, trying to get bigger but needing food. So when the girl put down her sac of gathered vegetables to dig out a morama tuber, he crawled into her sac.

    He began to eat the vegetables and beans and nuts and tasty melons and other fruit in the sack. The girl dropped a huge root on his head without noticing him, and picked up her sack again, slinging the whole burden behind her back and putting the tump band across her forehead to balance the load.

    The little man was knocked out. He came to as the women arrived back in camp. He was bigger now, the size of ten year old boy. The girl slung her gathering sack down, drank some water from her ostrich egg, re-stoppered it, and made the coals of her fire glow with blowing, adding some wood, and cooked up the big root and two small onions. Her hand reached into the sack and the man quickly held these things up to her hand so her hand did not feel him.

    The root cooked slowly with the onions cooked slowly in the hot ashes, bubbling. The girl left them too cool beside the fire and went to speak to one of the other campers, who had arrived earlier in a bigger family group. She asked to join them at their fire, and offered to share that big root. (note: these are some of the most wonderful tasting tubers I have ever eaten.)

    The man, meanwhile, helped himself to the huge root and the onions. He grew to adult size, and went hide behind her blankets as she returned to her hut, to find the root gone. She was very angry, and went looking for the thief. She roused up the whole camp but no one was found to have the root. Finally she came scowling back to her hut, having eaten some other things with the family party.

    She sat down weary on her blankets and dropped onto her side, pulling her kaross of furred jackal skins over herself as it was nightfall in the early dry season and the chill was in the air.

    At this point the man saw his chance, lifted the blanket and placed himself on her body, enflamed with lust.

    The girl pushed him off with one hand, while reaching for her knife. You are not ‘N/kai she said… what do you think you are going to find here? Still he tried to force her to spread her legs.
    She cut off his testicles with one stroke of the knife. The man felt such pain he disppeared immediately, leaving the two little balls behind to feel her wrath. She called upon the bees to wake up and sting them, as they made their escape. (I mentally pictured this as a kind of sac race)

    The bees obeyed her, for it was in the days of the beginning, when all animals still talked to the humans, and a vast swarm went after the balls. They disappeared into the distance… hopping frantically higher every time a bee stung. They were covered in stings, and the seed of the deity ran from every sting, leaving a trail of drips behind them.

    The balls decided that their only hope was to bury themselves deep in the sand, which they managed to do with their last strength.

    In the morning the girl told her story of the man who came to her in the night, and tried to take pleasure with her by force. After the fiasco of the root, no one believed her. I will prove it, she said, and went to follow the trial of the testicles. She found them finally, but in the night they had died. They were both hard and soft.

    Everyone was amazed to see these strange objects. Everyone smelled them. they might make a meal, they thought. So she cooked them in the ashes and everyone had a taste and they were the best thing anyone had ever received from the earth. They were the first truffles, and others grow to this day, spawn of the deity’s seed.

    So much for fearing god’s punishments.