First Shots Fired For The Phylogenetic Revolution in Religious Studies

Wilson’s target article illustrates how evolutionary hypotheses are advancing the science of complex cultural systems. We agree. The following extends the conversation to consider the benefits of evolutionary methods. We restrict our review to computational phylogenetic methods as these are being used to test evolutionary hypotheses about religions.

Why cultural phylogenetics?

Offspring resemble their parents because offspring share parental genes. Computational phylogenetic modeling of genetic lineages has enabled researchers to test hypotheses about the timing, sequence, and rate of evolutionary change in genetic sequences, advancing understanding about how complex biological systems evolve and function (Yang and Rannala 2012).

In humans, offspring also resemble their parents because offspring acquire parental culture (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Sterelny 2005). Consider language dialects. A child raised in a community of exclusive Canadian speakers will not utter “rot” for “red,” though matters differ in German-speaking communities. Yet the resemblance between “rot” and “red” is not arbitrary. Both dialects trace their origins about 1,500 years ago to Old High German. The properties of cultural evolution enable the modeling of cultural lineages using bayesian approaches developed to model genetic lineages. A compelling virtue of phylogenetic approaches is their capacity to deal with the statistical non-independence of culturally acquired traits –“Galton’s problem” – which invalidates standard statistical tests (Mace & Pagel, 1994). Comparative phylogenetic methods account for variation explained by shared ancestry, avoiding Galton’s problem (Felsenstein, 1985). Preliminary applications to the evolutionary study of culture have produced striking results (Mace, Holden et al. 2005, Pagel 2009, Gray, Atkinson et al. 2011). Phylogenetic studies have explained the ancestral roots of modern languages (Atkinson 2011), social influences on rates of word change (Pagel, Atkinson et al. 2007), the evolution of grammars (Dunn, Greenhill et al. 2011), and the geographical location of ancestral language homelands (Bouckaert, Lemey et al. 2012). Applications have been far-reaching, bringing new understanding to ancestral migrations in the Pacific (Gray, Drummond et al. 2009), the rise and fall of social complexity (Currie, Greenhill et al. 2010), and the evolution and diffusion of social norms (Fortunato, Holden et al. 2006, Jordan, Gray et al. 2009).

Cultural Phylogenetics and Religious Cooperation

Can computational phylogenetic methods be used to test functional hypotheses about religion? Evolutionary researchers hypothesize that religious cultures are exquisite designs for cooperation, which both motivate and signal cooperative intentions. In a recent article, Luke Matthews used computational phylogenetic methods to test model for religious cooperation that he calls “recognition signaling” (Matthews 2012). According to recognition signaling, culturally acquired traits enable religious partners to discriminate between cooperators who belong to a group and defectors who might imitate belonging. Discrimination is possible because it is difficult to simultaneously acquire knowledge of many religious characters at one time [for a similar model see (Mahoney 2008).] Cultural phylogenetics is appropriate for testing recognition signaling predicts the model predicts that religious group schisms will be associated with an increase in religious character change. The expected increase in character change arises from the demands of religious brand differentiation. By hypothesis, the more traits that distinguish religious groups, the easier for members to identify who belongs. Matthews tested recognition signaling’s prediction for increasing differentiation at historical schisms by first producing a database of sixty-four religious characters that existing Christian denominations might have or not have. Examples of such characters are whether a denomination supports iconography, whether the sick are anointed, and whether Jesus is believed to have been immaculately conceived. The histories of Christian denominations are known, which enabled Matthews to reconstruct their phylogenetic ancestries on exact trees. Matthews then used comparative phylogenetic methods to model rates of change in religious characters over time. Correlational analysis empowered Matthews to evaluate whether higher rates of change occurred at schism events. Matthews found that the rate of change in culturally acquired religious traits tended to become faster precisely at the point where religious groups divide.  In line with the recognition signaling hypothesis, diversification in characters tended to occur near historical schisms.

Importantly, Matthews identified the religious characters for his study in consultation with a religious studies expert, and his phylogenetic tree was populated with data gathered from historical texts. Rather than consigning historians to unemployment, cultural phylogenetics reveals their central importance for addressing basic scientific questions about how religious cultures work.

Cultural Phylogenetics and Religious Violence

The extent to which religious people acquire religious traits from “horizontal” influences is an empirical question that comparative phylogenetic methods can help to answer. In the case of language evolution, cultural phylogenetic methods have proved remarkably robust to horizontal transmission (Currie, Greenhill et al. 2010). Yet perhaps the transmission properties of languages and of religions differ. To better disentangle the contributions of inherited influences from those of horizontal influences, Matthews and colleagues conducted a second study examining sixteenth century Anabaptist groups (Matthews, Edmonds et al. 2012). The authors identified forty-four characters in eighteen Anabaptist groups, and coded these characters using binary variables (has or does not have the character). Phylogenies were developed for this period from known schism events in Anabaptist denominations. Comparative phylogenetics enabled the team to estimate the amount of character change along each branch of these known phylogenies. Forty-seven leaders were identified from historical sources, and leader networks were reconstructed. The authors were especially interested in the dark side of within-group religious cooperation: between-group religious violence. To examine how attitudes to violence and religious orientations are transmitted, the team used logistic regression mixed models to compare the effects of inherited culture and of leader networks for practical and abstract religious orientations.

Results were intriguing. The best-fitting models showed that phylogenetic inheritance was a better predictor of denominational attitudes to violence, yet leader networks were a better predictor of similarities in theological beliefs and practices. Although this is a small study, which was restricted to a relatively brief episode in religious history, the team’s finding suggests that religious violence might be subject to adaptive lag. Strategies from a violent past appear to be transmitted to contexts where they might prove harmful or even lethal. This finding repeats the important point that evolutionary approaches to religion do not imply that religions are always and everywhere functional (Richerson and Boyd 2005, Wilson 2008, Sosis 2009). That attitudes to violence are vertically transmitted may also hold important lessons for peacemakers. Instead of wire tapping the lines of religious leaders, the intelligence community might better spend their time consulting historians about the violent histories (Matthews, per. comm.)


As Wilson argues, evolutionary hypotheses must be tested on a case by case basis. Though evolutionary hypotheses for religion abound, they are only beginning to be put to the test (Bulbulia and Slingerland 2012). To fully understand the role that religion plays in the emergence of human societies we need to trace religious, social, and environmental variation between societies, and assess the functional role that religion played over the course of human history.  Cross-cultural comparisons of religions, moreover, must account for the statistical non-independence of cultural traits (Galton’s problem). Computational phylogenetics affords powerful toolkit for addressing evolutionary questions about religion precisely because computational phylogenetics relates the historical and functional properties of religious cultures using statistically appropriate methods. Preliminary applications have proved encouraging, showing that religions harbor exquisite functional designs for within-group cooperation. Yet early findings also reveal constraints on these designs. Religious conflict might be inherited from a denomination’s past. Far from rendering classically trained historians of religion obsolete, computational phylogenetics discloses their central importance. Early studies herald the beginnings of what we believe will amount to phylogenetic revolution in the study of religious cultures. By testing evolutionary hypotheses for religion using phylogenetic methods, a ubiquitous, ancient, and still mysterious dimension of the human condition is slowly divulging its secrets.


This research was supported by the John F. Templeton Foundation: Testing the functional roles of religion in human society – ID: 28745 and The Royal Society of New Zealand: “The cultural evolution of religion:” 11-UOA-239.


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Joseph Bulbulia
Victoria University of Wellington
Religious Studies
Wellington, New Zealand

Simon Greenhill
Australian National University
School of Culture, History & Language
Canberra, Australia

Russell Gray
University of Auckland
School of Psychology
Auckland New Zealand


Published On: October 18, 2012

Joseph Bulbulia

Joseph Bulbulia

I am a BioCultural scholar of religion.  I use tools from the biological sciences to investigate spiritual habits and beliefs which affect people.  I focus on dynamics at the level of individual and community well-being, charitable giving, and recovery to misfortune. I am a core member of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a 20 year longitudinal project following value change in a group of about 10,000 New Zealanders over time.The NZAVS was launched in 2009 by former Victoria University Religious Studies graduate,  Associate Professor Chris G. Sibley. I have several post-graduates working on the NZAVS.

Simon Greenhill

Simon Greenhill

I’m a ARC Discovery Fellow in the School of Culture, History & Language and ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. I was previously a post-doctoral research fellow in the Psychology Department and Computational Evolution Group at the University of Auckland.

My main research focus is the evolution of languages and cultures. I have applied cutting-edge computational phylogenetic methods to language and cultural evolution, and used these methods to test hypotheses about human prehistory and cultural evolution in general. The questions I have explored so far include how people settled the Pacific, how language structure and complexity evolve, the co-evolution of cultural systems in the Pacific, and how cultural evolution can be modeled.

Russell Gray

Russell Gray

Russell’s research has made significant contributions to the fields of linguistics, animal cognition, philosophy of biology and behavioural phylogenetics. He pioneered the application of computational evolutionary methods to questions about linguistic prehistory. This work has helped solve the 200 year-old debate on the origin of Indo-European languages, dubbed by Diamond and Bellwood (2003) as “the most recalcitrant problem in historical linguistics”.

More recently, he used sophisticated Bayesian phylogenetic methods to test hypotheses about the sequence and timing of the peopling of the Pacific. His work with Dr Gavin Hunt on New Caledonian crows has revealed that their remarkable tool manufacturing skills are the product of a lengthy learning period and are underpinned by brains with large associative regions and the ability to make causal inferences.

His research has attracted world-wide media attention including full page articles in The New York Times, Time and Le Monde and has featured on several international television documentaries. He has published over 100 journal articles and book chapters including seven papers in Nature and Science.


  • Tim Tyler says:

    I think it is best of call this field “phylomemetics”. Cultural phylogenetics is both long-winded and close to being oxymoronic.

  • Good thought Tim. I guess I prefer a wider conception of “genetic,” one which includes stuff other than nucleotides, but which interacts with nucleotides. Though to each their own. Personally, I like “Bayesian computational methods.” Though my experience is that this is term is a real conversation stopper. Maybe you’re right about the branding…

    In any case, there’s a nice little piece that Simon and Russell wrote on these methods, which you can find on Simon’s website:

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Along with the commentary by Hochberg and Whitehouse, this commentary underscores the importance of history in studying cultural evolution–including the formal application of phylogenetic methods. I wholeheartedly agree and will elaborate on a few points here.

    In biology, phylogenetic methods are often used to infer historical relationships among species because the fossil record is too sparse to directly discern the relationships. The human historical record is often sufficiently rich to discern the historical relationships directly. We know exactly when the Protestant Reformation occurred, the religious tradition from which it was derived, and so on. Knowing the phylogenetic tree this well enables the causative factors to be studied in detail and also provides a way to validate phylogenetic inference methods, as nicely illustrated by the two examples provided by Bulbilia, Greenhill, and Gray.

    Cultural evolution is more reticulate than genetic evolution. A given cultural system can include elements derived from many prior cultural systems. Also, cultures interact in addition to their historical relationships. Christianity is historically derived from Judaism, but Judaism has been heavily influenced by Christianity during their 2000-year intertwined histories. These facts need to be borne in mind, but biological evolution is proving to be more reticulate than previously thought and phylogenetic methods are able to accommodate these complexities (e.g., Neanderthal genes in modern humans).

    I have studied a number of religious schisms from a narrative historical perspective. One of the darkest moments in the early history of Calvinism was the execution of Michael Servetus by burning at the stake. Superficially, the issues appeared to be doctrinal (concerning the nature of the Trinity), but in reality it was a contest between factions within the city Geneva. See my account in Darwin’s Cathedral for more. The question of whether schisms are ever purely doctrinal, or whether they are usually linked to real-world conflicts among factions, is a testable hypothesis.

    What Bulbulia et al. call “the phylogenetic revolution” illustrates the progress that can be made when scientists agree upon a conceptual framework (or multiple equivalent frameworks) and proceed to use it to inform empirical research.

    • tmtyler says:

      For “reticulate” DNA evolution, look to bacteria and viruses. Bacteria slurp up genes indiscriminately – while around 8% the human genome is descended from viruses. The supposed “tree” of life is *really* a web – in both the organic and the cultural realms.

  • tmtyler says:

    I prefer a broad conception of “genetic” too – but that doesn’t solve the problem that memes were introduced to solve, namely: distinguishing between organic and cultural inheritance. There have been various attempts to tack “culture” and “gene” together: Lumsden and Wilson proposed “culturegen”, Carl Swanson proposed “sociogenes”, Peter Turchin proposed “cultural genes”. However, these terms were too long-winded, too clumsy or too late – and it was Dawkins’ “meme” that made it into the dictionary and took over the internet. Wilson publicly capitulated, saying: “The one label that has caught on the most, and for which I now vote to be the winner, is meme, introduced by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Selfish Gene in 1976.” Resistance from the inventors of rival terminology continues in some quarters – but their lame critiques of memetic terminology seem just embarrassing to me. “Meme” won: get over it.

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