Tag evolution

Posts: 3

Evolution and Religion Part III

Russian Mother Heroine
Russian Mother Heroine

This post is the third in a series in conversation with Martin Michael Blume, prompted by his original post on www.scilogs.com. See my first post, Michael’s reply, and my second post.

Dear Michael,

Thanks again for taking the time to engage with me earlier. Sorry that this is a bit of a long reply…

In your comment you note:

the fundamental questions remains: Why are only “religious” communities able to augment this in-group cooperation not, say, political parties or sport clubs?

This is certainly an interesting question, and one that is not affected by the objections in my previous post, but I do have some reservations on this count too.

1. Comparing like with like

Before we can address the question, we need to make sure we’re comparing like with like. From your original post:

We found many religious traditions that were able to attain high levels of fertility throughout the generations. But in sharp empirical contrast, we didn’t find a single non-religious community, movement or population that was able to retain at least replacement level (two births per woman) for a century!

The way you put this explicitly rules out any kind of organization that is not involved in baby making (“two births per woman”). That’s fair enough, as you’re interested in evolution, which ultimately depends on differential reproductive advantage. But doing this also means that you cannot legitimately take such organizations as sports clubs as secular equivalents of religious groups in your comparisons. Of course tennis clubs can’t achieve two births per woman — they don’t (as far as I know) admit members by birth! This has no necessary or causal relation to religiosity.

Mongolian Medal: ‘Aldart Ekh’ – Renowned Mother, First Class
Mongolian Medal: ‘Aldart Ekh’ — Renowned Mother, First Class

To make a comparison in terms of replacement by birth — the comparison that would allow us to reach the conclusion that religious communities have an advantage over non-religious ones in terms of reproduction — we’d have to find non-religious organizations that *did* base membership at least in part on reproduction and birth.

In contrast to non-reproduction related groups such as sports clubs and political parties, it is hard to think of many examples. Why that should be the case is an interesting question in itself — I’ll consider that below.

Perhaps some modernist nationalisms (especially those allied to eugenic policies?), or ethnic groups without strong religious affiliation (some national minorities in China?) would fit the bill.

There are good examples of the former — I’m thinking especially of the Hero Mother campaigns in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, and these did achieve very high birth rates. Some people have argued that Stalinism had religious characteristics — maybe so, but it was certainly not interested in non-empirical agents (i.e. ‘religiosity’, in your terms). When I first went to Ulanbaatar in 2002, many people still proudly declared themselves ‘materialist’ when I asked them about religion! These national movements really did achieve huge population growth. Admittedly, it was not sustained over much more than two generations….

2. The historical question

…Which brings us to my second reservation: the historical depth, or lack of it, of non-religious organizations.

If we were going to make a generalization about the relative reproductive success of religious and non-religious communities, one that is to hold good across evolutionary time, we would need to have a decent number of examples of both kinds of community.

There are good reasons to think it is impossible to find a sufficient sample of non-religious, membership-by-reproduction communities.

One reason is the historical novelty of secularism. The idea of having communities or institutions that exclude religiosity (on your definition) simply does not have a long history. It is an idea that had its origins in the Enlightenment or the development of the nation state (see Talal Asad, Charles Taylor — refs below).

A more general account might give a role to the modern phenomenon of ‘purification’. Early anthropologists were fascinated by the fact that the institutions they studied among ‘natives’ in colonial contexts around the world could not be pigeonholed into one of the major categories that we use to understand modern society, such as politics, economics, kinship, religion and so on. For example, an annual meeting between villages might involve arrangements for marriages (kinship), exchanges of goods (economics), offerings to ancestors (religion), and alliances (politics). Marcel Mauss called this a total institution.

By contrast, modern societies are characterized by an attempt to purify institutions so that they only perform one kind of role…if your economic institution also performs kinship functions, that’s called nepotism! If your political institution performs commercial functions, corruption! Bruno Latour has argued that this work of purification is more rhetorical than actual.

All the evidence seems to suggest that secular communities in general were either very rare or non-existent (on a broad or narrow definition of secularism, respectively) until the modern period. This explanation accounts parsimoniously for your being unable to find any long-lived communities defined by their exclusion of religion throughout history — there simply weren’t any such communities until relatively recently.

If the lack of longstanding communities of this kind were instead down to relative reproductive disadvantage, am I wrong in thinking that we should see a long history of ephemeral secular birth-related communities that die out quickly? Can you name any one such community dating to before 1600? The examples you give of communities that did not prosper are defined by their religious characteristics — they don’t appear to be secular in any sense (Shakers, ancient Pagans).

So it may be too soon to say whether secular birth-related communities will prove to be successful. It may continue to be difficult to say: the reason such communities are still likely to be rare may be that the modern practice of purification that I outlined above tends to militate against birth/kinship functions being mixed up with other functions. Such a mixture would be a necessary condition of recognizing a community as anything other than a kinship group.

3. Conclusion

If my reservations about comparisons before the modern period and comparisons are justified, then what remains to be explained is the apparent reproductive advantage of religiously defined groups over other groups in the modern period — accepting your example of Switzerland as representative and unproblematic. The relation of this phenomenon to religiosity, on your definition, was the subject of my previous two posts.


  • Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular. Stanford University Press.
  • Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1970. The Gift. Taylor & Francis.
  • Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press.

Evolution and Religion Part II

William Robertson Smith
William Robertson Smith (source: Wikipedia)

This is a reply to Martin Michael Blume’s comment to my previous post, which was itself was a comment on his blog on www.scilogs.com.


Michael — Thanks for the links (reproduced below) and for engaging with my comment!

I’ve read those two papers now –they are thought provoking and contain some great lines (“evolutionary theorists brought up far more scientific arguments — but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children”–love it!), but I don’t think they really answer my initial objection.

On page 118 of the Reproductive Benefits paper, you write (I’ve added emphasis and labels in square brackets):

” [1] Religiosity, understood as *believing* in supernatural guidance and surveillance of all parties involved, evolved (and evolves) as a biological and highly successful solution. [2] Humans who are *members* of religious communities show statistically higher motivations towards marriage, children and family values, more cooperative orientation and finally higher reproductive success than their secular contemporaries”

What I am questioning is the relation between religiosity as defined in [1] and the membership of religious communities referred to in [2]. You draw conclusions about ‘religiosity’ (i.e., belief, on your definition — I’ll use this word with that force from now on) on the basis of data about religious affiliation, taking the latter to be indicative of the former. It is clear from the social scientific literature on religion that the link between these things is uncertain to say the least.

None of this in any way invalidates your observations about religious communities and reproduction. But if I am right the following objections follow:

1. Over-interpretation of the data

You may be over-interpreting the census data in making the leap from affiliation to traditional communities with religious associations to religiosity, on your terms. (I am dubious about the methodology of the World Values Survey for many of the same reasons by the way, but it’s a long time since I’ve looked at it so I can’t comment in detail.)

I gave Day’s study as an example in my post because her work directly addresses the difference between people’s ‘superempirical’ behaviour and thought and their response to questions about religious affiliation in a national census.

However, the question of the discrepancy between belief and affiliation has been a constant theme in social scientific studies of religion since at least the end of the 19C and the work of William Robertson Smith (ref below).

The reason this question is of enduring interest is that it confounds the expectations of modern models of religion that are basically Protestant or post-reformation in nature, especially the expectation that religion is above all about a personal, interior relationship to God and the holy, that a particular tradition of worship is associated with particular institutions and so on. Even in countries (such as the UK) where this model might be expected to apply most strongly (because for centuries it has been a model of what religion should be like), ethnographic work (such as Day’s) shows consistently that the boundaries between beliefs and boundaries between religious affiliation are frequently do not line up in the way the model would predict.

2. Anachronism

Even if it were shown that the association between religious affiliation and religious belief were sound for modern populations, your conclusions project this combination back throughout history and prehistory. If we didn’t know anything about changing configurations of religious behaviour, then that might be a reasonable move. However, there’s plenty of evidence that the idea of a discrete religion that comprises a combination of {(i) an exclusive, systematic religious doctrine + (ii) exclusive use of certain religious practices + (iii) a specific and exclusive religious affiliation} is a relatively recent invention that is even now by no means the norm, and which requires a great deal of policing to make sure that people defined by any one of these characteristics are also defined by the other two.

Unless you have evidence that contradicts the consensus in the literature, then explaining the evolutionary origins and persistence of religiosity throughout human existence in terms of the reproductive advantage it bestows on religious communities may be like seeking the explanation for the origins and persistence of language over 100s of thousands of years in terms of its essential role in hip hop. Doing this would not only misrepresent the nature of language over the long term, it would also make hip-hop seem like a universal and transhistorical phenomenon.

By eliding the difference between religious affiliation and religious belief, and drawing the conclusion that the combination is an evolutionary adaptation, you give the impression that religion in this sense is universal and transhistorical.

I don’t, by the way, have any axe to grind (some social scientists do) whatsoever on the question of human universals — I think it’s obvious that there is such a thing as human nature and that we ought to try to understand it, but it’s important that in doing that we do take into account everything we know about human variation.

More to come!…UPDATE: here

UPDATE 5 Dec 2012: Don’t know anything about the quality/provenance of this research, but if it’s right it’s grist to my mill: ‘Nones’ ≠ Nonreligious


This was the first major work to question the link between belief and communal affiliation:

  • Smith, William Robertson. 1889. Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black.

These articles by Talal Asad criticise the tendency of other scholars of religion to assume that personal, internal psychological experience, such as belief, is central to religion, thus universalizing certain aspects of contemporary Christian experience:

  • Asad, Talal. 1983. “Anthropological Conceptions of Religion: Reflections on Geertz.” Man: The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute NS 18: 237–259.
  • Asad, T. 2001. “Reading a modern classic: W. C. Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion.” History of Religions 40 (3): 205–222.

This book describes the process through which leaders of the newly named ‘World Religions’ remade their traditions in the image of post-Reformation Christianity in the 19C:

  • Masuzawa, Tomoko. 2005. The Invention of World Religions : or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago, Ill.: London : University of Chicago Press.

This article describes a similar process in the Russian Reupblic of Altai, where Protestant missionaries failed to garner many converts to Christianity, but succeeded in spreading the idea of exclusive religiosity, in a situation in which people had previously been religiously promiscuous:

  • Broz, Ludek. 2009. “Conversion to Religion?” In Conversion After Socialism: Disruptions, Modernisms and Technologies of Faith in the Former Soviet Union, ed. Mathijs Pelkmans. Berghahn Books.

This article has a good review of the ethnographic literature on belief, much of which is concerned with explaining the common discrepancy between religious affiliation, religious practice and religious belief:

  • Lindquist, Galina, and Simon Coleman. 2008. “Introduction: Against Belief?” Social Analysis 52 (1).

On the dangers of drawing universal conclusions about human nature that inadvertently incorporate specific characteristics of those populations for which data is easy to come by:

Evolution and Religion

The explanatory power of evolutionary theory is clear. However, these days, people seem to rush to evolutionary explanations for all sorts of real and perceived human behaviours. The danger of doing this is that in going straight to the question of the origins of what we’re trying to understand, we fail to put in the effort to adequately study the nature of the phenomenon, or even to establish satisfactorily that the phenomenon is real. As a result, it’s all too easy for commonsensical assumptions and misapprehensions to get incorporated into the story. And when it comes to human behaviour, things are often more complicated and more variable than common sense would lead us to expect.

It’s probably about affiliation and endogamy, Michael!

This is a particularly common problem, in my view, in evolutionary studies of religion, and I’ve just read a blog post that’s a case in point. In It’s about Fertility, stupid! The Evolutionary Adaptivity of Religion’, Michael Blume claims that:

Religiosity (defined as behavior towards superempircal agents) is today clearly adaptive: Members of competitive religious communities are building stronger families with more offspring worldwide as their secular neighbours of the same education and income levels. This is observable in empirical studies, censusses worldwide, as well as in case studies (i.e. Amish, Hutterites, Mormons, Orthodox Jews). In contrast, non-religious populations and those religious communities who do not build and support families inevitably succumb to cultural evolution (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers) and are replaced by demographically successful religious competitors.

Blume’s interpretation of the empirical data depends on the premise that affiliation to these groups as revealed in, say, censuses, is a reliable indicator of religiosity, on his definition. But there is a good deal of social scientific evidence that shows that this cannot be taken for granted.

To give just one example, a great study of belief in contemporary northern England published last year by Abby Day (Believing in Belonging) shows that ideas about belonging and ideas about the supernatural can be surprisingly independent of each other.

For years now, church attendance in Britain has been in decline, and sociologists have debated what this means. Some argued it was a sign of ‘secularization’–an inevitable loss of religious belief associated with the modernization and rationalization of society. Others argued that it was a result of individualization, and that Britons continued to believe in God, but now preferred to practise their religion quietly on their own.

Day’s study, which was based on interviews in Yorkshire villages, found a more complex picture. Her interviewees turned out to be quite polarized in their views. Some of them–she calls them ‘theocentrics’–place God at the centre of their lives, as a source of moral value, a cause of everyday events, and an object of their attention and affections. Others–Day calls these ‘anthropocentrics’–see no place for God, and instead locate value and meaning in their relationships with other humans. Anthropocentrics take a dim view of theocentrism and vice versa.

An everyday story of small town intolerance, then, and perhaps no surprise. So why did Day not just call her two groups ‘religious’, and ‘secularists’ instead of inventing two new terms? Well, it turned out that of the respondents who identified themselves as Christian, about half were anthropocentric, and many of those were assertively atheist. Many of those self-identified Christians said they were hostile to the idea of institutional religion.

Meanwhile, many of those who identified with no religion told Day that they prayed, believed in fate or some kind of providence, had seen ghosts or had communicated with deceased relatives.

In his article, Blume mentions that his work was partly based on census data. It’s worth noting that most of Day’s Christians, including the ‘anthropocentric’ atheists, said that they had answered ‘Christian’ in response to the religious affiliation question in the 2001 UK census (the first modern UK census to include a religion question).

Day’s work shows that being associated with, or feeling a sense of identity and belonging in respect of, a ‘religious community’ is quite a different thing to ‘religiosity (defined as behavior towards superempircal agents)’. Religiosity is neither exclusive to, nor universal among, members of ‘competitive religious communities’.

In fact, unless the empirical data are sufficient to distinguish between belonging and believing, there is no reason to suppose that religiosity, on Blume’s definition, has anything to do with the increased reproductive success Blume finds for religious communities through history.

Indeed, there is a simpler explanation at hand. Many of the historical and contemporary religious groups that we identify as such combine a self-conscious sense of identity with a greater or lesser degree of endogamy (marriage within the group) and they tend to value having and bringing up children and the relationships between kin. It would not be surprising if this combination of features were to lead to reproductive success.

Blume himself inadvertently suggests this explanation when he excludes from his analysis ‘those religious communities who do not build and support families … (i.e. late Greek and Roman Polytheism, Gnostic groups, the Shakers)’.


Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UPDATE: More on this in Evolution and Religion Part II, and Evolution and Religion Part III.