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origins of religion,
cognition and culture

Religion, Cognition and Culture

Series Editors: Jeppe Sinding Jensen and
Armin W. Geertz, Aarhus University

This series is based on a broadly conceived cognitive science of religion. It
explores the role of religion and culture in cognitive formation and brings
together methods, theories and approaches from the humanities, social sci-
ences, cognitive sciences, psychology and the neurosciences. The series is asso-
ciated with the Religion, Cognition and Culture (RCC) research unit at the
Department of Culture and Society, Aarhus University (


The Burning Saints: Cognition and Culture
in the Fire-walking Rituals of the Anastenaria
Dimitris Xygalatas

Mental Culture: Towards a Cognitive Science of Religion
Edited by Dimitris Xygalatas and William W. McCorkle Jr

Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography
Edited by Luther H. Martin and Jesper Sørensen

Origins of Religion, Cognition and Culture
Edited by Armin W. Geertz

Religion as Magical Ideology: How the Supernatural
Reflects Rationality
Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

Religious Narrative, Cognition and Culture:
Image and Word in the Mind of Narrative
Edited by Armin W. Geertz and Jeppe Sinding Jensen

Origins of Religion,
Cognition and Culture
Edited by
Armin W. Geertz

First published in 2013 by Acumen
Published 2014 by Routledge
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Contributors ix

Introduction 1
Armin W. Geertz

1. Whence religion? How the brain constructs the world and
what this might tell us about the origins of religion,
cognition and culture 17
Armin W. Geertz
2. Why “costly signalling” models of religion require
cognitive psychology 71
Joseph Bulbulia
3. The prestige of the gods: evolutionary continuities in the
formation of sacred objects 82
William E. Paden
4. The evolutionary dynamics of religious systems: laying the
foundations of a network model 98
István Czachesz
5. Art as a human universal: an adaptationist view 121
Ellen Dissanayake
6. The significance of the natural experience of a “non-natural”
world to the question of the origin of religion 140
Donald Wiebe



7. Religion and the emergence of human imagination 160
Andreas Lieberoth
8. The origins of religion, cognition and culture: the
bowerbird syndrome 178
Luther H. Martin
9. The will to sacrifice: sharing and sociality in humans, apes
and monkeys 203
Henrik Høgh-Olesen
10. Apetales: exploring the deep roots of religious cognition 219
Tom Sjöblom

11. Cognition and meaning 241
Jeppe Sinding Jensen
12. Wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief 258
Mark Addis
13. “Peekaboo!” and object permanence: on the play of
concealment and appearance in cognition and religion 269
Thomas Hoffmann
14. Yogācāra Buddhist views on the causal relation between
language, cognition and the evolution of worlds 285
William S. Waldron
15. A resource model of religious cognition: motivation as a
primary determinant for the complexity of supernatural
agency representations 301
Uffe Schjoedt
16. The recognition of religion: archaeological diagnosis and
implicit theorizing 310
Peter Jackson
17. Religion and the extra-somatics of conceptual thought 319
Mads D. Jessen
18. Tools for thought: the ritual use of ordinary tools 341
Pierre Liénard and Jesper Sørensen
19. Care of the soul: empathy in a dualistic worldview 365
Gretchen Koch



20. From corpse to concept: a cognitive theory on the
ritualized treatment of dead bodies 374
William W. McCorkle Jr
21. Anthropomorphism in god concepts: the role of narrative 396
Peter Westh

Index 415


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Scatology. Morality and Magic: Cognitive Science Approaches in Biblical Studies (2013). István Czachesz is Heisenberg Fellow and Privatdozent of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg. philosophy and evolu- tionary religious studies. theory and practice of the various arts. He is author of Commission Narratives: A Comparative Study of the Canonical and Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles (2007) and The Grotesque Body in Early Christian Discourse: Hell. cognitive and developmental psychology. Theories. and Metamorphosis (2012). cultural and physical anthropology. Among his many publications are “First Shots Fired for the Phylogenetic Revolution in Religious Studies” (co-authored. Joseph Bulbulia is a Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. and the books he has co-edited include Mind. including evolutionary biology. 2013) and “Why Do Religious Cultures Evolve Slowly?” (2013). neuro- science. and the history. Wittgen- stein: Making Sense of Other Minds (1999) and he co-edited Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion (2001). ethology. and he is co-editor of The Evolution of Religion: Studies. His work on the evolution of religion focuses on costly signalling models and large-scale coordination problems. New Zealand and publishes widely in psychology. Ellen Dissanayake is an Affiliate Professor in the School of Music at the University of Washington and an independent scholar. His publications on Wittgenstein include Wittgenstein: A Guide for the Perplexed (2006). Visiting Professor at the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus Uni- versity and a Research Associate at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics. She is the ix . author and lecturer in many disciplines. Contributors Mark Addis is Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham City University. & Critiques (2008).

2009) and Human Morality and Sociality: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (2010). Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC). Denmark. Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC). and senior co-editor of Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion. contributors author of What Is Art For? (1988). Sweden. as well as over seventy scholarly and popular articles and book chapters. and Chair of the Religion. Henrik Høgh-Olesen is Professor in Social and Personality Psychology and Head of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences. theory and the philosophy of science in x . particu- larly ancient Indian and Iranian religions. His research interests include evolutionary and comparative perspectives on human mind and kind. Denmark. and method. Denmark. His recent edited books are Human Characteristics: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Mind and Kind (co-edited. Among his many publica- tions are The Extended Voice: Instances of Myth in the Indo-European Corpus (1999) and Verbis pingendis: Contributions to the Study of Ritual Speech and Mythopoeia (2002). Peter Jackson is Professor of the History of Religions at Stockholm University. Cognition and Culture (co- edited. Denmark. Aarhus University. myth and cosmology. His recent publications include Religious Narrative. Aarhus Uni- versity. and Old Norse religion and works on more general theoretical and conceptual concerns in the study of religion. Geertz is Professor in the History of Religions at the Department of Culture and Society. His research interests include semantics and cognition in religious narrativity. Armin W. and Coordinator of the Religion. He is co-editor of Acumen’s Religion. 2011). Section for the Study of Religion. Thomas Hoffmann is Professor with special responsibilities at the Section for Biblical Exegesis at the Faculty of Theology. Aarhus University. Homo Aestheticus (1992) and Art and Intimacy (2000). He specializes in the study of the Qur’an and has published articles on cognitive poetics-approaches to the Qur’an and is currently working on a monograph on the ‘cognitive Qur’an.’ His books include The Poetic Qur’ân: Studies on Qur’ânic Poeticity (2008). the religions of ancient Greece and Rome. Copenhagen University. He specializes in the study of Indo-European religions. Section for the Study of Religion. His publications in the cognitive science of religion range from religious narrative and evolutionary theory to the neurobiology of religion. Jeppe Sinding Jensen is Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Society. Cognition and Culture series. human characteristics and the human condition.

Jessen is a Project Researcher at the National Museum of Den- mark. University of Vermont. His publications include “Material Culture. Martin is Professor Emeritus of Religion. xi . Luther H. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Eastern Africa. Cognition and Culture series. 2012). Andreas Lieberoth is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Science and the Centre for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience (CFIN). He is the author of Hellenistic Religions (1987) and of numerous articles in this field of his historical specialization and has co-edited several volumes in cognitive theory and historiographical method. imagination and the application of game design to serious contexts. He is the author of The Study of Religion in a New Key: Theoretical and Philosophical Soundings in the Comparative and General Study of Religion (2003). 2006). His publications include “Similarity of Social Information Processes in Games and Rituals: Magical Interface” (co-authored. 2011). Jutland and studying pre. She has published journal articles and participates in interfaith dialogue on websites such as Religion Dispatches and the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue’s State of Formation. including Past Minds: Studies in Cognitive Historiography (co-edited. He is currently excavating the Late Viking Age royal monument at Jelling. contributors the study of religion. Aarhus University. “Life Stages and Risk- Avoidance: Status. and promotes cognitive approaches to religion and morality to secular audiences on her blog Cheap Signals. His publications include “Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior” (co-authored. Denmark. and he is editor-in-chief of Acumen’s Religion. senior co-editor of Journal of the Cognitive Science of Religion and a founding editor of the Journal of Cognitive Historiography. Las Vegas where he teaches social and cultural anthropology as well as culture and cognition. Pierre Liénard is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada.and Context-Sensitivity in Precaution Systems” (2011) and “Beyond Kin: Cooperation in a Tribal Society” (2014). Gretchen Koch received her PhD in the cognitive science of religion from Aarhus University.and proto-Christian rituals in south Scan- dinavia. He is the co-editor of the new journal Danish Journal of Archaeology. Embodiment and the Construction of Religious Knowledge” (2012). He studies phenomena connected with playful- ness. Mads D. He is a member of the Honorary Board of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion. in 2009.

His publi- cations include Ritualizing the Disposal of the Deceased: From Corpse to Concept (2010). University of Helsinki. He is the author of Religious Worlds: The Comparative Study of Religion (1988. He has published numerous articles on the cogni- tive science of religion. and the Study of Religion. His publica- tions include “Cognitive Resource Depletion in Religious Interactions” (co- authored. “Cognitive Resource Depletion in Religious Interactions” (co-authored. He is the managing editor for the Journal of Cognitive Historiography. in particular on magic. Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC). ritual and conceptual trans- mission. where he taught for forty-five years and served as department chair for two decades. William S. Waldron is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at Middlebury College. the deep roots of religious cognition. His interest areas in cognitive science include narrative cognition. Paden is Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Ver- mont in Burlington. He is the author of the book Early Irish Taboos: A Study in Cognitive History (2000). Czech Republic. contributors William W. as well as more general papers pertaining to theoretical issues in the scientific study of religion. in the Religion. and cognitive ethology. His publications include “Magic Reconsidered: Towards a Scientifically Valid Concept of Magic” (2012). Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC). He has written numerous publications xii . William E. and he co-edited Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion (2013). each appearing in numerous foreign translations and editions. Hinduism. Denmark. where he teaches courses on South Asian Buddhism. 2013) and A Cognitive Theory of Magic (2007). His research fields include cognitive science of religion. emotional communication. 2003). Uffe Schjoedt is a Postdoc Researcher at the Department of Culture and Society. Vermont. 2013). 1994) and Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion (1992. McCorkle Jr served from 2011 to 2013 as Director of Experi- mental Research at LEVYNA (Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion) and Associate Professor and Research Specialist in the Department for the Study of Religions at Masaryk University. Aarhus University. Finland. Tom Sjöblom is Docent in the History of Religions at the Department of the Study of Religions. psychology of religion and experimental cognitive neuroscience. Jesper Sørensen is MINDLab Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Society in the Religion. Aarhus University.

Recent publications include “Illuminator of the Wide Earth. University of Toronto. He is the author of Religion and Truth (1981). and teaches religion. Peter Westh is part-time Lecturer in the History of Religions at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies. xiii . the philosophy of science. His primary areas of research interest are the history of the academic study of religion. and method and theory in the study of religion. Beyond Legitimation (1994). Donald Wiebe is Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College. The Politics of Religious Studies (1999). contributors on the interface between Buddhist philosophy and modern theories of mind from evolutionary biology. University of Copenhagen. cognitive science and psychology. Unbribable Judge. culture and social science at the Efterslægten upper-secondary school in Copenhagen. essays and reviews. Denmark. The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought (1991). including “Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind” (2002) and The Buddhist Unconscious (2003). and over two hundred aca- demic articles. Strong Weapon of the Gods: Intuitive Ontology and Divine Epithets in Assyro-Babylonian Religious Texts” (2011) and “The Fire and the Sun: God Concepts in an Assyrian Incantation in a Cognitive Light” (2011).

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crossing symbolic thresholds. ritual competence. the roles of material culture. cognition and culture are beyond the ken of modern man. man the hunter. the aquatic ape. All of these attempts to understand the origins of humanity have raised fundamental questions about the complex relationships between cognition and culture. Perhaps our origins are no longer as murky today as in previous centuries. ethology. religious ritual and religious experience. written language and abstract thought in the development of reli- gious systems are all central to the humanities and social sciences. cognitive archaeology. These advances have signifi- cantly impacted on comparative religion and have led to the establishment of a burgeoning new field called the cognitive science of religion. palaeoanthropology and genetics. mirror neurons or temporal lobe religiosity? Together with the development of symbolic thinking. And yet. developmental psychology. Introduction Armin W. Geertz It has often been said that the origins of religion. Are they two sides of the same coin? Or is culture epiphenomenal to other more basic processes? And how does religion fit into the picture? Central to the debates on origins is the role of religion. What came first: individual religious (ecstatic) expe- riences. woman the gatherer. cogni- tive linguistics. and so on. challeng- ing and provocative of topics in the natural and human sciences. social intelligence. magical coercion. it is the most interesting. This new field has succeeded in casting new light on age-old problems. collective observances of transition situations. fear of death. Cognitive 1 . neuroscience. The past twenty-five years have startled the world with major advances in a number of disciplines and sciences: evolutionary psychology. man the tool-maker. mankind’s epistemic hunger. social psychology. the hybrid mind. We have witnessed such memorable ideas as the grandmother hypothesis. the speak- ing ape. the great hominid escape. Efforts to discover and explain the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens sapiens have led to a wide variety of hypotheses attempting to discover what is particularly human about human beings.

Schloss & Murray 2009). Most are written by scholars not familiar with the comparative science of religion or its various disciplines (history of reli- gions. Together with insights from the humanities and social sciences on the origins. Some of their insights are commendable. virtually all of the theories in the cognitive science of religion adhere to what Pascal Boyer has called the naturalness of religion hypothesis (Boyer 1994). This hypothesis does not mean that religion is inborn or hardwired. survive and are passed down through the millennia because they fit smoothly and naturally to intuitive. etc.). This hypothesis assumes certain theoretical commitments that have been nicely systematized by Justin Barrett (2007: 59). They simply survive because they fit with evolutionarily selected features.e. Evolutionary theories in the cognitive science of religion I have elsewhere addressed the major ideas in the cognitive science of religion (Geertz 2004. development and maintenance of complex semiotic. The two most talked about volumes are by two famous atheists. Several anthologies are more insightful (Bulbulia et al. This is called the by-product hypothesis. There are a growing number of anthologies and books on the origins of human culture and religion. but have no particular purpose. Reflections on the preconditions for symbolic and linguistic competence and practice are now within our grasp. Geertz 2009). the brain is a highly complex organ consisting of highly 2 . with a few exceptions. all humans have the same cognitive and psychological make-up no matter what culture they come from. a general picture of what is particularly human about humans could emerge.1 As it turns out. The results are often evidence of this. armin w. psychology of religion. rather that religious behaviour and ideas in all their startling cacophony thrive. information replicators that act like genes. They are not directly selected for. Feierman 2009. Their knowledge of religion and the academic study of religion. Others use the more onerous metaphor of religion as a virus spreading through brain populations – also called the “epi- demiology of representations” by Dan Sperber (1996) – or a parasite thriv- ing on brain functions not originally designed for religious thoughts (which Richard Dawkins called “memes”. This anthology is unique in that. i. First. Religion and culture are sometimes described as cognitive spandrels: they fit nicely in-between arches. Richard Dawkins (2006) and Daniel Dennett (2006). geertz scientists are now providing us with important insights on phylogenetic and ontogenetic processes. sociology of religion. hardwired psychological mechanisms and processes. however. 2008. is not (cf. social and cultural systems. 2008b. the authors are mainly professional scholars of religion. 2010b). Second. Dawkins 1976).

they con- strain and inform human thought and action. They are not. Inspired by Noam Chomsky. which Stewart Guthrie drew attention to as early as 1980. The pioneering team of E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. Fourth. plants. these subsystems shape and filter in-coming perceptions of internal and external worlds. this action representa- tion system is transformed. believers have an inborn capacity to represent ordinary human action. McCauley introduced a highly sophisticated account of how believers mentally represent ritual action (Lawson & McCauley 1990). fifth. how do they judge the rightness of a ritual? Like everyone else. Lawson and McCauley are interested in identifying whether or not believers have a kind of intuitive rit- ual grammar. introduction specialized functional subsystems. They draw on ordinary. they are also and more fundamentally based on normal ideas and thus easy to remember and pass on. which Barrett called “hypersensitive agency detection device” (HADD). What is it. By adding a religious filter through years of socialization. Justin Barrett has expanded on this theme by exploring experimentally why we “believe” those counterintuitive ideas described by Boyer. Pascal Boyer was the first to identify a series of cognitive systems that are essential to religious thought and behaviour. Religious ideas fit well with our cognitive machinery. the important point that not only do religious ideas contain one or two details that are cognitively salient. Evolutionary theories are not just concerned with ideas. and participants gain what Lawson and McCauley 3 . talking about believers doing their rituals. humans and natural and constructed objects.2 Guthrie claimed that this cognitive ability explains our tendency to see animate and human-like qualities in everything around us. he asks. One other set of ideas deserves mention. Third. however. He has described them in crea- tive and entertaining publications dating from the 1990s and most recently in his book Religion Explained (Boyer 2001). animals. Together with the characteristically human ability called theory of mind (i. Boyer adds. that is so remarkable about religious ideas that people remember them and are moti- vated to pass them on to younger generations? This is where his minimally counterintuitive ideas hypothesis comes in.e. HADD naturally leads to god- beliefs (Barrett 2004). And. furthermore. How do they know that a ritual has been correctly carried out? In other words. including religious thought and action. Thus animism and anthro- pomorphism are the origins of religion. the realization that other people have minds and feelings just like us – an ability that every normal child above the age of four achieves). recurrent features of religious thought and action can be explained and predicted with reference to the basic dynamics of the mind. cognitive dispositions and add one or two details that are counterintuitive to basic intuitive ideas about the physical world. He claimed that the mental tool discovered by Guthrie is characterized by being hyperactive or hypersensitive. namely basic human agency detection.

however. Out of the conglomerate of human intuitions on causal attribution. In an interesting debate with Harvey Whitehouse (2004). moral judgement.e. second. theory of mind. The other main ritual theory that has been circulating in the cognitive sci- ence of religion is Harvey Whitehouse’s religious modes hypothesis (1995). i. “a spandrel that turned out to be useful and so was subsequently selected for by evolutionary pressures” (Bering 2006a: 125). Rituals seldom performed but highly arousing (violent initiation rituals for example) stimulate episodic memory in much the same way that flashbulb memory is stimulated during traumatic events. Both types of rituals and the way they stimulate our memory systems have causal influence on the way that people interpret their religious experiences and the kinds of social organiza- tions that are built up around them. Bering. an experimental psy- chologist. the episodic and semantic memory systems. armin w. Bering posited what he calls an organized cognitive system “dedicated to forming illusory representations of (1) psychological immortality. And. Bering is half-way between the by-product approach and the adaptationist approach. has conducted interesting experiments with children and adults and has developed a novel theory of existential psychology (Bering 2006b). concept acquisition and teleological reason- ing. That’s why it can be charac- terized as a mentalistic approach. geertz call ritual competence. (2) the 4 . the dynamics between culture and cognition are much more fundamental and causally interrelated than the standard cognitive science of religion would admit. take foundational issue on two points. and so it can also be characterized as an individualistic approach. anything that is as costly and dangerous as religious behaviour must have had adaptive features that were selected for during our evolution. These rituals are called doctrinal. Jesse M. Other approaches. Rituals that are performed often but are much less arousing (like Christian Sunday services) stimulate semantic memory. Lawson and McCauley explored other dimensions of ritual behaviour in which sensory pageantry plays an important role together with frequency and ritual form (McCauley & Lawson 2002). Furthermore. The adaptationist approach It should be obvious by now that the main assumption among theorists in the standard cognitive science of religion is that causal explanations of human behaviour and ideas are to be found in the mind. These rituals are called imagistic. He argued that religious belief is an exaptation. First. Whitehouse claimed that the frequency and types of ritual behaviour that humans engage in stimulate evolutionarily selected memory systems. the main emphasis is on indi- vidual minds.

104). even for non- human animals (Deacon 1997). As for the first issue. Borrowing from evo- lutionary game theory and the biology of animal signalling. and until we understand the complex. But you also need to ensure that your partners are not cheating on you. On the second issue. adaptationists relate their work to major advances in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. Developmental psychologist Merlin Donald argued that humans have evolved to live in cultural networks. like religion. often practised by standard cognitive scientists of religion. where hard-to-fake god-fearing commitments ensure that peo- ple can identify who is trustworthy and who is not. Deacon argued. and we are not only able to hold internal and external models of the self-in-the-world. The heuristic exercise of iso- lating human cognition from culture. Joseph Bulbulia and Richard Sosis have developed a costly signalling hypothesis of religion. bottom-up processes of cogni- tion and the ways in which these processes interrelate with religious worlds. One of the solutions to the problem is to develop a public and costly institution. has released us from our animal solipsism. but also to draw on social connectivity and conventionality in order to do so (Donald 2001: 263).: 95.: 453). “a ‘symbolic species’ in a deeply physiological sense”.3 5 . Deacon made a strong case for epigenetics as a significant factor in evolution. Humans are incapable of using their large brains without a supportive cultural trellis. Joseph Bulbulia in fact defines a religious deed as “a costly signal capable of authenticating religious commitment” (Bulbulia 2004b: 669). “We are”. Our evolutionary history. cultural and semiotic selection processes. biologist and semiotician Terrence W. Donald claimed. Richard Sosis has tested this hypothesis in a number of empirical studies (Sosis 2000. emergent dynamics between genetic. introduction intelligent design of the self and (3) the symbolic meaning of natural events” (ibid. In order for human societies to work. Sosis & Bressler 2003). This system evolved in response to the selective pressures of human social environments. Animals carve out niches in the environment which then put selective pressures on biological evolution. the australopithecines and other apes” (Deacon 2003: 93). “we will remain in a prescientific phase of cognitive and social science” (ibid. Much of the work being done by us and our colleagues is concerned with demonstrating the top-down. the transmission of symbolic communication and the elaboration of stone tools “created a radically different niche than that experienced by our non-symbolic ancestors. Jeppe Sinding Jensen and I have argued that religious models of the world are essential elements of cognitive mod- els of the self. is meaningless from this point of view. since humans have never been without culture. Deacon argued that we are a self-domesticated species that through social evolution. Following this line of thought. and their brains and cognition have been radically redesigned by culture. you need to depend on reciprocal altruism.

neuroscience. systems archaeology Justin Barrett (2004) psychology origins of religious ideas HADD and theory of mind psychology Pascal Boyer (1994) anthropology transmission and survival of intuitive systems psychology. biology. Table 1 Theories and approaches to the origins of religion. Name Discipline Topic Hypothesis (mechanism) Empirical evidence Scott Atran (2002) anthropology evolution of religion cognitive and emotional psychology. 2001) psychology biocultural evolution hybrid consciousness psychology. biology evolution of religion memes biology. cognition and culture. neuroscience Merlin Donald (1991. ethnography religious representations Boyer & Pierre Liénard anthropology selection of ritual behaviour similar to obsessive– psychiatry. competence neuroscience . evolutionary 2006) psychology Terrence Deacon (1997) biosemiotics evolution of culture symbolic competence primatology. archaeology Armin W. Geertz (2008a) study of religion evolution of religion ape brains with symbolic archaeology. ethnography (2006) compulsive disorder and hazard-precaution system Joseph Bulbulia (2004a) study of religion evolution of religion costly signalling psychology. ethnography. ethnography. primatology Richard Dawkins (1976. primatology.

McCauley (Lawson & form psychology McCauley 1990. evolutionary psychology Harvey Whitehouse (1995) anthropology transmission of religious ideas religious modes and psychology. ethnography. constraints evolutionary psychology Richard Sosis (Sosis & anthropology evolution of religion costly signalling psychology. T. psychology anthropomorphism E. study of religion ritual representations ritual competence and ritual comparative religion. Lawson & R.Name Discipline Topic Hypothesis (mechanism) Empirical evidence Stewart Guthrie (1993) anthropology evolution of religion intuitive animism and anthropology. comparative religion . psychology Jesper Sørensen (2004) study of religion religious representations immunology and conceptual history of religion. N. ethnography Alcorta 2003) Dan Sperber (1996) anthropology cultural representations epidemiology ethnography. ethnography and rituals memory types David Sloan Wilson (2002) biology evolution of religion group selection biology. McCauley & Lawson 2002) David Lewis-Williams rock art research evolution of religion altered states of cave paintings (2002) consciousness and shamanism Steven Mithen (1996) archaeology material symbols modularity and fluidity archaeology.

these chapters explore the origins of religion. We are intelligent apes that are highly emotional. in the process. Table 1 gives an indication of the variety and theories. Each in its own way. at which religions excel (Jensen 2010). I have mentioned the few that have had an impact on current cognitive science of religion and who will often be referred to in the chapters of this book. very superstitious. armin w. in the process. Evolutionary scenarios Part I is a good indicator of the exciting creativity evident in new theories on the origins of religion. cogni- tion and culture. extremely sensitive to social norms and virtual realities. put culture center-stage in the cognitive science of religion. My own Chapter 1 attempts to sketch out a theory based on a biocultural. it is my wish and hope that the cognitive science of religion will be transformed into a science of cognition and culture. furthermore. I argue that the kinds of minds that were 8 . Part II consists of chapters that critically discuss some of the early theories and hypotheses developed by the pioneers of the cognitive science of religion. cognition and culture. based on current neurobiology. Part I consists of evolutionary scenarios addressing the origins of religious behaviour and thought. every chapter presents challenges to late-twentieth-century evolutionary psychology and cognitive science of religion. geertz Jensen has encapsulated this dynamic with the term “normative cognition”. I argue that we need to rethink religious thought and behaviour in terms of the kinds of brains we have. It is not my intention to describe them. adaptationist approach. cognition and culture and. Our brains are constantly predicting and dwelling on the future and our brains fill in quite a bit of what is missing. Chapters 1–4 explore pos- sible evolutionary frameworks. heavily supple- mented (and even dictated) by the cultures we are socialized into. easily spooked. The chapters are organized in two parts. Issues and themes Presented by an exciting group of internationally known scholars as well as innovative younger scholars. approaches and assumptions of cognitive theorists concerning the origins of religion. And. In looking through the archaeological records. and. The rest of this introduction will indicate how radically different contemporary approaches are in comparison with the standard cognitive science of religion. we are equipped with nervous systems that are vulnerable to influence from conspecifics and their symbolic worlds.

Various systems. art is a behavioural process that Dissanayake calls “artification”. In Chapter 4. to make something into art or into some- thing special. in other words. His emphasis on ritual objects. cognition and culture. have evolved not by design but by “tinkering” (i. He concludes that “a cognitive science of religious emotions can explain the cost problem that mind-blind behavioural signalling theories require”. religious experience can be viewed as a kind of “adaptive confabulation”. he claims. Paden urges us to change focus from religious conceptions to religious behaviours (i. Cross-cultural factors will drive the evolution of beliefs and artefacts towards attractor positions that change with time in changing environmental contexts. reusing existing bits and pieces and adding new ones). religious behaviour and the use of religious objects are integral to social display. Czachesz argues that a religious system involves the bidirectional interaction between beliefs and artefacts. and thus. in terms of human social compe- tence.e. biological or ecological. furthermore. Religious behaviour. From an ethological perspective. István Czachesz provides a framework for a network model of the evolution of religious systems. Based on a scope- syntactic model. from “conceptual cognition to social cognition”). Dissanayake argues that our ancestors discovered the advantages of ritualized behaviours in uncertain and 9 . and a dynamic network model would include the temporal dimension of this interaction. had adaptive advantages in human evolution. introduction proto-religious most likely appeared long before Homo sapiens arose. brings culture back into centerfield. This process is dependent upon our aesthetic predisposition. In drawing on commitment-signalling theory – with the addition of cognitive psychology – Bulbulia seeks to explain why religious beliefs are emotionally expressed and why the very assumption of supernatu- ral agents increases cooperation. art historian Ellen Dissanayake argues that art is “an inherent psychobiological capacity of the human species” and. In this perspective. Joseph Bulbulia argues that religiosity is an evolutionary problem because such behaviour is often very costly in terms of reproduc- tion and resources. In Chapter 2. William Paden (Chapter 3) approaches religious complexes as “systemic forms of enculturated prestige”. whether cultural. evinced in early mother-child engagement and assisted by emotional invest- ment in events and states that we care about. as such. Based on a formal understanding of systems drawn from graph theory. The evi- dence seems to indicate that proto-religious behaviour was evinced by Homo heidelbergensis. In Chapter 5. enhanced group survival.e. with subsequent reinforcement through selection because religious people express their commitments in hard-to-fake ways. Chapters 5–7 examine the roles of aesthetics and imagination in the evo- lution of religion.

with the appearance of cave paintings some 30. thus. “Off-line” thinking. Furthermore. As for religion. it is no coincidence that sacrifice is universally central to religious practices.000 to 40. memory and external rep- resentation. Religious ideas.000 years ago. is that we seem to dislike inequitable exchanges that benefit ourselves only. creativity. Martin argues that it might best be understood in terms of sexual selection. He asks whether our sociality in terms of the pleasure of reciprocal cooperation and the anger at cheaters and free-riders is similar. Chapters 8–10 compare human evolution with that of other vertebrates. Luther H. often based on visionary and trance experiences. Psychologist Henrik Høgh-Olesen (Chapter 9) also delves into characteristics that we share with other animals. Lieberoth believes. Martin sidesteps the evolution of culture and cogni- tion by investigating avian cognition and culture. assuming that they more or less arose in an environment without religious ideas? Lieberoth claims that the answer may lie in relating religion to imagina- tion. In Chapter 8. especially apes and monkeys. This discov- ery led to ceremonial rituals and to what we today understand as “religion” and “art”. 10 . A key process is imagi- nation in that it allows us to conceptualize and analyse any acquired concept whether supernatural or not. culture is fundamentally a socially negotiated phenomenon. armin w. however. In focusing on sym- bolic behaviour and the various theories and hypotheses about when it arose. One difference. This occurred. Taking his point of departure in Lewis-Williams’s account of the origin of religion in the Palaeolithic. Martin argues that human culture is “a social exploitation of those phylogenetic dispositions”. Andreas Lieberoth (Chapter 7) asserts that even though the cognitive science of culture is based on the human brain. Thus. pretend play and madness. must have sur- faced at some point in our evolutionary history. that we would do well to look much deeper than usual into our evolutionary vertebrate past to probe the origins of cognition and culture. seem to be the cognitive basis for religious thought. we evince the willingness to sacrifice and actively share for the greater good. Looking at domestic chicks. he argues. and. Wiebe argues that the paintings are not just artistic depictions of the natural world. ideas and norms of their human world. Donald Wiebe (Chapter 6) is not convinced that current theories on our cognitive capacities for religious conceptions have provided any convincing explanation of the move from natural to supernatural thinking. however. passerines and bowerbirds. rather they reflect the meanings. The latter must have been an important source of religious reasoning that was encour- aged and developed in social contexts. decoupling. Tom Sjöblom (Chapter 10) argues that the origins of religion are insepa- rable from the origins of the human capacity for culture. How did such ideas arise. geertz stressful circumstances and in the resultant social reinforcement.

epis- temology and the results of the research. In Chapter 12. As long as cognitivists deny explanatory validity to culture. cogni- tion and culture. and he uses it to explicate the pervasiveness of snake beliefs. given a particular biological form of life. is based on misunderstandings of profound importance to the future of the academic study of religion. He argues that we must necessarily understand human evolution in terms of a long. “then methodology has become dogma. Following Jared Diamond. Chapters 11–14 address philosophical issues. cumulative process. he claims that the origins of religion are to be found in the origins of emotional communication and thus in our ape ancestry. they will have little impact on the human sciences. Mark Addis supports the naturalness hypothesis of the cog- nitive science of religion as opposed to widespread assumptions in the study of religion that the study of religion requires a special methodology because religion is claimed to be special. Cognitive theories Part II takes a critical look at earlier theories of the origins of religion. he argues. among other things. between Wittgenstein’s idea about certain things being natural. By taking up Piaget’s concept of “object permanence” (together with Lakoff & Johnson’s “containment schema”). And so. he argues that many cognitivists have forgotten their precursors. This neglect. and the widespread idea in the cognitive science of religion that there are certain evolutionarily selected cognitive capacities shared by all normal people that underpin religion. Indeed.000 years ago. Addis explores the similarities between Wittgenstein and the cognitive science of religion and notes a clear resonance. Jeppe Sinding Jensen (Chapter 11) addresses an issue neglected in the cognitive science of religion. introduction Sjöblom claims that the origins of symbolic thought must be found long before the so-called cultural explosion or revolution of the European cave art period some 40. the chosen discourse turns to immunization strategies which conveniently avoid the possibility of falsification”. A number of examples from early European and American philosophers and psychologists show how fundamental their ideas have been for current cognitivist thinking. Although Thomas Hoffmann (Chapter 13) believes that cognitive approaches to the study of religion are the most promising in current research. Sjöblom posits the “third chimpanzee approach”. the question of meaning. namely. Jensen confronts the “cultural reductionism” and “cultural eliminativism” that is widespread in standard cognitive science of religion research and argues that if the methods they choose determine ontology. Hoffmann argues that the apparent transition in the first year of life from being unable to being able to maintain 11 .

His homeostatic theory of religious behaviour posits human cognition in terms of embodied motivation and intentionality. Drawing on current neurobiology. but the pattern of ‘organisms-interacting-with-environment’ that together evolves”. Jessen emphasizes “the human technological entanglement with the world”. Chapters 16–18 address tools and material culture in the evolution of human cognition and religion. Waldron analyses a model of the co-evolution of culture and consciousness. Thus. Waldron argues that cognitive structures can never “cause” cognition. indicate capacities that seem to be of a religious nature. He then illustrates how this plays into the theories of E. causes in the first place. “it is neither genes nor beings that evolve in splendid isolation. especially. centred on an explicit notion of unconscious mind in Yogācāra philosophy and shows how their proposal is relevant to discus- sions of the origins of culture. In Chapter 16. In Chapter 14. and that it might have had an important impact on the origin of religious concepts and practices. Schjoedt argues that body and brain states modulate religious behaviour in an equally dramatic way. William S. he argues. Not entirely satisfied with the somewhat narrow cognitive science of religion field of enquiry. Jessen argues that the origins of religion must be found in its environmental 12 . Causality in living processes is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. McCauley. geertz object permanence could support the hypothesis that our species underwent this cognitive development. Jackson argues that the higher category behind such behaviour “can be tentatively defined as the mutual reiteration and counteraction of expediency”. culture or religion because they unavoidably depend upon a variety of other. Taking issue with ideas of causality in current cognitive science of religion. are evidence of shamanism. Archaeologist Mads Jessen addresses the significance of material culture on human cognition in Chapter 17. Turning to religious action. These figurines do. Schjoedt claims that such a simple and biologically rooted theory of homeostasis makes hardcore cognitive typologies a less attractive alternative drawing on compara- bly far more speculative and problematic hypotheses. however. He questions the assumptions that the Löwenmensch figurines found in caves at two Swabian sites necessarily reflect the same traditions and. armin w. Peter Jackson discusses implicit notions about reli- gion in prehistoric archaeology that may prove helpful to the study of religion. especially the neglect of the role and importance of extra-somatic factors in human thought. The difference between this theory and current evolutionary psychological theories is that it assumes only one coherent system (the organ- ism) rather than a series of multiple. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. cognition and origins? Uffe Schjoedt (Chapter 15) introduces a theory quite unlike current evolutionary psychological approaches to human cognition. with concern for general issues in comparative religion. But what do neurobiologists have to say about religion. independent cognitive systems. often implicit.

developmental. relies on the violation of basic intuitions about tools and their functions. is the cognitive capacity of self-awareness.” What may be at play. “person-file” and contagion/disgust systems. Pierre Liénard and Jesper Sørensen (Chapter 18) ask why people resort to ritual behaviour. responsible agents. Such representational abilities can break down in some diseases. given the nature of human tool knowledge”. “it may be that we are not designed to always empathize accurately or automatically. Drawing on Pascal Boyer’s work. McCorkle posits that five mental systems are at play: hyperactive agency detection device (HADD). however. McCorkle focuses on the cognitive processes that may be trig- gered by dead bodies. In Chapter 19. or conspecific fitness. and culturally constructed”. to the extraordinary uses that functional tools are put to in ritual contexts. The final chapter provides a detailed critique of experimental evidence concerning HADD. More specifically. Koch argues. To empathize with another person requires a strong sense of self and of other. Based upon experimental evidence. more specifically. It may be that we are designed to ‘empathize’ (project) inac- curately under certain circumstances. theory of mind (ToM). She demonstrates how our intuitive dualism leads to an understanding of humans as rational. They posit that there may be universal cognitive mechanisms responsible for the ritualistic manipulation of ordi- nary tools and ritual tools. Gretchen Koch claims that even if empathy is adaptive. thus providing reasons for the conscious and even unconscious appli- cation or inhibition of empathy. Peter Westh (Chapter 21) investigates Justin Barrett’s and Pascal Boyer’s critical reformulations of Stewart Guthrie’s theories of 13 . McCorkle concludes that indi- viduals do not react the same way to dead bodies and “this difference seems to be a measurable index based upon certain personality traits that are innate. in order to pursue overriding interests. and “the evocation of counter- intuitive representations of tools is fast and easy. thus evoking an evolutionary model that employs difference in maintaining the survival of the species. introduction grounding and not simply in innate cognitive constraints. he argues that the transmission of certain (counterintuitive) concepts as opposed to other concepts is generated in particular environments of natural as well as cultural materialities. animacy. namely. There are a number of top-down techniques that can be used to avoid empathizing with others. actions and behaviours dealing with death and the dead. William McCorkle (Chapter 20) takes up what is probably the oldest ritual behaviour in our species. Chapters 19 and 20 deal with moral psychology as they relate to religious behaviour. but they can also be deliberately inhibited. Such individual cognitive proc- esses might be involved in biological deviation in much the same way as immune systems develop. Liénard and Sørensen argue that the ritualistic use of tools increases their cultural success.

Guthrie (1980). Westh demonstrates that they and oth- ers have misunderstood Guthrie and that the cognitive mechanism. Under the benevolent guidance of Senior Editor Tristan Palmer and Prepress Manager Kate Williams. Warm thanks are also extended to the students that took care of conference practicali- ties – Anne Pedersen. typesetter Jill Sweet. On the contrary. see also Guthrie (1993). My gratitude is also extended to the Laboratory on Theories of Religion at the former Department of the Study of Religion (now the Department of Culture and Society) which inaugurated the RCC. He concludes that the processes of narrative comprehension would be far more recent in evolutionary terms. Denmark in 2006. Carsten Riis for his continued support. Notes 1. Cognition and Culture research unit (RCC) and the conference at which the papers were given on which the chapters of this book are based. Thanks as well to the Aarhus University Research Foundation for financial assistance and. Acknowledgements Earlier versions of these chapters were presented at a conference held in Aarhus. 14 . They have made my job immeasurably easier and have greatly improved the manuscript. Westh shows that the story compre- hension studies by Barrett and Keil do not support widespread claims that “cognitive pressure” explains the anthropomorphism evident in the compre- hension task. The final stages of copy-editing. but remains to be demonstrated in a controlled setting. Ellen Dissanayake’s chapter was invited as a valuable contribution to the collection. the really hard work was accom- plished by copy-editor Hamish Ironside. he shows how the anthropomorphic bias may well have been prompted by the task itself. 3. Mikkel Pade. may make evolutionary common-sense. geertz anthropomorphism and animism and how these reformulations are crucial to their evolutionary assumptions. On behalf of the authors and myself. In fact. and the former Faculty of Theology at Aarhus University for substantial funding of the Religion. dubbed HADD by Barrett. it is to suggest that the causal role of culture in cognition is in fact a lot stronger than most cognitive theorists of religion seem to think”. I extend our warmest gratitude. Thanks to David Warburton for his careful linguistic improvements on the chapters. he argues that “if the story comprehension experiments of Barrett and Keil have any bearing on this issue. Jesper Østergaard and Ulla April Petrea Winther – and to our secretary. armin w. proofreading and indexing were carried out by a dedicated and highly professional team at Acumen. especially. 2. This section on the main evolutionary theories is a slightly revised reprint of Geertz (2008b: 92–3). 2010a). See Jensen (2002) and Geertz (2008a. proofreader Coralie James and indexer Angus Barclay.

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religion is a cognitive illusion (Boyer 2001: 5). rather they point to phenomena that need explaining. which are useful to think with. such as Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran. religion provides explanations. has raised issues and questions that have led to useful hypotheses. For instance. humans are more or less born with. he claims that they are not that bad (ibid. hypothesis for religion. Even though Boyer rejects these scenarios for the origin of religion. Pyysiäinen & Hauser 2010). Boyer summarized what religion is not in four points: 1. about what religion is not. Boyer and Atran presented similar claims. Atran argued that religion did not originate to: 17 . experiments and insights on religion and human cognition. 1 Whence religion? How the brain constructs the world and what this might tell us about the origins of religion.1 Religion is not an evolutionary adaptation. 2. cognition and culture Armin W. genetic or cultural. default moral sensibilities (cf. nor the most parsimonious. and 4. it is held that religious thought and behaviour are by-products of or even parasitic on more basic cognitive processes. religion provides comfort. religion provides social order. Geertz Origins of religion In cognitive theories of the origins of religion. even though it may occasionally help individuals and groups. however. that the work of cognitive scientists of religion. According to Boyer and Atran.: 6). It must be emphasized. I take issue with this approach. 3. they agreed that the age-old assumption that religion produces morals and values is neither the only. or at least quite early on have. The evi- dence is strong that the origins of such sensibilities are to be found in basic social cognition. In the follow- ing.

On the contrary. geertz 1. having learned to more or less control these systems through the invention of culture. then how can religion be filtered out of the discussion? If religion is something that was with us from the beginning. have weaknesses and biases that 18 . According to Atran. In warm-blooded animals. developing and maintaining individual and group identities. 4. I do not think. substitute for. All the elements in the catalogues of things that were supposedly not the origins of religion should be found here: meaning. It is only that. every human is born with an unfinished brain that takes decades to mature under the persistent and heavy influence of social and cultural pressures right from day one. each such account is not unique to. our brains have evolved into predictive organs that help our bodies adapt and survive in complex environments.: 13). provoke intellectual surprise and awe so as to retain incomplete. which is very different” (Boyer 2001: 4). solidarity. coun- terfactual. as I do. taken alone. dealing with uncertainty and death. mother or family. recover the lost childhood security of father. sexual gratification. All it implies is that you can acquire it. The position I argue for in this essay is that brain and cognition devel- oped in a dialectical relationship with culture. 3. Furthermore. what would the advantages be? Here is where I take issue with many cognitive scientists of religion and evolutionary psychologists. 5.2 Human brains. or necessary or suffi- cient for. I agree that the various elements Boyer and Atran reject are insufficient as mono-causal explanations or scenarios for the origin of religion. If this holds. cope with death. armin w. however. “It is not that these explanations of religion are all wrong. I will argue that we have brains that co-evolved with culture with the result that we developed large brains with particular abilities and peculiar capacities. or counterintuitive information (Atran 2002: 12–13). Humans. or 6. keep social and moral order. then it would suggest that issues such as morality. identity. that current science shows clear signs of being able to distin- guish religious elements from the strands of the evolution of human cultural traits. meaning and death must be considered from the beginning as religious issues and not secondary to other matters. however. In the following. were able to move out into hostile environments and ultimately gain control over them. 2. But if you admit. explaining religion” (ibid. such brains are intricately driven by their affective systems. provide causal explanations where none were readily apparent. they are often deeply informative and insightful. however. Similar to many other species. group mobilization and so on. or displace. that having a nor- mal human brain implies that you have culture (otherwise you can’t use your brain). Boyer argued that “having a normal human brain does not imply that you have religion.

In the following. extremely sensitive to social norms and virtual realities. very superstitious. are the origins of religion. our added symbolic competence. but what more is needed? I suggest that with the expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Thus she conceived of evolution in terms of nature and nurture. One of the advantages of this approach is relevant for us: A deep look at the evolutionary role of development reaches beyond the issue of nature and nurture to illuminate such themes 19 . a sense of mortality and a sense of patterns and external forces began to dominate.4 As evolutionary biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard explained it. Notably.: viii).3 But all warm-blooded animals can get spooked and are highly tuned to social contexts and other animate creatures – apes and hominins have more of it. It is a theory that must include “the ontogeny of all aspects of the phenotype. self-reflection. So the biological and psychological conditions are present. other animals do not seem to evince anything approaching human religious tendencies. I argue. at all levels of organization. These traits are prerequi- sites for religious behaviour. These strengths and weaknesses. priest or politician can manipulate. Culture and cognition Gene-culture co-evolutionary approach My approach to evolution shares the basic assumptions of recent insights from biology. influences individual development and organic evolution” (West-Eberhard 2003: vii). This may very well be the source of superstition and proto-magical behaviour – our “supersense” as Bruce Hood calls it (2009). alongside genes. “The universal environmental responsiveness of organisms. easily spooked. and equipped with nervous systems that are vulnerable to influence from conspecifics and their symbolic worlds. What is new here is the addition of a developmental approach to evolutionary biology. I will present the evidence for my hypothesis. Evolutionary biology has generally restricted itself to adaption and has traditionally not included “proximate mechanisms” (ibid. The default condition for humans in my cultural evolutionary model is non- religious. and in all organisms”. whence religion? any talented magician. genes and environment within the framework of a “fundamentally genetic theory of evolution”. The cultural evolutionary model I favour hypothesizes that: We are intelligent apes that are highly emotional.

(Ibid. the organization of societies. (Ibid. and • evolutionary change can result from instruction as well as selection (ibid. “a function. For it is undoubtedly the assess- ment and management of environmental and social contingencies that has led to the evolution of situation-appropriate regulation. there are four types of hereditary systems. Thus. claiming that: • there is more to heredity than genes. and that humans do so through symbolic inheritance (ibid. “is just one among many environmentally responsive regulatory mechanisms that coordinate trait expression and deter- mine the circumstances in which they are exposed to selection” (ibid. seeing judgment and intelligence among other mechanisms of adaptive flexibility helps explain why learned aspects of human behaviour so closely mimic evolved traits. thus rejecting the simplistic assumptions of meme theory. and symbolic inheritance also provide variation on which natural selec- tion can act … By adopting a four-dimensional perspective. As Jablonka and Lamb argued: It is therefore quite wrong to think about heredity and evolution solely in terms of the genetic system.: 338).: 1). Lamb have argued. and it is not simply copying. geertz as the patterns of adaptive radiation. • some acquired information is inherited. and the origin of intelligence. armin w. • some hereditary variations are nonrandom in origin. Indeed. behavioral. They claimed that assumptions about genetics in current neo-Darwinian the- ory are incorrect. Jablonka and Lamb have also argued for the new synthesis in evolutionary biology. that many animals transmit information through behaviour.).5 Learning is. of course. with the eventual participation of the sophisticated device we call “mind”.or meaning-sen- sitive developmental process” (Jablonka & Lamb 2005: 209). Epigenetic.: 20) “Learning”. Eberhard argued. one of the primary social strategies used by humans (Frith & Frith 2010: 169–70).: 1–2) 20 . where the gene is not the sole focus of natural selection. it is possible to construct a far richer and more sophisticated theory of evolution. Jablonka and Lamb provided evidence showing that cells can transmit information through epigenetic inheritance. It is. as biologists Eva Jablonka and Marion J.

: 213). Scholars from a variety of disciplines met at the Plenary Session of the Fifty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in 1957 to discuss the relation- ship between tools and biological evolution. and the complex social system made possible by tools could only be realized by domesticated individuals. rather than preceding. Memory.: v). Why did the brain evolve? With these caveats in mind.6 As he noted in 1962: Most crucially. One of the participants. was unequivocal: there was no doubt that “our heads. it then becomes apparent that not only was cul- tural accumulation under way well before organic development ceased. and the necessity for communication and language. the making of tools” (ibid. tools created Homo sapiens. Jablonka and Lamb also rejected the widespread gene- based evolved-module view that evolutionary psychologists have been pro- moting until recently. let me proceed to the main question here: Why did the brain evolve? One of the answers to this was the appearance of sys- tematic tool use. The conclusion. as indicated by the conference anthology edited by J. brains. The alternative view is to see human behaviour and culture “as consequences of hominids’ extraordinary behavioural plasticity coupled with and enhanced by their powerful system of symbolic commu- nication”. the appearance of culture. N. Geertz [1966a] 1973). whence religion? In consequence. and faces reached their present shape following. Washburn at the University of Chicago. as expressed by Spuhler. This point was already noted in the middle of the twentieth century. thus increasing their adaptive abilities in the “extremely variable ecological and social environments that humans construct for themselves” (ibid. but that such accumulation very likely played an active 21 . Geertz [1962] 1973) and “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” (C. physical anthropologist Sherwood L. Spuhler (1959). In a very real sense. argued that bipedalism and tool use were incremental to human evolution and that tools put new selection pressures on biological evolution: Tools changed the whole pattern of life bringing in hunting. cooperation. foresight and originality were favored as never before. (Washburn 1959: 31) These insights were picked up shortly afterwards by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his seminal essays “The Growth of Culture and the Evolution of Mind” (C. in other words.

and moral regulation which there is reason to believe also occurred during this period of overlap between cultural and biological change. humans are born with much more general response capacities that allow far greater plasticity. no alterations of (innate) mental capacity. generic constitution of modern man (what used.: 49). These claims have greater impact today because of insights gained through the development of advanced techniques during the past few dec- ades in palaeoanthropology. in other words. its introduction must have acted to shift selection pressures so as to favour the rapid growth of the forebrain as. did the advances in social organization.8 Culture is not an added ingredient to an already completed animal. Geertz claimed.7 Thus. (C. The two go hand in hand. “no such thing as a human nature independent of culture” (ibid. Cognition and Culture research unit (RCC) in Aarhus emphasize the pivotal 22 . armin w. commu- nication. where genetic information plays a much larger role in controlling behaviour patterns. but which leave behaviour much less regulated. reduced dentition. Geertz wrote that human history has shown a fundamental dialectical rela- tion between our evolutionary development (the expansion of the brain) and the development of culture. Details aside. rather. Nor were such nervous system changes merely quantitative. however – and the bulk of them remain to be determined – the point is that the innate. Geertz [1966a] 1973: 47). cognitive archaeology. it is “centrally ingredient in the production of that animal itself ” (C. in a simpler day. in whose wake seems to have come not only more erect stature. alterations in the interconnections among neurons and their manner of functioning may have been of greater impor- tance than the simple increase in their number. evolution- ary psychology and genetic analysis. this was not necessarily the case for the pebble tool or the crude chopper. My colleagues and I at the Religion. There is. we can assume that two factors were incremental to the expansion of the brain: the use of tools and the further development of social cognition. in all likelihood. to be called “human nature”) now appears to be both a cultural and a biological product in that “it is probably more correct to think of much of our structure as a result of culture rather than to think of men anatomically like ourselves slowly discovering culture”. archaeology. geertz role in shaping the final stages of that development. Because tool manufacture puts a premium on manual skill and foresight. Though it is apparently true enough that the invention of the airplane led to no visible bodily changes. and a more thumb-domi- nated hand. but the expansion of the human brain to its present size. As Geertz argued. Geertz [1962] 1973: 67). in comparison with other animals.

is found in metacognitive awareness (Frith 2012). the goal of which is to improve and refine our ways of thinking. they are. externally available memory banks of culture. manipulative. far below the polished cultural surface we have constructed. are generated by the cultural matrix itself … The patterns that emerge at the level of culture are not only real but dominate the cognitive universe that defines what ‘reality’ is” (Donald 2001: 287). largely inarticulate beast that lives deep inside each of us. He argued that: 23 . a mirror of consciousness. The brain takes on its self-identity in culture and is deeply affected in its actions by culturally formulated notions of selfhood. Cognitive archaeologist Lambros Malafouris has formulated what he called the “brain–artefact interface (BAI)” and demonstrated how artefacts are constitutive in cognition (Malafouris 2010: 265. Geertz 2010a).9 The engine of culture. the mazes we must pen- etrate. The external field allows consciousness to reflect on thought itself and to develop thinking into formal procedures and greater abstractions. according to Donald. cf. (Ibid. The psychology of tool use Recent studies in the psychology of tool use confirm these assumptions. This claim is aligned with recent advances in neuroscience. fun- damentally formative to cognitive development. the internal and external. The core of awareness. It is caught between the innate memory banks of the brain and the vastly com- plex. irrational. Merlin Donald claims. but it also changes the ways that consciousness deals with its representations.: 285–6) Human consciousness is endlessly self-curious and epistemically starved. in fact. then. “but the patterns of culture. The external memory field is. Also: symbols of all kinds are the playthings of a fantastically clever. That passionate and devious intelligence … is iso- morphic with our conscious experience of the world … This is why the human brain cannot symbolize if it is isolated from a culture … The tension between cultural symbolic systems and the underlying intelligences that use them determines the qual- ity of our uniquely human modes of consciousness … Culture shapes the vast undifferentiated semantic spaces of the individual brain. whence religion? claim that symbolic systems are not just important. is caught in a dynamic interrelation between two powerful cognitive fields.

(Malafouris 2010: 266) In a special 2008 issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. that “ontogenetic experience from one’s cultural context serves to re-tool the developing mind into a variety of disparate cognitive phenotypes” (ibid. Mesoudi 2011). by the use of material objects and cultural artefacts which for that reason should be seen as continuous integral parts of the human cognitive architecture. cultural practices and social inter- action play in the shaping of the human mind throughout its long evolutionary and developmental trajectories … the hallmark of human cognitive evolution may not be based on the ever-increas- ing sophistication or specialization of a modular mind. reis- sued in 2009.: 180). furthermore. geertz the functional structure and anatomy of the human brain is a dynamic construct remodeled in detail by behaviourally impor- tant experiences which are mediated. 2009: x)10 Psychologist Margaret Wilson has argued that culture “re-engineers cogni- tion” during ontogenesis. neurologists and archaeologists pooled their knowledge and were in general agreement about: the special roles that materiality. cf. She argued. Bulbulia 2008. (Renfrew et al. but rather the ability to re-engineer our existing cognitive resources in a flexible fashion” (Wilson 2010: 185. but also indicates the crucial role that it continues to play in ontogenetic development. not only in terms of content but also in terms of function through a process she called “cognitive re-tooling” which uses both material and non-material objects (Wilson 2010: 180–81). This new line of research confirms not only the intimate evolutionary rela- tionship between cognition and culture. armin w. She argued that these cognitive inventions “become ‘firmware’. Wilson claimed that “what makes human cognition ‘smarter’ is to a large extent not a collection of evolved cognitive modules for accomplishing all our unique cognitive tricks. Following Tomasello (1999). 24 . constituting a re-engi- neering of the individual’s cognitive architecture”. and often constituted. but upon an ever-increasing representational flexibility that allows for envi- ronmentally and culturally derived plastic changes in the structure and functional architecture of the human brain.

000 years ago. Homo neanderthalensis and so on. Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald. It would be found in any of the other hominins: Homo habilis. the creature we are searching for among our anteced- ents is before Homo sapiens. There is evidence at Qesem Cave in Israel of the habitual use of fire during the period of 400. Northern Cape province in South Africa (Berna et al. whence religion? The archaeological record When did proto-religious beliefs and practices appear?11 Biologist Terrence Deacon argued that “some form of symbolic cultural communication must have been in place right from the point that neuroanatomical changes (e. Deacon argued that the transition would be between Australopithecus and Homo habilis. which would place the first noticeable changes some 2. 1994b) and Israel (Goren-Inbar 25 . If we accept the appearance of stone tools as an indication of culture.5–2. 2007. 2012). Homo ergaster. de Heinzelin et al. And their features would probably already have appeared in simpler form in the australopithecines. 2011).3 million years ago. The systematic use of tools evidenced by the first Homo habilis didn’t just happen without precedence. however.000 years ago.4 million years ago in southern and eastern Africa. But the evidence is shaky (Roebroeks & Villa 2011).12 But when this species did appear. That stage he termed “mimetic”. There is evidence of hearths and a “residential base” scenario (Karkanas et al. Sarmiento et al.2 million years ago. maybe by Homo erectus inhabitants at first and ana- tomically modern humans and/or Homo neanderthalensis later in that period. things were changing and the brain was expanding (Tattersall 1998. McPherron et al. 1999.6 million years ago (Asfaw et al. There is evidence indicating that even the australopithecines and Homo erectus had tamed fire by 1. Fire control Much more intriguing is the question of when fire was brought under con- trol. has argued that there must have been an intermediate stage before full symbolic competence.) In other words. using new techniques coupling micromorphology to FTIR spectroscopy have discovered the habitual use of fire by Homo erectus in one-million-year-old sediments at Wonderwerk Cave. Lepre et al. (2010) have even found evidence as old as 3. thus supporting other evidence in Kenya (Bellomo 1994a. which he roughly dates from the appearance of Homo erectus around 2 million to 400. Homo erectus. 2007: 208).g. This would make sense in terms of evolution. how- ever. increasing relative brain size) become evident in hominids” (Deacon 2003: 94. the oldest tools found were used by Australopithecus garhi 2. 1999). Francesco Berna and colleagues.000 to 200.

Fossil evidence indicates that this dependence arose … right back at the beginning of our time on Earth. was not a cooking hypothesis. In consequence. artificially increasing the daily hours of exposure to light – the more they dampened the effect of the environment on themselves. They survived and reproduced better than before. 2012: E1220). Their genes spread. and society. She argued that the use of firelight at night introduced significant changes in brain structure and the hormone sys- tem which in the long run significantly influenced social relations and. Burton 2009: 17): I suggest that the more that these hominins … did something to the environment by way of intervening with natural processes – in this case. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food. She argued that the control of fire is not a by-product. psychology. 26 . life history. ecology. That hypothesis concerned Homo ergaster (about 1. the most significant of which may be the development of mind. how- ever. Anthropologist Frances Burton. Wrangham argues that the use of fire was a significant factor in hominin evolution: The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. by the habiline that became Homo erectus … We humans are the cooking apes. but the evidence is promising despite the paucity of the ancient material remains. The authors argued that their evidence seems to support the “cooking hypothesis” introduced by biologist Richard Wrangham (Berna et al. physiology. D. argued that the australopithecines were in contact with and used to fire. but one of the most important factors that started the hominin line in the first place (F. (F. 2004).5 mil- lion years ago) who became a savannah creature with the new Acheulian tool style and the use of hand axes which evidently indicates mental progress. There were changes in anatomy. however. D. The acquisition of fire is precisely the kind of intervention that could have initiated and perpetuated this chain of events. shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. Cooking was already used 1. 2001.: 10–11). Her hypothesis. ulti- mately. they took over the direction of their own evolution on many important fronts. Burton 2009: 9). F. geertz et al. the creatures of the flame. (Wrangham 2009: 14). armin w. They were the first hominins to live outside the tropical zone and therefore must have made use of fire. language (ibid.7 million years ago (Hoberg et al. at the start of human evolution. D. Burton 2009: 18) These assumptions still need clear and systematic documentation.

the juvenile cra- nium is smooth and polished indicating post-mortem manipulation. and unquestionably affected the course of human evolution in dramatic ways. Tryon & McBrearty 2002. though fire is uni- versal and ancient.000 years ago. whence religion? Regardless of the date assigned to the origins of controlled fire and the pre- cise scope accorded to its evolutionary effects.000 years ago) is important in this context because of the state of the three crania that were found. the key point is that fire is undoubtedly much older than our lineage.000 years later (160.000 years ago. It is rather transmitted through cultural learning. suggests that sym- bolic thinking extends much further back in time in Africa. Importantly. Ethiopia. and assume that full-blown symbolic thought is first evidenced in the cave paintings in Spain and France dated around 30. Is symbolic thinking like that? We next consider this question. dating radioisotopically some 30. The earliest evidence of Homo sapiens is a skull found in the Omo Valley of southwestern Ethiopia in 1967. Evidence from the Middle Awash valley in Ethiopia and the Central Rift Valley of Kenya indicate major tool innovations in the transition from the Acheulian to the Middle Stone Age somewhere around 200.000–35. It is assumed that this transition coincided with the appearance of Homo sapiens. Barham suggested also that language played a cru- cial role in these innovations (Barham 2001: 70). 27 . The evidence. 2000) and Ethiopia (White 1986).000 and 154. The crania evidence post-mortem mortuary practices (White et al.000 years ago (Garrigan & Hammer 2006: 669). Clark et al.000–300. McBrearty and col- leagues. most scholars agreed that the use of symbolic objects is a sin- gular characteristic of Homo sapiens. The oldest indications of such behaviour have been documented for earlier hom- inin species 600. Sally S. however. discussed the pros and cons of this assumption. 2003: 751). Evidence from Herto. It lay together with the skull of a Homo erec- tus. Furthermore. They have since been dated to 195. McBrearty & Brooks 2000. Symbolic objects Until recently.000 years ago in both South Africa (Pickering et al. Weaver 2012). argued that there was no human revolution and that the new tool styles were being used by several hominin groups (Johnson & McBrearty 2010. There is also evidence of such behaviour at the Krapina Neanderthal site (Russell 1987). fire technology is not encoded into our genes. are not found in remains processed for consumption (Clark et al. in comparison. 2003: 742). however. They found cut marks on all three crania indicating defleshing and abundant superficial marks of repetitive scraping that. Middle Awash. Lawrence S.

armin w. which are col- ourful.000 years ago. 1997. 1986. Brooks et al.000 years ago and the use of ochre has also been established during this period. There is plenty of evidence from the Middle Stone Age (MSA) of the use of ochre. found in the Golan Heights and dated between 233. the MSA assemblage from this site had to revert to a typological comparison to the nearby well-dated MSA sites of White Paintings Shelter (66. with the skeletons of 32 hominids. dated 300. One of the burials seems to be associated with grave goods (Bar-Yosef & Vandermeersch 1993.000–500.000 years ago. These points. An important example of religious symbolism and ritual behaviour is a huge quartzite outcrop that can be seen as a zoomorphic form. such as a snake or a tortoise head. Robbins et al. is known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram.000 or more years ago (Watts 1999. Morocco.400bp.000 years ago may have been a deliberate burial (Bischoff et al. carefully and often elaborately made. Andrews & Fernandez-Jalvo 1997. Botswana. Many archaeologists assume that the shaft in Sima de los Huesos. shell beads and geometric engravings on red ochre (for summary see Coulson et al. The proto-figure found in Tan-Tan.13 What other evidence is there for symbolic behaviour and the use of sym- bolic objects before Homo sapiens? Two stones with engraved lines have been found in Kenya. Therefore. 2000: 1092) and the open-air pan site of ≠Gi (77. dated 260. South 28 .000– 470. 2011). were either deliberately burned to the point where they could no longer be used. Ian Watts has argued for the use of ochre in connection with collective ritual from around 300. Another figurine. they did not comply with the requirements for thermolumi- nescent dating. 2011: 18).300 ± 9. 1990: 62). An inter- esting stone with what seem to be three faces.000–420. Vandermeersch 1981). a natural stone object with anthropomorphic grooves and traces of ochre (Bednarik 2003a: 96) is the earliest example of symbolic art in Africa.000bp. Tsodilo Hills.000 years ago (Bar-Yosef 1998. found at Makapansgat. which is approximately 120 km southwest of the Tsodilo Hills. As these excavations are positioned adjacent to the cave wall. It is a naturally shaped pebble with engraved lines (Bednarik 2003a: 93. Bar-Yosef et al.000 ± 11. geertz The earliest evidence of burial behaviour among Homo sapiens is at Qafzeh. 2003b). which are for the most part produced in non-locally acquired raw materials. 2002. dated 200.400 ± 6500bp and 94. although other interpretations have been put forward (Arsuaga et al. Vandermeersch 1981). Excavations at the base of this outcrop revealed an assemblage characterized by an unexpectedly large number of MSA points. dated 90. 2009). There is evidence of other burials as well (McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 519–21). 1997). carved with hundreds of cupules of varying sizes and shapes from the site of Rhino Cave.000–320. abandoned or intentionally smashed (Coulsen et al. Atapuerca. McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 519). McBrearty & Brooks 2000. Spain.000–120.

which might indicate that the bearers appreciated and understood the likeness (Bednarik 2003a: 97. in tune with two well-known books. nor are they experienced as apes would experience them. namely. humans developed consciousness and sym- bolic competence through culture. to the extent that degradation or reconfiguration went into generating our capacity for language. Taming fire for heat. Morocco. we need to push our evolutionary antecedents and possible default mecha- nisms much further back than is usual. dated to around 300. Dart 1974). the human clan. The same can be said about the penis-shaped fossil found in Erfoud. producing clothes and making adornments. The kinds of brains it takes In ways that are still unclear to us. light- ing and cooking. but it was transported by australopithecines from its place of origin. is that brains made up their minds and started thinking through culture (Freeman 1999. As Ursula Goodenough and Terrence Deacon wrote: To say that our brains have undergone critical reconfigurations as they evolved their capabilities for symbolic (self )-representation is not to say that our common-ancestor brains were left in the dustbin … we share strong cognitive and emotional homologies with our primate cousins. Bednarik 2003a: 97). Our primate minds have not gone away (although some phylotypic instincts have been lost and perhaps reconfigured). Shweder 1991). (Goodenough & Deacon 2003: 813–14) Sociologist Jonathan H. processing food. It is a natural stone. whence religion? Africa. Turner and anthropologist Alexandra Maryanski have persuasively argued similarly that we are basically hang-loose apes with 29 . In order to understand the kinds of brains it takes to become humans. all happened during the phylo- genetic process of what we have become. They are experienced as things are experienced by human minds: symbolically. and. One way of phrasing it.5–3 million years old (Bednarik 1998). is 2. this evidence indicates that Homo erectus and/or Homo ergaster or Homo heidelbergensis (depending on the classification system used) showed signs of symbolic and perhaps religious behaviour. developing tools and utensils for hunting.000 years ago (Bednarik 2002. it occurred in a primate brain that remains very much a primate brain … one of the things that we do with our symbolic minds is experience our primate minds symbolically. All in all.

2. is a combination of embrainment. and economy – were not “natural” for an evolved ape with a penchant for a hang-loose forest lifestyle. indeed. Our view is that we cannot fully understand human behaviour and the colossal sociocultural creations that human hominoids have constructed without first appreciating that the ape in us was not extinguished. 5. we not only need to pay close attention to the interdependent causal links between culture and cognition. 3. a repertoire of moral feelings. this tension between our hominoid ancestry and the structures in which humans were forced to exist remained and. nor obviated by culture. And. the stability of some un-fakeable (or difficult to fake) signals. a hypertrophy of social intelligence. Cognition. I argue. what kinds of brains are we looking for in the archaeological record? Boyer has summarized a handy list of human characteristics that are useful here: 1. increased. cognition and culture. and 6. geertz a history of developing ever-more restrictive social systems. Indeed. emotional rewards for gossip (Boyer 2000: 203–4). religion. for a theory of the origins of religion. armin w. our ancestry continues to place pressures on individuals and their sociocultural creations. work still remains. as societies developed from their simple hunting-and-gath- ering formations into ever-more complex sociocultural systems. 4.14 Thus. embodiment and enculturation (Geertz 2010b: 37). (Turner & Maryanski 2008: 3–4) Despite the great advances made by pioneers in the cognitive science of reli- gion. We need to increase our time scales and pay close attention to the growing field of social cognitive neuroscience. The latter is necessary because neurologists and neuropsychologists are discovering a lot about the brain that gives us a better foothold on the neurobiological and cognitive correlates of religious ideas and behaviours. So. The function of such systems was to improve group survival in dangerous and ever-more com- plex environments: the very first institutional systems of human societies – kinship. proto- human society represented from its very beginnings an uneasy necessity that often stood in conflict with humans’ ape ancestry. we also need to pay attention to the brain and the body. a capacity to evaluate potential cooperators and to detect potential defectors. 30 . indeed. easily produced self-deception. and the role that religious symbolic systems play in it.

the kinds of brains posited here consist of the following fundamental features: • A finely honed social cognition. as Chris and Uta Frith have summarized so well in a number of papers. First. For them. they “tune in” to each other by unconscious imitation of each other’s move- ments. This assumption is supported by the neurological evidence. but I will argue that we need to rearrange and in some cases reformulate these features. This is called the “chameleon effect”. Studies have shown that people can and will attribute intentions even to non-human or non-biological agents. Our social cognition is ready right from birth. Third. Frith and Frith summarized this sociality as evidenced in neurological experi- ments in a more or less progressive series of features (Frith & Frith 2010). especially “The Social Brain” (Frith & Frith 2010) and “Social Cognition in Humans” (Frith & Frith 2007). A finely honed social cognition As noted by Clifford Geertz above. emotion and other infor- mation critical to determining whether the agent is friend or foe. we improve our predictions by imagining what the agent knows and does not know from the agent’s point of view. Prediction error thus contributes to updating our information about that agent. whenever we move. whence religion? These are indeed basic characteristics of human beings. we broadcast involuntary signals about ourselves. I will discuss in detail each of these features in the following. These are cues indicating biological agency. gender. we can test our predictions. Fifth. our social cognition and the invention and use of tools must have had equal influence on the expansion of the brain. but our sociality is more complex. and it increases empathy and 31 . Thus. This is known as mentalizing or having a theory of mind and is present from an early age. Second. The ability to mentalize is crucial to communicating with other people. we discern intentions by movement alone based on prediction. • A self-deceptive brain. when two people communicate. • A drive to communicate and cooperate. We share our sociality with other species. By predicting what movement the agent will make. not least our ape cousins. people perceiving a biological agent will automatically look for indications of the agent’s intentions and goals. This ability also allows us to deceive and manipulate other minds. the singularly most important feature of human cog- nition is our social brain. • A superstitious brain prone to unusual mental and/or emotional experiences. Fourth.

Studies of adult/infant interactions show cross- cultural. Key elements are influence (tracking the influence of one’s own actions on others). a significant feature is the human ability to deliberately teach conspecifics. Frith and Frith argued.). despite defection. “is the wish to build a good reputation” (ibid. seem to work best. As Frith and Frith noted. “pedagogy is a unique human ability that makes cultural accomplishments possible in the first place” (ibid. Forgiving and cooperative behaviour. It assumes that self-conscious- ness also implies consciousness of others and that the primary use of thought is to simulate activities. ways must be found to repair it. Tenth. One of the forces behind the drive to cooperate. These patterns are crucial to the learning of language. Sixth. The brain’s mirror system seems to be the mechanism behind empathy and emo- tional contagion. Ninth. but also for others. As Frith and Frith noted. We think not only for ourselves. It assumes that a person is not only conscious. Not only is it essential for infants’ success- ful entrance into the human world. We develop during the first two years of our 32 . the main feature of human sociality is the deliberate use of social signals (ostensive gestures) indicating the desire to communicate something to someone else. Eleventh. We think not only of ourselves.e. this motor and emotional resonance is rewarding and is modulated by knowledge. ostensive signalling is the basis of reputation building. Thus. but is also self-conscious. actions and consequences in relation to other people. social cooperation relies on communication and altruistic behaviour. but also of oth- ers.: 169–70). beliefs and strength of interaction (Frith & Frith 2010: 168). both parties can update their predictions about each other (ibid. economic games have revealed the complexities of partner interaction. the senders and receivers of signals close the loop and establish trust. armin w. Seventh. The amazing thing about our development as a species is that our conscious- ness made it possible for us to be aware not only of ourselves. but also of others. If trust is broken. being observed by others. infants are already geared to discern and learn from ostensive gestures. and the abil- ity to perform coordinated social interaction seems to rely on the much- acclaimed “mirror neurons” that have been discovered in monkey brains. or think we are. through reciprocal communica- tion back to the sender. intuitive and stereotypical patterns of interaction that capture infant attention. knowledge of other’s past actions and knowledge of one’s own past actions. we behave better if we are. social interactions depend on more than these features. Eighth. geertz rapport. Prosocial and cooperative behaviour seems to be “our default mode of behavior when we are not thinking very deeply about what we are doing” (ibid. These signals are mostly visual and there is a need to “close the loop” as Frith and Frith call it.: 171). Joint action with a common goal increases the success of social interactions. This is the so-called “audience effect”. Thus. i.: 170). Mentalizing is a kind of mind reading process.

(Frith 2007: 17) Thus. we are dealing with the brain. In this way. we are in fact “embedded in the mental world of others just as we are embedded in the physical world” (ibid. Through these two illusions we experience ourselves as agents.: 132). Our brain is constantly predicting the future. acting independently upon the world. it draws on maps that are imprinted in the brain (such as the sensory-motor areas) or developed through associative learning or provided by our cultures. Over the millennia this ability to share experi- ence has created human culture that has. Humphrey argued. but also. and it is achieved. or inner mindsight. whence religion? lives the art of looking in on our own mental states. We do not see and feel the world out there. And at the same time our brain creates the illusion that our own mental world is isolated and private. modified the functioning of the human brain. A final set of features is how the brain makes sense of the world. perception is “a prediction of what ought to be out there in the world” and this prediction “is constantly tested by action” (ibid. in its turn. But. as many cognitivists claim. our brain creates the illusion that we have direct contact with objects in the physi- cal world. also lead to really bad (and sometimes fatal) mistakes. This is the art of doing psychology. Numerous studies indicate that the brain not only is way ahead of our conscious (and even unconscious) behaviour. By hiding from us all the unconscious inferences that it makes. 33 . Almost immediately. But we keep working at trying to read other people’s minds. we can share our experi- ences of the world.: 136). in the social world. Humphrey pointed out. When dealing with the social world. of course. when dealing with the world. through empathy. and more importantly. it is way ahead of the body’s senses. at the same time. Chris Frith explained in his book Making Up the Mind (Frith 2007) how the brain constantly compares input from the environment in relation to its predic- tions and mappings of the body and the world.: 184). whether it is about the physical or the men- tal world. The brain is not just a passive computer waiting for data input so that it can produce behavioural output. But our brain’s connec- tion with the physical world of objects is no more direct than our brain’s connection with the mental world of ideas. We see and feel the world that our brain creates. as evolutionary psychologist Nicholas Humphrey called it. comes to us through our brain. not only in the physical world. In order to do this. but can. we use this mindsight to make sense of other people (Humphrey [1986] 2002: 94).15 This predictive activity frees us from the “tyranny” of our senses and environment (ibid. As Frith argued: Everything we know.

: 255–6). 2002). Such narratives also allow the child to begin formulating its own story. Yovsi & Keller 2003). Daniel Siegel has shown that parents’ ability to relate their autobiographical narratives are crucial not only to the child’s mental world. are mostly religious ones. Thus the reciprocal eye contact. Cozolino 2002). Nicholas Humphrey argued that mindsight. An important device is the use of narrative. As the child grows older. it is a question of being in someone else’s narrative. The kinds of ideal patterns of behaviour are controlled innocently at first through parental approval and disapproval. Ochs & Capps 1996. but later become more systematically routinized. are all attempts to regulate the child’s imme- diate sentience and teach it the cultural scaffolded system (ibid. Already here. according to neurologist Daniel J. the reduction of communicative speed. Yovsi 2003. geertz A drive to communicate and cooperate As mentioned. Other mechanisms which help develop the child’s empathy are mirror neu- rons in the brain which automatically stimulate areas that would normally be stimulated if the child itself were performing the perceived action (Rizzolatti et al. But for many years. etc. Siegel and others (Siegel 2001. the child gains chemi- cal and somatic access to its mother’s inner world. stricter instruments replace imitation and rou- tines such as persuasion. but also to its physical brain. A process of neural and bicameral integration occurs through the use of coherent narrative. force. but it is also nurtured through the complex interactions between the child and its mother and closest family members. They are narratives about a child’s struggle to become the ideal person (Geertz 2011a. Such narra- tives. the child’s nar- rative is controlled by its parents. For many years. the exagger- ated vocalizations and gestures. even punishment and violence in some cases.16 Merlin Donald argued that the child’s initial abilities are manipulated by parents. Through nursing. the child is subjected to massive socialization techniques which help internalize the objectivized assumptions and repre- sentations of a particular culture. Right from the beginning. siblings and friends to capture the infant’s attention and make it aware of attentional flags and markers “that will eventually lead it to the heart of culture” (Donald 2001: 255).. or the art of doing psychology. the use of hugging and kissing. seen in the canvass of human history. is achieved through empathy. its siblings and other authority figures. since each culture has its own nursing styles. There are interesting studies which show how nursing styles reflect models for ideal individuals in different cultures (DeLoache & Gottlieb 2000. 34 . Children seem to be equipped with the ability to imitate their mothers’ facial expressions even though they could not possibly have a con- ception of their own facial expressions. Ochs & Shohet 2006). Empathy seems to be inborn. armin w. we find the formative nature of religion and culture.

initiation ritu- als. 2010). Koltko-Rivera 2004). with imaginary beings and make them personal. with imaginary narratives and make them embodied. This kind of commu- nication is deeply satisfying to us in much the same way that grooming is for apes and other animals. communal activities. Religious narrative provides paradigms for human identity thereby provid- ing narrative governance of human cognition and emotion. Geertz [1966b] 1973. we are born with certain capacities which allow the above- mentioned instruments and techniques to function. He or she becomes the values of a cul- ture and a religion. 1992. We are concerned with communicating states of mind and emotion as well as behaviour and the consequences of behaviour (other’s as well as our own). 2005). whence religion? Systematic education is introduced and when the individual becomes a legal person.17 As mentioned. Psychologist Robin Dunbar has argued that gossip and small-talk is a kind of grooming that releases opioids that enhance a sense of well-being and belonging (Dunbar 1996). small-talk and everyday conversation. The individual is not simply a private person. They conceived of costly signalling in its widest sense as “mechanisms that link information properties – signals – to mechanisms that generate mutually benefiting social-interactive behaviours – cooperation” (Bulbulia & Sosis 2011: 371). etc. religious and political rituals and public displays. Behavioural ecologist Richard Sosis and cognitive scientist of religion Joseph Bulbulia pioneered the costly signalling hypothesis in the study of religion. extrapolates and investigates the significance of virtual worlds in real time contexts while at the same time refining them in all their majestic virtuality. He or she takes on a personality model and a social role. Goffman 1959). social instruments of power are employed: law enforcement. (Geertz 2011a: 9) It seems evident that language evolved to increase the potency of commu- nication. One last aspect of the drive to communicate and cooperate nicely dovetails with research on costly signals. to take on worldviews (C. costly signals have to do with reputation management. Much of our communication concerns other people in the form of gossip. Everything in an individual’s life functions to that end (Mandler 1988. We have not only the ability. As I wrote elsewhere: Religious narrative promulgates. We are born with social intelligence and moral sensibility (Frith & Frith 2007. but the very need. Bulbulia and Sosis argued that the use of costly signals helps groups (and individuals) overcome the problems of establishing 35 . Geertz 2011c: 379–83. We have the capacities to deal with imaginary worlds and make them real. Gossip is a tool for monitoring social relations and for reputation management (Cox 1970. As mentioned.

the counterintuitive representational content of reli- gious conceptions are not enough in themselves to explain why people believe in them.g. large or small. armin w. In agreement with the predictive error hypothesis promoted here.: 244–5). the solution of which is a condition for the possibility of cooperation in large social worlds” (Bulbulia & Sosis 2011: 373–4).: 246). geertz ways to ensure trust among partners and to detect free-riders and defectors (Bulbulia 2004a. etc.: 376). Henrich proposed that “learners have evolved to attend to credibility enhancing displays (CREDs)” that “provide the learner with reliable measures of the model’s actual degree of commitment to (or belief in) the representa- tions that he has inexpensively expressed symbolically (e. 36 .) and sex” (Henrich 2009: 245). skill. Bulbulia and Sosis have argued persuasively that costly signals are integral to social pre- dictions (Bulbulia & Sosis 2011: 372). As Bulbulia and Sosis argued: “We believe that cultural evolutionary scholars are correct to notice … that norms evolve to manage problems of cooperative prediction among strangers. ethnicity (marked by dialect. must find ways of predicting individual and group social behaviour. Sosis 2000. 1997). Henrich and psychologist Francisco J. groups. 2003. Bulbulia defined religious behaviour as “a costly signal capable of authenticating reli- gious commitment” (Bulbulia 2004b: 669). These cues influence a wide range of domains even though they in principle have nothing to do with each. dress. Sosis et al. success. 2007. Sosis and Bulbulia have shown in several studies that costly signals do secure group survival benefits (Sosis & Bressler 2003. Their believability is enhanced by CREDs (ibid. CREDs are also essential in commitment to counterintuitive notions. CREDs are a kind of cultural immune system18 that in principle at least can expose Machiavellian manipulators because of their great costs (ibid. As Henrich pointed out. for instance people might take on a well-liked actor’s political views even though good actors are not necessarily astute political observers.: 247). by which is meant model-based cues of “prestige. which – once adopted by others – could yield benefits to her and costs to the learners” (ibid. Bulbulia and Sosis call the information properties of the systems involved “charismatic ecologies” that evolve “to compel relatively powerful and automatic cooperative responses across large populations” (ibid. In other words.). Henrich pointed out that “a highly prestigious individual motivated by self-interest could express a degree of commitment to a belief or opinion different from her own. Chen 2010. see also Bulbulia & Sosis 2011. verbally)” (ibid. Based on the biology of indexical signals in various species (Zahavi et al. Sosis & Bulbulia 2011). Psychologist Joseph Henrich has explored the biases that learners have in identifying individuals in the social environment that can be depended upon. Examples of this are legion. Gil-White posited a class of cognitive mechanisms known as “prestige-biased transmission” (Henrich & Gil-White 2001). 2004b). age.

Ziegler and Benson Saler specifically address these issues in relation to suicide cults (Ziegler & Saler 2012: 60–66). suggestibility (dopamine) and conviction (polygenic inheritance). The emulation of prestigious models of social behaviour. institutions requiring costly displays by members transmit higher levels of belief commitment and thereby promote cooperation and success in intergroup or interinstitution competition (ibid. Boyer 2001: 292–6).: 268). Both Boyer and Atran presented. religion is (1) a community’s costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people’s existential anxieties. Religion is a terrifyingly effective instrument for the mobilization of group violence. namely. We evince wonder and delight over apparent miracles and are easy victims of sleights-of-hand. Atran argued. it should be noted. It is a much more powerful mechanism than dominance and one that is selected for in our species. whence religion? Henrich summarized the evidence indicating that: 1. no matter whether other factors lurk behind the scenes. Furthermore.: 245).19 2. inspiring competition with out- groups and so creating new religious forms” (ibid. “stabilizes in-group moral order. is freely conferred deference not dependent on force or the threat of force (Henrich & Gil-White 2001). They argued that the ability to suppress species survival dispo- sitions is inculcated in each generation from infanthood and on. in fact. those involved in the production of trust (oxytocin). solid arguments concerning fundamentalism and violence (Atran 2010. we see what we want 37 . belief–practice (ritual) combinations are spread by cultural group selec- tion (CGS). In their essay “Dying for an Idea”. such as death and deception” (Atran 2002: 4).20 We are. Charles A. “Emotionally motivated self-sacrifice to the supernatural”. proneness to illusion. I feel. and 3. participation in costly rituals is associated with prosocial in-group behaviour. self-deception and confabulation (Hirstein 2005). incredibly credulous. Here the argument is that religious behaviour must be demonstratively costly in order for individuals to prove their commitment. In fact. Atran defined religion in such terms: “Roughly. Almost all wars and terrorism thrive on religiously motivated group identity. They pro- vide evidence of the possible neural mechanisms that augment inculcation.e. A self-deceptive brain We must seriously accept the bald fact of our credulity. i. because costly rituals transmit commitment to group-ben- eficial beliefs/goals to participants.

our brain creates a rich and nuanced three-dimensional world. One of the major avenues into our sensual world is that of sight. which is driven by our feelings. edges. If we or others use techniques to separate the connections between our expectations and the senses. Neurologists Stephen L. the weak-willed brain. hear. The signals are sent through the optic nerve to the thalamus after which the information is passed on to the primary visual cortex. the brain begins to distinguish line orientations. What happens when light strikes the eyes is that the system of photoreceptors convert light into electrochemical signals that detect contrast. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde together with Sandra Blakeslee have analysed a large number of magician’s tricks and illusions in terms of how the brain processes input from the senses.: 12–13). meaning here. including your capacity to see. At this point. as is well-known. feel. and pay attention. geertz to see and miss what we ought to see. in the scene being perceived. How 38 . And yet. the emotional brain. 2010: 11). Without it. We are existential illusionists (Bering 2006. which produces illusions and delusions. the deluded brain. is filled with stereotypes and biases. as in the common expression. the brain can be manipulated to various ends. More importantly. 2010). the vulnerable brain which is an adroit manipulator of information. This ability. and. motion and so on. The remarkable thing is that from two-dimensional information input. think. the bigoted brain. they noted. colours. We are oppressively smug and certain at some times and filled with techniques for warding off the unknown and dangerous at others (R. 2011). which. is the “basis of all cognition. Neuropsychologist Cordelia Fine has summarized the quirky features of our brains in a wonderful little book A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (Fine 2006). “my mind has a mind of its own: I cannot even control my own thoughts”. corners. The new field of magi- cology or “neuromagic” is in the process of uncovering the neural correlates of illusions and illusion-making. etc. Our expectations are con- stantly being compared to the incoming sensory information. In other words. finally. armin w. post-hoc (mostly false) rationalizations. Burton 2008). the secretive brain. self-serv- ing and overconfident. the immoral brain. The chapter titles say it all: the vain brain. we expect more than the sensory world gives us. driven by unconscious motivations. Then there are certain features of our brains. each eye is roughly equivalent to a one-megapixel camera (ibid. by which she means vain. Then the signals move on to other neurons that respond to contours. We produce illusions and are self- deceptive. and some experimental psychologists claim that we might have a tacit acceptance of sympathetic magic (Hood et al. the world would have no boundaries and your brain could make no sense of itself or anything outside itself ” (Macknik et al. the (stubborn) pig-headed brain. A. predictive minds are expectant minds.

I will argue that the three terms are aspects of one single phenomenon. debilitatingly insecure yet supremely confident. whence religion? does this happen? The answer is that what we see is not the world as it is. This is what magicians (and miracle-workers. whimsical yet determined. Scholars of religion are not very helpful either. Liénard & Boyer 2006. A superstitious brain prone to unusual mental and/or emotional experiences The term “superstition” is problematical because it has served so long in a pejorative sense. but psychologist Gustav Jahoda proposed four categories of superstition: those forming part of cosmologies or worldviews.23 The bounda- ries between superstition.21 These features taken together within the framework of extreme sociality produce a creature that can be desperately dependent yet incredibly independ- ent. devastatingly violent yet incredibly peaceful and forgiving – a curious and fearful creature inextricably woven into collective webs of symbolic. to mean not only the appar- ently illogical behaviours associated with the performance of important acts.). devious yet true. such as hanging diapers in a certain way to prevent harm coming to the baby or lighting a candle before your examination to ensure a good result (Boyer & Liénard 2006. prophets. witches. By “non-natural” I do not merely mean non-instrumental or opaque causality. I understand the term. virtual worlds (Bulbulia 2009). appall- ingly credulous yet highly sceptical.: 9). such as hanging your shoes in the same way in the locker room before every game or performing stereotypical movements before hitting the golf ball. especially because the terms are used negatively and polemically by just about everybody about everybody else (atheists about religious people. occult experiences. For this essay.22 The more formal definitions pro- duced by psychologists and others are difficult to use here. etc. colonialists about the colonized. self-serving yet startlingly altruistic. etc. other kinds of superstitions socially shared. but the world as simulated by the predictive brain filling in all the information gaps. magic and religion are extremely difficult to demar- cate. World history is rife with 39 . namely.) exploit: “the fact that your brain does a staggering amount of outright confabulation in order to construct the mental simulation of reality [is] known as ‘consciousness’” (ibid. reli- gious people about other religious people. Jahoda 1969. I mean causality that contravenes the laws of nature. Such experiences are essential to the self-confirming mechanisms of religious belief and behaviour. faith-healers. Vyse 1997).24 In the following. however. I will discuss our proneness to unusual mental and/or emotional experiences. intuitive assumptions about and/or beliefs in non-natural causality. but also acts that are meant to prevent hazards. and personal superstitions (Jahoda 1969). shamans.

Studies of these and other ailments are there- fore highly relevant to the study of religion. witchcraft beliefs. geertz reports of unusual and highly emotional experiences. But hallucinations are not the meaningless biological phenomena they are understood to be in much of the psychiatric literature. attest to this tendency. People claiming that they “remember” being abducted by angels or aliens.25 One could see in such symptoms the contours of certain types of personalities well known to the history of reli- gions. published posthu- mously. or that they have been subjected to satanic ritual abuse as children might be suffering from false memory syndrome. This is an important anthropologi- cal finding because it demonstrates that cultural ideas and prac- tices can affect mental experience so deeply that they lead to the override of ordinary sense perception. what she calls the “cultural invita- tion” shapes extraordinary experiences a great deal. I will briefly examine some of the relevant evidence from current diagnostic nosology on dissociative disorders involving alterations in consciousness that affect memory and identity. They are shaped by explicit and implicit learning around the ways that people pay attention with their senses. That is a powerful impact. cognitive anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann noted that within our bodily constraints. mystical experiences.26 The problem with these phenomena is that social and cultural expecta- tions and norms play a highly significant role in them. (Luhrmann 2011: 72)27 There is a good deal of work on the socio-cultural contexts of MPD where the conclusions tend to view such behaviour as a form of social strategy which allows an individual to disavow actions attributed to other selves or entities in the body. 40 . etc. In her study of hallu- cinations and “sensory overrides”.. intention. Those who feel themselves “possessed” by demons or deities. could be suffering from schizophrenia. hallucinations. on MPDs and false memories (Spanos 1996) provides insight into a number of phenomena well known to scholars of religion. and inference that the community treats as important – and local practices of mental cultivation will affect both the kinds of unu- sual sensory experiences that individuals report and the frequency of those experiences. The evidence of spirit possession. A leading scholar of this approach was psychologist Nicholas P. This approach harmonizes well with the idea that selves are co- created by the brain and interpersonal relationships. visions. She argued that: the local theory of mind – the features of perception. They are expe- rienced as spontaneous and uncontrolled. armin w. Others who “see” visions and ghosts or obey “voices”. mob hysterics. His book. Hallucinations feel unwilled. might be suffering from multiple personality disorder (MPD). Spanos.

) Also here we find the politics of pos- session.: 181–2). if touched upon at all by psychologists and psychiatrists. and once again. M. just as with Catholic diagnostic and treat- ment procedures (exorcism). Such behaviour. The former involves possession by major deities during public performances that confirm central religious tenets. nor that diagnosing spirit or demon possession as a form of MPD is irrelevant. Krader 1954. Yap 1969.30 The same holds for other shamanistic areas and possession cultures (Bateson & Mead 1942: xvi. it is clear that historical reports of demonic possession in Western. was quickly labelled neurotic or psychotic. not escaped from similar assumptions. Devereux 1956.). and the latter involves possession by capricious and amoral deities or spirits who possess socially marginal and oppressed members of society (Lewis [1971] 1989. that most shamans are psychologically 41 . “displays of multiplicity by MPD patients are also often cued and reinforced by the procedures purportedly used to diag- nose and treat that condition” (ibid. Christian contexts resemble the historical manifestations of MPD (ibid. The possessed usually have goals in mind. as Spanos noted. A leading scholar on the subject. Only a few cases have been reported that indicate possession as being symptomatic of severe stress and accompanied by psychopathological symptoms (Spanos 1996: 155). nor that MPD doesn’t exist. they at least serve other social functions. Many of the humanistic and social science disciplines have long main- tained a deep distrust of psychological and psychiatric explanations of ecstatic religious behaviour. insanity and lunacy (Bogoras 1907: 415. On the other hand. What is important here is to determine to what extent MPD can be used to interpret spirit possession. not only in demonic possession. distinguished between central and peripheral possession. Ohlmarks 1939.29 Ethnographers have. however. there is an equal number of scholars who are better informed with precisely the opposite view. But. This doesn’t mean that people necessarily lie about their experiences. happy individuals. anthropologist I.28 The “politics of possession” extends also to the fact that in most traditional societies with possession beliefs.: 169). 1986). Langness 1965. namely. in some societies thus offers women social opportunities that they otherwise would not have. Spanos’s conclusion is that possession phe- nomena in traditional societies are rule-governed and generally socially sanc- tioned. but in witch hunts as well (ibid. and these goals are pursued in public or. if not. Lewis. possession happens more frequently to women than men. there is a relatively high frequency of “multiple self-enactments” in the world. whence religion? In reviewing the literature. M. as I. Linton 1956: 131ff. is that cognition and psychology are not primarily matters of the brain. But. Silverman 1967. Most persons who become possessed are normal. The point. Lewis has pointed out. Much of the ethno- graphic literature on Siberian shamanism is rife with diagnoses of arctic hysteria. however. especially that of spirit possession. Radin 1937). and.

36 (Ibid. MPD and PTSD). (2) a cathartic discharge of feelings. 1990).31 (2) depersonalization. Jensen. They claim that trance and trance possession are forms of disso- ciation. which lists 28 dissociative behaviours (Bernstein & Putnam 1986). i.e. uncertainty. conventionally accepted. Suryani and Jensen claim that such behaviour has great indi- vidual and species survival value because they provide: (1) escape from overwhelming reality. a sense that one’s surroundings are unreal. or puzzlement regarding one’s identity. whiling the afternoon away daydreaming. Nadel 1946. (Suryani & Jensen 1995: 22) 42 .e. 1966: 40).e. i. i. Dissociative disorders can be characterized by five core symptoms: (1) amnesia. and (5) a beneficial enhancement of the “herd sense”. and even dreaming during sleep.. leaving your keys in the refrigerator or forgetting a dentist appointment. Wavell et al.e.33 (4) identity confusion. But dissociation is also fairly widespread in normal behaviour. i. (3) a resolution of irreconcilable conflicts.35 All or some of these symptoms occur in the various types of dissociative disorders (e. a Western psychia- trist with wide experience of Balinese culture and mental health. There are dissociative phenomena that are normal and those that are abnormal. a specific and significant segment of time that is unavailable to memory. Anisimov 1963. citing Shirokogoroff 1935. the human incli- nation to be affiliated with people engaged in similar activities. geertz healthy. Luh Ketut Suryani. are more positive in their evaluation of the relationship between Western psychiatric and brain disorders with trance and trance possession in Bali (Suryani & Jensen 1995).34 (5) identity alteration. reading a good book or watching an exciting movie completely oblivi- ous to one’s surroundings. a sense of detachment from self. i. a Balinese psychiatrist trained in the West. armin w. Murphy 1964: 76. In their book Trance and Possession in Bali. doing “absent-minded” things like pouring coffee in the soup bowl. a feeling of confusion. Examples are driving a car and not remembering or being aware of details along the route. and Gordon D. objective behaviour that indicates a change in identity.e. and important members of their communities (Lewis [1971] 1989: 165ff. Studies indicate that over 25 per cent report a substantial number of dissociative experiences (Ross et al. i.g.32 (3) derealization.: 27–8) Dissociation is measured by using the Dissociative Experiences Scale (DES). (4) an abil- ity to perform some behaviours automatically thereby permitting simultaneous conscious engagement in other behaviours. highly socialized.e.

and the goals are the same. chanting. whence religion? Thus dissociation is a basic psychological process not only in normal behav- iour but also in altered states of consciousness (ASCs). and so on. whereas trance possession in Bali is highly valued culturally and socially. as a particular pattern of changes in somatic functioning. not that it is the seat of consciousness.e. neurosci- entist Arne Dietrich concluded that the unifying neuroanatomical feature of these various ASCs is that they are due to transient prefrontal cortex deregu- lation. the symptoms are fairly uniform in psychophysiological terms. The difference. Whether induced by hypnosis.: 220). are inconclusive either because the results have been negative or because positive results have come out of experiments lacking critical controls (Cahn & Polich 2006. concepts of person. Kihlstrom 1994: 247). MPDs are highly negative and result from traumatic experiences of early childhood. solitude. i. as the product of a particular induction tech- nique. hypnosis. rituals. however. meditation. to the expres- sion of “feelings and behaviours not otherwise permitted by the individual’s ego or conscious state” (ibid. such as hypnosis. although the literature on ASC is voluminous. fasting. The prefontal cortex constitutes half of the frontal lobe and is primarily involved in executive functions. is in the thought content of these two conditions.: 219). The phenomenological uniqueness of each state.39 Drawing on psychological and neuroscientific studies of dreaming. (3) observationally. beliefs. daydreaming. The differences one finds are due to circumstances. singing or dancing. such as with meditation. role models. (Kihlstrom 1994: 207) Unfortunately. (2) phenomenologically. ASC can be defined by four features: (1) operationally. and (4) physiologically. trance and possession. “is the result of the differential viability of various frontal circuits” (Dietrich 2003: 231). the experimen- tal evidence that supports claims made for performance-enhancing qualities.: 219–20). meditation.38 ASCs play an important role in a wide variety of religious behaviours. music. he argues. hallucinogenic plants and drugs. Both physiologically and psychologically. their experiences are similar: “some other entity or part of the self that to them has a real exist- ence takes over” (ibid. as an individual’s subjective report of altered awareness or voluntary control. and drug-induced states. Suryani and Jensen conclude that the psychobiological mechanism and phenomenol- ogy of MPD is “similar if not the same” as possession both in the West and in Bali (ibid. Altered states of consciousness involve modifying or distorting the monitor- ing and controlling functions of mental alertness and awareness. as changes in overt behaviour corresponding to a person’s self- report. but 43 .37 as well as in mental disorders such as MPD. jog- ging.

whereby full-fledged consciousness is a global function. ASCs operate on the basis of “transient prefrontal deregulation”.41 com- plex social function.44 planning.46 and theory of mind47” (ibid. that people being manipulated play an active role in their manipulation through as-if. goal-directed enactment (ibid.51 It is this superimposing of already highly complex mental constructs that dramatically increases cognitive flexibility and permits a unified phenomenological experience.: 232–3). three other cognitive functions (working memory. With this in mind. which by using “phenomenological subtraction” (Hobson 2001). geertz that it “enables the top layers of consciousness by contributing the highest- order cognitive functions to the conscious experience” (ibid. Spanos showed just how easy it is to manipulate emotional and cognitive states through suggestion and other means.’ While in meditation and hypnosis attention is redirected.: 38–9). (Dietrich 2003: 249) Spanos has convincingly demonstrated how manipulating attentional control and sociocognitive expectations can result in university psychology students experiencing a variety of dissociative states as well as past life regression.: 235). however. our teams have been designing experiments to test ways by which expectation and predictive error monitoring can be manipulated in 44 .48 temporal integration. ASCs are induced by subtle modifications of func- tions in the “top” layers. (Dietrich 2003: 233) The theory promoted by Dietrich is a hierarchy of consciousness. but not all areas of the brain contribute equally to it. reduce certain prefrontal circuits thus contrib- uting to the uniqueness of each altered state. daydreaming accomplishes this feat by reducing attentional ability. The fron- tal cortex uses highly processed information from the other brain areas to integrate and enable “a self-construct. amnesia and so on (Spanos 1996). He also showed. For meditation.40 self-reflective consciousness. Damage to lower levels are much more serious and can destroy consciousness altogether (ibid. Furthermore. hypnosis and daydreaming.42 abstract thinking. mul- tiple identities.43 cognitive flexibility.49 and sustained attention50): provide the infrastructure to compute these complex cognitive functions by providing a buffer to hold information in mind and order it in space-time. attentional resources are controlled: in order to eliminate extraneous information from being proc- essed consciously.: 232). This intentional blockage permits specific pre- frontal circuits to be run in ‘safe mode. false memories.45 willed action. armin w.

furthermore. 2006). Else-Marie Jegindø’s clinical and field experiments have demonstrated how religious expectations influence the experience of pain intensity and unpleasantness (Jegindø et al. have demonstrated that ritual- ized actions systematically affect how humans process actions by hindering the smooth integration of individual action gestalts (e.54 From a different perspective. Jilek 1982b). The preliminary results indi- cate that the RCC team could reproduce the same success rate claimed by Persinger simply by suggestion and deprivation (Andersen 2012. Kristoffer Nielbo and Jesper Sørensen in a series of experiments on ritualized behaviour. “drinking”). hypoglycemia and dehydration. 2008. Uffe Schjoedt. cf. “gripping”. and hyperventilation) that produce ASCs have their underlying metabolic mechanism in endogenous opiates (Jilek 1982a: 336–41. whence religion? religious situations.53 Marc Andersen. 45 . 2013). This. visual-sensory deprivation. it also makes them prime candidates for subse- quent reinterpretation. Clinical psychiatrist Wolfgang G. ecstasy or violence (Deeley 2004. 2007.52 Following up on Michael Persinger’s temporal lobe experiments (the so- called God-helmet experiments). sleep dep- rivation. 2009. Religious rituals and social behaviour modulate the neural regulatory systems. 2013b). Uffe Schjoedt’s fMRI experiments on prayer have dem- onstrated how expectations concerning charismatic authorities influence sub- ject’s receptivity to prayer (Schjoedt et al. They hypothesize that this lack of predictability affects a redirection of attention towards low features of the actions thereby depleting cognitive resources from other tasks (Nielbo 2012. forced hypermotility. temperature stimulation. seclusion and restricted mobility. Sørensen et al.g. Jilek investigated shamanism and the “Spirit Dance” among the Salish on Vancouver Island. The ritualized use of the body stimulates particular mental states. and concluded that the mechanisms of sensory stimulation (i. in preparation). whether it is terror. superseded interfer- ence caused by injections of the drug naloxone which effectively blocks cen- tral opioid receptors (Jegindø 2012: 44). which could not be replicated by a Swedish team. Rituals can serve to produce attunement in a group (Konvalinka et al.g. Kristoffer Nielbo and Jesper Sørensen initiated experiments using a non-active helmet. Public rituals can help groups of individuals attune themselves to a common mental state. These expectations. Geertz 2010b). realigning individual experience of the ritual to cultur- ally sanctioned religious narratives (Schjoedt et al. 2011). Rituals and the modulation of regulatory systems play a significant role in therapeutic systems around the world (Krippner & Achterberg 2000). “lifting”) into causally structured events schemas (e. facilitates not only representations of rituals as having direct or magical efficacy (Sørensen 2006. 2011).e. kinetic stimulation. in turn. pain stimulation. acoustic stimula- tion. Nielbo & Sørensen 2011). Andersen et al.

and spirit possession. Benedetti 2009). we hardly know as yet what processes are involved. (Ibid. 2011: 339) This effect has been well known throughout human history. The former produces what is called “faith analgesia” and the lat- ter “endorphin-mediated analgesia” (R. Although this effect tells us a lot about the mind/brain/body interfaces. Neurologist Fabrizio Benedetti and his team have argued in their review of the placebo literature that: Placebos are not inert substances. ranging from anxiety and reward mechanisms to Pavlovian conditioning and social learning. Prince 1982: 411–12). geertz There are strong indications of a connection between auto-suggestion and the endorphins in fire-handler cults. thus once again supporting the hypothesis promoted in this essay (cf. until recently it has been treated as an irritation factor in clinical tests of pharma- cological substances. or even genetic variants.56 however. symbols. Benedetti and his team argue that the neural networks responsible for this effect in pain and Parkinson’s disease are (1) the opiodidergic-chole- cystokinergic-dopaminergic modulatory network in pain and (2) the basal ganglia circuitry in Parkinson’s disease (ibid. hypnotic trance and drum-and-dance trance may depend on two different physiologies. as thus far believed. but they emphasize the impor- tant fact that there are many placebo effects based on differing mechanisms and therapies for different diseases: Sometimes it is anxiety that is modulated. H. This brings us to the placebo effect. and yet. armin w. and in some other circumstances different types of learning. and from neurogenetics and neurophysiology to clinical practice and neuroethics. at some other times reward mechanisms are involved. They are made of words and rituals. the placebo effect is a melting pot of neuroscientific concepts and ideas. may take place in placebo responsiveness. placebo research will be of singular importance to biocultural analyses. 46 . along with verbal sugges- tions (or any other cue) of clinical benefit. or of a sham physical treatment such as sham surgery.55 trance. Because therapy has played and still plays an important role in reli- gion.).: 340) Expectation and learning play a central role in most types of placebo. New research has revealed many interesting aspects of placebo. In this sense. (Benedetti et al. and all these elements are active in shaping the patient’s brain … A real placebo effect is a psychobiological phenomenon occurring in the patient’s brain after the administration of an inert substance. and meanings.

(Raafat et al. priming. We can therefore begin to understand how environmental contexts through the continuous avenues of primes gain access to our innermost selves – in socialization contexts. In other words. quorum sensing. The efficacy of these methods he called “performative efficacy”. Nick Chater and Chris Frith call this feature “herding”: Herding can be broadly defined as the alignment of the thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group (herd) through local inter- actions rather than centralized coordination. We are especially vulnerable to the influ- ences of peers and authorities. whence religion? Ted J. patient-practitioner interaction. Raafat et al.: 818. meaning. (Ibid. movements. etc. They range from information cascades. religious contexts. emotional manipulations and so on. noted that humans herd like other animals in a ripple effect that influences group dynamics and individual emotions and cognitions. Many of Durkheim’s central insights. postures. vocalizations. mimicry. intuitive as they may have been. namely patient. Kaptchuk claimed. consists of five elements. chemosensory signalling. “offers a charged constellation of expectations” that elicits “patients’ magical anticipation” (ibid. incredibly complex and subtle transmission mechanisms of this phenomenon. which is founded on “the power of belief. cf. Kaptchuk at Harvard Medical School views alternative therapies as “placebo dramas” designed to maximize patient expectation modulation. Alternative medicine. empathy. Neuropsychologists Ramsey M.: 818). vocalizations. postures and movements with those of another person leading to behav- ioural convergence. This effect. Mattingly 1998). the notion of emotional contagion can be extended to the broader concept of social contagion: the tendency to automat- ically mimic and synchronize expressions. The placebo drama. the nature of the illness and the treatment and setting (ibid. are being 47 . contagion. imagination. Raafat. they argued: provides an evolutionary perspective into these behaviours and suggests that they are crucial for the maintenance of societal norms … Thus. 2009: 420) There are many. polit- ical contexts. he argued. The brain is embodied in a nervous system that seamlessly connects the body. and self-relationship” (Kaptchuk 2002: 818).: 425) This reads like a quote from Émile Durkheim. practitioner. expectation. the apparent central coordination of the herd is an emergent property of local interactions. brain and mind in one comprehensive system. and well it should. symbols. per- suasion. imitation.

it is as if he was in reality transported into a special world entirely different from the one in which he ordinar- ily lives. and express this feeling by their shouts.61 These ritual techniques also play a fundamental role in healing rituals. patients and patrons. shape and form emotions and mental states. with the express purpose of manipu- lating the bodies and minds of participants. Especially ritual pageantry draws on a wide variety of driving tech- niques. as described above. that the religious idea seems to have been born.: 307). which have physical influence on our bodies and brains. “Thus ceremonies involving such techniques tug deeply at the psychological and somatic foundations of each and every individual and have the ability to arouse. move- ments. Besides dance. The empirical evidence for this is growing in several areas of research. such as neurological and psychological studies of music. song. It is not difficult to imagine that a man in such a state of exalta- tion should no longer know himself.62 On the dark side of human behaviour. magical rituals. manipu- late somatic and mental states in order to influence our minds in particular ways. From the above-mentioned understanding of the brain. are also used to manipulate the brain’s expectations and decrease or increase sensory input. rituals. geertz vindicated empirically in contemporary psychological and neurological research. clapping. etc. thus allow- ing the transfer and sharing of norms and ideals” (ibid. techniques such as mortification. etc. fasting. this process of convergence occurs during the effervescence produced by hyper-exciting religious rituals. he naturally feels he is no longer himself. whether collective or individual. (Durkheim [1912] 1995: 220)57 As I have argued elsewhere.58 synchrony59 and dancing.).. It seems to him that he has become a new being … And because his companions feel transformed in the same way at the same moment. For Durkheim. these techniques used together with careful manipulation of the brain. and bearing. are essential ingredients in 48 . religious ritual can be seen as a set of herding tools that merge individual and collective minds within the framework of the “greater realities” of their virtual worlds. over-exertion and drugs. and indeed from that very effervescence. a special world inhabited by exceptionally intense forces that invade and transform him … It is in these effervescent social milieux. postur- ing. armin w. and thus on our minds (Geertz 2010a: 307ff.60 The studies conducted by RCC research teams on firewalking in Spain and on Mauritius have also been testing the prosocial and effervescent aspects of collective. religious rituals. shamanistic séances. Feeling possessed and led on by some sort of external power that makes him think and act dif- ferently than he normally does.

Empathy and sympathy. of course. when did religion appear? A crucial problem of course is what we mean by religion. shamans or other religious specialists – were what might be called partially formulated superstitions or proverbial responses. And the reason for this. or even the earliest Homo sapiens.). There must be social structures for solving common problems (altruism. feelings and intuitions. Transgenerational passing on of knowledge (tradition) is essential. we will have to concede that the first activities and ideas that we might conceivably recognize as being religious or spiritual – and here I am not talking about theologically correct or coherent ideas or highly developed priesthoods. only be speculated upon. is that what sets our ape brain off from the brains of other apes is symbolic competence. 3. whence religion? thought control. the question now is. It is “a socially imposed hermeneutical device that draws on the cultural competence of individuals with reference to conceived transempirical powers or beings” (Geertz 1999: 460). Certainly self-consciousness (and not just consciousness or intentional- ity. 2. But whatever the most reasonable scenario might be. I have argued elsewhere that religion is social and cultural. 6. 7. reli- gion cannot have played a merely subsidiary role. The question is: when did these ideas and behaviours first appear?64 I will argue here that there are good reasons to assume that they arose long before Homo sapiens appeared on the scene. again. Self-reflection and identity. cooperation. etc. The powerful social and cultural processes of which we have knowledge today could not have been developed or conceived outside of a religious framework. 8. which all animals have). 4. Kathleen Taylor called it “the traitor in your skull” (Taylor 2004: x). alliances. There must be a social group that shares values and norms. 5. After this discussion of the kinds of minds we have.63 Because we cannot assume that earlier species. when did religion appear? When did proto-religion appear? So. Quite a lot of the cognitive and social functions must be present in order to share normative ideas and behaviours. 49 . How this phenomenon arose can. recalling Goodenough and Deacon (2003). The ability to communicate symbolically. What antecedents would be necessary for a proto-religion to develop? My bet would be on the following items: 1. had minds completely like ours.

). emotional contagion. Nevertheless. But if he concedes the possibility of spoken language. This spe- cies with its big. then he must necessarily concede the presence of symbolic thought. a slightly different positioning of the prefrontal cortex) with expanded Broca’s areas. must have had proto-religious traits. strikingly modern brains (with. 11. That would push the time-frame back to over 1. Authority. and so on. smarter than their predecessors. and that left Africa for temperate climates. armin w. he was very positive about their abilities and their “amazing technological and cul- tural ingenuity” (ibid. If at some point more is learned thus pushing the time-frame further back to earlier species. a sense of identity.: 142). They were either Homo heidelbergensis or most likely the ancestors of Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. 10.000 years ago (Tattersall 2012: 135–43). geertz 9. although there is some discussion about what species was involved. The apparent burial in Sima de los Huesos at Atapeurco. it is difficult to see how their other achievements could happen without symbolic competence. control of fire. It could be argued that Homo ergaster. that we are on firmer ground with the big- brained Homo heidelbergensis.: 137). The evidence presented in this essay indicates that the species evincing these qualities was Homo erectus. however. sophisti- cated wooden spears. at any rate. however. I think. attention to human 50 . Furthermore. Rituals would be used (like other animals) – producing entrainment. Tattersall did not think that they evinced symbolic thought processes. perhaps more specifically Homo heidelbergensis between 600. primi- tive huts and superior stone tools. supersense and a sense of forces in nature would most likely be at play. the inventor of Acheulian lithics. it would not be deleterious to my hypothesis – quite the contrary! Of what would this proto-religion therefore consist? It seems clear from the archaeological evidence that death and the dead were primary objects of symbolic concern. But even without language. according to Ian Tattersall (ibid. symbolic behaviour and objects. Superstition. I stand clearly with Terrence Deacon and Merlin Donald on this issue: symbolic thought led to language and not the other way around. however.000 and 400. might indicate religious behaviour by a species after Homo ergaster and before Homo heidelbergensis.5 million years ago. claiming that the evidence of the use of symbolic objects is too sketchy (ibid. evinced qualities that would allow proto-religious behaviour and thought. They were. control and morality are ever-present. the cooking species and perhaps speaking a proto-language.

fasting and hunger. animals (game. It would involve experiences such as altered states of consciousness (dreams. First. I have argued instead that recent insights from neurobiology indicate that we need to work with biocultural evolutionary scenarios. earthquakes). I have taken issue with a number of assumptions promoted by cognitive scientists of religion concerning the origins of religion. what is special about our brain is its predictive func- tions and flexibility. Another special feature of the brain is that it is depend- ent on culture in order to function properly because it has evolved not only together with culture but because of it. self-inflicted pain. sexuality and female biological cycles and fertility. 5. One could assume that important cul- tural items and their production were of symbolic value. tool-making) and narratives (pre-linguistic. goods and females. The growth of the brain was appar- ently also due to the growing complexity of human social structures. eruptions. 6. 8. centred near the fire. It would also be concerned with social events such as life transition events. These and other creature-related concerns would have been shared by a social unit engaged in networking with other units exchanging items.e. music (and/or song) and various tech- niques to manipulate both body and mind. then. Furthermore. floods.). It would reflect the social group. mimetic). My guess. 7. 2. It would be concerned with death and the dead as well as misfortune and evil. traditions (i. 4. In fact. etc. medicinal). drought. the claim that the brain evolved like a computer into systems of dedicated modules ignores insights from neurology. with implied gender-related domains. whence religion? fertility may have been important. would be the fol- lowing proto-religious behaviour: 1. It would involve magical thinking (sympathetic and contagious). cogni- tion and culture. 3. psychopharmica. Conclusion In this chapter. A final key feature of the brain is that it is incomplete in human infants and is first fully matured after two decades of social and cultural life: the unfinished animal that becomes completed through a particular culture. It would be concerned with expressing group feelings. Taking these 51 . I took issue with the assumption that culture is irrel- evant and religion even more so in human evolution. fish) and natural phenomena (storms. values. dance. These groups may have engaged in ritual dance. It would involve rituals. It would reflect symbolic thought by signs and omens and a sense of forces behind plants (food. social status and control.

in our search for the origins of religion. easily spooked. but we also need to incorporate these insights into our evolutionary scenarios. geertz basic features as our starting point. although there are many who have it. and • a superstitious brain prone to unusual mental and/or emotional experiences. Looking more closely at the neuropsychological evidence of our brains and behaviour. indi- vidualistic and culture-blind theories of human cognition are curious at best. There can be no doubt. it is possible to account for the hows and whys of religion and to relate them to some of the current evolutionary theories. • a drive to communicate and cooperate. even before the rise of the hominins. it became evident not only that we need to rethink how to understand religious thought and behaviour in terms of the kinds of brains we have. • a self-deceptive brain. our traits and functions and abilities and worlds are accumulations of prior ones. it becomes obvious that mentalistic. These traits are prerequisites for religious behaviour. and yet. In unpacking these features. I also find the idea that proto-religious behaviour emerged gradu- ally. We and our brains are constantly predicting and constantly dwelling on the future in our attempts to navigate social and natural environments. As mentioned. although it would not surprise me if the evidence will persuade us to look further back in time. we are intelligent apes that are highly emotional. in accordance with an evolutionary theory of slowly emerging steps. I argue that the grand narrative of the cultural explosion of our own subspecies has blinded us to the fact that nothing emerges out of nothing. armin w. Thus. Therefore. extremely sensitive to social norms and virtual realities and equipped with nervous systems that are vul- nerable to influence from conspecifics and their symbolic worlds. With these four features. 52 . we will need to look beyond ourselves into the deep past. to fit much better with the Darwinian framework of this essay. Our brains fill in quite a bit. to understand who we are and where we came from. the most likely candidate that evinced proto-religious behaviour is Homo heidelbergensis. to put it in more positive terms. filling in many more things. very superstitious. cognition and culture. with all the caveats and disagreements in mind. I have identified four key human features: • a finely honed social cognition. but our cultures are also in our brains and around them. Or. that symbolic behaviour is evident in the archaeological record before the appearance of Homo sapiens. I claim. long before the appearance of Homo sapiens. I find this thought comforting. In looking through the archaeological records.

Cacioppo & Berntson 2005. way before this volume ever saw the light of day. 5. Cognition and Culture Research Unit (RCC) at the Department of Culture and Society. 2002. Solé & Goodwin 2000). “reprinted” in Geertz (2010c) (there were some good jokes in it. Donald 2001. especially the MINDLab UNIK initiative funded by the Danish Ministry of Science. My special thanks are extended to neurologists Merlin Donald. 9. Renfrew & Scarre 1998). 2003. 2010a. Technology and Innovation. This is the key argument put forward by Jonathan Turner and Alexandra Maryanski in their important book On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection (2008). Losin et al. The quoted passage at the end is to Washburn (1959). Section for the Study of Religion. See also Bulbulia (2004b). In preparation for this pub- lication. 2008b). See Geertz (in press) for my essay on this subject. Aarhus University. 2009. Notes 1. Durham 1982. Philosopher of biology and cognitive science Robert C. Vogeley & Roepstorff 2009).g. My sincere thanks are extended to friends and cohorts Joseph Bulbulia and Jesper Sørensen whose careful reading of this chapter has improved it greatly. See for instance the growing literature on social and affective neuroscience (Adolphs 2003. This is of course opposite to Tooby and Cosmides’s claims (Tooby & Cosmides 1992). 2. Their ideas have had an indelible impact on my thinking. Renfrew et al. which have been characterized by one critic as “modularity gone mad” (Fodor 1987). Gottlieb 2007. Tooby and Cosmides. were also very wrong about Clifford Geertz in their diatribes against what they labelled the “standard social science model”. 7. it has been substantially revised. West-Eberhard is clearly aligned with the growing literature on the importance and functions of epigenesis (cf. 6. 2012). Varela et al. Chris Frith and Uta Frith. Which is why I have persistently argued that it is theism that needs explanation and not atheism (Geertz & Markússon 2010. See my coming essay on Clifford Geertz and the cognitive science of culture in Geertz (in press). which have been dutifully removed here). See my reviews in Geertz (2004. Cacioppo et al. Geertz 2012). whence religion? Acknowledgements This contribution was originally written for this volume. (2011: 401–5). and the Religion. 3. Chiao 2010. The ideas presented here were made possible by the unique interdisciplinary environment at Aarhus University. See Geertz (2008a. Kitayama & Park 2010. A version of it was. Jablonka & Lamb 2005. Several special issues on cognition and materiality have appeared recently (e. to Sheila Coulson for her corrections in the section concerning Rhino Cave and to Chris Frith for his comments on crucial neurological issues. however. as well as the young team of predictive-coding enthusiasts at the RCC (Jesper. Knappett & Malafouris 2008. Richardson argued that evo- lutionary psychology in this guise is “maladapted psychology” that is more speculative than scientific (Richardson 2007: 38). 8. Uffe. 53 . 4. Barsalou et al. Ella. my close MINDLab colleagues. by the way. Kristoffer and Marc). Oyama 2000. See also Gervais et al. neu- rologist Leif Østergaard and anthropologist-biologist Andreas Roepstorff. None of the above- mentioned is to be blamed for my idiosyncrasies. 1991. 2010. 10.

neurologi- cal and genetic mechanisms behind this process (Ziegler & Saler 2012). see Luhrmann (2012). The issue of group selection has been eloquently addressed in several publications by David Sloan Wilson (2002. use stones as tools. Jesper Sørensen presented an immunology hypothesis to counter-balance the epidemiol- ogy models by.). 19. 2008). Oesterreich (1974) and Smith (2001). shows what consciousness is for rather than what it is (Frith 2010: 498). Bourguignon (1976). I am indebted to Sheila Coulson for this information and for her critical reading of this paragraph. (1983). volume 364. is not very helpful: “the kind of belief and action a reasonable man in the present-day Western society would regard as being ‘superstitious’” (Jahoda 1969: 10). he claimed. Trevarthen (1993) and Trevarthen et al. 24. Recent research indicates. Ziegler’s and Benson Saler’s excellent discussion of the social. see the special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 2007. (1990). which they argued supports the observation of coincidence and search for causal patterns. Jahoda (1969) is discussed by Vyse (1997: 20ff. thus improving survival rates (Beck & Forstmeier 2007). as well as apes. What he actually mentions are behaviours ranging from “lucky or unlucky numbers. The sections “Fire control” and “Symbolic objects” are loosely based on Geertz (2011b: 41–5). 28. ghosts and sorcerers” (ibid. See. especially Bar (2009). 20. 22. Moulton and Kosslyn (2009). Besides Meltzoff and Moore’s pioneering work in 1977. among others. Chris Frith has argued that the experimental literature on the motor system may reveal more. 13. I concur with biologists Jan Beck’s and Wolfgang Forstmeier’s Bayesian approach to superstition. The consequences of including the last three items in this catalogue are that a good Christian who really believes that Satan works in the world is superstitious. These examples I would categorize squarely as “religious”. texts that would have us believe that the great religious figures in world 54 . 17. 25. Donald (2001: 255ff. This literature. (2000). that more work needs to be done on this issue (see Jones 2009). with substantial additions. just like a Siberian indigene who believes that his shaman’s tutelary spirits can heal illnesses or an American Indian who is convinced that he has been bewitched by an evil sorcerer. armin w. 16. See Koch (2004) for the technical details of how this happens. geertz 11. Mitchell (2009). 2010). Jahoda’s own definition. 18. how- ever. Cf. Damisch et al. Cf. days or colours via astrology and other occult systems to witches. after a number of pages criticizing other definitions. See Charles A.). On the role of cultural structures and genetic variation. 12. 21. Murray and Trevarthen (1985). 2010b). 14. Evidence indicates that monkeys. Ekman et al. See Geertz (2010a. Taves (2009) and Wulff (2000). Murray and Andrews (2000). Because a good deal of the literature on consciousness is based on the visual system. (1990). 27.). 26. For the neurological details of prediction in mental processes. 29. Targ et al. See Benson Saler’s excellent chapter on the evolutionary advantages of credulity (Saler 2009: 133–46). A brief overview can be found in Kihlstrom et al. Gilbert and Wilson (2009). (1999). 23. Ekman et al. for instance. In this. provide experimental evidence showing that superstition contributes to performance enhancement (Damisch et al.). 15. Henrich seems not to have been aware of that article. just to name a few: Beebe and Lachmann (1988). Cohen (2007). Boyer and Sperber (Sørensen 2004). Dissanayake (2000: 19ff. and Schacter and Addis (2009).

(2005). Frith and Frith (2001). Keenan et al. Rawcliffe (1959: 291–6). 43. Povinelli and Preuss (1995) and Stone et al. See Cook and Persinger (1997) and Persinger (1999). (1990). 47. 52. Prince (1968). 56. (1998). 42. 2005). Steinberg et al. Colleagues in London and Belfast are working on similar projects. 54. Schjoedt 2009). 45. This fact was recently demonstrated in Else-Marie E. 44. cf. Cf. 37. Rylander (1948). Tinterow (1970). Holm (1982: 23). and counter-reply by Larsson et al. Steinberg et al. Steinberg et al. (2001). Henry (1982) and Walker (1972). 30. 34. 2013b. (1990). Damasio (1994). Frith and Dolan (1996). Dehaene and Naccache (2001) and Duncan and Owen (2000). Lhermitte (1983). Steinberg et al. (2000). 46. 49. Jegindø’s study of the Thaipasam ceremony on Mauritius. Lhermitte et al. (1986). Previc. (2005). 35. however. (1998). (1986). Fuster (1995). and is thus of minimal relevance to the scientific study of religion (Geertz 2009. has argued that the ventromedial dopaminergic systems are active during hyperreligiosity and may even be linked to the evolution of religion (Previc 2006). 40. Lauren Swiney is experimenting with suggestion and thought insertion (Swiney in preparation). PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder. Uffe Schjoedt and I have argued that much of the neurological research on religious experiences and on religion and health is religiously motivated and addresses religious audiences. Vogely et al. Steinberg (1991). 36. Shallice and Burgess (1991). Cf. 50. Courtney et al. In Belfast. (2001). Barber (1958) and R. See the excellent summary of this process by Chris Shilling and Philip A. See also Emma Cohen’s (2007: 79–97) excellent review of the literature on ASC in rela- tion to possession. critique by Granqvist et al. Ibid. schizophrenics (Polimeni & Reiss 2002) or in need of oxygen (Arzy et al. 53. Steinberg (1991). Norman and Shallice (1986). 57. 39. Neurologist Fred H. Mellor 55 . Persinger and Koren’s reply (2005). Posner (1994) and Sarter et al. Fuster (2000) and Goldman-Rakic (1992). (1999). Kane (1982). See anthropologist Bambi Chapin’s enlightening study of a Sri Lankan possession priest- ess (Chapin 2008) placed in the context of the debate between Melford Spiro (1997) and Gananath Obeyesekere (1990). J. 32. 33. 31. Seligman & Kirmayer 2008). 55. Neuropsychiatrists Quinton Deeley and Eamonn Walsh have successfully produced automatic writing in normal subjects. 51. 38. (1986). Mayer-Gross (1924). Her analyses show that reduction in the subjective inten- sity and unpleasantness of the painful rituals was more evident in participants that reported dissociative states than those that did not (Jegindø et al. Knight and Grabowecky (1999) and Kolb (1984). 41. Vogeley et al. whence religion? history were either epileptics (Devinsky & Lai 2008). 48. Granqvist argued that the Persinger’s results were most likely due to suggestive influ- ences on the subjects.

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Dennett 2006). Irons 1996a. From a biological perspective. This new position echoes past observations. yet religiosity is common- place. 2001. Signalling theory holds that religion enables motivated cooperators to discover each other amid opportunists who would exploit them. Schelling 1960. and risks – appear in vivid contrast to nature’s thrift. 1996c. Bulbulia 2004b. as Richard Dawkins recoils from religion. Naturalists interested in the evolution of humans are faced with a “cost problem” (Atran 2002. along with the cultural and psychological architecture that supports religion. 2 Why “costly signalling” models of religion require cognitive psychology Joseph Bulbulia Who benefits from religion? Call religiosity beliefs and practices respecting gods. enhance coordination and solidarity. 1996b. Sosis 2003). Religiosity presents a striking evolutionary problem. it would appear that humans should have developed allergies to religion. given the ubiquity of religiosity. Religion evolved to support stable. 2001. The burdens that religion imposes – its opportunity costs. religion is the effect of systems elaborated by genetic and culture selection and conserved from the benefits these sys- tems bring to those who are religious. Theorists of religion have long noticed that the pomp and ritual expressions of religion. mutually reinforcing cooperative exchange. little is known about the evolutionary dynamics that sustain its propagation (Dennett 2006.. Durkheim writes: The general conclusion of the book … is that religion is some- thing eminently social. Religious representations are collective 71 . and the affective delirium that accompanies it. naturalists are approaching religiosity as an evolved com- mitment-signalling device (see Alcorta & Sosis 2005. Iannaccone 1992. Bulbulia 2004a. Increasingly. resource outlays. Cronk 1994. On this view. Surprisingly. We should have evolved to recoil from religion. Wilson 2002).

Imagine an interaction between two unrelated people. 2004). Simple games and commitment devices To understand religion as a signalling system. and material costs of religion. PDs will lead to defection. Henrich et al. Signalling theorists urge that religiosity is evolutionarily ratifiable because religious costs allow for the verification of cooperative commitment among unrelated partners (Irons 72 . Where rewards correlate to fitness. However withholding aid to a cooperator (defection) benefits any focal agent more than mutual coop- eration. It remains puzzling that selection did not strike upon a cheaper means for enabling cooperative exchange without the epis- temic. Many interactions that gen- erate collective benefits through cooperation also invite defection. In a non-repeated PD. Each person benefits from mutual cooperating over going it alone. We are adapted to getting along with others. The lone honeybee weaving its way through a forest is an evolutionary dead end. The pris- oner’s dilemma (PD) models core features of common cooperation problems. Biologists have discovered mechanisms that convert the payoff structures of PDs to enable the evolution of stable cooperation. a core feature of our success (Boyd & Richerson 2005). the most biologi- cally relevant features of our worlds.1 Signalling theorists consider religion to be one such mechanism. “Cui bono?” (“Who benefits?”). Yet the religion-as-cooperation explanation still leaves us with an apparent cost problem. (Durkheim [1915] 1964: 22) It is easy to see how stable cooperation may enhance reproduction. Signalling theory views the costs of religion as themselves adaptations. humans are massively cooperative animals (Fehr & Fishbacher 2005. defection pays best. this incentive structure will lead to mutual defection. As Daniel Dennett (2006) puts it. joseph bulbulia representations which express collective realities. There is an incentive to cooperate but an even greater incentive to cheat cooperation: no matter what the other person does. the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite. It is widely understood that. by gen- erating goods unavailable to singletons. over the course of evolutionary time. opportunity. The moral of this story is that cooperation cannot be a PD. We should expect a multi-faceted coop- erative toolkit. on the whole. maintain or recreate cer- tain mental states in these groups. we need to first understand ways in which cooperation may be a problem. That religion evolved to bolster cooperation should come as no surprise. Our primate lineage has been cooperative since before we were human (Boehm 1999).

etc. ethno-centrism. Consider theology. entry costs will pre- clude joining more than one religion. This fact is well explained on the signalling model. Whether Peter cuts his penis for the god Zugroo or for his friend directly appears irrel- evant. why “costly signalling” models require cognitive psychology 2001). 6). so Jane’s interests converge to those of her Hindu group (Mahoney 2008). but they do prohibit members from multiple affiliations. permanent marking strategies (tattooing. Why reli- gious costs? Certainly. Soler 2008). However. Sosis et al. we may be signalling 73 . (2007) have shown that permanent marking correlates positively with frequency of war.) tie the fate of the individual to that of the group – for there it is inconvenient to live among strangers when perceptibly marked. yet a cost problem remains for religion. and leave. Scott Atran observes that signalling approaches lack a plausible psychol- ogy: they are “mind blind” (Atran 2002). Indeed. Religious costs are configured to make it hard for free riders to draw collective benefits without contribution. and that costs correlate with commitment (see Sosis 2000. This makes it harder to belong to more than one group at time. burns time and clogs memory. Yet signalling theory still faces many challenges. after all. groups that pray together stay together. The costs of going to church do not exceed the benefits of belonging to one. Why does Peter not dispense with the astral middleman? Irons (2008) does not see any special property of religion to distinguish it from other forms of group-binding solidarity (nationalism.) – a view similarly expressed by Atran (2002: ch. Sosis & Bressler 2003. etc. Human behavioural ecologists do not need to study minds because this is not their subject. it is interesting. quantifiable constraints. It uses optimality modelling to study behaviour under specified. Entry costs enable ritual goers to form reliable exchange groups (Iannaccone 1992). For example. scarification. cir- cumcision. Bulbulia & Mahoney 2008. one can only go to so many churches. Learning non-utilitarian knowledge brings no practical benefit. These authors argue that the class of ritual-bound cooperative communities is larger than the class of religious communities. from the vantage point of cognitive psychology. Moreover. There has been growing experimental evidence supporting signalling theory. sporting affiliates. a discipline that abstracts away from proximate mechanisms. in their survey of the ethnographic record. Signalling theory grew out of human behavioural ecology. because one cannot master all theologies (easily): Jane’s expertise in the Upanishads will get her nowhere in an Islamic the- ocracy. Mastery of esoteric knowledge in a theological domain not only gives evidence of commitment: it also precommits agents to a theological group. it appears that religious communities are especially cooperative. defect. Investment in such learning leaves one committed to one theological group. to consider why religious costs – as opposed to other forms of display – would motivate cooperation. if we lavish resources on the gods. but only if the prayerful cannot easily join.

The importance of psychological frames Social decision making is affected by contextual cues (Nisbett & Wilson 1977). Subjects littered more in dirty as compared with clean environments (32–40% and 11–18%. If not. In the first studies. Then they modified informational and normative contexts by rendering either the environment more salient (clean/dirty) or by allowing participants to first observe confederates act to either litter or clean. where costs are wasted. on vacations and drugs – why not religion? In these examples. or to impress our peers rather than to prove our moral mettle (Pyysiäinen 2008. expenditures might present a hard-to-fake signal of prosperity. Moreover. Slone 2008). Caildini et al. the authors measured littering in response to a task (disposal of rubbish) under varying conditions. Alternatively. not virtue. A heuristic approach. The findings were intriguing. If commitment-signalling theory is to cast light on the cost problem. we defect (Fehr & Fishbacher 2005). they manipulated environments (clean/dirty) to establish a base rate for littering. the confederates exited immediately after performing their scripted behaviours. Moreover people are conditional cooperators. not moral commitment. We need a signalling theory of religion grounded in the cognitive science of religion. Moreover. The Ferrari parked in our garage signals wealth. or skill. cooperation focuses on the relationship between con- textual cues and social behaviours (Bicchieri 2006). showing that con- textual cues impact significantly on decision-making processes. the mean fitness of groups declines. respectively). The experiment suggests that there is much variation among agents with respect to following civic norms. if we suspect others will cooperate then so will we. In nine separate studies. with 74 . status. An alternative explanation might be non-utilitarian entertainment: people waste money at the movies. littering escalated in already dirty environ- ments where participants observed confederate dumping (54%). (1990) observed responses to littering in environments subject to specific informa- tional parameters. joseph bulbulia our commitment to the moral doctrines that the gods are thought to support. Yet only 6 per cent persisted in littering when observing an agent picking up garbage from an otherwise pristine environment. rather than of cooperative commitment. Why should religious costs signal cooperative commitments (Bulbulia 2008)? The ability to communicate through resource expenditure varies with wealth. Religious excess may be configured to get the girl. In conditions where solidarity is needed the most – for groups at war – costly signals of commitment will be most damaging. To avoid confounding results. we first need to understand how beliefs and practices respecting gods motivate coop- erative behaviour. costs are indicators of a preference.

I think. On Boyer’s view. Darwin writes: The tendency in savages to imagine that natural objects and agen- cies are animated by spiritual or living essences. controlled experimental games show that participants who are knowingly observed behave more cooperatively than those who perceive their actions to be unmonitored (Haley & Fessler 2005). Moreover. Agent behaviour reliably covaried with salient features of natural and social environments. and no stranger had a right to be on his territory. He must. The dog does not philosophize before acting out (for compari- son see Guthrie 1993). In thinking about beliefs and practices respecting gods. it acts out in a way it would not have acted had it perceived itself to be alone. the route from stimulus to response is not mediated by deliberation. we also need to consider how immersions in contexts where such beliefs and practices are common activate cooperative norms. Darwin himself does not draw the connection to morality. we posit gods as ad hoc explanations for moral feelings and intuitions. so we invent gods as reasons (ibid. In this case. but recent experimental evidence suggests that we act less selfishly when we perceive our actions to be observed. Yet there is evidence that we respond differently when we think others are present or watching. (Darwin [1871] 1981: 67) For Darwin’s dog. Bering has recently shown that priming participants to reflect on the ghost of a dead undergraduate reduced cheating in otherwise anonymous games with monetary payoffs (Bering et al. We do both as the Romans do and as the Romans expect. For example. Consider Boyer’s observation that gods are “full access strategic agents”. is perhaps illus- trated by a little fact which I once noticed: my dog. or FASAs (Boyer 2001). which would have been wholly disregarded by the dog. a full-grown and very sensible animal. 5). was lying on the lawn during a hot and still day. In his discussion of religion in the Descent of Man. As it was. norms appear to rely on informational triggers for their activation (see Bicchieri 2006: 64–7 for discussion). every time that the parasol slightly moved. More important.: ch. have reasoned to himself in a rapid and uncon- scious manner that movement without any apparent cause indi- cated the presence of some strange living agent. but at a little distance a slight breeze occasionally moved an open parasol. That is. the dog growled fiercely and barked. Thus. had any one stood near it. 2005). why “costly signalling” models require cognitive psychology only a small minority of subjects choosing to violate norms across conditions. Norenzayan and Shariff (2007) have 75 . merely thinking of a ghost tends to support cooperation in unmonitored contexts. agents act in accordance with the norms and expectations we predict for our neighbours. We don’t know why we think incest is wrong and honesty is right.

Yet – and this is the important point – supernatural framing alone cannot conserve the policing exchange over time. 2006). Where religion is common.). religious cooperators face a recognition constraint (Bulbulia 2005. If such agents are imagined to be (potentially) everywhere – if they are FASAs – then effective policing may be secured relatively cheaply. Practices respecting gods certify beliefs respecting gods. suggest religious themes) and prosocial behaviour in dictator games. That property is a psychological property – the perception of FASAs. Merely contemplating anthropomorphically has scope for enhancing norm-abiding behaviour. while at the same time spotting religious impostors. when scrambled. the religiously committed would only get exploited (in PDs). Signalling theory remains relevant. Surprisingly. the effect holds for theists and atheists alike. Average gifting increased in the eyes condition by 274 per cent. 76 . Religiously motivated coop- eration is evolvable only if co-religionists can find each other.1 Extra giving was found in an office environ- ment where an image of a pair of eyes (no head. Bateson and her colleagues have demonstrated significant increases in anonymous gifting to common goods resources pools where participants are presented with stimuli that only vaguely resemble actual persons (Bateson et al. Harsanyi & Selton 1988). no face. And we have elucidated the crucial property that religious signals identify. Religious persons do not face cooperation dilemmas because they do not perceive defection as paying better than cooperation. tendencies to supernatural policing cannot become common when the anthropomor- phic trait is rare. This effect is striking because the images were clearly of unreal observers – mere A5 photographs of faceless human eyes. varied and alternating each week with images of flowers for the control condition. and the disposition to act on an awareness of them. Consider further that the cues need not be of fully anthropomorphized agents. joseph bulbulia recently demonstrated substantial positive correlations between implicit supernatural primes (words that. religious persons would also remain exploitable by defectors. The presence of a super- natural other – when primed – will tend to trigger norm obedience. no body) was placed above a collection box for milk and coffee. The psychological relevance of context to decision making has an imme- diate bearing on the analysis of religion as a solidarity device and noticing the cooperative effects of anthropomorphism we are now in a better position to understand why religion motivates cooperation. The actual payoffs of cooperation and defection in any given instance are not the relevant predic- tors of cooperation. What matters are the perceptions and conditional pref- erences of agents who interact (Bulbulia 2004a. Put another way. Against defectors. Assuming PDs abound.

The language of the heart does not (easily) lie. The movements are produced outside of the neocortex. and others. mark us quite vividly. cooperative emotions need not be construed as mere responses to environmental conditions. sadness. Emotional signals can solve recognition problems. And no one teaches us how to read these basic emotional sig- natures. anger. This follows because emotions speak prophetically and accurately. pride. Emotions are not merely cues about how an emoting agent thinks and feels. and so are not subject to conscious manipulation. because emotions are expressed publically. Emotions simultaneously index how a person perceives the world and how a person is motivated. We feel a certain way because we perceive ourselves in our world to be a certain way. 1990). Religious signals are likely to be hard-to-fake. emotional signalling may 77 . Suppression requires effort.e. Where emotions identify cooperative commitments. hence reliable information about a person’s motivations improves behavioural forecasting (Schelling 1960). and these feelings are linked to motivations. Emotional signals predict future behaviours. Motivations drive actions. though they are not infallible indicators) strong emotion is often suppressed imperfectly (Ekman 1971). in light of that perception (Schachter & Singer 1962). There are five properties of emotions that jointly enable emotions to signal cooperative intentions. many emotions cannot be easily faked. shock. why “costly signalling” models require cognitive psychology Religious emotions as signals for cooperative futures Costly signals identify wealth and reduce mean fitness. and though they may be suppressed (i. joy.3 The muscular orchestration of a smile involves the intricate synchronization of dozens of facial mus- cles. As a result. Elsewhere I have urged that emotions which indicate the perception of FASAs facilitate both cheap and effective commitment signalling (Bulbulia 2004a).2 3. and because emotions identify likely behav- iours. at least not directly. This is evident in the “Duchenne” smile. This follows from the link between emotions and motivational states. 4. emotional signalling can benefit partners who jointly display cooperative emo- tions. disgust. not economically costly. they offer credible cues. nearly everyone finds it difficult to produce genuine smiles on demand (Levenson et al. Some emotions are extremely difficult to suppress. Emotional signals are honest. 5. We wear many emotions on our face: fear. To generalize. in characteristic ways (Darwin [1872] 1965. Emotional signals are public. Said differently. Ekman 1994). 1. shame. The absence of fear as the lions charge the Coliseum floor is possible only if one believes in another world that will not end in a lion’s jaw. 2.

religions endure. the benefits of cooperation will ratify systems that perpetuate religious beliefs and that facilitate the projection and amplification of religious emotions. emotional signalling offers an inference to the best explanation for religion’s ubiquity and conservation. To better understand the systems that support religion requires a cognitive science of religion grounded in the evolutionary biology of animal communication. Where agents are closely related. Furthermore. Through their cooperative efforts. Indirect reciprocity will favour cooperation where the likelihood of knowing an agent’s image score (q) exceeds the cost to benefit ratio q > c/b (Alexander 1987. Religious people are able to cooperate relatively cheaply because they (i) believe in moral reality and (ii) express these commitments in manners that are hard to fake. but only the Japanese students suppressed these expressions in the presence of experimenters. with n = maximum group size and m = number of groups. So development matters to the emergence of complex emotional pheno- types. The genetic and cultural systems that enable religious cognition co-evolved to enable the signalling of cooperative intentions. Complex emotional expressions arise through culturally specific “display rules” (Ekman 1972. emotional responses to anthropomorphic agents (FASAs) will offer hard-to-fake evidence of coopera- tive intentions. Nowak & Sigmund 2005). Finally. For example. For a discussion of this and the other cases see Nowak (2006). Where agents frequently interact. conscience) and social institutions (for example. will motivate reciprocal exchange if such beliefs can be authenticated. cooperation can evolve where relatedness (r) exceeds the cost–benefit ratio: r > c/b. Given the cooperation- enhancing prospects of believing in a moral universe. group selection will favour cooperation. Notes 1. where b/c > 1+(n/m). Griffiths 1997). 2005). the semantic conventions governing the meaning of basic emotions 78 . In turn. converting PDs into coordination problems (Hinde 1985). language and gossip. indigna- tion. its police) secure and maintain these conditions. duty. Trivers 1971). Ekman and colleagues found that Japanese and American students expressed similar facial responses to stressful films when unob- served. A cognitive science of religious emotions can explain the cost problem that mind-blind behavioural signalling theories require. Put simply. Emotional signals establish a pathway to authentication. Ekman attributes this effect to cultural differences respecting authority (Ekman 1971). the state. if shared. Beliefs in moralizing supernaturals. cooperation is favoured where the likelihood of future interaction (w) exceeds the cost–benefit ratio: w > c/b (Hamilton 1964. joseph bulbulia actively alter the conditions in which partners transact. many psychological dispositions (for example memory. emotional signal- ling does not carry an intrinsic price tag. Population structure also will favour reciprocity where benefit-to-cost ratio exceeds the average number of neighbours (k): b/c > k (Lieberman et al. Notably. 2. Nevertheless. assuming weak selection and rare group division.

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from “thought”. and in a way that might complement the above. in the work of social anthropologists. kin affiliation and collective order (e. In broad terms. 237–40). In terms of evolutionary theory. “beliefs” and “representation” 82 . and thus intuitively geared to respond to religious objects. status (Milner 1994) and earlier. category boundaries as information-processing cues (Anttonen 2004). 2003) and emergent symbolic cultures (Chase 1999). these are habitation behaviours that could be considered human versions of environment construction (Odling-Smee et al. I consider here the evolution of religious complexes as systemic forms of encul- turated prestige. a mind that is thoroughly social. McCauley & Lawson 2002). as well as essentialized cues that amount to dense forms of social eco-capital. and also with integrative ways of explaining those recurrences such that compatibilities between biological and cultural frames of analysis can be exposed. Mary Douglas). Perhaps it adds one more piece to the puzzle. ritual invariance (Rappaport 1999). 3 The prestige of the gods: evolutionary continuities in the formation of sacred objects William E. I shift the spotlight from conceptual cognition to social cognition. built for communicative display and status behaviours. My aim here is to show that religious sacredness can be modelled – among other ways – in terms of permutations of social status display. Historians of religion and Durkheimian sociolo- gists call them sacred objects and institutions. Paden This is an attempt to reflect on some evolutionary connections between the formation of religious objects and what can be called prestige dispositions.g. The study of religion shows patterned behaviours affected by the pres- ence of stereotypical social representations. and forms of worldmaking. As such. “knowledge”. I approach the topic as a historian of religion concerned with recurrences in pan-human behaviour. pollution avoid- ance (Boyer 2001: 212–15. These objects have been given analytical value in terms of agency inference and relevance (Boyer 2001. Prestige attribution and status negotiation are part of the architecture and functionality of the human mind. commitment devices (Sosis & Alcorta 2004).

In our own culture charismatic figures and prestige institutions are found in sports. Still others (Henrich & Gil-White 2001. agency detection. it accordingly takes on the function of a resource investment for social security and productivity. ritual competencies and conceptual inference generally. where status and sacredness are intertwined. have concentrated on the prestige mecha- nism as an information transmission enhancer insofar as it “favored social learners who could evaluate potential models and copy the most successful among them” (Henrich & Gil-White 2001: 165). When dominance prestige transitions to symbolic prestige. 183). Barkow. prestige is connected with gods and their representations. social learners further evolved dispositions 83 . In the evolutionary psychology of religion. seems to be a highly specialized. circumstances and ontogenic programs. Human ethology scholars generally have focused on “prestige economies” evidenced in forms of sta- tus and rank competition. Religion. emphasizes how selection “transformed agonistic pri- mate dominance into human symbolic prestige” and that sexual selection was the key process in that move (Barkow 1989: 6. business and so forth. In it. the prestige of the gods to social communication. or information transmission. for its part. competition. in this sense. though he did not include religious behaviour in his otherwise extensive treatment of the subject. the microprocessing mind being also an embedded social being. A second phase of the movement is exploring the factor of culture and its objects. politics. are strategic relationships. subject to role- playing cues in fields of social value – fields and inputs that do not simply download into blank minds but that both play upon dispositions for social relationships and recreate them. Richerson & Boyd 2005: 124–6). such as the potlatch or other displays of standing (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989: 297–314). and behaviour patterns. For example: In order to improve the fidelity and comprehensiveness of such ranked-biased copying. for example. technology. interaction. forms of memory. Gods. mate attraction. Its dynamics and adaptivity are relative to different social domains. much advance has been made studying the mechanisms of intuitional ontologies. Attributing prestige Prestige is a status attribution applied to entities that gives them strategically high standing in relation to certain areas of performance. The evolutionary study of status behaviour has tended to associate it with dominance. systemic form of prestige attribution and manipulation. Geoffrey Miller (2000) has laid out the continuity between mate attraction display and forms of human status display.

whether manifest in the gods and ancestors or in their representative objects. so as to gain close proximity to. and prolonged interaction with. all variants on the disposition for structured attentiveness to socially ranked objects and roles. 84 . become new versions of alpha objects? Sources of religious prestige We may consider several factors as sources of religious prestige. a teenage boy meditating in a Nepalese jungle and believed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha draws more than ten thousand observers a day. How is it that religious objects. In most cultures. (Ibid. Once common. Building on social exchange theories. fate and any vital inter- ests. Experiments show that male monkeys will give up food “for the chance just to look at a picture of a higher-ranking individual” (Adler 2004: 45). Miller or even Eibl-Eisenfeldt and the ethologists. as it were. we argue that a wider range of phe- nomena associated with prestige processes can more plausibly be explained by this simple theory than by others … In addition. paden to sycophantically ingratiate themselves with their chosen mod- els.) These and other authors stress that among humans “prestige ethologies” are less a matter of force than of excellence in valued domains of activity. I suggest here some ways of explaining this and then describe how religious systems might look from this point of view. Currently. distributions of deference that new entrants may adaptively exploit to decide who to begin copying. after all. Religious systems build on that attentiveness in environmentally shaped ways. william e. as people will pay thousands of dollars to attend a reception for a presidential candidate. religious prestige appears to be the highest form of status. stop short of applying this line of analysis to religion. at the group level. these dispositions created. Hence my concern to examine some linkages. we distinguish carefully between dominance (force or force threat) and prestige (freely conferred deference). It is interesting that many of those who write about status behaviours. these models. This generated a preference for models who seem generally “popular”. Deference and paying attention to social dominance It is a phylogenetic legacy and cognitive channel to pay attention to those around us who can effectively determine our success. along the lines of Barkow. Social animals – there are thousands of species with social alphas – pay special focus on those above them in rank and status within the group.

Here is E. The prestige of collective role function Rank status is not just a matter of one-on-one dominance and submission behaviours. not only popularizing ethologists (Morris 1984: 146–7). that in baseline social behavior. And they would conclude. not just in anatomy. Wilson (1999: 283–4). 85 . castes and guilds. All the evidence suggests that they have not. The behaviours referred to here include displays of various kinds of appeasement and deference in the face of the dominant individual. Homo sapiens has only recently diverged in evolution from a nonhuman primate stock. but also recently by E. charismatic leaders. propitiation. True to their primate heritage. It would be surprising to find that modern humans had man- aged to erase the old mammalian genetic programs and devise other means of distributing power. O. Submission and deference thus include displays of loyalty. it would have been an adap- tive strategy to generate behavioural techniques for avoiding. typically male figure of God. the prestige of the gods That some religious behaviours may be understood as legacies of the sub- mission strategies surrounding social alphas is a judgement made by many. being the object of aggression or shame in the face of social superiors (Krebs & Janicki 2004: 134). and their role authority – in short. That predisposition is strongest in religious organizations. as a function of social structure. gratitude. Burkert (1996: 80–101) and Atran (2002: 127). but can also evolve as a function of social specialization. the hyperdomi- nant if invisible members of the human group. O. (Wilson 1999: 283–4) Wilson’s cultural and theological allusions aside. correctly. They would point out that the most elabo- rate rites of obeisance are directed to the gods. at low cost. and atone- ment for offenses – constant exchanges of social capital and constant ways of gaining approval and avoiding trouble. Their power grows if they can persuasively claim special access to the supremely dominant. people are easily seduced by confident. including superiors capable of rending considerable harm if not properly submitted to. gift-giving and sacrifice. especially males. Cults form around such leaders. Wilson: Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immedi- ately the semiotic resemblance between animal submissive behav- ior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other.

priest. as the egg-laying entities. the notion of the inviolate transmission of certain social institutions as a kind of cultural DNA points to the dynamics of survival strategies (Rappaport 1999: 418). Objectivized and sedimented in the world of language. To serve the vehicles of high role prestige – the church. and their lineages. arbiters of justice. into chiefs. As well. If one of these dies. paden In human cultures. the gods inhabit virtual. That prestige of the flagship god or symbolic capital becomes the loyalty-inducing prestige of the in-group. Queens. they function as live agencies. As with the insect queens. another is made. producers of fate and success. precipitates of the process of role differentiation and function. popes. Here. given social reality by deference behaviours. would indicate that readiness to sacrifice for an imagined – that is. as the object is institutionalized. patrons and kings. psychic space. socially constructed – kin group is an evolved program that may be activated circumstantially. or patriarch. Kin selection perspective. presidents and Dalai Lamas.1 the prestige of the patron object or its symbol. As the patrons and defenders of the group. requiring tribute displays that keep the hierarchic world in place. through ritual behaviours toward them. perhaps to the point of a bloating effect. spirits and ancestors. Indeed. in most cases. Religions systematize status indicators and are structurally full of examples of such reciprocal practices as the Theravadin laity donating food daily to the monks – vehicles of the prestige of the Buddha – and receiving merit in return. do not have any different genetic constitution than the workers: they are formed into their role (and size) by being served special foods. and anchored in an artefactual world of space and object. for its part. william e. much the way human groups “make” certain of their individuals. developing essentialized categories such as shaman. leadership patronage functions may be hereditary and involve specialty lineages. chieftain. deference becomes more routinized. They become the brah- mans. become “castes” of human cultures. We could hypothesize then that gods. phar- aohs. the gods. draw the servicing and defensive attentions of the workers. 86 . the rites – is to cultivate and defend investments in group-specific symbolic capital and its reproduction. their status indicators – pheromones in the case of queens – activate dispositions in individuals to serve and protect them. In the face of competition or threats to group honour there would be a natural tendency to sacralize. The prestige of the social insect queens is a case in point about collective status roles and their strategic importance in the behavioural choices of the workers. For the most part they are a socially constructed function and not just an individual who happens to have dominance char- acteristics. queens.

The cue could be visual. Thus. or even a piece of monetary currency itself. often had magical force and status. Weapons. Many experiments show that animals are more interested in a pronounced or exaggerated copy of some biological signal or “key stimulus” than in the real thing. (Plourde 2006) Religious objects are variants on this process. a winning football. among the ancients. Males of the silver-washed fritillary [a kind of butterfly] appear to have evolved to prefer the strongest expression of certain stimuli 87 . Trait display and enhancement Prestige traits can also be understood as part of the process of communica- tive display enhancement. behavioural or pheromonal. a certain cancelled postage stamp. and hence the emergence of social ranking in group behaviours. the Kaabas and shrines. and operate as costly signals of high levels of skill and knowledge. It is an intelligible series of steps to the institutionalized holiness of totemic churingas. human cultures built systematic – one might say hypertrophic – forms and contexts of social attentiveness to these scaffolds. leading to the formation of permanent social ranking catego- ries and hierarchical political structure … prestige goods originally appear as a response to increased competition for prestige. the prestige of the gods Artefact prestige The extension of prestige to objects is natural with the coming of human arte- fact cultures (Dissanayake 1992). and each typically irrelevant or nonexistent in other social landscapes. Human groups attribute values to objects in egregious excess of the objects’ material worth. thousands of holy objects have sat side by side on the planet. the holy books of the religions. surrogates and props for the gods. Archaeologists have argued that: the emergence of an economy of prestige goods provided the means for leaders in chiefdom-level societies to attract followers and establish hierarchical relations with elites in neighboring poli- ties. the bones or ashes of the deceased.2 To that extent religious systems would represent the epitome of “sym- bolic culture” understood as an emergent evolutionary environment (Chase 1999: 42). In relation to the complexity and size of their populations. each empowering. This is what gives special status to an ancient piece of furniture. each a priceless currency for its people.

The content of the stimulus signs will be mostly culture specific. the ability to defend or provide 88 . clearly signalled his fitness for the mythic kingdom of God – world renunciation being high currency in that fifth- century environment. adherents would expect the benefits to be greater. with no upper limit. They become the stereotypic orange spots or painted wooden models built for maximum effectiveness in activat- ing dispositions of social respect. Humans also display to gods. may be such supernormal stimuli:3 enhanced. icon and ritual. I found that males dis- play enthusiastically to photographs of other members of the same species. such as relics or certain representative emblems of gods and ancestors. william e. can therefore command the greatest prestige. Where the behav- iours are costly “statements” to impress the god with signals of loyalty. but are characteristically enhancements of signs of authority status and ritual precau- tions. Tinbergen showed that chicks would peck even more readily at exaggerated cardboard models of the orange spot. Is that not the religious syndrome itself? Religious behav- iour is tuned to impress its object. so-called supernormal stimuli. Those qualities – for example. to stimulate the female to regurgitate and feed them. Myth. however. The Zahavis have tried to show that some extreme behaviours among animals are deliberately risky and costly in order to communicate status and excellence of qualities. We build and perform to attract and impress. though they can be grand. St Simeon Stylites. as in the communicative lineage of the bowerbird. While experimenting with anole lizards of the West Indies a few years ago. (Dennett 2006: 122) Religious objects. even though the images are the size of a small automobile. are not necessarily exaggerated in physical size. The “handicap principle” (Zahavi & Zahavi 1997) applies here. The statements are an investment in “religious capital” (Stark & Finke 2000: 281). Other researchers have learned that herring gulls ignore their own eggs when presented with appropriately painted wooden models so large they cannot even climb on top of them. Humble physical objects that nevertheless have high symbolic associa- tions. living his life atop a pillar. (Wilson 1999: 252) The adult female gull has an orange spot on her beak. Religious “spots and models”. praise. The phenomenon is wide- spread in the animal kingdom. paden they encounter. become the ultimate display-language “enhancers” for religious cultures. at which her chicks instinctually peck. exaggerated. including gods. for their part. or sincerity. Note that the receiver of the signal is not always other humans. or otherwise strong expressions of social status in the ways they are represented and regarded.

the prestige of the gods for others – in turn redound to reproductive chances and social rank. so well described by Pascal Boyer.000 pilgrims would arrive daily to witness it and one of the largest basilicas in the world was built over his display site. Prestige is catchy. by manag- ing to find food and avoid predators despite its enormous tail. Prestige and other social dispositions Prestige is buoyed by a number of other evolutionary dispositions. and the subject of much current research. in order to be reliable. automaticity of everyday life theory. and theories of various kinds of “morality” modules activated by moral norms and social situations (Plotkin 2003: 248–90. Krebs & Janicki 2004). In the colloquial. Notably. docility theory. social force theory. habitualization theory. But memetic theory would also be relevant. It is its own cachet. a peacock “proves that he is the high-quality mate that the peahen is seeking to father her future chicks” (ibid. Bulbulia 2004). Their point is that in order to be effective “signals have to be reliable. A con- formity bias seems to be at work here – an adaptive mechanism that tradi- tionally functions to make information acquisition more efficient (Boyd & Richerson 2005: 83–97). in the mental world of the adherents. If we are fascinated by people. Plotkin and others review a number of other psychological mechanisms that select for or induce group representa- tions. to chances for eternal life and prestige among the gods. the world of prestige objects is given social existence by individuals agreeing on what is there and what its status is. might have applications to the formation of charisma attribution.4 89 . would seem to redound. signals have to be costly”(ibid. and even mirror-neuron theory. Finally. Michael Tomasello’s work on the sociogenesis of attention sharing would apply (Tomasello 1999). Displays of high quality religious behaviour and faith. nothing succeeds like success.: xiv). The cognitive opti- mum draw of counter-intuitive objects. such as described in social agreement theory. for their part. it is normally because they are already deemed fascinating by oth- ers. but also by the very fact that they are famous. For example. they may also function as adaptive commitment devices regulating group cooperation (Sosis & Alcorta 2004. we are intrigued by famous people not only because we are attracted to their special qualities.: xiv). So successful was Simeon’s prestige that 35. that may be the special quality itself. While individuals may ultimately be the only agents. its own meme. as would cost–benefit or rational choice analysis. And in Sperber’s epidemiological terms cultural representations “replicate by causing those who hold them to produce public behaviours that cause others to hold them too” (Sperber 1996: 100). Indeed.

perhaps from the beginning of time or even before the beginning of time. are some more illustrative ways that the prestige model can apply to religious behaviours. too. Many scriptures are regarded as eternal blueprints rather than as historically produced. in summary form. language that connects or endows the objects with supernatural attribution or miracle. can be understood as ways that religions signal-enhance the social status and honour of their objects. is represented in legend as dedi- cated from the creation. and the emperor Justinian had believed the same of his Hagia Sophia. In addition. To that extent they are contextual- ized by the processes described above. and even folk heroes like Elvis Presley become ensconced with legends of immortal- ity. Where founders and saints have historicity they are nevertheless linked with genealogies or lineages that go back to original. mythic prestige employs the language of honorific and super- lative idealization. Myth and ritual as prestige enhancers Mythicization and ritualization. then. Ritual can intensify the focus on 90 . preserves and insulates the status of its objects in a virtual. in this framework. most fundamentally. When a guru is described as an avatar of Krishna this is a high mythic attribution and social enhancement. This includes. mythicization – which could be called one of our grand phenotypic traits – uses the resources of language in every way to bol- ster the prestige of its material. The most sacred cemetery in the Shiite world. Worship itself has been studied as a status process (Milner 1994: 172–88). Myth. and regu- lates status through offerings and gift-giving. william e. a fundamental strategy for depicting value. In short. Here. religions can be seen as forms of culture that enhance objects by endowing them with superhuman attributes and that engender interactive relationships with those objects. Protocols for addressing gods follow exceptional linguistic etiquette appropriate to their special social rank – often it is terminology that is only applied to the god. and thus bestows a kind of alphahood on it. We see this in royal lines of kingship. with its physical and emotional enhancement scenes and employment of group attention tech- niques. or it is language specially transmuted into forms of chant and song. The object is pictured as always existing. eternal world. Myth eternalizes its objects. It differentiates states of purity and impurity at every level. founding times. the Valley of Peace in Najaf. archetypal. paden Religions as prestige systems Among other things. Much ritualization is also an obvious prestige-booster. Countries have their “eternal flames” honouring the sacrifices of their ancestors. It becomes an archetype not eroded by temporality.

making special offerings of goods. Religious prestige is essentialized Religious objects can take on the nature of a transmittable substance. Special display behaviours also enhance the prestige of the object: kneel- ing. just as pieces of the Kiswah. but also something we receive from them. it must exist. places. In a million daily Masses around the globe the prestige of the god is substantively passed on in the consecrated bread and wine. When the Ise Shrine is periodically disassembled its parts are distrib- uted to other Shinto shrines through the land. and in millions of recitations of the Qur’ân each day. festivals and other marked times give temporal punctuation to the pres- tige of the object by making it choreographed as “a time like no other time”. the creation of the gods is not a mystery: with a nod to St Anselm. or the “holy of holies” – and requiring degrees of behavioural preparedness to approach them. We speak of someone “giving” their prestige to such and such an occasion. make the object an entity. the black cloth that covers the Holy Kaaba in Mecca and is replaced each year. prostration. vertical relationships between the below and the above. the substantiveness of the honour. a thing. the ideal controlled environments. The social chemistry of honour becomes trans- formed into a world of representation. dressing up in distinctive ways. prototype and concept. undergoing pain. decorating. the physical scenes. The power of the prestige. This is to say that prestige is not only something we attribute to objects. an object. and ultimately individuals. Prestige as distributable and shareable The prestige of objects can be spread by contact and association in a network of relics. saints. the holy words of the god are dissemi- nated. So understood. are annually carried to Muslim groups around the world. The actions. The Grand Shrine of Ise in Japan houses its sacred symbols at the centre of seven concentric circles of access. processing. cause. something we benefit from. authorities. if the object has the greatest prestige. and essen- tialization is enhanced when the object is given an artefactual representation along with a linguistic one. an ontological kind. for example. in a 91 . the fre- quency or infrequency of the observances – all shape the relative honour of the object just as they correspond to it. bowing. every synagogue houses the Torah in a marked place of honour. cathedrals or pyramidal temples emphasize asymmetric. For their part. or group. the prestige of the gods an object by creating special configurations of space – altars. making pilgrimage. rites.

here. or contact with them. Much of the history of reli- gious values and behaviour can be construed in terms of differential qualities signalled to the gods relative to social contexts. we also want it in the form of status. paden circle of mutual gain and contact. Ritual structures thus set up ways of contacting “pieces” of the object and its charisma. suffering or other extreme forms of devotion and self-denial. where actual contact with the prestigious object becomes the highpoint of religious reciprocity. who emphasized the point that saints. in the Varieties of Religious Experience (James [1901] 1960). holiness. At the same time. note that the gods. To some extent this acquisition of mental blessings. a runaway effect – between gods and people. if physically absent social “reference group” for individual behaviour (Barkow 1989: 192). or darshan. True piety is then manifest in the social matrix of conspecifics and the watching gods. The initiatory ordeals of shamans and the perceived difficulty of their trance journeys are 92 . A holy woman believed to be the incarnation of the Mother Goddess and who has gained an international following by her habit of hugging devotees – sometimes thousands at a single event – thus gives the followers dramatically tangible contact with their spiritual object and its phenotypic embodiment. In religious contexts. generosity. shame. of grace. noting its analogues with electricity. spirits and ancestors themselves constitute a virtual. ritual or mystical. Prestige status is not just a function of projection onto objects. but reliable signalling – the cur- rency of value and prestige – is often in the form of self-sacrifice. martyrdom. so-called. It is shown directly in the phenomenon of faith healing. and we need to avoid its opposite. It was William James. such as patience. will lick it off the queen’s body or get it indirectly from other workers who have had contact with her (Zahavi & Zahavi 1997: 158). It is as though there were a kind of mate- choice effect going on here – and in some cases. One might also think back to the analogies with pheromones secreted by social insect queens. is at the heart of religious behaviour. where the part nevertheless contains the power of the whole. Individuals cultivate status by conducting themselves with group-defined genres of reciprocity. display signals indicate any kind of phenotypic qual- ity. recognition and approval. where worker bees. is social prestige. but also an acquisition of individuals We attribute prestige.5 The “pheromone” for humans. for example. whether those social contexts are on earth or in the “theosphere”. purity or honour. william e. The founders of comparative religion called this the contagion of the sacred. are such by virtue of the different kinds of social environ- ments they inhabit. or altruism.

which go back to the primate herit- age and hunting–gathering days (Boehm 1999: 10–12). namely. Much religion is about the honour of its objects and negotiating the status of that honour. sin. domestic sacra. and how it might be productive to examine that continuity more fully. The social opposites of prestige are shame and its variants such as guilt. bad karma. Among other things. most noticeably in the more overt theologies of redemp- tion. Dramatic prestige transmutations occur over historical time. I have suggested here some ways that prestige sociality might be modelled as a link between religious behaviour and evolving social strategies. The need for religious status and approval has its “hypertrophic peaks” in various forms of ascetic altruism (Lopreato 1984: 188). to any number of domains within a culture – ancestors. And the attribution of highest value to concepts such as human rights. Insofar as religious programmes are largely designed to counteract these. Concluding points Broadly sketched. quality and reliability. which displayed the sacrifice of pride in a kind of inverse potlatch. and much of 93 . it is often the sharing of the prestige of the alpha – as with accepting the power of the Vow of Amida Buddha – that brings this about. Status ascriptions can alter or challenge any previously existing dichotomies about what constitutes a prestigious institution and its violation. the status behaviour model has the function of recontextualizing in biocognitive terms a concept that has been at the heart of the history of religions field. impurity. It is also expressed in varying kinds of phenotypic traits. public rites – as indi- viduals find themselves behaving in shifting social environments and circum- stances. take on a phylo- genetic resonance. The desert fathers practised egregious humility behaviours. the prestige of the gods prestige producers. Anti-hierarchical dispositions. individual conscience and political liberty still continues to be anchored in notions that these are to be honoured as divine. witnessed in reformations and new religious movements where what is sacred one day is profane the next. The history of religions can be understood in terms of the pivoting of prestige attribution Religious prestige can attach. and the primary symbol of the Christian tradition is a demonstration of the handicap principle in the form of a man-god who will- ingly undertakes crucifixion and death to show his celestial power. current leaders. inalienable fea- tures of human life. sacredness. alternatingly.

I am not presenting this as a theory of religion in any generic sense. power and immor- tality – built upon the fear of death or extinction. environmental cues occur within other environmental cues.7 Notions of charisma.6 Responding to religious prestige – which is variably relevant in shifting environmental circumstances – is not a function of a single. which could itself be parsed further.8 All in all. The negative side of this status seek- ing is the logic of killing others deemed to be threats to it. functions as a bloated veneer of self-enhancement – including illusions of sacrality. william e. status and sacrality as analysed in Weberian and Durkheimian traditions could find more direct evolutionary. social frames and responses vary throughout the day. “involves the activation of numerous nuclear and global systems” (Whitehouse 2006: 22). depicting a theatre of social displays. task-specific program or decision-making formula. and any information-processing “deci- sion” is apt to become a cascading chain of many kinds of decisions. any one of which may have a different evolutionary pedigree. The notion of prestige bias invites integration of theoretic resources and levels of analysis. as Whitehouse summarizes. Yet I have primarily drawn my analysis in terms of behavioural strategies rather than in terms of information processing mechanisms per se. paden myth and ritual is about prestige enhancement. 2. At the same time. encompasses an enormous set of phenotypic traits. social and psychological levels of the evolutionary process while relating them directly to behavioural strategies in the construction of religious worlds. One thinks here of the work of the social theorist Ernest Becker. this model can point up some interac- tions of cultural. as instanced above. It seems to me that the study of pan-human social behaviour patterns. Social objects are full of information. Notes 1. It would be short- sighted to miss the point that religion. I have focused on just one trait. Matthew Day assesses the theory held by Steven Mithen that such artefacts were nec- essary cognitive compensations for “the computational challenges that are introduced when the gods appear on the scene” (Day 2004: 250). is not simply a “phenotypic gambit” (Smith 2000: 30) that thereby avoids adaptive or dispositional factors. which is only a conceptual umbrella term. Day inclines to think that the 94 . Inferential programs overlap and are subject to socio-ecological variables. See his The Denial of Death (Becker 1973) and Escape from Evil (Becker 1975). for which religion is the prototype. adaptations build upon adaptations. and their prestige is a piece of it. At the same time. “Any given unit of behaviour”. is able to capture some “meaningful species-typical uniformities”. with its imagined environments of spiritual status objects. ethological grounding here. who gave classic for- mulation to the notion that culture.

Prestige. functional mental architec- ture (Tooby & Cosmides 1992: 64). I recall that certain followers of the Aum Shinrikyo sect were known to don elec- tric headsets supposedly synchronized with the brain of their founder. 6. 5. Laland and Brown (2002) impressively interconnect the five major strands of evolu- tion theory (human sociobiology. Extending the evolutionary psychology model to include more attention to externalized. human behavioural ecology. Groups may be made up of small self-interested components. the totemic principle and mana. Sørensen 2004. 95 . Lopreato (1984) and Sanderson (2001) also begin to close the gap between social and evolutionary theory. Day 2004). albeit without evolutionary reference. this is not just a simple matter of downloading social norms into otherwise blank minds. as honour attributed to objects. somewhat analogous to money in human societies (Zahavi & Zahavi 1997: 159). In the Elementary Forms these are products of the representations of many individuals (Durkheim 1995: 210–11). For a helpful sorting out of the “explanatory complementarity” between the approaches of evolution psychology and behavioural ecology see Smith (2000). though his own book. 4. though there is apparently no experimental basis for this yet. Connections could also be made with Weber’s three types of authority legitimation (tradition. “an additional input class that exists alongside the traditional vehicles (narrative and ritual) for generating and transmitting religious knowledge” (ibid. as put in Atran’s terms (Atran 2002: 199).: 253). but the message on the sign can incite holocausts. charisma. Groups may thus be in some senses “perpetually reconstructed output fictions of individual minds” but among those fictions are powerful ideologies and authority attributions that powerfully influ- ence behaviour and thus can even have deadly causal force. Sacred norms may just be intermittent “signposts of behavioral tendencies” rather than shared norms that auto- matically replicate in individuals. the prestige of the gods artefacts are not cognitively essential for dealing with gods. 3. and it is the psychic properties of social respect that give it power (ibid. as social respect. but rather likely to be “content-fixing elements” in religious cognition. The expression “supernormal sign stimuli” is found in N. is a concept related to Durkheim’s notions of social force. The Zahavis even suggest that having queen pheromone is a vehicle of relative prestige among workers. opens up the issue nicely. Milner points out that no sustained work has developed the connection of status and sacrality (Milner 1994: 291). Tooby and Cosmides hold that behavioural levels of analysis ordinarily deal with too kaleidoscopic a range of phenomena to identify universal. Tinbergen’s The Study of Instinct (Tinbergen 1951: 44–6). but within those units are mechanisms for represent- ing and respecting agreed upon rules and prestige institutions. Along these lines. as evolu- tionary psychologists point out. legality). evolutionary psychology. thus giving them imagined autonomy. Yet communicative status behaviours are them- selves grounded in adaptive mechanisms of a general kind. Pyysiäinen 2004.: 209). cultural forms of cognition and their constraints is clearly underway among religion scholars (for example. Hence. memetics. 8. and gene-culture co-evolution). 7. There is therefore significant conceptual linkage between the model described in this paper and Durkheim’s notion of the energy that social respect attributes to sacred objects.

Barkow. T. Boyd. New York: Oxford University Press. E. Mahwah. K. Bulbulia. Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms. Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. New York: Basic Books. william e. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 16(3): 241–55. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [1901] 1960. 2004. 2006. Brown 2002. 1999. Evolution and Human Behavior 22: 165–96. 1992. Human Ethology. Leiden: Brill. 1973. I. Crandall (eds). & Maria Janicki 2004. The Origin and Evolution of Cultures. W. “Biological Foundations of Moral Norms”. Chase. 96 . Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Sex. V.). K. S. E. R. T. C. “The Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission”. Knight & C. 2000. New York: Doubleday. Jr. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions. NJ: Rutgers University Press. Laland. Darwin. N. Oxford: Oxford University Press. New York: Oxford University Press. Durkheim. 1989. R. New York: Free Press. C. “Mind Reading”. 1975. 34–49. 2004. E. 1995. E. Schaller & C. D. MA: Harvard University Press. P. 105–19. MA: Harvard University Press. R. “The Cognitive and Evolutionary Psychology of Religion”. W. New Brunswick. “Symbolism as Reference and Symbolism as Culture”. Biology and Philosophy 19: 655–86. 1994. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. S. J. New York: Free Press. 1989. J. 1984. G. & F. E. Atran. James. Dissanayake. R. Boyer. G. C. P. Boston. M. Gil-White 2001. 2004. Burkert. paden References Adler. London: Collins. Boehm. H. Anttonen. McCauley. Light & B. J. “The Ins and Outs of Religious Cognition”. Becker. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Becker. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Dennett. New York: Free Press. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Wilson (eds). Lopreato. & G. Cambridge. J. In The Psycho- logical Foundations of Culture. Escape from Evil. 125–48. and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. 1996. Newsweek (5 July): 44–6. Henrich. D. Milner. & P. 2001. Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture. Human Nature and Biocultural Evolution. M. New York: Free Press. J. & E. J. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. “Pathways to Knowledge in Comparative Religion: Clearing Ground for New Conceptual Resources”. Fields (trans. MA: Allen & Unwin. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Day. J. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Cambridge. The Denial of Death. 1999. In The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View. New York: Viking. Krebs. C. Eibl-Eibesfeldt. In Religion as a Human Capacity. Richerson 2005. Dunbar. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. 2002. New York: Oxford University Press. N. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. M. Lawson 2002. Miller. Power (eds).

Oxford: Clarendon Press.artsci. Evolution and Cognition 10: 61–73. 1999. NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2001. A. projects. Niche Construction. Magic. Cronk. Zahavi 1997. NewYork: McGraw-Hill. Solidarity. Feldman 2003. and an Immunology of Cultural Systems”. Tinbergen. In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. L. Miracles. Smith. & R. Odling-Smee. Oxford: Blackwell. Sanderson. & L. CA: University of California. 1951. K. www. NJ: Princeton University Press. A. and Religion. N. Rappaport. New Brunswick. The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. CA: AltaMira Press. 2004. A. Alcorta 2004. L. Princeton. 19–136. F.ucl. J. New York: Oxford University WhitehouseModel. Chicago. The Naked Ape. Plotkin. IL: University of Chicago Press. www. “Religion. Boyd 2005. R. W. D. Laland & M. D. 2004. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Chagnon & W. N. & C. R. Tooby. Richerson. I. In Adapt- ation and Human Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press. the prestige of the gods Morris. A. E. 2003. “The Cognitive Parsing Model: Nuclear and Global Psychological Systems in the Transmission of Culture”. Irons (eds). Barkow. 1999. J. Sperber. Lanham. & A. Walnut Creek. 1999. & Roger Finke 2000. H. Berkeley. Tooby (eds). “Three Styles in the Evolutionary Analysis of Human Behavior”. and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior”.. 27–48. Zahavi. “Signaling. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. O. Tomasello. Wilson. H. The Neglected Process in Evolution. E. K. Whitehouse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Cosmides 1992. The Study of Instinct. Cosmides & J. 2000. N. R. MA: Harvard University Press.wustl. Sosis. The Evolution of Human Sociality: A Darwinian Conflict Perspective. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Sørensen. 2006. MD: Rowman & Littlefield. S. M. J. Pyysiäinen. 97 . P. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture”. The Imagined World Made Real: Towards a Natural Science of Culture. 2006. Stark. H. New York: Random House. “Prestige and the Origins of Social Inequality”. J. Evolution. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 264–74. 1996. Plourde. Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.

thought systems. 2005. 4 The evolutionary dynamics of religious systems: laying the foundations of a network model István Czachesz This chapter aims at laying the foundations for the study of religions as sys- tems. Frustrated by the loose. let alone mathematical. D’Andrade compares this with the col- lection of items on his desk: the collection of things on my desk doesn’t really make much of a thing because the items on my desk aren’t in immediate con- tact with each other. which would enable scholars to produce formalized and quantitative explanations and predictions about the inner causal structure and possible developmental tracks of religions. belief systems and even ritual and religious systems). Whereas the notion of a “system” has been formerly used in connection with culture and its various aspects (cultural systems. formal. don’t have much of a common fate. For example. Pascal Boyer (1994: 229) has written about the false “theologism” that takes the existence of connections among religious assump- tions for granted. don’t strongly resist dispersion. rather than an “entity”. Cognitive anthropologist Roy D’Andrade suggested that culture is a collection of units. because there are appar- ently numerous beliefs that we can remove from the set of an individual’s or culture’s beliefs without affecting any other belief. Basically. definition of systems and did not therefore provide scholars with appropriate tools to develop quantitative explanations and pre- dictions about culture or religion. and personal communication) has argued that beliefs do not constitute a system. the collection as a whole has no causal 98 . Benson Saler (2001. aren’t made of the similar stuff. and don’t interact strongly. Cultural items in the minds of people do not constitute “a thing” because they are lacking “entitativity”. metaphorical and ultimately not very produc- tive talk about ‘systems’ in cultural studies. sceptics have recently raised their voices against too easily presuming the existence of systems where there might be none. symbol systems. these accounts have not been based on a shared.

I will give examples of how the dynamics of a religious system can be studied in the context of system theory. but we will keep the use of technical terms and math- ematical notation to a minimum. economics and computer science. such as chemistry. and they were too diverse and too unconstrained (Backlund 2000). (D’Andrade 2001: 252) D’Andrade’s arguments raise interesting questions as to the extent to which one can compare a collection of items on one’s desk with beliefs in an indi- vidual’s mind. It has to be noticed. such as Clifford Geertz. But even scholars who did think about culture as a system. I have chosen network theory. the situation with respect to the entitativity of the collection of cultural items found in the minds of people living on Bali is not much better than that for the things on my desk [Clifford] Geertz’s … opinion of the matter notwith- standing. Finally. has been accused of rejecting anthropology as a scientific endeavour (Pals 2006: 285–7). In the first part of the article. Geertz. the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems properties. as well as about the systemic properties of both examples. whose ideas D’Andrade is criticizing in the passage quoted above. Among the many possible ways to discuss and analyse systems. in spite of his own claims to the contrary. This article will therefore introduce concepts that have not been used in cultural studies or religious studies traditionally. which has developed into an independent research field in recent years from mathematical graph theory. the father of general system theory. did not necessarily want to make quantitative. ecol- ogy. and he famously claimed (C. has given the following definition of a system: “A system can be defined as a complex of interacting elements … Interaction means that the elements 99 . … In my opinion. biology. The problem is not that there have been no definitions around. I will consider the possible levels and angles of analysis that would allow us to create system theoretical models of religion. but rather that there have been too many. however. incorporating insights from the study of networks in a number of disciplines. Geertz 1973: 5) that cultural analysis is “not an experimental science in search of a law. but an interpretive one in search of meaning”. Defining a system Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1950: 143). I will introduce the concept of systems and its exact mathematical definition in terms of graph theory. sociology. that not only scholars of culture and religion have been lacking a shared definition of systems. scientific predictions about culture or religion. In the second part.

2. And what shall we say about a and b if the behaviour of a influences the behaviour of b but not the other way around? We could answer the latter question by the clarification that interaction means a bidirectional relation. 3} we can define the relation “is greater than”. that a interacts with c. For example. the collection of objects on a desk mentioned in the previous section can be understood as a set. on the non-empty set M = {1. Shall we also require that every element of a system interacts with every other element? That would seem redundant: if a interacts with b and b with c. which is a set containing the following ordered pairs: R = {(2. For example. so that their behaviour in R is different from their behaviour in another relation. graph and path. In other words. we can define relations among the elements of a set. 1. For example. “a system is a set of interacting units with relationships among them”. If we do require. 2)}. the interactions do not have to be bidirectional any more: the three elements can influence each others’ behaviour in a chain- like manner (a → b → c → a) and still constitute a system. an ordered pair (a. (3. how- ever. Do the four ele- ments and the relations among them constitute a system? Since a and b are not affected by any of the other two elements (and vice versa). 1). relation. istván czachesz stand in a certain relation. if both a and b are ele- ments of M and a is in relation with b (relation being “is greater than” in our example). in this article we will proceed from a more compact and unambiguous. The bottom line seems to be that relations within the system should allow for every element (potentially) affecting the behaviour of every other element – but this again is a very imprecise definition that does not allow for any conclusions about how systems look like and how their elements are actually connected. the problem with most definitions is that whereas they include some kind of systems. A set is a collection of objects. according to J.: 445) has recently pointed out. where a interacts with b and c interacts with d (in the sense of Bertalanffy’s definition). R′. Let us start by defin- ing a couple of concepts that we will need for our definition of systems: set. R. G. 1). they exclude others. Miller (quoted by Backlund 2000: 444). c. Instead of multiplying such clarifications. As a next step. Consider a set of elements (a. b. (3. it might be perhaps better to speak of two systems instead of one in this case. and do not exclude everything that is not a system. but this would not yet fix the previous problem. As Alexander Backlund (ibid. 100 . then an interaction between a and c is not needed any more (but rather emerges spontaneously). d). 2. mathematical definition of systems that relies on the set-theoretical definition of Alexander Backlund (2000) and its graph-theoretical extension by Igor Gazdík (2006).” Similar definitions have been pro- posed by other scholars. b) is an element of the relation R defined on the set M.

there is a path from vertex 3 to vertices 1 and 2 as well as from vertex 2 to vertex 1. Graphs are mathematical objects consist- ing of vertices connected by arcs (or edges). The vertices of the graph in Figure 4. 2. then we can say that there is a path from a to c through b. and [2] if an element is affected by parts of the system but does not affect any part of the system. 1). The definition has the important implications that “[1] if an element affects parts of the system but is not affected by it. 3. if elements d and e are added to the previous example (Figure 4. 2)} on set M = {1. If we can drive from shop a to shop b (driving on any street only in the permitted direction) we can say that a path exists from a to b.1 represent the elements of the set M = {1. In graph theory. 1). R. provided that we are speaking of finite set. A system con- sists of a set M. For the purposes of the present article we adopt Backlund’s (2000: 448) defi- nition with some simplification and define a system as follows. pointing from the first element toward the second element of each ordered pair. (3. For example. if a influ- ences the behaviour of b. b influences the behaviour of c. too” (Backlund 2000: 448). 3} in our exam- ple. and the edges connect the ordered pairs that appear in the relation R = {(2. 4. the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems Contract Contract Contract Figure 4. Two conditions have to be satisfied by M and R: (1) M contains at least 2 elements and (2) from every member of M there is a path to every other member of M. then it is outside the sys- tem. Imagine that the vertices in the graph are shops and the directed edges are one-way streets connecting them. and a path from c to b through a (for a graphical representation see Figure 4. For example. 2)}. In our example. (3. we can define the concept of path using another example. (3. then it is outside the system.1 Graph representing the relation R = {(2. and c influences the behaviour of a. 2. and relations on M. 1). Finally. 3}. edges that have a direction are called directed edges. A relation defined on a set can be represented as a graph. a path from b to a through c.2). 1). (3.3) so that the behaviour of d influences the behaviour of a (but d is not connected to any other element of the system) 101 .

if the vertices of the graph in Figure 4. The graph represents a system only if every shop can be reached from every other shop. it would be possible to reach the shops a. which helps to capture the complexity of interactions within a system. for our purposes. Vertices of a system can be connected by more than one edge. 102 .2 were shops and the directed edges were one-way streets. Applying the analogy that we have used above. or edges can connect more than two elements (hyper- graph). and the behaviour of b influences the behaviour of e (but e is not connected to any other element of the system). but shop d could not be reached from any other shop and we would be stuck once we have reached shop e. then neither d nor e belongs to the system. b and c from every other shop.2 Graph representing a system. Graph theory can be used to analyse systems in many differ- ent ways. istván czachesz Contract Contract Contract Figure 4.3 Vertices d and e are not parts of the system. The concept of a graph is analogous. to the concept of a network (in that case we might speak of connected nodes rather than vertices). such as studying subsystems or identifying elements that are crucial to the functioning of the system. Modelling religious systems as graphs (or networks) will enable us to apply insights from graph theory (and network theory) to the study of religion: for example. Using graph theory. ContractContract Contract Contract Contract Figure 4. Igor Gazdík (2006) has extended Backlund’s defini- tion of systems. we will be able to answer questions about the systemic nature of beliefs by employing such a method.

architecture. where the new ideas of the “splinter group” resulted in the construction of a new community building (the “round-house”) in ancestral style. facilitate the creation of artefacts. Another example can be taken from Harvey Whitehouse’s (1995) ethnography of the Pomio Kivung movement in Papua New Guinea. but artefacts in this system do not need to represent (or stand for) beliefs in any direct way (and vice versa). music. that is. are equally important. Artefacts. objects. such as beliefs about gods. Consider the European Reformation. and literature. spirits and the like. All four components of the system. V1 = “beliefs” and V2 = “artefacts”.4. The interaction between beliefs and artefacts is somewhat similar to the interplay of internal and external (or private and public) representa- tions described by Dan Sperber (1996: 77–97). beliefs and the two edges connecting them. Contract Contract Contract Contract Figure 4. where changes in beliefs resulted in spectacular changes in the production and use of religious artefacts. objects and places. and there is a path from any vertex to any other vertex. There are three questions in particular that we will ask about our simple religious system in the rest of this section: 103 . in turn. The new set of artefacts had a further effect on religious beliefs. such as texts. spirits. E1 directed from V1 to V2 and E2 directed from V2 to V1. The religious system under discussion is not to be interpreted as a system of beliefs that is secondarily manifested in pieces of religious art. the concept of a religious system is often used in the sense of a “sys- tem of religious beliefs” (properly a set of religious beliefs) about gods. which then served as the spot of various dramatic events and the (trans-)formation of beliefs within the group. Further.4 The simplest (religious) system. This system is the simplest one possible: it contains the minimally required two vertices. instruments and performances. Numerous examples of how this system functions in practice can be mentioned from various religions. as shown on Figure 4. con- nected by two edges. generate beliefs in the minds of people who use them. Let the system consist of two vertices. Bible translations. the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems Religious systems Now we can give a definition of a religious system – a simple one to start with. It involves bidirectional interaction between religious beliefs and artefacts: reli- gious beliefs. including Church interiors. and after removing any of them the system would cease to exist. artefacts.

history and possible future consequences of that quality. resulting in various artefacts. Are there components that have to be added to the system? 3. 4 per cent with “black”. Although our system remains functional if it contains only a single religious belief. will be associated with “God. cross. the total number of words associated with “umbrella” being 22. For example. For example. Is it meaningful to break down the system to further components? The plurals “artefacts” and “beliefs” already suggest that both of these com- ponents can be broken down into further components. book. Bible. faith. In terms of graph theory. and so on. for example. Christian. Catholic. the database will tell you that 60 per cent of people associated it with “rain”. Such a belief is likely to be shared with other people. just to mention the top of a list of 43 items. It is also possible to experiment with words connected to religion. Are there factors outside of the system that are relevant for its functioning? Let us start with the first question. which in turn generate similar religious beliefs in other people. 104 . where two words are connected if people associate them with each other. practically it is hard to imagine any religious belief that would not be connected to several other religious beliefs. Is it meaningful to break down the system to further components? 2. A simple way to represent networks of beliefs is a word association network. istván czachesz 1. if you enter “umbrella” into the online query form of the Edinburgh Word Association Thesaurus (Science and Technology Facilities Council undated) as a stimulus. Jew”. for example “parrot” in a semantic network is connected to “bird” by the relation “is a” and to “feather” by the relation “has:” a parrot “is a” bird and “has” feathers. beliefs and connections between them can be repre- sented as networks. Church. belief. More sophisticated networks that connect concepts include association net- works that distinguish various types of associations (such as synonyms and antonyms) and semantic networks. We can reasonably argue that at least some beliefs are connected to each other. Jesus. Christianity. In such a case. sex. starting with “snow”. such as texts and pieces of art. You can again pick any of the 41 words and continue to explore the network. believing that a person or object has supernatural qualities or powers implies many other beliefs about the ori- gins. “umbrella” is a node of the association network that is connected to 22 other nodes (in other words. Church of England. you get 41 associated words. it has a degree of 22). 8 per cent with “stand”. The stimulus “religion”. If you now enter “rain”. where concepts are connected by different kinds of relations such as “has” or “is a”.

It is likely that all beliefs belong to some larger. (2007) have analysed communities in directed association net- works (Nelson et al. and based on the samples that we have examined we can also hypothesize that they also form systems. many of which are probably connected into larger systems (suprasystems). interconnected network (that is. c} in Figure 4. the directions given to the edges is not very helpful in deciding on the systemic nature of beliefs (edges in Choi & Kim’s study reflect cross-references between lexicon entries). remove altars. 1998). the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems Does the fact that beliefs form networks mean that they also form systems or a system? Not necessarily. The elements of any architectural construct are good examples: removing pillars from a cathedral will change the distribution of forces in the structure. 105 . the resulting graph will not contain a system any more. Yet we cannot say with absolute certainty at this point that all religious beliefs in a religious system form a belief system or are parts of a belief system. Association networks can be mapped out by a similar procedure: after hearing or reading a word. organs. Yeon-Mu Choi and Hyun-Joo Kim (2007) have published an interesting study of directed connections among mythological figures in Greco-Roman mythology. or whether the whole network forms a system? Given a set of data. Some artefacts evidently form a system. Even the much more modest round-house in Whitehouse’s (1995: 13) ethnography is a system rather than a collection of components. but not all graphs represent systems: for example. Probably some of these methods could be adjusted to find systems that fulfill the definition given in the previous section – but unfortunately we have no ready-made tools that would give an immediate answer to the question. they are connected at least to some other beliefs). however. Also artefacts are more than just “collections” of items on a desk (referring again to D’Andrade’s analogy). All systems can be represented as graphs (or hypergraphs). of which I will give some examples in the final part of the article.2 (or turn around its direction). We can. b. Is there a way to know whether the association net- work contains also larger subsystems. There are different methods to analyse networks and gain insights about their components. Whereas this study reveals interesting facts about the network of mythological figures. if we take away the edge between vertices c and a from the graph shown in Figure 4.1. even- tually resulting in the collapse of the building. associated words come to mind more easily than other (non-associated) words. For example. priming the brain with one belief can facilitate the recall of another belief. A little more experi- mentation with the Edinburgh Word Association Thesaurus shows that the stimulus “God” yields the response “Christian” and vice versa. Recently Gergely Palla et al. but they have excluded from their search cycles like {a. and therefore they constitute a system. this is an empirical question. It is easy to see that at least some beliefs affect the behaviour of other beliefs. Each of these two vertices thus influence the behaviour of the other vertex. statues.

istván czachesz

and many other components from a cathedral, as indeed the Reformation did,
without affecting the building from the static point of view. One might object
that the artefacts that we have removed change the function of the building:
in order that it can be used for a Catholic mass, for example, it needs to have
an altar. Yet in this case it is the religious system that changes, rather than the
system of artefacts. Religious systems thus seem to contain subsystems of arte-
facts, but this includes artefacts that do not form a system among themselves.
Some artefacts that are not parts of a system of artefacts still can be thought
about as parts of a network of artefacts. Many of them are parts of particular
configurations and cannot be found apart from that configuration normally.
It can be said that networks of artefacts are often themselves “artificial”, in the
sense that their arrangement is not due to natural laws but cultural conven-
tions. Thus networks of artefacts are themselves artefacts. Whereas in the brain
beliefs are represented on a neural network that is determined by anatomic
structures as well as by electric and chemical systems of communication,
artefacts are not normally interconnected by such constraints and systems of
communication. However, there are at least two important arguments for the
view that the principles that underlie the organization of artefacts and beliefs,
respectively, are not all too different from each other. First, the way networks
of artefacts are formed and maintained in the framework of cultural systems
is comparable to the creation and maintenance of belief systems. One may
object that most artefacts belong to networks and systems only because beliefs
in our minds establish such relations among them. It can be argued, however,
that many beliefs as well as connections among them that are represented in
our nervous system can only be maintained because a certain configuration
of artefacts exists in our environment. We live in a cultural environment that
provides our mental representations with indispensable scaffolding, without
which many of the beliefs represented in our brains would diminish. Second,
in (post-)industrial societies more and more artefacts also form physical net-
works and interact by using their own language of communication. The arte-
facts that surround us are becoming increasingly systemic. In sum, as was the
case with beliefs, one may hypothesize that many artefacts belong to intercon-
nected networks, in a way that is quite comparable to the networks of beliefs,
though certainly not all such networks are systems.
How can we include networks and systems of beliefs and artefacts in our
initial model? Subsystems have to be connected to suprasystems by at least
two edges (one directed from the subsystem toward the suprasystem and
another one directed from the suprasystem toward the subsystem) in order to
ensure that the behaviour of the subsystem both influences the behaviour of
the suprasystem and is influenced by its behaviour. For two networks to be
connected, a single edge between them is sufficient. Networks and systems of
beliefs and artefacts are obviously connected in complex ways. Various beliefs


the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems

Contract Contract

Contract Contract

Contract Contract
Figure 4.5 Random example of beliefs and artefacts.

can be attached to various artefacts, irrespective of how those beliefs and arte-
facts are connected among themselves. A random example is shown in Figure
4.5 (the direction of edges among artefacts and the direction of edges among
beliefs is ignored). Actual networks can be extremely complex, and cannot be
analysed without the assistance of specialized software. However, we might
be able to make some general suggestions about networks based on empirical
research that has been previously done in various fields.

Are there components that have to be added to the system?

Our second question concerned the addition of further components to the
system. Let us start with emotions, which have played an important role in
recent cognitive theorizing about religion (e.g. Pyysiäinen 2003: 130–42).
One possibility would be to add emotions as a further subsystem, which is
connected both with artefacts and beliefs. It seems questionable, however,
that emotions form a system or even a network in the technical sense, as the
concept is used in this article. Another possibility is to add emotions to the
system as a set of beliefs. This approach is supported by the fact that both
beliefs and emotions are implemented in the brain – even though emotions
are closely connected to the archaic brain and somatic processes (Ward 2006:
309–35). A third possibility is to think about emotions as processes that act
on the components of the system. Emotions can result in the creation of
beliefs as well as they strengthen or weaken, establish or delete links among
beliefs and between beliefs and artefacts. To use a somewhat banal example,
love creates links between the mental representation of the beloved one and
mental representations of a number of pleasant things in the world. A fourth
possibility is to include emotions both as processes and beliefs. The con-
cept of mental representations of “pleasant things” in the previous suggestion
requires that emotions are understood not only as processes but also as per-
manent (components of ) mental representations. Without further discussing


istván czachesz

the problem at this point, I suggest that it is helpful to make a difference
between emotions as processes (playing an important role in rituals, which
we will briefly discuss in the final part of the article) and lasting mental repre-
sentations of emotions that can be regarded as parts of the network of beliefs.
So far we have discussed religious systems as networks of beliefs and arte-
facts. But one can object that religious systems in reality do not look like that:
they rather consist of people acting and interacting in particular ways, per-
forming rituals and participating in different kinds of joint action. Evidently
people hold beliefs – but whose beliefs are we interested in? Is it the beliefs of
the priest or of the congregant that are included in the network? The religious
system under discussion is a model that enables a particular representation
of data in order to make it possible to gain insights about religion. Models
are always limited in their scope, and so is our religious system. A major
simplification involves the representation of types rather than of instances
of beliefs. Network models used in scientific research typically have to make
a choice between representing either types or instances (Santos et al. 2007).
For example, mapping out the interactions of all animals living in a habitat is
practically impossible: you might be able to follow a family of lions day and
night, but hardly every single animal with which they interact. Ecological net-
works therefore include species (types) rather than single animals and plants
(instances). Now consider the task of mapping out a terrorist network (e.g.
Moon & Carley 2007). In that case, we want to know a social network of
individual terrorists, that is, of instances. Association networks and semantic
networks are dealing with types, mapping out an average version of beliefs
that several individuals hold. Theoretically, we could also include different
types of religious beliefs in a single system: for example, an “expert type”
and a “lay type” could be defined where experts try to change the belief sys-
tems of lay people by interacting with them and a range of artefacts (such
as religious texts). Such complex interactions could be studied with the help
of computer modelling1. For the time being, however, we do not pursue the
possibility of such models, and regard social networks as another dimension
of the religious system.
In spite of the fact that social networks have been studied for decades, what
they are and how we can measure them is far from being self-evident. In social
networks, a link between two people is thought to exist if they interact with
each other (with some regularity or in particular ways). Sometimes, however,
we rather want to know what kind of beliefs people maintain about each
other (e.g. when we draw a sociogram based on a questionnaire). In the study
of social networks, it is usual (Krackhardt 1987) to make sharp distinction
between “cognitive” (the latter type) and “behavioural” networks (the former
type). Whereas it is useful to make such a distinction in empirical research
(e.g. Pittinsky & Carolan 2008), we have to recognize that “behavioural”


the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems

networks are based on and closely related to “cognitive” networks. In fact,
all social networks that are manifested in interactions among people materi-
ally exist as beliefs and artefacts: people hold particular beliefs about each
other and typically they interact by means of artefacts. Whether two people
interact with each other is largely determined by the beliefs they hold and/
or the artefacts that make interaction possible, such as being friends or allies,
living in the same street or village, etc. Social interactions, in turn, can result
in the modification of beliefs and artefacts, such as making new friends or
sending postcards. Most importantly for our purposes, social networks influ-
ence how beliefs are created and changed. Social networks have a number of
features that allow us to make predictions about how beliefs will spread in a
population, and whether they will disappear or survive in the long term. Also
this feature of social networks is reciprocal: there are beliefs (also religious
beliefs), that can directly influence the formation of edges in social networks.
For example, if one follows Christianity and obeys Jesus’ command to love
one’s neighbour as oneself (Matthew 21:39, based on Leviticus 19:18), this
evidently leads to the creation of social ties that shape social networks in one’s
Finally, we can ask whether social networks related to religious systems
form subgraphs (or subsystems) of social networks in general – in a similar
way as religious artefacts and beliefs form subgraphs and subsystems of a cul-
tural system (Figure 4.4). It seems difficult to give a general answer to that
question. In contemporary Western societies, religious communities can be
relatively easily distinguished from other communities and the rest of soci-
ety – but this is hardly the case in various traditional societies, where religion
permeates all aspects of life. An ancient Greek city, for example, was simulta-
neously a political and a cultic community, and this also seems to be true for
today’s pre-industrial societies. A closer look at a Christian or Jewish congre-
gation in a modern, secular state will also reveal that social relations outside of
the domain of religion still very much influence the formation of a religious
congregation and vice versa. It might be the case that social connections and
networks related to religious systems are so tightly integrated into larger social
networks that we cannot map out and separately study a subgraph or subsys-
tem of social networks specific to religion.

Are there factors outside of the system that
are relevant for its functioning?

The third question that we have raised in this section concerns the role of
external factors: are there factors outside of the system that are relevant for
its functioning?


istván czachesz

First, religious beliefs are only a subset of all beliefs that we maintain and
religious artefacts are only a subset of all artefacts people produce. We can
hypothesize that a relation similar to the one found between religious beliefs
and artefacts exists between beliefs and artefacts in general, and therefore
a cultural system can be defined in a similar way as we define a religious
system. We can further accept (without further analysis at this time) that
religious systems influence the behaviour of cultural systems and vice versa.
In that case, we can say that a religious system is a subsystem of a cultural
system. A system that interacts with another system that is not its subsystem
is called an open system (Backlund 2000: 450). Religious systems are there-
fore open systems: they interact with cultural systems, which are not their
Second, it is obvious that producing any artefact, even a humble arrow or
stone tool, costs energy. Producing and maintaining networks and systems
of artefacts (such as building and decorating a sanctuary) can be extremely
costly. But also acquiring and maintaining beliefs is not without costs: the
weight of the human brain makes up only two per cent of the total body-
weight, but the brain consumes twenty per cent of the body’s energy. Since a
religious system can hardly generate the resources it needs (religious artefacts
cannot produce energy, they cannot be eaten), resources must come from an
external system, particularly from food production. Food production can be
regarded as another subsystem of cultural systems. It is also probable that
religious systems influence beliefs that also play a role in food production and
vice versa (food taboos, gods and spirits connected with vegetation, influence
on productivity etc.). Religious systems and food production are therefore
two interconnected subsystems of cultural systems (Figure 4.6).


Let us now add a temporal dimension to our study of religious systems. At
any given point of time, the system can be described by describing its vertices
and edges. We can examine, for example, how many vertices the system has,
what kind of vertices they are (beliefs, artefacts or their possible subcatego-
ries), how many edges each vertex has on average, how edges are distributed
among vertices, and so on. Then the dynamics of the system can be defined
as the change of such variables as a function of time. If we repeatedly exam-
ine a religious system as time goes on, we can expect to find that some new
beliefs and artefacts are added to or removed from the system, and new rela-
tions among them appear or existing relations disappear. The dynamics of a
religious system relies on the interactions that have been outlined in the pre-
vious section. At the level of instances (from the viewpoint of the individual


the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems

believer) the system is in perpetual motion: beliefs (mental representations)
facilitate the production of artefacts (external representations) and artefacts
generate beliefs. People are born and die, learn and forget, and make new
artefacts, which can also perish with time. If we take a look at the dimension
of social networks, we can see that connections may change all the time and
nodes (individuals forming social networks) can be replaced. At the level of
types, however, this might remain unnoticed, similarly as the fate of indi-
vidual animals or plants does not normally change the overall picture of an
ecological system: lions and antelopes die or migrate to new territories, yet
the ecological system can remain unchanged. Such a view of the religious
system corresponds to the observation that most real-life religions around us
seem to operate in a fairly constant and continuous way, even on a historical
How can we explain the seemingly unchanging character of religious
systems around us? It has been suggested that religious beliefs occupy ideal
or close to ideal positions in the space of possible beliefs, particularly due
to their minimally counterintuitive structure (Boyer 1994: 48, 121; Barrett
2008) that makes them memorable as well as it allows the mind to make
rich inferences from them. Following Dan Sperber’s (1996) use of the system
theoretical notion of “attraction”, it has been suggested that religious beliefs
occupy “attractor positions”. One might suggest that if religious beliefs are
(nearly) optimal beliefs, this will guarantee the stability of religious systems
(cf. Sperber & Hirschfeld 2004). For the purposes of this article, we can
ignore the debate that has developed around experimental findings about
counterintuitive ideas (Boyer & Ramble 2001; Barrett & Nyhof 2001; Atran
2002: 100–107; Norenzayan & Atran 2004; Gonce et al. 2006; Upal et al.
2007), and accept that some form of counterintuitiveness does contribute
to the memorability and stabilization of concepts. Would this guarantee the
stability of religious systems? A comparison with ecological systems might
be helpful at this point. All species that live on earth today evidently evolved
to occupy some kind of optimal position in their environment: this follows,
after all, from the mechanism of natural selection. This optimum, how-
ever, is relative to (a) the natural conditions of its habitat (such as climate
and landscape; cf. Mayr 2001: 152–3), (b) the ecological system to which
it belongs (e.g. it can optimally predate on some species and defend itself
against other species) and (c) the options that were left open by its previous
developmental history (e.g. being a fish, bird or mammal; cf. ibid.: 140–43).
Speaking of beliefs, their (assumed) optimality has been achieved relative to
a similar set of constraints: (a′) religious beliefs have developed in a natu-
ral habitat, which includes the natural environment and human anatomy;
(b′) they are part of an “ecological system”, consisting of other elements
of culture; and (c′) finally, their development is determined by previous


istván czachesz

developmental stages (although cultural bits might change more freely and
rapidly than do biological species; cf. Sperber 1996). Especially important
for our purposes are the first and second criteria: if we assume that there are
“attractor positions” toward which beliefs tend to develop, such positions are
relative to cultural niches (consisting of natural environments and cultural
systems). But in that case cultural niches cannot remain unchanged, since
that would preclude the change of the species that constitute them. The
behaviour of each part in the system influences (to different degrees) the
behaviour of the whole system and therefore the behaviour of every other
part of the system. In other words, both ecological and cultural systems
display complex behaviours, which cannot be obviously understood from
the properties of their parts (Nicolis & Prigogine 1989; Chu et al. 2003;
Mainzer 2004).2 We cannot go into more details about cultural complexity
at this place (Denton 2004; Czachesz 2007), but have to notice that most
real-life systems are complex systems.
We will therefore consider the problem of stability and change from the
perspective of the study of complex systems, which will also provide us with
clues about the expected changes and possible evolutionary trajectories of
religious systems. There are three different kinds of states in which systems
can remain for a longer period of time (Nicolis & Prigogine 1989: 66). The
first one, mechanical equilibrium, is only possible in so-called conservative sys-
tems, which preserve their total energy, translational momentum and angular
momentum (ibid.: 46–50). An example of a conservative system is a pendu-
lum operating under the idealized conditions of classical mechanics, which
ignore friction. A pendulum has two equilibrium states: an unstable equilib-
rium at the highest point of its path and a stable equilibrium at the lowest
point. The pendulum can rest at its stable equilibrium or move periodically
without any change as long as it is left alone. If its motion is disturbed, it
will stop or switch to a different amplitude (ignoring the case of an “over-
damped” system). If a religious system were conservative, we would be able
to observe an endless generation of beliefs from artefacts and vice versa. This
would, however, require that it remains uninfluenced by its (cultural and nat-
ural) environment. As soon as the slightest influence from the environment
occurred, however, the system would not be able to return to its previous
state. Such a religious system would be completely at the mercy of its envi-
ronment. Since the environment inevitably impacts religious systems all the
time (as Figure 4.6 shows), if their dynamics were analogous to the dynam-
ics of conservative systems, their behaviour would be constantly and directly
reflecting changes in their environment.
Most real-life systems are dissipative (Nicolis & Prigogine 1989: 50–54):
for example, friction is part of real mechanical systems. A dissipative system
can be an isolated system, one that does not exchange matter or energy with


the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems


Contract Contract

Figure 4.6 Religious and cultural systems.

its environment. Such a system will irreversibly evolve toward a second type
of stability, the final state of thermodynamic equilibrium, in which parts of a
system have achieved their maximum level of disorder. Religions do not seem
to be in such a state. Again, we can refer to Figure 4.6, which shows that our
religious system is interacting with a complex environment. Religious sys-
tems are therefore best studied as dissipative, non-isolated (or open) systems.
Such systems can exchange matter and energy with their environment, and
have two kinds of stable states. The first option is to reach a thermodynamic
equilibrium (our second type of continuous state; see above), in which the
system stops exchanging energy or matter with its environment, similarly
as an object that has reached the temperature of its environment and stops
exchanging heat with it. Using the notion of thermodynamic equilibrium
analogically, rather than in a technical sense, we can imagine that a religious
system is in equilibrium with its cultural environment in some ways. A reli-
gious system might, for example, share the belief system of its cultural envi-
ronment and vice versa. Differences in beliefs between religion and the rest
of the cultural system have not been much of a concern, by and large, until
the arrival of modernity. In contemporary Western theology, in contrast, an
exchange of ideas with science, different worldviews, and cultural theories
is a major source of the dynamics of the belief system of religion. To take
another example, a medieval monastery might have been independent to a
large degree from its cultural (but not its natural) environment in terms of
food and material needs. Yet such examples are very limited both in extent
(e.g. monks did depend on artisans, building materials, supply of novices)
and scope (e.g. monasteries interacted with culture and the rest of the reli-
gious system in many ways). The notion of thermodynamic equilibrium in
open systems is thus also of limited use to understand stability in religious
Another option for dissipative, non-isolated systems to acquire stability
for some time is to be in a stationary non-equilibrium state (the third type of
continuous state in our discussion). In such a state, the system does exchange


self-organized systems. Spandrels (ornaments filling up space in gothic architec- ture) are clearly not part of the system of gothic architecture from the static point of view: they are connected to the system by outgoing edges (they exert gravitational force on some elements around them) but do not have incom- ing links (gravitational forces are not distributed to them). including unclear boundaries between modules and circular interactions among individual parts and the whole system.03 per cent and 3. religious systems can be thought about as subsystems of culture that inhabit particular niches of cultural landscapes. in contrast. How can we explain this continuity and how can we account for change in religious systems? Religious systems are complex. through a long history of evolutionary “tinkering”. The biosphere has reached its current state through a long process of complex self-organization (balancing myriads of interde- pendent effects). Its remarkable continu- ity through history in the midst of cultural change does not mean it is in 114 .) What we think about the adaptiveness or evolu- tionary path of religion is a completely different matter: naturally developed subsystems may contain some level of redundancy (possibly serving as backup systems. but its internal and external param- eters are related in such a way that the system enjoys some level of stability. connected to them by both incom- ing and outgoing edges. because of its continuous existence in the midst of cultural change. It is questionable if parts of culture – such as religion – can be rightly called “spandrels” (Gould & Lewontin 1979. Now we can apply this model to human culture. respectively (Lovelock 1979). Religious systems. Religion occupies an interesting position within culture. for example. that is. as it were) or their function might remain largely hidden. they are certainly parts of the cultural system of medieval culture. like many real-world systems. reusing existing bits and pieces and adding new ones. If matter on Earth were in a chemical equilibrium (which is a component of thermodynamic equilibrium). (It has to be noticed that although spandrels are not parts of the static system of buildings. due to the complexity of the system. 99 per cent of its atmosphere would consist of carbon dioxide and the salt content of its oceans would be 13 per cent – the current figures being 0. Atran 2002: 43–5). In sum. are parts of cultural systems. often resulting in redundancy or seemingly dysfunctional units. in which mental processes and artefact production can be seen as two major factors. which has gone through another amazing process of self-organizing. rather than engi- neered systems with a straightforward structure and easily detectable subsys- tems (modules) that have clearly distinguished functions. istván czachesz matter or energy with its environment.5 per cent. operates far from thermodynamic equilibrium: the influx of energy from without the system (from Sun) makes the persistence of such a non- equilibrium state possible. The biosphere of Earth. It seems reasonable to think that culture has developed similarly as did biological and ecological systems.

quite independently from the environment. since it would prevent us from experimenting. Yet such states are never actually steady.) Also. in self-organized systems they are essential for the development of the sys- tem. Cultural stability is desirable for a certain amount of time. or they can be global. when the system will return to the attractor after any perturbation. of which we only mention a few important options at this place. the environment communicates matter. undesirable effects. Sometimes the system remains all the time in a given vicinity of a continuous state. perturbations initiate a sequence of states. regardless of its size. Within this general framework. In real-life contexts. which in such a case can be called an attractor. religion seems to occupy a special posi- tion. we gain a new perspective on continuity and innovation. the two major religions within this culture. for cultural and religious systems other variables have to be identified. The continuous state (or reference state) of a system can be therefore interpreted as the most probable state within a range of continuous perturbations (that is. perturbations might grow rapidly and drive that system away from the reference state (which is then called and unstable reference state). complex systems all the time exhibit small deviations from the reference state (called fluctuations or back- ground noise). a state not showing radical changes on a given timescale). the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems an equilibrium state. but can be rather characterized as a stationary non- equilibrium state (that is. momentum or energy to a system all the time – in cultural systems we might consider such influences at a more abstract level – and it is practically impossible to control for every state vari- able of the system with unlimited precision. through which the system returns to the reference state (orbital stability). Attractors can be local. If we apply these different classes of system behaviours to religious sys- tems. small-scale changes). which occasionally result in abandoning the old reference state and the emergence of a new reference state (such as occurs in major historical transitions). Judaism and 115 . Whereas per- turbations in engineered systems are normally negative. In spite of the major cultural transitions of European culture in the last two millennia. There are various possible reactions of a system in response to perturbations (Nicolis & Prigogine 1989: 66–71). (State variables such as tempera- ture or pressure can be used to characterize states of thermodynamic systems. Finally. but being bound by an attractor forever would be detrimental for human culture. local. In other cases. when the system returns to the reference state only if the perturbation is below a certain limit. It seems that human culture is staying near to reference states with considerable perturbations. It is also possible that in reaction to perturbations the system steadily approaches a reference state (asymptotic stability). In such a case the only way to facili- tate cultural change would be radical impulses from the environment – such as a major climate change – for which we would be then completely unpre- pared.

Rituals may rearrange edges in the religious system. For example. edges that connect more than two vertices (beliefs or artefacts). preventing the system from arriving at a new reference state. At this point we can only give some tentative examples. but mapping out the net- works with the help of computerized tools will enable us to make quantita- tive measurements and predictions. somewhat related. Modelling religious systems as networks allows us to study stability and change in them with the help of parameters that describe networks. They can be introduced to the network model as hyperedges. artefacts or social networks. Once you have a tool. It seems indeed reason- able to think that cross-cultural factors such as anatomy or the natural envi- ronment will drive the evolution of beliefs or components of beliefs toward some attractor positions. Of course such a concept already presupposes that we have criteria for prioritizing various states of a system. Local attractors might “trap” a system if perturbations practically never achieve a level at which the system would not return to its reference state anymore but would start to migrate toward another attractor. aging is compensated by transmitting beliefs to a new generation 116 . but there are also more general criteria. such as cultures favouring social justice or individual freedom. there is a good deal of cross-cultural agreement among religious beliefs. Since rituals are themselves represented in the religious system as beliefs and artefacts. Artefacts are no exceptions: anatomy. to which we have paid little attention in this article. as well as of cultural or religious systems in general. rituals can also modify rituals. beliefs constantly generate artefacts and artefacts generate and modify beliefs. In the case of cultural systems one can think of some ideologically set preferences. obviously play an important role in this process. which might be more advantageous from some perspec- tive. issue is the effect of local attractors. We have already rejected the idea that the assumed stability of religious beliefs could be responsible for the stability of religions. In our religious system. that all beliefs and tools globally end up in the same attractor positions. options for further improvement are restricted by its current shape. istván czachesz Christianity. It is to be expected that such interactions occur within the system in ways that main- tain the stability of the system in the midst of environmental influences. Rituals. we can think of changes that involve the weakening or strengthening of connections. such as stability or evolvability (the capacity of finding better attractors). however. Can we perhaps adopt a milder form of this hypothesis? In spite of the great variety of cultures. that is. have remained almost unchanged since antiquity. Another. purpose and environmental constraints define attractor positions for their development. The evolution of beliefs and artefacts. is constrained by their history (simi- larly as we have noticed about biological evolution). This does not mean. If we assign weights to the edges (in our imaginary net- work connecting shops this would be comparable to streets having different numbers of lanes). influencing beliefs.

the diameter is the length of the longest of these shortest paths. or migrating toward a new one. environmental effects will be changing and beliefs will have a natural tendency to fluctuate. Modelling religious systems as graphs provides us with possibilities to make observations and predictions about their evolution. events that negatively or positively affect the community are interpreted in ways that help to maintain the belief system (e. their distance). but Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (1929) who first suggested that any two humans on Earth are connected by not more than five acquaintances. Quite interestingly. At some stages of development. Networks that have a small diameter are called “small world” networks. Graph theory and the study of real-life networks in various disciplines (as mentioned in the intro- duction of this article) have established various regularities with respect to how networks behave across different domains. which gives the distance of the farthest two points in the graph. the evolutionary dynamics of religious systems of believers. attributing changes in the environment to benign or hostile gods and spirits). This suggests that the net- work structure of religious systems is changing from time to time. regulating the system’s capacity of change (or evolvability). Let us take the concept of the diameter of a graph. which is a more precise formulation of the commonplace that we are living in a “small world”. then. new beliefs can spread on them rapidly. ultimately either remaining in the neigh- bourhood of its previous. Three decades later. and one of their important characteristics is that information spreads in them rapidly (Watts & Strogatz 1998). religious systems indeed show rapid change. which is defined as the maximum of the shortest paths between any two vertices in the graph (Berge 1973: 66): for any two vertices in the graph. At this point. Of course diameter (or the 117 .g. we calculate the length of the shortest path between them (that is. For example. the system will follow one of the developmental trajectories that we have described in the case of thermodynamic systems. A famous example of the practical application of this concept is the hypothesis of “six degrees of separation”. It is also obvious that the religious system will show perturbations due to internal and external factors. and fluctuations initiated at various points of the system can combine in unpredictable ways. Stanley Milgram (1967) formulated the idea of “six degrees of separation” as a scientific hypothesis and successfully demonstrated its truth in an experi- ment conducted in the United States. observa- tions about networks in one domain often prove themselves to be relevant for another domain: graphs are capable of modelling the organization of things in a fairly universal way. If reli- gious systems are “small worlds”. fluctuations can spread quickly in them. A similar prediction can be made about social networks that are connected to religious systems: if they are small worlds. continuous state. whereas most of the time they do not: above we have made the observation that religious systems show relative stability in the midst of cultural and environmental change. It was not a sociologist.

118 . 2001. “An Outline of General System Theory”. Boyer. A. P. for example by Ron Sun (2006. Boyer. 1994. Amsterdam: Elsevier. Graphs and Hypergraphs. Barrett. Oxford: Oxford Uni- versity Press. P. Tamás Biró’s critical reading of the manuscript and his comments on my use of system theory and mathematical formalism helped me tremendously in formulating the final version of the text. Whereas previously most agent-based modelling has focused on the interaction of agents having a simple cognitive architecture (capable of representing a small set of simple beliefs). “Coding and Quantifying Counterintuitiveness in Religious Concepts: Theoretical and Methodological Reflections”. C. Agent-based modelling is a computerized method to study such interactions. McCauley and Benson Saler for their feedback on an earlier version of this article. 1973. 2000. S. New York: Basic Books. 2007). Kybernetes. these complex systems are analogous to non-linear systems. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. von 1950. “The Definition of System”. istván czachesz empirically more accessible average shortest path) is not the only variable that is responsible for the spread of information in a network – but the investiga- tion of those factors has to be postponed to future contributions. “Spreading Non-natural Concepts: The Role of Intuitive Conceptual Structures in Memory and Transmission of Cultural Materials”. CA: University of California Press. the behaviour of which cannot be understood as a linear sum of the behaviour of their parts. A. 2002. 2008. Bertalanffy. L. Notes 1. 2. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 1(2): 134–65. Berge. Nyhof 2001. Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods. I am thankful to Robert N. 29(4): 444–51. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 20 (4): 308–38. References Atran. Backlund. Journal of Cognition and Culture 1: 69–100. Spirits and Ancestors. Barrett J. recently more sophisticated models have been designed. Cognition. J. and Culture” conference. Berkeley. L. presented during the “Origins of Religion. & M. Acknowledgements I would like to thank the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies for providing me with a wonderful research environment to work on the project “Religion in Dynamic Systems”. L. Using a more precise mathematical language. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion.

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to decoration and to the artistic efforts of untrained or untalented persons. drawings). dance. What comprises that essence? Can it be defined so that one knows art when one encounters it? Does that essence inhere in art’s form or content? In its function (or non-functionality)? Frequently the category “art” is extended to include other “arts” – music. paintings. definition. artists) that has been important in all societies. “Universal” may imply that a feature (e. especially to “fine art” – and thereby denied to craft. embellishments. poetry. Many unexamined assumptions are tucked into its folds. that “art” is a kind of essence that inheres in some works and is lacking in others. lend themselves to distinctions of quality (or essence) that make some music or literature “art” and other examples of music or literature not art. sculptures. shad- owy train or “tail” of theory. has been invented by all cultures. These meanings arise from different assumptions and carry incom- patible implications. the familiar one-syllable word “art” drags behind it a long. literature. A notion of fine art implies that there is a qualitative distinction to be made between art and non-art. it is of course necessary to decide what is meant both by the term “universal” and by the word “art”. is latent in all normal individuals.g. or between good and bad art – in other words. 5 Art as a human universal: an adaptationist view Ellen Dissanayake In order to consider art as a human universal. art) is untaught and appears spon- taneously. or a folk dance with 121 . the word “art” is often tacitly restricted to the visual arts (e. like the visual arts. and one who looks for universals must begin by carefully sorting through these beguiling. yet confusing.g. or is a product of some people (e.1 Similarly. qualification and contention – an appendage that has become only more elaborated and unmanageable over the past century. What does a symphony have in common with a sonnet.g. drama and their subdivisions – which may. To consider art as a superordinate category subsuming several arts requires that one be prepared to say what characteristics these arts have in common. For example.

Although Western aesthetics has been typically concerned with arts of the western European tradition. in whole or large part. non-utilitarian pleasure. As such.e. in their func- tion. or in some other feature? “Beauty” has been considered by many as a necessary feature of art. or good art. A worthwhile effort in this vein is that of Dutton (2002). What did art provide for our ancestors 122 . More commonly in recent decades. If this is the true state of affairs. My own view of art. criticism. 1992). In general. for there is no reason to look across cultures or in the past for something that can be anything. will apply to the practice of art across cultures and throughout historical time: expertise or virtuosity. but why it should exist at all: what it is for. emerges from a naturalistic and specifically Darwinian or adaptationist approach. Only intrinsic pleasure (self-reward) and bracketing (special focus) seem more or less restricted to art or art-like activities (such as play and make-believe. To approach art (or any human attribute) evo- lutionarily requires that one specify not only what the capacity consists of. styles and rules. ellen dissanayake a novel or Ming vase. and made a provisional list of seven characteristics which. who in the spirit of Weitz (1956) and Munro (1963). Such a list is a valiant and useful attempt to delineate universal character- istics of the arts across cultures. or ritual behaviour – see Dissanayake 1988. specialized skill. many philosophers of art have given their attention to non-essentialist (and nonuniversalist) matters – as if alto- gether abandoning the possibility of sorting out the confusions inherent in the subject of the nature and purpose of art. a universal- ist position must include the arts (however defined) of people everywhere. style. and serving as an imaginative experience for both pro- ducers and audiences. representation and imaginative embodiment) characterize examples of nonart as well. but five of the features (i. that justifies placing them in one conceptual category? Is the common denominator to be found in formal attributes. What about examples of the arts that are not beautiful? Such questions and distinctions (about art both as visual art and as a gen- eral category) have been the subject matter of philosophical aesthetics in the West for more than two centuries. imita- tion. “special” focus. used a “family resemblance” notion of art. it considers art – like language or toolmaking – to be an inherent psychobiological capacity of the human species. the climate in aesthet- ics and the arts at the end of the late twentieth century is a vaporous one of “cultural constructivism” or “cultural relativism” (see below) that claims that anything can be art if one (or an “artworld”) chooses to see it as such. an evolved component of human nature that is in some respects untaught and spontaneous and in oth- ers latent in every individual. critical evaluative language. which will be described more fully below. then looking for universals in art is doomed.

the bourgeoisie or “white European males”. whether rulers and the nobility. Dickie 1974). the state. which claims that art is what the “artworld” of dealers. “High” and “low” art. gender or race. has become predomi- nant in the academy. asserts and consolidates privilege or vested interests of the powerful. the upper classes. critics and curators says it is (Danto 1964. art is a product of delusion or lack – a symptom of neurosis. overlapping or incompatible views. Art. can suggest why people universally have. “heathen” art. Over the last century. called cultural constructivism or cultural relativism.g. Art then reflects. “tribal” art. answers to such questions as what its function is. and serves – both in the artmaker and in the respondent to art – as the disguised fulfillment of a forbidden and repressed (unconscious) wish. 123 . Here again there are a number of complementary. why people do it. Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. there is what might be called the theological view. the church. and what art accomplishes for artists or experiencers of art. An extreme position of this sort is the “institutional” theory of art. but to be simply a cultural construct or label given to objects or practices by interested parties. Not many scholars hold a theological position today. In the historical past. make or experience art. It arises from psychological defence measures such as sublimation or projection. held implic- itly or overtly in theocratic societies as in the European “Middle Ages”. let us first examine some more familiar notions about what art is for – that is. engage in. reflects the power or beauty and goodness of God or the gods: it manifests or reveals or gives human access to the divine. few questioned what art was – it was what the powerful said it was. or of class. a variant of this view. in such societies. What art does: seven views Before describing my evolutionary or adaptationist view of art. art as a human universal for whom it was adaptive? I will claim that only the evolutionary perspective can satisfactorily establish art as a human universal – that is. For example. It considers art to have no objective essence of its own. but it has characterized perhaps the major- ity of human societies and is implicit in small-scale traditional societies where the arts were made and used primarily in religious ceremony or observance. “good” and “bad” art – all are (or have been) labels assigned by one group to its own or another’s art. cited in Danto 1996: 110). Another is that “art can be anything and anything can be art” (e. and especially in recent decades. each generally stem- ming from a larger theoretical position. A sociological or socio-cultural perspective typically considers art to be an instrument of power – whether this power be economic. a substitute for something else. To a Freudian psychoanalytical perspective.

commercial. quality. disinterested apprecia- tion) and concepts (e. a defined entity or essence of “art”) that one can show do not apply across cultures. even interpretive. so that we need not mention it again. Mithen 1996). much less answer. They also contribute to understanding human minds and how they work. ethnographic. interior decorators and fashion designers. Gestalt psychologists). Theological views rest on their adherents’ belief in a particular divinity.3 By assuming that art is necessarily 124 . or presumed. and embodies and conveys impor- tant cultural truths to people of that culture. It expresses and communicates mood and personality. Berlyne 1971. art reflects a cultural system. to creativity and fulfillment.g. The nature and purpose or function of art are among those questions. taste and judgement – the subject area that is traditionally called “aesthetics”. none of the approaches can satisfactorily address. Many serious and gifted think- ers have devoted years of their lives to investigating them. Experimental psychological studies approach the arts empirically as stimuli that humans consider pleasing or beautiful. Each of these perspectives on art’s nature and purpose is or has been use- ful at one time or another for addressing various specific problems – clinical. ellen dissanayake Other psychological views consider art more positively as self-expressive or therapeutic rather than palliative or neurotic. Palaeoarchaeologists who study human prehistory have also typically claimed. beauty. and have left valu- able insights. Traditional philosophical aesthetics is based on Western Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment ideas (e. Seashore 1938. which are themselves considered to be good things. Although anthropological views are concerned with the arts in a variety of cultures. they generally uphold a cultural relativist position that emphasizes individuality and uniqueness.g. that art is an instance of human symbol-making ability (e. The cultural relativist view of course eschews the very possibility of uni- versals. Yet even those views which one might assume would pretend to universality fail because they cannot be applied to the arts of all individuals or all societies. taste. Nevertheless. Such studies investigate “aes- thetic” perceptual and cognitive preferences that reveal something about what people universally like and dislike (e. Such studies may have practical conse- quences for advertisers. The psychoanalytical and psychological views are inapplicable to cultures or individuals where sublimation and wish- fulfillment are absent in the arts or where self-expression and creativity are not fostered or valued.2 In anthropological views. Art is a means to personal indi- viduation. philosophical views of art examine longstanding ques- tions about beauty.g. and denies universality in any cultural product. and may aid self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Valentine 1962. It is an instance of and repository for symbolic meaning. As described earlier. the question of whether or not art is a universal. not in a universal deity that every human society would accept.g.

additionally. that art was created by (their own) God. Working from an adaptationist view. but their formulations omit important considerations. products of creativity and self-expression. motifs. That is. or failing to appreciate the complexity of an individual instance of art or the variety in art practices cross-culturally. art as a human universal symbolic. traditional. pre-industrial. Art as a universal behaviour: the ethological approach Because life in modernized societies is so recent in the enormous time span of hominid or even human evolution. or particular regions of the brain) are used in actual instances of artmaking and art experience. Experimental psychological and neurological approaches do address uni- versals. we will have to ask instead whether a statement or conclusion is likely to be applicable to small-scale. or that this is the way brains and minds and societies just are. An adaptationist view will always ask of any offered statement or conclusion about a human activity (such as art): is this likely to have been the case in ancestral societies? Because we have no ancestral societies to observe. musical intervals. Actual instances of art arguably involve something more than a collection of prefer- ences or capacities (Dissanayake 1998). they thereby disregard or deny the possibility that there are presymbolic origins or instances of the arts. e. Although they are concerned with universal “aesthetic” preferences or cognitive capacities that contribute to art. the approaches just described typically ignore the question that is fundamental to understanding art as a universal: why does art exist at all? Where did it come from and why? They may tacitly hold assumptions about art’s origin and rea- son for existence that inhere in their particular view. or different from. colours. we should keep in mind that art is likely to be broader than. art will not necessarily or automatically be such things as works in museums. they are generally silent regarding how these isolated elements (shapes. common- sense ideas that emerge from the cultural biases of modern and postmodern Westerners. 125 . They have characteristics and effects that are different from those of any individual component.g. they beg (or ignore) the question of what makes an artistic symbol different from a nonartistic symbol. embodiments of beauty or anything at all that one chooses to call art. primarily foraging (hunter–gatherer) societies – whose way of life is closer than ours to that in which human nature evolved and to which it was adapted. it is misleading to generalize about human nature or human universals by looking only at the way contemporary people lead their lives. An adaptationist view is not satisfied with this complacence. or that individuals made it up. In addition to insufficiently sorting through the manifold assumptions inherent in the term “art”.

the science of ethology adopts a Darwinian adaptationist (or evolutionary) view that humans. the ethological approach – unlike the previously described approaches – considers art as a process rather than as an outcome or product of the process. while other species’ way of life (tigers in dense jungles) fosters asociality. form bonds with others. nature. What is more. and defence – indi- vidually called “behaviours” or “behavioural mechanisms” – evolved to suit the members of a species to their particular environmental niche and its required way of life. make and use tools. by definition. I will here use an ethological perspective to suggest both what art is and what it does – its origin. yet ultimately restricted. By viewing art as a behaviour. forming social bonds or parenting – as a particular kind of behaviour that universally characterizes the human species. parenting. or a feature (such as beauty) of that product. If art is adaptive. as predispositions.4 Unlike the other views. with greater and lesser degrees of lability in expression. With regard to art. Felidae). within a particular family (say. acquiring food. Like these other biological predispositions. yet still rest upon universal predilections. ellen dissanayake As an alternative to the traditional. tools. (b) it will be observable cross-culturally in members 126 . and (a) there will be evidence of this behaviour at some point in our ancestral hominid past. perspectives described in the previous section. like other animal species. it is. social practices and parenting styles vary from cul- ture to culture – yet all humans are born with a predisposition to speak. Ethologists specifically consider an animal species’s characteristic psychology and behav- iour – like its anatomy and physiology – as having evolved to “fit”. a congeries of adaptive traits which helped individuals who possessed these traits to survive and reproduce more successfully than indi- viduals who lacked them or displayed them to a lesser extent. For example. them to a particular way of life. have acquired over time. it subsumes – rather than nullifies – the other seven approaches. Not only behavioural systems of social interaction but of mating. and care for their young – expressions of the arts may also vary. through natu- ral selection. They are not (or are rarely) mechanically “determined”. Just as languages. Thinking of art as an evolved – that is. universal. toolmaking. adaptive – characteristic of human nature provides a new set of criteria to apply when considering claims by others about its nature or universality. ethology allows one to approach art as a human universal. Developed as a branch of biology over the past half-century. or “adapt”. the ethological approach will ask whether it is justi- fiable to consider it – like language. and reason for existing. some species (lions) have a way of life (on the open savannah) that promotes sociality. Behaviours generally require a facilitating environment in order to develop smoothly but they are inherited. art requires cultural facilitation.

Also like other adaptations. Most people will willingly devote time. (d) art will appear under appropriate conditions or circumstances. The notion is congruent with similar formulations by others – e. utterances.6 materials. Artification: “making special” I have shown that earlier views have regarded art as objects. singing. and (c) its rudiments will be detectable or easily fostered in the behaviour of young children. adorning (in any medium) – that is. Like other adaptations. the surrounding environment. as the process or activity rather than the product or outcome of the artifying. entities. movements. parenting. acting. I claimed that in all art (here “artifying”) in all times and places. seeking out and staying in safe (familiar) surroundings. marking. In earlier publications (Dissanayake 1988. which will necessarily conceptualize art as a behaviour – what one might call “artification”.g. That is. ordinary objects. But what could this be? It is easier to conceptualize art as “a behaviour” if we think of art as music (chanting. telling stories). thought and other resources to it. in time. Although European languages do not have a verb to art. miming. effort. since these arts take place. and learn- ing information that is useful for their way of life.e. In a similar way. Let us now examine what a “behaviour of art” might be. But it is not immediately evident what – if anything – all these activities have in common. decorating. words. 1992. Additionally. an essence or a label. sounds. None of these approaches is translatable to an ethological perspective.5 Clearly the ethological suggestion that art is an adaptive behaviour opens a new pathway for understanding art as a human universal. art as a human universal of all known societies regardless of their degree of economic or technological development. (e) art will be generally a source of pleasure. is made extraordinary. 1995). it should not be difficult to understand what this word might mean: “to make something art”. socializing and gaining social acceptance. an account of art as a universal behaviour (f ) will distinguish between its motivation and immediate effect (the “proximate” reasons for the behaviour) and its “ultimate” or adaptive value. one can also think of the plastic or visual arts as making. reciting. find- ing and preparing and eating food. although the motivations will be of emotional importance to those who engage in it. image-making. like “behaviour”. ordi- nary experience (i. I offered a com- mon denominator for a behaviour of art that I called making special. the notion of “bracketing” mentioned above. as they do with other adaptive behaviours such as mating. playing an instrument) or performing (dancing. talking. even ideas) is transformed. or “defamiliarization” 127 .

sometimes with dynamic variations (louder and softer. undulant voice – which babies have been shown to prefer to typical adult conversational speech. 2000. Miall & Kuiken 1994a. I advanced a theoretical position that suggested how making special would have been adaptive. In my most recent work and in the present essay. Along with special vocal behaviour to infants. facial expressions. for example. high-pitched. and acquisition of parental culture. synchronize and alternate.7 Based on this characterization of art. Trevarthen 1997). Shklovsky [1917] 1965. 1988. Aitken & Trevarthen 1997). nods and wags) in an almost ritual- ized way. patting. widened eyes. ellen dissanayake (“making strange”) and “foregrounding” in literary studies (e. The baby in turn responds to the mother’s signals with kicks. raised eyebrows). stroking.g. mothers (and other adults) engage infants’ attention by the use of rhythmic body movements (touching. exaggerated facial expressions (long looks. Stern 1971. mothers all over the world talk to their small infants in a characteristically soft. Painstaking analysis of vide- otaped engagements of mothers and babies show that the pair are interacting in remarkably close temporal unity – responding to each other in subtle yet precise ways (see. emotional investment (or “care”). practising their “attunement” over the first five or six months of the infant’s life. and vocalizations of its own – often as if participating in a mutually- negotiated rhythmic “beat” with complementary dynamics. expressions and movements are often repeated. Such behaviour has been shown to have many practical effects for the baby’s development of emotional homeostasis (Hofer 1990) and later sociali- zation (Papousek & Papousek 1979. and characteristic head movements (bobs. I refine and extend the earlier position. The mother varies her pace and rhythm in order maximally to fit in with the baby’s emotional state and to help it achieve equilibrium. Beebe et al. sustained smiles. and could thus be considered a universal feature of human species nature. Yet 128 . Yet it is more than an individual performance. language learning (Fernald 1992). Nadel 1996). Mukarovsky [1932] 1964. Aesthetic predisposition In recent work (e. I describe universal features that can be observed in early interactions between human mothers and their infants. head move- ments. and the invention of ceremonial ritual. The pair engage and disengage. These vocalizations. hugging and kissing the baby). faster and slower) in what can be called a “multimedia performance”. Beebe et al. 1994b). Dissanayake 1999. Papousek & Papousek 1981. cognitive development (Papousek & Papousek 1981. hand and arm movements. Despite cultural variations. My argument has three strands: aesthetic predisposition. Schore 1994.g. 2001).1977.

greater in humans than in other animals. existed as a sort of “reservoir” from which early humans could draw when at a later point in evolution they began deliberately to artify (to “make special”). I suggest that the innate predisposition to take note of or positively like such protoaesthetic visual and aural signals. more than any other animals. was uncertainty. vigorous or graceful movements. vocal and kinesic modalities – are used by the arts in order to gain attention and create expectancy. as described by experimental psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists.g. the mind increasingly became a “making sense” organ: interrelated powers of memory. The performative. clear colours. Repetition. I suggest that uncertainty – leading to emotional 129 . true. Humans could remember good and bad things. exaggeration.g. For our species. insofar as they signal beneficial or possibly harmful states or events (e. even anxiety. but must be learned. ripeness.8 There are other innately-appealing (or “aesthetic”) sensory features that originally appeared in nonaesthetic contexts – e. foresight and imagination gradually developed and allowed humans to stabilize and confine the stream of life by making mental “connections” between past. what to do and how to live are not instinctive. and imagine them hap- pening again. Such signals would become inherent perceptual and cognitive preferences. significant motifs (e. Emotional investment (“care”) Humans. danger. One cost of this awareness of the desired possibilities and inevi- table unpredictability of life. These are immediately attractive or salient to humans. youth. and dynamic features of mother-infant engagement can be viewed as aesthetic (or protoaesthetic) elements to which. use their wits rather than their instincts to address the problems of their lives. dynamic variation. health. Individuals who attended to and valued such signals would have enjoyed greater survival and reproductive success than individuals who did not. Over the millen- nia of hominid evolution. temporal. eyespots and zigzags. present and future. see Aiken 1998. Üher 1991).g. patterning. elaboration and surprise – in visual. interest and cognitive mastery). or among different experiences or observations. as well as the inborn capacities and sensitivities that predispose adults to make and babies to respond to the protoaesthetic temporal and dynamic manipulations that were described above. humans are innately sensitive. bright. for adaptive reasons (infant survival and maternal reproductive success). art as a human universal it is rarely pointed out that the very components of the interaction are fun- damentally aesthetic. or cognitively interesting and satisfying musical intervals or visual shapes and patterns (as described by Gestalt psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists). strength.

to make a living. exaggerated. preparing for flight.g. body rocking and repetitious rhythmic vocalizations are 130 . were not matters of immediate fight. but uncertain. Other animals in uncertain circumstances frequently engage in “displace- ment” activities or ritualized behaviours whose components are drawn from ordinary bodily movements used in everyday contexts such as grooming. An adapta- tionist view. assuring or restoring safety. exaggerated sounds and movements provided “some- thing to do”. locomotion. even though like toolmaking. It is important to note that such stereotyped. which according to conventional anthropological theory is opposed to “biology”. cultural knowledge and practices direct our attention to par- ticular biologically significant things – ways to become a competent adult. or plucking grass). patterned and repeated. these ordinary movements become more stereotyped – that is.g. Such “ritualized” movements signal to conspecifics that the sender of the signal is agitated or anxious. I further suggest that individuals in groups that responded to uncertainty in stressful circumstances with such practices would gradually have gained survival advantage over those in groups where each person behaved individually or randomly. considers the various components that are called “cul- ture” – for example (as described earlier). as in other animals. biologically programmed) and would therefore vary among groups. language and toolmaking – to be outgrowths of evolved psychobiological predispositions. In general. to rear children and to maintain social relationships. Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1988). and other cultural activities they were based on inherent predisposi- tions (for example. Here I view religion and art similarly as cultural behaviours that originally were based on the wish to influence the outcomes of circumstances that were especially important. felt comforting. art (or artification). health and victory. ellen dissanayake investment or care – was the original motivating impetus for the human invention of religion and its behavioural expression. and ultimately eased tension – particularly when performed jointly among members of a group. our early human ancestors at some point found that performing repetitious. or nestbuilding (e. preening. They also serve to reduce the tension of the displaying animal (Tinbergen 1952. I suggest that in uncertain circumstances that did not call for immediate pragmatic action (that is. Usually religion and art are treated as aspects of “culture”. lan- guage. flee or freeze responses). stereotyped. however. Additionally. In the new uncertain context. “ritualized” behaviours were culturally invented (not. Language and traditions of toolmaking and subsistence practice are among these “ways”. pregnancy. prosperity. our ancestors had to care about the outcome of biologi- cally significant and valuable events and states that were not always certain of attainment – e. birth and death. fecundity. or successfully dealing with the bodily changes and emotional concomitants of sexual maturity.

would create the illusion that the disturbing situation was being coped with – e. McNeill (1995: 89) notes that “preaching and song combined with rhythmic muscu- lar movement” are conspicuous “in times of trouble and among distressed populations”. reproduction. 131 . dynamically varied – vocal and kinetic actions that were a behavioural analogue of psychological coping. to attempt to gain control of desired outcomes by means of controlled – pat- terned. Taçon & Brockwell 1995) have found evidence of a conspicuous increase in artistic activity during periods of environmental stress. some palaeoarchaeologists (Brody 1977. which if long- standing or excessive negatively affects immunity. eventually acquiring symbolic significance. may also provoke the response. psychological control. exaggerated. Flinn et al. Charmove & Anderson 1989). Although we cannot observe ancestral humans responding to uncertainty with stereotyped visual. 1996). mus- cle action and cognition. art as a human universal spontaneous self-comforting behaviours of emotionally distressed individuals and even of captive animals. It is healthier – more adaptive – to feel that one knows how to deal with uncertain events. in circumstances of perceived uncertainty and its concomitant psychological stress or anxiety. fore- sightful people. as well as direct psychological and social stress. repeated. such activities may well have been presymbolic and preverbal to begin with. growth. The invention of ceremonial ritual I have just suggested that the earliest forms of what we today call “religion” and “art” arose together during human evolution as ways to address the inevi- table uncertainties of life that became increasingly evident to intelligent. elaborated. Taçon et al. Unified group behaviour. One of the psychological variables that modulates the stress response is to have a sense of control or predictability. Mead ([1930] 1976) described how the people of Manus huddled together during a frightening storm and chanted charms to abate the wind. repetitions and exag- gerations. The mammalian response to physiological and psychological stress is an adaptive answer to potential or actual physical danger: glucocorticoids and adrenaline are secreted and help the body to react immediately (Sapolsky 1992. Worry and unfocussed anxiety. Behaviour that is controlled – that is. Taçon 1983. a behaviour of art may have originated in the psychobiological tendency. 1994. repetitive. exaggerated.g. patterned. and performed with deliberation and care – is a physical expression that mimics. vocal and kinetic patterns. As in mother–infant interactions. In my ethologically-plausible reconstruction. and feels like. even more than individual activity.

repeated. Over time. individual arts could be additionally developed and even emanci- pated from ceremonies. even secular and celebratory. dynamically varied – ways. Perhaps protoaesthetic visual elements (say. an ethological approach includes the arts of people in all societies and all times. as they occur in mother–infant interactions. it is not restricted to “fine” art. contexts. its various features could be further artified or manipulated and used in a variety of other. as described in the previous section. skillful execution and the structuring and manipulation of our sensory experiences made it more likely that we would engage in the socially reinforcing ceremonial behaviours. visual compelling- ness. The fact that we are emotionally and behaviourally susceptible to elaborated movements in time. artification of existing protoaesthetic sig- nals would not have become an important universal human behaviour. rhythmic. and accepts decoration. That is. in ceremonies individuals use protoaesthetic sensory and cognitive features (which. expressing and sustaining emotional accord. Inherent in an ethological view is the premise that culturally created cer- emonial rituals were biologically adaptive. Once artifying in ceremonial ritual became part of an individual’s or culture’s repertoire. are innately noteworthy because they were already adaptive in other nonaes- thetic contexts) in temporally and spatially controlled – patterned. Determinations of what is “good” and “bad” are not relevant considerations. Artification as a human universal In conclusion. I will also refer. to the other seven approaches that were described. exaggerated. further shaping and elaborating (artifying) of the components of the interaction – in visual. remember the messages that these practices transmitted and become emotionally convinced of their truth and effectiveness. ellen dissanayake Today we call such behaviour “ceremonial ritual”. Without such biologically adaptive reactions. That is. the arts of music. elaborated. much craft. I will consider my ethological or adaptationist view of art as a human universal with respect to conceptual and other issues mentioned in earlier sections of this essay.9 132 . but we could just as well call it “artification”. in body adornment) were added to make the performance even more striking. Unlike some of these. dance and mime would have been performed together as one multimedia activity. It seems likely that in their origins. and are left to art critics. from religion and from uncertainty. when appropriate. Because ritual- ized mother–infant interaction had already prepared humans to be especially sensitive to dynamic temporal and spatial manipulations as a way of creating. vocal and kinesic modalities – would be additionally affecting and effective. the perform- ing arts and even unskilled or careless examples of all these.

made special – exaggerated or formalized or elaborated) way. to be distinguished from equally important short-term interests that serve immediate physical subsistence and preservation. In circumstances that provoke con- cern or care. rare. cooperation and feelings of affiliation among members of the group. As such. or expressing one’s resolve). however. Whether or not an individual ceremony achieved its particular or proximate purpose (say. additionally enhancing the fitness of individuals. Humans evolved to require satisfaction of both. vocal and kinesic dis- play – became adaptive means for arousing interest. visual. memorable elements and activities as a sort of “demonstration of serious regard” correlative to the biological significance and value of the things cared about. art as a human universal To summarize. dynamic variation. That is to say. thereby contributing to survival and reproductive success. placating a powerful spirit. riveting joint attention. its ultimate effect was to relieve individual anxiety by providing an illusion of coping. and ultimately indoctrinating and reinforcing right attitudes and behaviour in members of a group. as described. beautiful. attention- getting. emotion-affecting.e. to use (and respond to) protoaesthetic visual. conveying messages with convic- tion and memorability. it seems particularly human to enlist exceptional. By carefully making and then responding to these constructions. was an associated benefit. The adaptationist account presented here shows that predispositions to artify are untaught and spontaneous. painstaking and astonishing. the behavioural mechanisms that were first evolved in mother–infant mutuality – the repetitions. Through cultural ritualization and elaboration. the arts in traditional societies reinforce a group’s communality and solidarity: they manifest and celebrate who they are. As described here. a people’s arts are emblems of how much they care about the sacred beliefs that bind and preserve them. is regarded as an inherent psychobiologi- cal capacity to “artify”: that is. Ceremonial participation instilled general coordination. by experimental psychologists and neuroscientists 133 . group members transmit and reinforce the values – the emotional dispositions – on which their cohesive- ness depends. patterning. synchronizing bodily rhythms and activities. all humans are innately receptive to protoaesthetic sensory and cognitive features in the environment (identified. By being especially compel- ling. Their belief furthers commitment to long-term interests that arouse and satisfy needs for shared emotional meaning. and/or kinesic behaviours and features – which occurred originally in other adaptive contexts – in a considered (i. in its origins. secur- ing game. thereby demonstrating serious regard (“care”) for biologically important life concerns. vocal. Of equal or even greater importance. art. the original psychobiological motivation for artification was the desire to affect or control – through extraordinary effort and execu- tion – the outcomes of uncertain (hence anxiety-provoking) biologically- important occasions about which people rightly cared.

That is. traditional societies. effort and thought to it. specific art interests and abilities may remain latent and undeveloped. holiday decorations and gift presentations does not negate the wish to effect important outcomes. and in alienated modernized 134 . to participate in and acknowledge a “bracketed” or special. The work of cultural anthropologists not only makes clear the wide diver- sity of arts in all societies. In some contemporary socio-cultural or cultural constructivist views. they will make marks and images. notwithstanding the fact that con- temporary arts are primarily devoted to popular entertainment. with their constituent arts. Artification still provides pleasure. distraction. Similarly. however. although art occupies a variety of new and different roles. since devotees of religious practices everywhere view their aesthetic actions and artefacts as inevitably associated with their deity or deities. valuing and performing them also. but implicitly supports an adaptationist view that in all societies people artify when they care about important things. sing. when they wish to impress someone else. it also continues to appear under appro- priate conditions. play with words and language.11 That is. In premodern societies. and be receptive to specially-crafted stories. art can be about anything and anything can be art. embody and give potency to the cultural meanings of societies – the meaningful sys- tems and stories by which religions explain the world and join their adherents in common cause. Without example and encouragement from other people.10 Young children also readily show – and observably enjoy – the rudi- ments of art practice. dress up. Nevertheless. artification has served political and personal power and specialists (“artists”) often make the arts that reflect or consolidate that power. make-believe. That is. as sociologists point out. usually without being taught. the arts are valued and performed by most or all adults. Artification is practised by all. in small- scale. and children grow up experienc- ing. and – through advertisements – the promotion of consumerism. anthropologists report how ceremonies. art is rarely confined only to specialists.g. Although historically. extraordinary dimension to expe- rience. satisfying and compelling) and to the temporal manipulations inherent in mother–infant interaction. At the same time. insofar as it regards art as a ritualized behavioural counterpart of religion. mark an important event. my adaptationist view incorporates the theological view of art. dance. ellen dissanayake as particularly pleasurable. or show love and regard). even in mod- ern environments that are very different from the subsistence societies in which human nature evolved. and people willingly devote large amounts of time. The fact that we today artify by purchasing (rather than ourselves making) self-adornment.12 Art as practised by individuals still relieves anxiety. people still tend to artify in circumstances about which they care (e. all chil- dren are predisposed to play and make-believe – that is.

Hejl (2001. By establishing that art is a human universal. Although I did not always follow their suggestions to the letter. and metaphoric and imagistic abilities. an expression of the creative self or an agglomeration of perceptual and cognitive preferences. emotional and functional aspects (see Brown & Dissanayake 2009). and they generally ignore its motivational. a manifestation of political power. The well-known Austrian ethologist Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1988. It identifies and describes areas of the brain that are involved in art-like capacities such as pattern perception. Brian Hansen. music. More than a revelation of the divine. I am grateful to Dr Hejl for granting permis- sion to publish this English version. dance or drama – are acknowledged as ways to deal not only with sublimation of forbidden wishes but of giving form to. 4. I gratefully acknowledge their insights and criticisms. that it is “self-expression” or “wish fulfillment” or “projection” or “individuation”) have not demonstrated how these proximate functions are ultimately related to ultimate sur- vival or reproductive success. I acknowledge the inspiration of his pio- neering work. The recent fields of “neuroaesthetics” and “evolutionary aesthetics” (e.e. 2. the satisfaction of unfulfilled desires. 1996) for broad and illuminating discussions of human universals and their implications. Acknowledgements This essay is adapted from its original appearance as “Kunst als menschliche Universalie: Eine adaptionistische Betrachtung” in Universalien und Konstruktivismus. I have gained much from discussions about the ideas in this essay with Joseph Carroll. edited by Peter M. Non-ethological accounts of the motivation for or function of artistic behaviour (i. thereby articulating and resolving important individual problems. although in a less systematic manner. 5. art as a human universal societies where individualism is valued and fostered it can be a means of self- expression and self-validation. imply that art can be understood as a collection of cognitive capacities or percep- tual preferences. 1989: 665–702) also addresses human art. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag). See also Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Sütterlin (2007). art – as described here – emerges from our funda- mental nature as humans and for untold millennia has been essential to our life in the world. A notable exception is Anderson (1990). 3. visual thinking. 135 . Joel Schiff and Robert Storey. musical abilities. See Brown (1991. Notes 1. Related to experimental psychology is the neurological view of art as a brain/mind or cognitive phenomenon. spatial abilities. manual or kinesthetic abilities.g. Various forms of arts therapy – whether visual art. Voland & Grammar 2003). Denis Dutton. arriving at some of the same ideas and suggestions as those which follow. the adaptationist view pre- sented in this essay implies that art (as making special or artification) has been – and continues to be – integral to our lives.

rhythmic way. When structured in a patterned. having a limited or specific function or scope. excep- tional”. the first meaning of “special” is “surpassing what is common or usual. including a narrower pelvis. patterned mother-infant interaction that we observe today is based on a ritualized behaviour that co-evolved between early hominid mothers and their infants to foster emotional attunement and interdependence. formalizing. made striking through alliteration. stories are given shape and emphases that surpass the bare facts of their plot. One might call the actions of sustaining. rhymed. 7. peculiar to a specific person or thing (particular). Indeed. unusual vocabulary and word order. ordinary materials are treated with colour and pattern. The notion of “making special” is not meant to account for everything about art: it is offered as the ancestral activity that gave rise to the arts. the mother not only communicates affec- tion to her infant. 8. or adding vividness through colour and dynamic variation ways of artifying – aesthetic actions.g. in song. an activity that continues to imbue all instances of artification. it has been estimated that to be of a comparable maturity at birth as an ape baby. so the two can respond and counter-respond. exag- gerated with sustained vowels and given notable dynamic emphasis. ordinary speech is formalized. The facial expressions. Each of the arts makes special (surpasses what is usual – or ordinary). the prosodic features of human vocal utterance are formalized into fixed intervallic patterns and more regular metre. in contexts of friendliness and affiliation. 136 . esteemed or close. At birth homi- nid infants (whose head size was also gradually becoming larger than any other primate) would have to be smaller (more immature) than their ape cousins simply to pass success- fully through the birth canal without endangering themselves or their mothers. ordinary bodily movements of everyday life are exaggerated. patterning. ellen dissanayake 6. In dance. repeating. Criticisms that consider “special” to be imprecise because it can refer to non-artistic things are employing other dictionary meanings – distinct among others of a kind (singular). I prefer to unite them in one overarching concept: making special (as surpassing what is common or usual) or “artifying”. not all of which apply to my use of the adjective. One might ask why human mothers and infants developed such an elaborate and complex interactive behaviour. today’s human infants would have to be in the womb a full year longer than nine months. as well as human adults. thereby enhancing the baby’s survival and the mother’s reproductive success. for example. Rather than list aesthetic actions anew each time. It is this sense in which I have adopted the term. Dictionaries give subtly different meanings of the word “special”. By “object”. but also reinforces positive emotion in her own neural circuits. We know that walking on two rather than four legs demanded a number of anatomical changes. By using these. or a reading or performance of such a work – an entity. There may be other aesthetic actions that I have not named. in poetry. primary. Such an immature and helpless infant would be well advised to be perceived as being as lovable as possible so that its mother would be motivated to care for it for the requisite longer period of dependence. This should distinguish artistic making special from specialness for purposes of identification or esteem or denoting a specific function. movements and sounds used by other primates. exaggerating. arranged for a particular occasion or purpose. move- ments and sounds that mothers use with their infants are exaggerations of expressions. In the Houghton-Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language. repeated. patterned. and would weigh twenty-five pounds (Leakey 1994: 44). in the visual arts. or transformed by formalizing and elaborating. scope or application. a novel or musical score). I suggest that the rhythmic. assonance. sustained. the interaction becomes a ritualized expression and sharing of a positive emotional state (see Dissanayake 1999). I include such things as written works (e.

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one can find a persuasive argument to that effect in David Lewis-Williams’s attempt to provide an account of the meaning of the cave paintings of our Palaeolithic forebears which he believes are essentially religious and the earliest available expressions of religion. empiri- cal account of the emergence and transmission of religious ideas and beliefs. It seems to me. 6 The significance of the natural experience of a “non-natural” world to the question of the origin of religion Donald Wiebe Human cognitive capacities and the problem of the supernatural Many students in the field of religious studies who have adopted a “cognitive science of religion” approach to understanding religious phenomena seem to think that once we have come to understand the brain as a collection of cognitive capacities. Such human cognitive capacities – mechanisms by which the mind obtains knowledge of the world – make it possible to conceive of supernatural powers or beings. Before setting out Lewis-Williams’s account of the 140 . and the innate- ness of teleological thinking and the like. that is. an innate dualism. and may even “predispose” us to becoming religious. formed in our evolutionary development for deal- ing with the data-processing needs in relationship both to our physical and social environments. a hyperac- tive agency detection device (HADD). Although I have no doubt that the cognitive sciences are essential to achiev- ing a naturalistic explanation of religion. In my judgement. but I do not see how that sheer possibility actually generates a “mental” move from the natural to the super- natural. that we can then easily provide a naturalistic. that something more than the ordinary natu- ral world is a necessary condition for that “predisposition to religion” to be effected. persuasive. I have not found such accounts for the mind’s move from the natural to the supernatural realm simply in terms of such cognitive capacities as a “theory of mind” (ToM). a set of conditions that necessitates a tweaking of the normal human cognitive capacity humans have for detecting agency in the environment that ultimately amounts to a radical transformation of the ordinary everyday notion of agency into supernatural agency.

neither a metaphysical (ibid.: 309) centre in the brain by means of which such ideas are generated. provides a coherent and persuasive account of the relationship between our cognitive capacities and “belief in the gods”. Neither.: 3–4). however. he insists. Boyer tries to set out a clearer account of all this in a later essay entitled “Religious Thought and Behavior as By-Product of Brain Function” (Boyer 2003). In Religion Explained Boyer writes that “religion is now just another set of difficult but manageable [intellectual] problems … [and t]he explanation of religious beliefs and behaviours is to be found in the [natural] way all human minds work” (Boyer 2001: 2). I think it might be helpful to point out what I find to be the weakness in the current cognitivist views on the origin or emergence of religion in human thought and practice. from hearing what they say and observing how they behave” (ibid.: 237). But Boyer. for Boyer. At one stage in his argument he claims that people “get those ideas from other people. is that he seems to beg the question by referring to “religious cues” in his explana- tion of the emergence of religious phenomena. we are still left with the question of how the “other people” who are the source of these ideas came to have them. but this clearly does not provide an answer to the question of the origin of religious belief for. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world origin of religion in the Palaeolithic. The problem with this claim. Neither are such supernatural con- cepts created by religious virtuosos (ibid. however.: 298. “[r]eligious notions are products of the supernatural 141 .: 210). emphasis original).: 298) nor a religious (ibid. Trying to overcome the acknowledged vagueness of his account. He maintains. But he does not mean by this to say that religious ideas are innate – that is. however. if it is the case that such ideas are gained from other people. fails to provide a persuasive response to that question. that our mental predispositions permit the acquisition of such religious notions but do not determine them (ibid. In Religion Explained he suggests – rather vaguely – that the origin of the notion of the supernatural is the result “of a successful activation of a whole variety of mental systems” (ibid.: 237).: 298). in my judgement. And his caution to the reader “that all this is not so much caused as made more likely by the cognitive proc- esses [he] described” (ibid. There is. moves him no closer to having an explanation. he then maintains that “religious cues” trigger activation of these cognitive systems that produce the religious ideas. but the argument here also appears to involve begging the question in that. as he puts it. and for this I shall focus on two of the more influential explanatory cognitive accounts of religion in our discipline: Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (2001) and Justin Barrett’s Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004). people are not “born with the notions of powerful gods and spirits” (ibid. I think. moreo- ver.

as he puts it in his essay “Gods and the Mental Instincts That Create Them” (Boyer 2005). are inappropriate in seeking the origin of religious or supernatural concepts given the generally accepted conclusion that religion is not an “innate capacity” in human beings. None of the mental systems are about “the supernatural” and Boyer admits that they therefore require some kind of external “activation”. In my judgement. as Boyer maintains. there must be some positive external “force” (i. with some violation of the implicit assumptions that govern the representation of non-religious domains – makes this pos- sible.: 120) but. it seems to me. there is no “folk religion” in the sense that there is a “folk physics”. it is difficult to see how random deviations or “misfirings” of these mental capacities in the non-religious or natural domain can add up to a socially viable concept of the supernatural. He rather simply claims that others find the notion of supernatural agents plausible without such experience. automatically or sponta- neously create them as do such cognitive capacities that “produce” an intui- tive knowledge of the physical. as does the fact. Moreover. living-thing and person concepts. external to the cognitive capaci- ties themselves. He admits that some see such ideas deriving from personal experience (ibid. 142 . therefore. “folk biology” and “folk psychology”. These cognitive systems will support such religious belief and behaviour. unfortunately. which still leaves us without an explanation for the emergence of the concept of god(s). although not necessarily external to the brain) that motivates the “tweaking” of the mental capacities – a “something” beyond the natu- ral everyday world that motivates the violations of the implicit assumptions that govern the representation of non-religious domains of reality – to which Boyer refers. That is.: 123).e. biological and psychological realms. he does not follow up on that idea. but they can not. that make those concepts inferentially productive.: 119). for Boyer. Such comments leave us with questions that need answering. or the fact that people find “culturally acquired descriptions of such agents intuitively plausible” (ibid.: 122). and most other cognitive scientists.) such as artefact. Indeed. to tell us that supernatural concepts “are informed by very general assumptions from ‘domain concepts’” (ibid. as he puts it. no account is given of the origin of the so-called “supernatural imagination”. does not really inform us as to how the notion of the supernatural is derived solely from natural concepts. The notions of automaticity and spontaneity. that “simple possibility” does not in itself account for the fact of the emergence of such supernatural notions. donald wiebe imagination” (ibid. that the notion of supernatural agents involves a “logic of social exchange” that is active in non- religious contexts (ibid. However. for example: What precisely in the non-religious contexts triggers the transition in concept formation from the natural to the supernatural? Even though our cognitive equipment. then. with a bit of “tweaking” – that is.

: 8). as it were. paradoxically in my judgement. he claims that he has shown “how belief in gods comes naturally from the way our minds function in the ordinary world” (ibid. he writes. Unfortunately.: 164).: 61. although we get no account from him of the origin of the supernatural imagination that apparently creates them (Boyer 2005: 243). Barrett also claims to have shown that the same holds for nonreflective beliefs about God. As he puts it: “Sometimes HADD’s tendency to attach agency to objects contributes to the formation of religious concepts” (ibid. Both claims. Kelemen & Rosset 2009) – may predispose the mind to belief in the gods and the construction of religion but it is also clear that that predisposition to holding such beliefs cannot by itself account for push- ing the mind beyond natural to some kind of supernatural conceptualization. except that they are the inevitable results of the way the machine works”. and to “form” beliefs simply “by looking at the world around us” (ibid. an umwelt relevant to the evolutionary wiring of the brain.: 31. the way our brains are put together – including mental/cognitive capacities such as HADD and ToM (ibid. emphasis added). seem to suggest that we may indeed be in possession of a “folk religion” – which is not the understanding of religion he ultimately adopts. argues in Why Would Anyone Believe in God? “that most beliefs people hold arise from a collection of non- conscious mental tools automatically generating assumptions about the way things are in the world” (Barrett 2004: 30. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world If this brief analysis of Boyer’s argument is on the mark. And he also claims that we “do not have the cultural concepts we have because they make sense or are useful but because the way our brains are put together makes it difficult not to build them” (ibid. including supernatural ones. emphasis added). This is suggested. returning to comments in Religion Explained. 2005) and native teleology (Kelemen 1999. however. emphasis added). emphasis added). To sum up then: according to Boyer. It is important to notice. then it seems that the gods and religion are by no means an inevitable by-product of our everyday ordinary cognitive capacities. seems also to suggest that supernatural notions and ideas of gods are almost automatically or spontaneously generated by these cognitive tools. 2004. Finally. he argues. together with a natural bent toward teleological thinking. however. “Nonreflective beliefs”. in his “Gods and the Mental Instincts that Create Them”. that the beliefs spoken of here are about the natural world. And yet Boyer. he writes that we have many ideas that require “no reasonable reason. in similarly paradoxical fashion. for example.: 33). emphasis added). that is. disposes us “to find agents around us. given fairly modest evidence of their presence” (ibid. (Boyer 2001: 95. “seem to spontaneously generate [assumptions] in each and every mundane moment” (ibid. these claims are made without actually accounting 143 .: 7–8.: 164). Justin Barrett. Mental tools like the HADD and a ToM device. along with the brain’s native dualism (Bloom 2004.

in effect. if they are “married” with “otherwise inexplicable dramatic events” they will “prompt” belief in gods (Barrett 2009). but he opts for a peculiarly religious/Christian way to resolve it: he simply asserts that there is a real supernatural reality that accounts for the existence of the concept in the human mental repertoire. and if they are non-natural in the sense of supernatural. for Barrett. where he maintains that even though HADD. such concepts are automatically and spontaneously generated by the brain and therefore are available for use in explanations of states of affairs in the natural world. donald wiebe for the shift from the natural to the supernatural except by way of arguments in a conscious.: 90). Nor does the idea that the existence of the gods may be parasitic upon a universal system of intuitive expectations gen- erated by our cognitive capacities constitute evidence for a violation of those expectations that gives rise to concepts of the supernatural. it indicates a clear rec- ognition that one cannot simply move on from a world of natural cognitive capacities that provide us with an understanding of natural agency in the world to a conception of supernatural agency without some adequate. As he puts it: “God has revealed Himself in a variety of ways that trigger these cognitive capacities to suspect superhuman agency” (ibid. reflective effort to explain some aspect or other of the world of human experience in or of the world. Whereas for Boyer the character of our mental capacities predisposes the mind toward the super- natural. there really is no accounting for how one arrives at having supernatural concepts. The fact that the HADD and ToM may make us open to ideas of god(s) does not provide a motive force that can account for the emergence of those ideas. ToM and other cognitive capacities are not themselves the origin of the concept of the super- natural. he must explain how they came to be judged as such. then nei- ther Boyer nor Barrett provides a clear.: 98). and Theology”. If my critical assessments of these “arguments” is on the mark. He does not specify whether these “otherwise inexplicable events” are natural events or not and herein lies the problem. but scientifically “believable”. He is clearly aware of the problem that faces him in his search for the origin of the concept of the supernatural. And the reference to “modest evidence of the existence of the presence of supernatural agents” seems to suggest as much. unambiguous and persuasive scientific account of how our forebears moved. from the natural to the 144 . and he accounts for the imperfect conception of the formation of that concept in terms of the Christian faith as due to the effects of sin and corruption on the human character (ibid. As problematic as his solution is in a search for an adequate explanation for the origin of religion. Religion. so.: 97). This comes through more clearly in a later essay by Barrett on “Cognitive Science. in thought. for Barrett it positively encourages belief “in gods generally and God in particular” (ibid. If they are natural events he has not provided an account for the “jump” to a supernatural level. indeed. motivating force.

2010. found a persuasive account of this movement from the natural to the supernatural in human thought in other accounts inspired by Boyer and/or Barrett. 2002. Lewis-Williams 1981. emphasis added) 145 . of the Palaeolithic cave paintings. he rejects the interpretation of this material offered by Lewis-Williams. I find it important to give serious consideration to Guthrie’s argument. I will briefly recapitulate that argument below because I think both that in its essentials it is correct and because it can very nicely supplement the explanation of religion from within the framework of the cognitive sciences. Although I think I provided an adequate response to some of the criti- cism of Lewis-Williams’s thesis. an account that complements and completes the arguments found in Boyer and Barrett by pointing to the existence of an “appropriate umwelt” that makes possible a natural/reasonable account of the conceptual move from the natural to the supernatural wholly in terms of the ordinary cognitive capaci- ties of the human mind. Palaeolithic cave art and the problem of religion In two recent papers I have argued that David Lewis-Williams (and colleagues. However. 2010). According to Boyer. I was not then aware of R. moreover. at the time I wrote those essays. in particular. (Boyer 2009. 2009. that these awesome paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations. which capacities can therefore be seen as playing an active role in the creation of religion. more particularly. and. because of Pascal Boyer’s positive review of Guthrie’s work and the negative implications that holds for both my criticisms of Boyer’s views on the origin of religion and my espousal of Lewis-Williams’s position on that topic. that it was probably not very important to Palaeolithic people and to top it off. Dale Guthrie’s massive study of the Palaeolithic material in his book The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005) in which he rejects the wide- spread acceptance of an interpretation of Palaeolithic cave art as essentially the expression of religious thought and practice and. I have not. Lewis-Williams’s contribution was made by way of an attempt to understand the significance of the ancient rock art of the San of South Africa. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world supernatural realm. moreover. Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2005) makes an important contribution to the explanation of religion (Wiebe. for example: [Guthrie] shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art. demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good. and this has come under severe criticism that could well deter scholars of religion from taking his argument seriously.

indeed. and as savages (ibid. have been central to virtually all the other interpreters of Palaeolithic cave art (McNeill 2006: 22–3). and he claims that Palaeolithic art has been accounted for in “an obtusely symbolic language” (ibid. Indeed. late in the book. the strengths of Lewis-Williams’s theory – I think Boyer missed an opportunity to strengthen his own account of religion. and that “at its worst it has presented early peoples in a distorted light as superstitious dolts totally preoccupied with mystical concerns” (ibid. throughout the early sections of the book Guthrie clearly suggests full-blown religion only emerged in the period of the Holocene. has “made great progress in explaining [this material] with the help of ethnography of existing Bushman and aboriginals” (ibid. is characteristic of Palaeolithic life and thought. Although Guthrie. In the early chapters of the book Guthrie also maintains that it is only in the artwork of the Holocene period that we have any real indication of the emergence and establishment of religion which he sees as a mode of thought characterized by supernaturalness and irrationality – neither of which. I find a number of his claims problematic or simply unsound. it appears that for him. in his early judgement. better.: 427). The magico-religious paradigm in Palaeolithic art.: ix) that makes any possible connection between Palaeolithic art and the supernatural appear exaggerated and contrived.: 419). Following my response to Guthrie. indeed. But he has done so without spending any time assessing the character of the arguments in favour of the magico-religious interpretations or. donald wiebe Although Guthrie’s book is a marvellous work of devoted scholarship and a delight to read. Barrett and most other cognitive scientists of religion who follow their lead. the presence of such themes in some Palaeolithic art did not really amount to the emergence of religion. I shall suggest below that Guthrie holds a kind of “fall from grace-view” of 146 .: 10). As McNeill com- ments. this makes Guthrie’s repudiation of magical and religious motivation in the making of the masterworks of cave art implausible. he insists. but only to lift their tyranny” (Guthrie 2005: 10). McNeill has pointed out in his review of Guthrie’s book. as William H. along with others.: 8–11. Indeed. 460). admits that Lewis-Williams. I will provide a brief account of the role experience plays in Lewis-Williams’s account of the emergence of religion and show how it supplements the account of religion given by Boyer. it appears nevertheless that he has included Lewis-Williams among the “nut-case” inter- preters of Palaeolithic art (ibid. without discussing any of the Palaeolithic masterpieces themselves that. Although Guthrie claims that he does not mean “to deny the existence of … supernatural themes [in Palaeolithic art]. In his fail- ure to see the weaknesses in Guthrie’s views about Palaeolithic religion – or perhaps. I nevertheless do not find his claims about the lack of a sig- nificant relationship between Palaeolithic art and religion persuasive. I begin this section with a few preliminary comments. has derailed rock art research.

As he puts it: “The participants used red iron oxide or black manganese oxide to outline their hands. as McNeill points out. that Guthrie’s account of Palaeolithic art when properly assessed in light of his comments about Holocene art. “there is something about the connec- tion between large-mammal hunting and the human psyche that is unique. This may not. like leaving one’s name to indicate “I was here”. Moreover. Thus he writes: “Animals were the Pleistocene libraries. classrooms. However. Indeed. I will show.: 10). I will argue below that his thought on these matters in the later sections of the book contradict his early remarks and suggestions about both Palaeolithic and Holocene art and religion. shop floors. the paintings are not connected to a kind of public worship but should rather be seen as “a form of silent insurance against danger to humans from the angry displaced spirits of the animals they had killed” (McNeill 2006: 23).: 5). diverse everyday interests and wonders” (ibid. A similar problem exists with Guthrie’s view of the meaning of handprints on cave walls. be as big a problem as Guthrie thinks it is if. their art “seems more focused on complicated earth-bound sub- jects. and “portray[s] a peo- ple in close touch with the details of a complex earth” (ibid. as he puts it. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world our Cro-Magnon forebears in the radical shift in thought and practice that took place in the transition from Palaeolithic to Holocene culture. Brian Fagan suggests rather that by way of the handprints people acquired some kind of power “from contact with dark rock faces beneath the earth” (Fagan 2010: 211).: 91). that is. not only is the art of the Palaeolithic bands not focused on an obtusely symbolic language about another world (Guthrie 2005: ix).: 49) because. the impression would ensure vivid 147 . According to Guthrie. he maintains that “works by young people constitute both a disproportionate and largely unrecognized fraction of preserved Paleolithic art” (ibid. newspapers.: 115) and that much of it is of a sexual and erotic nature – the claim that has earned his work the title of “the testosterone theory” of Palaeolithic art. because this behavior involves interacting with beings similar to [them- selves]” (ibid. And making these images was not limited to master artists but was engaged in by adolescents and even by children. Once the hands were withdrawn. soccer matches and churches” (ibid. “[h]unting behavior is a central unifying feature of Paleolithic art” (ibid. He also main- tains –in criticism of Lewis Williams’s claim that caves containing paintings by the Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers may have been used as places of vision quests or of worship of some kind or other – that it is “unreasonable to argue that it was mostly Paleolithic adults who went back into the caves … [for] most Paleolithic visitors seem to have been young people” (ibid. claims Guthrie. comics and videos. which created the impression that their hands had melted into the rock.: 124). will have no negative import for Lewis-Williams’s answer to the question as to how the idea of deity (the gods/god) entered the human mind. For him the handprints are simple graffiti.: 49). however.

or to express erotic thoughts and desires (ibid. he does not see these Palaeolithic productions to be “exactly like modern graffiti” because they do not. more importantly. then. and Paul G. gritty. claims that the comparison of what Guthrie calls Palaeolithic graffiti with modern graffiti “underestimates the cultural context of both the [Palaeolithic] figurines and the Playboy photographs”.: 126) is far-fetched. Nevertheless. As he puts the latter point: “They drew in ways that were often free. and ugliness” so often found in modern graffiti. for example. Although he views this as part of a larger “temporal” phenomenon. I think it important. for example. Given the attention that Guthrie’s reference to testosterone-driven graffiti found in Palaeolithic cultural productions has received one might get a dis- torted impression of Guthrie’s views about the nature of all Palaeolithic art.: 141) – indeed. Bahn (2006) says that Guthrie’s claims about the ubiquity of vulvas and men with erections are exaggerations.: 140). the conclusions Guthrie draws from his various observations are that “[w]e must recognize that the Paleolithic art we have is not uniformly great art” (Guthrie 2005: 144). It seems to me obvious. Guthrie’s claim that “Paleolithic art is not simply a collection of masterworks” (Guthrie 2005: 91) is no doubt right when he is talking about the number of pieces of Palaeolithic art to which we have access. Guthrie makes a good case for seeing much of the artwork found in Palaeolithic remains as children’s art – made by children themselves either as toys or as playing at making art (ibid. that Guthrie’s suggestion that the cave paintings could have been made by adolescents and children (ibid. Randall White (2006). Nevertheless. by testosterone-impelled adolescents. contain the sense of “anger.: 13). by “developing artists”. He also insists that modern graf- fiti is not the same as Palaeolithic art (ibid. as several reviewers of the volume have pointed out.: 129–30). By “graffiti” Guthrie means “quick images” and “thoughtless scrawls” made by adolescents motivated by “an inclination to make some visual mark – to leave a personal scratched or painted trace [of their existence] behind in pri- vate spots” (ibid. and. and occasionally erotic” (ibid. and by seasoned adult artists. and that most of the cave (and mobile) art is adolescent graffiti that can be compared to modern adolescent graffiti (ibid.: 142). pique. art produced by children. “splattered” 148 . and if we take into consideration the taphonomic principle that insists that we recognize the many biases in the preservation of their art that can have a considerable distorting influence on our interpretations of it (ibid. therefore. careless. he warns that Palaeolithic graffiti must not be confused with fine art.: 212).: 141). alive. donald wiebe proof of contact with the supernatural world” (ibid. generated in large part because of a surfeit of testosterone.: 198). to bring to attention the fact that Guthrie sees Palaeolithic art as fitting into several different categories – that is. cas- ual. and that the evidence that these works were created mostly by children and adolescents is flimsy.

People of their times. (This statement.: 209.: 236). that early in the volume Guthrie sees the Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers essentially as modern rational people – free from magic and religion. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world with youthful testosterone (ibid. and that came by way of close empirical observation which was then expressed in their art (ibid. the cave art is “meant” as a celebration of the splendour of their prey (ibid. But the legacy of the sum total of Palaeolithic art he claims really tells a story of past “halcyon days around the campfires with skewered roasts and extravagant sunsets” that tell us to get on with life as did our Palaeolithic forebears. not the children’s art or the Palaeolithic graffiti. he writes. one presumes. as McNeill has appropriately pointed out in his review of the book. This. it was important for them to understand animal behav- iour. he maintains. As “developing artists” they would have produced “thousands of artefacts on their way to acquiring proficiency” (ibid. “Images of large animals in a certain style”.: 460).: 247). According to Guthrie. and therefore very much like us. Palaeolithic artwork is essentially a rational kind of exercise. For Guthrie. Palaeolithic art is: a testimony to the fact that our Pleistocene ancestors were neither cruel brutes nor noble savages. And for him. marking over. at painting large mammals and carving intri- cate figures. see also ibid. either because they were sources of food and general welfare or objects of hunting done “for the love of it” (ibid.: 52). then.: 144) that would be found among the many works of children and adolescents but those “pieces” would not.: 459). that is. It is clear. hold the significance of the masterful cave art ultimately produced by this “adult class” of artists. “constitute the chief unity of Paleolithic art” since they “played an essential role in our evolution”. he claims. then.: 460). the message of their art being “that one would be wise to play: play physically. not that of “dogmatic religions and fright- ening shamanistic practices” (ibid. These masterworks of art would have been the work of proficient adult artists – experts. is the “bigger story” of Palaeolithic life. it seems obvious to me.: 198) – and much of what they drew could be considered vandalism in that it involved “modifying. And that “motiva- tion” for Guthrie is “the guy rope that will help ground Paleolithic art” (ibid. both in the sense that it is rationally explicable and in the sense of the artists being naturalists rather than supernaturalists (religionists) and therefore more concerned with animals than spiritual realities. McNeill 2006: 20).: 141. above all. play artfully” (ibid. 226. is clearly a secular confession of faith. and. individuals 149 . In either case. 198).: 250). play mentally. And Guthrie distinguishes this “irregular scatter[ing] of graffitiesque images” from the “few fine works of art” such as those to be found in Lascaux and other Palaeolithic cave sites (ibid. or scratching out previous art” (ibid. not as an expression of an encounter with spiritual realities of some sort or other.

: 412). but I think it is also quite unbelievable with respect to the psychological and emotional proximity in which it places the Palaeolithic to the mind-set and life-style of historically modern human beings compared to the psychologi- cal and emotional distance it places between the Palaeolithic hunter–gather- ers and their Holocene descendants. and happiness in that life-way.: 249).: 237) which required a “sophis- ticated intelligence” (ibid. for we are essentially the same creature.: 423. They must have found goodness. donald wiebe like ourselves. Hunting “made [them] the cooperative ape” (ibid. difficulty.: 250). along with excitement. rational.: 433) This is a quite marvellous and attractive view of our Palaeolithic ancestors.: 385). for example. (Ibid. neither magic nor appeals to omniscient authority are possible” (ibid. Again. of a major qualitative shift in life-way between the two groups of people given the jump in size of human communities from bands to tribes.: 408) They had to be rational. They nurtured their children in the same fashion we do ours. trying to guarantee them a sound education (ibid. and imaginative. it almost seems as if Guthrie espouses a kind of theory of “a fall from grace” to account for the difference between the Palaeolithic and the Holocene. chiefdoms and nation-states (ibid.: 414). Paleolithic peoples needed to construct a lifeway that allowed them to be deeply empirical. flexible.: 426) but in claiming this he provides no real explanation for that development but merely points to the correlation between increased population densities and increased interest in the supernatural. The main difference seems to be a 150 . beauty. He provides criteria that can be used to show that “[c]onnections between art and the supernatural seem to have been exaggerated and more common at higher Holocene densities” (ibid. quite different from the works arising from traditions of visually codified and highly symbolic images. however different the context of our lives. As I noted above. because in “tracking. He talks. (Guthrie 2005: 224. He believes that some psychological threshold was crossed with that increase in size but does not elaborate how this would have effected a transition from a rational way of life to one steeped in magic and religious supernaturalism (ibid. as he puts it: To survive and prosper. 224). and danger – differing only in degree to what we feel today. they did mainly what evolution had them do best. and in their play there is a deep evolutionary agenda (ibid.: 375) that was important in the making of “an animal that is intelligently flexible and oppor- tunistically able” (ibid. reveal the artists’ absorption in observed details about their living subjects. see also ibid. … [And] Paleolithic works of art. he insists. emphasis added. [he continues].

As he puts it: “At the end of the Pleistocene when tribal organizations emerged. art. dreams. superstition and ugly supernaturalism – that is. with them. it seems. in trying to account for the “evo- lution of the supernatural” in his final chapter. from rationality into doltishness. that is. must – characterize the Palaeolithic lifeway even though he insists that supernaturalism did not permeate the Palaeolithic art to the same extent and degree that it did the art of the Holocene (ibid. although for Guthrie this conclu- sion actually does apply to the Holocene. suggests to Guthrie that visions of Palaeolithic cave art as fundamentally religious – held by people like David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clotte (ibid. was less “‘meaningful. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world change in religion from an unorganized communal level of activity compared to the structured activities of religion at an organized institutional level. He objects to what he claims are their negative views of the Palaeolithic as dolts by claiming that “[d]espite the counter-tugs of hormones. “[b]ehavior centering on the supernatural has life consequences that are too 151 .: 10) – inappropriately makes the Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers appear to be superstitious dolts (ibid.: 427). they often took the supernatural and elaborated it into something else. institutions that dominated everyday life” (ibid.’ less belief-based. However. and more a matter of individual perception and experiment” (ibid. he acknowledges that “the supernatural” does – indeed. it appears that he sees in the transition from Palaeolithic to Holocene lifeways a “fall” from – using his terminology – rationality and reasonableness into magic.: 428). we each have the ability to reason objectively” (ibid. And this. Yet at the same time that he castigates the irrationality of the Holocene interest in the supernatural. Indeed. religion with all its ugly irrational supernaturalness emerges. But he draws no such conclusion about our Holocene forebears. as he puts it.: 12) and that the Palaeolithic responded in that rational fashion to the tasks required to accomplish staying alive but he does not extend that charitable interpretation to the people of the Holocene. But the fact that empirically rational observation is essential to tracking and hunting is not sufficient grounds on which to justify the claim that our Palaeolithic forebears were just like us.: 423) he writes of the Palaeolithic. neither magic nor appeals to omniscient author- ity are possible” (ibid.: 10). he presents an altogether different picture of them. It “must” characterize Palaeolithic art because. “In tracking. If that were the case Guthrie would also have to count our Holocene forebears as rational moderns in the same sense since the Holocene agriculturalists too required a great deal of empirically sound knowledge to guarantee success in the agricultural venture on which they embarked. claiming that.: 433) in the Palaeolithic than in the Holocene. becoming organized religions. and personal and cultural histories. Given the tenor of Guthrie’s treatment of Palaeolithic art in the early chap- ters of the book. he acknowledges the existence of interest in the supernatural in at least some Palaeolithic art.

But it is also more than merely a proclivity for he also calls it an “adaptive fix” to the perils of our rational system that short-circuited our attempts to deal with such issues as meaning. that there “has never been a hunter–gatherer society on earth cre- ated by Homo sapiens that did not possess a complex set of supernatural beliefs or consider itself as living in an intensely symbolic realm” (Fagan 2010: 151). And the “fix” was a form of spirituality that he calls the emollient of the supernatural. illness. a genetic program within us” (ibid. isolation and death (ibid. is that – given his views of the character of the human brain – it cannot be restricted in applica- tion only to the people of the Holocene since all our forebears.: 438). as Brian Fagan points out. including the Palaeolithic. surely. Guthrie recognizes that this has to be the case since. access to the supernatural is a “powerful psychic force in maintaining emotional health and well-being” which is utterly essential in providing an “inner core of confidence” in the face of the frailties of human existence (ibid. it is part of being human” (ibid.: 439). we “all use [the “fix”] in different ways and degrees. donald wiebe important for natural selection to have ignored” (ibid.: 444) The problem with his “fall from grace” theory. “Emergence” from the grip of “a powerful psychic force in maintaining emotional health and physical well-being” (ibid. And. He notes: With that. and an alternative cast to reality outside the natural world. a “proclivity” that is “a part of our makeup. nobody is exempt. as a matter of record. operate with the same intellectual strengths and weaknesses.: 438) makes far more evolutionary sense than does a devo- lutionary idea of the emergence of a “psychic fix” to originally wholly rational reflective capacities. What is even more problematic with Guthrie’s view of the evolu- tionary development of religion. As he puts it: “So while it is our specialty. This is especially so in light of the fact.: 444). then. religion. reflective empirical and rational thought about the natural world (not simply a “common-sense” engagement with the natural world which charac- terizes all animals’ engagements with the natural world) preceded belief in and reliance upon the emollient of the supernatural. (Ibid. authority by revela- tion. is the implication that a form of auton- omous. loss. however.: 444). And he sees this as a “universal tendency”. as he put it. And if this is the case then. with its ugly and irrational supernatu- ralness would also have characterized Palaeolithic society even if it had not been a dominating organized religion.: 438). humans are not totally creatures of rationality and reason” (ibid. 152 . the engine of the rational brain not only works but runs better most of the time.: 446). The fix was to isolate a few of the processes of reason which dealt with meaning and purpose and to make those sectors accept meaning by grace. That is.

for example. the figurine “bridged the chasm between living and supernatural realms” (ibid. There is. “Guthrie never explains why the hunters’ supernatural beliefs he never spe- cifically describes do not show up in the graffiti and paintings left behind” (McNeill 2006: 22–3). And Guthrie seems to acknowledge this in his recognition that Lewis-Williams made good progress in explaining San rock art as religious expression (ibid. 149).: 427) even though San religion is not an organized religion. as well as fully aware of the continuing controversy over the meaning of Cro-Magnon art ever since its discovery (Fagan 2010: 149). Given this turn in Guthrie’s views of Palaeolithic art it is surprising that. he writes.: 137. Indeed. but that it “accepts” and “submits to” the supernatural. as McNeill puts it. And it is this “ugliness of the supernatural” that he rejects as being characteristic of the “rational Paleolithic”. But that claim would only be justified if it were the case that the “ugliness” of the supernatural emerges only with the insti- tutional organization of religion and no argument to that effect is presented by Guthrie. more specific issues that I think make Guthrie’s criticisms of Lewis-Williams’s and Jean Clotte’s views on Palaeolithic art problematic. Fagan.: 10). Some might wish to argue here that Guthrie’s admission about the need for a psychic “fix” does not undermine his earlier arguments about the nature of Palaeolithic art given his claim that even if Palaeolithic hunter– gatherers were religious.: 427–8). but this is a judgement that he does not establish here and one which Lewis-Williams in particular denies. he admits early on in his argument that “[r]eligious images probably do occur” in Palaeolithic art (Guthrie 2005: 10). However. he nevertheless admits that this still indicates that a supernatural “fix” was needed for his otherwise (that is. originally) wholly rational Palaeolithic hunters. “[W] ith his leonine head and human limbs”. For example. Germany which. the supernatural is every bit as alive in the Palaeolithic as it is in the Holocene as can be seen in the sculpture of the Lion Man figurine from Hohlenstein- Stadel. they were not religious in the “ugly supernatural- ist way” of the people of the Holocene (ibid. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world There are other. he maintains. And even if Guthrie insists that “strange anthropomorphs” make up only a small frac- tion of Palaeolithic art. is indicative of a partnership between humans and the supernatural realm of animals. Guthrie further admits that it is not the case that “the many rock art researchers who see [Palaeolithic] art as magic and mystical are totally wrong” (Guthrie 2005: 10). insists that the existence of the figurine is far more than merely an art-object (ibid. He argues that they have extended those interpretations universally (ibid. who is familiar with the views of Lewis-Williams and Guthrie.: 1) and indicated “a 153 . the problem of a lack of consistency in his claims. Guthrie’s complaint about the ugliness of religion is not that it is organized and insti- tutionalized. Baden-Württemberg. as Brian Fagan points out. quite to the contrary.

McNeill has a much more balanced view when. and from an imaginary world of invisible spirits. Guthrie’s comments about the transition from Palaeolithic religion to the organized and institutionalized religion of the Holocene is clearly irrelevant to his argument about the character of Palaeolithic thought and art. In the later stages of his argument. the artists believed. he ultimately recognizes that religion in some form or other characterized human life in the Palaeolithic – and expressed itself to some degree in their art – even as it did in the life of Homo sapiens in the Holocene and beyond. directed. (McNeill 2006: 23) The second is that even though he espouses a wholly rationalist account of Palaeolithic art. and inspired ani- mal and human behaviour both above and below ground. The first is that his views on the relationship of religion to Palaeolithic cave art is muddled at best. and brain that once existed on the Mammoth Steppe. wholly free from the taint of irrational religion. Natural experience of a “non-natural” (but not supernatural) world If we accept the conclusions I have reached about Guthrie’s views on Palaeolithic art. Only by positing such an imaginary world can we begin to understand the paradoxical mix of serene and accurate masterworks with the multitude of free and spontaneous scribbles that together com- prise the art of the caves. blood. moreover. Consequently. controlled. and simply incoherent at worst.: 137) and “a strong hint that at least some transformation rituals unfolded among the Aurignacians of the Upper Danube” (ibid. then his criticisms of David Lewis-Williams’s interpretation of the masterpieces of their cave art as representations of religious beliefs and 154 . Guthrie admits that the Holocene functioned with the same mental and cognitive equipment possessed by their Palaeolithic ancestors which can only mean that the Palaeolithic were also given over to the experience of the “ugliness” of the supernatural as described by Fagan. There are two important conclusions that one can warrantably draw from this account of Guthrie’s views on Palaeolithic art and his reflections on reli- gion. at the end of his review of Guthrie’s book he writes: cave art derives both from the natural world of flesh. embodied and disembodied who. donald wiebe burgeoning and obviously complex range of spiritual beliefs” (ibid.: 142). in the early portions of his book.

should not come as a surprise to any cognitive scientist since these people were equipped with all of the cognitive capacities of historically mod- ern Homo sapiens and that would have predisposed them to doing so. And David Lewis-Williams. and justifiably so. Unlike Guthrie. clearly acknowledges that “humans are not totally creatures of rationality and reason” (Guthrie 2005: 446). this is not the kind of work one can sensibly attribute to children and adolescents. but only that they did not exhibit the “ugly irrational supernaturalness” he sees in organized religion. Guthrie is highly critical of those scholars who seem to think that all Palaeolithic artwork possesses a reli- gious character. as it does for Barrett. but it is obvious to him that the Palaeolithic – like their Holocene successors and historically modern human beings – would have experienced some kind of “supernatural reality” (ibid. Furthermore. Guthrie. of a supernatural realm – is not bizarre. rather. That even the Palaeolithic hunter–gatherer would have created a religion. he restricts his analyses to the “masterpieces” of Palaeolithic art found on cave ceilings and walls.: 446). With McNeill and others. that accounting for it as an expression of an extraordinary experience of “something” beyond the natural realm – that is. Lewis-Williams points to a source for the “experience of the supernatural” (where “the supernatural” does not exist. But if the lifeway of the Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers had been as rational in its everyday activities as Guthrie suggests. for the most part. but Lewis-Williams makes no such claim about all Palaeolithic art. It seems to me. I find such an account of the cave masterpieces implausible. but is nevertheless psychologically and socially real) that ultimately gets referred to or expressed in Palaeolithic art and (in all likelihood) narrative. and that they. required a “fix” to the “perils” of our/their rational system by what he calls “the emollient of the supernatural” (ibid. like their Holocene succes- sors. and in no way can his work be seen as presenting the Palaeolithic artists as being superstitious dolts. that is. what could the source of the supernatural have been? Guthrie does not provide a clear and persuasive answer to that question. moreover. provides a reasonable alternative account of that cave art as expressions of religion – of a supernatural outlook or world- view that is wholly consistent with our understanding of how it is possible for our cognitive capacities to conceive of supernatural powers and beings. 155 . and most cognitive scientists of religion. even though Guthrie believes organ- ized religion did not emerge until the Holocene. I suggest. Hence my surprise at Boyer’s firm endorsement of what has been called Guthrie’s “testosterone theory” of Palaeolithic art as a convincing account of “the awe- some paintings”.: 438). nor is it to perceive our Palaeolithic forebears as doltish. he does not – as I have shown – deny that Palaeolithic hunter–gatherers were also religious and therefore entertained notions of the supernatural. indeed. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world practices appears unfounded and misdirected. that we find in the caves.

to deep trance experiences which involve inward-directed states of mind that go way beyond the “waking problem-oriented thought” of ordi- nary everyday living.e. through their trance experiences. that they depicted realities with supernatural poten- cies that were experienced in altered states of consciousness in which the San were “in contact with” a non-natural (i. Lewis-Williams was able to show that the paintings and engravings did not primarily signify natural objects in the world but were essentially expressions of the meanings. and by comparing those expressions with nine- teenth century ethnographic data as well as contemporary ethnographic data on the !Kung in Namibia and Botswana. therefore. These altered states of consciousness produce sensations (that is. which Lewis-Williams refers to as “spiritual experience”. The paintings. So for Lewis-Williams (and colleagues) religion and Palaeolithic master- pieces of art – which in this case is religion expressed – are rooted in the electro-chemical functioning of their brains. hallucinations) of extra-corporeal travel in alternate worlds and a sense of encounter with supernatural powers. came to believe they could see. values and spir- itual beliefs of the San. Lewis-Williams thought that even though they had no corresponding ethnographic data on which interpreta- tions of their art could be based. but rather argues that such experiences would have called for an explanation and response “in a way that was different from practical 156 . The spectrum of human con- sciousness. there would have been no revolution in experience and belief that he thinks is expressed in their artwork. were reified visions of a non-natural world – of a “supernatural” spirit world. The artwork therefore was a way for them to see what it is they. 131). a pseudo-supernatural) realm of existence. he points out. that is. in which we are alert and outward- focused. By combining a comparative analysis of artistic expressions that had only received isolated attention. As Lewis- Williams puts the point in his published PhD dissertation – Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings – the paintings ren- dered visible a complex set of beliefs and made it possible for the San “to see what they believe” (Lewis-Williams 1981: 83. Given the many similarities between Southern African San rock paint- ings and those of the Palaeolithic artists. donald wiebe Lewis-Williams’s theory of religion stems ultimately from his attempt to understand the nature of the rock art of the San people of South Africa. Without the same neuronal potential in Palaeolithic people that is to be found in all historically modern human beings. their art could nevertheless be accounted for in terms of similar experiences that the Palaeolithic people must have had given that their brains were wired in the same way as the brains of the San – experiences that they would have had to account for both individually and socially. ranges along a continuum from the consciousness we experience in our wakened state. He does not conclude that these experiences alone amount to religion.

Achieving this means. he main- tains. Donald never- theless argues persuasively that its full exploitation was a collective enterprise that made possible “a consensual definition of a shared reality that is the core of oral culture” (ibid. According to Lewis-Williams. Lewis-Williams refers to these experiences as constituting a “consciousness- contract”. was essential to the formation of religion which depends upon human agreement on what that other realm is like (beliefs) and on the demands it makes on them in the world of ordinary. In the creation of virtual worlds.). The full implications of this argu- ment.: 165). as he puts it in a later work (Donald 2001: 295). however. that is: “people do not confront questions about the sig- nificance of the inner world as individuals … [but i]nevitably … discuss their mental experiences with other people” (Lewis-Williams 2010: 158). And in doing so.: 296). that is. of course. And in the process there can be no doubt that some people laid claim to special knowledge or insight that set them apart from others and allowed them to rise to positions of influence and power.: 151). and may well have been viewed as non-natural resources for dealing with the exigencies of everyday life. that some of these weird experiences will be ignored while others will be cultivated. non-real experiences that their brains sometimes generated” (ibid. but points out that making sense of these experiences would not have been a wholly individual or purely psychological affair since “all people have to live with and accommodate the products of their brains in a society of other brains and bodies” (Lewis-Williams & Pearce 2005: 36). our fore- bears. whether they themselves have had religious expe- riences or not. everyday experience (religious prac- tice). will not be followed up on here. non-everyday) world suggested by “the weird. 157 . These experiences. he maintains that they were engaged in a process properly referred to as a “social contract” (à la Rousseau). Donald argues. Thus he writes: “Once the existence of a supernatural realm is accepted. They “leaped into a narrative mind- set”. beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episodes.e. And that “social contract”. seemed to make people aware of two realms of existence: the everyday ordinary natural world and a paral- lel “non-natural”/supernatural (i. escaped the constraints of the nervous system making it impossible to find all our explanations of and about our species simply within the confines of the brain-mind (ibid. to a comprehensive modelling of the entire universe” (Donald 1991: 214). begin to create and establish religion and to build theological superstructures” (ibid. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world thinking in the material world” (Lewis-Williams 2010: 157). religious devotees. ultimately leading to organized religion in larger tribal societies and beyond. then. that the Upper Palaeolithic was the era of “mythic invention” in which our Homo sapiens forebears moved “beyond the episodic perception of events. as Merlin Donald has shown. In this respect it is helpful to recognize. And even though symbolic invention may have been the work of single minds.

158 . donald wiebe Conclusion In conclusion I offer the following brief comments. I wish to thank the Department for the Study of Religion for the invitation to deliver the lecture. 2009. P. etc. Religion. able to produce (mythically and/or doctrinally) supernatural beings (gods. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? New York: AltaMira Press. and. doctrine. finally. music and other works of art. First: central to a fully scientific explanation of religion for Lewis-Williams is the illusory “spiritual” experiences generated in the electro-chemical firings of the human brain and the social negotiation of those experiences as well as their expression in myth. his work positively complements the search for an explanation of reli- gion sought by cognitive scientists and those students of religion who find the cognitive sciences helpful in understanding various religious phenomena. it seems to me that their explanations merely suggest the possibility of a wholly naturalis- tic explanation of the origin of religion without actually realizing it. Acknowledgements This paper is a revised version of a public lecture delivered at Masaryk University in Brno (Czech Republic) on 26 October 2010. P. What the electro-chemical firings of the human brain provide to the explanatory project is a genuine basis upon which such human cognitive capacities as the hyperactive agency detection device and theory of mind are. 2006. Second: as I have attempted to show here. Such experiences are also hospitable to the native teleology of the human mind that can account for belief in the meaningfulness of life and the cosmos. “Cognitive Science. G. as well as a genuine “motivating force” for the creation of new worlds by “extension” of the native dualism characteristic of human minds. I also wish to thank the auditors for their appreciative reception of the paper. 2004. “Sex and Violence in Rock Art”. New York: Basic Books. 76–99. J. Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. God. given the literary and narrative character of the human mind referred to above. as well as for their critical comments and questions that have helped me in clarifying various issues raised in the paper. belief and. References Bahn. Bloom. Barrett. Barrett. so to speak. 2004. J. See Schloss & Murray (2009). and Theology”. and for their wonderful hospitality.) by deviating from the implicit assumptions that govern the representa- tion of ordinary everyday agents. without this addition to their explanatory arsenal. Nature 441: 575–6. ritual. embody it all in myth. ultimately. Indeed.

D. “Religious Thought and Behavior as By-products of Brain Function”. “Gods and the Mental Instincts that Create Them”. 1991. Bloom P. P. Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Rosset. 278–94. P. Boyer. London: Academic Press. 237–59. R. D. Kelemen. Pearce. G. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Science 7(3): 119–24. P.Wiebe (eds). London: Routledge. 2001. New York: Basic Books. In The Descent of Mind: Psychological Perspectives on Hominid Evolution. 2009. “Recovering ‘Religious Experience’ in the Explanation of Religion”. J. Stausberg (ed. M. Cambridge. Pachis & D.americanscientist. In Contemporary Theories of Religion: A Critical Companion. & D. 2006. New York Review of Books (19 Oct- ober): 21–3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Psychological Science 15: 295–301. Lewis-Williams. Schloss. 2010. D. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. D. “The Human Function Compunction: Teleological Explana- tion in Adults”. 2004. “Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists?’: Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature”. Corballis & S. “Secrets of the Cave Paintings”. html (accessed 18 October 2010). 2009. Norton. “Beliefs about Purpose: On the Origins of Teleological Thought”. Kelemen. “Is God an Accident?”. D. The Believing Primate: Scientific. 2006. Cognition 111: 138–43.). P. Proctor (ed. D. C. Thessaloniki: Barbounakis Publications. Wiebe. 2005. “Roots in the Brain: On David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce. 2010.). New York: W. In Science and the Human Experience. 511–30. A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. In Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. 2005. Boyer. M. W. 2009. “Paleolithic Art: Awesome – But Not Religious”. J. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 118–27. Wiebe. H. See Schloss & Murray (2009). 2009. Kelemen. 2003. & M.cognitionandculture. Boyer. Philosophical. Fagan. D. London: Thames & Hudson. D. White. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Atlantic Monthly 296(5): 105–12. “Looking for Biological Meaning in Cave Art”. Martin. Donald. Lewis-Williams. McNeill. Lewis-Williams. American Scientist (July–August): www. D. Donald. Lea (eds). Boyer. 195–208. M. 2002. B. Inside the Neolithic Mind”. 2005. the natural experience of a “non-natural” world 159 . 1981. 1999. 2010. R. London: Thames & Hudson. and the Realm of the Gods. London: Thames & Hudson. Murray. D. New York: Oxford University Press. D. M. & E. IL: University of Chicago Press. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness. 2005. P. Essays in Honor of Luther H. and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion. MA: Harvard University Press. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. E.nte/Pascal-s-blog/paleolithic-art-awesome-but-not-religious. Chicago. Lewis-Williams. P. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. W. 2001. Pascal’s Blog (24 February): www. Guthrie. Cosmos. “Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident”.

The ability to imagine things that one has never seen. 7 Religion and the emergence of human imagination Andreas Lieberoth Introduction Relating the emergence of religion directly to single minds has grown hope- lessly out of fashion. to create a marvel of its own devising. are advances in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology that allow us to venture certain guesses about what kind of mind may have afforded this first religious thought. and even though the cognitive science of culture delves deep into the human brain. for instance. creativity. We have no way of knowing what the content of this thought might have been. feelings and motiva- tions of our fellows. however. infer details about thoughts. Many aspects of ritual involve object substitutions and juggling of facts. we recognize that religions are first and foremost socially negotiated phenomena. Imagination had entered the scene. At some point in evolutionary history. What we do have. must first surface somehow. pretend play and even mad- ness. which we know well from fiction and children’s play. In the following. explore cognitive space or effortlessly reverse roles and identities. All religious ideas. an ancestor or close rela- tive to the human race had the first proto-religious idea. a mind so powerful and playful that it grabbed bits and pieces out of thin air. I attempt to gather some of the many strings relating religion to imagination. and the world would never be the same again … Imagery and make-believe are words commonly used by critics of reli- gion. or if this “first believer” ever shared it with oth- ers of his kind. and discuss matters of cognitive science. what part of life in the Pleistocene inspired it. The abilities to embrace stories or be carried away by mystical experiences are hallmarks of spiritual- ity all over the world. however. is the very same that allows us to make new inventions by exploring and indeed breach- ing conceptual domains. in the abstract. I believe that the study of human imagination in its many forms will 160 . decoupling.

Further. including crea- tivity. to divulge how the study of imagination might best benefit the field of reli- gion. In some respects all of these are the subject of this study. context and intentionality. since it is well-nigh impossible to shake off the bonds of linguistic definitions and everyday expe- rience. cognition and culture. This is a good scientific habit. emerging as the phenom- enological and linguistic cluster. and try to explain these and some of the related theories. something that you have imagined rather than something that exists … 3. representa- tion and decoupling within the frameworks put forward by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi (Edelman & Tononi 2001. An initial definition of imagination I will start this exploration by offering my own working definition of imagi- nation. The word shows up many times over in the MIT Encyclopaedia of Cognitive Sciences. propositional reasoning. the part of your mind that does this … 2. I think that imagination can be viewed as a mental faculty. as well as their impact on religious representation. In the following. This chapter is an exploration of some of these interlinked components. religion and the emergence of human imagination allow us a glimpse of some of the important processes for the emergence of religion – in the past and today. that we commonly name imagination. imagery. but remarkably it does not have a formal entry. I present some of the central defining attributes of imag- ination. I focus on experience. imagination is often investigated in terms of mental rep- resentation. (Oxford University Press 2000) 161 . play. Notably. cognitive fluidity. but more often than not. because they may well prove to be a posy of very different functions. I devote some space to the sharing and controlling of imaginative content. it is defined as: 1. Edelman 2004) and Alan Leslie (1994). In cognitive science. but in that case it must be viewed as an epiphenomenon of several co-developed and co-dependent processes. but doesn’t contribute much to the overall understanding of a phenomenon such as imagination. within the framework of cognitive science. the ability to create pictures in your mind. decoupling and mental imagery. In the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. a study will focus on a single narrow aspect of the phe- nomenon. which is far more than its part in everyday experience. and the roles of belief. dream and delusion. on the other hand. the ability to have new and exciting ideas. Here I will therefore afford the luxury of a sightseeing tour through varying aspects of the subject. Imagination in informal use carries many connotations.

In other words. I think. language-areas for semantics. be understood in terms of activation in the neural structures used for whatever is imagined – such as perceptual systems for visual imagery. It is separate from external stimuli. andreas lieberoth Further. conscious (but not necessarily intentional). source inputs from the senses and their systems. and changes unnoticed within the blink of an eye. thinking with-and-about existing ones. the verbal form. invent fantasy-creatures of my own from the building blocks at my disposal. is a fun- damentally personal phenomenon. I’d like to suggest some basic features of the phenomenon. Thus imagination would allow me to scrutinize any acquired super- natural concept in my mind's eye. Despite its shortcomings. 162 . Even some children with autism can relate to the concept of “pictures in the head” (Harris & Leevers 2000). My initial characterization consists of three defining points: 1. decoupling from present reality. It is highly context-dependent. and the manipulation of such mental content over shorter or longer periods of time.1 and 3. and it even captures the notion of imagi- nation as at once a cognitive space. etc. 2. motor-strip for movement. It allows the crea- tion of new inventions. imagination as a whole can. and/or employ such concepts in thinking. To reflect this. I think that imagination must be viewed as several things: the process of recalling and consolidating items and qualia into integrated wholes. even if so implied by language. but still sen- sitive to them. activation of applicable neural systems/structures. 5. imagining. Seen from the angle of cognitive (neuro)science. This is not meant to be an exhaustive defini- tion. and therefore I will accept introspective experience as a central point. For the sake of consistency. ties to memory systems/processes. this definition covers the informal con- notations of the word quite well. but simply to keep us all on the same page. and notably. imagination is generated by novel combinations of existing neural mappings. is stated to mean both believing and not believing. Imagination or imagery at least. a process and a function. and can generate new meaningful content. the conscious experience when this is achieved. and 6. potentially creative/generative. To offer a less formalized definition. We probably see these many connotations exist because “imagination” covers a wide array of functions that are not necessarily the work of a single faculty. the cognitive basis for imagination may be: 4.

Pretence. It can be viewed as a “level” of thought completely separate from primary conscious- ness. decoupling. Decoupling Decoupling is probably the most salient descriptor of imagination. A naïve realist mind. for instance. I will try to explain the theoretical background for choosing my six defining points. Something to this effect does seem to exist in the human mind. make-believe. For this reason. but the lack of definitions or formal investigation is striking at first glance. pretence and any other form of contemplation unrelated to direct inputs from the periphery (Leslie 1994. and insight into many cultural and historical conceptions. and/or co-activation of separate value systems for. religion and the emergence of human imagination Cognitive explanations of imagination A cognitive review of imagination is no easy task. autonoetic memory. Boyer 2001). and the ability to entertain meta- representations at various levels. suppositional or imagi- nary ideas. These gave rise to the points summarized above. and create a barrier between our knowledge stores. this study started out by gathering and skimming through the literature on pretend play. Edelman & Tononi 2001). memories. and doubtful. Decoupling is the freeing of the mind from immediate perceptual inputs. Studies in pretend play by Alan Leslie show that children are very good at distinguishing fact from fancy at a very early age – even on a theoretical level (Leslie 1994. but the theory of “scope syntactical tags” may be too much of a filing-system metaphor to really fit the way the brain works. Cosmides and Tooby (2000) suggest that source. Before moving on to religion. propositionals. and imagination is even described as one of the primary sources of mental models. creativity. but most theories seem to focus on limited ele- ments of the phenomenon. 163 . Cosmides & Tooby 2000. The term appears often enough. or “primary conscious”. Friedman & Leslie 2007). theory of mind. is by default dependent on distally proximate stimuli to interact with the world and act on information (Leslie 1994. Such “primary representations” are experiences bound to the here-and-now. decoupling and imagination. but reliant on the same cognitive mechanisms. imagery and creativity have been studied and discussed in detail. I imagine that it could be akin to somatic markers.and attitude-“tags” attached to all entries in the mental “database” help keep track of information.

consciousness. at least some aspects of imagina- tion. Even the swirls and geometrical patterns sometimes seen in altered states of consciousness. seem to be unquestionably linked to conscious experience in various sense-modali- ties. Miller et al. the “spaces” for memory manipulation are distributed all over the cortex and only peripher- ally managed by subcortical structures. In very simplified terms. Directing the mind towards decoupled content may. Edelman & Tononi 2001) for reference. Conscious It is hard to say whether all imagination is conscious. as meta- phors of connected spaces and pipelines are often taken too literally. Thus. activation of each neuron carries its own sig- nificance. which in itself explains many features of imagination. Baddeley 1986. and gives rise to activation of others.2 the dynamic core hypothesis (Edelman & Tononi 2001) and Freudian theories of the Unconscious certainly seem to suggest otherwise. and definitely not try to explain. called entoptic phenomena. both the process and its components must be taken into consideration. I will not discuss. simply put. the Zeigarnik effect. Notions of cognitive incubation. clear connections between mental imagery and perceptual systems. Schematic or computational models like this one may. based on solid experi- mental evidence of short-term memory operations and capacity. however. Thus. Thoughts do not travel along neurons. McGinn 2004). and then manipulating it. be problematic. however. There do seem to be. andreas lieberoth Memory processes When looking for neural or cognitive correlates of imagination. namely mental imagery and processes of a sufficiently high order. imaginative scenarios can even leave episodic memory imprints. creating a very complex and open relationship between various parts of the brain. 1960) offers a neat. their “theory of neural group selection” (TNGS) and the “dynamic core” states that conscious experience is generated when various families of neurons in the 164 . The work- ing memory (WM) theory (Baars & Franklin 2003. involve retrieving stuff from long-term memory stores and semantics. as suggested by Lewis-Williams (2002). since claims in this direction are often based on introspection in a circular fashion (for instance. seem to beckon the attention of the mind’s eye – even supposing they are “just” images of the neural structures in area V1 of the visual cortex. and I will not stress the point. This grand sub- ject I leave to specialists such as Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi (Edelman 2004. the resting state network. if perhaps overly schematic model of retrieval and processing. The theory has the virtue of explicitly linking what we might call decoupled thought-sequence to several levels of memory processes.

and presents a clear-cut framework for the conscious experience of mental activity. and if sufficiently intense. The theory thus includes elements akin to meta- representation and decoupling. religion and the emergence of human imagination brain fire in sufficiently intense patterns. This idea has since been supported by a multitude of studies in simulation. they can be related to semantics and previous experience. Since any neuronal pathways may be activated along with basic thalamocortical structures. Inputs and building blocks Generative thought is based on activation and recombination of neural map- pings already in place. “loops” of re-entrant activation distributed over various parts of the brain compete for prevalence. Edelman & Tononi 2001). In Edelman’s framework. Simulation Over fifteen years ago. are pieced together as the mind goes along (Boden 1998. competing for prevalence in an evolution-like race to become conscious and/or strengthen their connections for future activation. In short. supports implications of theories on neural simulation. and it is quite possible that all meaningful conscious experiences. generate discernable experience. and how recorded activ- ity in motor cortices during finger tapping sequences are re-activated when subjects remember or just imagine performing them. including memory recall. When such neural mappings are activated. the cortices used for sensing or feeling primary inputs may also be assimilated into “higher-order” conscious experience. as suggested by Edelman. Thus. Mithen 1998. or replicate how you yourself would feel in the imaginary situation.3 showing how facial muscles are activated in sympathy with even slight facial changes of others. Modell 2003. the content of private representations or unusual ideas is not conjured 165 . I suggest that imagination is made possible by using and manipulating circuits already in place in the brain – be they recently coded memories or inherent motor functions – on a decoupled level. Lots of processes are going on at the same time. you must neurocog- nitively emulate the mindset of the protagonist. higher-order consciousness liberates the mind from the here-and-now by relating experience to memory. In much the same way that socks in a tumble-drier might form coloured circles at high speeds. which must also include certain tha- lamocortical systems. language and an advanced sense of self. Gregory Currie (1995) suggested that to become immersed in fictions such as pretence or reading a book. Understanding thought and imagination as sequential and re-entrant activation of neural firing-pat- terns.

is the defining point of our great evolutionary leap forward (Mithen 1998. which contain imagistic. because the mind is fundamentally wired to handle inferences about the dull everyday world (Byrne 2005). Steven Mithen (1998) suggests that cognitive fluid- ity. but also forms the proverbial “boxes” that one must “think out of ” in order to be innovative. artists and madmen really strike us as “imaginative”. apart from something in our linguistic and introspective experience. It is hard to say what imagination really is. or remain implicit until activated by intentional scrutiny (Lieberoth 2006). Cognitive constraints. The process of generating new meaning from things and constraints already in place is so fundamental to the way we experience thought that only notably innovative or weird ideas from children. none the less. except a palette of more basic systems. but we must always consider the individual attributes as 166 . This might be why madness can be a great catalyst for creative discovery. Imagination thus affords personal and cultural innovation by creat- ing a free space for thinking with-and-about cognitive content. such as heuristics and cognitive domains. for instance. which basically means breaching and exploring the bounds of rationality. Creative/generative Radically new combinations only rarely surface in our conscious experience. andreas lieberoth out of thin air. a toddler is unlikely to invent anything that hasn’t been seen many times over in human history. let us draw quick inferences about the world (Boden 1998. are composed from many parts. Thoughts (with certain exceptions4) are “directed” at objects (Sartre 1966). Mithen 1998. Mental scenes. Boden 1998). All minds exercise creative potential. Boyer 2001). Maybe an all-new faculty for imagi- nation emerged from our forefathers’ existing mental faculties interwoven into more complex functions. but created for the occasion from bits and pieces fitting the overall sense of meaning and con- sistency. ideas can even be shared. Some innovations are new to the entire world. but since cogni- tion keeps to certain general parameters. I think we can assume a cognitive faculty for “imagination”. This saves time and resources in everyday life. but as space which normally respects the day-to-day rules of reason. They are not recalled in their entirety from long-term memory. while most are just new to a single mind. and if they can be transferred into outer representation. which must be “loaded” separately into meaningful experience. only rarely with never-before-seen results. new and strange combinations appear. as explored by Daniel Nettle (2001). and maybe there is no “imagination”. of some sort. but an idea might be genuinely new to himself. conceptual or “culturally control- led” meaning. When breaches happen.

and readily perform mental transforma- tions and imagined scenarios with high levels of complexity. 1999). religion and the emergence of human imagination unrelated cognitive functions of memory. More experimental work clearly needs to be done at this point. or open up for a representational negotiation. almost like preliminary acts in religious ritual. imagination is sometimes degraded as childish folly. and towards prolonged sustainability and tracking of pretend scenarios (Schwebel et al. Children’s structures of plausibility are less cemented than those of adults – a fact that has led to some mistaken notions that adult brains lose their general capacity to learn – but at 18–24 months. including numerous real and pretend actors. which inferences respect. In fantasy role-playing. I call this process “representational negotiation” because active imagery is constantly subjected to contradictions between existing repertoires of generalities and various inner and outer contributions. but some theories like that of Edelman seem to be on the right track. Many things may be explored by looking at children’s play. etc. separate from rational reflection. 2007). Banishing imagination to the realms of childhood. Byrne (2005). I have investigated elsewhere how verbal inputs influenced the flow of pri- vate representation in fiction-immersion and role-playing (Lieberoth 2006. they become able to successfully distinguish pretend and simulacra from reality. meaning and experience – among others. hypo- thetical thought and imaginative fancy are better viewed as one and the same process. thus seems to be a rather unfortunate by-product of Western enlightenment. Also shared fantasy becomes more sophisticated and common with age. Sharing and controlling imagination Like religion. and gradually constructed by independent “build- ing blocks”. or had been. Byrne explored in detail how inferences on possible worlds differed according to human dispositions towards counter- factual reasoning about what might be. with different objects. poetry and madness. Friedman & Leslie 2007). as suggested by Edelman & Tononi (2001). Danish preschoolers’ joint games are com- monly bracketed by the “verbal tag” “then we just said that…” to introduce the premises of play. pretend play is gradu- ally developed to a higher degree of independence from external cues. In normal children. My study of this process confirmed how perceived and imagined scenes are very malleable. This emergence of decoupling can be understood as an “extra level” of representation or con- ceptual space. moral judgement. all players contribute bits and pieces to the same story. As shown by Ruth M. and within which they work (Leslie 1994. but this is a crude distinction which cannot easily be made on the level of cognitive systems. We can normally tell mental imagery from reality quite naturally. This sort of deep fiction-immersion can probably be 167 .

at least) wasn’t the case in my study. however. unconscious processes are constantly vying for prevalence in action. Thus. Since visual brain-areas developed to pri- macy some time before our forefathers decided to come down from the trees (Dunbar 1996). and instead simply feels that attention is shifted to something already “there”. More often than not. intent and input.The process of generating and altering imagined scenarios suggests to me that imagination must be viewed as a sequential process involving vari- ous competing levels of attention. focus on imagination primarily as mental imagery. the idea of “pictures” in the mind leads to the homunculus-problem. even if in the form of input from different modalities. and there- fore intentionality should only be seen as a spotlight falling upon a very lim- ited segment of the many neural maps that are active in the brain at any one time. this modality is heavily represented in the neural activations which make up conscious experience. studies in modularity (Modell 2003) suggest that visual imagination might be more readily stimulated by specific content such as colour. by verbally calling attention to certain diegetic5 features and qualia (in my study disguised as questions like “what colour is the roof of the house in your mind’s eye?”). several others will constantly be stepping up in competition to these. and some studies. such as spoken words in my example. In this sense. for instance Colin McGinn’s monograph Mindsight from 2004. Further. Viewing imagination as a process. phi- losophers such as McGinn (2004) or Sartre (1966) get side-tracked on visual introspection. which we do not have space to address here. which (to my knowledge. while grappling with the fact that consciousness does not exhaust all aspects of the things to which it refers (Edelman 2004). but according to Edelman’s TNGS. For instance. although psychotropic substances play a part in these as well. motion and contrasting shapes. or flow of consciousness. WM theory shows us that short-term memory systems may juggle somewhere between three and seven “active” processes at a time. many religious inferences may be triggered by inputs like those in 168 . The dif- ference is a matter of milliseconds. opens up for a number of considerations. and fail to appreciate the generative and semantic nature of imagery. but such experiments suggest that a pro- pensity to favour certain cognitive elements might be found on much more basic levels than suggested by Boyer’s theory of minimally counterintuitive items. andreas lieberoth compared to a novice shaman’s guided spirit journeys (Lewis-Williams 2002). Moreover. The process of role-playing shows how easily visual mental scenes may be modified. The visual aspect of imagination is probably very salient because we humans rely on sight for navigation in the physical world. which is modi- fied according to competing inputs. The imaginer often fails to realize that his mental construction is being modi- fied by the outside input. The metaphoric under- standing of imagination being played out on an “inner screen” is attractive. emotion and conscious experience.

our ancestors started leaving pictures and other archaeological evidence of cultural sophistication behind. intentional directedness and control over content declines while con- sciousness may remain. religion and the emergence of human imagination Barrett’s now classical stories. theologically correct analysis is more prevalent). Our contemporary cousins. in fact. to more autistic or inward-turned states like dreaming. the universe and everything would dissolve almost as soon as it entered our primitive minds. and died out relatively soon after. we would not contemplate crea- tion. “Off-line” thinking and memory thus seems to be the first step towards a cognitive basis for religious thought. David Lewis-Williams suggests that consciousness ranges from the most alert problem-oriented state (in which. A staggering amount of findings from this “symbolic explosion” look religious in nature. but immediate intuitive responses and mental imageries may quickly be overruled by a more “theologically correct” inten- tional spotlight. Roughly 30–40 millennia ago. the Neanderthals. which in turn made religious ideas and representa- tions possible. Instead. Any idea about life. Since we are looking for the origins of religion. and even with rudimentary autobiographical memory any semi-supernatural mental models would never survive beyond the lifespan of any single individual. I think. at any rate) closely at their heels. but that hardly qualifies as religion in itself. never reached this level of innovative achievement. Mithen 1998). which suggests that something important happened. Evolutionary origins of strange ideas If humans were naïve realists there would be no religion. with external representation such as language (or semi- otic capacity. decrease during low-wave sleep. We would imagine the occasional non-existing predator in the bushes. and so it seems that when creativity entered the scene. religious ideas and/or the need to express these were close as well. it becomes more staccato and seems less integrated in re-entrant processing as time proceeds. Mental domains were breached and combined into entirely new creations (Boden 1998. and ultimately hallucination or unconsciousness (Lewis-Williams 2002: 125). cognition and culture. Many theories of imagination come handily packed with an evolutionary perspective. and tools started surfacing that require more than strokes of luck or simple peer-learning to create. which is wonderful proof that the brain goes on working with- out intentionality or inputs from the periphery (Edelman & Tononi 2001). some of these give valuable hints at a possible emergence of imagina- tion in human prehistory. 169 . On this spec- trum. over daydreaming (with less intentional- ity). talk about past experience or engage in pretend play. This is supported by imaging studies showing that the firing of neurons does not. If we thought only about the immediate inputs to our senses.

our large brains evolved to manage social relations more efficiently than through mere grooming. andreas lieberoth The prevalent trend in evolutionary psychology links development of higher-order cognitive processes. Broca’s area has homologous counterparts in other mammals. Psychologist and 170 . and relating it to the self and hypothetical situations. which were accompa- nied in evolution by the development of specialized somatosensorical oral and facial structures. and thereby seman- tics. to the demands of life in the social niche. The discussion above is well known to many. relevant to speech. having a consciously available symbol for. As noted. say. Edelman disagrees with Sperber over the order of devel- opment. may help imag- ining it as a general concept away from peripheral inputs. Inferential communication was just a lucky side-effect of this evolutionary competition. and decoupling was already firmly in place to allow our forefathers to second-guess each other’s intentions. Language is based on combinations of elements (words) already existing in the mental dictionary. and language was a product of this development. but the two were most likely achieved through a process of mutual scaffolding. which includes meta-representation. meta-representation developed not for language. According to his theory. arranged accord- ing to certain rules of reference and syntax. In other words. and only when concepts and an advanced feeling of self were in place. have developed. This is an offshoot of Alan Leslie’s “theory-theory” of human empathy (for a review. see Friedman & Leslie 2007). but also because semantic concepts according to Edelman play a part in forming and manipulating mental imagery and a sense of self. Edelman 2004). This is of particular interest because semiotic capabilities allow cultural traditions to emerge from shared mental representations (Sperber 2000. Boyer 2001). but as part of a social arms race in which the best conniver or mindreader had the advantage. While Edelman argues that the development of semantic meaning led to the realization of higher-order consciousness and thus decoupling (Edelman & Tononi 2001. who pointed to archaeological evidence of a link between relative hominid neocortex volume and the size of social groups (Aiello & Dunber 1993. Dunbar 1996). language and semantics are bootstrapped. Gazzaniga et al. The emergence of either con- cept or communication might conceivably have led to the other. probably the most famous study was done by Robin Dunbar and Leslie Aiello. Dan Sperber (2000) believes that meta- representational ability gave birth to communication. To Dunbar. In Sperber’s view. Among these theories. 2002). but the development of decoupling and dissociation from immediate reality may have had dire con- sequences to the developing and fragile human psyche. but interconnection to specialized auditory areas is only found humans (Dunbar 1996. could higher-order consciousness. These two aspects are primarily represented biologically in Broca’s and Verniche’s areas. “thirst” or “monkey”. and thereby decoupling. decou- pling and representational memory.

and synthesizing new content from such building blocks. Breakdown in scope syntax could offer an adequate explanation for lacking ability to separate personal thoughts from perceptual inputs. A devotee must be able to picture his objects of devotion. but one must have a higher-order conscious to form a deluded belief. Mostly this is a very bland and rational thought-process. in the context of everyday reality. and infer about their rel- evance and action in his day-to-day existence. but it can just as well deal with supernatural items. Thus the core of the problem seems to be belief – not representation in itself. what have we learned about imagination? It is a creative and generative faculty which. can play around with anything that exists in our episodic or semantic mem- ory. This involves mobilizing a lot of mental matter. or just gullible. but only rarely get carried away by them. for as we have seen. (Carl Gustav Jung 1971: 123) So. but in intentional cognizant states. Employing imagination does not mean that religion is irrational. Imagining gods. and that many harsh secularists have attributed religion to some sort of mental deficit in primitive. albeit not entirely free from the shackles of inputs and culture. Schizoid psychosis is a case of capacity for cognitive fluidity in higher-order consciousness getting out of control. Imagination is not picky about content. religion and the emergence of human imagination anthropologist Daniel Nettle (2001) suggests that dispositions for schizo- phrenia and some emotional disorders remain widely distributed in the gene- pool because those very same genes are responsible for human imagination. We can all experience seemingly real scenes in dreams. It should be fairly obvious that religion requires imagination. imagination is every bit as sensible 171 . perhaps with help from cognitive artefacts such as scrip- ture or icons. Depressed mammals are not uncommon (especially if removed from their natural habitats by humans). the mind is very good at sorting fact from fiction. it is hardly surprising that delusion often involves culturally salient religious content. The only problem with this view is that healthy minds picture supernatural images just as well as insane ones. which is often seen in the development of delusion in schizophrenics (Cosmides & Tooby 2000). The crea- tive mind plays with the objects it loves. ghosts and dragons The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intel- lect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. With this in mind. but it has ways of keeping track of its proper contexts. people. Thus we can think with-and-about whatever gets “called up” through distributed activations in any given situation.

We start playing around with our repertoire of reality building-blocks at a very early age. hallucinations under sensory depriva- tion or altered states of mind (Lewis-Williams 2002. Therefore the scientific commu- nity of cognitive science should be careful about distancing itself too much from the school of social constructivism. Religion is a social and cultural phenomenon. 172 . shows us that imagination is only wholly intentional in very control- led conditions – if ever. This means that fantasy can be guided and manipulated by public representations under all sorts of conditions – not just in apprentice shamans or ritual action – and that language and semantics would sometimes overdetermine raw qualia. Not only would supernatural ideas not man- ifest spontaneously. so such negotiations will usually direct mental representation toward socially and culturally salient imagery and/or a theologically correct standpoint.000–60. and will is only one of them. Neanderthals might simply not have imagined an afterlife or soul. higher-order con- sciousness (Lewis-Williams 2002). it seems to manifest spontaneously in all normal humans. Sartre 1966). seems like a tale of what to expect if we did not have free use of our brushes on the imaginary canvas. but we would be unable to imagine them for ourselves. and you can even make up your own supernatural representations with a bit of effort (see Boyer 2001 for a further discussion of these).000 years of thriving. Even though there are examples of Neanderthal burials. Edelman & Tononi 2001). labelled representational negotiation (Lieberoth 2006. Their simple burials seem to be concerned with the here and now – the content of primary consciousness – which may be an indication that religious thinking is made possible only by the emergence of our comparatively more sophisticated. Once inside your head. This could seem to point to imagery in ritual or myth as a controlled process of intention- ally directing the mind’s eye (Modell 2003. Play often seems very elaborate and staged. you can think with-and-about any culturally postulated item. Dreams. McGinn 2004. 2007). there is little indication of any religious content. Many factors are at play in the contest for conscious prevalence. andreas lieberoth as other thought processes. despite relatively large brains (Diamond 1992). and it has been suggested that exaggerated acting (“manner cues”) helps children know when something is just pretence (see Friedman & Leslie in press for a review). however. and even though pretence is often scaffolded and developed through social interactions. involuntary associations to highly emotional memories (Modell 2003. The apparent inability to process strangeness or create new combinations in autism. and the intricate delusions of schizotypic psychotics (Nettle 2001). I have mentioned how individual mental representations may be shared and influenced by way of social proc- esses. McCauley & Lawson 2002). Some evidence suggests that Neanderthals had little innovation in their 50. even if prompted by others.

as new memories are generated to add to the pool of reference. Therefore a mind can be primed to link any sign in the world to reli- gious meaning. All modern humans can have weird ideas or be fascinated by fiction from time to time. while others just used their imagination to think with- and-about those acquired through social interactions – and this “division of labour” is still seen in religion today. Inputs to our mind (including other thoughts) influence the competition between re-entrant neural activations all over a brain. The generation and use of ideas like talking trees. religion and the emergence of human imagination Salient emotions or contextual triggers may also influence which mem- ory-elements are activated as ingredients in imagination and. Decoupling does not just allow the mind to wander away from present reality. and malignantly inclined computers plotting the end of the world takes more than a hyperactive agency detec- tion device. I will briefly explore the boundaries between fantasy and reality. thus. culture might easily contain situations and artefacts which elicit the mobilization of such supernatural representations. The potentially playful or generative character of imagination is one of its defining points. and something will always emerge victo- rious. madness or faulty men- tal models. Further. and strengthening of neural connections. 173 . all supernatural reasoning and tales would have to be attributed to erroneous reasoning. This is commonly seen in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. but a similar effect may be produced by way of high sensory pageantry in ritual as described by Whitehouse (2002) and McCauley & Lawson (2002). dead relatives intervening on the behalf of the living. reuse of routines or symbolic elements may even target particular prominent memories or meanings. but such notions are usually discarded as fantasy – not adopted in everyday belief. guid- ing imagination very efficiently. In such cases. cultural and linguistic reality. Below. and contextual influences include anything from physical circumstances to the vicissitudes of social. in inter- pretation of events (Modell 2003). Inputs and chemically active synapses determine which cards the mind is most likely to deal in any given mental fantasy. This underlines the point that context is all- important to imagination. If this was not the case. but also to impose decoupled content on that reality. When higher-order consciousness appeared in our forefathers. Living within a social context of culturally postulated supernatural agents allows these meaningful elements to be activated as elements in imagery. this process is self-reinforcing. Furthermore. some might have had genuinely original religious ideas.

the child is also capable of infer- ring about her own and others’ attitudes and mental states. it includes attitude-understanding. social sensibility and reality boundaries Alan Leslie’s “theory of mind mechanism” (ToMM) theory suggests that the capacity for pretence is probably yoked to the development of conceptual understanding of pretence and other mental states (Leslie 1994. This supports Boyer’s notion that supernatural items must fit pretty well with established modes of thought to be well-received. Religion and religious invention appears much today as 40 millennia in the past. and scope syntactical isolation of imagined representations. which may support the social transmission of such supernatural items. primary caregivers signify serious belief in a communication 174 . This is somewhat reminiscent of the secularist speculation that only deficient (be they primitive. Any child with a fully developed ToMM should be able to understand when others are serious about. which we know is a theory that will not stand scrutiny. in other words. such as pretence. The human imagination is both very pragmatic and playful. one important aspect might hold a final clue to its persistent survival: the social responsiveness to which meta-representation evolved. andreas lieberoth Belief. and this may be a very simple part of the answer to the “Mickey Mouse” problem: when. In this sense. Friedman & Leslie in press). and so on. for instance. that when the capacity for pretence6 is fully developed. This means. If this is the case. while at the same time allowing the child to freely think with-and-about them. for instance. Even though systems for decoupling would seem to shield the mind from religion. then the conceptual understanding. but still does not account for religious belief. This could suggest that beliefs are more memetically contagious than “mere” ideas. but ultimately a matter of parameters. so empirical or cultural structures of plausibility must stand ready to back up any perceptually unveri- fiable propositions. knows that some things can lack in truthfulness. This is consistent with Edelman’s insistence that semantics are a prerequisite for higher-order consciousness. so the notion that religion is the product of faulty proto-minds will not do. The child. (false) belief. A socially competent mind with a nor- mally developed imagination should simply weed out any notion too weird to fit in the everyday setting of life. Dan Sperber (2000) further suggests that check- ing for inconsistencies in information might be an important weapon in the arsenal of self-defence against false communication. unenlightened or diseased) minds would take to superstition. When scope-syntax is applied to a representation. the concept of witchcraft. the mechanisms of decoupling are a hindrance to believing too far-fetched (for instance religious) representations. should in fact pro- tect the young mind from entertaining most unverifiable beliefs. even if the first religious mind was in fact less advanced than ours – which is quite likely.

This is the most prominent chink in the armour of the long-standing implicit notion that religion and imagination are linked. Items must be retrieved from memory. say. the communication is massively more credible to the socially respondent mind than. this makes complete evolutionary sense. by virtue of itself. but highly susceptible to contexts. neuroscience and mobile gaming. then semantics and memory systems must play a crucial part of the process. The notion of the primitive man mistaking his own ideas for reality is dead wrong. religion and the emergence of human imagination with-and-about any item. Studying imagination shows us how minds think with-and-about religious items and how these are negotiated between building blocks in the mind and contextual circumstances which can be both artificially and/or socially con- structed. Conclusions and research perspectives All activation of supernatural items employs a bit of creative imagination because all mental content is constructed by use of mental capacities already in place. unless the hominid in question was suffering from seriously schizoid psychosis or had simply yet to develop a fully functional scope-syntactical barrier between primary con- sciousness and decoupled thoughts. Our brains may very well have evolved to negotiate complex social relationships. If imagination is tied to semantics. Man is a creator of meaning and an active con- tributor to the sociocultural surroundings rather than just a static processor of the world inside and outside his head. as I suggest. This makes supernatural representations equal to all other items in our mind. but also handicaps them in a way. Laughter and panic is contagious. since our most prominent racial advantage may be the ability to share knowl- edge over the span of generations. however. in negotiation between competing endog- enous and outer influences. possibly with a scope-syntactical tag identifying them as originated in imagination. a child’s cartoon which no adult looks at twice – even if both ideas are equally noticeable in everyday culture and rich on “minimally counterintuitive traits”. and religious innovation still occurs in the life of all believers. social sensibility. Imagination is able. is seriousness and belief. If imagination is. I think that religion prevails because of factors in our minds stronger than “rational” thought. In a way. and so. namely. Imagination is personal. and so social and discursive receptivity will sometimes overwrite better judgement. mainly based on the recontextualiza- tion of existing mental content. pervades our modern world of burger franchises. and new ideas may be stored. Religion. values and all sorts of implicit frames of reference that we gather in the course of our social and symbolically laden lives. then 175 . to filter any erroneous representa- tions or ideas away – or at least mark them as figments of the imagination. it would seem.

“How Conscious Experience and Working Memory Interact”. but let us for the sake of argument assume that they are very close relatives. and open up opportunities to do experimental studies in the area of religion and imagination. Franklin 2003. I hope that the present exploration of the phenomenon in relation to religion will benefit the study of both. M. J. J. and the Evolution of Language”. D. Current Anthropology 34(2): 184–93. Niedenthal. andreas lieberoth semantics may tie to fantasy and set the stage for mental scenes with all sorts of actors – including those of our rich religious repertoires. A Ruppert 2003. In Creativity in Human Evolution and Prehistory. now used much in role-playing theory: content that is present in the framework of fiction. A. 2005. Tooby 2000. 1986. S. References Aiello. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. A. “Consider the Source: The Evolution of Adaptations for Decoupling and Metarepresentation”. 5. Cambridge. “Social Embodiment”. MA: MIT Press. K. for instance. 6. London: Vintage. Mithen (ed. Barbey & J. an actor speaking or the sound of gunshots is diegetic sound. The mind seems to keep unfinished tasks at the ready for later reactivation. M.. L. Boyer. Boden. & J. From film studies. A. For instance. but background music is not.). I. Unless understood as a sort of “directedness” or attention of the “mind’s eye”. London: Routledge. but it must first be broken down into underlying attributes. in the same way that we ascribe semantics to visual or linguistic stimuli. 4. 3. each evaluated as a separate cognitive function. M. 53–116. Group Size. M. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 43: 43–93. Further. & S. D. Barsalou. L.). For a review. And imagination. 1998. Working Memory. 2001. 176 . B. P. Trends in Cognitive Science 7(4): 166–72. “What is Creativity?”. See Lewis-Williams (2002) for more on entoptic phenomena. (2003). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Imagination could definitely use further formal investigation within cogni- tive studies. “Neocortex Size. 2. Deeply fevered or psychedelic experiences may be vivid while including no semanti- cally meaningful objects. Notes 1. Friedman and Leslie (2007) explicitly separate the two. and therefore may induce more direct or emotional associations than other modalities. New York: Oxford University Press. Baars. In Metarepresentation. Religion Explained. Dunbar 1993. Baddeley. Sperber (ed. P. and many would benefit from the knowledge. it is a complex discussion whether. see Barsalou et al. Cosmides. 22–60. D. R. W. It is interesting to note that the sense of smell does not pass to the neocortex by way of the thalamus. and even work on them when the conscious is otherwise engaged. Byrne. somatic or olfactory experience can be labelled with meaning. & R. L.

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It will so remain as long as he does not succeed in determining. (Friedrich Nietzsche [1887] 1971: §4. This was especially so during the nineteenth century when this quest. on the bio- logical level. of which culture was at once the natural result and the social mode of apprehension. 8 The origins of religion. In our view this is not only permissible. subsequent commentators like Michel Foucault (1977) and Edward Saïd (1985) have usefully distinguished between such notions of origination. 178 . it is often enlightening. applied to human history. who had resoundingly challenged such views at the end of that century. Influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche. the modifications in the structure and functioning of the brain. cognitive interpretations and explanations will be offered. cognition and culture: the bowerbird syndrome Luther H. Martin [T]he emergence of culture remains a mystery to man. (Jamieson & Bekoff 1996: 75–6) Introduction The pursuit of origins as an explanatory strategy has a long and generally unproductive history of increasingly diminishing returns (Masuzawa 2000). presumed a social-Darwinian view of evolutionary progress in which a natural history replaced but continued to function in the tel- eological manner of an earlier divine providence. since a monkey (ein Affe) stands at the entrance. (Claude Lévi-Strauss 1976: 14) We wished to awaken the feeling of man’s sovereignty by showing his divine birth: this path is now forbidden. cited in Foucault 1977: 142) As long as there are animals to behave and humans to wonder why. Sometimes it is even science.

“we are to understand [by origin] the very first beginning. But many of these same researchers conclude that religion is a by-product of the naturally selected mental capacities of Homo sapiens sapiens. and should be resolutely discarded” (Durkheim [1915] 1965: 20). as this point had already been expressed by Durkheim. And. Henry Plotkin has observed that “culture is not some single thing”. cognition and culture with their ontological and metaphysical assumptions – illustrated. what then is the sense of referring both to language and to religion as “cultural” – as they typically are? We cannot. in other words. For Darwin’s theory is but the historicization of biology. clar- ify. Dawkins 1989). Language. which has been the gen- eral presumption in such studies? – or enhancement of reproduction through sexual selection. Rather. selected for. it “comes in different forms” (Plotkin 2003: 3). G. and ceaselessly re-examined” beginnings (Saïd 1985: xiii. But which Darwinian mechanism of genetic history is referenced? – enhancement of survival through natural selection. or define a later time. or action” (Saïd 1985: 5). in some sense. reformulate the problem here under consideration as the “evolutionary his- tory of religion.: 372) whereas to speak of beginnings is to speak historically (ibid.g. precisely the time when history was first being established as an academic discipline in European universi- ties. We might. to speak of origins is to speak mythologically (ibid. place. In this sense. If this is so. Wells’s Time Machine (1895) – and those of beginnings as a methodological strategy designed “to indicate. We can consider evolutionary theory to be. And what is the relationship of our evolutionary history to culture? Most evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists consider cultural forma- tions to be based in our evolutionary history. I assume with contemporary evolutionary theorists that the object of evolutionary study is not any species or group but is genetics (e. 5). Because of this aspectual character of “culture” (Poole 1986: 414–15. for exam- ple by the locative premise of H. In contrast to views of cultural singularity (and essentialism). the origins of religion. cognition. for example – or at least a disposition towards learning language – seems to have been. It is not incidental that Darwin published his Origin of Species (Darwin [1859] 2003) during the mid-nineteenth century. see also Chapter 3.: xvii). a historiographical theory of what Saïd called “humanly produced. “If ”. in other words. a mechanism that has been somewhat neglected but is receiving increased attention? – or both? This is a significant distinction since “breeding always takes precedence over survival when they come into con- flict” – as they often do (Ridley 1993: 20) and as the perennial example of costly and conspicuous peacock tails instantiates. although Darwin was unaware of Gregor Mendel’s contemporaneous work on genetic heredity (Mendel [1865] 1965). culture”. the question has nothing scientific about it. therefore. 179 . simply assume an evolutionary or cultural parity for such human characteris- tics as language and religion.

: 234. based upon observations of populations in situ (but see Wrangham et al. if minimalist. 1994. 1:26-28. they argue. of our Judeo-Christian bias (e. As the pioneering neuroscientist José Delgado recognized some forty-five years ago. that is. Mesoudi et al. at the cellular level. 2006). Man did not invent man” (Delgado 1969: 6). together with all of his attributes and creations…is actually and inescapably the result of natural fate. Rather. Although Alex Mesoudi. The evolutionary anthropologists Kevin Laland and William Hoppitt note that “culture” has been defined by many so narrowly that it is. a number of evolutionary anthropologists have argued that experimentally tractable evidence for human culture is lacking. 2006). “we should accept the fact that the exist- ence of man. xiii). Such restrictive definitions not only exclude inquiries by biologists and animal behaviourists into the question of whether or not other species have culture but also preclude an exploration of the evolutionary roots of human culture – and of human’s place in nature generally (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 150–151). Rather.g. or analogous. Mesoudi et al. remains largely anecdotal. specialized molecules to produce a new adaptive mechanism” are not required (ibid. we shall defer a consideration of religion and focus initially on the relationship of cognition and clearly evolved cultural traits. perhaps. martin this volume). Jared Diamond insists that we must ask “what were … [the] precursors” among these species “[f ]or each of …[the presumed] defining cultural traits [of Homo sapiens]” (Diamond 1991: 123). among others. evidence for culture among Homo sapiens and primates. luther h. Eric Kandel. for the same reason. This broad. limited with respect to our nearest primate relatives. by fiat. Andrew Whiten and Laland have cautioned that it must be determined whether the evolution of such cultural precursors was. homologous. has argued that evolution tends to conserve and to exploit existing mechanisms – a strategy necessary for survival (Kandel 2006: 186). Because of ethical constraints upon the experimental manipulation of Homo sapiens. in fact. that is. Consequently. “new. At the molecular level. independently evolved (Mesoudi et al. a dif- ferentiating characteristic only of Homo sapiens (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 150–51) – a vestige. Dunbar 2004: 14). definition recognizes the presence of cul- tural traits among many hundreds of species of vertebrates (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 151. Hauser 2000). Gen. as it is. these anthropologists argue that hard scientific evidence for culture exists only among certain species of 180 . and few if any genes lack a significant ancestral precedent” (Marcus 2006: 1118). 2006). Laland and Hoppitt have proposed a broad defini- tion of culture as “those group-typical behaviour patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information” (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 151) – a definition of culture shared by a number of evolutionary anthropologists (Janson & Smith 2003: 57. “few if any unique neuronal types [in the human brain]. an inheritance from a common ancestor (or ances- tors).

This judgement concerning the simplifying venturesomeness of scientific ways of knowing characterizes the cognitive sciences as well. than are fish (Macphail 1982).g. “cognition” generally refers to the evolved. resulting in theoretical confusions between. Whiten and Laland have argued that science has always proceeded by such “simplifying assumptions” and by using “what may be comparatively crude but workable methods. assumptions. in order to make com- plex systems tractable” (Mesoudi et al. cognition and culture fish and birds (Janson & Smith 2003: 57. It is with the evolutionary framework and basis of cognition that we are concerned here. such as writing. phylogenetic and ontogenetic issues (Donald 2001: 208). (largely) non-conscious capacities of and constraints upon the ways by which the brain processes perceptual input and to reflexively produce just the kinds of representational outputs that it does. archives and computers. but they exhibit many cognitive capacities once claimed as unique to Homo sapiens. slipping past the usual subject for the investigation of non-human culture – Nietzsche’s monkey at the door – we might nevertheless avoid the pit of divine origins by beginning our discussion of cognition and culture with their relationship among birds. Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 151–52. For contemporary cognitive scientists. So. for example. as well as with how external aids. are not only highly intelligent (e. Situating the problems of cognition and culture. The most recent example of such a cognitive capacity once claimed 181 . beliefs. desires and intentions. Avian cognition and culture Birds. The study of “cognition” has been. with such issues as aims. Similar to the conflation of cultural aspects. references to these reflective and reflexive processes are often used interchangeably. a rather more simple species of vertebrates that are nevertheless in closer evolutionary proximity to mammals. 2006). supplement these processes. Mesoudi. see Lakoff & John 1999). For as Nicholas Humphrey observes. it turns out. Pepperberg 2002). and their relationship to each other. many traditional philosophers may be right in their conclusions but if they don’t look into the evolutionary background of their problems. on the other hand. it is concerned. they don’t know why (Humphrey 2006: 129. and continues to be – especially among traditional philosophers of mind – the consideration of the (largely) conscious and reflective ways in which humans think. Mesoudi et al. in evolutionary time allows us to focus upon simplified models for the evolutionary origins of culture and possible extrapolations from them rel- evant to the relationship between cognition and culture among Homo sapiens (Schaffner 2001). the origins of religion. With reference to their proposal for a “unified science of cultural evolution”. therefore. 2006). including to Homo sapiens.

see also Hinde 1961). Arnold & Zuberbühler 2006). and how to use events to predict the occur- rence of further events that may have significance for them (ibid. from the complex coordination of neck and leg movements required for the process of hatching to pecking for food shortly thereafter (Bateson 1991: 113). developmental and cog- nitive scientists have found considerable advantages in working with birds because behavioural and cognitive paradigms such as learning can be better controlled in them than in mammals (Stewart 1991: 324). 182 . chicks also quickly learn which foods are palatable or unpalatable.). Further. accord- ing to avian biologists. self- embedding. Although avian brains are constructed very differently from humans. which patterns of behaviour bring them to social companions or to sources of heat. the forebrain of the chick is the site of learning as well as being the location of certain inbuilt. imprinting being the most well known and studied. they have come to be considered the avian equivalent of “labora- tory rats” for developmental and cognitive studies (ibid. Andrew 1991a). automatic types of behaviour (Johnson 1997: 103. domestic chicks are capable of highly organized capacities for preferences and motor patterns. context-free grammar and [to] reliably exclude agrammatical patterns” (Gentner et al. “psychologists continue to turn to the chick to try to resolve [their] theoretical issues” (Andrew 1991a: 9). (Andrew 1991b: 2). The domestic chick (Gallus gallus domesticus) At an early stage in their lives. they also have “considerable capacities for learning”. In other words. they nevertheless exhibit func- tional similarities (Scholtyssek 2006: 53) that makes them complementary as experimental material” (Andrew 1991b: 61). Evolutionary. 2006: 1204. there seems “to be ample ‘space’ [in the forebrains of domestic chicks] for mechanisms devoted to intellectual opera- tions” (Macphail 1982: 190). In addition to imprinting. As the psychologist Euan Macphail concludes in his comprehensive treatment titled Brain and Intelligence in Vertebrates. luther h.: 102. see also similar findings of syntactic generation of semantic calls among putty-nosed monkeys. Because domestic chicks possess “the simplest vertebrate brain to show cognitive abilities of interest” (Johnson 1997: 103). Macphail 1982: 37–42). Because these “complex interactions of developmental predispositions and abilities with the effects of learning are unusually well understood” in the domestic chick. In addition to an array of such innate “proclivities and predispositions”. martin as uniquely human is the learned ability of common starlings (Sturnus vul- garis) to “accurately recognize acoustic patterns defined by a recursive. Cercopithecus nic- titans. however. an “understanding of the avian forebrain is now suf- ficiently advanced” (Dubbeldam 1991) “to allow profitable comparison with mammals” (Andrew 1991b: 61.

Jared Diamond describes the first bower he encountered. avian taxonomists conventionally rank passerines. any correlation between such somatic criteria and intel- ligence remains in doubt (ibid. meaning the most intel- ligent and “by far the most [evolutionarily] successful” (Macphail 1982: 169. for example. but because their complex and elaborately decorated bowers have been described by ornithol- ogists. have conventionally been placed among those at the top of the passerine list. they will acquire the calls of birds in that local alien environment (ibid. which constitute about 60 per cent of the some 9. experimentally complemen- tary with that of mammals. members of one of these. When. As Macphail has concluded.000 species of birds. while on an excursion into the jungles of New Guinea: 183 . While the ability for mimetic performance itself is probably phylogenetic (ibid. or songbirds. with reference to the review of Freeberg 2000). as the “highest”. Passerines.000 to 10. the vocal signalling employed by different species of passerines seems to be cultural in the sense of “culture” defined by Laland and Hoppitt (2003. may be socially transmitted (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 154. the varied courtship songs and complex preda- tory warning signals of passerines. The somewhat dubious criteria for such rankings sometime include anatomical complexity. the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea. “the muscles of the syrinx – the organ used to produce bird song – are most highly developed”.). the common starling (Sturnus vulgaris). however. account for 113 out of the 123 species of birds for which there is such evidence (Frith & Frith 2004: 141). in fact. including human-made ones” (Frith & Frith 2004: 141–4). 171). cognition and culture Passerines In contrast to the simplicity of chicks. are introduced into a new environment. evolutionary biologists and anthropologists alike as the most elabo- rate creation of any animal apart from Homo sapiens (Diamond 1986: 3042. nor because of their accomplished abilities of vocal mimicry of “other bird species but also of other environmental sounds.). Zeigler & Marler 2004). There is a large body of evidence that aspects of avian behaviour which are counted as intelligence. for example. for example. the origins of religion. Miller 2000: 269). not only because their brain structure and organization are. see Marler & Slabbekoorn 2004.: 169). for recent over- views of research on birdsongs. Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchidae) One species of passerines. as with all avians. I should like to consider these birds in more detail.

martin a beautifully woven. in order to assess their qualities and those of their proprietors (Diamond 1986: 3046. he would have mistaken this first one he saw for “something man-made. 1991: 156. black. Males.: 1). with a doorway large enough for a child to enter and sit inside. The largest decorations were a tall pile of black fungi facing the door. Objects of similar colour were grouped together. All blue objects were grouped inside the hut. by different populations and individuals. The impressive bowers constructed by these small male birds (weighing approximately 150–200 g) serve as extraordinary courtship sites where they engage in familiar avian vocalization. he tells us. posturing and dance in order to attract females. In addition to such elaborate if diminutive thatched huts. build their own functional nests for the incuba- tion and brooding of nestlings completely unassisted by the males. a traditional site may be abandoned for several seasons and subsequently acquired by another adult male (ibid. red ones outside. Frith & Frith 2004: 214). how- ever. often in groups.). they make take the form of open-topped boxes of four vertical stick walls. the bowers of other species – all built of sticks. purple. on the basis of what Diamond considers to be 184 . luther h. that make up the decorations of a single structure may exceed several thousand (ibid. and yellow. The objects. man-made as well as natural. Or. however. (Diamond 1991: 156) Had he “not already heard of bowers”. clean of debris except for hundreds of natural objects of various colours that had obviously been placed there intentionally as decorations.: 81). They may regularly attend to and maintain a specific site over con- secutive seasons. by contrast.: 104). or of twin-walled avenues of upright sticks (ibid. they “cruise” the elaborate structures of their suitors. such as red fruits next to a group of red leaves. plant stems (Frith & Frith 2004: 1) – may take the form of “tepees” or perfectly circular bowls with a cen- tral conical tower of sticks. On the other hand. Females. circular hut 8 feet in diameter and 4 feet high. but also some butterfly wings and fungi. are very discriminating in decorating their bowers and typically sit on adjacent perches in order to appraise their newly completed or subsequently adjusted decorations (Frith & Frith 2004: 122). as did nineteenth-century explorers in New Guinea” (ibid. In front of the hut was a lawn of green moss. They consisted mainly of flowers and fruits and leaves. with another pile of orange fungi a few yards further from the door. They are not. and a few green ones in other locations. conse- quently. grasses. randomly collected from among available objects in the environment but are carefully selected by colour and are distinctively placed. During mating season.

Madden 2001). 153. But is this behaviour really culture? Laland and Hoppitt have proposed two straightforward experimental manipulations to demonstrate that a species exhibits culture. 128. 128. Diamond emphasizes. Adolescent bowerbird males must successfully enter this competitive and “established society of bower owning peers if they are to have any significant opportu- nity of reproducing” (Frith & Frith 2004: 128). 212. cognition and culture learned sets of “rules” (Diamond 1986: 3044. The architectural and decorative achievements of bowerbirds may be com- pared to the kind of socially transmitted behaviour expressed in their vocal displays. an abundance of food resources that emancipates males from nest duties and permits promis- cuity (ibid. leaf matter or charcoal which are mas- ticated with saliva (Frith & Frith 2004: 125).: 1) distinguishing them as one of the few animals apart from Homo sapiens that practice tool use (ibid. In addition. Diamond 1987. female-like plumage during their first six to seven of their 20 plus year lives (Frith & Frith 2004: 100. Freeberg 2000). 1991). Bowerbird culture Bowerbirds are a rather intricately structured social species in which there is increasing competition between young males with those of higher status while nevertheless maintaining a “pedagogical” relationship with them. Diamond 1986: 3046. the males of some species paint their bowers with a mixture of pigment made from fruit pericarp. immature males in the wild were found to bring inappropriately coloured objects and thick sticks to their first bower sites. These decorating rules. are not “automatic” or instinctive but involve decision-making and “changes of mind” (Diamond 1986: 3045). both forms endure as acquired and transmitted traits (Frith & Frith 2004: 141.: 141. They visit and observe the constructions and decorations of accomplished mature males from which they acquire their own skills that they hone through experience and practice (ibid. they are not able to build and decorate a bower with any skill and finesse. 204–8. Whereas male bowerbirds raised in relative isolation are instinctively capable of and are “driven” to accumulating and to “playing” with sticks and “decorations”. While both forms of behaviour have a phylogenetic origin – in the case of bower building.: 126–7.: 12. 126–7. They apply this “paint” with a wad of vegetable matter held in their bills (ibid. Madden 2001: 833). First: 185 . Madden 2001. Similarly. Adolescent males are able to learn the finer points of bower construction and decoration from their elders without evoking their aggression because they exhibit dichromatic. the origins of religion. an ancestral nest building ability. It is this powerful effect of bowerbird behaviour – as of birds generally – on conspecifics that has most surprised researchers (Andrew 1991b: 10). 1991: 157). 212. 126).

While both of these conditions have been observed in the wild among bower- birds. this would suggest that the behavior results from shaping to divergent ecological conditions. Neville 1988). as Diamond concludes. luther h. (Ibid. (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 152) In a second experimental manipulation proposed by Laland and Hoppitt to demonstrate that a species exhibits culture: population A is collectively removed from its environment and replaced in the environment of population B.) The presence of culture among bowerbirds is demonstrated from experiment B with the simple observation that the different species of bowerbirds. with their differing styles of production. and vice versa … The observation that the intro- duced animals adopt the behavior exhibited by members of the host population … [would be] inconsistent with an explanation in terms of genetic differences between populations and consistent with an explanation reliant on some form of learning. “a lone vagrant male Spotted [bowerbird]” built a bower within the range of the satin bowerbird) – well beyond his own species range – “and decorated it with blue items as Satins typically do but Spotteds do not” (Frith & Frith 2004: 117. “like human art styles” (Diamond 1986: 3042. Although the behaviour surrounding bowers is 186 . share the same or very similar environ- ments (Diamond 1986: 3046). such “geographically varying bower styles may [well] be a cul- turally transmitted trait” that is. neither have been experimentally and systematically manipulated. 13. More interesting is the demonstration which can be elucidated for experiment A in which. Dennett 2006: 397. which in turn is removed and replaced in the environment of population A. Frith & Frith 2004: 124). Nevertheless. 1). Aesthetics and symbolism Because of the extent of their architectural and decorative culture. and asocial learn- ing could not be ruled out. the observation that the introduced population exhibits group-typical behavior that differs significantly from that exhibited by the former residents would be inconsistent with an explanation based on ecological differences between environment and consistent with culture. martin a sample of individuals from population A are introduced into population B. n. However. aesthetic sensibilities have been attributed to bowerbirds (Frith & Frith 2004: 1. If the introduced populations come to exhibit the same behavior as the former residents.

Madden 2001: 836). If accepted. cognition and culture done primarily to attract females for mating. therefore. Since “bower building [and maintenance] is a cognitively complex task involving elaboration of a variety of brain regions”. Decorated bowers represent. Further. Even as there is an inverse relationship between the colourfulness of a bird’s plumage and the “beauty” of its song. This “taste for the beautiful” among bowerbirds was already noted by Darwin ([1871] 2004: 465). specifically. In fact. They also require a well-developed spatial memory in order to remember the loca- tions of supplies for decorations or of neighbouring bowers (Madden 2001: 833).: 208. that males may enjoy such activities “for their own sake” (ibid. the origins of religion. that is to say. like any tropical- forest bird. it does not. it has often also been observed in the absence of females. in other words. 55). must quickly master an enormous amount of information con- cerning local flora or insect fauna if it is to survive (Diamond 1987: 17). have been recognized for their intelligence (Frith & Frith 2004: 1. Diamond 1986). the bowerbird. however. While the bowerbird brain “receives the inputs necessary to allow sen- sory integration”. Macphail 1982: 37–42). Bowerbird cognition and culture Bowerbirds. so there is an inverse relationship between ornate plumage and the more elaborate and decorated bowers (Ridley 1993: 163). cognitive potential] may vary with the complexity of the bower that the bearer builds” (Madden 2001: 833). 11–13). thus. and bower building species have larger brains than non-bower-building ones (Frith & Frith 2004: 1. some scientists even speak of bowerbirds exhibiting symbolic traits (Frith & Frith 2004: 81). Some observers have suggested. Deacon 1997). “seem to be totally dominated by [that] sensory input” (Macphail 1982: 190). Donald 1991. secondary sexual characteristics of male bowerbirds that have been transferred external to the male’s body (Gilliard 1969: 47. Gilbert 1939). In the judge- ment of some. Frith & Frith 2004: 122). Madden concluded that this dif- ference in gross brain size “may reflect the range of cognitive process necessary 187 . bowerbirds do have relatively larger brains than ecologically similar songbirds of their region. decorations displaced by researches or those added but disliked by the birds are immediately removed (Diamond 1991: 157. 200. they find it “aesthetically pleasing” (ibid.g. the Cambridge zoologist Joah Madden has raised the question of whether “total brain volume [and. For exam- ple. 12.: 1). As Diamond notes. this judgement problematizes the claim that symbolic representa- tion is a unique trait of human culture (e. this externalization of symbolic traits is a cultural characteristic shared only with Homo sapiens (Frith & Frith 2004: 81. 222. Rather. its brain exhibits the neural plasticity – “the ability of nerve cells [in human and non-human brains alike] to change the strength and even the number of synapses” (Kandel 2006: 218) – that is required for learning (Johnson 1997: 103.

familiar from diagnostic medicine. martin for successful bower building” (ibid. additionally. And I have attempted to show that bower- bird culture is not characterized simply by minimal patterns of reproduction behaviour nor by the intricate patterns of their birdsong – though these are a central aspect of virtually all avian culture – but. and as an exploitation of. well describe the notion. by a complex and rich architectural and decorative tradition that has been compared with the most elaborate creation of any animal apart from Homo sapiens. they are. and function of [the] elab- orate traits [of bowerbirds] … has barely begun. The bow- ers created by bowerbirds not only employ tool use but seem to be aesthetic projects which so far exceeds the requirements of reproductive strategy that some commentators have attributed a human-like symbolic quality to them. luther h. There is no evidence. On the other hand. Clifford and Dawn Frith concluded their recent comprehensive study of bowerbirds with the observation that the Debate over the origins.: 833). see also ibid. (Frith & Frith 2004: 222) The Friths’ conclusions concerning the origins. Macphail has concluded that any assumption that correlates brain size with greater cognitive sophistication is still disputed (Macphail 1982: 169. The bowerbird syndrome I have attempted to show that bowerbirds maintain culture in Laland and Hoppitt’s sense of “group-typical behavior patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information” (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 151). in other words. Numerous … hypotheses will undoubtedly attempt to further explain the won- derful examples of [the] “frozen behaviour” that bowers represent. it is unlikely that any single explanation will satisfactorily account for their origin(s) and/or function(s). of a “syndrome”. and associated decoration and male behaviour. produced on the basis of. significance and function of bowerbird culture and its relationship to cognition. that the cognitive constraints characteristic of avian forebrains have been violated by the production and transmission of bowerbird culture. Given the variation and complexity of bowers. significance. These acquired and transmitted traits seem to have a phylogenetic basis in the evolutionary history of the bowerbird. a group of observed and seemingly correlated characteristics usually forming an identifiable pattern but 188 . ordinary cognitive capacities of the bowerbird brain. however.: 25–31).

phylogenetic dis- positions for the production and transmission of those distributed behaviours and ideas collectively referred to as culture. subtle though they may be. however. I think it nevertheless rea- sonable to presume – as do they – that humans do possess culture and an exceedingly complex and multi-faceted one as well. cognition and culture without reference to the mechanisms of causality. the massive cumulative and extensively more complex character of acquired human culture. i. are not as yet fully known.e. we might further presume that there is for Homo sapiens. Being anecdotal (i. slipping again past Nietzsche’s monkey at the door.e. with reference to Hinde & Stevenson- Hinde 1973). we can return from our discussion of the beginnings of cognition and culture among bowerbirds to a brief consideration of their relationship in Homo sapiens. And. studies of the various cultures have tended to reflect the self-interests of its students no less than those of it producers. though assumed. it would seem that the actuality of these cultures is an ontogenetic realization (i. a social exploita- tion of those phylogenetic dispositions). correlations and questions similar to those that define the bowerbird syndrome define also the diagnostic task for researchers into the culture of Homo sapiens. as for birds and fish. Cognition and culture among humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) Robert Hinde has concluded that the dispositions and predispositions that profoundly affect the kinds of information that birds acquire about the world and that constrain their learning. “the bowerbird syndrome”. which. ethnographi- cally and historically attested). are unlikely to be restricted to birds (Horn 1991: 248.e. These interests are well illustrated by Geoffrey Miller’s lovely imaginative recounting of a male bowerbird’s explanation for his own cultural constructions: 189 . the origins of religion. Consequently. influenced cognition? And if so. Since specific human cultures have emerged independently of one another. Might we then learn something from our avian contemporaries concerning relationships that might exist between the evolved predisposi- tions and dispositions and that affect the kinds of information which humans acquire about their world and that constrain their learning? Has the latter. how and to what extent? Human culture Although Laland and Hoppitt have argued that hard scientific evidence for culture is experimentally tractable only among fish and birds while only anec- dotally attested for primates and Homo sapiens. So. Observations. we might well term observations about the contingent but causally underdetermined relationship between culture and cognition of bowerbirds.

but I felt connected to something beyond myself when I indulge these passions. If we accept Laland and Hoppitt’s broader definition of culture. but there is no aesthetic mind at work there. ‘top-down’] terms”. also Sperber 1996). I must put it right. quite inexplicable. This concern seems to reflect. It is a happy coincidence that females sometimes come to my gallery openings and appreciate my work. for playing with colour and form for their own sake. luther h. but it would be an insult to suggest that I create in order to procreate. as well as the lingering concern by a number of anthropologists sharply to differ- entiate Homo sapiens from other vertebrates. then human culture must also be explained in terms of the material bases that characterizes its own evolutionary history. Brains. We live in a post-Freudian. (Miller 2000: 269–70) As Régis Debray has emphasized. martin I find this implacable urge for self-expression. I can- not remember when I first developed this raging thirst to present richly saturated color-fields with a monumental yet minimalist stage-set. however. “mind” is an “ill-defined group of mental activities” that can only be described and researched in terms of the evolved capacities and constraints of 190 . Birds-of-paradise may grow lovely feathers. if not metaphysics (Bechtel & McCauley 1999). culture and minds Mind is a designation often employed to signify the functionally discrete consequence of interactions between brains and particular cultural environ- ments. post-modernist era in which crude sexual meta-narratives are no longer credible as explanations of our artistic impulses. I simply must have it for my own. We must. vestiges of Western philo- sophical dualism. nor does it seem relevant to a study of the relation between their brains and their culture. which recognizes the presence of cultural traits not only among fish and birds but among many hundreds of species of vertebrates as well (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 3–4). When I see a beautiful orchid high in a tree. however. for example. The question of mind is not raised. When I see a single shell out of place in my creation. of bowerbirds. Rather. in other words. such self-interested cultural ide- ologies “cannot be analysed in ideological [i.e. only a body’s brute instinct. offer a “bottom-up” evolutionary history of those human brain functions that might explain each aspect of that syndrome we call human culture. As Delgado already recog- nized. the “hidden dynamic of ‘the action of ideas in history’ is to seek their mate- rial forms and sequences of transmission” (Debray 1999: 2.

for example.000 years” – at about the same time as the explosion of symbolic behaviour in Europe. There is some evidence. Reminiscent of Macphail’s scepticism concerning the correlation of brain size with cultural abilities among birds. and a second. Consider. ASPM (or abnor- mal spindle-like microcophaly-associated). Passingham concluded some twenty-five years ago.100 years – just before cities arose in the Near East (Balter 2005: 1662). One of these alleles.000 to 60. the origins of religion. reporting on Evans et al. citing Passingham 1982). And Mark Stoneking of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig concludes that “there is absolutely 191 . diet for example – is the basis for expanded cultural production remains an open question (LeDoux 2002: 72). 2005 and Mekel-Bobrov et al. and perhaps are continuing to do so today (Balter 2005. minds are not subject to scientific investigation. argues that possible genetic links to such historical events are “highly speculative” (cited by Balter. Chris Tyler-Smith of the Sanger Institute near Cambridge. that human brain size may have increased as a consequence of rapid and complex cultural developments. 2005). even since the emergence of anatomically modern humans. to base a material explanation for the relationship of cognition and culture with brains (Macphail 1982: 25). “the modern human brain has exactly the proportions and structures that might be predicted of a very large pri- mate brain by extrapolating earlier primate expansions” (Donald 1998: 10. 306). as we have seen. Cultural influence upon brain size Bowerbirds. however. ibid. microcephalin.: 1662). is calculated to have appeared around 37. While somatotopic areas of the brain relevant to certain skills or behaviours can become enlarged with usage or training (Kandel 2006: 216–18. Whereas brains are material entities the functions of which may be explained. cognition and culture brains (Delgado 1969: 31). As R. It was recently reported that two genes thought to regulate human brain growth have continued to evolve under natural selection over historical time. it would seem. not upon gross brain size but upon the excess of neural circuitry beyond that required to maintain physical competence (Dunbar 2004: 68). the plight of the Neanderthals whose brain size exceeded that of anatomically modern humans by more than 400 cm3. however. It makes sense. arose some 5800 years ago – with a possible range of 500 to 14. have slightly larger brains than some ecologically similar non-bower building passerines of comparable size (Madden 2001). Whether culture has contributed to the evolutionary increase of a species’s brain size and complexity or whether an increase in brain size and complexity – in response to some non-cultural adaptive pressure. England. E.000 years ago – “with a confidence level ranging from 14. cognitive potential depends. therefore.

g. And the potential for both is specified at the level of genetic expression (Kandel 2006: 202). “gaining a full view of the kinds of selective pressures that have faced modern humans. in other words. whether natural or created.g. skin pigmentation. 2006: 454. It is not yet known whether or not and how the altered genes that influence brain function actually affect behavioural or psy- chological traits. extensive plasticity. altered our evolved physi- ology of vision. nor has it been determined whether or not their adapta- tion to changing environmental pressures might include analogous responses to cultural niches. Recently. and our biological adaptations to these pressures. hypotheses. to idiosyncratic differences among members of a species rather than to their commonality (ibid. the overwhelming numbers of examples where the human genome did not respond selectively to adverse environmental con- ditions. We must distinguish. individual brains must still process input from their environment – however complex and extensive – in ways constrained by their evolved bio- logical morphology and functions (LeDoux 2002: 88–9). Further.: 446). in other words. luther h. However. for example. The increasingly complex and invasively “hot” character of our contemporary visual environ- ment (McLuhan & Fiore 1967) has not.: 29). also ibid. As Benjamin Voight et al. a team of population geneticists has suggested.1 Before venturing generalizations based upon such. on the other hand. 2006). to infectious diseases. the remarkable plasticity of vertebrate brains (e.: 28). on the other. on the one hand. Plasticity. Even Gerald 192 . perhaps. The influence of culture upon brain function If not brain size. itself “an innately determined characteristic” (LeDoux 2002: 9). even population density) until the present day. climate. is predominately a feature of the brain in utero and in early childhood (ibid. and upon neural plasticity as the ontogenetic basis for learning and development. still untested. or to recurrent cognitive malfunctions must be explained. have concluded. even brain func- tions (Voight et al. refers primarily to ontogenetic learning and memory (ibid. Edelman 1992) has given rise to considerations of influences from its environment upon the brain. reproduction and. however. available food resources. remains a challenging problem” (Voight et al. martin nothing in … [recent findings] to relate the signature of selection to any brain-related phenotype” (cited by Balter 2005: 1662). between phenotypic capacities for the processing of sensory input and for developmental poten- tials. that some human genes may have continued to evolve in selective response to changing pressures of the physical environment (e.: 96). after all. The candidate alleles – which have not reached fixation – are those influencing metabolism.

humans are both the creatures as well as the creators of culture (Niebuhr 1955: 41–3). cultural artefacts would them- selves seem to have little. retrieval and transmission. trans- mission and retrieval of information – traits usually subsumed under the cat- egory “culture” (Debray 1999: 2) – are produced by human minds. Since technologies for the external management. see Donald 2001: 306). for instance. To do so indeed allows the computer to store a greater amount of information and to process this information in a significantly shorter period of time. Similarly. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr’s insight with respect to history. this increase in performance capacity in no way alters the architecture of its central processor. on the protracted realiza- tion of cognitive possibilities resulting from the introduction of literacy. non- biological cognition excels at information storage. the classicist Jocelyn Small has argued that when the ancient Greeks were confronted with the task of managing and retrieving data from the massively expanding archives which resulted from the introduc- tion of literacy they continued “to rely on [and to improve the efficiency of ] their well-known and proven [pre-literary] techniques of [natural] memory” – a concern with mnemotechnics that endured until the Renaissance and beyond (Small 1997: 81. argues that a morphology of the brain associated with constraining cognitive functions is sufficiently similar among members of Homo sapiens to be identified and described (Edelman 1992: 25. to have in no way altered the cognitive ways by which the Greeks processed information – despite the availability of the newly formalized Greek alphabet to do so (ibid. However. 2002). whether reflexive or reflective (Lieberman et al. 136. cognition and culture Edelman. 193 . Edelman & Tononi 2000: 47–8). is extremely proficient at. that creative but constrained cognitive disposi- tions associated with cultural production would take explanatory precedence over any consideration of the possible effects of that culture on cognition (Donald 1998: 12). But do external mechanisms for the manipulation of information influence biological cognition in any qualitative way? It is. nevertheless. 243). Biological and non-biological cognition The question remains of the relationship between evolved capacities of and constraints upon brains and what has been termed non-biological cognition. if any. Whereas biological cognition. too. the origins of religion. 87. Mesoudi. Like the decorated bowers first stumbled upon by Jared Diamond in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. explanatory efficacy unless and until their production and their functions are first explained. for example. the foremost advocate of neural plasticity. The increased demands of managing archival information seems. pattern recognition. It would seem. a relatively simple and inexpensive operation to upgrade computer memory..

at their breeding sites follow- ing the time of maximum food abundance that has been altered by climate change (Both et al. exactly what it is that we want to know. the cognitive. in other words. nevertheless. as exploitations and extensions of our natural cognitive (and motor) capacities and they remain constrained by the limits of these evolved capacities. the social. There are. the culture of humans developed. 2006). We might ask ourselves. in which information is genetically encoded and transmitted and the historical (ontogenetic) in which “group-typical behavior patterns shared by members of a community” are socially learned and transmitted (Laland & Hoppitt 2003: 151). among them (and from the bottom up). martin Whiten. In this pursuit. (Tentative) conclusions I have attempted to argue that Homo sapiens sapiens share with bowerbirds – and with all vertebrates – an evolved disposition for the production of those behaviours we designate collectively as “culture”. according to the phe- notypical agendas of evolved brains rather than as Frankensteinian automata that might in some way turn upon and finally seduce the workings of those evolved processes. well known for his argu- ments in support of cultural influence upon human cognition. succinctly emphasizes that culture reflects the innate cognitive features of the individu- als that make it up (Donald 1998: 12). and Laland have concluded that they are probably adapted from the “biologically evolved or developmentally acquired cognitive features of those minds” (Mesoudi et al. there is. and “enculturated” apes continue to “use [their newly acquired] symbols for traditional primate agendas” (Donald 2001: 204). the genetic. in other words. “trigger new innate mental capacities” (Donald 1998: 15). however few these features may be (Donald 2001: 224). it would seem. Robin Dunbar has noted a common confusion between function and ontogeny – 194 . consequently. not yet a very clear understanding of how these levels are related (Hogan 2003: 202–3). and while explana- tions at the lower levels are understood to constrain those for the next high- est respectively. however. Even Merlin Donald. the cellular. Such non-biological technologies of culture as symbolic inventories or external memory systems could not. Even as some species of migratory pas- serines now face extinction because they continue to follow their phenotypic schedule of migration and arrive. External aids to cognition seem to have developed. he concludes. the neurophysiological. luther h. 2006). And there are two funda- mentally different temporal frames within which to evaluate the beginnings and the functions of each of these levels of analysis and their relationships – the evolutionary (phylogenetic). many lev- els of analysis to be differentiated in the attempt to understand and to explain cultural syndromes.

As with “culture”. As the ethologist Paul Bateson suggested with reference to the behaviour of chicks. If such pursuits are to be scientific. As well. environmental effects and experiential learning. I will also stipulate a minimalist – that is. in humans. O. our questions must be refined so that we focus on each aspect or sub-system of our culture. a necessary if not sufficient – definition for “religion” (at least as an initial working defini- tion) as referring to socially transmitted sets of ordinary human behaviours 195 . We need to ascertain. Postscript: The origin of “religion” One cultural trait that virtually all researchers agree is unique to human cogni- tion and culture is those behaviours and ideas that we consider under the taxon religion (e. and of development. for example.e. we should presume a conceptual integra- tion (Cosmides et al. And whatever the influence of the cultural upon the cognitive might prove finally to be. as best we can. even though a paradigm for such conceptual integration is not yet fully estab- lished. between aspects of cognition and culture that are subject to scientific expla- nation and those that remain the object of description. which is always genetic fitness. cognition and culture the evolutionary goal of an animal. bottom-up studies. exactly. the origins of religion. what. including. our notions of cognition. Wilson 1998) among the humanities and the social sciences and with the natural sciences. to define and to differentiate more precisely the concepts that we frequently employ in our investigations. cultural transmission” (Dunbar 2004: 105). we need to differentiate between biological cognition and non-biological information management. we need to avoid ideological biases in horizontal (compara- tive) and in top-down cultural studies while distinguishing such interesting – indeed significant – considerations from explanatory. 1992) and theoretical consilience (E. is human about that syndrome we term human (Ridley 1993: 1–21). and between the uni- versal (phylogenetic) disposition for and the contingent (ontogenetic) aspects of culture. Dennett 2006: 6. intelligence and learning. the precursors of each of the cultural traits in which we are interested – perhaps as an exercise in reverse engineering? When “in our ancestry” did these traits “approach their modern form and can the early stages of their evo- lution be traced archaeologically” (Diamond 1991: 123)? We need. “which is always some combination of its genetic inheritance. pace Guthrie 2002). and the reason why an animal behaves in the way that it does.g. i. further. Dunbar 2004: 197. Bering 2001. on its development. and on the connections that form between them (Bateson 1991: 130). we need to bear in mind that descriptive. non-explanatory attention to the particularizing character of such influences tends inexorably to divert us into post-modernist cul-de-sacs of incomparability while loosing sight of the question. And.

As with the evolutionary origins of bower building. consequently to refer to any particular behaviour or ideology so legitimated.g. Wilson 2002) must offer a more convincing argument as to the internal stability of such groups as well as for a relative impermeability for their boundaries (for an extended critique of group selection with refer- ence to Wilson. In fact. that human religiosity may “flow from dedicated cognitive structures configured to form precise non-natural understandings that motivate intricate adaptive responses to ancestral conditions”. seem to be a universally learned and transmitted characteristic of human societies. unlike language. S. however. Whatever the adaptive origins for the elaborate constructions of bowers by males. (This definition begs the question of selection and motivation whereby some but not all behaviours and ideologies so legitimated are transmitted. For Darwin. see Atran 2002: 207–10. for example. For this reason. but this is another issue). Whatever the origin(s) of religion. social rather than environmental features seem to be the main fac- tors motivating religious behaviour and perseverance. in fact. I offer a brief consideration of religion as a “postscript” to our thoughts on the origins of cognition and culture. D. while widespread. Since. neither religious behaviours nor ideas are. it has. martin or ideologies which are legitimated by claims to the authority of superhuman agents and “religious”. 216–19.g. Those who wish to argue to the contrary (e. luther h. like the question of the social motivation and transmission of religion. Religious behaviour and ideas do. Those who wish to argue that religious societies are themselves adaptive groups that have evolved over time in ways analogous to biological species (e. however. in the words of Bulbulia 2005: 96) must then explain the rather significant presence and perseverance of such non-religious people. that is. is another topic. those who identify themselves as “non- religious” or as “atheistic” make up the third largest world population after Christians and Muslims (Pearson Education 2005: 5). sexual selection refers to “the advantage which certain individuals have over others of the same sex and species solely in respect of reproduction” (Darwin [1871] 2004: 243). 227–34). their material and behavioural displays have become a staple example 196 . phenotypic. The persistence of non-falsifiable claims to superhuman agency among humans seems to have little to do with adaptive strategies of survival – quite the contrary – and. those for religious claims remain obscure though – as we noted at the beginning of this chapter – religion. however. of bounded sets of relationships between select individuals. most certainly been exploited by human societies in service of their own self-interests – but that. is generally considered by cognitive scientists to be a by-product of adaptive cognitive capacities. we might suggest that the origins of religion and their connection to cognition and culture may well have an explanation in the similar features which motivate sexual selec- tion (Borgia 1986: 92) – as do the elaborate constructions of bowerbirds.

including the religious (e. Nathan Rothenberg. Recently. how- ever. Frith & Frith 2004: 153. Miller concludes that “[m]ost of our mental adaptations that patiently guide our behavior remain intuitively accurate”. therefore. all a man has to do to get a woman is to say he’s a storyteller. scholars such as Matt Ridley (1993) and Geoffrey Miller (2000) have explored the implications of sexual choice for the origins of human behaviour. His evidence for this conclusion is – like that for culture generally – anecdotal. Rothenberg’s jazz attracted a White-crested Laughing Thrush (Garrulax 197 . To paraphrase the late Saul Bellow.g.g. however. such behavioural displays and counterintuitive ideas are also highly entertain- ing (Goode 2000: 235). Madden has suggested that the correlation between brain size in bowerbirds and the complexity of their material constructions – if significant – “provides some indirect support for the hypothesis put forward by [Geoffrey] Miller (2000) that sexual selection may … [have driven] the evolution of the … human brain in response to female choice targeting novel. Once introduced. It’s an aphrodisiac. such violations. [1871] 2004). with reference to Darwin [1859] 2003: 95–6. Miller’s description of courtship behaviour subverting the intuitive categories of our evolutionary epistemology resonates with Pascal Boyer’s characterization of counterintuitive. highly memorable and. they needn’t. The “mental fireworks show of courtship”. He does not. When invited to play his clarinet at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. complex male behaviours” (Madden 2001: 837). Miller 2000: 264. costumes2 and music of male display or in the coun- terintuitive imaginings of innovative storytellers on the prowl. readily transmitted. the origins of religion. in addition to being attention grabbing and memorable. concepts as “violations” of “certain expectations from [evolved] ontological categories” (Boyer 2001: 62–4). 209–22. for exam- ple. For. provide an intentional motivation for such epistemological violations. are attention grabbing. 421–4). Miller 2000: 267–70. he suggests. dance. might. or religious. cognition and culture in support of sexual selection theory by which “one sex … [is] modified in relation to the other” (e. offer any motiva- tion or explanation for why such categories might be violated in the first place. Borgia 1986. for example. however. have been transmitted among social groups for this reason. of course. can.3 While religious behaviours and ideas may have had their origins in male display. Miller’s view about religious behaviours and ideas having their origins in the posturings. according to Boyer. has argued that while birds sing to claim their territories and to attract mates – precisely the reasons for which bowerbirds construct their decorated courts – they also sing simply because they love to. undermine our evolutionary epistemology “by turning our cognitive faculties into ornamental fitness- advertisements rather than disciples of truth” (Miller 2000: 423–4). The philosopher and musician. Diamond 1991: 156–9.

Aesthetics – as expressed in ritual and musical performance and in the production of art (see Dennett 2006: 153–4) – is precisely the reason given by a number of my learned acquaintances for their continuing participation in Christian worship. the relationship between engaging entertainment. it would seem that sexual selection should receive more consideration than it has. p. Schleiermacher [1799] 1958: 139) to Max Weber’s sociology of religion (Weber 1963: 242–5). 3. who argue that “the unique demography and soci- ology of the Ashkenazim in medieval Europe … led to a social environment” selected for intelligence. It is interesting to note that indigenous peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia compete with bowerbirds for the rather scarce feathers from birds of paradise for use in their “ritual” activities (Frith & Frith 2004: 7. Although most of these acquaintances are Anglicans. from the Dionysian theatre of ancient Greece to the modern theological reflections of a Friedrich Schleiermacher (e. “All a writer has to do to get a woman is to say he’s a writer. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Judith Grant. Notes 1. they follow immediately upon his discussion of sexual selection as the basis for a “sense of beauty” among birds. however. See. 198 .g.: 114–16). While he mentioned neither aesthetics nor sexual choice in these three pages. Cochran et al. there seems to be an “aesthetic” motivation for birds’ songs. William Paden and Donald Wiebe for reading an earlier draft of this paper making suggestions for its improvements. however. of course. Any excesses in expression or extravagances of argument remain. Whether the origins of those practices among Homo sapiens that we associ- ate with “religion” and the meta-representational claims by which those prac- tices are legitimated may be accounted for by some adaptive feature of survival or by sexual choice – as it is in bowerbirds – is still debated. 120). It’s an aphrodisiac” (cited in Time 166(26). martin laucolophus) which began to sing along with his playing and actually to improvise upon his own improvisations (Rothenberg 2005: 1–12). tellingly. In this connection. aesthetics and religion has a long history. 26 December 2005–2 January 2006. my own. with bowerbirds being elicited as one of his primary examples (ibid. luther h. 163). it is interesting to note that Darwin devoted but three out of the some 700 pages of The Descent of Man to a discussion of religion (Darwin [1871] 2004: 116–19). If. as with the innovative ability of bowerbirds for employing novel decorations or for producing abnormally elaborate bower designs (Madden 2001: 833). (2006). there is an evolutionary story to be told for the origins of religion. Thus. 2.

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Bearing in mind the enormous ecological and cultural diversity that other- wise characterizes these societies – and we have data from Arctic areas (Damas 1972). if you like – universally (Mauss [1925] 1990. Betzig & Turke 1986. 2002: 82). Gouldner 1960. Then he starts hunting again. and modern anthropology’s studies of hunter–gatherers’ rules of sharing worldwide basi- cally confirm these ethics. Høgh-Olesen 2006). demanding nei- ther attention nor particular parts of the prey. Ingold 1988. from the South African bush to the Equatorial rainforest (Hart 1978). Or as George Simmel (1950: 387) formulated it: “All contracts among men rest on the schema of giving and returning the equivalence. and to reciprocate what you receive. apes and monkeys Henrik Høgh-Olesen In our species the reciprocity principle is the basic ethic behind any society we know: you have to give in order to get. Naturally. and Kaplan and Hill’s extensive studies of food sharing among the Ache tribe in Paraguay is a good example (Kaplan & Hill 1985. while 58 per cent of the women’s yield is eaten outside the family (Barret et al. When an Ache hunter has killed his prey. Such is the rule – the expectation or code. 9 The will to sacrifice: sharing and sociality in humans. and then distributed among the tribe’s families by an older 203 . he brings it to the outskirts of the settlement and leaves it. however. a single view into how radically the gesture of sacrifice is actually practised among these indigenous people will be included. Testart 1987. we cannot go into detail with the different surveys here. and they are shared on a large scale. Hill 2002). Lee 1988. Hill 2002). and from the Australian desert (Gould 1967) – it is thought-provoking that common patterns of sharing even exist. Food and resources are shared on the basis of egali- tarian and reciprocal principles (Kaplan & Hill 1985. Hames 2000. The day’s total bag is prepared by the women.” This world’s key religious and moral texts are similarly full of stringent requests for sharing and examples of radical self-sacrifices. Hawkes (1991) has shown that around 84 per cent of a hunter’s prey is consumed by others than himself and his nearest family.

Fehr et al. however. as we are indeed each others’ means to common goals. 204 . and those of our ancestors who were capable of entering into reciprocal sharing and working relations with their fellows had better possibilities of survival than those who blindly followed a more short-term. Here there is no taboo about eating one’s own food. men primarily hunt to share with each other.’s (2002) neuropsychological studies have shown. and whether he will reciprocate or deceive by the subtle. Along the same lines. Sugiyama et al. All other plant material or insects and larvae they have gathered are shared differently. selfish strategy. to cooperate rather than to let other people down. the majority of what they keep is to be part of reciprocal exchanges with certain families. and non-verbal body and facial cues that he involuntarily transmits (Frank 1988. Other tribe members are quick to remind him of those families who have not received anything yet. social and generous acts spontaneously inspire good will and generosity in the beneficiary. and modern game theory have produced substantial support for phenomena such as “altruistic pun- ishment” and “strong reciprocity” (Gintis 2000. never their own. who are unwilling to share. Cheaters. other studies indicate that our cognitive architecture is designed to detect whether a person will cheat or is to be trusted in col- laborative interactions or not. but they are not allowed to share or eat it themselves either. 2002. 2002. Nobody man- ages alone. and a family tends to keep the majority of these types of food for themselves. in many ways. 2003). And not only the benefactors but also the witnesses are left with an inner urge or need to reciprocate (Weedekind & Milenski 2000). Fehr & Fishbacker 2004) as well as for “indirect reciprocity” (Alexander 1987. and leave both with a need to punish the offender. That is simply taboo! The women prepare the palm marrow. henrik hØgh-olesen man (never the hunter himself ). The brain’s reward centres simply light up when we choose. Nowak & Sigmund 2005). Hunting and so many other things might fail. 1993. experimental economy. However. for example. and not to guarantee a regular supply of protein for their own family. Brown et al. only giving smaller shares to the group. as Rilling et al. they always mention other people’s names. And this makes sense. Cosmides 1989. spontaneously arouse a vindictive sentiment (we become indignant. verbal. with whom over a period of time they are more likely to share food and services. Similarly. Only the hunter himself never receives any meat from his own bag. who gives each family a share equivalent to the size of the family. feel resentment and anger) in the wronged party as well as in those who witness the injustice. as well as in those who just witness the deed. Complementary to these reinforcing emotional feedbacks. Weedekind & Milenski 2000. Frank et al. Perhaps because a good deed exerts a beneficent influence both outside and inside the organism.1 So. para- sites and other non-reciprocators.

or are these universal standards on the contrary an expression of how it does not come naturally to us to share. in a phenomenon such as “reparative altruism”. Not just donations with many obligations attached. by which we are so dominated according to biologists such as Huxley ([1894] 1989) and Dawkins (1976)? 205 . as well as the emotional and neurological feedback patterns. but these reactions also substantiate the idea stated else- where (Høgh-Olesen 2006. this tension seems to be a human emotion only. 2010) that humans are endowed with a hard- wired reciprocity programme which regulates the majority of our social and material exchanges. and highest sympathy was rewarded the benefactor who wanted reciprocity for his help. but also donations without any strings attached resulted in low sym- pathy for the benefactor. Japan and Sweden on male university students’ attitudes to receiving donations in an experimental game situation. in which they could receive financial help from their co-players with different obligations attached to these donations.’s (1975) cross-cultural study from the USA. as it is not found with our closest relatives among the primates. inclinations and sanctions may rest on evolution- arily developed exchange programmes and dispositions). these significant cor- relations are. and therefore culturally we have to enforce these norms as a bul- wark against the selfish impulses. these spontaneous emotional feedbacks and inclinations to sanction non-reciprocators play a key role in the enforcement of our social norms universally. not least. found that there was a curvilinear relationship between the degree of obligations attached to a donation and the benefici- ary’s sympathy for the benefactor. Moreover. 2005). They show no aversion whatsoever to inequita- ble exchanges that only benefit themselves (Silk et al. The unrequited gift or help breaks the social symmetry between people and is thereby in danger of releasing a number of negative moods in the beneficiary from inferiority to suspicion: “Something for nothing! What’s he up to?” – and maintains the beneficiary in what Homans (1961) has called an unpleasant “tension of obligation”. however. It may seem strange that the subjects in these countries do not simply receive donations without obligations gladly. indicate that this whole sharing complex of norms. a testimony of how strongly our social relations are actually regulated by a reciprocity programme. Of similar relevance is Gerken et al. That this tension is a real social-psychological factor can be seen. A person who has received help which cannot be returned is more likely to help a stranger later on. Gerken et al. or who could reciprocate a generous act to the original benefactor (Krebs 1970: 297). if anything. the will to sacrifice Undoubtedly. than a person who has not previously received any help. But from where do these strong norms of sharing and reciprocity originate? Is it human nature that manifests itself (the cross-cultural agreements.

and Teleki (1973) observed only four spontaneous meat handovers in a whole year in the troop of wild living chimpanzees studied by him. If the principles on which we base our sociality and morality of sharing are evolutionarily founded. and as such a consequence of widespread begging. Sharing behaviour in Pan and monkeys In nature. Usually. which announces that there is plenty of food here. who has documented actual collaboration with role distribution and coordination during these hunts. (2) those who have previously shared with you or (3) assisted you in hos- tile confrontations with others. This scream attracts the others’ attention to the food. then similar fundamentals should also be found in a more or less developed form in e. Interesting studies about sharing hunted prey in chimpanzees show that meat is often used as a social tool to develop and maintain alliances between the males (Nishida et al. Mitani & Watts 2001). and unsolicited (ibid. sharings are “passively responsive”. however. and not “spontaneous. Actual “gift giving” is known from peaceful New World monkeys like Tamarins and Marmosets who live in extended family groups in which the eldest members may offer the infants or siblings attractive food items spon- taneously. In the distribution of the prey. as well as a widespread respect for private property. The meat is not shared randomly but strategically and reciprocally with (1) those who took part in the hunt. 1992..g. De Waal 1996. which both shows that in these animals there is an expectation that you should share. The possession of food usually leads to “democratic begging” on all levels of the social hierarchy: lower animals beg from higher ones and higher ani- mals from lower. Feistner & McGrew 1989. and is as such a type of social advertisement. Active gifts also occur in Pan (see Yerkes 1943 and Goodall 1986 for anecdotal examples). henrik hØgh-olesen Comparative studies of our nearest relatives among the other primates can help give us an idea of what is both particularly human and what may be common evolutionary inheritance. confirms several of these discoveries. active gifts” whereby an animal unsolicited gives another animal some of its possession (McGrew & Feistner 1992). a strong association is found between “meat-sharing and coalitionary support” (Mitani & Watts 2001: 920). chimpanzees and bonobos with whom we share 98–99 per cent of our genes. chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) sponta- neously give a “pant hoot” when they come across a big amount of food. Thus. Feistner & Price 2000). Boesch (2001: 39–41). they usually do not steal (Goodall 1986. 1998). the participants in the hunt have 206 . they are very rare. and both high and low may react with “temper tantrums” if prolonged begging is not rewarded. because although they may get angry if they do not get anything.

compared to observers who have just come along. will similarly be found in a number of different primates from the two types of Pan to Old World and New World monkeys. which the reciprocity structure establishes. as well as com- parable standards for how much is shared and how. De Waal & Luttrell 1988. De Waal 1989. the will to sacrifice a clear priority. At the same time. less frequently between adult males and infants. and this is based on mental bookkeeping where not only friendliness and help. One’s participation is only rewarded if it actually leads to the capture. and receive less meat than the participants. From Silk’s studies (1979) of eighteen chimpanzees at the Stanford Outdoor Primate Facility. And it probably does not stop here because as De Waal (1996: 153) says: “Once a quid pro quo mind set has taken hold. but also hostility and resistance. which De Waal calls “calculated reciprocity”. that we more or less miss operationalized categories of sharing. who reacted negatively and refused to cooperate when they were offered a lesser reward than the one a fellow monkey had just received for the same effort. Recently Brosnan & De Waal (2003) have also found “a sense of fairness” in brown Capuchin monkeys. and a factor such as “time spent on hunt” does not mean more meat. we know that sharing most frequently took place between mother and child. are registered. while others primarily share what is easiest for them to get again. So we are far away from the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) in the New Testament. and even less between adult females and others’ offspring. Only a few actual experimental studies of sharing exist. however. Older studies by Yerkes and Yerkes (1935) and Nissen and Crawford (1936) show that chim- panzees can give food sources to others. and it seems fair to conclude that for primates generally. but only if they are begged for. The norm of reciprocity we found to such an increased extent in us. 1997. Common for these studies is. (2) helping in conflict situations and (3) shar- ing food are reciprocated (Packer 1977. the ‘currency’ of exchange becomes secondary. Reciprocity begins to permeate all aspects of social life”. Brosnan & De Waal 2002). Seyfarth 1980. remembered and reciprocated over time according to the principles “One good turn deserves another” and “An eye for an eye. which the offspring cannot get itself. Mothers typically share the food sources. the individual roles are closely registered and assessed. 207 . who have not participated. we have both naturalistic and experimental evi- dence that (1) grooming. Brosnan & De Waal 2002). In chimpanzees an even higher type of reciprocity is found. Thus. a tooth for a tooth” (De Waal & Luttrell 1988. have to beg. as well as from the Ache people’s egalitarian distributions. Dominant animals. and instead we have an objective calculation according to effort. Also this “equal for equal” principle may very well have its origins in the basic “symmetry of justice”. the food given away was typically the less attractive.

a bunch of attractive. six females and four infants aged 1–3 years). in which they peacefully try to beg their way to the food. and the method is in all its simplicity exemplary: you introduce a food source into the animals’ living quarters. 208 . these data from only two troops are limited. this pattern was dissolved (see Table 9. and out of this no less than 52 per cent of the chimpanzees and 44 per cent of the bonobos’ exchanges (the difference is not significant) occurred within the passive sharing category. Both studies were carried out by De Waal (see De Waal 1989. in which they eat together of the same food in close proximity of each other. mainly consists of aggressive and competitive impulses. and this number corresponds with Teleki’s (1973) observations of meat sharing among wild living chimpanzees where 54 per cent of the interactions resulted in sharing. a chim- panzee troop of seven individuals (one male. as well as a troop of bonobos of nine individuals (two males. which is seen in that up to 66 per cent of the beggings led to sharing. two females and seven infants). At the same time. regardless of species. the possessors displayed considerable tolerance of sharing. 1992.4 per cent of the cases the interactions among the chimpan- zees between possessor and interested party led to sharing. Naturally. The data from the mandrill and macaque experiments fully confirm this picture. however.1).4 per cent of the cases. but once a fixed ownership has been established. In 50. sixteen Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus) and a small mandrill troop (Papio sphinx) of four individuals were collected through the same monopolization procedure. 1998 for descriptions). However. leafy branches tied with a string) and then you register the exchanges according to a number of operationalized categories. rather than aggressively fight for it. we only have such information from one chimpanzee troop at the Yerkes Primate Research Centre consisting of nineteen individu- als (one male. As for the bonobos. five females and one 2-year-old). which one animal can monopolize (e. appealing pattern of interaction. When a limited food source that can be monopolized is introduced to an animal group. the troop’s members change in the chimpanzees and the bonobos from a competitive mood to a friendly. four females and three infants aged 3–4 years). eight females and ten infants) and one bonobo troop in the San Diego Zoo consisting of ten animals (one male. in Pan there is clearly something more going on. henrik hØgh-olesen To my knowledge. but when Høgh- Olesen (2004) in a number of pilot studies applied the same procedure and basically identical interaction categories on a chimpanzee troop of thirteen individuals (three males. approaches and begging led to sharing in 63. the subsequent repertoire of behaviour. when comparative data from nineteen Java macaques (Macaca fasicularis). the patterns described above were funda- mentally confirmed. Competitions do take place.g.

physical relations of dominance: power simply does not equal right and therefore theft is rare. The close “peering” and passive sharings observed in the Pan groups were completely absent. The number of observations in these pilot studies is limited. Instead “accepted takings”. and they were only observed in 2–4 per cent of the cases during the naturalistic observations. which leaves no room for actual sharing or close contact between those interested and the possessor. significantly increased in relation to the Pan average (Pan n = 23. this does not increase the number of thefts. However. p ≤ 0. χ 2(1) = 35.0001). power does equal right. the will to sacrifice However. we found that only in 2–3 per cent of all food interactions did theft or attempted theft occur. For although the alpha animals have the power to take the prey from the possessor. monkeys n = 56. where an animal jumps in and collects scraps while the dominant animal is away or busy.0001). but apparently the number of beggings! 209 . like us. to a large extent respect the “first come. p ≤ 0. Actual gifts. and then aggressively monopolize the food source. monkeys n = 56. Consequently. neatly line up in the row of beggars. fights and scuffles between those involved. and yet another sign of these monkeys’ limited ability to practice close sharing.9882. Among these animals there is an absolute hierarchy. In this study the “table manners” are put further on trial due to the fact that in half of these experiments the leaves are daubed with syrup. It occurred more during the experimental conditions than under normal daily co-existence. the total number of Pan sharings far outnumbered the total number of monkey sharings (Pan n = 127. which makes them even more appetizing. it is perhaps most noticeable that all animals beg! Even when the possessor is a low-status animal. are basically as rare as theft. Høgh-Olesen in preparation) involving one group of chimpanzees and one group of bonobos is currently under completion. but a more comprehensive study (n = 80 experiments. χ 2(1) = 19. the dominant animals in these troops. In contrast. during food and possession situations. was the dominant pattern. first served” principle. which always led to agitation. they appar- ently have no right to do so! And this is thought-provoking because it indi- cates that in these hierarchical animals. but even here it was rare. when determining an issue of rights or property. and that they. includ- ing the alpha animals. with the macaques and the mandrills that live socially in des- potism. where an animal gives another animal a food source spontaneously (and unsolicited). By combining the naturalistic and experimental observations.8472. These figures also confirm that in Pan generally a considerable respect for private property can be traced. we trace a set of more complex rules than the simple. and even penal- ize breaches of norms. Lower ranking animals must make way for the higher ranking that can always threaten their way to possession.

8% 4 Sexual bargaind – 1% – – 12.3% 13. attempted)f 2% 1% 7.2% 41.7% 44.1% 0% 15.9% 65.7% 15.7% 47.8% 0% 4.3% 11.1% Total sharing 36.8% (1+2+3+4) a Active.4% 2.6% 52.2% 29.1 Sharing in six groups and five species of primates (Høgh-Olesen 2004). c Collects scraps (Pan.8% 28. Category Naturalistic observations Experimental observations Chimps Bonobo Chimps Chimps Bonobo Mandrill Java Barbary (Givskud) (Givskud) (Aalborg) Number of interactions 299 98 90 36 74 69 26 48 a 1 Active sharing 4% 2% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 2 Passive sharingb 26.1% 6 Theft (inc. f An animal aggressively removes (or tries to remove) another’s possession under protest from the possessor.2% 30. .4% 50% 45. mandrill) or gently removes some of the other’s possessions without these initiatives being sanctioned (Pan only).6% 52. d Sexual contact and genital stimulation is offered in return for food.5% 52% 26.6% 52.2% – – – e 5 0 – begging ignored 61. macaque.8% 66.5% 30. e Begging is ignored and results in no sharing. b Peaceful co-feeding after initial begging.1% 9.7% 69.6% 34. unsolicited transfers.6% 0% 0% 0% c 3 Accepted taking 5. Table 9.4% 50% 45.5% 46.

As with us. peacefully eat of the same food. can be found in Pan. whereby more. the troop’s internal relations are to a very high extent regulated by principles of reciprocity. sharing norms and actual sharing behaviour may be based on a foundation of evolutionarily developed dispositions. it is not very likely. and therefore it is also under- lined again and again in the New Testament how Jesus would eat with pub- licans. the dialectics of recognition are intact. Obviously. They are most definitely capable of “playing by the rules” and to a great extent suppress – or sacrifice if you like – the more selfish and aggres- sive impulses in favour of a tolerant sharing behaviour.2). an amazing equality among the troop’s members while they share. up to 66 per cent of the beggings result in sharing. At the same time these common traits are lost when we climb further down the primate tree. and as with us. which probably already existed in the forefather we had in common with the Pan species 5–6 million years ago. the will to sacrifice Them and us: shared fundamentals and human particulars For humans the shared meal is a central symbol. however. Pan is capable of practising closely co-ordinated or “democratic” patterns of sharing. Pharisees and sinners. other norms dictate what is a reasonable distribution of the resources. which signals peace. and with the macaques and the mandrills the pattern disappears. Like us. Central aspects of the sharing and interaction patterns found in our species can consequently be found in Pan. or not share after prolonged and “correct” begging. we find in Pan a widespread respect for pri- vate property. and the “first come. As with us a norm of sharing exists! Begging in itself is a tes- timony of this. With Pan. as shown. when a new property relation is to be established. Instead the theory of a common evolutionary inheritance is after all the simplest explanation. first served” principle is also here a widely accepted guideline. as well as. As long as we can share food and eat together. and whereas with Pan and us you can expect a share of the prey. Naturally. Even the impulse to react emotionally in breaches of norms towards those who will either steal. Passive sharing. they are also able to share and eat peacefully together. 211 . how these basic fundamentals are ingredients in a common higher primate register. and furthermore. together. as shown. in three different species. broth- erhood and reciprocity worldwide. this expectation is not present in the macaques and the mandrills (see Table 9. begging and protest against monopo- lization are basically absent in these hierarchical species. and at the same time there is a considerable closeness. as well as (them being hier- archical creatures). it is possible that these concord- ant common traits developed independently of each other at three different points in time. These similarities are again substantial indications that central parts of our own sociality.

that an even very radical demand for sharing is formu- lated. we come across the same increased demand for sharing. had the opportunity to develop both new traits as well as unique versions of the common sharing dispositions. and in this connection certain things do separate us. A prey killed alone and 212 . However. would receive just as much as those who had worked the whole day. “co-ordinated” sharing Like humans Monopolization and patterns despotism with large possession space Power ≠ right Like humans Power = right Complex reciprocity Simple reciprocity Few cases of reciprocity                    Higher primate register The branch of Anthropoid apes grew out of the primate tree about 30 million years ago. first served” principle punishment Close. when our line separated from that of Old World mon- keys. we have thus. at the same time. henrik hØgh-olesen Table 9. With Pan the first impulse is primarily to monopolize the food source and secure it from the other interested parties. in the 5–6 million years which seem to have passed since we shared a common forefather with our Pan relatives. and therefore it is no surprise that Pan – anatomically. such as mandrills and macaques. socially and mentally – resembles us more than our more distant relatives. At the same time we find in the moral and religious codices we have universally developed. We then shared about 25 million years of common evolution with the chimpanzees and bonobos before our ways parted. What is first noticeable is that the actual capability of sharing seems sig- nificantly increased in our species in relation to what we find in the other primates. Human Pan Macaque/mandrill Extensive sharing norms and Sharing norm and No sharing norm. From the indigenous people’s egalitarian distribution and taboo against eating one’s own prey to the Parable of the Vineyard’s radical insistence that those who arrived in the eleventh hour. limited sharing capability sharing capability sharing capability Emotional reactions at breach of Like humans Dominance and norms and theft submission Respect for private property “first Like humans Despotism with fear of come.000 generations of selections.2 Sociality and sharing: qualitative comparisons. through about 200.

but with the sacrificial gesture and its universal norm of active sharing. The last-mentioned behaviour is completely unthinkable in Pan. I have to offer it to others first. just as in “the ultimatum game” we reject and punish the offer which is much too low. Nor is the prey killed by a hunter. they breach the social symmetry between people and place us in a “tension of obligation”. because. which we find unpleasant. and although this – with certain exceptions – is merely more of the kind found in Pan. and. we do take the principle to its maximum. shame and guilt. it is pre- dominantly passive. but which undoubtedly does not bother the members of the two Pan species! These differences also indicate the absence of several of the secondary emo- tions like pride. because they. which Pan practises. whereas our impulse or norm is clearly to actively share what we have with others. unlike Pan. Reciprocity comes in simple and complex forms. They have to be compelled to do it. rather than donations without any obligations attached. If I feel like having a mint. and we have with this “surplus” come across something specifically human. sanctions and so on in humans. fear and anger. At the same time we are so emotionally obligated to this norm that we practise among other things “altruistic reinforcement” and “punishment” on our own account. the question still arises: why this radicalisation of the require- ment of sharing. and only in 2–4 per cent of the cases do they themselves take the initiative to give a present. reciprocity. eaten on the spot. In us the sacrifice initiative is clearly placed upon the individual and the norm. by reward- ing the good example or punishing people who do not share properly. moving from simple responsive “tit for tat reciprocity” to complex and proactive “golden rule reciprocity”. the will to sacrifice without the others’ knowledge will therefore not be shared but eaten on the spot (Knauft 1991). humans climb the ladder of higher sociality. although strictly speaking. which are so predominant in us. where not even a crumb from the other’s teeth would be rejected! There is also much that indicates that although the basic patterns of reciprocity are the same among them and us. responsive sharing. 213 . as shown. “something” ought to be better than “nothing”. which can and must be reciprocated. which a multitude of concurrent selection pressures may very well have developed. during the evolution of the species. and which Parker (1998) called “self-conscious emotions”. Finally. cognitive reflection and an ability to assess one’s own behaviour in relation to a common social standard. that you have to give to receive. Just as we prefer gifts. as shown. even when they are not cheating us personally. rather it is brought to the common home base in order to be shared. unlike the pri- mary emotions like joy. require increased self-consciousness. In short. which material con- ditions have demanded and prompted such an increased willingness to make a sacrifice? The limited space here does not allow a long explanation. there is more sharing.

and the one who was fast and brave was not necessarily also the best craftsman. so that through her special attention and exclusive sexual devotion. however. Then this unfinished and helpless offspring brings out the “family” and its specialized work distribu- tion as an evolutionary necessity. in any case. to be able to even give birth to children with big heads necessary for the increased brain volume. where the males do not become involved in parental care or closeness to the offspring to any great extent. Thus. while this world’s men. strength and speed. for instance. and therefore the motivation for systematically providing and sharing is understandably smaller here. as a consequence of our rapidly increased brain volume. A female with such a helpless and vulnerable offspring has an extreme need for stable provision and protection. The con- tact to the mother/child entity is far closer among us than in Pan. so such an involvement would also be a dubious investment. To complete the hunt. they have. and whether they are good providers. Likewise. Therefore. and therefore they have distributed the tasks. like Buss’s (1989) survey showed. as the chances for their own healthy offspring are also greatest here. At the same time. they can never know whether one infant or another is theirs. track finder or organizer. Hereby a powerful. henrik hØgh-olesen At the risk of over-simplifying matters. are more preoccupied with whether their partners are beautiful and sexually faithful. One of the things that separate us from our primate relatives is the enor- mous resources. a few issues that I will briefly emphasize. which through time must have promoted both willingness to make sacrifices and capability of sharing and reciprocity. already around Homo habilis and Homo erectus. there are. controlling the more selfish and sexually promiscuous impulses that she may have. due to the females’ promiscuity. for example. and in offspring and parental care specifically. and basically depended on each 214 . evolutionarily speaking. which “the males” in our species invest in the well-being of the family generally. needed courage. planning and coordination. she prefers the generous one who shares and shows care for the offspring. caring and generous traits. she is more inclined to select the males that have friendly. but also weap- ons. between two powerful males. with their origins in human social life and its need for work and role divisions. Even the world’s women of today are still focusing on their potential partners’ financial capa- bilities. we are forced into neoteny’s increas- ingly shorter gestation periods. who can guarantee the offspring its necessities. the male can be reasonably guaranteed that it is not somebody else’s genes he is spending his resources on. and who after mating seem willing to spend time and resources on her and her offspring. in order to catch these attractive males she must also sacrifice herself by. specialized. However. self-perpetuating circuit has started. have undoubtedly both demanded and promoted the capability of sharing and reciprocity. a number of conditions.

The data we operate with for people and pri- mates are limited. while I do mine. which together can lead to the target of survival. kindergarten and school children to the monopolization experiment. the sacrifice is a ritualized gift accompanied by a prayer. as biologists like Huxley and Dawkins have so far assumed it? Not at all: we are exactly as selfish and self-sacrificing as it has evolution- arily paid off for us to be. do only function under the mutual sacrifice’s auspices: “I need to trust that you will do your part. So have we finally proven that humans are by nature good and generous. As I have tried to show elsewhere (Høgh-Olesen 2006). which the evolutionary selection pressure has developed and placed as common ground in the higher primates. so that you shall give to me”. However. and would the total number of shar- ings exceed what we discovered with chimpanzees and bonobos? A number of obvious experiments call for an experimenter.” The individuals (and groups) who have been part of this mutuality. or “Dãdãmi se. if a society is to exist at all! And seen from this angle. have had better evolutionary chances than those who were incapable of consecrating the sacrifice (Høgh-Olesen 2010)! Thus it is no coincidence that “the sacrifice” is a ritualized central structure in religious practices worldwide and as such a “sacred universal”. but then not more than that. what we do see is that several of our basic social and moral principles seem to be evolutionarily established. 215 . or a wish: The wish that through this offering. and this formula is sacred to us. What would actually happen if we exposed groups of nursery. in that they are based on some social exchange and reciprocity dynamics. the powers can be committed to reciprocate and return one good favour with another. and not selfish. Not least research on children would throw more light on these matters. because it concentrates the bare necessities and sym- bolically highlights the natural “quid pro quo” relations that have to prevail among humans. just as Darwin ([1874] 1998) assumed. and then for a thirty-minute period registered all interaction? Would the first impulse here be monopolization? Would the number of “active sharings” increase in relation to Pan and with increasing age. There is still some way to go. And this is in many ways a more balanced version of Dawkins’s (1976) assump- tion that “anything that has evolved by natural selection should be selfish”. dehi me” as the Vedas formulate it: “I give to you. “Do ut des” as it is put in the Lex Romana. the will to sacrifice other. This is the sacred formula behind the sacrifice throughout the world. Alternatively. otherwise it won’t work. sacrifice is much more than a particular religious concept or practice: It is a psycho- logical key factor in the sociality of humans. all these distributions.

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is the point where it all began … (Terry Pratchett 1997: 11) Prelude: understanding origins We humans seem to have an innate drive striving to understand the world around us.g. and it seems to mean different things for different peoples in dif- ferent contexts (e. Holyoak & Thagard 1995. or how the makers of dictionaries look up the spelling of the words. 10 Apetales: exploring the deep roots of religious cognition Tom Sjöblom Everything starts somewhere. therefore. They wonder aloud how a snowplough driver gets to work. Yet there is the constant desire to find some point in the twisting.g. Dennett 2006: 258–64). Outhwaite 1975. here. understanding. Instead. Understanding this is essential in order to fully appreciate the recent scholarly efforts to revisit the issue of the origins of religion – a task which is commonly held to be unsci- entific and not worthy of serious scholarship because the evidence – whatever that might be – has vanished into the mists of prehistory and is. although many physicists disagree. for example. 219 . But people have always been dimly aware of the problem with the start of things. knotting. I will draw attention to the rather trivial point that depending on what we mean by. and my intention is certainly not to tackle it here. Gothóni 2005. religion as an instance of human behaviour might sometimes have important consequences in terms of how feasible our approach is in scientific terms. The debate might as well go on ad infinitum. Guthrie 1993. This is not something restricted to scholars and the academic world but – as demonstrated by the quote from Terry Pratchett – it is some- thing our cognition is primed to do (e. That we humans strive to understand is not in doubt but – as we all know – what exactly is meant by understanding is a hotly debated issue. raveling nets of space-time on which a metaphorical finger can be put to indicate that here. Strauss & Quinn 1997).

Evans-Pritchard 1965). Hayden 2003: 20–45. McClenon 2002. we must turn our attention to those features that all religious traditions share with each other. The main line of evidence followed the Spencerian view of human evolution. because by necessity they are always based on pure speculation which cannot be refuted on the basis of evidence (e. It may not be trite to infer that it is as old as humanity itself – that men and women are ‘naturally religious’ – but then no one is currently in a position to decide with any precision when and where the first humans actually came into being. (Trompf 2005: 21) The classical evolutionary theories of the origins of religion were criticized mainly because of their progressivist understanding of how history proceeds. Dennett 2006). Thus. Therefore. that evidence of this type of development was not available in the ethnographic data. understanding this has been the common feature and driv- ing force of the recent naturalistic discussions of the origins of religion (see Guthrie 1993. it is the origins of religion as a universal aspect of human exist- ence and social behaviour that we are striving to explain.g. Capps 1995: 94–5). This makes it impossible to argue persua- sively for any theory about the origins of religion. not to those that make them dis- tinct.g. scholarly interest had been very much focused on distinguishing dif- ferent stages in the evolution of mental capacities and the place of religion in this process. Boyer 2001. After all. As implied by Trompf above. the origins of religion cannot really be separated from the origins of human capacity for culture. if we are to discuss the origins of religion. Trompf does express his doubts over whether we are ever capable of pin- ning down the birth of behavioural modernity any more than the origins of 220 . Chronologically earlier religious traditions could be as complex as more recent ones. Lewis-Williams 2002: 180–203. Trompf goes on to argue that discussing the origins of religion is in effect closely connected with the discussion of the origins of anatomically modern Homo sapiens and the origins of behavioural modernity. and this capacity must be shared by all humans alike. Atran 2002. where an entity always develops from a simpler to a more complex form. correctly. The critics pointed out. In the words of Garry Trompf: It can be asserted with confidence that no one can know for cer- tain how what we commonly term “religion” first began. Indeed. tom sjÖblom not accessible to modern scholars. Trompf 2005: 175–258). the present archaeological evidence clearly demonstrates that where there are signs of human culture there are also signs of religion (e. Indeed. Mithen 1996. and the complexity of a religious tradition did not necessarily correlate with the com- plexity of the social environment in which it was nested (see Widengren 1946. Mithen 1996: 171–210.

this is not the case. This was actually understood already by the classical theo- rists of the origins of religion.g. This evidence is comparative by nature. after all. the focus should be on explaining what cognitive conditions make religion as we know it possible.1 It is on these grounds. 2005. However. when we are discussing religion. or at least by some of them like Robert Marett. by combining the evidence from contemporary human societies with that collected from the group behaviour of closely related spe- cies and interpreting this all in a cognitive framework. apetales religion. the birth of behavioural modernity seems to be connected with the evolution of big brains and. de Waal 2005. Mithen 1996. his doubts seem to be based on the typical but mistaken idea shared by many historians and archaeologists that the only empirical evidence that we can use for discussing prehistoric humans are archaeological artefacts and other evidence of cultural nature. it is more than appropriate to use the evidence from cognitive research among con- temporary subjects for interpreting data from earlier (pre-)historical periods. The elements of behavioural modernity Reformulating the quest for the origins of religion into an examination of the cognitive traits that enable religious behaviour is only the first step. the size of the brain and its cognitive capacities are what we share with the earliest of modern humans (e. This also means that instead of striving to sort out a historical era when religion and behavioural modernity as a whole came into existence.g. so there must be some other type of evidence at our disposal. As Niko Tinbergen has pointed out. Thus. but a search of psychological primitives (Marett 1909: x). Donald 2001. that archaeologists and palaeontologists have been able to create lists of the essential features 221 . almost by definition. other human species. Luckily. who pointed out that the search for the origins of religion is not a search of a historic era. After all. In addition. but we have been able to learn much of ourselves also by comparing our own behaviour to other living primates and especially to different species of apes (see e. we can also learn much from comparing our own cognitive traits with those of our closest related species (Tinbergen 1963: 428). there is no reason to think that religious behav- iour of people today would be based on different cognitive traits than that of our early ancestors. and it is collected from a variety of sources (Tinbergen 1963: 427–8). Stringer & Andrews 2005). behaviour (and cognitive traits) does not fossilize. we are dealing with the mental aspects of human culture. This means that in addition to the cultural artefacts we can – and ought to – include among the evidence the biological aspects of human behaviour – our cognitive architecture and what we know of its evolution. Campbell 1998: 248–58. Our closest relatives. are all extinct. For example. Allman 2000).

when we want to explain. economic and technological innovativeness. Klein & Edgar 2002). Deacon 1997. Mithen 1996: 171–210. by doing this. for example. at least if we are to believe the archaeologi- cal evidence available to us. Boyer 1994. As always. I am aware that the different cognitive features given by McBrearty and Brooks are not mutually exclusive. Thus. Donald 1991: 201–68. or maybe through behav- ioural innovativeness (e. Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 635–7). Their list is based on a close examination of the archaeological evidence from the African Middle Stone Age and the European Upper Palaeolithic and on the basis of this they argue that the essential cognitive features are: • Abstract thinking or the ability to act with reference to abstract concepts not limited in time and space. T. This creative period is usually placed sometime after 60. I do this because symbolic behaviour might actually be the most fundamental of these traits (Chase & Dibble 1987: 263–6.g. It has been a standard strategy among scholars discussing the origins of cultural behaviour to talk about a creative or cultural explosion or a relatively short temporal period when quite dramatic changes occurred in human social behaviour and planning capacity. This has led many to presume 222 . and the cognitive systems responsible for them sometimes overlap. Note that any form of social behaviour usu- ally requires more than one of the above mentioned cognitive features to be active. Also. • Planning depth or the ability to formulate strategies based on past expe- rience and to act upon them in a group context. we could approach the topic by discussing the type of abstract thinking used for religious representations (e. tom sjÖblom characterizing the mind of behaviourally modern humans (see Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 627–51). However. Naturally. in what follows. religious behaviour. vocal or visual. Mithen 1996: 211–22). and to reify such symbols in cultural practice (McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 492). people and abstract concepts with arbitrary symbols. but one of the more influential suggestions is the one presented by Sally McBrearty and Allison Brooks. • Behavioural. • Symbolic behaviour or the ability to represent objects. 2001). it is this aspect of religious behaviour which is probably best presented in the archaeological record. it now remains for us to sort out how exactly they make it happen. some controversy prevails over which features should be counted in. Having been able to sort out the cognitive features that seem to be necessary for modern behaviour.g. I will focus on the cognitive origins of symbolic behaviour. At least it is symbolic behaviour that has gained most attention by scholars dis- cussing the origins of religion from an archaeological perspective. including religion.000 years ago in the Upper Palaeolithic period (see Pfeiffer 1982.

223 . Pearson 1999. c. ochre was frequently used in funeral behaviour (see Watts 1999: 113–46). all the major developments in human behaviour appear to have evolved in concert with developments in human anatomy. would not have been present in the human mind long before. However. the earliest appearance of which dates to around 300. the Herto skulls belong certainly among the most interesting in this respect. For example. Taylor 2002).000 years ago. My intention in this article is to discuss aspects of the origins of religious behaviour by exploring the impact of this new data in terms of how it could be reconciled with what the present theories of the origins of religious behaviour argue in the matter. it is a grave mistake to think that the cognitive make-up responsible for this. A connection with religion and burials can naturally be contested and there is an ongoing debate over what actually counts as a burial. should be the place for the metaphorical finger pointing to the origins of symbolic behaviour. in terms of anatomy. modern humans came into being much earlier – at least over 200. or at least most of the makeup. Klein & Edgar 2002: 21.000–c. Wood 2005: 100–115). Walker & Shipman 1996: 285–6.10. the Spanish palaeoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga has argued on the basis of his discoveries in Atapuerca that archaic modern humans (Homo heidelbergensis) engaged in funerary behav- iour already 350.000 years ago (Arsuaga 2003: 273–5).60. There is also an ongo- ing debate over whether the signs of the use of ochre and other pigments.2 The curious thing with the so-called creative explosion is that until it arose. No evidence for the latter can be connected with the Upper Palaeolithic era. thus. and religious behaviour. McBrearty and Brooks strive to argue – to my mind accurately – that while the Upper Palaeolithic can be taken to present the last formative phase of modern human behaviour. apetales that the Upper Palaeolithic period (e. the earliest finding which most commentators today accept as showing traces of symbolic behaviour is the so-called Herto skulls.000 years ago) is the formative period for behavioural modernity and. In the Upper Palaeolithic. As the name of their article suggests.g.g. Mithen 1999: 147–69.000 years ago (Donald 1991. A new dawn in Herto One of the more important signs for symbolic behaviour with obvious con- nections to the origins of religion is the presence of burials with grave goods and/or mortuary practices with symbolic elements in them. for example. In terms of the cognitive origins of symbolic thought. should be interpreted as the birth of symbolic culture. It appears to be a purely behavioural revolution for. This claim is made mainly because such earth pigments do not seem to have any direct utilitarian use in later traditions. especially a burial with sym- bolic meaning (e.

as are the parietal surfaces. tom sjÖblom The Herto skulls were discovered in 1997 from Middle Awash in Ethiopia by Tim White and his colleagues. Even more interestingly. two adults and one child. also belonging to a male. the research team argues that the polishing and inten- tional scraping modifications evident on these skulls indicate that we are deal- ing with some kind of mortuary practice extending “well beyond the death of the individual” (Clark et al. some of which are probably due to defleshing of the skull.000 and 154. The second adult cranium. 2003: 742–7). but according to the research team. The bone fragments show also evidence of intensive bone modification. 2003: 745. The least modified of them is the skull of a male individual (BOU-VP-16/1). First. but see Trinkaus 2005: 213–14). In addition. according to the excavators. which were found together with some artefacts. is highly frag- mented and the lack of recovered dental. and the edges of this broken region are smooth and polished. White points out that the marks most resemble those seen on skulls handled in rituals in New Guinea. The location. facial or basicranial parts indicates that it may have been embedded as a calotte.000 years ago. 2003: 747–52. Stringer 2003: 692).Gibbons 2003: 1641). Thus. evidence for mortuary practices seems to be the most likely explanation here (Clark et al. and the discovery was reported in a series of articles in the journal Nature in 2003 (see Clark et al. 2003: 751. the skull lacks the entire occipital region surrounding the foramen magnum. their morphological features com- bine elements from both archaic African fossils predating them and later anatomically modern humans of the Late Pleistocene era. indicating that defleshing was intentional and deliberate. This could point towards utilitarian cannibalism instead of ritual behaviour. which “is on the verge of anatomical modernity but not yet fully human” (White et al. The second interesting feature of these skulls is that they had clearly been exposed to cultural modification. and it displays also a series of deflesh- ing cut marks but lacks any superficial scoring marks. Stringer 2003: 692–5. This indi- cates that the skull has been polished post-mortem. White et al. and a second shorter mark on its right temporal. White and his col- leagues therefore describe them as a sample threshold population. dimen- sions and directions of the cut marks indicate that the defleshing manipulation occurred after the removal of the mandible. radioisotopi- cally the fossils have been dated to between 160. The skulls belong to anatomically modern humans. 2003: 751. It shows one superficial vertical cut mark on the corner of its right parietal. the abun- dance of superficial markings present in the cranium are usually not found in hominid and faunal remains processed for consumption. The third skull belongs to a juvenile. Steven Mithen has argued that one of the unambiguous signs for religious activity that should be seen from the material is that religious beliefs were 224 . On the basis of this. Two things make these skulls interesting.

Neanderthal burials or whatever the archaic modern humans were doing in Atapuerca show no sign of this (Mithen 1999: 165–6). For example. symbolic thought is present already in the first phase but fully modern behaviour is the product only of the third phase. Not much can be said about the mean- ing and contents of the religious traditions connected with the Herto skulls (Clark et al. Richard Klein provides the strictest model by arguing that behav- ioural modernity came as a package through a neural mutation occurring around 50. Merlin Donald has posited a three-stage model for the evolution of mod- ern behaviour (Donald 1991). Christopher Henshilwood and Curtis Marean have. After all. is that these humans used EMS and were likely to be capable of symbolically organizing their social behaviour. The evidence from Herto seems to discredit Klein’s model. Trying to keep the anatomical and behavioural evolution of our species in concert.000 years ago providing our species with the capacity for fully modern language (Klein 1995: 167–98. however. Klein & Edgar 2002: 21. 2003: 751). What the data suggests. Most current authors believe that behavioural modernity is a consequence of language. there is no indication that they used symbol- ism to organize behaviour. apetales not only held by individuals but also transmitted and shared by the commu- nity. Stringer & Andrews 2005: 130). If symbolic behaviour 225 . where the use of external symbolic storage allows material culture to intervene directly with social behaviour. and to share our representations of our mental travels with others (see Corballis & Lea 1999. According to him. Strategies for explaining human cognitive evolution The importance of the Herto skulls for our present understanding of the ori- gins of symbolic behaviour is that if the data has been interpreted correctly then the now still predominant paradigm to link the origins of symbolic behaviour with the above-mentioned cultural explosion seems to be mistaken. According to him. argued that it is the presence of external memory storages (EMS) that signal the presence of behavioural modernity (Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 635). Mithen means by this that while the Neanderthals clearly had some level of capacity for symbolic thought. therefore. It is this latter which is thought to be the key criterion for behavioural modernity (Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 655). language is the one human capacity which seems to make it so easy to move in our mental representations from the present to the past and the future and even to imag- ined times and places. there is no way on the basis of the skulls alone that we can determine whether the mortuary practices in Herto also involved a belief in the supernatural. 146). At least some human populations in Africa appear to have been capable of fully symbolic behaviour long before that time.

g. H. According to this model. many traits of behavioural modernity are present at this time in African populations.000 years ago. According to this model. Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 630). The discovery of the Herto skulls. the capacity for language must have been in place before that time.000 years ago (see e.g. seems to reinforce the gradualist model. tom sjÖblom is enabled through language use and our ancestors used symbols 160. but a kind of proto-language. It now seems that there probably wasn’t any cultural revolution in the late Palaeolithic but that what we have is simply the end-product of a long evolutionary process of cognitive and cul- tural adaptations and their by-products. the birth of the modern mind cor- responds to the technological changes observed through the African Middle Stone Age. which he refers 226 . The basic claim of the gradualist model is that the cognitive capacity for modern human behaviour was largely intact with the emergence of Homo sapiens. These models are all built on the assumption of a punctuated event in which modern human behaviour originated as a package. Dunbar 2004: 124). Steven Mithen argues that the driving force here was the evolu- tion of language. This is why some authors have suggested that the focus of research should be placed on the Earlier Upper Pleistocene era.000 years ago.000 and 200. As McBrearty and Brooks demonstrate in their article. most authors today agree that human speech must have been in place by the appearance of Homo sapiens 500. Deacon & Deacon 1999). but the fea- tures now thought to be the foundational elements of modern cognition evolved gradually in the course of time.000 to 200. together with several other recent discoveries mainly from Africa. However.000 years ago. The problem with this solution is that while modern humans may have appeared at this time. Deacon 2001: 217–26. Indeed. The debate here is about how to explain the apparent lack of evidence for behavioural modernity between that time and the Upper Palaeolithic era. J.g. actual sites are very few and the evidence they provide should therefore be used care- fully (McBrearty & Brooks 2000: 453–563). the originating process can also be viewed in terms of gradualism (Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 630–31). The same difficulty applies to efforts placing the origins of behavioural modernity in Late Middle Pleistocene Africa around 150. starting around 250. more extensive material evidence of behavioural modernity exist only from much later stages (e.000 years ago and proceeding until the begin- ning of the Later Stone Age. however. conventionally dated around 40. According to this view there was no sudden cultural revolution.000 years ago (e. Donald 1991: 200–268. early modern humans did not yet possess language as we know it. Lieberman 2000: 142–56. or the boundary between the Acheulian and Middle Stone Age about 250. As Christopher Henshilwood and Curtis Marean have pointed out. For example. Foley 1998: 339–47. although we still have to sort out the details of how it all actually happened.

which in turn is the enabling trait for symbolically organized social behaviour (Mithen 2005: 246–65). Indeed. This suggests that the apes do not use their full cognitive potential in the wild and that there is room for behavioural development within the present state of biological cognitive evolution (ibid. apetales to as “Hmmmmm” (Mithen 2005: 253). resource intensification – or the need to increase productivity per unit of land coupled with a decrease in the efficiency of production – is customarily men- tioned in this context (Henshilwood & Marean 2003: 632–3. the present data suggests that this is how it went with our species as well. humans then started to break up the holistic phrases of the proto-language into more flexible units that could be recombined into new phrases (see Wray 1998: 47–67. The most likely instigator of this process was changes in the natural and social environments of early modern human communities.e. Thus. 2000: 285–302). According to CCE. it is this flexibility in language use that gives birth to the cognitive fluidity present in human cog- nition. It has been pointed out that we have evidence from primate studies that “enculturated apes” (i. see Tomasello 1999: 37–40).000 years later.: 37). the point I want to make here is that if the driving force behind the origins of behavioural modernity is at this point largely environmental and social by nature. A unique species and the third chimpanzee Underlying the gradualist models of the origins of behavioural modernity is the principal of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE.3 Through a process of segmentation. Mithen 2005: 257–8). Naturally. as discussed above. apes that have extensive human contact) do perform tasks that are thought to be cognitively more demand- ing than those performed by apes living in the wild. This difference cannot be based on any biological difference between these two groups but must be due to the social environment they are exposed to. then it is quite possi- ble that sporadic outbursts of behavioural modernity appear in our data long before the latter actually becomes common and widespread among human populations (Mithen 2005: 261–2). Whether Mithen is right or wrong. what we might have in Herto are signs of this kind of local outburst – a kind of sporadic religion – or an early predecessor of the symbolic behaviour that came to dominate human social life 100. The cognitive potential of 227 . For example. There is no reason to think that human cognitive evolution would have proceeded differently. the role played by language in the process is still very much unclear. According to Mithen.: 34–6: Donald 2001: 137–48). some cultural traditions accumulate the modi- fications made by different individuals over time so that they become more complex (ibid.

it proceeds by selecting from what already is available and builds on that. we continue to share about 98 per cent of our genetic program with our closest primate relatives. What makes humans different from other primates is that. tom sjÖblom the human mind was in place with the rise of modern humans. 2003). Richerson & Boyd 2005: 237–57). there were preceding modes of behaviour. Our cognitive capacities have evolved as they are in order to enable us to cope with our environment and to construct and expand our own niche (see Odling-Smee et al. Evolution has no foresight. That is. Nothing in our behaviour makes sense without realizing that we are a biological species and that as such we have a long evolutionary history (see Foley 1987: xxi. 2005). until about six or seven million years ago. Dawkins 1986.g. However. so we also share the same cognitive basis until that time (see Diamond 1992: 15–31. Alexander 1990. and the driving force of cognitive evo- lution is our efforts to increase our fitness in terms of survival. Indeed. this is not the whole story. Before there was behavioural modernity. As Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd have recently argued. Donald 2001). but it took time and pressure from environmental challenges until the potential in ques- tion was put into use. Mayr 2001). we transmit our innovations socially. Stringer & Andrews 2005: 80–181).g. The cognitive capaci- ties we have are products of a long evolutionary process that can be fol- lowed all the way back to the dawn of time (see Dawkins 2004). This approach deals with the deep roots of human cognition – the cognitive pre-adaptations and how they are expressed in our modern minds. One can of course ask how far back in evolution we should go in order to explain the cognitive basis of 228 . and cognitive representations is the task dealt by an approach that I – following Jared Diamond – refer to as the “third chimpanzee approach” to human behaviour (e. As most of the behavioural modernity is manifested through what we refer to as culture. We live in the cognitive niche. De Waal 2002. Cognitive fluidity and the ratchet effect are gadgets which function as the final cognitive traits triggering the possibility of fully modern behaviour. This is the bio-cultural mechanism enabling the accumulation of behavioural modernity among our ancestors. How our primate background – our innate ape – affects our modern behaviour. the chimpanzees and the bonobos. Diamond 1992. and these preceding modes – or at least the cognitive systems producing them – are still in operation in our modern minds (e. we also shared the same ancestry. our cultural traditions are cumulative. across succeeding generations and thus prevent backward slippage (Tomasello 1999: 5). it now seems clear that culture transformed human cognitive evolution (Richerson & Boyd 2005). it is no wonder that naturalistic explanations of the origins of behavioural modernity have focused on tracing the cognitive traits that make us unique among other unique species in the world (Foley 1987. in contrast to them.

According to this view – the cultural hypothesis of animal symbolism – we use them because we inherit the symbols from our ances- tors. apetales behavioural modernity. snakes are a common symbol for evil in modern Christian thinking. they also serve to link other domains of symbolic discourse. Indeed. animal representations are the most fundamental symbols available: Wherever they appear. inherit our symbols from earlier gen- erations. Baker 1993). according to Stanley Walens. again. they are multivalent. According to the cultural hypothesis. They are symbols of core values and categories. Snake symbolism in the Bible. animal symbols are used to convey the deepest and most abstruse dimensions of human existence. Undoubtedly we can. creating juxtapositions and contrasts of images from which people derive meaning and from which they generate narrative forms. For example. and sometimes the best level for explaining modern behaviour is found in the deep roots of human cognition. and often do. (Walens 1987: 291) The importance of animal symbolism has customarily been explained by cul- tural transmission. The old enemy. but this cannot be the whole story because it does not explain why a certain animal has been chosen as symbol in the first place. The natural realm of animals is an important part of the way in which people project their knowledge and experience through symbolic discourse. representations of the most fundamental ideas and images of a culture. This takes us 229 . has its origins in the common Near Eastern mythological motif of ophidian chaos monsters that battled with creator gods (see Fontenrose 1959. I will try to demonstrate this by examining the origins of what has been referred to as the cult of the serpent – or snake sym- bolism in religious representations (see Mundukur 1983). In what follows. As core sym- bols. As core symbols. or why snakes are good symbols Animals have an important place among human symbolic representations (see Shepard 1978. It’s all about finding the proper level of explanation to the question at hand. used simultane- ously to capture and display many different images and meanings at many different levels. Beal 2002: 80–81). antimonic. complex. the snake has become the symbol for evil because it is equated with Satan in the Bible and in early Christian mythology. Is it really necessary for us to explore the deep primate roots of our cognition in order to understand social behaviour? The answer to this is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

and local fauna is in most cases preferred over other types of animal representations. 156). The ecological hypothesis is most famously defended by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. For example. in the Near East and Africa. or where they do not pose a great danger to humans even if they can be found (see Stutesman 2005). Bears. This suggests that the ecological hypothesis provides only a proximate explanation to the question. Lynne Isbell points out that snakes were the first of the modern predators of primates. and even in modern times. Even more restricted is the symbolic importance of bats. According to this view. where particularly sizeable species of bats live (Mundukur 1983: 109–13. Animals used in religious symbolism vary widely. the snake was the most “unpopular” of all animals. people appear to be more afraid of snakes than they are of threats that are much more immediate to them. we have an innate fear of snakes which evolved when snakes still presented a major threat to our species. bats have very little symbolic significance outside Mesoamerica and a few other parts of the tropical and subtropical New World. Nevertheless.and South America. animals emerge in human symbolic communication simply because they play an important role in our empirical environment (Lévi-Strauss 1969: 89). the symbolic link between the snake and evil in the Near Eastern traditions can be explained through the fact that many ven- omous snakes inhabit this area. on the other hand. Asia and America.4 In this framework. At the outset. the home of the lion. both of which they had been taught to be care- ful about. Thus. are essentially Northern Hemispheric animals typical of Europe. the home of the tiger. the ecological hypothesis seems to gain strong support from ethnographic data. are important as symbols in northeastern and east- ern Asia. it would be only natural that Near Eastern human populations should feel fear and respect towards snakes and transmit this fear to their symbols as well (ibid. Accordingly. which is referred to here as the ecological hypothesis. According to him. Thus felids. tom sjÖblom to the second possibility. the pres- sure from predation has been so strong that it has influenced the cognitive 230 . While different species of bats can be found around the world. Instead 30 per cent of them feared snakes and almost 26 per cent lions (Maurer 1965: 265–77). The children did not show any fear towards street traffic or germs. the home of the jaguar. snake bites are one of the leading sources of animal-caused deaths. In order to reveal the ultimate cause for snake fear.: 44). for example. and in Meso.5 Moreover. in a survey conducted by Adah Maurer among 500 American schoolchildren. we must turn to what can be called the evolutionary hypothesis. what the ecological hypothesis cannot explain is how snakes retain their symbolic power and emotional salience even in cultures and envi- ronments where snakes do not belong to the local fauna. and it is to this geographical area that bear symbolism is confined to a large extent.

in its most basic form. rather than an emotion. Jones 2002: 44–5. Indeed. In other words. do not have to have anything to do with theological doctrines or religious beliefs per se. we tend to feel awe instead of fear. Our and other primate minds have gained a preparedness to create strong emotional responses towards snakes so that we can avoid their attacks without having to reflect on our acts (see Mundukur 1983: 218–22. but from an evolutionary perspec- tive. Curci & Bellelli 2004: 881–900). This is enough to create an emotion evoking a representation of a snake in our minds. it is this innate fear of snakes that make them useful as symbols. it is a highly constructive emotion that enables us to guide our attention and respond swiftly to environmental stimuli (Fredrickson 1998: 300–319. It alerts us to a possible danger. that combines fright and amazement. as this means that we do not even have to be exposed to snakes or snake-like images in the empirical world in order to fear them. According to the evolutionary hypoth- esis. it is no wonder then that they prefer to communicate through narratives rather than abstractions. this is why awe appears to be so often discussed in a religious context as the proper and desirable religious 231 . we seem to have an innate fear of snakes. but if we quickly cognize that there is no immediate danger. As emotional relevance is so important in the transmission of religious traditions. he points out that we seem to speak of awe in more than one sense.g. apetales evolution of our species (Isbell 2006: 1–35). Christophe & Rimé 1997: 37–54. 295). My claim here is that snakes are used in human sym- bolic communication not to evoke fear but to evoke attention. and because of its ambiguity. awe seems to be connected with conditions where we strive to believe and trust in something that our basic instincts tell us to fear. Very little empirical research has been done on awe. Different fear-related stimuli. Cook et al. stimulation of the fear module does not always lead us to actu- ally feel frightened. including experiences of natural beauty and exemplary or exceptional human actions or abilities. It is enough to listen to narratives about snakes or simply hear the word “snake” to trigger the fear module (e. like snakes. The automatic responses evoked by such stimuli make them very usable for this purpose. Awing snakes Fear is often conceived in negative terms. Hauser 2000: 138. Levenson 1999: 494). it can be described as an ambiguous negative state. Öhman & Mineka 2003: 5–6). According to Richard Lazarus. However. Nevertheless. 1985: 591–610. Moreover. What such stimuli are designed to do is to evoke our attention and make us respond to what we are experi- encing and learning. The environmental cues for triggering awe are also heterogeneous. 238–9. it often connects with positive emotional states as well (Lazarus 1991: 83.

and Balaji Mundukur argues that it is in this aspect that they should be under- stood in religious communication (Mundukur 1983: 55–73). Mythologically speaking. serpent handling has gained the attention of both popular media and the academic community. Haidt 2003: 863). Lazarus 1991: 83. who feel that they have been anointed by his power. symbols of prosperity and human fertility. Interestingly. As pointed out by Williamson and Pollio. tom sjÖblom emotion signalling the presence of counterintuitive agents (see James [1901] 1960: 80–86. Nehebkau was essentially a sinister divin- ity. The respect he received was thus based on awe evoked by his great powers rather than his good and loving character (ibid. such acts of faith might include drinking poison or exposing oneself to fire.6 This practice derives from a strict literal reading of Mark 16. open the box lids and lift the snakes high into the air. in 232 . It is possible for one participant to hold more than one snake at the same time and let them slither around their bodies. and it was a taboo to refer to them by their true name. The experience of anointment is described by the snake handlers in various ways. and if they drink any deadly thing. or the Church of God with Signs Following. Nevertheless.: 60–64). Burton 1993. snakes have their part to play in the evocation of awe. the serpent handler loses personal concern for danger and is fully prepared to do whatever God wants him to do. when God is felt to move upon the body. considered to be one of the forces of chaos. an ophidian god. but what they all share is the handling of serpents (see e. For example. the Baltic peoples were generally sympathetic to snakes and even venerated some of them as house-snakes. they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (Mk 16:17-18). An even more illuminating example of the awe-inducing behaviour con- nected with snakes and the activation of the fear module is the present-day Serpent Handlers. A similar pattern can be found in Egypt. which is an umbrella term for a loosely organized group of small Pentecostal churches from the southeastern United States (henceforth “holiness churches”). it shall not hurt them. These groups differ widely from each other in a variety of theological issues. The snakes are held in boxes in front of the church by the altar. most analyses of snake handling have been treating it as being pathological (Williamson & Pollio 1999: 203). Indeed. or take them from other participants. snakes seem to have been feared. For example. Kimbrough 1995). where the patronage of Nehebkau.8 Because of its extremeness. In addition to snake handling. where it is written “And these signs shall follow them that believe. they shall take up serpents. but it certainly entails an altered state of consciousness. they shall speak with tongues. was sometimes sought. in my name shall they cast out devils.7 A typical snake-handling meeting usually consists of singing and preach- ing.g. The idea is that only those who are called forth by God. in pre-Christian times.

Indeed. Indeed. and encourages participants to take part in the snake handling rituals in the future as well. Religion is one of the manifestations of behavioural modernity. as one of the members of the holiness churches describes it (see Williamson & Pollio 1999: 214). and the origins of the former thus provide insights for explain- ing the origins of the latter. The same theme of fighting against repressed oedipal conflict and guilt arising from it has been the preferred psychological explanation for snake-handling ever since (see also Hood & Kimbrough 1995: 311–22). Joining a growing number of scholars. ignites in the participants an emotional trust in the spiritual power of God. Hood & Kimbrough 1995: 315–17). and deducing a hidden meaning of cultic practices or religious symbols only based on the image used is nothing more than pure guess-work (Mundukur 1983: 270). however. Conclusions In this chapter. what seems to happen on the emo- tional level is that the initial fright turns to amazement when one realizes that the snake you are holding is not harming you. following his training in psychoanalysis. I have defended the gradualist hypothesis of the origins of behavioural modernity. Finally. snake symbolism in reality is not easily connected with any one theme. the state of awe is transferred into joy which provides a positive emotional mark on the experience as a whole. anthropologist Weston La Barre. I argued that the cognitive capacity for religion was in place with the emergence of anatomically modern humans some time between 500. As the cause of this is thought to be God. most symbols seem to be somehow related to sexuality in psychoanalytical theory (see Mundukur 1983: 262–70. Based on the evidence from Herto and some other African sites. As suggested by Williamson and Pollio. I chose symbolically organized behaviour as the fundamental trait for enabling reli- gious behaviour. and it presupposes that our sexuality is our most fundamental area of concern. Indeed. As pointed out by Mundukur.000 and 233 . The psychoanalytical interpretation of serpent handling derives from the assumption that the snake is a phallic (and sometimes also a vaginal) sym- bol. The overcoming of fear thus leads to an experience of “joy unspeakable and full of glory”. argued that snake-handling is an attempt to resolve the sex- ual conflicts of childhood through ritual activity (La Barre 1962). apetales his classic study. the awe aroused by the achievement is directed at him. snake-handling may also provide church members with an emotional assurance that they have the fate that is required to follow God’s will. a much simpler psychological explanation for snake-handling is that overcom- ing the innate preparedness we have for fearing snakes by handling them in a ritual context.

although sporadic outbursts of symbolic behaviour. Indeed. Fear and awe have long been considered to be the paradigmatic religious emotions (see Proudfoot 1985. it is one of the traits that seem to link us with other animal species as there seem to be some striking similarities in the emotional communication between us and other species (see LeDoux 1998: 107–12. tracing and defining such triggering traits for symbolic behaviour is like describing how a wall protects people standing behind it by focusing only on describing the foun- dation stone. However. and it is to the origins of emotional communication that we must turn to in order to explain this aspect of the origins of religious behaviour. For example. Symbols work because they evoke emotional signals in us.000 years ago. Guthrie 1993. Indeed. Emotional communication evolved early in our ancestors. Greenspan & Shanker 2004. Steven Mithen argues for cognitive fluidity as the key for behavioural moder- nity and Michael Tomasello defends his case for the ratchet effect. can be found from even earlier times. and they are found even in traditions and geographical areas where snakes do not present any great threat to the local human popula- tions. I demonstrated how knowledge of the origins of our emotional responses can sometimes prove to be highly informative for our understanding of symbolic communication. like in Herto. Different cultural and ecological explanations provided to explain our fascination with snakes have all proven to be problematic. This was a cumulative process that came to fulfillment only after 60. it is not enough that we understand it to be a symbol: it must also be capable of producing emotional feedback in us.000 years ago. In the second part of this chapter. I hope to be able to deal with the arising issues in my 234 . Most of the models for the origins of symbolic behaviour have focused on what is considered to be the triggering trait of behavioural modernity. turning to evolutionary explanations and the role played by the snake as the main predator of our primate ancestors seems to provide the missing link required to understand snake symbolism. My case study with snakes supports this general idea. Still. However. It is true that without cognitive fluidity we prob- ably would not be capable of creating and understanding symbols. snakes are among the most common symbolic motifs in reli- gious communication. I recognize the importance of both of these. symbolic behaviour is based on emotional communication. Symbolic behaviour is much more than cognitive fluidity and transmitting traditions. without emotions or affect they would have no meaning to us and without meaning they would not be symbols (Greenspan & Shanker 2004: 25). Darwin 1999. In other words. although it also shows that the situation is much more complicated than what has been noted before. The reason why we do not have immediate signs of reli- gious activity from that time is that cultural and environmental cues were required to activate the capacities available. tom sjÖblom 200. Thus. Mithen 2005). Fuller 2006: 145–8). in order for a symbol to be effective.

apetales future research. 2. the EEA in the human case is often placed with the hunter-gatherer life-style of the Pleistocene era – often claimed to cover over 99 per cent of the evolutionary his- tory of our species. Only birds can compete with snakes when it comes to the extent of their geographical distribution. musical and mimetic”. Snakes can be found everywhere between the Arctic Circle and the south- ernmost tips of the Southern Hemisphere – Antarctica excluded. However. but here I want to simply argue that emotional communica- tion is at the heart of religious behaviour. 4. The situation is analogous with the notion of the environment of evolutionary adapted- ness (EEA) used by evolutionary psychologists. chimpanzees and elephants (Diamond 1992: 168–79). and many aspects of the modern world resemble those of the Pleistocene. in the Bible. 2:20-21). Thus. at least. manipulative. is that in both birds and primates. development and functioning of an organism’s adaptations (Hagen 2005: 152). as although numerous cases of convergence in unrelated taxa clearly do exist. 3. and aspects of the Pleistocene environment resemble those of earlier eras. EEA refers to those aspects of ancestral environment that were relevant to the evolution. bats are referred to as beings of the Netherworld and denizens of the dark caves. and if we want to discuss the origins of religion it is with the origins of emotional communication that we must deal. using the behaviour of bowerbirds and elephants to explain cognitive adaptations in humans is risky. Therefore. As the changes in the modern world are so fast in comparison to biological evolution that it has no real selective force in this respect. No new environment is totally novel. relatively speaking bats have only a minor role to play in Christian symbolism. Still. this should not be taken to mean that the human cognitive make-up originates in its entirety from the Pleistocene era. notable 235 . This stands for “holistic. For example. but they remain intact in our biological and cognitive make-up even today. This does not mean that bats are totally without symbolic significance outside this area. if they do not turn out to be fitness-reducing in the present envi- ronment (see Laland & Brown 2002: 161–2. Tinbergen points out that the limitation to closely allied forms is necessary because it is only here that conclusions about common descent can be drawn with any degree of probability (Tinbergen 1963: 428). multi-modal. However. In order to do this. we must be very careful (as Diamond is) to what extent we can use the art of bowerbirds as explanatory evidence for why and how we humans produce art (see Isbell 2006: 16–19). Notes 1. a visual specialization evolved that makes their cognition rely on the visual system at the cost of. where people abandoning God could turn to in their worship (Is. many of our behavioural and cognitive adaptations may have evolved much earlier. For example. One reason for explaining the behaviour in question in both bowerbirds and primates. olfaction. Hagen 2005: 153–4). it is often very difficult to say if these analogies are due to similar causes. In later tradition they were actually referred to as Devil’s birds and equated with demons (Lawrence 1993: 326–31). Jared Diamond has argued that even art – a type of social behaviour often thought to be uniquely human – must have some animal precursors as demonstrated by the behaviour of the representatives of some other species like bowerbirds. 5. we must be able and ready to explore the deep roots of our primate cognition. 177–82. As Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown point out. for example.

Urbana. References Alexander. MI: University of Michigan Press. L. however. MN: Fortress Press. New York: Routledge. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. Dibble 1987. Identity and Representation. New York: Scientific American Library. Serpent Handling Believers. Responses and Secondary Social Sharing”. 236 . 2000. Human Evolution. Campbell. “Exposure to the Social Sharing of Emotion: Emotional Impact. tom sjÖblom places where snakes are totally absent or very rare include Ireland. The exact number of church members today is unknown due to the autonomy of each individual group. Boyer. S. Baker. European Journal of Social Psychology 27: 37–54. it is a common mistake to think that holiness churches rely only on this one text from Mark to legitimate their practice. & B. Chichester: John Wiley. Atran. and sister churches were soon established throughout the Appalachian rural areas. 319. Rimé 1997. Hensley himself reportedly survived hundreds of bites before the fatal one in 1955. Beal. 4th edn. V. TN: University of Tennessee Press. New York: Oxford University Press. Listener. & H. J. “Middle Palaeolithic Symbolism: A Review of Current Evidence and Interpretation”. H. Religion explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. 1993. White 2000: 65–8). P. Vancouver Island (British Columbia) and Eastern Samoa (see Mundukur 1983: 40–42). New Zealand. 2002. Madagascar. it should be kept in mind that most snakes are not poisonous and in many areas – like in Northern Europe – snakes do not pose a great threat for humans. P. J. most of the West Indies. Boyer. Knoxville. 1993. 2003. In fact they do refer to several other passages from the Bible as well. 1995. The Neanderthal Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers. T. by Hood and Kimbrough. even though on a worldwide scale they belong to the most dangerous animal threats to humans (Mundukur 1983: 40–55. Minneapolis. C. B. Capps. Berkeley. and five other deaths followed from drinking strychnine (see Hood & Kimbrough 1995: 316. S. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. 75 people have been reported to have died from handling snakes during religious services. 2001. 1994. Burton. The first holiness church was established by Hensley probably in the 1920s. As pointed out. 6. Picturing the Beast: Animals. T. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. although the text from Mark is the most important among them (see Hood & Kimbrough 1995: 313). R. How Did Humans Evolve? Reflections on the Uniquely Unique Species. P. Chase. 8. Christophe. Religion and its Monsters. Arsuaga. Philippines. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. K. 2002. New York: Basic Books. CA: University of California Press. but the estimates range usually between 1000 and 2000 members (Melton 1996: 636). Several members of the holiness churches have been bitten numerous times. 1998. Also. During the twentieth century. Ann Arbor. The snake-handling sects all derive from the example set by the Pentecostal preacher George Went Hensley in 1909 or 1910. Williamson & Pollio 1999: 213). 1990. L. W. IL: University of Illinois Press. 7. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 6: 263–96. Evolving Brains. Allman.

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science. So conceived. religion can be understood as something fundamentally human. because “meaning is not in the head”. Linguists generally treat meaning as a non-mental phenomenon. analogous to other forms of cultural expressions.” Consequently. is a matter of feelings and conviction. How it has come to be this way is what I will discuss below. This involves a number of misunderstandings which are of profound importance for the future of the study of religion – including the cognitive science-based ones. The first is that.1 The second difficulty is that most theoretical approaches to the study of religion based on cognitive science perceive the mental (or cognitive) as processes unrelated to issues concerning meaning. e. 2004). a means of explaining exist- ence or of orienting one’s life. religions are basically clusters of meaning. The following remarks are intended as a kind of road map to the difficul- ties of such trains of thought. and to understand this demands a certain degree of philosophical understand- ing. social and meaningful although it may contain dubious claims to truths about the contents of the world. Jensen 1999. despite modernity. religion is understood either as “something” related to meaning on the one hand or as a psychological or mental phenomenon on the other (cf. technology and so on. it is somewhere else. 11 Cognition and meaning Jeppe Sinding Jensen Introduction There are two general views of religion shared by the greater part of the public in the modern world. The first problematic idea is that it is linguisti- cally unacceptable to treat meaning as a mental phenomenon but that is not the sort of problem that disturbs the general public or violates popular epis- temology. Most of the work in the cognitive science of religion does not share these ideas about the relations between culture and meaning. Many of the 241 . The second view which is very prevalent in public discourse on the subject of religion is to think of religion along more psychological lines: “Religion and religiosity in particular.g.

from a neurological level to a cognitive level). such as for instance conscious mental activ- ity. norms and values and these are of little interest to cognitivists. which has generally been operating on the social and cultural levels.g. Cognitivists thus seem to take for granted that an agent’s own explanations of thoughts and actions cannot be examined scientifically (i. In brief. include questions of language. Thus. and which I will explain below because they are important for the argument. Culture is thus effortlessly reduced and dissolved into individual psychology or biology.2 The resulting incongruity has led to a number of problems which are profoundly epistemic. This conception is not new. This attitude may then lead to a view of explanations as legitimate only when they are reductionist or causal and when the methodological requirement is to explain “upwards” from lower levels to higher ones (e. on the contrary. It has been widely practised by scholars of religion and anthropologists who thought that it was on the levels of culture or society that they could best interpret. mental processes which take place in the individual or the more radical position that “culture does not exist” (the slogan of eliminativism). the epiphenomenalist position holds that socio-cultural products such as reli- 242 . that is. an excessive admiration of the natural sciences. In some cases it appears as almost “scientistic”. their interests do not focus on conscious mental processes.5 This understanding of explanation and causal- ity results from a view of scientific practice which is highly influenced by the natural sciences. it is not adequately scientific to study “reasons” or “justifications”. i. These are theoretical positions which explicitly contend that neither culture nor meaning are “anything but” (the catchword of reductionism) aggregate material phenomena.4 Cultural levels. The “culturalist” assumption that justi- fications provided by the sources (agents) can be analysed and understood in terms of reasons and their place and function in semantic universes is elegantly neglected.3 Significantly. in controlled experiments).e. jeppe sinding jensen contributors to the new cognitive science of religion (let us call them “cogni- tivists”) have worked to eliminate the standard “culturalist paradigm”. The main dogma in a large part of cognitive approaches to religion is “cul- tural reductionism” or “cultural eliminativism”. the arguments or reasons which the agents themselves have or pro- vide are basically assumed to be justifications produced after the fact. explain or justify human behaviour.e. in philosophy it traditionally goes under the name of “epiphenomenalism”. and thoughts are considered as being unable to influence the material founda- tions from which they originate. For instance. It is therefore an “inside-out” programme concerning the cognitive levels. Their interests concentrate on the unconscious cognitive processing of informa- tion and the related mechanisms and on what they produce. are not considered to be able to explain anything at lower levels because these high-level phenomena are “nothing but” physical brain processes. Higher-level phenomena.

economy and other social facts can be discussed in nominal or heuristic terms as abstractions or conceptual generalizations. there were some anthropologists who continued to work from cognitive orientations.6 It is not a new story. Stephen Tyler) of “mental phenom- ena which can [he means “should”] be analyzed by formal meth- ods similar to those of mathematics and logic” – is as destructive of an effective use of the concept as are the behaviourist and ideal- ist fallacies to which it is a misdrawn correction. (C. do not have any causal or scientifically verifiable (or falsifiable) influence on our cognitive processes. for example. This frequently results in the opinion that even if religion. The change in limitations in the research perspectives in early cognitive research away from a more holistic idea of connections between culture and psyche and on towards a more indi- vidualistic and computer-like model of human psychology were the results of conscious methodological and theoretical choices. such as “religion” or “culture”. culture. and it is interesting to recall that already in 1973. cognition and meaning gion. The truncated perspective The Canadian psychologist Merlin Donald (among others) characterizes those pursuing this type of cognitive research as “hardliners”. but they have not been included (in any significant 243 . then they cannot have causal effects on anything: an abstraction. Even at a relatively early point in the history of cognitive science research (since the 1950s). who share “an uncompromising belief in the irrelevance of the conscious mind and the illu- sory nature of free will” (Donald 2001: 1). Geertz 1973: 12) Nevertheless. but the socio-cultural products cannot have a reciprocal influence on those more basic processes. ideology and various uses of symbolism are created by physical brain processes. The cognitivist hardliners created humans in the image of computers. It has since turned out that this is not only a restricted. The steady growth of computer technology and research into artificial intelligence offered computer-like models of human cognitive activity. Clifford Geertz had criticized the now widespread “mentalization” of cultural and social levels in his discussion of the concept of culture: The cognitivist fallacy – that culture consists (to quote another spokesman for the movement. many scientists found it essential to limit the perspectives to matters that could be handled in what they considered a genuinely scientific manner. but also a truncated vision. Religious beliefs. cannot be a cause and is thus of no scientific interest to most cognitivists.

given at birth) and develops without cultural “contamination” through social- ization.8 The cognitive hardliners in the study of religion are thus mostly quite acute naturalists whose concerns are limited to those aspects of human cognitive functioning which they assume to be present at birth and biologically conditioned to develop ontogenetically. Everything which cannot be studied using the methods of natural science will have to be excluded from the realm of scientific research and so eliminated as scientifically irrelevant. They exclude almost anything published before 1990. Scott Atran and Ilkka Pyysiäinen. The basic idea is to find only that which is evolved. language and so on. Cultural eliminativism as method Cultural eliminativists generally suggest that meaning is an ontologically “mystical” notion. In my opinion. Edwin Hutchins and Bradd Shore has been known. For exactly the same rea- son. one may suspect that the unspoken reason for not including this earlier work was that it was not validated by experimental work and so it was dismissed as “mere description” or “anecdotal evidence”.7 The new cognitive hardliners working on religion base their work more on experi- mental and especially developmental psychology. Meaning as it is generally understood can very well be described as metaphysical as “it” (i. the notion) does not refer to anything 244 . inherited and innate (i. Taking a closer look. Other examples of “forgotten” research are those presented in Models in Language and Thought (Holland & Quinn 1987) and in the later Modes of Thought: Explorations in Culture and Cognition (Olson & Torrance 1996). the “pre-cultural” cognitive mechanisms and capacities are essential for this type of research. Pascal Boyer. it seems that this orientation leads to a rather special view of human nature – and not least because these very same scholars are actually obliged to use exactly the same means of communication. These were attempts at integrating the social sciences and the humanities with psychology and human biology. toddlers and pre-schoolers before one gets to anything that touches upon the subject of religion. Roger Keesing. jeppe sinding jensen way) in work by the most dedicated “hardliners” in the cognitive science of religion such as that by. this ear- lier research was more or less ignored by the new cognitivists in the study of religion. which they argue cannot be scientifically investigated. The earlier work was broader and one can reasonably ask why this development took place. etc.e. for example. Although the work of such anthropologists as Roy D’Andrade. The method- ology is highly individualistic and naturalistic. That explains why there is so much concern with babies. Culture and everything related to it becomes “noise”.e. But these ambitions have not been incorpo- rated into the theoretical and methodological cosmos of the hardliners either.

it is evident that it is difficult for them to pose meaningful questions about meaning. In 1975 he published Rethinking Symbolism. one must add Sperber’s view of interpretation in anthropological methodology. Ideas spread from brain to brain. In this case. a remarkable book in which symbolism and symbols are redefined as mental processes instead of public and intersubjective socio-cultural phenomena. it seems an impossibility to develop scientific theories about meaning. France and the US. but erroneous brain process which takes place in the absence of a clear and identifiable reference for “meanings” (signifiants). Furthermore. To this. psychological models 245 . a development which may itself be demonstrated in a sociology of science perspective. for instance. and. Sperber’s strict naturalism is likewise recognizable in his theory of culture which maintains. cognition and meaning that can be measured or weighed. and it certainly does not obey the laws of gravity. then methodology has become dogma. ontology and episte- mology are clearly the results of the chosen method. Sperber’s theoretical approach has been successful among some in the UK. It seems that there is an effort at the development of a theory. If there is anything at all left of “meaning” in Sperber’s theory. there is “nothing but” brain processes and the clutter of printer’s ink. The understandings of science and methodology which have been adopted so far thus demand avoiding the discussion of meaning by systematically excluding the possibility that it can at all be studied. the oppo- site ought to be the case in science. A central figure among the cognitivist hardliners is the French anthropologist Dan Sperber who was once a structuralist. therefore. refutation or falsification. prediction and laws. it is confined to a mentalistic model. In Sperber’s empiricist “theory of epistemology”. the kind of questions involved can hardly be studied experimentally. In my view. Cognitive. Such are the empirical and scientific backgrounds which allow him to proclaim that he is a “true materialist” in Explaining Culture (Sperber 1996). It is difficult to see how meaning could have extensions in space or time. symbolisation is some crea- tive. The rationale behind eliminativism can be difficult to grasp. where his ideas about anthropology as “science” in a com- bination of naturalism. replication. and thus he created the concept of “imaginary epidemiology” to account for such proc- esses. empiricism and individualistic methods have been accepted as useful. for if the methods determine ontology. And so. Since the advancement of scientific theory depends upon control. the chosen discourse turns to immunization strategies which conveniently avoid the possibility of falsification. epistemology and the results of the research. Hence as the cultural eliminativists are thoroughly naturalistic in their epistemological position and scientific realists in their understanding of sci- ence. interpretation cannot contribute to a sci- entific understanding as an explanation could. because he views interpretation as “nothing but” an extension of the semantics of the informants’ data. that there is no meaning in a text.

but is the property of a conscious cogni- tive process. immortal gods who cannot be perceived.12 There are of course many meaningful ways of performing scientific reductions but not much is left of society and cul- ture if it all boils down to the functioning of the central nervous system. Ilkka Pyysiäinen. such as omnipresent. which is the idea that the brain or the cognitive apparatus consists of a series of modules reflecting the evolutionary development of our species. interpretation and understanding are internal and mostly unconscious cognitive states and functions in the individual. that is. Religion is thus simply a case of the brain having “run amok”. Jeffrey Elman et al. one of the cognitivists. not culture as a something. (Pyysiäinen 2003: 41) It could be interesting to apply this rather imperialistic attitude to other fields in the humanities and social sciences: the history of art or macroeconomics as exclusively cognitive mechanisms? Or.10 In the specific case of humanity. It is not an instrument of social commu- nication or a property of phenomena that can be considered apart from this mechanism. (2001) and Irene Appelbaum (1999). it so happened that our mental “plasticity” means that we can cross the domains of the modules and their functions so that we can imagine things which are “counter-intuitive”. omniscient. or buildings.9 These modules each have their own specific functions. such as works of art. but merely of the concept of culture as a useful abstraction. 2001). each being uncon- scious and independent of the others. has responded to the criticism by pleading for the upholding of the culture concept. symbolism is best viewed as a cognitive mechanism that participates in the construction of knowledge as well as in the functioning of memory.11 Most of these hypotheses are founded on theoretical developments about cognitive representations and the existence and function of the modules which date to the 1980s. As an example: in his dismissal of Clifford Geertz as an “anti- psychologist”. most of this modularity discussion has been refuted by a series of scholars such as Merlin Donald (1991. The 246 . texts. However. Annette Karmilloff-Smith (1992). should we best study philosophy as the scrutiny of the cognitive processes in philosophers’ brains? Modules and modularity The theory of the cognitive hardliners is also based on theses about modu- larity. Pyysiäinen produces the following statement about “meaning” and symbolism: As meaning does not reside in isolated objects. jeppe sinding jensen begin with the basic dogma that meaning.

14 What is the goal of this programme? It is at least partially. Human cultural and social constructions are limited and determined by their biological and thus cognitive apparatus. however. intended to demonstrate that humans are not simply tabula rasa crea- tures where the biology is a mere foundation upon which you can build whatever you want – as some earlier constructivist approaches to the human and social sciences have maintained. and then only in a strictly individual understanding (Pyysiäinen 2002. the basic methodology of cognitivism means that such constructionism cannot be grasped on a col- lective socio-cultural level but only at the individual level. On the other hand. cultural and linguistic any meaning. say Buddhism or Islam. not culture and certainly not the money in their pockets (Boyer 2001: 35). it turns out that the hardliner cognitivists among the schol- ars of religion have chosen to associate themselves with exactly that specific research agenda which denies the levels of the social. the entire cognitive project remains relatively unattractive for. the hardliner version of this theory faces serious difficulties in accom- modating explicit cultural knowledge. Meaning should thus be included as a relevant element in the explanatory framework of the enlarged cognitive programme. There are thus good reasons for believing that the cognitivist paradigm as it is currently presented has some drawbacks as a tool for scholars of religion. reprinted in Pyysiäinen 2004). Its relevance would be enhanced if socio-cultural realities could also be attributed explanatory validity. but that they actively process their perceptions cognitively. cognition and meaning article was accepted in the Journal of Cognition and Culture. but one of the editors called it “crazy” since hardliners do not recognize anything as objec- tive reality except on the mental (i.e. cultural and linguistic levels.13 It was for the same reasons that Pascal Boyer was able to claim that we humans do not “share” things. Upon closer inspection. cognitive) level. Thus. but also impor- tantly. Since all the conclusions of the cognitive approach are based on the assumption that you cannot say anything about anything except for the non-cultural. And it is precisely here that religion and scholars of religion (in particular) come into the picture. for example. That is one of the reasons that we in the “Aarhus School” work with psychological and neurological researchers who are interested in the links between the individual ontological level and the socio-cultural levels in the research unit “Religion. Yet this interpretation has been recognized by developmental and social psychologists and others for a long time as psycho- logical constructionism. Cognition and Culture”. Linked to the theory of innateness and modularity is the idea that humans are not simple passive receivers of the environment. philologists and archaeologists and scholars of religion and of particular religious tradi- tions.16 247 .15 One could just as easily create cognition and brain related research approaches in the study of religion which include the social.

religion is among those means by which humans transcend their animal existence. along with the philosopher Andy Clark. quite unlike any others. world. (Ibid. culture and religion which are interesting. Like language. which are unexceptional in their basic design. which hold the key to self-assembly. the brain. Precisely this is stressed by Merlin Donald: We have evolved into “hybrid” minds. Even such an empirically and natural science-oriented philoso- pher as Quine says: 248 . in the shape of: [a] quite liberal notion of the scope of computation and cognitive processes – one that explicitly allows for the spread of such proc- esses across brain. or cog- nitive solipsism. body. and artifact. The ultimate irony of human existence is that we are supreme individualists. Opposed to these views are the more philosophically founded insights concerning links in our experience. On several occasions I have played the “dev- il’s advocate” (e. consciousness. whose individualism depends almost entirely on culture for its realization.: 218) Something similar could be said about religion. In discussing the relationships between artefacts. Jensen 2002). so intimate it is not clear whether it is a kind of tool or a dimension of the user. I believe. of all other species and entering into a collectivity of mind. It came at the price of giving up isolationalism. and the reason for our uniqueness does not lie in our brains. (Donald 1991: 12) It is here that “the thing called meaning” appears among the decisive fac- tors in the formation of this “collectivity of mind”. There are connections between the body. intuitive. Language is in many ways the ultimate artifact: so ubiquitous it is almost invisible. that it is now time to put the world back together again (Clark 2001). On the one hand are the cognitive hardliners and their individualistic methodology based upon the empiricist idea that studies of cognitive activity understood as instinctive. repertories and domains activating modules in direct contact with the environment will exhaust the explanatory possibilities. Clark advocates a much broader understanding. It lies in the fact that we have evolved such a deep dependency on our collective storage systems. the last (religion) being particu- larly relevant for some of us. Paramount among such artifacts are the various manifestations of public language. jeppe sinding jensen A joint project My own dissatisfaction with the theoretical and scientific limits of the hard- liner paradigm is an open secret.g. language.

therefore. Some are admittedly more convincing than others. and so forth. We are not much taken individually and by ourselves. (e. and so they can only be transmitted symbolically – most clearly knowledge concerning things removed in space and time such as characteristics of distant relatives and ancestors. Those pleading for the importance 249 . is a man- made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Ideas about meaning can be created in many ways. To take one example. the discussion of meaning meets resistance. includ- ing both writing and pictures. Yet there is still not a single one which has persua- sively and absolutely proved how thought (cognition) and speech (culture) are related. but they are still just hypotheses. In fact. Michael Tomasello’s research into developmental psy- chology demonstrates the degree to which the cultural context influences chil- dren’s development and learning.g. cognition and meaning The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs. from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic. As Tomasello points out. (Ibid. and there are an awful lot of them. (Quine 1980: 42) There is also another sense in which we are dependent upon everything which others have discovered before us – even if each generation believes that it rep- resents the smartest ever.18 It might then be appropriate to turn to cognitive semantics or cognitive semiotics. Most of that knowledge which we have of the world (taken as a whole) is mediated through others in a process which he calls “the ratchet effect” (Tomasello 1999: 38). 2003) But the hardliner cognitivists in the study of religion may not be inclined to take up the offer. and here he includes phenomena related to the study of religion among the factors: Beyond fundamental skills of primate cognition. It would appear that these approaches really do promise breakthroughs along the future route. And none of this would work if meaning did not exist.: 165)17 It is therefore by virtue of our linguistic and symbolizing abilities and social- ity that we are what we are. The amount of knowledge that any individual organism can gain by simply observing the world on its own is extremely limited … even nonliterate cultures have impor- tant domains of knowledge that are almost exclusively in symbolic format. myths and some religious rituals. Bundgård et al. some knowledge of local flora and fauna. chil- dren’s domain-specific knowledge and expertise depend almost totally on the accumulated knowledge of their cultures and its “transmission” to them via linguistic and other symbols. This is by no means due to a lack of hypotheses.

This is changing. preserved and passed on to the coming generation.” However. empirical studies seem to suggest that the ontological development of human cogni- tion is far more dependent upon non-cognitive factors than has hitherto been allowed. or “collective intentionality”. but rather social and public. One can do worse than recalling what Clifford Geertz wrote more than a generation ago: The generalized attack on privacy theories of meaning is. there is a great deal of research that favours developments of intensified theoretical connections between cognition and culture. such as “social cognition”. 2010: 138) Human intentionality and “being-in-language” Cognitive research approaches would thus be far more relevant to the study of religion if they could accommodate culture and meaning once again. Geertz 1973: 12)20 And as Geertz went on to say: “Culture is public because meaning is. What is necessary is to see to it that the news reaches anthropology. the relevance of culture for brain development. Ultimately. The 250 . is currently gaining momentum: Until recently. The recognition of the importance of culture for human development. in one formulation.19 This is because humans have a more complex social life than any other species. (Duque et al. with the emergence of cultural neuroscience. jeppe sinding jensen of meaning in human cognition may be tagged as “culturalists” or exponents of the “the standard social science model”. private phenomena. (C. These may take different forms and come with different labels. However. molecular biol- ogy to study how neural development. a cross- disciplinary field of study that integrates cross-cultural psychology. so much a part of modern thought that it need not be developed once more here. “distributed cognition”. this conception of meaning as public still goes against the intui- tions of many scholars of religion who share the assumptions of the cogni- tive approach when it comes to placing meaning in the (private) head. structure and function remained unrecognized. however. since early Husserl and late Wittgenstein. And it is primarily via language that human sociality is created. The primary theoretical obstacle is that research which sticks to an individualistic methodology cannot be capable of including issues of meaning since these are not individual. structure and function vary from one cultural group to the next. cognitive neuroscience and. individually and collectively.

it is because I mean so.g. the solution could be to produce a “world 3”. 2004). early experience with language affects cogni- tive operations that go beyond language. Right from the simplest objectifications of our observations (e. Intention does not merely point to relations between physical objects but also. cognition and meaning intuition is that “When I say so. However. The “World Wide Web” is nothing new – there has been something of the kind for thousands of years (precisely how long is a matter of debate). and it is precisely the objective character of the systems of signs which guarantees that everyone collectively has potential access to intention. to imaginary. humans are able to express it all in those systems of signs which they possess. we are led to consider a rather different range of hypotheses: The brain is changed importantly by experience with language: language is an instrument used by separate brains to exert biological influences on each other. Jensen 1999. “a lion!”) up to the most complicated and abstract collective experiences (e. The world of meaning consists of products derived from our intentionality and of our general relationship to the world. As Mark Turner expresses this: If we use the old metaphoric conception of the brain as an agent who “deals with” language or as a container that for a moment “holds” language while examining it for storage or discard. a world of meaning. It is an old idea. e. creating through biological action at a distance a virtual brain distributed in the individual brains of all the partici- pants in the culture. as I wish to propose in this attempt. (Turner 1996: 159–60) 251 . The primatologist Nicholas Humphrey (2002) states that humans have such large brains in order to understand one another and this certainly sounds like a convincing hypothesis.g. to simplify the problem and see how humans as a species can produce complex communicative equivalents to an animal’s scent tracks. But if we use instead the conception of the brain as an active and plastic biological system. mental collective conceptions: inten- tions direct intentions in vast networks. and so much more. primarily promoted by Karl Popper (cf. then it is natural to think of the biology of the brain as unchanged by its dealings with language. But brains also have effects on each other and signs and symbols are important means through which this communication takes place.g. The “trick” is. the philosophy of Hegel). in my mind …” The fact that this approach to meaning is not theoretical so much as intuitive is the other thing that is difficult to grasp. The difficulty for naturalists and empiricists is that meaning appears to be a metaphysical manifestation simultaneously taking place in brains and in symbols and thus meaning appears to belong to both the mental and physical worlds.

It starts off at the simplest level and then develops into the infinitely complex and abstract. However. we can understand intentions of others and adopt them as our own. All human practice invariably takes place within a “space of reasons” (as the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars termed it) which is a part of our collective world. chose (or be forced to) let the intentions of a religious system of reference replace and override our own intuitive intentions. for example. And furthermore. meaning can be understood as a collective means of “preserving inten- tion”. the cognitivists are right. We may. so much in humans is conditioned by their history. jeppe sinding jensen Thus. Human practice is intimately related to what Ludwig Wittgenstein summarized in the notion of “form of life”. (Jensen 2004: 246) 252 . I think the idea that this cognitive equipment needs no such background is just another outcropping of Givenness. domains and functions. and language have been learned (“installed”) simultaneously so that meanings are multi-“meshed” in the classificatory architecture. culture. being the “cognitive object”. Again. being the “collective social constructions” are the mutual results of such initiations into the space of reasons. and the socially objective. On this issue. He calls it “the myth of the endogenous Given”: Now I think we should be suspicious of the thought that we can simply credit human individuals with this equipment. religion. This inspiration was later adopted by the philosopher of language John McDowell in his criticism of the idea that human rationality should simply be given with the individual cognitive equipment. a great deal of the human intentional machinery is in fact dependent upon basic physical and mental conditions. not just anything can be preserved as an intention in any one way – there are constraints and rules. without benefit of anything like my appeal to initiation into a shared language and thereby into a tradition. As this also involves the study of religion and the meaning of religion in cognitive contexts. (McDowell 1996: 185–6) The individually subjective. background and culture. I will take the liberty of citing myself: What this means in terms of religion is that it lends theoretical plausibility to the more old-fashioned idealist (but intuitively plau- sible) view that religions somehow condition the ways in which we think: that they as “semantic engines” are co-responsible for the ways in which we process information and construct mean- ing. In most traditional societies. … We must take subjectivity and the concept of objectivity to emerge together. out of initiation into the space of reasons.

The impression simply reflects the fact that US-resident scholars have dominated in this new paradigm. cognition and meaning must come together in real life. However. I am convinced that for scholars of religion it is ultimately more useful to accept that religious traditions are born. many disciplines in the human and social sci- ences are outright sceptical of cognitive approaches to their subject materials and seem to think that meaning and language do not relate to cognition. Such programmes have prescribed forms for intentionality and practice which the participants may accept on how to think. but it does so as religions contain and consist of specific programmes for thinking. cf. 2. In the course of the development of cultural history. and abstractions exist because they are tools for thinking. Notes 1. And so they must also in research. because humans are concerned with their lives and this they do with their bodies. 253 . claiming that religion “does something”. An excellent introduction which addresses issues of religion and meaning directly is Frankenberry and Penner (1999). One could illustrate the problem with analogous statements such as that literature is “nothing but books”. almost mystical reification. There is a long and involved philosophical debate about whether reasons can be causes. Lawson & McCauley also touch upon the problem in their Rethinking Religion (1990). however. The milder can be recognized by the slogan that “x is nothing but y” while eliminatory reduction states that “x does not exist”. live and die. see e. there are only a few academic contexts where cognition plays a role in teaching. 2009). Religion and the history of religions provide an abundance of cases illustrating what is meant by collec- tive intentionality. This is not entirely correct. there are aspects of human cognition without meaning or lan- guage and these might well interest cognitive scientists. one of the arenas of human practice where this has happened explicitly and profusely is that arena which we. cognition and meaning This may sound like an old-fashioned. or that “traffic does not exist – there are only individual vehicles”. For all that to be possible. speaking and acting. 3. There might possibly also be meaning and language without cognition but this is very unlikely and difficult to imagine. category mistakes are involved.g. emo- tions and as members of collectives and societies. None of this would be possible without the exchanges of meaning on the level of language: subjectivity and objectivity arise at the same time through the initiations into the spaces of reasons. call religion (Jensen 2003a). my review of Boyer (2001) in Jensen (2003b. For a brief introduction to the paradigm. One could get the impression that cognitivism is widespread and especially so in the US. Often. Both forms of reduction can be recognized in the cognitive scepticism of socio-cultural phenomena. Evnine (1991: 25–57). Possibly. speak and act. minds. etc. 4. for the sake of simplicity. 5.

One can get a glimpse of the actual dimensions of the discipline of “cognitive science” by taking a look at Bechtel and Graham (1999). In class. Daniel J. One of Boyer’s later contributions to the discussion is entitled “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution” (Boyer 2003). Victor Turner’s now classic anthropological reflections on the use of ritual objects and presentation of “sacra” in initiation rituals where the grotesque figures also bear meaning in an analogous (non-language based) code (Turner 1967). independent. students are surprised when confronted with these eliminativist hypotheses. etc. There is no absolute agreement on these issues as no one actually knows how it all “hangs together”. Pyysiäinen goes to considerable lengths. jeppe sinding jensen 6. Some of these scholars using experiments even refer to Popper to validate their idea that observational research is problematic since it is “theory-laden” whereas they regard controlled experiments with tests of hypotheses as genuine and value free science. Siegel. 12. Geertz (2004). The standard definition of a module: a specialized. they are produced by the mind’s ability to create and understand abstractions” (Pyysiäinen 2004: 228). e. is epistemologically weak as it is based upon the observations in non-experimental contexts without documentation of controlled experiments allowing for replication and prediction. Pascal Boyer’s view of culture is also “eliminativist”. and the many different pro- posals for what the module menu looks like attest to the practical difficulties of doing this as well. Cf. which develops through evolution for processing specific information of particular relevance for a species. 254 . Raymond Tallis delivered a very critical contribution to the discussion in the chapter “The Poverty of Neurophilosophy” (Tallis 1999: 127–54). “Cultures do not exist as real abstract entities. nor are they mere names. 9. 14. (2001). but it merely demonstrates how Boyer’s individualistic method- ology prevents him from recognizing the fact that we must share an economy to have money in the first place … 15. The level of abstraction is not high. Joseph LeDoux and Louis Cozolino also deserve mention. he argues. Tomasello (1999: 206) has struck tellingly in expressing his doubts about modularity: “Thus I do not see the point of trying to modularize human cognition. They also do not exist as fixed and given wholes in the mind. 10.” 11. One should just be aware that a great deal of what appears to be objective. According to the hardliners. 16. 7. for instance the critical discussion in Elman et al. Cultures are abstract wholes like sets or collections in mathematics and logic. This story has already been covered in an excellent fashion by D’Andrade (1995) and A. sociology and psychology. In addition to Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello. 13. because culture does not have a robust ontology and so. it is “confusing to say that people share a culture. This seems like a convincing argument. A recent eliminativist idea (aired at a conference) is that “socialization does not exist” – because “in reality” you can only deal with the psychological development of the indi- vidual. At times one could get the impression that the heuristic models are understood as epistemological and perhaps even ontological. recent contribution by Margaret Wilson (2010). descriptive work in anthropology. W.g. We may have strictly identical amounts of money in our respective wallets without sharing any of it”(Boyer 2003: 35–6). See. as if culture were common property. 17. visible reality is actually quite hypothetical. This is only new in that with new techniques scientists can actually see that the brain is a plastic organ and that the processes of socialisation have real effects.g. mental organ. Most of the socio-psychological research builds on such assumptions. see e. 8.

I am much in favour of the view of philosopher John R. W. Geertz. Clark. “Modularity”. J. DeLoache. T. Searle 1995. Boyer. vol. A. Cambridge. 1995. Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. 2001. 2010). Being There: Putting Brain. Elman. 625–35. “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion”. P. DeLoache (2004) presents an account from the perspectives of developmental psychology. Frankenberry. The Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. 2003. 255 . A. Norton. New York: Basic Books. Skov (eds) 2003. Egan 2010. 2: Textual. R. 2004. N. Oxford: Blackwell. Evnine. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. J. Graham (eds) 1999. Geertz & R. “Out of Africa: Lessons from a By-Product of Evolution”. A. cognition and meaning 18. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni- versity Press. Wilson (eds). Cambridge: Polity Press. W. D. D’Andrade. Donald. Even if some part of language semantics does have some bodily foundation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 5(2–3): 138–47. Interesting results and perspectives are presented be Vogeley and Roepstorff (2009). Oxford: Blackwell. MA: MIT Press. (eds. Kognitiv semiotik: En antologi om sprog. MA: MIT Press. Atlanta. 1991. In New Approaches to the Study of Religion. M. P. where the entire history of philosophy is being dissolved by “the cognitive science of philosophy”. Trends in Cognitive Science 8(2): 66–70.. Duque. GA: Scholar’s Press. (2009). in Philosophy in the Flesh. P. 19. However. betydning og erkendelse. I. and the World Together Again. “Becoming Symbol-Minded”. For example.) 2001. Antes. Copenhagen: Haase. & H. Egholm & M. M. 1999. D. & G. Light & B. Comparative. A Mind so Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. S. W. F. P. In Religion as a Human Capacity. 2004. Something suggests that the history of the discipline deserves a larger share in our schol- arly collective consciousness. Body. Language. Penner (eds) 1999. References Appelbaum. In A Companion to Cognitive 2001. Graham (eds). Truth and Religious Belief: Studies in Twentieth-Century Theory and Method in the Study of Religion. Cambridge. S.. Lewis & G. et al. they present what might be termed “the neural theory of language paradigm”. Bundgård. The social level is still lacking in their model. A Companion to Cognitive Science. Leiden: Brill. Bechtel. Donald. 20. H. 2001. New York: W. Bechtel & G. Searle (e. W. 271–44. their theory does suffer from the general weakness of cognitivist subjectivism: that they simply cannot (or do not want to) heed the linguistic turn in philosophy. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Sociological and Cognitive Approaches. Boyer. George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1999) have pre- sented a grandiose cognitive theory on these connections. R. J. Cambridge. Donald Davidson. 347–99. Wexler (2006) and Zahn et al.g.foresight. 1991. W. gov. Turner. Instead. E. R.html). Warne (eds). “Neuroanthropology: A Humanistic Science for the Study of the Culture–Brain Nexus”. MA: Harvard University Press. J. research into “social cognition” as pursued in the Foresight Cognitive Systems Project at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London (www.

2002. Vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. J. Holland. 2004. 1999. Jensen. G. Rethinking Symbolism. In his From a Logical Point of View. On the Edge of Certainty: Philosophical Explorations. Pyysiäinen. MA: Harvard University Press. D. 203–25. Jensen. N. 2002. 2004. Tallis. Mind and World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. Leiden: Brill. A. Journal of Cognition and Culture 2(3): 167–82. 2003b. G. “On a semantic definition of religion”. Searle. Torrance (eds. Lawson. London: Continuum. A. Olson. Antes. R. & D. 409–31. MA: Harvard University Press. 1973. 2003a. Pyysiäinen. J. Quinn (eds) 1987. 1975. Magic. “Pascal Boyer: Den ganske historie om al religion (nogensinde)”. “Ontology of Culture and the Study of Human Behavior”. J. S. Miracles. Lakoff. Manchester: Manchester University Press. R. 1980. Walnut Creek. 219–52. M. New York: Free Press. S. CA: AltaMira Press. Quine. “Meaning and Religion: On Semantics in the Study of Religion”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Jensen. N. V. J. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Oxford University Press. Cambridge. Jensen. S. 2002. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts. D. Warne (eds). Searle. 1999. New York: Basic Books. Leiden: Brill. T. Cambridge. Cambridge. J. Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. S. 2003. Comparative. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press. 1996. In New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Religionsvidenskabeligt Tidsskrift 43: 53–69. The Study of Religion in a New Key: Theoretical and Philosophical Soundings in the Comparative and General Study of Religion. P. Humphrey. M. R. Anttonen (eds). J. MA: MIT Press. New York: Basic Books. J. M. Geertz & R. Cambridge. & R. Karmiloff-Smith. and Religion: A Scientist’s Perspective. jeppe sinding jensen Geertz. Stausberg (ed. 20–46. D. McCauley 1990. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. 2010. Johnson 1999. Platvoet & A. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”. MA: Harvard University Press. I. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The Interpretation of Cultures.). The Construction of Social Reality. Concepts and Contests. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. In Contemporary Theories of Religion. Social Intelligence in Evolution.) 1996. S. I. R. Pyysiäinen. R. 129–55. The Inner Eye. & M. J. J. 2nd edn. Turner. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. I. C. 1992. W. 1995. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Jensen. 1996. Molendijk (eds). Tomasello. McDowell. London: Routledge. How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion. S. E. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Modes of Thought: Explorations in Culture and Cogni- tion. “Religion as the Unintended Product of Brain Functions in the ‘Standard Cognitive Science of Religion Model’”. In Current Approaches in the Cognitive Science of Religion. 256 . I. D. J. Pyysiäinen & V. Sperber. O. “The Complex Worlds of Religion: Connecting Cultural and Cognit- ive Analysis”. Sociological and Cognitive Approaches. 2: Textual. Cultural Models in Language and Thought. 1996. Jensen. L. Cambridge: University Press. W. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. 2009. & N. Sperber.

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Wittgenstein and the naturalness
of religious belief
Mark Addis

Wittgenstein and the cognitive science of religion share the broad objective of
distinguishing between science and religion but vary in their methodological
approaches. These divergences raise the question of the extent to which they
are in accord about substantive questions concerning religion. The cognitive
science of religion aims to differentiate between science and religion through
investigation into their cognitive foundations and cultural expressions using a
number of methodological precepts (Boyer 1994). Insight into many features
of religious cognition can be gained through the use of the approaches and
findings of cognitive science. Concept choice should be guided by explana-
tory scientific theories. Repeated patterns of individual and communal reli-
gious behaviour are to be clearly explicated so that testable theories which
elucidate this can be formulated. A widespread conception in religious stud-
ies which the cognitive science of religion opposes is that religion requires
special methods of study because it and especially religious experiences are
deemed to be unique. In this conception, scholars (e.g. Cannon 1996; Paden
1992) argue that the distinctive position of religion puts a restriction in prin-
ciple upon the capacity of scientific theories to explain it. It is argued that
customary explanatory practices in the natural and social sciences will fail to
provide appropriate insight into the phenomena of religion and that their
effectiveness is limited. An assumption which underpins this perspective is
that religion is concerned with the non-natural, but sustained reasoning is
infrequently provided for claims of this kind. Indeed some commentators (for
instance Lawson & McCauley 1990, 1993) claim that this presupposition
indicates that the field of religious studies quite frequently contains concealed
assumptions about religion.
A core tenet of the cognitive science of religion is that all religious thought
and action overwhelmingly depends upon the utilization of perfectly ordi-
nary forms of cognition available to all normally equipped people. Religious
representations and conduct depend on humdrum cognitive abilities which


wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief

naturally develop in people. It follows from this that providing an account
of religious belief and practices does not necessitate the use of special meth-
ods or the claim that there are faculties which are distinctively religious. In
opposition to common presuppositions in both religious studies and anthro-
pology the cognitive science of religion position is that acquiring under-
standing about religion does not necessarily require extensive and detailed
scrutiny of particular cultures. Theories in the cognitive science of religion
are grounded in philosophical naturalism but the type of explanatory frame-
work adopted varies. Some accounts (such as Boyer 2001) subscribe to com-
prehensive semantic and explanatory reduction but others take a stance of
semantic holism and explanatory pluralism (such as Lawson & McCauley
1990; McCauley 1996).
Wittgenstein stressed the distinctive nature of religious practice and the
potential for misunderstanding if it is seen as a competitor to science. His
remarks about religion emphasized the particular character of religious lan-
guage and how it can be misunderstood if its presuppositions are regarded
as alternatives to scientific ones. Religion was an important concern for
Wittgenstein although he was not religious in a conventional kind of way
(Malcolm 1993: 7–23). The influence of his remarks about religion upon
religious studies is quite disproportional to their quantity. Wittgenstein’s writ-
ings about religion are very limited and many of them are located in brief
collections of remarks, other people’s notes of his lectures, and records of
fragments of his thought. The primary sources for the later period are the
“Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’” (Wittgenstein 1979), “Lectures on
Religious Belief ” (Wittgenstein 1970) and occasional comments in Culture
and Value (Wittgenstein 1980a). Wittgenstein did not explain how his reli-
gious and philosophical ideas were connected, so his writings about religion
might be misunderstood if they are taken to be parts of a philosophy of reli-
gion that was never properly developed. All these difficulties contribute to
the significant interpretative controversies over the remarks. A fundamental
claim of Wittgenstein’s philosophical methodology was that philosophy is not
a kind of science which aims at developing theories (and thus philosophical
naturalism of any kind is fundamentally misguided). He applied his distinc-
tion between philosophy and science when he claimed that psychological
investigations were not relevant to philosophy. Wittgenstein claimed that the
creation and evaluation of empirical models of how the mind operates is the
work of psychologists. He would have thought that the causal explanations of
cognitive science of religion were solely the province of psychology.
Intellectualism in the anthropology of religion is the position that although
religion may serve other purposes, its primary concern is the provision of
theories which explain the world (Horton 1970, 1993). As such religion and
science have identical explanatory objectives and the difference between them


mark addis

lies in the kind of language which they employ. The anthropologist James
Frazer represented religious beliefs as mistaken hypotheses and rituals as prim-
itive attempts to achieve what science does. Wittgenstein claimed that his
perspective was fundamentally mistaken. He argued that religious beliefs are
not analogous to scientific theories and therefore the application of scientific
thinking is erroneous. Religious beliefs should not be judged by the same
evidential standards as those in scientific theories and to do so would show
a profound misunderstanding of the character of these beliefs. Wittgenstein
commented that:

I would say, they are certainly not reasonable, that’s obvious.
‘Unreasonable’ implies, with everyone, rebuke. I want to say: they
don’t treat this as a matter of reasonability. Anyone who reads the
Epistles will find it said: not only that it is not reasonable, but that
it is folly. Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be.
(Wittgenstein 1970: 58)

What is unreasonable here is the defence or criticism of religion using the
assumption that religious beliefs can be corroborated or falsified by evidence.
Wittgenstein’s attitude to the disparities between religion and science has very
broad affinities with the strand of thought in the cognitive science of religion
which rejects intellectualism in the anthropology of religion. The cognitive
science of religion argues for the view that the differentiation between religion
and science is not merely one of language but of actual cognitive process.
Some of the cognitive tasks required for high quality science are compara-
tively unusual and also ones that people often find hard to perform. In con-
trast, the cognitive processes underpinning religion are at least superficially
harder to explain and are simultaneously much more pervasive.

Defining religion

Wittgenstein and the cognitive science of religion share the view that theology
differs from religion. The cognitive science of religion claims that theology
utilizes many of the same kinds of thinking, especially deductive inference,
as science. The individual or collective practice of theology is not required
for either the emergence or persistence of religion (although it is frequently
influential when it does occur). Religion can and does thrive in the absence
of theology (Wiebe 1991). For example, see Barth (1975) on the Baktaman
of New Guinea being entirely indifferent to theology. Wittgenstein thought
that no theological doctrine in itself had the power to change people’s lives.
He held that attempts to demonstrate the truth of religious claims, such as


wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief

that of the existence of God, were absurd and would not establish an attitude
of commitment to religious beliefs. Wittgenstein’s remarks on religious belief
have been interpreted through the perspective of On Certainty. Some scholars
claim that he adhered to the notion of religious belief being the consequence
of a kind of life. For example, Wittgenstein stated:

Here believing obviously plays much more this role: suppose
we said that a certain picture might play the role of constantly
admonishing me, or I always think of it. Here there would be an
enormous difference between those people for whom the picture is
constantly in the foreground, and others who just didn’t use it at all.
(Wittgenstein 1970: 56)

This stance accords with the perspective indicated by a significant number
of his remarks on religious belief. Wittgenstein’s comments appear to suggest
that religious beliefs are associated with the use of religious concepts and the
related attitudes that their employment implies. This viewpoint is most clearly
expressed in his well-known remark in Culture and Value: “It strikes me that
a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to
a system of reference” (Wittgenstein 1980a: 64). Wittgenstein’s point was
that religious belief is an alignment of an entire life that does not depend
on changing scientific results or philosophical and theological doctrines. He
argued that religious beliefs are partly distinguished by their unshakeabil-
ity. However, if this view is understood as a general claim, it is false because
unshakeability does not characterize most religious belief.
The diverse range of features that comprise what are usually regarded as
paradigmatic cases of religion indicates how problematic it is to formulate
necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the concept (Boyer
2001: 6–10). Progress cannot easily be made by identifying a characteristic
which only religions possess as this appears to be just as difficult as distin-
guishing one which all and only religions have. Wittgenstein took religion
to be a genuine category and due to the influence of James’s The Varieties of
Religious Experience ([1901] 1960), he appreciated the widely differing ways
in which religious beliefs were expressed. A Wittgensteinian approach would
be to regard the differences between religions in family resemblance terms. It
is possible that Wittgenstein would have accepted the idea that religion is an
essentially contested concept (Gallie 1956). In contrast to this, the cognitive
science of religion view is that religion is not a satisfactory scientific explana-
tory category. For example, Pyysiäinen remarks (2001: 4): “it is doubtful
whether a scientific category of religion can be constructed, because the cat-
egory includes so many different kinds of phenomena that the cohesiveness
of the category cannot be accounted for by any one theory.”


mark addis

An explanation of this diversity is offered by Boyer (2001) who attributes
it to divergences in the subsets of the cognitive dispositions and their pro-
clivities that are utilized by religion. Both Pyysiäinen and Boyer are sug-
gesting that the notion of religion actually only indicates something about
the stance human beings tend to have on the distinct socio-cultural systems
that are termed religious before they are subjected to theoretical examina-
tion. What humans call religions prior to theoretical investigation encom-
passes a collection of properties that is too extensive to allow the concept of
religion to have particularly illuminating explanatory power. The analysis of
cognitive processes suggests that religions amalgamate emotional, conceptual
and behavioural patterns which occur in a wide range of other situations. A
group of theories in the cognitive science of religion argue for the hypothesis
that religious phenomena may possibly require the attribute of having some
involvement with modestly counterintuitive representations. There appears to
be evidence that this hypothesis encapsulates all the paradigmatic instances of
religion in a way that has both explanatory and predicative force. Given this,
a notion of religion which is cognitively grounded and fairly free from ethno-
centrism can be developed. However, a serious limitation of the hypothesis in
its current form is that the counter intuitiveness of representations is a very
weak condition for religion (as there are many non-religious representations
which have this feature).
Despite the cognitive science of religion view that religion is not a satis-
factory scientific explanatory category, it still identifies shared characteristics
of religions. The essential claim is that every religion turns to agents and
their actions as the key factors for understanding both the social and natural
world. These factors are not affected by the theologies that those who man-
age organized religion postulate. The usual practice of religion fits within a
structure which subscribes to culturally postulated superhuman agents and
their causal powers in conjunction with the facility of the human standard
theory of mind to account for their actions and states of mind. The knowl-
edge that gods are agents allows inferences about their values, preferences,
mental states, and actions. Myths and rituals utilize essentially the same
cognitive processes as narratives and plays do. Virtually all the best known
religious writings are myths. The explanations which religion offers are nor-
mally surrounded by or inferred from myths that have narrative form and
account for the state of the social and natural world through the invoca-
tion of the actions and states of mind of culturally postulated superhuman
agents. According to religion, rituals have either been prescribed or modelled
by these agents. Appropriately performed rituals either alter or maintain
states of affairs in ways that can be specified. The conduct of rituals supplies
humans with a method for creating order in and control over the social and
natural world.


wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief

There is controversy over whether Wittgenstein’s comments about magic
in “Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’” tend to support expressivism. The
expressivist view is that Wittgenstein sought to criticize Frazer’s idea that reli-
gious beliefs were mistaken hypotheses and rituals were primitive attempts
to achieve what science does by emphasizing how belief and ritual were
essentially expressive in nature. From this perspective, religion should not
be regarded as looking to characterize and control the supernatural. Instead
religion is the expression of attitudes and emotions and as such is not a mis-
taken attempt at genuine science but a natural manifestation of what it is to
be human. The cognitive science of religion account of religious agents, nar-
ratives and rituals indicates that the expressivist interpretation misdescribes
religion. Even if Wittgenstein should not be regarded as favouring expressiv-
ism, there is good reason to think that he misdescribed religion (despite the
fact that some commentators, such as D. Z. Phillips, insist that he did not).
It is not all clear that religious belief solely consists of a passionate commit-
ment a system of reference. If Wittgenstein was guilty of misrepresentation,
this indicates that his professed philosophical methodology of description was
in conflict with his actual practice when considering religion.

Forms of life

The concept of a form of life is a much contested area and has been the
subject of abundant discussion. Although Wittgenstein used the expression
“form(s) of life” a very small number of times, it is plausible to think that he
employed the phrase in two distinct ways. One use is to summarize the bio-
logical aspects of human nature in the sense of the common human way of
acting, namely that which is particularly and universally human. The other
employment is to refer to the cultural facets of human nature in the sense
of stressing the differences between societies. These aspects are broadly con-
cerned with practices in ways which encompass both anthropology and soci-
ology. Both strands of form(s) of life rest upon the very general facts of nature
which are the background stabilities of the natural world. For Wittgenstein,
these very general facts of nature impose limitations upon which concepts
are natural or unnatural to nearly all humans (Wittgenstein 1980b: §708;
1984: 230).
Some scholars have used the notion of a form of life to develop an interpre-
tation of Wittgenstein’s remarks on religion which is fundamentally opposed
to the cognitive science of religion perspective. The fideist interpretation
employs this concept to explicitly argue for the view that religion requires
special methods of study. Religious concepts and language are deemed only
to be intelligible to participants in a religious form of life, and their full


mark addis

comprehension is inseparable from understanding the associated form of life.
Non-participants in a religious form of life cannot grasp religious concepts
or language. Religious beliefs are distinct language games since they are not
connected to what lies outside religion and their justification stops. The very
thought of analysing the nature and epistemic grounds of this belief indicates
a lack of appropriate understanding about the character of religion. If there
are distinct religious language games which are only comprehensible to par-
ticipants in the relevant form of life, it follows that non-participants cannot
criticize these language games. A major criticism of fideism focuses upon the
implications of there being distinct religious language games for how the
notion of the form of life is perceived. The problem is the excessive com-
partmentalisation of the forms of social life involved in claiming that there
are these distinct language games. This difficulty in conjunction with other
cogent objections to fideism gives strong grounds for holding that this inter-
pretation of Wittgenstein’s remarks about religion is mistaken.
The cognitive science of religion characterizes thoughts and actions as nat-
ural if they possess attributes which rely upon what Boyer (1994) termed
“non-cultural” foundations. This conception of natural is similar to that aris-
ing out of Wittgenstein’s biological form of life as this deals with what is
natural to all humans. Humans have many shared intuitive beliefs, cognitive
and behavioural patterns. The creation and persistence of particular sorts of
patterns frequently needs little cultural support. There is considerable evi-
dence indicating that facets of religious cognition are not heavily dependent
on cultural factors. Religion is present in every human culture with certain
ideas and forms being repeated across time in a wide range of geographical
and cultural settings. Although particular religions can disappear religion does
not and new religions routinely appear in human populations (Sperber 1996).
The cognitive science of religion claims that understanding or retaining
religion does not necessitate the acquisition or possession of any kind of spe-
cialized intellectual abilities. The key facility required for religion is that of
distinguishing agents and their actions from other entities and events in the
social and natural world. Agent detection abilities occur quite early in human
development as do basic action representation systems. Representations of
events which involve the causal powers of agents are significantly dissimilar
from those that do not. Humans find it natural to invoke culturally pos-
tulated superhuman agents and their actions for explanatory purposes. The
human ability to represent agents and their actions prepares people for the
creation, understanding, remembering and transmission of myths and ritu-
als. For instance, the cognitive representation of ritual actions depends upon
the basic action representation system to which is added the representation
of culturally postulated superhuman agents. This description of religious cog-
nitive capacities and tendencies is consistent with Wittgenstein’s idea about


wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief

certain things being natural given a particular biological form of life. When
he discussed the biological aspects of human nature Wittgenstein showed
very little interest in exploring the ramifications of the idea that there are cer-
tain cognitive capacities shared by all normal people that underpin religion
because according to his philosophical methodology this was the concern of

World pictures

A fundamental idea in On Certainty is that knowledge is comprised of two
broad classes of propositions. There is a core of propositions that forms the
basis of inquiry and which is surrounded by empirical propositions that are
the results of investigation. Wittgenstein emphasized that world picture prop-
ositions differ in kind from empirical ones. Although they take the form of
empirical propositions, world picture propositions do not operate as empiri-
cally testable propositions. These core propositions constitute a world picture,
and the latter is a system of propositions which support one another. A system
of propositions is learnt gradually, some of which are certain and indubitable
while others may be doubted to a greater or lesser degree. Propositions which
are certain do not have this status because they are intrinsically obvious or
especially convincing. It is rather that they are certain by virtue of those that
shift around them (Wittgenstein 1969: §144). The propositions adopted and
whether a particular proposition is plausible depends upon the world picture.
The world picture provides the framework for inquiry. Wittgenstein remarked
that a world picture “is the inherited background against which I distinguish
between true and false” (ibid.: §94). World pictures are not based on reason,
but they are not unreasonable. The world picture itself cannot be doubted. It
is the background against which other knowledge is acquired and the context
in which claims to know are meaningful. World picture propositions function
as rules of testing, but are not tested themselves. A difference in world picture
propositions leads to a difference in what is counted as evidence. For example,
Wittgenstein suggested that he operated with a different concept of evidence
about the Last Judgement and that he found the kind of evidence the believer
appeals to impossible to accept (Wittgenstein 1970: 61).
For Wittgenstein the cognitive capacities involved in learning and process-
ing world picture propositions are a matter for psychology. World picture
propositions are not explicitly learnt, but it is possible to subsequently find out
which propositions these are (Wittgenstein 1969: §§279, 152). Wittgenstein
claimed that learning was based on accepting the authority of a community
and that adults as well as children must take much knowledge on trust (ibid.:
§§159–60, 170, 508–9). He remarked:


as people are born into religious and linguistic communities.: §159) I really want to say that a language-game is only possible if one trusts something (I did not say “can trust something”). of such-and-such a shape. Religion is part of a form of life which is based on a world picture. and having the facility to motivate humans to devote effort to their transmission.g. (Ibid. even the thought that it was so. never thought. that every human being has a brain. that the people who gave them- selves out as my parents really were my parents. balancing the ability to attract attention with that of underwriting cost-free inferences.: §161). These properties include being quickly recognized. These theories claim that culture results from the causal interaction of mental and public representations. readily memorable. it helps to explain why the apparent irrationality of many religious beliefs is not noticed by a good number of their adher- ents. This belief may never have been expressed. The majority of cultural change stems from alterations in the distributions of communicated beliefs in societies.: §509) Accepting much knowledge on trust allows humans to undertake investiga- tions which modify some of their beliefs (ibid. Wittgenstein argued that the accumulated knowledge of a culture is a collective human achievement (ibid. I believe that I had great-grandparents. An important element in explaining the distributions of communicated beliefs is the idea that cultural representations have a pro- pensity to be transmitted if they have certain properties. Cognitive science theo- ries about the transmission of culture can be used to supplement his ideas about the processes by which religious beliefs are acquired and transformed in world pictures. (Ibid. Australia. mark addis As children we learn facts. e. easily communicable. For instance. and so on and so on. What underpins this idea is the view that acquiring religious knowledge frequently occurs without explicit teaching. This notion of acquiring knowledge from the community in which one is born is arguably usefully expressed by the conception of a world picture. 298). There is cross-cultural evidence which demonstrates that 266 . It seems at least possible that Wittgenstein’s account of world pictures could be associated with the cognitive science of religion idea that the acquisition of knowledge required for participation in religious practice has far greater affinities with acquisition of a natural language than the gaining of the abili- ties and knowledge necessary to undertake scientific work. etc. and we take them on trust. Beliefs in humans which have emanated from communication show remarkable similarities across individuals.: §§288. I believe that there is an island. but it should be observed that these beliefs are only part of the whole set of cultural representations (Sperber 1996: 25).

The biological aspects of human nature help to explain the noticeable simi- larities between many world pictures. Some of his views have affinities with certain aspects of the cognitive science of religion but he firmly rejected any kind of commitment to philosophical naturalism. However. (Wittgenstein 1970: 58) In this case the distinctions between science and religion could be very dif- ferent to the ones found in contemporary western societies. Wittgenstein argued that certain world picture propositions could not be revised or rejected because doing so would dismantle the world picture. and there can easily be imagined transitions where we wouldn’t know for our life whether to call them religious beliefs or scientific beliefs. wittgenstein and the naturalness of religious belief the modestly counterintuitive representations of religions are swiftly and pre- cisely recollected (Boyer & Ramble 2001). then the tendency will be to combat them (and in doing so fail to understand them). sufficiently different world pictures can be incommensurable. For instance. so ordinary argument based on shared premises will not succeed and only persuasion is possible.)” (ibid. (Think what happens when missionaries convert natives. The account that has been favoured here interprets Wittgenstein’s remarks on religious belief. 267 . He commented: “I said I would ‘combat’ the other man – but wouldn’t I give him reasons? Certainly.: §612). If other world pictures are merely regarded as infe- rior versions of the one which is held. Wittgenstein was not a relativist so he would not have favoured the view that each world picture is as much or as little justified as any other (Wittgenstein 1969: §§608–12). Wittgenstein suggested that a decision to combat a different world picture should be thought about carefully. and certain beliefs we are inclined to call religious … Entirely different connections would make them into religious beliefs. but how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. Wittgenstein commented: We come to an island and we find beliefs there. Some world pictures are incommensurable. The contribution which Wittgenstein can make to the development of this research agenda is most likely to be in the area of the relationship between religious beliefs and world pictures. A consequence of this position is that Quine’s notion of a web of belief cannot be used to resolve conflicting world pictures as certain propositions cannot be modified or aban- doned. anthropology and certainty as articulating the view that religious discourse is not the result of some theoretical attempt at explanation but instead arises from a commitment to a particular world picture.

Boyer. New York: Basic Books. Riddle of Identity: Making Space for a Cognitive Approach to Religious Phenomena”. Pyysiäinen. The Irony of Theology and the Nature of Religious Thought. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. & R. L. 1956. 1984. Oxford: Blackwell. 1979. 1980a. W. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion. McCauley (ed. Ramble 2001. Gallie. P. D. Malcolm. B. 1992. T. 17–47. D. 1970. 268 . CA: University of California Press. Wittgenstein. “Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations”. Cannon. 2001. Lawson. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. and Science. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56: 167–98. Culture and Value. mark addis References Barth. CT: Yale University Press. Wittgenstein. I. Six Ways of Being Religious: A Framework for Comparative Religion. “Essentially Contested Concepts”. Sperber. Oxford: Blackwell. W. Wittgenstein. Belmont. L. Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea. 61–82. 1993.). On Certainty. N. Cognitive Science 25(4): 535–64. Horton. Wiebe. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics. Boyer. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic. Philosophical Investigations. W. Oxford: Blackwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wilson (eds). In Rationality. E. vol. 1996. 1969. Religion. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press. Leiden: Brill. MA: Beacon Press. 1996. Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View. F. Oxford: Blackwell. L. Berkeley. Oxford: Blackwell. 2. L. N. Psychology and Religious Beliefs. 2001. Oxford: Blackwell. & C. T. G. L. Wittgenstein. Boston. 1975. 1993. B. 1970. E. & R. McCauley 1990.). R. In Wittgenstein Sources and Perspectives. [1901] 1960. P. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61(2): 201–23. Wittgenstein. New York: Harvester Press. Oxford: Blackwell. Boyer. N. R. James. 131–71. “Crisis of Conscience. “Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’”. P. 1994. McCauley. London: Collins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CA: Wadsworth. 1991. McCauley 1993. R. Luckhardt (ed. Lawson. London: Routledge. 1996. Interpreting the Sacred. L. Wittgenstein. N. D. R. Oxford: Blackwell. In The Churchlands and Their Critics. “African Traditional Thought and Western Science”. The Varieties of Religious Experience. “Explanatory Pluralism and the Coevolution of Theories in Science”. New Haven. How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion. Horton. N. Paden. 1980b. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach.

most of these ideas were dismissed as unwarranted – historically. but for the sake of genuine re-exploration. they resemble nourishing raisins in a cellular mass of inedible dough. not the tissue of logic connecting them. even political. ethically. Such ideas have a virtue of their own and may generate new hypotheses. To be sure. the following tentative ideas on the interrelations of religion. I am also a staunch believer that it is usually worthwhile to re-read and recycle its precursors. throwing a lot of babies out with the bathwater). origins. 13 “Peekaboo!” and object permanence: on the play of concealment and appearance in cognition and religion Thomas Hoffmann Wet auto-da-fés and cognitive readings From the past two hundred years of scholarly endeavour in the study of reli- gion.e. (Turner 1974: 23) Thus. academic turns and tides unfortunately often assume the rhetorical form of what could be called “wet auto-da-fés” (i. psychologically. but his scattered ideas. gender-wise and so forth. In the course of theoretical. poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller (1759– 269 . not just for the sake of erudite namedrop- ping. genealogical awe. evolution. are what tend to survive. progress. we have all become acquainted with a profusion of innovative hypoth- eses concerning the origin and essence of religion. methodological. Although I take cognitive studies to belong to one of the most promising approaches in the academic study of religion today. or an Olympic vista of alterations and continuities. As Victor Turner put it: It is not a theorist’s whole system which so illuminates. However. They even show how scattered facts may be systematically connected! Randomly distributed through some monstrous logical system. his flashes of insight taken out of systemic con- text and applied to scattered data. The intui- tions. cognition and play are beholden – at least indirectly – to the early theories of the playwright.

Schiller [1795] 1981). In light of the indisputable importance of canonization. and have subsequently left us with religio- cultural imprinting4 or recapitulatory schema. not unproblematic hypothesis that research in child developmental psychology presents us with one of the most empirically viable starting points regarding evolutionary cognition. anyway. along with the conventional philological disciplines. strong readings are usually what convince us when experimenting with a promising theory. an approach more firmly embedded in cognitive linguistics is certainly warranted. special- ized. Lakoff and Johnson’s theories regarding basic image schemas imprinted in the mind through embodied action seems to support Piaget’s initial conclusions on a phenomenon he designated as object permanence (explanation follows). Groos 1898) and Granvill Stanley Hall (1844–1924). Piaget & Inhelder 1971). As a final point and critical remark. thomas hoffmann 1805. admittedly.1 Otherwise. and some lesser known neo-Darwinian philosophers and psy- chologists like Karl Groos (1861–1946. originally espoused by German biologist and philosopher Ernst von Haeckel 270 . The physiological correlations between the phylogeny and ontogeny of human beings (including their early existence as embryonic creatures) might not be the only pertinent guide – it might be that cognitive correlations are relevant as well. Gulick 1898). Looking for a hypothesis Without further ado I will proceed from the classical and. I believe that in general the scientific cognitive study of religion should be more committed to specific. the current state of affairs is still in a nascent phase and a recent issue of Poetics Today2 dedicated to the topic “Literature and the Cognitive Revolution” raises my spirits because the editors call for a cognitive histori- cism. The latter idea. I fear. the philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903. is a critique I sometimes encounter among scien- tists. held much more sway over prehistorical man. it will deteriorate into mediocre science studies performed by people from the humanities with only limited training in the natural sciences and psychology – that. Even so. Spencer 1873). the cognitive linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson. and context-sensitive readings of their common materials. as well as the physical “educator” Luther Gulick (1865– 1918. which only beset us for a short time during the infancy of our species. an early cognitive pioneer.3 Perhaps some “infantile” cognitive faculties. namely Jean Piaget (1896–1980. canons and stylized (whether innovative or conventional) discourse-registers in numerous religious texts. After all. Furthermore. proved not only absolutely indispensable but also a felicitous match to the most contemporary of my inspirational sources.

they bear a strong resemblance to more accepted evolutionary paradigms. Emphasis is placed on basic embodied image schemas that emerge. they thought that several playful motor-activities in children betrayed a complex of reflections of earlier evolutionary experiential patterns.g. While such confident details of early quasi-Lamarckian recapitulatory the- ories are now rejected as naïve and crude. the agricultural/patriarchal stage (dolls. who both sought to demonstrate that conceptualization and linguistic expression – whether literal or metaphorical – reflect dynamic cognitive patterning of recurrent bodily experience. accurate throwing and club hitting as playful recapitulations of early hunting skills. which argue that humans and their religious systems are the highly functional. Hall 1920). for instance. have clearly proceeded along the dual inheritance track – even though some of them might not subscribe to that description. the “visibility” and malleability of objects. “peekaboo!” and object permanence (1834–1919). yet often excessive and disastrous. The modern notion of schema is of Kantian origin. exaggerated and even quasi-racist in their conception of evolution. the savage stage (hunting. their influence on later developmental theories is unquestionable. Justin Barrett (2000) and Pascal Boyer (2002). In an early formulation of Johnson: The view I am proposing is this: in order for us to have meaningful connected experiences that we can comprehend and reason about. the somewhat loose term for a branch of the overall field of cognitive linguistics (e. category formation and conceptual metaphors (e. such as various versions of dual inheritance theory. and our creative bent for putting these image schemas into analogical and metaphorical operation in language. tag. grammar or neurol- ogy. digging in sand) and the tribal stage (team games). by dint of our evolutionary kinaesthetic engagement with basic natural givens like. Gulick also viewed modern sports like hard running. products of both biological and socio-cultural evolution. Cognitive semantics usually revolves around issues of lexical semantics. hide-and-seek).g. scholars such as Walter Burkert (1996). but its contemporary re-worked notion as so- called image schemas has been most successfully espoused by linguist George Lakoff (1987) and philosopher Mark Johnson (1987). such as the animal stage (climbing. Lakoff 1987) rather than morphology. Croft & Cruse 2004). Particularly. on the other.7 Another progeny of the dual inheritance family has been adduced in cog- nitive semantics. the nomad stage (keeping pets). on the one hand. but it was Gulick and Hall5 who developed and adapted the theory to child development the- ory: according to this theory the development of children recapitulates evo- lutionary developmental phases as they grow up (Gulick 1898. and 271 . In the cognitive study of religion. perceptions.6 More generally. gravity. there must be pattern and order to our actions. swinging). came to be called the Recapitulation Theory.

(Johnson 1987: 29) Since then. “appearance”). containment in its most unadorned and minimalist state can be depicted as a dot inside a circle: like . (f ) Image schemata afford “normal” pattern completions that can serve as a basis for inference. dynamic sub-schemas of concealment and exposure emerge.9 which correlate neatly with conven- tional religious terminology – pace any deconstructive critique – such as mys- tery (from Greek myein. all terms conceivable as variations of the containment schema. apocalypse (lit. Diagrammatically. “to unveil”). secrecy (from Latin secernere “to set apart”). and epiphany (from Greek epiphaneia. or of. the notion and scope of image schemas has been refined and grounded.. they can be seized and represented in simple diagrams using elements like arrows and circles. these ongoing ordering activities. (e) Image schemata are instantiated as activation patterns (or “contours”) in topologic and topological neural maps. and regularity in. our manipulations of objects. A schema is a recurrent pattern. Lakoff & Johnson 1999). “to con- ceal”) versus revelation (from Latin revelatus. (b) Image schemata are “image”-like in that they preserve the topological structure of the whole perceptual experience. shape. and our perceptual interactions.8 When probing further into the containment schema. “to close ones eyes or mouth” or “conceal”). 272 . (Rohrer 2005: 173) As stated in (b). although the schemas work dynamically. This contain- ment schema rehearses in a very general and flexible way the most archetypi- cal and commonplace experience of putting objects into and taking them out of bounded areas or – alternatively – visually tracking objects into or out of some bounded areas. “to draw away”). thomas hoffmann conceptions. (d) Image schemata are structures which link sensorimotor expe- rience to conceptualization and language. (c) Image schemata operate dynamically in and across time.e. occultation (from Latin occultus. a container. In short. One schema that shall prove most noteworthy in this context is that of the containment (Johnson 1987: 21ff. Cognitive linguist Tim Rohrer sums up: (a) Image schemata are recurrent patterns of bodily experience. “un-hide”. i. These patterns emerge as meaningful structures for us chiefly at the level of our bodily movements through space.

“peekaboo!” and object permanence

Man-child, cognition and play:
speculations on religious links

When dealing with the origins and evolutionary tracks of religion, specula-
tion simply goes with the territory. There is no point in denying the specula-
tive fringes, and, for my part, they centre on play and, as it were, man-child.
Here it seems reasonable that we consult child psychology and its growing
theoretical and empirical body on play. Today child developmental psychol-
ogy clearly offers the most comprehensive and data-loaded field regarding
play.10 For several decades in developmental psychology, it has been sensus
communis that play constitutes a significant factor in the development of
tool use and problem solving (Bruner et al. 1976), of language and cognition
(Vygotsky 1967), of self-concept (Mead 1934), and – most important in the
present context – in the development of symbolization, pretence and make-
believe (Piaget 1962; Singer 1973; Bateson 1955). In the scientific study of
religion, play – and not only the gleeful variety but the serious and intense as
well – has been granted an important role too. An early academic landmark
regarding play, culture and religion is Johan Huizingas’s Homo Ludens from
1938, in which the reader is presented with a cornucopia of play and play-like
notions and practices while making a case for their intricate ties to such key
cultural institutions as sex, jurisprudence, war, art, philosophy and of course
religion. Since then, the subject has only received sporadic attention, even
though the highly influential Turner published From Ritual to Theatre: The
Human Seriousness of Play in 1982.11

“Annihilated and resurrected”

Trying to circumscribe what kind of “infantile” cognitive faculty religion
exploits and plays with, we must attend to the very first year of our life, more
exactly between our fourth and twelfth months. From the numerous clini-
cal observations12 that in their first year infants proceed from being unable
to maintain so-called object permanence to being able to maintain so-called
object permanence, it could be hypothesized that prehistorical man under-
went this cognitive development on a much more protracted timescale and
that it might have had some important bearings on the origin of religious
concepts and practices. Now, what precisely is object permanence?
Object permanence is a standard term in cognitive psychology, coined by
Jean Piaget, denoting the ability to make an intrinsic connection between
the very same object that is on display and then concealed or vice versa. Prior
to full-blown object permanence-ability the world of these infants consti-
tutes a visual field of objects that is constantly being, in the words of Piaget,


thomas hoffmann

“annihilated and resurrected” (Piaget 1954: 11). In such a visual field, an
object represents “a mere image which re-enters the void as soon as it van-
ishes, and emerges from it for no apparent reason” (ibid.). More precisely, a
leap of conceptualization occurs in the infant’s ability to mentally grasp and
preserve the continued existence of objects out of sight during the period
between two-and-a-half and twelve months. Piaget’s experiments led him to
the following conclusions (among many others):

• That infants seem to forget objects not present to their senses during
their first three months
• That, at four months, they seem to understand that objects continue
to exist even though the objects are out of sight. However, they are still
not able to act on this knowledge and they seem to forget the location
of the object quickly
• At about eight months, they begin to search for hidden objects but they
still quickly forget about their location and instead become captivated
by their own movements
• From then on their ability to consistently preserve object permanence
improves well into the second year of life.

What makes the infant achieve object permanence seems to be closely related
to the development and fine-tuning of the sensorimotor skills, in particular
the use of hands and probably also gaze.13 In other words, when the infant is
able to act on and literally handle its proximate objects, object permanence is
then likely to evolve.
To be sure, there is a long and winding road from Piagetian sensorim-
otor substages to hypothetical religious scenarios, but if we keep in mind
Piaget’s words on annihilation and unfathomable resurrection, we begin to
get the drift of a typical theistic and ritualistic scenario – perhaps this is no

Prehistoric object permanence

Needless to say it would be unwise to pose prehistorical man as nothing
more than an adult child, a childish precursor to our present apogee posi-
tion. This certainly smacks of outdated research on primitive religions and
their “childish” practitioners (e.g. Levy-Bruhl 1922). Indeed, it would be
difficult to conceive of an evolutionary scenario in which prehistorical man
would stop chasing an animal fleeing into the thicket or would stop digging
for hidden roots and the like. Contrary to the infant, prehistorical man must
have been able to reason, or rather imagine, that things are not only what


“peekaboo!” and object permanence

they seem.14 That things in the broadest sense of the word (including agents)
have a life of their own irrespective of one’s own “narrow-sighted” egocentric
perceptions. Like prehistorical man, we intuitively know (based on count-
less experiences) that objects, among many other attributes, by and large
have substance, are external to ourselves, maintain their identity in spite of
being moved and continue to exist even if they are hidden from us. In other
words: instead of adhering to the infantile psychology of “out-of-sight, out-
of-mind”, prehistorical man was able to entertain and elaborate the idea that
things are still there – existing behind any visual barriers or in the form of
traces.15 This “still being there” must be viewed on an axiological axis with
one end associated with the lustful and cheerful, and the other end associated
with the uncanny and risky. Both ends of the axis can be affiliated with the
traditional argot of religions. As to the uncanny end, this has been associ-
ated with the so-called hyperactive agency detection device (aka HADD), a
concept developed in the cognitive science of religion (e.g. Guthrie 1993;
Atran 2002; Barrett 2000). And just as HADD is believed to be functional
for man in a hunter–gatherer milieu with predators and venomous animals
but still puts its strains and boons on us as part of our evolutionary heritage,
so might object permanence also be a part of that heritage too. Perhaps pre-
historical man entertained a much more heightened attention to the almost
mystical experience of first “seeing” an object, then “not-seeing” the object,
then seeing it again, and then finally – this being the decisive cognitive leap
– “seeing it with the mind’s eye”.

The first part of the hypothesis

Hence the initial part of the hypothesis is that religion in the form of beliefs
in supernatural agents and objects draws on this “infantile” cognitive phase
and subsequently elaborated and warped it in innumerable cultural-ritual
ways in order to recollect and play on/with this canonical cognitive experi-
ence. The example par excellence would be theistic religions that – to put it
very simply – propagate beliefs in personalized gods that appear at crucial
moments and then disappear again. To rehearse a few of the standard terms,
we can list revelation, vision, epiphany, occultation and avatar.
It is important to notice that this kind of theistic pattern of appearance
and disappearance often takes the form of some kind of veiling, meaning that
the god is believed to be present but hidden behind or inside something – or
at least leaves some kind of vestige or sign. What these religions provide are
not only particular belief systems in the form of linguistic propositions, but
also ritual scenarios that instil, rehearse, and revise these seemingly simple
moments of appearance and disappearance.16


thomas hoffmann

The image schema of containment tallies well with this widespread reli-
gious topos and is furthermore able to anchor it to human being’s most per-
vasive features of bodily experience. As Johnson notes:

We are intimately aware of our bodies as three-dimensional con-
tainers into which we put certain things … and out of which other
things emerge … From the beginning, we experience constant
physical containment in our surroundings … We move in and out
of rooms, clothes, vehicles [though probably not for archaic man],
and numerous kinds of bounded spaces. We manipulate objects,
placing them in containers. (Johnson 1987: 21)

Translating Aby Warburg’s famous dictum that “the dear God hides in the
detail”, we realize that the most trivial and recurrent details of our bodily
lives may have given rise to – or at least sustained – this basic theistic topos.

The second part: from object permanence
to peekaboo and other forms of play

From infants’ newborn awareness of object permanence, it is only a matter of
time until more complex and highly exciting symbolic activities develop – for
instance make-believe. It is hard to imagine that prehistorical man did not
delight in these as well. Many of these activities could be subsumed under
the generic play, which then can be parcelled out in types of play, such as
locomotor play (e.g. running and jumping), object play (e.g. involving pull-
ing or shaking objects), social play (e.g. physical contact play such as chasing
or symbolic play where one object stands for another) and fantasy play (in
which the meanings of objects or actions are transformed to fit an imaginary
situation) (Smith 1982).
Two sub-types of social play are peekaboo and hide-and-seek. Peekaboo is a
simple game played to amuse young children, in which you keep hiding your
face and then showing it again, saying “Peekaboo!” The portmanteau word
built on the verb “to peek” and the interjection “boo”. The most immediate
result among children seems to be strong emotional arousal, often in the form
of that strange bedfellow of our languages, laughter. The meaning of hide-and-
seek is self-evident. Now, what I submit as the second part of my hypothesis
is to view certain religious phenomena as more elaborate peekaboo-like ves-
tiges of object permanence. Just as children usually indulge in repetitions of
peekaboo-playing and related activities, it seems as if religions tap into this
kind of ludic cognition, finding its own special excitement in playing with
divine appearance and disappearance. However, whereas common peekaboo


“peekaboo!” and object permanence

usually results in gleeful spirits and laughter, religions just as often take on a
more sinister and awe-inspiring guise. Hence, taking this playful activity as a
clue, my second move will be to assess the complex interrelationships between
facial/bodily/material appearance, disappearance and reappearance as it comes
out in two religious texts from the province of the Semitic, namely the Tanakh
(aka the Hebrew Bible), and the earliest surviving sîrah (i.e. Ibn Ishâq’s hagiog-
raphy of Muhammad, Islam’s prophet and founder). While the author is pat-
ently aware of the tremendous leap from the evolutionary and archaic mists17
to something as advanced as written religious history, it is hoped that the
concrete textual data will serve as heuristically suggestive and make up for
the somewhat speculative cognitive evolutionary hypothesis adduced above.

Semites taking the veil (off )

In both early Israelite religion and Islam, we witness an acute attention to the
different modes of appearance and non-appearance, to display and conceal-
ment. Thus, the expression “Semites taking the veil (off)” should suggest both
the concrete and metaphorical veiling “fashions” of these Semitic religions.

Some Mosaic samples

In key “Mosaic” parts of Tanakh, we encounter a variety of display and con-
cealment schemas. Here, I shall only present three examples.18 Italics and the
inserted sigla (#) symbolize those stretches of discourse that I find particularly

Exodus 2:2-6: The concealed and “revealed” Moses-infant:

Exod. 2: The woman became pregnant [#1] and gave birth [#2] to
a son. When she saw that he was a healthy child, she hid him [#3]
for three months. 3: But when she was no longer able to hide him,
she took a papyrus basket [#4a] for him and sealed it [#4b] with
bitumen and pitch. … 4: The daughter of Pharaoh came down
… and saw the basket among the reeds [#5] … 10: She named him
Moses [#6], saying “Because I drew him from the water.”

Commentary Notice how schemas of concealing and revealing take up much
of this opening text in the Moses narratives.19 The first instance, #1, of con-
cealment concerns the pregnant woman (i.e. a woman bearing an unknown
child in her womb, the biological “cover-up” par excellence). As second


thomas hoffmann

instance, #2, the completely natural but extreme exposure/dilation involved
in birth, which then leads to a status of general concealment, #3, and then
special concealment in the basket, #4a (the word tebah is the same as that
used for Noah’s ark).20 After being found among the reeds, #4b (a bounded
and opaque space; pubic hair?), by Pharaoh’s daughter, the boy receives the
punning name Mosheh, #6: in Egyptian, ms(w), meaning “to be born” and
a common element in names; alternatively, it simply means “boy”, but the
punning aspect is of course associated with Hebrew where it means “to draw
out”. That is, like a Doppelgänger midwife, Pharaoh’s daughter delivers once
more the boy from his watery conditions.

Exodus 3:4, 6: Moses and God in hide-and-seek and “inverse” peekaboo-like

Exod. 4: God called to him from within the bush [#1] and said
“Moses, Moses!” [#2] And he said “Here I am”. [#3a] 6: … Then
Moses hid [#3b] his face, because he was afraid to look at God [#4].

Commentary In this crucial, strange and vivid passage, God appears both
concealed and revealed, that is, as a flame of fire from within, #1, the bushy
quasi-impenetrable organic shrub (cf. the reeds). What then happens can best
be described as part hide-and-seek, part some kind of “inverse” peekaboo: is
it God who is hidden or is it Moses? In any case, God finds it vital to call
Moses’ name twice (in the same interjection-like manner as in the exclama-
tion of “Peekaboo!”) and Moses replies in a way that seems to imply that he
too cannot see God. But then, all of a sudden, Moses hides, #3, his face fear-
ing the countenance of God. Does this mean that God “actually” let his face
be revealed from the bush in a frightening moment of the most awe-inspiring
peekaboo? Whatever inferences and conclusions we dare to draw, it is indis-
putable that the passage entertains the key elements and moves of peekaboo
and hide-and-seek.

Exodus 33:18-23: Moses seeing God from behind, Moses’ veiling and unveiling
when appearing in front of God and the Israelite people:

Exod. 18: And he [Moses] said, “Show me your glory. 19: And He
[Yahweh] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face,
and I will proclaim the name of Yahweh [#1] before you … 20: But
He added, “You cannot see my face [#2], for no one can see me and
live [#3].” 21: Yahweh said, “Here is a place by me; you will sta-
tion yourself on a rock. 22: When my glory passes by, I will put
you in a cleft in the rock [#4] and will cover you with my hand [#5a]


“peekaboo!” and object permanence

while I pass by. 23: Then I will take away my hand [#5b], and you
will see my back, but my face must not be seen.

Commentary In this Semitic version of Plato’s cave myth, we witness once
again the focus on faces, proclamation and concealment. As in peekaboo play,
face and gaze are crucial. The first peekaboo-like trace is #1 with its combi-
nation of face and proprium interjection. In #2 and #3 the clandestine and
uncanny aspect of peekaboo is called to mind. In other words, God’s “boo!”
may scare you to death. Verse 22 adds another concealment prop, #4, namely
the cleft in the rock; Moses is once again positioned in the shadowy safehouse
of a semi-bounded space, #4 (cleft, naqarah, is of the feminine grammatical
gender; cf. womb, basket, reeds), the ideal place to be positioned when God’s
dazzling glory, kabowd, passes by. In this divine peekaboo scenario, #5a and b,
the climax is somewhat restrained: only a glimpse of Yahweh’s back (akhowr,
plural “backs”, buttocks?) is what Moses is allowed to see from his cleft posi-
tion. However, the gesture involving hand and face is prominent.
Other examples could be presented, e.g. Moses veiling his face, God resid-
ing in the cloud and fire or dwelling in the multi-veiled Tabernacle, not to
mention all the instances of words and prepositions that suggest containment
and its different entailments. These must await a more systematic study.

Islamic samples

As for Islam, in casu the Qur’ân, concealment and display take on a most
prominent position too, not least in the various forms of veiling – as the
female prop for modesty (khumur, “veils”, Q 24:31), as a barrier between
life and death (barzakh, “barrier, partition” Q 23:100), as the barrier behind
which the voice of God emanates (hijâb, “curtains, veils”, Q 42:51), as a
psychological barrier (hijâb, Q 41:5) and so forth. For my purposes, I will
bypass the Qur’ân and its elliptic quasi-poetical style text and limit myself to
one para-Qur’ânic narrative passage, which, however, is central to the Muslim
Heilsgeschichte; namely, the one concerning Muhammad’s first revelation.
This earliest attested hagiographical version concerning Muhammad’s pro-
phetic call relates a weird and wonderful attestation-ritual in which Khadîja,
Muhammad’s first wife, tests the angelic verity of her husband’s alarming
experiences – according to tradition the Prophet had been on the brink of
suicide because he thought himself a mere poet or one possessed.21

She [Khadîja] said to the messenger of God, “O Muhammad,22
are you able to tell me about your visitant, when he comes to
you?” He replied that he could, and she asked him to tell her


thomas hoffmann

when he came. So when Gabriel came to him, as he was wont,
the Messenger said to Khadîja, “This is Gabriel who just came to
me”. “Get up, O Muhammad”, she said, “and sit on my left thigh”.
The Messenger did so, and she said, “Can you see him?” “Yes”, he
said. She said, “Then turn round and sit on my right thigh”. He
did so, and she said, “Can you see him?” When he said that he
could, she asked him to move and sit in her lap.23 When he had
done this she again asked if he could see him, and when he said
yes, she unveiled and cast aside her veil (khimâr)24 while the mes-
senger was sitting in her lap. Then she said to him, “Do you see
him?” He replied, “No”. She said, “O Muhammad, be confirmed
and rejoice, by God he is surely an angel and not a shaytân …”
[Fâtima’s version: … as I heard it she made the messenger of God
come inside [baynahâ wa bayna] her shift [a simple straight piece
of clothing worn by women in the past as underwear], and there-
upon Gabriel departed. (Hishâm 1998: vol. 2, 75)

Commentary This attestation-ritual, with its strong sexual and feminine over-
tones, is also a rehearsal of concealment and display, in fact a kind of pious strip-
tease. In order to unsee, as it were, the messenger angel Gabriel, Muhammad
must display himself in various positions intimately related with the private
parts (i.e. in a general sense) of his wife. First the left thigh, with left being the
weakest – in symbolic terms – part of the body, then the right thigh, being more
powerful, then she spread her legs and let him sit in her lap, until she finally
unveils herself (the most peekaboo-like moment), even throwing the veil away.
In the Fâtima version (i.e. by Muhammad’s daughter), the Prophet is even per-
mitted to right of entry inside the chemise of Khadîja. The religious rationale
seems to be that only when modesty is infringed upon most drastically, thereby
revealing the most restricted and “undercover” parts of the woman, the angel
withdraws – out of sheer courtesy. Apparently, a genuine shaytân would be so
uncouth as to stay and enjoy the show. So, in order to confirm the existence
of a hidden and ephemeral angelic figure challenging tremendously Khadîja’s
conventional conceptions of object permanence, the figure/object has to be
teased out to ultimate disappearance by means of a trial-and-error-like display
of what is usually concealed. By gradual access to more and more intimate parts
of his wife, the adult man – the figure of vitality and strength in sixth-century
Arabia – becomes more and more childlike and passive until he seems almost
coiled up in a position resembling that of a foetus. In other words: while the
Prophet is “put to rest” in a kind of virtual pregnant concealment, the sexual
display forces a true angel to blush and retreat. In a play of concealment and
display, sexual and foetal make-believe, the reader is able to conjure up a rich
world of invisible visibilities – the acme of object permanence.


3. Crane (2001). Richardson and Steen (2002) and Feyaerts (2003).and author-orientated read- ings (literary and religious texts). The full title is Poetics Today: A Journal for Theory and Analysis of Literature and Communication. see.tau. Final remarks Admittedly. For a critique of evolutionary psychology. “peekaboo!” and object permanence Summary This chapter set out with a few programmatic provisos on precursors and recycling in a field that has a tendency to promote itself as the Great Frontier. Lakoff and Turner (1989). 4. in this case the so-called contain- ment poetics_today. it should be evident that any straightforward conclusions must be put in abeyance and yield space to more exploratory hypothesis-making and ludic readings – in the spirit of Turner. We then proceeded to tease out certain hypotheses regarding the possible interrelations of religion. it was hypothesized that the theistic topos of appearance and disappearance could very well be grounded in deeply embodied. Next. for example. see Hogan (2003: 191–217). Religions. published by Duke University Press (see www.htm#about). For works arguing for and pursuing more specific. and describes a learning proc- ess during highly receptive phases of life by which animals or humans are exercised to 281 . Notes Though spec- ulation still goes with this notoriously nebulous territory. The texts certainly have come a long way from the purported cognitive grounding because of cultural and historical circumstances. Imprinting is a term used in psychology and ethology. then. the two most important and complementary notions were then introduced: the Piagetian notion of object permanence and the cog- nitive semantic notion of image schemas. It is an Israeli journal highly attentive to insights from cognitive psy- chology. expe- riential and developmental patterns attested in child psychology. in serious ritual and textual playfulness elaborate this universal human pattern and to such degree that we end up with texts like the ones presented above. but we surmise that they none the less would fail to appeal to us were it not for their basic image schematic and Piagetian baselines. context. origins. 2. evolution. cognitive studies – from the more philosophical and ludic end to the more hard-wiring and exacting neurological end of the spectrum – still seem to be the best candi- dates for the moment. Cued by the keyword “peekaboo”. cognition and play. and in light of the initial origin theme that framed this inquiry (and the Aarhus conference).

21.g. Cole & Cole 1989. 11.The term goes back to Augustine’s notion of a theologia naturalis. “imprint”) certain objects. 26:27. fancying. Standardized tests have been developed to confirm Piaget’s observations. such as the legend of Sargon’s birth (approx. 7. Cole & Cole 1989: 189–97). The topos “heroes spared at birth” is found in other ancient literary works. eighth century bce). which also can mean “forbidden. Cf. “son of my uncle”.g. It seems to be sensus communis that the standard image schemas only represent a part of the possible schemas (Hampe 2005: 2). For ritual in connection with memory. Baron-Cohen. MA: MIT Press. Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association and a leading figure in establishing developmental psychology. 15. Johnson (1987: 23). S. Introductory textbooks on developmental child psychology demonstrate this most amply (e. 37:36. addresses the issue again. Q 15:6. etc. “Fi hijirî”.g. Translations are taken from The New Revised Standard Version. 68:51). In the chronicles of Tabari (Guillaume [1955] 1987: 106). 22. Piaget and Erikson to “educators” like Benjamin Spock. 6.e. References Atran. see Harskamp et al. 13. 18. A. 282 . induction. ibn al-’amm. hidden cave-paintings or Catalhüyük figurines displaying fat women at the front but revealing a famished skeleton-like person from behind. “a mad- man or possessed” is uttered several times in the Qur’ân (e. Cf. such as deduction.g. The phenomenon was discovered by amateur biologist Douglas Spalding (1841–77). 19. 10. 17. Cambridge. With the affiliated modes of reasoning. For example. Boyer 2002: 164). Boyer’s critique contra Guthrie that religion is not so much about “faces in the clouds [as] traces in the grass” (Guthrie 1993. 8. classes of objects. see Whitehouse and Laidlaw (2004). prohibited”. abduction. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. 5. Cf. 20. Freud. 14. The name Muhammad is inserted instead of his genealogical kunya or “name of hon- our”. 12. it is related that Muhammad asked Khadîja “Woe is me poet or possessed?” The allegation of being majnûn. and became extensively studied and popularized by Konrad Lorenz in his experiment with his famous greylag geese. however. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. 16. psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s (1995) theories on an “eye direction detec- tor” brain module and the various theories on Joint Attention (e. 1995. analogical thinking. 2006). New York: Oxford University Press. Mussen 1983). Ranging from influential psychologists like S. Berk 1991. 9. The topos “infant in basket shipped” is also found in a Hittite myth known as Tale of Two Cities: Kanesh and Zalpa. 2002. 23. S. Maria Montessori and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. 24. or behavioural patterns. A recent anthology. 2005). Eilan et al. thomas hoffmann prefer (i. some of them seem to indicate that Piaget’s age range sets are too conservative (e. com- parison. Quoted from Burkert (1996: ix). Gesell. Khimar usually indicates a veil covering head and face of the woman.

Grady (eds). Cognitive Linguistics. Piaget. New York: Basic Books. New York: Basic Books. Chicago. A. G. Norton. Sylva (eds) 1976. Chicago. G. B. P. Lakoff. 1938. & F. Bruner. Cole 1989. Mind. Johnson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1999. E. Groos. Playful Religion: Challenges for the Study of Religion. Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution. and Reason. Dreams. 1954. 1983. 1934. 2003. A. Psychiatric Research Reports 2: 39–51. Johnson. The Bible through Metaphor and Translation: A Cognitive Semantic Perspective. Boston. Gulick. Harskamp. “Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics: Introduction”. B. Lakoff. K. L. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. S. Berk. Lévy-Bruhl. 1998. New York: John Wiley. London: Routledge. Crane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. M. Imagination. Hampe & J. New York: Scribners. Hall. Bachlaan: Van Gelderen. In From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics.. Steen 2002. The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ishaq’s “Sirat Rasul Allah”. “peekaboo!” and object permanence Barrett. T. 2000 “Exploring the Natural Foundations of Religion”. IL: The University of Chicago Press. New York: Oxford University Press. W. Creation of the Sacred: Track of Biology in Early Religions. Mead. Mussen. Cambridge. E. H. & S. Beirut: Dâr al-Jîl. IL: University of Chicago Press. T. van. Croft. 1993. (ed. L. Guillaume. E. MA: Harvard University Press. G. Handbook of Child Psychology. and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. and Imitation in Childhood. The Play of Man. Guthrie. 1922. Inhelder 1971. L. Child Development. Hishâm. 2005. Fire. “Literature and the Cognitive Revolution: An Introduction”. La Mentalité Primitive. J. 1987. McCormack & J. Roeland & P. J. & B. Huizingas. J. S. Bateson. 1920. Chicago. F. Hampe. H. J. 1987. I. Poetics Today 23(1): 1–8. Trends in Cognitive Science 4(1): 29–43. Cognitive Science. Chicago. L. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. [1955] 1987. Youth. M. Richardson. Religion Excplained. Cole. G. J.) 2003. S. Roessler (eds) 2005. Joint Attention: Communication and Other Minds. Play. W. & A. Self and Society. New York: Penguin. N. Lakoff. Mental Imagery in the Child. Jolly & K. 1–14. NJ: Princeton University Press. 1901. & M. Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers. New York: Scientific American Books. and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. Eilan. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning. Cruse 2004. The Development of Children. Literature. A. G. New York: Appleton. 1996. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. 1955 “A Theory of Play and Fantasy”. Homo Ludens: Proeve eener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur. J. IL: University of Chicago Press. 1898. A Philosophy of Play. Turner 1989. London: Vintage. Hogan. 1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002. & M. Burkert. MA: Allyn & Bacon. M. P. & D. Oxford: Peter Lang. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. G. H. Boyer. A. Piaget. Paris: Félix Alcan. The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Appleton. Piaget. 2001. ‘Abd al-Malik bin. 283 . Women. G. Versteeg (eds) 2006. Princeton. C. IL: University of Chicago Press. 1962. J. K. New York: W. Feyaerts. Al-Sîrat al-nabawîyyat. New York: Basic Books. Hoerlh. Shakespeare’s Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory. P. H. W. M. Davie.

Vygotsky. Smith. (ed. CA: AltaMira Press. V. W. H. 12: 62–76. Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen. Fields. S. T. [1795] 1981. J. B. Ritual and Memory: Toward a Comparative Anthro- pology of Religion. “Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child”. thomas hoffmann Rohrer. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. C. New York: Cornell University Press. 284 . “Social Dramas and Ritual Metaphors”. L. Walnut Creek. Spencer. Turner. 3. Schiller. New York: Academic Press. Principles of Psychology. P. Soviet Psychology. New York: Appleton. 2005. K. Laidlaw (eds) 2004. 1873. The Child’s World of Make-Believe: Experimental Studies of Imaginative Play. 1967. V. vol. Whitehouse. J. New York: Perform- ing Arts Journal. 1982. 3rd edn. Singer. 1982. “Image Schemata in the Brain”. Grady (eds). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. H. W. In his Dramas. 165–96. “Does Play Matter: Functional and Evolutionary Aspects of Animal and Human Play”. In From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5: 139–84. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag. E. Turner. 23–59. 1974. F. and Metaphors. L. Hampe & J. & J.) 1973.

to fifth-century ce school of Indian Buddhist philosophy called Yogācāra. this is a caricature. by extension. but it is a caricature we invite whenever we neglect some of the essential causal relations between cognition. then it follows that present-day cognitive processes – and again. This feedback model provides a deeper understanding of the mutually constructive relation between culture and consciousness that seems particularly relevant to today’s questions.e. culture and religion – would be mere epiphenomena. which then provide the foundation for the cognitive processes of the present that. at the beginning of our species. Is it true that we can only understand how human consciousness – and by extension. cognition and the evolution of worlds William S. in which the cognitive processes of the past help construct the cognitive structures of the present. culture and religion) can certainly tell us much about its causal conditions. requires a more explicitly interactive model of causal- ity. the “practitioners of yoga”. Waldron Is causality. its origins. especially in human affairs like culture and religion. mere by-products of more basic and enduring cognitive structures. We will outline one such model here by presenting a dialogue between ideas found in the cognitive sciences and those developed by the third. And while smoke (i. as if this were fixed once and for all during our long evolutionary past. a one-way street. They developed a mode of analysis in which conscious- ness only occurs through the interaction between an organism and its environ- ment. though. in which the shadow of the past pulls the puppet-strings upon which behaviour of the present helplessly hangs? Do cognitive approaches to religion ultimately lead to such a picture of hopeless determinism? As pictures go. 14 Yogācāra Buddhist views on the causal relation between language. as many like to argue? If that were true. would follow as surely from our fixed cognitive natures as smoke from fire. in turn. culture and religion – operates today by looking at its antecedents. cognition. The patterns of today’s cogni- tion. Avoiding such critiques. in this view. culture and religion. it can 285 . culture and religion. This enabled them to articulate a more nuanced understanding of the co-evolution of culture and consciousness. affect the cognitive structures of the future.

however. They cannot be truly independent causes since they themselves unavoidably depend upon a variety of other. which further affect those supporting structures. often implicit. culture and religion. culture or religion all on their own. For cognitive structures can never “cause” cognition. however. an interactionist model that replaces a view of unilat- eral. culture and religion. citing paral- lels with modern theories and suggesting their larger relevance to the current discussion on the relations between cognition. I prefer to present an alternative one. This has. explicitly feedback into. This is a powerful paradigm and we have learned much by thinking this way. I am not suggesting that cognitive structures built up from our evolutionary past are not an essential part of the story. the whole story. Specifically. Various dimensions of this causal model are found throughout the physical and social sciences – indeed they are deeply implicit in most interpretations of evolution – but they are seldom all brought together in a single causal model. conditions that have helped bring them about and that allow them to continue to function in the present. unidirectional causality with one of reciprocal or circular causality. but that they are not. This model retains the important relationship between how consciousness evolved and how it currently operates. and so on. Instead of critiquing this model point by point. In short. We do presently depend upon cognitive and even cultural structures that were constructed in the past and that do strongly influence our current cognitive processes as well as our cultural and religious practices. from cognitive schemas to religious behaviour. but augments it with causal influences operat- ing in other directions. 286 . from past to present. waldron hardly impart any causal influence back onto its own originating conditions. and thus inevitably influence. We shall begin with the fundamental points. already been accomplished in most respects in the model of reciprocal causality and consciousness articulated by the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism. And these altered structures then. change the subsequent shape of cogni- tion and culture. in turn. from causes to results. Causality in living processes is much more multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. unidirectional causality is only part of the story. Causality in this model is a one-way street. william s. I can only describe its main points here. such as cognition. Instead of asking “who does what to whom”. Indian Buddhist causality: dependent arising Indian Buddhists claimed that we can best understand causality – how things come about – not by isolating unilateral causes and effects but by analysing complex patterns of interaction. But the role of purely unilateral. the results of past causal processes. and cannot be. the very cognitive structures that helped bring them about.

with the arising of this. More specifically. It is thus trans- actional as well as temporal. such as Lakoff’s and Johnson’s analysis of colour perception. in terms of events that occur when conditions allow. then a moment of visual cognitive awareness occurs. as we shall see. the formula does not say that the “eye sees” or that “consciousness sees”. The arising of cognitive awareness The implications of this approach are most clearly demonstrated in the Buddhist analysis of cognition. the idea that all phe- nomena occur or “arise” in dependence on their enabling conditions: “When this is. Instead. This seemingly simple analysis entails a number of deeper implications. with the cessation of this. that comes to be. asking: “under what conditions does such and such a phenomenon arise?” Or. visual cognitive awareness arises” (S II 73). the eye. that ceases” (M II 32). more precisely. rather. that does not come to be. only occurs at the interface. which. First. Cognitive awareness. but – as in ecological models – it also provided Buddhists with the conceptual flexibility to incorporate ever-expanding cir- cles of conditioning influences without compromising its original inspiration: that things dependently “arise” not by unilateral causes but through complex patterns of interaction. they say: 287 . they trans- posed that syntax to a passive construction. Cognitive awareness is neither an action nor an active faculty. of a sense-faculty and its correlative stimulus. the concomitance. yogācāra buddhist views following the agent-acts-on-object syntax of ordinary language. or. It thus arises neither from the subject nor the object alone. This is similar to many modern approaches to perception. when an appropriate object appears in the visual sense-field and impinges upon the visual sense- faculty. Buddhist analysis transposes the causal syntax and treats cognitive aware- ness as the automatic result of the interaction between a “visible” object and its correlative faculty. This classically Buddhist conception of causality is singularly expressed in a deceptively simple formula called “dependent arising”. is much more consistent with scientific approaches than searching for unchanging essences1 that endure. This formula became the basis not only for complex models of circular causality. that arises. When this is not. All six modes of human cognitive awareness – five sensory and one mental – similarly occur upon contact between their respective faculties and correlative objects. cognitive awareness or con- sciousness (vijñāna): “Dependent upon the eye and a (visible) form. even more elaborately: “what complex of conditions interact in what identifiably patterned ways in order to repeatedly give rise to what kind of phenomena?” Framing questions in this way.

color cones. and electromagnetic radiation. william s. 1991: 172). waldron arise[s] from the interactions of our bodies. color is a function of the world and our biology interacting. a correlation neatly captured in the expression “visible object”. (Lakoff & Johnson 1999: 24–5) It follows from this analysis that what serves as an object for an organism necessarily depends upon the structure of its sense faculties. they are neither a figment of our imaginations nor spontaneous creations of our brains … Rather. “World” as cognitive domain This correlative character of cognition therefore also alters our idea of “world” (loka). neural circuitry. What constitutes our world. our specific cognitive faculties. As with the arising of cognitive awareness. And it is this relationship between a given 288 . the four Noble Truths]” (A II 48. Colors are not objective. “it is in this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts that there is the world. the cessation of the world. and brains. there is in the grass or the sky no greenness or blueness independent of retinas. depends upon our particular sense faculties. then. he says. SN 169). our brains. And since what constitutes the “environment” or “world” of any given organism depends upon its specific cognitive faculties. a “world” here is explic- itly defined in relation to the faculties and activities of the beings who live in it. Harvard geneticist. we only inhabit an “experience-able world”.e.3 Just as we only see “visible objects”. the origin of the world. which in Indian Buddhist thought was primarily conceived in rela- tion to human experience. defines “environment” in similarly correla- tive terms: “the environment of an organism”. “The world (loka) has arisen through the six senses [the five senses and mind]”. nor hear the ultra-sonic sounds bats do. and the path leading to the cessation of the world [i. but rather as the specification of one” (Maturana & Varela 1980: xv). the reflec- tive properties of objects. for example. leading them to posit a mutually defining relationship in which “world and perceiver specify each other” (Varela et al. and necessarily defined in terms of. A similar notion is put forward by modern biologists. one that is both inseparable from. Richard Lewontin. We humans do not see the ultra-violet light bees do. Nor are colors purely subjective. “is the penumbra of external conditions that are relevant to it because it has effective interactions with those aspects of the outer world” (Lewontin 2000: 48). Maturana and Varela argue that “perception should not be viewed as a grasping of an external reality.2 As the Buddha states in several early texts. Cognition is unavoidably “a function of the world and our biology interacting”.

“What evolves”. evolution occurs through differential repro- ductive success. the environment as interacted with by the organism – that. This approach.).” It is the patterns of interaction that evolve. a domain that effectively “constitutes its entire cognitive reality” (Maturana & Varela 1980: 10–11). in which organisms who reproduce more prolifically pass on 289 . as we know. evolution- arily patterned structure is coming in from the environment. Tooby and Cosmides. Maturana and Varela declare. Thus. requires a broader notion of what exactly evolves. (Ibid. and those faculties change as the different kinds of consciousness they support affects those faculties. can be said to be the product of evolution” (Tooby & Cosmides 1992: 86). And how exactly do these domains evolve? Cyclic causality driven by action In Darwinian theory. because: evolution shapes the relationship between the genes and the envi- ronment such that they both participate in a coordinated way in the construction and calibration of adaptations. then. just as much as it is coming out from the genes. “is always a unit of inter- actions” (Maturana & Varela 1980: 12).5 Even evolutionary psychologists. neither the species by itself. hence “the evolution of cognitive domains”. argue for a similarly inclusive approach: it is “this developmentally relevant environment. These are inseparable processes. but the “species-in-environment. yogācāra buddhist views organism’s faculties and the range of its possible interactions that determines that organism’s “cognitive domain”. emphasis added) These species-specific worlds thus evolve in tandem with the evolving cog- nitive structures of each living system.: 86. Neither genes nor the environment are singular causes.4 reflecting “the evolution of cognitive domains” (ibid. nor the environment alone. The evolution of cognitive domains This interdependent definition of “cognitive domain” opens the door to evolutionary thinking. connecting the evolution of consciousness with its moment-to-moment occurrence: if “worlds” are defined in relation to the faculties of beings. they explain. then these “worlds” change as those faculties change. in a meaningful sense.

These are the structures (the faculties.: 265). which in turn evoke certain emotional responses. Now. in particular every- thing leading up to the act of reproduction and later the protec- tion of offspring.skārāh) that constitute our lives should be considered. and so on – a process that anthropologist. and social environment all interact. and their ensuing actions is aptly termed “the going around”. Briefly. and so on. “we are not stuff that abides. he argues. among others. william s. waldron more of their heritable characteristics. we see that it is neither genes nor beings that evolve in splen- did isolation.) that support the fresh arising of forms of consciousness.). etc. behaviour. And these characteristics in turn facilitate and promote those same behaviours that lead to further reproductive success. such as lust and aggression. that is. Actions. even in the simplest and most stere- otyped of species” (ibid. processes in the present and developments toward the future. the perpetuation of patterns of positive feedback driven by the recurrent actions of living beings is precisely the classical model of causal- ity articulated in Indian Buddhism. Michael Carrithers. What we need instead. Life simply is the recurrent patterns that perpetuate themselves through actions. sāra in Sanskrit. since “evolutionary processes are inseparable from the behaviour and social organization of animal species” (ibid. but patterns that perpetuate themselves”. sam . It is the basic model of life in indigenous Indian religious traditions and the basic term for “life” in most Indian vernaculars.7 This cycle of results of previous actions.6 calls “a circle of positive feedback” (Carrithers 1992: 48–9). thus constitute an indispensable link in the larger feedback cycle between the results of the past. (Nichols 1974: 264) This view immensely complicates any attempt to reduce human behaviour to a simple calculus of genetic determinants or selection pressures. the Buddha reportedly said. determines the direction of evolution as a result of differential breeding rates. critical learn- ing. Nichols continues. 290 . emotional responses to them. it is the pattern of “organisms-interacting-with-environment” that together evolves. This process gradually reinforces what- ever physiological or psychological characteristics lead to more reproductively successful interactions between organisms and their natural and social envi- ronments. As cynberneticist Norbert Wiener (1950: 96) observed. as “[the results of ] former action that has been constructed and intended and now to be experienced” (S II 64). Once again. As one biologist explains: Natural selection and genetic change depend upon the way in which an animal behaves since its behaviour. whose results eventually reinforce those very structures. is “a more complex model in which genetic disposition. the physiological and psycho- logical structures (sam.

In spite of these important and irrecon- cilable differences. even indispensable. 291 . religion come into play.11 Culture is thus not something added on to human life. states. so too are the linguistic “cognitive domains” that we humans unavoidably inhabit. one fifth-century Buddhist text. of course. role in human evolution. Language is not simply added on to human cognition.13 And since language is inherently social and intersubjective. then. culture and. as in evolution. yogācāra buddhist views Thus.: 22). it is constitutive of it. culture and biology are inseparable. too. brain and the self And this is where cognition. Culture in mind: language. radically and irrevocably changing both the brain structures12 and the cognitive processes of human beings: “Brain-language co-evolution has significantly restructured cognition from the top-down”. there are deep similarities between their models of circular causality in which action or behaviour plays an indispensible role. actions – the literal meaning of “karma” – constitute the indispensable link between results from the past. but gradually developed through patterns of circular causality. In this way the cycle of existence is without beginning” (AKBh IV 1.10 For human beings. more precisely. Since behaviour plays a crucial role in the constructive feed- back processes of evolution. our unique human brain structures co-evolved with the devel- opment of culture. is constitutive of our distinctively human “cognitive domains”. it became a powerful evolutionary impetus in its own right. the mode of communi- cating through symbolic interaction). Our linguistic capacities did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. even simple sensory cognition. quite different from Darwinian evolution. It. which operates through differential reproductive success guided by natural selection. by extension. The same is true for language (or.8 The way these effects are perpetuated in the Buddhist view – through the rebirth of specific individual “mindstreams” – is. neurophysiologist Terrence Deacon (1997: 417) argues. “The continuity of mind (santāna) increases gradually by the emotional responses (kleśa) and by actions and goes again to the next world. Deacon observes that “We live our lives in [a] shared virtual world … [which] was opened to us alone by the evolution of language” (ibid. such that “its secondary effects have also ramified to influence the whole of human cognition”. which itself depended upon the cognitive capacities of this evolving brain. “The world in its variety arises from action”.9 By most accounts. here. insofar as culture influences behaviour. it also plays an important. AKBh III 19a–d). too. And as language use co-evolved with culture. actions in the present and development into the future.

reference that symbols provide. so utterly habitual. but at the same time it blinds us to the most powerful structuring influences of our lives. dependent on the linguistic categories and their embodied cognitive structures that constitute our human “world”. the influences of language and culture – in turn facilitate their own kind of subtle correlative object: “the shared world whose aspects are indistinct” (ibid.15 “It is a final irony”. its compelling cogency. However individual we may feel. which gives rise to this experience of self. The most undeniably real experience is a virtual reality … its virtual nature notwith- standing. Unconscious structuring of the world All of these perspectives are brought together in a concept of unconscious mind developed by the Yogācāra school of Indian Buddhism in the fourth to fifth centuries ce.e. These subtle conditioning factors – in effect. Deacon declares: that it is the virtual. This subliminal level of mental processes thus evolves and develops over time as it stores the “seeds” (bīja) and impressions (vāsanā) of earlier actions as 292 .16 We live in a “shared virtual world” whose very features and predominant structuring influences – derived from prolonged social and linguistic conditioning – we cannot fully discern.: 452) Fortunately. is so deeply engrained. this “shared virtual world”.). (Ibid. from the same matrix that all linguistic symbols and words do: intersubjective symbolic (i. names and conceptualizations” (SS V. It is also explicitly influenced by linguistic and cultural experience: it arises in conjunction with “the predispositions toward conceptual elaboration in terms of conventional usage of images. most of this occurs quite without our realizing it. Yogācārin philosophers posit a sublimi- nal form of cognitive awareness (ālaya-vijñāna) that continuously arises not only in relation to the two conditions described above: the sense faculties and their correlative sense objects. our sense of self derives its meaning and function. This is fortunate because it frees up our cognitive resources for other purposes. that it operates automatically and nearly unconsciously in every moment of mind. waldron One of the most important products of this inter-subjective “virtual” world is our sense of self. it is the symbolic realm of consciousness that we most identify with and from which our sense of agency and self-control originate. linguistic)14 representation. not actual.2). william s. As we shall see. Couched in the same interactive framework as earlier Buddhist treatments of consciousness.

Yogācārin thinkers distinguished between those aspects of subliminal awareness associated with one’s individual bodily experiences and those that participate in a shared cognitive domain (bhājana-loka). occurring along with this subliminal level of cognitive awareness is an equally subliminal sense of self. but one whose major 293 . what happens when someone yells “Fire!” Accordingly. some of its major conditioning influences – “the predispositions formed from conventional expressions of images. Feral children aside. Think. names.18 The continuity of subliminal consciousness is not an enduring individual self. These dis- tinct dimensions allow us. Thus. though. there is no such entity as a permanent. and concepts” – are hardly personal. of our distinctively human cognitive domain. the concomitance. indeed it is not even wholly individual. of “self ” and “other”. it too only arises at the interface. to “live in a world that is both entirely physical and virtual at the same time”. As such. T 580b29f. according to the tradition. potentialities and dispositions formed since “beginningless” time.17 In Buddhist analyses. common states of mind. socially and culturally. [and] always occurs and functions simultaneously with sublimi- nal cognitive awareness … taking [it] as [its] object. of subject and object. although subtle and “hard to discern even for the wise” (as the Yogācārabhūmi puts it). in terms. for example. as Deacon (1997: 453–4) puts it. is transactional and transient. effortlessly and almost unconsciously. too. as well as. it. this is how we usually take it. unchanging inner self. yogācāra buddhist views memories. the common aspect. This distinct mental process. and certainly. in short. it only works when it evokes. is shared because it arises from similar causal influences: it depends upon our similar species-specific faculties that have been similarly constructed over evolutionary time due to the similar actions (our species-specific behaviour) that their similar cognitive products (part of our linguistic “cognitive domains”19) have repeatedly provoked – and all this occurs both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. P 6a5f ). subtly informed by linguistic categories. We thus not only live in a “shared world” whose structuring processes we cannot fully discern. conceiving ‘I am [this]’ (asmīti) and ‘[this is] I’ (aham iti)” (Y. Moreover. of course. This subliminal sense of self refers to the continuous and innate self-centeredness we all har- bor and through whose influence we constantly but unconsciously act and feel in terms of the “conceit ‘I am’”. For language is nothing if not a public domain. it seems to epitomize what is most personal and individual. just as with consciousness in early Buddhism. This shared virtual cognitive domain. of our faculties and the world.20 Yogācārin analyses of mind thus consider the intersubjective yet subliminal influences of language use as an inseparable aspect. Rather. human con- sciousness is never simply individual because it is always. is subtly engaged in “‘I-making’ (aham-kāra) and the conceit ‘I am’ (asmimāna). at bottom. as one fifth-century text states.

that implicit and largely nonconscious mental processes. waldron conditioning factors – our physiological and linguistic structures built up through extended organism-environment interaction – have been collectively constructed and construed. these approaches treat cultural and religious “worldviews” as more than propositional statements about the world which “believers” choose to profess or not. like other aspects of culture. can have strong causal efficacy with- out being propositional. such statements reflect but a fraction of human behaviour. Our approaches suggest. whether individual genes or cognitive schemas. both past and present. cogni- tive schemas are not self-sufficient. These processes are both constitutive of and essential conditions for the functioning of normal human consciousness and are not 294 . the interdependent web of linguistic mean- ing. Our sense of self is itself a function of the interrelations between linguistically informed layers of consciousness. a virtual reality. Second. Carrithers 1992: 49). and the intersubjective nexus of all language users. the thoughts and deeds. symbol-sharing creatures such as ourselves. rather. First. such as our conceptual and social sense of self. This has important implications for our understanding of the causal role of culture in general and of religion in particular: insofar as religious ideas and practices affect current human behaviour. rather than in synecdoches of single components. of linguistic. It is a cipher.21 Causal influences thus reside in the pattern of interactions as a whole. one that evolved “neither inside nor outside brains. speech and mind to which we are habituated that give rise. And this includes. Deacon (1997: 409–10) argues. has “created a mode of extrabiological inheritance … [that] is intrinsically social”. “The evolution of symbolic communication”. religious or otherwise. Implications These approaches to human cognition and culture entail several interesting implications. of course. william s. Though important in some respects. It is these common but unconscious habits of body. to the habitats we inhabit. Though robust analytic tools.) This multi-dimensionality is aptly illustrated by our sense of self-identity. they require their own enabling context. our habitual patterns of cognition. whose meaning rests on collective consensus and whose “reality” con- sists of its effective influence upon the hearts and minds. culture and religion. in the long term and in the aggregate. they are causally related to larger evolutionary processes as well (Rappaport 1999. they reject the implicit solipsism of the “brain in a vat” model by acknowledging that the intersubjective realms of common cogni- tion and culture impart crucial causal influences upon human behaviour. but at the interface where cultural evolutionary processes affect bio- logical evolutionary processes” (ibid.

Rather … [they are] the stuff of experience” (Lakoff & Johnson 1999: 18–19). social as well as individual. among others. as serving biological purposes that remain hidden to the religious followers themselves. by the subjects themselves. yogācāra buddhist views mere “contents” of consciousness. it is simply invisible to such modes of analysis. the categories into which our experience is parsed are not propositions added on “after the fact of experience. Marx or Foucault. and organizing our lives according to themes and narratives” (Deacon 1997: 416). It is commonplace in the social sciences to conduct functional analyses disregard- ing the conscious intents and experiences of the individuals involved. nor uniquely.23 The interactive models we have presented here. In the same vein. There is a methodological fire-wall. avoid this radical disjunc- tion between impersonal analysis and human experience precisely because they treat conscious experience as an indispensible component of interac- tive processes: what we consciously experience only arises with the coming 295 . indelibly inform the very form our “experience” takes. Conscious aims have been safely. who claimed to have uncovered the “real” motives behind human behaviour. Human experience. cognitive scientists often consider religious behaviour as adaptive. Deacon concurs: “We cannot help but see the world in symbolic categorical terms”.22 But this approach entails that the form their conclusions take – that the causal relationship between cognitive schemas and religious behaviour occurs regardless of the actors’ conscious aims – is already built into its premises. as we experience it. perhaps not acknowledgeable. reductive or dis- missive of religious aims or experience. he says. between nomological explanations and phenomenological interpretation. Recall the classic Buddhist query: what are the conditions under which such and such arises? It is all too easy to focus on the content of conscious- ness – who thinks what about whom? – and to overlook the constitutive conditions which subserve those thoughts in the first place. nor are they something optional or added on. or regrettably if you prefer. the idea that religion is an adaptation ultimately serving nonreligious purposes is neither inherently. motives which remain unacknowledged or even denied by the actors themselves. We are all familiar with the analyses of Freud. excluded from the analyses to begin with. Functional “explanations” of culture and religion typically resort to such impersonal and non-conscious causes and conditions and thus disregard people’s professed aims as a matter of method. particularly Buddhist analysis in terms of dependent arising. Such categoriza- tion schemas. though. “dividing it up according to opposed features. is neither accepted nor rejected. This raises the third point: the use of explanatory frameworks that are not acknowledged. This is as true of sexual behaviour as of economic exchange or political authority. point out. In this context. But as Lakoff and Johnson. as it were.

The evolution of the living systems is the evolution of the niches of the units of interactions defined by their self-referring circular organization. “What evolves is always a unit of interactions defined by the way in which it maintains its identity. vol. body and mind. waldron together of the sensorial and mental faculties and their correlative sensory and mental objects. depending on feeling is craving … grasping … becoming … birth. This derives from the early Vedic sense of loka as a multi- dimensional “world” constructed by human action. Notes 1. a living organism will undergo a sequence of structural changes … an organism’s structure at any point in its development is a record of its previous structural changes and … each structural change influences the organism’s future behavior”. cognitive or social). The basic unit of Buddhist analysis. and becomes instead a relation- ship between genotypes and\or phenotypes”. the dependent arising of cognitive awareness. 1952. Interactive analyses. hence. 1974: 20: ‘ … essentialism is mistaken in suggesting that definitions can add to our knowledge of facts …’”. Depending on sense-impression is feel- ing. indeed. emphasis added).14: ‘the scientific view of the definition “A puppy is a young dog” would be that it is an answer to the question “What shall we call a young dog?” rather than an answer to the question “What is a puppy?” (Questions like “What is life?” or “What is gravity?” do not play any role in science. thus already includes the subject and object. building a bridge between impersonal modes of causal explanation that encompass nonconscious causal influences (biological. that encompass the distinct discourses of explanation and interpretation. “Dependent on the eye-faculty and visual form. visual cognitive awareness arises. shorthand symbols or labels are introduced in order to cut a long story short. whether or not they culminate in symbiogenesis. In modern science. And this. even conscious and unconscious. 5. p. Rose (1997: 229–30): “Evolutionary stable strategies within and between populations.) The scientific use of definitions … may be called its nominalist interpretation. By lit- erally changing the “units of analysis” these discourses suggest not just causal models. the concomitance of the three is sense-impression. death. particularly ritual action (karma). II. Collins (1982: 43–5). Capra (1998: 220) observes that “as it keeps interacting with its environment. 2. 296 . I suggest. but entire causal modes. old age. require that the ‘unit of selection’ now ceases to be an individual genotype or even phenotype. is what recommends them to our attention. as opposed to its Aristotelian or essentialist interpretation. 3. only nominalist definitions occur. lamentation. Gombrich (1996: 1–2) cites Karl Popper’s remarks on non-essentialism and nominalism in modern science: “Popper. 4. This is the arising of the world” (S II 73. 6. society and individual. and personal modes of interpretation that elaborate the meaning and purpose of any given experience. william s. distress and despair come about. the evolution of the cognitive domains” (Maturana & Varela 1980: 12). grief.’ Popper. depending on birth. that is to say. suffering. rest upon their inseparability. Neurophysiologist Terrence Deacon has observed that “some sort of positive feedback process like this has been invoked by most theories of human cognitive evolution” (Deacon 1997: 352).

In simple terms. certainly. Deacon (1997: 451) suggests. which suggests that organisms may produce changes in the environment. it is incapable of directing our behaviour or organizing our experience without the guidance provided by systems of significant symbols … To supply the additional information necessary to be able to act. “The ‘outward perception of the external world. 8. no culture. Deacon (1997: 265): “Prefrontal computations out-compete other cognitive compu- tations and tend to dominate learning in us as in no other species.” 16. from Milinda’s Questions: “The Elder traced a circle (cakka) on the ground and spoke thus to King Milinda: ‘Is there an end to this circle. and more significantly. As Carrithers (1992: 49) explains: “The notion of an evolutionary ratchet is consonant with the idea of co-evolution. the neocortex – grew up in great part in interaction with culture. the earliest point of [samsaric] time cannot be shown either’” (MQ 70f. no men” (C. and economic causation. human neurobiology. but indirectly refer to them by virtue of referring to other symbols. Similarly. but equally. or correlates of our biological. and social existence. creating a circle of positive feedback. are all now much more constrained by prefrontal activity than in other species. the meeting of the three is sensory impingement. Geertz 1973: 49). revered sir.: eye] is born again from kamma” – is there thus an end of this series?’ ‘There is not. Without men. These animals were. conditioned by feeling is craving. Such symbols are thus not mere expressions. “Self-representation”. released into history. uninterrupted perception of the continuous world based upon that very subliminal awareness (ālaya-vijñāna) which has ‘inner appropriation’ [i. lit. “Cultural evolution is not merely a handmaiden of genetic evolution but changes the parameters of the evolutionary process” (Wilson 2002: 34). or human psychology without recognizing that they have all been shaped by something that could best be described as an idea: the idea of symbolic reference” (Deacon 1997: 409–10). because an inordinate amount of control of the other processes in the brain has become vested in our prefrontal cortex. 15.e.’ ‘Even so. we were forced. to rely more and more heavily on cultural sources – the accumulated fund of significant symbols. in turn. “to understand human anatomy. 9. 12. instrumentalities. predisposi- 297 . whose aspects are undiscerned’ means the continuous. “As our central nervous system – and most particularly its crowning curse and glory. conditioned by sensory impingement is feeling. The only peculiarity in human evolution was that human social arrangements and their unintended consequences became a selective force in themselves … And with the appearance of these forms there appeared the forms of causation associated with them: not just ecological causation … but now distinctly human social. so to speak. Deacon concludes. are those cycles (cakka) that are spoken of by the Lord: “Visual con- sciousness arises because of eye and material shapes. psychological. political.” 10. yogācāra buddhist views 7. “It is simply not possible”.’ … ‘Even so. “could not be attained without a means for symbolic representation. they are implicitly combinatorial entities whose referential powers are derived by virtue of occupying determinate positions in an organized system of other symbols” (Deacon 1997: 100). the way the visual cortex handles visual information. 13. sire. we have become predisposed to use this one cognitive tool whenever an opportunity presents itself. without culture. conditioned by craving is kamma [karma]. sire?’ ‘There is not. See note 3 above. Symbolic reference differs from other modes of reference: “Because symbols do not directly refer to things in the world. the way the auditory cortex handles sound infor- mation. 11. [51]). they are prerequisites of it. revered sir. changes which redound on themselves. The way the parietal cortex handles tactile and movement information.” 14. vision [chakkhu.

the conceit ‘I am’ (asmimāna). S. 1963–64. As sociologist of religion. that experiences and knows. 1999. trans. D. MQ Milinda’s Questions. “methodological agnosticism”. The Buddha critiques the following common conception of a self: “That which is this self for me that speaks. etc. Walnut Creek. D Derge edition of the Tibetan Tripitaka. not subject to change. P 6a5f ). 1981. that will stand firm for ever and ever” (M I 8). analyses. 20. ed. waldron tions toward conceptual proliferation. this is not a matter of methodological reductionism so much as one of “methodological atheism” (Berger 1967: 100) – or. for example. A functionalist analysis does not say anything one way or the other about conscious. M Majjhima Nikāya. i. 298 .. observes. Bhikkhu Bodhi. into “the categories and perspectives and relational analo- gies embodied in that language” (ibid. and they do this during ontogenetic time” (Tomasello 1999: 48). I. Thus. This is why the common objection – that. Peter Berger.. language] that have evolved over historical time. This unconscious self-conception accompanies all states of mind and “always arises and functions simultaneously with ālaya-vijñāna. Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from the An. individuals are not consciously thinking about reproduction when embarking upon romantic relationships – misses the point.. ananda 1971: 11). This follows from the nature of functionalist. AKBh Abhidharmakośabhās. 21. ya.ti).. they use these skills to exploit cultural resources [i. Boston. Varanasi: Bauddha Bharati Series. now here.. trans. it is this self for me that is permanent. now there. One should know that until it is completely destroyed it is always associated with the four afflictions (kleśa) which by nature arise innately (sahaja) and simultaneously: a view of self-existence (satkāyadr. References Buddhist texts: abbreviations A An. MA: Wisdom Publications. in Buddhist thought “the label ‘I’ thus superimposed on the complex contin- gent process. 23. D 3b7–4a3). serves as a convenient fiction of thought or a short-hand device … [I]t is the outcome of papañca [conceptual elaboration] … the ego notion is an extension in thought not faithful to facts” (Ñān.s.e. that experiences.] as its support. 1997. 17. 18. william s. As Tomasello notes. eternal. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. . CA: AltaMira Press. overt motives. Shastri. respectively” (T 580a2–12. and ignorance (avidyā)” (Y. trans. as opposed to substantialist. “human beings have cognitive skills that result from biologi- cal inheritance working in phylogenetic time. more precisely. the fruition of deeds lovely or depraved.guttara-Nikāya. Similarly.e.. Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi. stable. T 580b29f. “The language user partitions her world into discrete units of particular kinds” (Tomasello 1999: 150). one should know that the way the subliminal awareness [functions] in regard to the support of inner appro- priation and the object of the external [world] is similar to a burning flame which arises inwardly while it emits light outwardly on the basis of the wick and oil. London: Pali Text Society. 22. self-love (ātmasneha). B. which then become embedded in specific neurological pathways.guttara Nikāya. Horner. 19.: 189).

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people invest few cognitive resources in processing the beliefs and desires of superhuman agents. do they form com- plex theory of mind (ToM) representations. I argue that the amount of social cognitive processing invested in representations of religious concepts depends on the individual’s level of motivation. McCauley & Lawson 2002). to more affective empathic processing. I also believe that this model makes some of the present cognitive typologies of religious 301 . In my model. to elaborate meta-representations of other people’s beliefs and intentions. empathic processing. Whereas simple and automatic embodied reac- tions are constantly at work during social interactions. The model repre- sents an alternative to some of the central ideas in Lawson and McCauley’s Ritual Form Hypothesis (Lawson & McCauley 2002). In low-motivation rituals. and com- plex ToM representations are all products of the same functional system but at various levels of motivation. Whereas the simplest and least resource- demanding processes are active in all social interactions. more elaborate social cognitive representations are only produced in interactions that require a high level of representational complexity. person or event. 15 A resource model of religious cognition: motivation as a primary determinant for the complexity of supernatural agency representations Uffe Schjoedt In this chapter I present a resource model of religious cognition in which the complexity of agency and action representations in rituals is determined by situation-specific levels of motivation in the individual. Briefly. I believe that this hierarchical model of social cognition may help explain why practitioners represent supernatural agents differently in diverse ritu- als (Lawson & McCauley 1990. simple embodied processes. and only in attention-demanding situations do humans form elaborate meta- representations of others. Social cognition comprises a range of activities from very minimal embodied and automatic processes. and in Whitehouse’s Dual Modes Theory (Whitehouse 2002). Only in situations where people feel that the beliefs and desires of such agents are strategically important. empathic processing intensifies with the perceived importance of an object. Well aware of the risk of oversimplifying matters.

Baron-Cohen 1995). Social cognition Social cognitivists have long argued for the idea of a purely cognitive system that processes social information by running meta-representations of other people’s beliefs and desires in order to understand their behaviour (Wimmer & Perner 1983. is central to some of the most successful cognitive theories of religion. Drawing on evolutionary psychology. it will process information in a relatively rigid way leaving little room for motivational modulation. If a system is activated in most of these models. Baron-Cohen et al. in which complex representations of supernatural agency are critical to their interpreta- tion of religious behaviours (Boyer 1994. “to be afraid is to be inclined to flee. External behaviour is more often than not predictive of internal attitudes. 1985. evolutionary psychology with its numerous evolved cognitive mech- anisms is able to put the pieces together again with great detail. Few would claim that understanding other people is limited to meta-representational propositions. By breaking the religious phenomenon into multiple sub-phe- nomena. social cognition. e. cognitive scientists of religion offer a thick descrip- tion of the religious mind. Bering 2011). Barrett 2000. This may in part be a consequence of their roots in computer sciences and linguistics in which com- putational inference systems are hypothesized without notions of motivation. to be angry is to be inclined to attack” (Hobson 1993: 212). and especially the notion of a Theory of Mind system. uffe schjoedt thought and behaviour less attractive alternatives because it draws on compa- rably far less speculative and problematic hypotheses. however. The ability to empathize makes us able to understand intentions and affective states directly through perceived behaviour. 2001. These descriptions typically hypothesize multiple dedicated inference systems at a neutral level of motivation. Other lines of research have shown that humans form affective representations of other peo- ple’s emotional states without meta-representations. This has also been the case in many theories within the domain of social cognition. rather than a few general-purpose systems at multiple levels of motivation. Importantly.g. The importance of such representations in social interaction is well supported by 302 . Mainstream cognitive science of religion follows the popular trend of evolutionary psychology. Mood states and emotionally moti- vated intentions seem directly accessible by variations in affective behaviour. as seen in affective interaction between mother and infant. are only part of the human ability to process social cognitive information. ToM representations. McCauley & Lawson 2002. Religious behaviour is understood to be a product of various task-specific mechanisms of the human mind which evolved to increase fitness.

more cognitive resources will be mobilized to the social cognitive system to make complex meta-representations possible. those who were instructed to stand in a posture associated with fear were more likely to interpret neutral information in a fearful way. prostration dur- ing prayer may facilitate representations of a superior authority and induce feelings of submission. The social cognitive system is active at all times but the level of complexity is determined by the cognitive resources invested in the situation which again is determined by the individu- al’s motivation. Lawrence Barsalou and his colleagues review this line of research in their article “Social Embodiment” (Barsalou et al. 2004. A growing number of empirical studies support the existence of such simple and unconsciously represented social interactions. Affecti