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Why do believers believe THOSE silly things?

Last updated on 20 Feb 2014

If, as I argued in the last post, believers believe silly things in order to make the community cohere in the face of competing loyalties of the wider community, why is it that they believe the things they believe?

For example, you will often see Jews attempt to argue that kashrut (kosher, in Yiddish) dietary rules make sense in arid environments where trichinosis was rife[1], and so on, but what is the reason why you can’t mix fabrics, or get tattoos? The reason appears to be that these marked the Jews out from their competing cultures. An approach taken by recent Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) scholars adopts the “costly signalling hypothesis” formulated in evolutionary biology by Amotz Zahavi and applies it to the cultural evolution of these kinds of displays. Zahavi’s hypothesis supposes that if an organism is signalling its toxicity to predators or genetic health to potential mates, it can easily fake those signals. Evolution, however, is a hard mistress, and will weed out these easy-to-fake signals over the long term, as any variant predator or mate that tricks on a way to detect fakes will spread rapidly through the population, causing an arms race. So in the long term, signals of whatever property is being signalled will have to become hard to fake. Zahavi suggests that behaviours like stotting will have to honestly signal the fitness of the organism.

So there are several properties for a costly signal. One is that it costs more to fake than to simply have the right property. Another is that it must correlate with the right varieties. Another is that it must be arbitrary: it should not be a trait or behaviour that is selectively advantageous, or many different varieties or organisms will trick upon it, and it will not therefore correlate. So an honest, costly signal is an arbitrary signal.

CSR researcher Richard Sosis proposed that many of the doctrines and institutions of religions are such costly signals. Kashrut is arbitrary, because it has one function: to mark out, uniquely and honestly, Jews from their (genetically related) neighbours. This is not biological evolution, but cultural evolution – what evolves are institutions, rituals and behaviours. They function as what I call “tribal markers”. They include accents, languages, dress, diet, and a host of other things. Consider the ban on pork by Muslims and Jews: here is an easy to raise food resource that is foregone to identify themselves. It is hard to fake if food is not plentiful. Circumcision and scarification among various groups is another kind of costly signal. People can die from these rituals. That is the ultimate genetic cost.

So the reason why (or if you prefer a pluralist approach, a major reason why) religions have these silly beliefs is that they serve to honestly signal identity. But this doesn’t explain why they have these silly beliefs. And extending the argument to all kinds of belief-systems, it fails to explain why belief-groups settle on the particular beliefs they do as the tribal markers of identity.

One suggestion is that these are simply contingently adopted. For example, the use of some “shibboleth” like abortion or the use of tattoos or tassels may be a simple matter of an idea being proposed at the right time and taking off, as a fashion, so long as it involves all the right costs. There may be no other reason for it. “Shibboleth”, by the way, is an example from the Tanakh:

And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the E’phraimites. And when any of the fugitives of E’phraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an E’phraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the E’phraimites. [Judges (Shoftim) 12: 5–6]

The word used, “shibboleth” means the seed or fruit bearing part of a plant. The specific meaning is irrelevant here, and it’s adoption is due to accent differences between the E’phraimites and the Jews, which has all the costly signalling characteristics: it is arbitrary, and hard to fake (as every American actor finds out when called on to do a foreign accent). Since then, a shibboleth has been a costly signal.

But there are other reasons why a tribal marker might be the thing it is. For example, it may be that the marker arose at a time of conflict between groups. Denial of global warming arose as an in-group identity marker when those raising the issue were seen to be challenging some core values of conservatives and those who benefited from the coal and oil industries (for example, employees of those industries and their friends and families). It was not arbitrary in that dispute, although the signal might have been something else. Once entrenched, the signal becomes a “frozen accident”; it is now entrenched in a developmental sequence of belief acquisition, and to remove it would seriously disturb the development of “right thought and action”, as the Buddhist tradition calls it in the Eightfold Path.

A third reason might be cynical intervention by rulers and thought leaders. For example, few think that reasonable conservatives (I would like to say here that I know many such beasts) have reasons for thinking global warming is a hoax now, least of all those whose personal interests are maintained by the offending industries. Yet many do. It may be that on the part of the majority of these people this is simply a matter of division of labour: authorities think that it is a hoax, and I don’t have the time to investigate the matter myself. So why do these authorities think this? Possibly they don’t, but it suits their social and economic interests to act as if they do. This is very old. Cynical manipulation of followers can be found as a strategy in Aristotle and Machiavelli.

Also he [the tyrant] should appear to be particularly earnest in the service of the Gods; for if men think that a ruler is religious and has a reverence for the Gods, they are less afraid of suffering injustice at his hands, and they are less disposed to conspire against him, because they believe him to have the very Gods fighting on his side.  [Aristotle, Politics. Bk 5, ch XI]

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite. [The Prince, chapter 18]

Once a signal has been proposed, cynically or otherwise, then it will spread to the extent that it acts as a useful marker. That is, just so far as it identifies honestly a member of the in-group. Rarely (in my opinion), the marker or signal will be something that bears directly upon the core beliefs of the belief-group. For example, modern western conservatism has as one of its stated values the freedom of the individual from government intervention, yet many of the signals, such as abortion or marriage, involve direct government intervention in people’s private lives. Justifications are given that are post hoc and ad hoc. Likewise, commitment to free market economics are set aside when special interests benefit, through subsidies and interventions or tax exemptions of failing industries. Likewise, social progressives often adopt economic policies that serve the interests of industry rather than their putative constituency, working people.

So costly signals for in-group identity are often contrary to the beliefs the group holds most dear. Abortion, for example, was not a core issue for evangelicals until they made common cause with Catholics in the early 1970s (see Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God for an account of this). But once it took root, rational debate became impossible. And this is because it is not about the idea, but about the community. As Sosis noted about religion, it is not about God, but about us.

1. But this fails to explain why the neighbouring tribes did eat pork, since they lived in the same environment.


  1. Nihaya Khateb Nihaya Khateb

    Actually, phylosophy alone can not give us the truth behind the reasons why people believe silly things. If we try to combine science with phylosophy we can approach the truth.In this regard we have to put all the pieces of the puzzle together; e.g the brain function and structure alltogether with the real cultural life.I think that in general; indeviduals who have an agreeable personality can cling on every belief that can help them to strengthen their personality.This happens often to people who are minority in other strange cultures; because their self confedence is low.Also this happens for us humans for we tend to think in a robotic way.But if we try to think more deeply and more independently from our culture we will reach the truth and the plausible truth.

  2. One posible explanation of the ban of pork is they are “city” (or settled agricultural) animals who can live in small spaces largely on human leftovers. They can’t be herded the way goats or sheep can be by nomadic peoples. Similarly, the Jewish ban on shellfish might be to distinguish nomadic people living in interiors from settled people living in coastal cities.

    • The reason for the ban on Jews eating pigs is genetics. The Creator, knows how animals are made on the genetic level. The viruses in humans can be transferred into pigs because of similar DNA in pigs given pigs the same type of “host cells” as humans. The whole of the mosaic law is about clean genetics free from diseases that would harm the pathway for the Messiah to be born.
      If you cultivate pigs, you get serious diseases that infect humans who have no natural immunity to them. The “swine flue” killed 50,000,000 people. Was that a good thing?
      We are still cultivating pigs and still we get pandemic diseases today from it. These are facts. You cannot control the handling of pigs in China and how human virus is transferred back and forth, so most deadly pig virus comes from China.

      I hope that answers your question.
      According to all studies on eating any form of red meat it is bad for human health. It is a trigger for many of human genetic diseases.
      Most of what humans do is controlled by emotions and those are the cause of addictions.

  3. Overall, a very fine essay to which I agree most strongly. Great examples and fine quotes from Plato and Machiavelli. I just one technical quibble — let’s see if it is valuable:

    I agree that community cohesion is one reason for gleefully sacrificing intellectual integrity, but as you correct later in your article, there are others, though I wish you’d have stated that up front. It was odd when you wrote, “or if you prefer a pluralist approach” — because it is not a preference, it is science. A monolithic approach to the cause(s) of silly beliefs is blatantly wrong and unfortunately seen all over hyper-rational atheist blogs.

    Other reasons for silly beliefs include: hallucinations and emotional comfort to think of a few. And when you see all the advantages of throwing reason into the fire we better understand how the mind generally works and with this the “silliness” morphs into “practical” and believers can no longer be categorically labeled “stupid”, “deluded”, or worse.

    • Jonathan Jonathan

      Perhaps there is a difference between the persistence of silly beliefs and why they come up in the first place? Each of these asks for a different kind of explanation – cohesion seems a very good explanation for why silliness remains and is even successful. But if you look why people came up with climate denialism or creationism in the first place, the mechanisms are more trivial, or contingent, or historical.

      It reminds me of sexual selection; you can explain why a certain adaptation in male birds of paradise is selected for if you look at the species as they are now, but I think it is much more difficult to explain why a certain bird developed that sexual dimorphism in the first place.

    • This is correct, both as to the multivariate causes and as to the us-and-them mentality all seem to evince. By arguing that these costly signals are ubiquitous, it is not the people who are seen to be silly, but the beliefs.

  4. Faze Faze

    All true. But you might want to leave open the possibility that progressive positions on global warming and abortion might also be tribal markers — both global warming (all its possible causes, manifestations, the potential responses to it) and abortion being issue upon which people of good can reasonably disagree. Where there are good arguments on both sides, individuals will choose to support the side that signals their preferred tribal affiliation.

    • This is true, but such views as global warming cannot act as a tribal marker en soi, since reasonable people of all political slants will accept it. The test of a tribal marker is that it must be costly to maintain. Of course many progressive people adopt a position because it is the stance their belief-group adopts, but it isn’t a costly signal unless it is unique to that group (in that historical context).

      Abortion, however, can be.

      • By using the global warming and abortion as the primary examples, Wilkins weakens his argument. It becomes “conservatives are silly” instead of “people are silly”.

        • So you missed this:
          Likewise, social progressives often adopt economic policies that serve the interests of industry rather than their putative constituency, working people.?

        • jeb jeb

          John. I missed that as well.

          Very difficult set of posts to comment on. Its also easy to misread. Why I have been unusually silent, I am like a pig in shit with this sort of stuff.

          I would have made the comment here that you are presenting the modern beliefs you are touching on as rigid and static.

          Well aware of how stupid that would sound as I am well aware of you’re views here as I share them and it is indeed why I started reading you’re blog.

          A range of seriously subtle and original points being made. One sentence here made me really sit up.

          Their are some clear dangers, I understand Toms comment though I would not feel moved to make the same suggestion.

          Blinding paper to be had here. I think in this form its easy to read and come to the wrong conclusions.

          Clearly going to be a very serious paper emerging from this (or their certainly should be)
          I don’t think its going to be an easy one to structure.

  5. Eridanus Eridanus

    the idea of the shiboleth has some logic, but it can be accidental and secondary. Individuals of a group tend to “imitate” or exactly learn some precise way of speaking. They can be using a common language with other people of the land but their differences that are minor could be not intentional. In case of economic crisis, there are wars among neighbours and it is in this moment that the dialectal differences play a role in the war.

    But the groups maintain differences for they lived segregated in clans or tribes, and tomorrow they can be killing each other.

    The case prohibition of eating pigs can be totally rational. The Jews were herders of sheep and they had economic interchanges with people living in the plains, that cultivated pigs. As they were farmers, they raised also pigs, like most farmers. But the meat of pigs was a competence to the meat of sheep and lambs. After a number of wars that the shepherds won, they arrived to the point of prohibiting to raise pigs. If not pigs were raised not pigs were eaten, but only lambs and sheep. The prohibition of mixing fibres, were meant to barred a undesired competition with the fleece of sheep. When the herders ruled the land imposed on the whole population those rules.

    Other prohibitions were as well rational. But I do not want to make a large post.

  6. Eridanus Eridanus

    I will add another comment about the differences among social groups. People living in close proximity with other populations, tend to favour their own clan or tribe when it is possible. Being in fact segregated, but living close to each other in valleys and cities, they cooperate and even compete and despise each other. The scorn tend to be hidden in times of abundance, but surges up to the surface in times of economic crisis, failure of crops, etc. Then, the leaders of each clan profit mostly with their own people, and want to get them in a sort of cultural captivity. This implies religion and various rites. Within the inner circle, they tend to cultivate some proud of pertaining to the clan, and some sense of scorn for the people of other clans. This helps the people of the clan to be kept captive of leaders of the clan. In this sense, the leaders use some form of… “mutawa” a sort of militia that controls the external behaviour of the members of the clan to keep wearing the distinctive marks of the clan; whatever they are. So in a way, the mutawa or its equivalent try to control the human herd in an analogical way the shepherd control the sheep with their dogs. Then, the traditions can be kept specially prohibiting marriage with people of other clans that are potential enemies. There is in the old testament some stories about when were killed those that were married to non-Jew women. I do not remember well the details. So, the members of a clan were a sort of a property of the leaders that control their orthodoxy. By doing this, the leader is trying to conserve their troop base, to say it this way. If any member of the clan strays out, he is automatically segregated and converts in a pariah. All members of the clan are prohibited to have relations with him or even to greet him of say to him hello, to reply any greeting he would make to any of them.

  7. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    Regarding this post and the previous one:

    Everyone, so I understand, now acknowledges that there has actually been no global warming in the last 17 years — despite continuing increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.

    Is it “denialism” for me to say that??

    (Really, I don’t care all that much about the climate controversy. I’m not particularly well-informed on it. But the prickly “band wagon” nature of the warming “consensus” is a red flag for me.)

    • It is not denialism if you haven’t done the reading to see whether it is true or not; it is ignorance. However, the way this is played is to gerrymander the data points. See here for a discussion.

      The way in which we can say there has been no warming for 17 years is to ignore the longer term trends and take one especially hot year in 1998 to make the average of that period look stable. However, the baseline is increasing even just in that period.

      It is not a “bandwagon” when you consider that those who actually study this field agree based on well attested evidence and methodologies, not political talking points. The data is easily available, however, so you can see for yourself.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        John, I looked at your link. The opening words are these : “I just came across an interesting way to eliminate the impression of a global warming. A trick used to argue that the global warming had stopped, and the simple recipe is as follows: Cut off parts of the measurements and only keep the last 17 years….”

        Doesn’t this essentially admit what I stated? — There has been no warming in the last 17 years!

        By the way, I have seen this reality noted in standard scientific publications, not just on wacko websites. For example, this Nature article:

        Further to your charge of “ignorance”, have you done careful, open-minded reading on more than one side of the dispute? For instance, have you gone through Lawrence Solomon’s The Deniers: The world-renowned scientists who stood up against global warming hysteria, political persecution, and fraud (And those who are too fearful to do so)?

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          A guy who works for fossil fuel lobbying groups denies global warming – coincidence?

        • Jonathan Jonathan

          Global warming has continued in the last 17 years, I regret to say.

          The fact that you can find any temperature trend if you pick your preferred beginning and end points accordingly does not change that.

          Global warming means an increase in the amount of heat (energy) in the atmosphere and oceans, and that has steadily increased the last years. Mean temperature values are contingent on other factors, however, so it is possible that this warming is only gradually visible in the weather. And climate is the average weather over a long period. So just as we don’t conclude that global warming has stopped this year if it is colder than the last, we don’t conclude that global warming has stopped in the last 17 years.

          But that is not really relevant, because in the end, *the graphs used to make it look like the temperature did not rise, actually do show a rise*. Global warming denialists have just drowned this trend in monthly variation so the viewer cannot see it. This graph uses the same data, and shows an increase in mean temperatures (you may have come across it if you kept reading after the first sentence):

          Careful, open-minded reading on this subject would start with a climatology textbook.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        No one has responded to my datum that Nature, a prestigious scientific journal which is peer-reviewed — unlike the various newspaper columns and blog posts offered me by commenters — has acknowledged a long-term lack of global warming.

        A Sept. 19, 2013 Nature article title refers to “Recent global-warming hiatus….” and the first part of the abstract states: “Despite the continued increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the annual-mean global temperature has not risen in the twenty-first century, challenging the prevailing view that anthropogenic forcing causes climate warming. Various mechanisms have been proposed for this hiatus in global warming….”

        The article’s introductory paragraph states that “global temperature has remained flat for the past 15 years” and that “Two schools of thought exist regarding the cause of this hiatus in global warming….” The article’s authors are with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (among other affiliations).

        Within the same issue of Nature (Sept. 19, 2013), an “article preview” titled “Climate science: The cause of the pause” also refers to “the recent hiatus in global warming.” The author of that preview is a Princeton University climate scientist.

        To say the least, it would appear that the concept of “continuing global warming” does not command a full consensus of climate scientists.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          So next time Nature publishes an article confirming evolution has occurred, you will give up creationism? Am I understanding your position correctly?

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Ha ha.

          Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. I am not referencing the periodical Nature by way of “appeal to authority,” which would constitute a logical fallacy.

          What I am pointing out is there are several climate scientists who now acknowledge that global warming has “paused” for a decade and a half. (That would include the two who wrote the main article, the one who wrote the article preview, and the ones who are mentioned as being within the “two schools of thought” that are competing with each other in trying to explain the pause.)

          This is admittedly weaker than my original thought that “everyone” agrees on the recent lack of global warming. I stand corrected on that! But what the Nature items show, at very least, is that a scientific consensus does not exist which says that global warming has been measurably continuing. (You may wish also to have a look at my response to John Wilkins regarding this topic, to be posted shortly.)

        • Talk about your selective reading! They finish their abstract with:

          “Our results show that the current hiatus is part of natural climate variability, tied specifically to a La-Niña-like decadal cooling. Although similar decadal hiatus events may occur in the future, the multi-decadal warming trend is very likely to continue with greenhouse gas increase.”

          In short, this has to do with the effects of normal la Niña cycles. The letter you cite continues:

          “Although the rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases explains many aspects of the overall warming trend over the past century (including the heat uptake by the oceans and the spatial and seasonal patterns of the warming), it cannot explain the multi-decadal fluctuations superimposed on this trend…

          Expectations for global temperature change in the next decade depend on whether recent trends in the equatorial Pacific are viewed as being due to a coincidental combination of chaotic El Niño and La Niña events, or as having connections to a mode of variability with deeper roots and intrinsically longer timescales. This deeper variability could, for example, affect the subsurface pathways taken by waters upwelling in the eastern equatorial Pacific (as may have occurred in the mid-1970s shift towards a state more favourable to El Niño events). A pattern of variability in the North Pacific known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is one candidate for introducing these lower-frequency internal variations into the equatorial Pacific. But the ability of the PDO to drive variability in the tropics, rather than simply being driven by the tropics, remains unclear.

          The uncertainty in climate sensitivity, a measure of the magnitude of the forced temperature response, is a major source of the spread in climate projections over the twenty-first century. Attempts at constraining climate sensitivity with the observed warming are affected by how internal variability is separated from the forced response in these observations. Manipulations of climate models similar to that described by Kosaka and Xie may allow this separation to be performed more convincingly and thereby reduce the uncertainty in climate sensitivity. Characterizing the low-frequency tail of internal climate variability is of paramount importance, whether we are interested in the next 10 or the next 100 years.”

          In short, both items support global warming and are treating of cyclical variations in the trend (just as the source I gave above does). Read for content and not just anything that might be read as supporting your own biases.

        • jeb jeb

          “No one has responded to my datum that Nature, a prestigious scientific journal which is peer-reviewed — unlike the various newspaper columns and blog posts offered me by commenters”

          “Careful, open-minded reading on this subject would start with a climatology textbook.”

          Indeed. Clearly we all have something to hide and are intent on making sinister suggestions like read the science and engage in self- education.

          It’s clearly a horrific conspiracy. I understand they even suggest that children should be forced to engage in such things!

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “Talk about your selective reading!” “Read for content …!”

          I have indeed quoted selectively (all quotations are of course selective). But I have read each of the quoted items from Nature in full.

          “Our results show …. may occur … very likely to continue …. Expectations … depend on …. could, for example, affect …. is one candidate for …. remains unclear” [etc.]

          John, all your quotations from the article concern either (1) possible explanations for the temperature data, or (2) expectations for the future. These may be interesting, but are not relevant to my point, which is that the empirical data show that global warming has “paused” or experienced a “hiatus” or “has not risen” or “has remained flat.”

          The authors of the main article propose one explanation (and there are others to compete with theirs), and they expect global warming to continue, based on their results (which they got from their “model”). But they exhibit no doubt about the current stoppage of global warming.

          And that’s what I was intending to highlight in the last sentence of my earlier post: “To say the least, it would appear that the concept of ‘continuing global warming’ [i.e., in the past 15 years or so] does not command a full consensus of climate scientists.”

        • Jonathan Jonathan

          Global warming is primarily an increase in the amount of heat in the earth’s climate system. As far as I can see, this is confirmed in the paper. That this does not always go hand in hand with a steady rise in temperature should be obvious. What this means is that we get all the effects of climate change except the clear rise in atmospheric temperature.

          When we had to review a paper like this in university, a recurring question from the teacher was: “Why was this published in Nature?” It would be a good question here. After all, the “warming hiatus” had already been established, as the paper points out, and the link with la Nina had already been made. So what’s new here?

          Actually, this is very important to climate modellers. The authors claim that they can model the variability that causes the hiatus, by using the sea surface temperature of the eastern Pacific as parameterized input. The result simulates the atmospheric temperatures. It’s a pretty convincing argument that we’ve been lucky to have had a kind of cooling fan near Peru sucking up some heat (and transporting it into the ocean, I suppose, because energy doesn’t simply disappear, you may be aware). Big question is of course: is the la Nina cycle tied to warming or will it just go on as it has done in the recorded past?

          Bottom line is “sorry, global warming has continued”.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          It is a bit like having some cloudy, rainy days in the Spring or early summer and then saying the sun must be cooling and we may not have summer this year….

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “It is a bit like having some cloudy, rainy days in the Spring or early summer and then saying the sun must be cooling and we may not have summer this year….”

          Why is it like that? This hiatus has been 17 years, worldwide, not just a few cloudy days in some local observed region.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Global warming is both in hiatus and continuing! Interesting! Obviously some clarification of terminology is required.

  8. David Bacon David Bacon

    Attempts to explain irrational ideas and beliefs are a total waste of time.

    • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

      Isn’t everything in the nihilistic evolutionary (physicalist, materialist, naturalist) worldview ultimately a meaningless “waste of time” — given the approaching expansion of the Sun, destruction of all life, and eventual “heat death” of the universe? So why complain about this one particular instance of someone’s use of time?

      • Jeb Jeb

        “Isn’t everything in the nihilistic evolutionary (physicalist, materialist, naturalist) worldview ultimately a meaningless “waste of time”

        oh oh can I play the rampant flag waving game as well along with you two boys.

        What can I say.

        Yes such a perspective does exist but only in the death camp known as the evangelical imagination?

        Although perhaps not, it is a rather repetitive and boring game.

        “So why complain about this one particular instance of someone’s use of time?”

        Perhaps the motive is identical to you’re own Richard?

  9. I’m dashing off a quick comment, so please forgive the lacunae…

    The basic idea here is nicely consistent with arguments that have been made by anthropologists for at least 100 years, going back to Durkheim’s classic study of religion and, especially, Levi-Strauss’s reworking of Durkheim on totemism: religious practices signalling group membership and cohesion over and against other groups, who, in Durkheim’s rather old-fashioned understanding of “primitive” religion, symbolized this through a different totemic animal. Of course, Durkheim didn’t have access to the language of evolutionary psychology or cybernetics, but he identifies pretty much identical functions to religious beliefs.

    I did wonder, though, about the ‘costly signalling hypothesis’ in all of this. Humans use a wide variety of signals to perform these in-group/out-group functions, from clothing and hair styles to cars and houses, some at the low cost end and others at the high cost end of the spectrum. The semiotics of this have been explored extensively, of course, but I’m unaware of any evidence that “costly” signals are more effective than any others. In the Springbok case we might argue that it’s the distinctive pattern of the animal’s coat that is the primary signal, but in high grass the Springbok has acquired the ability to leap as a way of displaying that sign. It’s not the leap, but what the leap allow the lion to see — a distinctive coat — that is the real message. Just a quick, and not well-developed thought — I’m always on the lookout for just-so stories from evolutionary psychology, or at the very least ways to decide among competing accounts.

    Nonetheless, a nice column that I will assign to students. Many thanks.

    • David Duffy David Duffy

      Xylogatos et al (2013):

      “Extreme [religious] rituals entail excessive costs without apparent benefits, which raises an evolutionary cost problem…”. During Thaipusam in Mauritius, men choose either a high or low intensity ordeal. The authors state “pain correlated with donations (r = .36, p < .01) […] even after controlling for age, religiosity, and temple attendance…In line with modern intergroup theories, low-ordeal participants expressed the most parochial identities, seeing themselves as more Hindu than high-ordeal observers and high-ordeal performers who both favored the more inclusive Mauritian identity…costly displays of group commitment (though apparently wasteful) may be conserved because they intensify prosocial behaviors and attitudes among the wider community".

      • David:

        The authors note that their case study supports “long-standing anthropological conjectures about the cooperative effects of intense rituals (Durkheim 1912)”. I’m glad to see that they recognize that early work.

        But while they offer a perfectly interesting example, I wonder if the article fails to make the case for at least several reasons.

        First, the authors do not incorporate any recognition of history into their example. They might have used the Sun Dance ceremony among Plains Indians in North America as another case study – but the Sun Dance appeared in the 18th century, and has been linked to loss of habitat and restrictions on traditional ways of life. There isn’t any evidence that anything like it existed before then, despite the belief of many Lakota peoples that the Sun Dance has existed since the time of their earliest ancestors – a common belief about religious practices that gives them the legitimacy of deep age. Catholics were once more likely to whip themselves, but I suspect that the practice of self-flagellation has declined. Has anything comparable replaced it? Again, there’s lots here that is left unexplored about current political and economic issues in Mauritius and how these might be related to the findings of the research. A human trait – as opposed to a state – ought to be present always, no?

        Second, the authors don’t incorporate any role for ‘culture’ in their examples. A lot of evolutionary psychology leapfrogs over culture, going directly from genetics to behavior, with no recognition that cultural beliefs and values may play a role. That’s probably because cultural beliefs and values are contingent, not universal or genetically encoded. Since any moderately complex community exhibits a high level of intracultural variation, culture is obviously important. We both might be egged on by our little communities to pierce our chests with wooden spikes and hang from the rafters until we hallucinate, but if I decline to participate in this Sun Dance ordeal are my genes faulty? If I get the Semper Fi tattoo and you refuse, are your genes broken?

        Socialization, enculturation, incorporation into a group, usually entails buying into the ordeals that the group values, whether it’s fraternity hazing, military basic training, or a doctoral dissertation defense. Van Gennep recognized that many of these high-investment behaviors are parts of rituals that entail separating the individual from normal social status, often through a symbolic death, and death, even symbolic death, often requires a fairly dramatic effort. Call it signaling, or use economic metaphors of investment if you like: the language we use to describe this can shape our interpretation of what it’s about. But not always successfully.

        Nonetheless, I enjoyed the article from Psychological Science and will use it in teaching as well. Thanks for the reference.

    • I include all costly signals like clothing (there are costs to wearing different clothing, let alone the cost of making or acquiring them), accents, etc. They need not be “weird” displays, and in fact usually aren’t.

      The point about efficacy is a good one to explore, and I shall down the track. There is little research done on cultural costly signals in general (most CSR work is done on norm enforcement), but I’ll see what I can find.

      This is a cultural evolutionary argument, yes, not a straightforward sociobiological one (or evolutionary psychological one), and I agree with your point about leaping from biology to behaviour. In fact I did a series on this a while back – go to my home page and search for “evopsychopathy”. However, I do not think that culture is cleanly divided from biology. I think of cultural evolution as a fast moving laminar flow over deeper slower moving biological currents, but the culture can affect the biology as well.

      As a first approximation, though, biology sets the dispositions that culture employs. For example, why do we wish to set up social communities at all? It is because we have to increase our fitness in order to survive and mate, and this is a species-typical behaviour that culture in part results from. Culture is not autonomous.

      As to the Durkheim thesis, you are of course right, but I am trying to give a principled account of why religion enhances community. Sosis et al. all mention Durkheim and Levi-Strauss, and then move to explanation. It’s a fun literature.

      • jeb jeb

        Socialization, enculturation, incorporation into a group, usually entails buying into the ordeals that the group values….

        Barbra. Throw this in article by David Sutton. Explosive Debates: Dynamite, Tradition, And The State.

        “Amid cries of “Christ is risen”, several hundred pounds of TNT formed into projectiles of two three hundred pounds each were hurled into the sky”

        Not an evo psy argument. I suspect you may find it interesting.

        I find his mention of Camaroff’s (who I have not read) perspective on ritual interesting i.e. ritual as an argument. “the terms and tropes, that is, through which people caught up in changing worlds may vex each other…..”

        It certainly makes sense in regard the limited fieldwork I have done in this area (ritual events involving protection from the evil eye rather than dynamite throwing).

        • Thanks for the reference to Sutton’s article, which is interesting, especially for incorporating the historical specificity of the ‘dynamite tradition’ into his analysis. Sutton’s finely grained analysis is a good counterpoint to John’s Procrustean bed of “It is because we have to increase our fitness in order to survive and mate…” While it is no doubt true that communities must reproduce themselves, and it is no doubt true that increasing inclusive fitness is a good strategy for success, the extraordinary variety of ways in which communities (and their members) do this raises complexities. I need to get to work in the morning, but how I chose a form of transportation, the semiotics of that form of transportation, and the ways in which I allocate resources to achieve these goals, are the complex issues that cultural anthropologists like to think cannot be reduced to a simple formulaic “got to get to work” answer. Culture, it seems, can overwhelm any genetically encoded drive to enhance (let alone maximize) fitness, as the example of the Shakers always suggests. Finally, to John Wilkins, my apologies for my naivete here: this is not my area by any means, though your post was a genuinely interesting one that offers lots to ponder…

        • jeb jeb

          “lots to ponder”

          Why are these things kept so painfully alive. Wonderful subject. Lots of rich content to explore.

  10. Frank Frank

    why believe – after a childhood attending church and stopping at 16 when I realised most folk didn’t really believe but were afraid of going to hell and/or were just there for the social contacts – my observation is people who want to believe don’t need facts – it seems to be a different part of the brain, e.g. left/right brain

    also part of fear – feeling a need for acceptance by a group – so as long as I am accepted/feel somewhere I belong I’ll do whatever stupid thing forms the group culture – standing on one leg, Morris dancing, OK …

    a large part of survival of humans seems to be a need to feel safe – many seem to feel a need to belong to a group/any group/gang, even if criminal, if it gives them a sense of belonging

    as for religions – my close observations over 50 years suggest to me no-one really believes the BS pie-in-the-sky stuff – it’s more like ‘if you don’t say it’s BS I won’t either’ tacit agreement – we’re all individuals, yes we’re all individuals

    interesting comment about prohibiting eating pork so the Jews could sell more sheep – first time I’ve seen that – follow the money to find out why decisions are made – that usually works …

    • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

      Hey, I’m a creationist myself, but the link you provided is to a very degraded and

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        (Sorry, let me finish…)

        As I was saying, I’m a creationist myself, but the link you provided is to a very degraded and low-class anti-evolutionist website.

        I actually prefer dialoguing with intelligent evolutionists to dealing with that sort of creationist.

        Let’s keep the conversation at a higher level.

        • There are NO intelligent evolutionists. If you think anyone who believes humans evolved from slime in a mud puddle and fish are our ancestors, then you call that “intelligent”. I don’t know if my approach is any better than yours. If people give credence to lies and validate lies like this with “respectful” dialog, then you are wasting your time. Get right to the point and say what is real based on scientific knowledge. Countries with the most rapid rise in “evolution” belief have the fastest rising death rate of babies to 4 years old. Is that what you mean? You give credence to diseased people having diseased babies? There is no higher level when referring to death promoting activities, such as teaching evolution.

        • Brian Brian

          Sigh. Even if you believe evolution is false, and it leads to kittens hugging dogs, it’s got naught to do with being intelligent.

          As for your ‘Countries with the most rapid rise in ‘evolution’ belief have the fastest rising death rate of babies to 4 years old’. I’d like to see the studies showing that.

  11. The kind and loving thing to do is to put things in perspective. If something is destructive to life then teach people what it does and how it does it.

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