Evolution and Religion Part III


Russian Mother Heroine
Russian Mother Heroine

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

Dear Michael,

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

In your comment you note:

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

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

1. Comparing like with like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. The historical question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Conclusion

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



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


21 responses to “Evolution and Religion Part III”

  1. To open, I (and several others actually) have had basically this same exchange with Michael a couple of years back. Un-swayed as you see.
    But tennis clubs? You’re getting rather silly and miss-directed. ‘non-religious organizations that *did* base membership at least in part on reproduction and birth.’ ??
    There is no call for ‘clubs’ or ’membership’. You need only a way to distinguish groups, identify ‘religious’ or ‘not’ (I concur with your questions on this) and births.
    Neither can you blame Michael for any trouble with sorting out the data – that is just the cost of doing this sort of business.
    Such quibbles aside, there is a far better known phenomenon that I think serves to bracket this ‘religious advantage’ in time: The drop in birth rates coincident with the education of women.
    I have not seen any data (from Michael or others) that correlates religion and births prior to the drop in births that correlates with education.

  2. Hi – thanks for the comment, Alan.

    Good to know we basically agree.

    On clubs and membership: I raised the issue of tennis clubs in response to Michael’s comment on a previous post of mine, where he wrote:

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

    IIRC, he claims that the absence of such groups => an absence of counter-examples that would challenge his hypothesis. My point is simply that most of the candidate groups (specifically non-religious groups) are not constituted in such a way that they would be able to act as a counter-example under any circumstances. Therefore it is not reasonable to conclude from the absence of counter-examples that the hypothesis is sound.

    You’re right of course that a form of his general argument could succeed without a claim about communities/membership/clubs etc (but he does make such claims), and he does also refer to ‘populations’. The problem of finding data on such populations is dealt with under (2) above.

    Not sure what you mean about sorting out the data.

    That’s an interesting point about women’s education — makes sense, though I suppose it’s one of a number of factors.


    • Every woman giving birth is a potential statistic, a data point. Sort them into groups or sets as desired: Data sorted out. I was responding to the ‘problems dealt with in (2)’.
      I’m pretty sure that any cohesive group will have in-group cooperation. Dogs cooperate, tennis players cooperate, atheists cooperate – I don’t think ‘cooperation’ is the active ingredient that Michael is looking for either.
      I’m sure there are many factors for birthrate drops, but women’s education is the most widely published (to my knowledge) as a broad phenomenon.

  3. Hi Alan — Hmm. I can’t see anything there to disagree with. I’m not sure what Michael B’s active ingredient is but he mentioned cooperation in his comments on my comments, which is why I picked it up and responded in those terms. If you think what you’ve written is at odds with anything I’ve written above or in the other posts, perhaps you would explain how in a more explicit form and I’d be happy to engage with it. I may be a bit slow today, but your comment is on the terse side 🙂

    • Just in a rush, sorry for the terse tone. I was taking your earlier comments as asking clarification (of my comments). I am waiting until I have more time to introduce my own issues.

    • Sorry if I’m just kicking a should-be-dead horse, but I think we’ve been in basic agreement all along, and we have just been clarifying our understandings. My ‘issue’ is a slightly related observation relative to religion I was thinking of bouncing off you.

  4. I’m addressing the title topic ‘Evolution and Religion’, the Real phenomenon (of course, as I only look at important things, not just a bunch of kids :). I have pointed this out to Michael and tried to explain why this far more prominent feature swamps out his birthrate claim once you move back beyond modern times. Several of your points (in this Pt. 3) speak directly to this, to wit:
    ‘ … the historical depth, or lack of it, of non-religious organizations.
    ‘There are good reasons to think it is impossible to find a sufficient sample of non-religious, membership-by-reproduction communities.
    ‘One reason is the historical novelty of secularism. The idea of having communities or institutions that exclude religiosity (on your definition) simply does not have a long history.
    ‘All the evidence seems to suggest that secular communities in general were either very rare or non-existent until the modern period.

    To facilitate my argument I would like to suggest an alternative to your quite colorful ‘modern phenomenon of ‘purification’’. I propose that this phenomenon is quite real, can be traced back to the Neolithic and is better understood as ‘specialization’. From the Neolithic forward, (to take you slightly out of context) ‘… societies are characterized by an attempt {at specialization such that individuals and} institutions … only perform one kind of role.’

    I wish, for my argument, to quash the notion that there is anything novel about secularism or that secularism has been at all rare among humans through evolutionary time.
    There was nothing but secular humans throughout two and a half of our two and a half million years of existence. Religion was only invented 50 to 70 thousand years ago, but its inventers outperformed the secular such that the secular humans went extinct ~ 30,000 years ago.
    This observation is a simple restatement of two claims typical to any Anthropology 101 class: ‘Modern Humans’ are marked, in part, by their evidence for religion, and that at the Upper Paleolithic, all archaic or ‘non-modern’ humans went extinct. All humans left were ‘modern’ and had religion.
    Without taking time at this juncture to expand upon or defend this claim, I would like to jump ahead to the Neolithic and the concurrent development of Organized Religion. You made a few disparaging comments about belief and the various reported problems with verification. Sharing your feelings on such, I have adopted what I think is a less problematic marker: Temples and Priests, something that can be observed even in long dead communities.
    You can probably guess what I found when I went looking: Every city, every state had priests and/or temples.
    My evolutionary conclusion from this is that human communities are simply not stable without organized religion if they are larger than a ‘traditional’ tribe (about 2-300 individuals). The only way for a community to establish itself as a city was to first invent (or adopt) organized religion. This happened everywhere, and often independently: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, Middle East or India.
    Before I met Michael, I thought Modern Times would prove different, that the progressive introduction of ever more specialized institutions has finally covered all of the functions we invented religion to cover. His data suggests they haven’t.

  5. Hi Alan

    Firstly, all this is way beyond my areas of expertise — my interest is in contemporary religion, and my initial reason for engaging with Michael’s blog post was to make a point about the role of the popularity of evolutionary explanations in blinding people to the diversity of contemporary human experience.

    That proviso understood, some thoughts on your comment:

    1. Your claim that before the neolithic humans were mainly ‘secular’, by which I take it you mean they didn’t have gods, seems speculative. What is your evidence for this assertion?

    2. Evidence of dedicated temples/priesthoods is not evidence of a secular/religious distinction; there may be a distinction between priests and kings and carpenters, that doesn’t show that any of those categories are considered ‘secular’ or beyond the influence of gods.

    3. The conclusion you call ‘evolutionary’ is not evolutionary in the sense that Michael is talking about – you seem to be talking about cultural evolution. Not a problem, but it means the relationship between your claims and Michael’s is not straightforward, and in principle, you could both be right.

    4. The conclusion just doesn’t follow from your observation — the fact that all those societies you mentioned had dedicated temples/cults does not establish that such a thing is necessary for stability above a certain scale.

    5. Of course, there’s already a parsimonious explanation for the phenomenon you’re pointing to — that is, the emergence of temples and priesthoods in the Neolithic. It is the explanation for the emergence of all kinds of professional specialization: the potential for accumulation and redistribution of food that the development of agriculture and cities allowed for. What’s wrong with this explanation and why is your theory superior to it?


    • Thanks, Jon. I did recognize from your CV this to be a step to the side, but you have an instinct for recognizing errors in an argument, so thought I would take my chances. I appreciate your tolerance.
      For clarification, comment 1: Humans were secular before the Upper Paleolithic (Anthropology 101), by the Neolithic, all were religious. Religion made a significant change at the Neolithic from Basic or Animism to Organized, with (as you noted later in 5) specialized practitioners or priests.
      Comment 3: I really do mean ‘evolutionary’. Very few dogs are born with three legs – they have a competitive disadvantage and are selected against. Clearly legs are a biological feature, less clear are the competitive aspects of cultural features, but I think we can agree that the ability or technical knowledge to control fire represents a competitive advantage, and human groups without that ability would have been selected against. Michael has simply gone into more detail with his explanation. Even so, cultural evolution may serve my argument better.
      Comments 2, 4 & 5 require more detail in their explanation, I would like to beg your patience and I will submit same as my time permits.

      Thanks again.

  6. Alan – a brief reponse:

    1. Sorry, I don’t know what you mean when you refer this to Anthropology 101 — I’ve done that course, or the British equivalent, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean by secular in this context? What is the evidence that the term in the sense you mean it is appropriately applied to the period you describe?

    • I am referring to what I have seen in lists of features (to include J. Diamond, ‘Third Chimpanzee’) that distinguish ‘Modern Behavior’ in humans, and typically addressed in courses that cover the Upper Paleolithic. Also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_religion. Displaying artifacts associated with religious belief is a marker for ‘modern behavior’ in humans. This is necessarily a community level phenomenon, not an individual level until you can actually make contact with living individuals.
      ‘Proving’ this is problematic for 30,000 years ago, so let’s push this forward to ‘historic’: There is no historic record of any human community without religion (to my knowledge). So even if there were exceptions 30,000 years ago, they have since been out competed.

      To address comment 5 without any significant additional explanation: what is offered is insufficient. It simply states ‘allows for’. Every instance of specialization should have an explanation of how that feature impacts the competitive position of the community (or not, I suppose). I offer (with promised but not delivered expanded justification) a competitive exclusion explanation for religion (ie: communities without religion were out-competed). This is fundamentally different from Michael’s differential reproductive advantage argument, but it does not argue Michael wrong! We are looking at different things.

  7. The wikipedia article you link to begins by saying:

    “Religious behaviour is thought to have emerged by the Upper Paleolithic, before 30,000 years ago at the latest, but behavioral patterns such as burial rites that one might characterize as religious – or as ancestral to religious behaviour – reach back into the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago, coinciding with the first appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.”

    How do you reconcile this with your claim that:

    “Humans were secular before the Upper Paleolithic…”?

    The two statements seem to be in flat contradiction.

    • Humans go back 2.6 million years. Religion was developing over a long period, and my ‘30,000’ is a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand where only communities with religion survived and there was a mix for some period leading up to that. There was no overnight transition, and there are no exact dates for phenomenon that long ago. It is preferred to be very clear about the uncertainty with such dating. I was being careless, thinking you would just assume the uncertainty.

      I am suggesting a phenomenon similar to the emergence of a new species: The new group which possess the advantage expands its population and habitat displacing the established groups until the new group is all that is left.

      I am postulating significantly different mechanisms for the competitive advantage represented in basic vs. organized religion. I suspect it less confusing to focus on one at a time. Would you prefer to start at the beginning as it were?

  8. It seems the phenomenon that you are trying to explain is that there were humans without religion, then only humans with religion. Before you can usefully try to explain this in evolutionary or any other terms, you need to establish that it is indeed the case, or at least that there’s some evidence that suggests it might be the case.

    What is your evidence that there was a time before the neolithic during which all or some of the human population were not involved in some way with gods or spirits (or were non-religious in some other way, which you are at liberty to define)?

    The source you’ve presented says that there *is* evidence of religious behaviour all the way back to the origin of modern humans, and beyond, to the origin of Neanderthals. This does not support your statement that there were human communities without religion.

    Of course, as you say, evidence on these questions may be patchy, and absence of proof is not proof of absence…but can you give me any reason at all why I should accept your account of the development of religion. When you’ve done that, we can consider your explanation for that development.

    • I’m trying to ‘cut to the chase’ a bit here and not write a book. Can we at least assume that chimps are not religious as a start?

    • There is always the issue of how much background is required. I will try and provide as much as you think appropriate.

  9. I wouldn’t assume anything about chimps — but that’s not important, and I don’t need a book length explanation.

    What’s required before your explanation can even be considered a good or bad explanation is some reason for considering the state of affairs it aims to explain. That will need to involve your offering some evidence, not a bookful, but any evidence at all, in support of your story about the development of religion out of no religion.

    Evidence does not include saying ‘we can assume’ or that it’s in anthropology courses (which it is not, as far as I’m aware).

    You did provide a link to an article, but as far as I can see that only provides support for a different picture of the origins of religion, one that contradicts your picture, that religious behaviour (definition is always an issue, and I would caution against equating this in any simple sense to religions – see my previous posts on this topic) goes right back to the origins of humanity. If that’s the case, then there’s not much point in considering an explanation for the elimination of non-religious communities at the beginning of the neolithic, is there?

    So – here’s the challenge: one piece of evidence in favour of your claim that there were non-religious communities before the neolithic.

    • Doh! Sorry. I’ve been reacting, not reflecting and really missing your point! Like your caution on religious behavior and belief and will try to work that in as well.

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