On Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion

In their recent article, Peoples and Marlowe (PM) contribute another piece in the puzzle of the emergence of moralistic Big Gods.  Using data from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, PM demonstrate that commitment to High Moral Cop-Gods correlates with pastoralism.   While some have found a relationship between High Gods and water shortage (e.g., Roes and Raymond 2003), many others find that higher social complexity/stratification (Johnson 2005; Sanderson 2008; Swanson 1960) and agriculture (Wallace 1966) predict the belief in such deities.  Emphasizing mode of subsistence, PM find that “Animal husbandry is by far the strongest subsistence-related predictor of High Gods” (260).  Moreover, while lower population size still predicts the absence of High Gods, the influence of social stratification alone becomes nonsignificant with the inclusion of subsistence in their models.  This is a nice surprise for those who tend to associate such gods with the anonymity provided by agriculturalist state societies.  Why, then, does pastoralism predict High Gods?

For one, the authors argue, since pastoralists engage in significantly more warfare than other populations, this creates the need for more social cohesion within groups.  Because of this, a moralistic High God is likely to fulfill this function.  In a related sense, pastoralists often have clearly defined male-centered leadership roles and concomitant “man clubs” (e.g., the comitatus of Inner Asian nomadic empires; see Beckwith 2009) and these leaders had to manipulate others into allegiance.  With that allegiance often comes individual fitness enhancement for all involved parties (see Van Vugt et al. 2008; Van Vugt and Kurzban 2007).

Stories about how moral High God-concepts might be useful for stronger bonds have come in a few variants over the past few decades.  But, PM’s work adds another important element to the narrative:  “A High God enforcing cooperation could result in coalitions that replace internecine feuding with successful defensive alliances” (265).  Pastoralists are pretty adept at stealing livestock (Dyson-Hudson & Dyson-Hudson 1980; Irons 1974; Sweet 1965). This tends to ruffle feathers.

So, being able to convincingly tell someone to play nice because a Cosmic Policeman will come knocking on your yurt door if you steal your neighbor’s sheep has its benefits.  So does playing nice with your neighbors, particularly if your shared neighbors have a nice herd.  While ritual behavior served the function of creating stronger bonds among smaller groups, what we see here is the emergence of something that appears to be far more effective in creating bonds over wider ranges in what’s often considered to be a “transitional” (or peripheral) mode of subsistence.

Whither ritual?  It would have been nice to see how this ties into the story here.  We know that warfare frequency predicts the intensity of religious ritual (Sosis et al. 2007); the higher the organizational need, the more brutal rites tend to be.  It may be that while such rites foster the in-group cohesion required to act as a strong, unified unit, Big God concepts widen the scope of moral obligations over larger expanses.  We’re on the verge of explicitly addressing the question that religion can have multiple ultimate-level functions and examining under what conditions these functions operate optimally.  It’s an exciting time to entertain such possibilities, and PM’s article confirms that it’s a worthy pursuit.

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