Derek Sivers
How Religion Evolved - by Robin Dunbar

How Religion Evolved - by Robin Dunbar

ISBN: 0197631827
Date read: 2023-07-20
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Great anthropology! So many insights into religions, tribes, friendships, organizations, the evolution of minds, superstition, and more. Got me thinking most about friendships.

my notes

Of all the modern world religions, Zoroastrianism is considered to be the oldest, having influenced many of the others.

Beliefs and rituals represent separate dimensions of religion.
Two general views as to how religion has been defined:
(1) System of practices: practical role that rituals and other practices play in most religions: religion as something that people do.
(2) a more philosophical or psychological approach: religion is a comprehensive worldview, a set of beliefs, that is accepted by a community as being true without need of evidence – religion as something that a group of people believe.

A minimalist definition of religion might be belief in some kind of transcendental world, inhabited by spirit beings or forces.
That definition is wide enough to include all the world religions.

Sikhism = a fifteenth-century development from the constellation of religions in north India.
Bahá’í Faith = a nineteenth-century development out of Shia Islam.

If the true religion has been revealed to us, why do people keep disagreeing about just what has been revealed?

Wishing wells are one familiar example of ‘animist’ views.
Horoscopes, ‘evil eye’.
We may not fully believe in these superstitions, but at the same time we are not quite willing to let go of them completely – just in case they really are true.

‘Folk physics’ – the physics of everyday experience.
Physics tells us that an object like a door really consists of a lot of empty space occupied by the occasional atom, but our everyday experience when we bump into one tells us that doors are very solid.

The word Easter derives from the Old English Eostre, the month dedicated to the Germanic goddess of that name – herself an ancient Indo-European goddess of dawn.

New forms of religion don’t usually sweep away older forms, but rather are grafted onto them precisely because the older forms are so deeply engrained into people’s psyche that they are difficult to erase.
Beneath the surface veneer of doctrinal rectitude lurks an ancient foundation of pagan mystical religion.

Cognitive anthropology = an attempt to understand the psychology underlying the way humans think about their world.

The focus of the cognitive science of religion has thus been on natural psychological mechanisms and the way these have accidentally predisposed humans to behave in religious ways.

Two views why religion evolved:
(1) Religion is simply the cost that had to be paid in order to maximize evolutionary fitness.
(2) Cultural evolution exploiting the way the human mind is designed so as to maximize cultural fitness despite the negative effect this might have on the fitness of the individuals whose minds are being parasitized.

Biologists look with deep suspicion on any suggestion that benefits might accrue solely for the benefit of the group and against the interests of the individual.
If the group does not provide a benefit for the individual, individuals will not put up with the inevitable costs of living in a group.

Culture is a Darwinian process, and cultural traits (or even entire cultures) evolve under selection, much as individuals and species do.

Enthusiasm = from the Ancient Greek word enthousiasmós, meaning ‘possessed by god’.

Being actively religious increases people’s willingness to behave altruistically.
Offers were more likely to be closer to a fair 50:50 split if player-1 belonged to a doctrinal religion, than if they belonged to no religion or to a tribal shamanic-type religion.

The growth of new religions appears to be a bottom-up phenomenon: it is the poor and downtrodden, not the elite, that initiate this process.

Terrorizing the populace works to the advantage of the ruling classes.
Pre-existing predisposition to be religious is being exploited for these purposes rather than being invented to justify the existence of an elite.

Tibetans were polyandrous: all the sons of one family married the same woman. To avoid unnecessary sexual conflict between them, the second-born son was usually hived off into the local monastery.
Ireland: to avoid having to partition the family farm, families with more than the average number of sons prevailed on their younger sons to go into the local seminary to become Catholic priests.
England: the eldest son inherited the family estate, the second joined the military and the third trained for the Church.
Portuguese placed their younger daughters in the local nunnery.

The more commitments a new member had to make when joining one of these communities (for example, giving up swearing, tobacco, alcohol, meat and, in extreme cases, even sex), the longer the community survived, but only for religious communities.
There was no such effect in the case of secular communities.

Most people will list around fifteen people as the number they feel they can depend on.
But this rises to include virtually the whole congregation of several hundred people for those who attend religious services on a daily basis.
Being actively religious makes you feel bonded to a larger group of people who are more likely to provide you with support.
As a result, you also feel happier and are more contented with your life.

Religion is as much subject to the processes of Darwinian evolution as any other biological or cultural phenomenon.
It doesn’t matter from a Darwinian point of view whether the mechanism of inheritance is genetic (as in conventional biological evolution) or learning (as in both simple learning and cultural evolution).
The rules of the Darwinian evolutionary process apply either way.

Biologists commonly differentiate between four different kinds of questions that we can ask. These are known as Tin-bergen’s Four Whys.
Though they were originally formulated as four different ‘Why’ questions, they are perhaps better thought of as questions about why, what, how, and when:
* What is the function or purpose of a trait? (the ‘why’ question)
* What mechanism allows it to produce that effect?
* How does the trait develop in the organism during the process of ontogeny?
* When in its history did a species acquire the trait?
These questions, and the answers they produce, are logically and biologically independent of each other.
We can answer each one without having to worry about, or even prejudice the answer to, the others.
Eventually, we want to be able to tick all four boxes. But in the meantime, we can deal with the questions piecemeal
This separation of function allows us to discuss the evolution of biological traits and the evolution of cultural phenomena in the same breath without self-contradiction.

There is something wrong when someone uses confirmatory evidence for one hypothesis to claim that it is the only function of religion.
There’s evidence to support all five of the hypotheses for the function of religion.
It simply cannot be that only one of them is correct and all the others wrong.
In almost every case, there is some evidence for, and some against.
But if they are in fact answers to different why questions, then they are not mutually exclusive: they can all be right at the same time.
Look at the hypotheses more carefully and ask what questions, exactly, they are answers to.

External threats are the primary reason for group living.
When external threats such as predation risk increase, group size will have to increase proportionately to counteract the threat.
As group size increases, the stresses imposed on the members increase.
Bonding provides the solution to this problem (the bigger the group, the better the bonding has to be).
Religion allows the group to be better bonded.

Secondary benefits arise once religion is in place.
Once religion has evolved, it provides direct health benefits and an improved understanding of the world such that the vagaries of lived experience can be better predicted and managed.
An improved understanding of the world reduces some of the intrusiveness of external threats.

When communities get above a certain size they have a natural tendency to give rise to an elite that manages the community.
This allows a leadership that can both exhort members to behave well and punish those who fail to obey the rules, thereby enforcing cooperation.
The elite might exploit the masses.

Better bonded groups allow more cooperation, which in turn feeds back to reinforce the size of the bonded group by ensuring that failure to cooperate doesn’t result in groups fragmenting because of fractiousness.
Individual and communal benefits associated with religion, interacting with each other and amplifying or dampening each other’s effects.

The role that faith (belief in the claims of religion) plays in these effects:
It is not a question about the truth of a particular religion, or of religions in general.
The issue is whether you need to believe in the tenets of the religion to get these benefits, or whether it is the rituals and actions associated with the religion that are the important component.

Organizational psychology found that people from the smaller church were more actively involved with their church’s activities, approved more highly of what it did, attended Sunday services more often, donated a larger share of their income to the church and generally felt more engaged with their church community. Significantly, new members assimilated more easily into the smaller congregation.
Weekly attendance at services and individual donations to the church declined significantly as church size increased.
Larger churches become increasingly focused on external projects such as missionary activity to the detriment of investment in their own members.

The zoological family to which we humans belong – live in groups that are very different to those found in almost all other mammals and birds.
In effect, they are implicit social contracts: the groups exist to protect members against external threats such as predators and neighbouring groups.
While most birds and mammals also cluster together when predators threaten, the groups they form when doing so are temporary: once the threat has passed, the herd disperses until the next time a predator hoves into view. Their herds are anonymous and animals do not often care who joins them so long as there is somebody to form a group with.
In contrast, primate groups have a characteristic bonded quality.
It is the identity of the other group members that is important.
Group members ensure that they do not lose sight of each other; they are usually suspicious of strangers joining their group, and will act together in defence of the group when faced with external threats.
They invest a great deal of time in creating and maintaining close bonds with each other.
Individuals know and understand each other intimately as individuals.

Social brain hypothesis:
Primates have brains that are significantly larger for their body size than all other groups of animals.
This reflects the additional computing power needed to manage the dynamic complexity of their bonded social groups.

Since this complexity increases exponentially with the number of individuals in the group, brain size increases in proportion to a species’ typical group size, giving rise to the social brain hypothesis.
This relationship between neocortex size and group size in primates allows us to estimate the equivalent ‘natural’ group size for humans: it is simply a matter of plugging human neocortex size into the equation for the monkeys and apes, and then reading off the corresponding group size.
The group size for humans predicted by this equation is 150, to the nearest round number.
That this is the natural group size for humans has been confirmed by some two dozen studies that have measured either the size of natural human communities or the size of personal social networks.
This group of 150 people actually consists of a series of circles of very explicit size:
5 (close friends)
15 (best friends)
50 (good friends)
150 (‘just friends’)
acquaintances (typically 500 people)
1,500 (faces you can put names to)
5,000 (people whose faces you recognize)
The layers have a scaling ratio of almost exactly three: each layer is roughly three times the size of the layer immediately inside it.
We have no idea why this scaling ratio is so consistent, but it turns up in every dataset, and we even find it in the layered structure of the societies of animals like chimpanzees, baboons, dolphins and elephants that live in complex societies.
These layers correspond to perceived emotional closeness and willingness to give help.

We ration our altruism according to the friendship layer that the person lies in.
We expect those in the innermost layers to help when we are in need.
To ensure this, we invest our social effort more heavily in the members of our innermost circles.
40 per cent is invested in the five members of the innermost circle of close friends, and 60 per cent is invested in the fifteen people that make up the circle of best friends.
The rest of our time is distributed increasingly thinly among the remaining 135 members of our social network.

Friendships are very prone to decay if we do not invest time and effort in them.
Friendships are fragile and need continuous reinforcement.

People’s willingness to help us out, or provide us with emotional or other kinds of support, depends critically on how much time we invest in them.
Those in the innermost layers are the ones who will most willingly give us the emotional and other support we need when our life falls apart, and will do so without expecting anything in return – our ‘shoulders to cry on’ friends.
Those in the outermost layers will certainly be willing to do small favours for us, but, unlike the shoulders-to-cry-on friends, they won’t be willing to put their own lives on hold to help us to sort ourselves out.

No culture in the world has a term to identify people who are more distantly related than third cousins – the offspring of our grandparents’ cousins.
It essentially demarcates the limits of the extended family.

The tribe relies on tokens that identify membership, one of which, of course, is language.

Characteristic community size that applied throughout most of the world that remained astonishingly stable over a very, very long period of time.
There seems to be something that is psychologically very fundamental about the size and stability of a community size of around 150.

The average size of fifty-one Hutterite communities was 109.
These values reflect a strategy of splitting communities once they exceed 150 in size.
This is done deliberately, so the Hutterites say, because it becomes impossible to manage the community by peer pressure alone once it exceeds about 150 in size.
For community size to increase beyond this without collapsing into chaos, it would be necessary to have a formal system of laws and law enforcers.
Since this would be against their entire ethos, they prefer to split the community and find a new farm for the daughter group.
Daughter communities of around 50 and 150 at foundation seemed to last longer without having to undergo fission again.
Communities might try and delay fission until their size is large enough to allow daughter communities of about these magic numbers.

Four distinct size clusters: small congregations (around 40 members), average (around 150), large (500) and mega-churches (2,000).
If churches become much larger than 200, they evolve a range of small, intimate groups with very specific foci, such as bible-reading groups, discussion groups, prayer groups, volunteer groups, and so on.
Such groups will usually need to meet regularly (for example, weekly) and their optimal size appears to be around fifteen people.
Joining these can restore the sense of belonging and commitment.

There was a transition at a community size of about forty from communities managed without any formal leadership to ones with some kind of leadership team structure.
We asked people to watch an emotionally charged film.
The people, who were strangers to each other, felt more bonded to the strangers with whom they had watched the film.

The Seven Pillars of Friendship are:
sharing the same language
place of origin
educational trajectory
hobbies and interests
worldview (religious, moral and political views)
musical tastes and sense of humour.
The more of these that you and I have in common, the stronger the relationship.
For more on this, see my book Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (2021).
When we meet someone who seems potentially interesting as a friend, we devote a great deal of time to them, meeting them as often as we can and engaging them in conversation.
What we are doing, in fact, is assessing where they stand on the Seven Pillars, gauging their similarity to us.
Once we have determined this, we reduce the frequency of contact to the level appropriate for the layer that their similarity on the Seven Pillars would put them in.
The Seven Pillars also provide a basis for assessing the trustworthiness of strangers.

Musical tastes kept cropping up, when researching friend-bonding.
We wondered if this might reflect the important role that singing and dancing play in triggering the endorphin system and promoting social bonding.
If you like the same music, you know how to dance in synchrony with the rest of us.

Much of the work in conversational exchanges was done by the listener rather than the speaker: the listener has to work out what the speaker is intending to mean.
Our mindreading capacity (how many mindstates we can handle at any given moment) determines a number of crucial aspects of our social behaviour.
These include the complexity of the language we can use (in terms of the grammatical structure of its sentences), the complexity of the fictional stories we enjoy most, the typical size of conversation groups and the number of close friends we have.

The ability to reflect on mindstates: to step back from the world as we directly experience it and imagine that there is another parallel world.
The important distinction here is between your behaviour (which is part of that physical world that I perceive directly) and your intentions (or mental states) that I cannot perceive directly but have to imagine (usually by inferring your inner thoughts from some aspect of your visible behaviour – what you say, how you say it, the grimaces and handwaving movements you make).
In effect, I have to be able to run two versions of reality simultaneously in my mind.

Many more neurons are recruited when we are thinking about someone’s mental state than when we simply think about their behaviour.

A belief becomes a religion only when at least two of us agree about its tenets.
To do so, we both have to agree that a proposition about a religious fact is true.

Forms of religious belief that are made possible by different levels of intentionality:
Intentionality level: Possible statements of belief → Form of religion
1st I believe that [rain is falling] → not possible
2nd I believe that you think [rain is falling] → not possible
3rd I believe that you think that God exists [in a transcendental world] → religious fact
4th I believe that you think that God exists and intends to punish us → personal religion
5th I believe that you think that we both know that God exists and intends to punish us → communal religion

Rituals express a sense of belonging – by knowing the way things should be done, you demonstrate that you are a member of the community.
Like knowing the right way to speak, the right words to use, the right folk tales, the right way to behave in public, the right clothes to wear, demonstrates that you know the secret formula of membership.

Those who endured pain together felt more bonded to each other than those who had performed the non-painful version of the exercise, even when controlling for age, sex and group size.
Those in the pain groups made significantly larger donations to the common pot than those in the no-pain groups.

When the subject and confederate were in close synchrony, pain thresholds rose and the subject trusted the confederate more.
At the same time, synchrony independently increased the sense of bonding between them, and that in turn enhanced liking and cooperation.
Important is that the synchrony involves a task that is clearly goal-directed – in other words, has a clear purpose.

It would have taken a community of 500 or more to move the pillars the 500 metres from the quarry to their final position.
One does not go to these lengths for conventional dwellings.

These populations had little choice: they could not pursue a hunter-gatherer life even if they wanted to but instead were obliged to live in settlements and put up with the significant costs of doing so.
In short, people did not live in villages in order to develop agriculture, but developed agriculture in order to live in villages.
Why? Defence against raiders.

While 85 per cent of living Icelandic men have the expected Norse male genetic signature of the population that originally colonized the island, 50 per cent of Icelandic women have a Celtic maternal signature, reflecting the historically well-documented fact that the Norse regularly collected Irish and Scots slave girls on their way over to Iceland.

Europe has a mere three dozen or so distinct languages, each covering an enormous area.
Papua New Guinea has 850 official languages in an area of just 180,000
Those living within the tropics try to isolate themselves from their neighbours not because there is any constraint on food availability but because of the increased risk of contracting novel diseases for which they have no natural immunity.
They can only do this because the growing conditions are rich and food is superabundant most of the time.

All religions begin as cults, built around a charismatic leader.
Embedded within an existing set of beliefs and practices that they either develop in new ways or react against.

Schizophrenia and religious experience draw on the same cognitive processes in the brain.
70 per cent of schizophrenics experience auditory and visual hallucinations.
Religious delusions (hearing the voice of God, the taunting of demons, believing that you are the messenger of God, or even God Himself)

Many charismatic leaders were orphans: Prophet Muhammed, Confucius, Moses, St Teresa of Ávila – and very possibly Jesus,
Also: Aristotle, Genghis Khan, Yasser Arafat, Chiang Kai-shek, Malcolm X, Dostoyevsky, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, J.S.Bach.
Being an orphan may create the kind of psychological resilience needed to triumph in the face of adversity and ridicule.

You need to stand out from the crowd for people to be willing to commit themselves to you.

Many people adhere to the religion they belong to simply because they were born into it and grew up within it.
They are content enough with the sense of belonging engendered not to question its value.
Or because they do not wish to fall out with someone whose opinion and friendship they value.
Recruitment by birth is probably the single most important strategy for the growth of a sect, since children brought up in a religion or cult readily absorb the ethos of the sect and remain influenced by it for life.

Religions fragment.
The major schisms that occurred in Christianity as well as in Islam have resulted from attempts to reform contemporary practice – usually due to a perceived laxity of practice or morality.

Why the Mormon religion survived?
The Mormons successfully developed organizational structures that were able to impose a degree of theological discipline.
They were outward-looking and developed active pro-grammes of recruitment.

Monotheistic religions necessarily have a more standardized form, with a more specific theology.
Monotheism with its Moralizing High Gods seems to be especially associated with pastoral economies.
Interest in religion declines when economic conditions are good and wealth inequality is low.