Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gaia Shibboleth 4: Religion and Social Evolution

Van Gogh The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix - see below)
Samaritans accept only the Pentateuch as valid scripture.

This article in the Gaia Shibboleth series covers two in-depth reviews of the social effects and possible social evolutionary basis of religiosity in terms of two features, prosociality (forms of moral action which enhance social viability) and individual self-control plus a brief review of a woekshop on the subject this month in Edinburgh.

Religious Prosociality

The first "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" by Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff (Science 322 58-62 2008) examines how religions contribute to various forms of altruism, trust and personal reputation under the banner of 'prosociality'.

Social science theories have long pointed to religion as a cultural facilitator of social cohesion and ingroup solidarity often at the expense of rival groups. Various evolutionary theories of religion all predict that religious beliefs and behaviors have facilitated human prosocial tendencies. Some argue that at least certain religious beliefs and behaviors are evolutionary adaptations for group-living in large communities that have maximized genetic fitness.

Two evolutionary accounts are compatible with cultural variability. One proposes that religious content is a cultural by-product of a suite of psychological tendencies evolved in the Pleistocene for other purposes, such as detecting and inferring the content of other minds and sensitivity to one’s prosocial reputation in the group. Religious beliefs, to the extent that they were compatible with these psychological tendencies, could then culturally spread through social learning mechanisms and could solve adaptive problems, particularly the problem of cooperation in large groups.

Another evolutionary perspective, known as cultural group selection, maintains that competition among social groups may favor the spread of fitness-enhancing cultural beliefs and costly practices, such as religious prosociality. This takes as its starting point that religious beliefs are cultural by-products of evolved psychology, but argues that reputation-sensitivity, although important, is not sufficient to explain the features of strong prosocial tendencies such as the ones found in religious behavior.

Despite these important differences, agreement is emerging that selective pressures over the course of human evolution can explain the wide cross-cultural reoccurrence, historical persistence, and predictable cognitive structure of religious beliefs and behaviors.

Although in many societies supernatural agents are not directly concerned with human morality, in many others, morally concerned agents use their supernatural powers to observe and, in some cases, to punish and reward human social interactions. These beliefs are likely to spread culturally to the extent that they facilitate ingroup cooperation. This could occur by conforming to individual psychology that favors reputation-sensitive prosocial tendencies, as the by-product account holds; by competition among social groups, as the cultural group selection account would suggest; or possibly by some combination of the two.

Religious behaviors and rituals, if more costly to cooperating group members than to freeloaders, may have reliably signaled the presence of devotion and, therefore, cooperative intention toward ingroup members, in turn, buffering religious groups against defection from free-loaders and reinforcing cooperative norms. Religious prosociality, thus, may have softened the limitations that kinship-based and (direct or indirect) reciprocity-based altruism place on group size. In this way, the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have facilitated the rise of stable, large, cooperative communities of genetically unrelated individuals.

The acute human sensitivity to prosocial reputation is a psychological mechanism, originally unrelated to religion, that evolved to facilitate strong reciprocal cooperative bonds within groups. In an intensely social, gossiping species, reputational concerns likely contributed to the evolutionary stability of strong cooperation between strangers. Individuals known to be selfish could be detected, subsequently excluded from future interaction, and even actively punished. The threat of being found out, therefore, became a potent motivator for good behavior. Accordingly, studies have repeatedly shown that experimentally reducing the degree of anonymity in economic games increases the rate of prosocial behavior.

The cognitive awareness of gods is likely to heighten prosocial reputational concerns among believers, just as the cognitive awareness of human watchers does among believers and non-believers alike. However, supernatural monitoring, to the degree that it is genuinely believed and cognitively salient, offers the powerful advantage that cooperative interactions can be observed even in the absence of social monitoring.

First, religious devotion, insofar as it involves habitual worship of morally vigilant deities, is expected to be associated with greater prosocial reputational concern.

Second, religious situations, such as religious ritual performance or being in religious surroundings, would, in societies with morally concerned deities, activate thoughts of these deities and habitually facilitate prosocial behavior. Therefore, experimentally inducing religious thoughts would also increase prosociality even when the situation is objectively anonymous. But this should be the case only when thoughts of morally concerned supernatural agents are cognitively accessible in the moment when prosocial decisions are called for.

Third, religious behavior that signals genuine devotion would be expected to mobilize greater cooperation and trust, and when internal and external threats to group survival are high, religious groups would be expected to outlast secular ones.

Fourth, large societies that have successfully stabilized high levels of cooperative norms would be more likely than smaller ones to espouse belief in morally concerned gods who actively monitor human interactions.

If religions centered around moralizing gods promote prosociality, it would be expected that individuals who report stronger belief in such gods would have stronger altruistic tendencies. Sociological surveys suggest that this is the case.

If religious individuals are more motivated to maintain a prosocial reputation than the nonreligious, then the former may be more likely to engage in prosocial reputation management. However, this association raises questions about the validity of self-report measures of prosocial behavior.

Parable of the Good Samaritan Delacroix
Religiosity promotes such acts when personal reputation is at stake

In a Good Samaritan study, religious people showed little or no increased altruism unless it was beneficial to their personal reputation, but in a Kibbutz study religious Kibbutz members showed greater prosociality than secular one in a game where withdrawing money would reduce the pot for other similarly aligned Kibbutz members. The difference here seems to be that cheating on members of your own religious community is a different question from cheating anonymously on a public victim.

Studies repeatedly indicate that the association between conventional religiosity and prosociality occurs primarily when a reputation-related egoistic motivation has been activated, rather than empathic compassion. Many studies have corroborated that religiosity predicts prosocial behavior primarily when the prosocial act could promote a positive image for the participant, either in his or her own eyes or in the eyes of observers.

Further studies show that when a supernatural figure (God, or a ghost, or fictional character) are present in an experimental setting, cheating is reduced and prosociality increased. Thoughts of God activated without conscious awareness caused greater generosity between anonymous strangers.

Because professions of religious belief can be easily faked, theorists of religion have recognized that evolutionary pressures must have favored costly religious commitment, such as ritual participation and various restrictions on behavior, diet, and life-style, that validates the sincerity of otherwise unobservable religious belief. However, for costly signals to evolve as a stable strategy, religious behaviors ought to be more costly for cooperators than for freeloaders, and variation in costliness should predict degree of intragroup trust and cooperation.

Attitudinal surveys show that religious individuals are perceived to be more trustworthy and more cooperative.

Lifetimes of religious and secular communities

Sociological analyses are consistent with the idea that religious groups imposing more costly requirements have members who are more committed. Religious communes were found to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies, such as socialism. A further quantitative analysis of 83 of these religious and secular communes for which more detailed records are available found that religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements (including food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, marriage, sex, and communication with the outside world) than secular ones. This difference emerged for each of the 22 categories of costly requirements examined. Importantly for costly religious signaling, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after the study controlled for population size and income and the year the commune was founded, although the number of costly requirements did not predict longevity for secular communes. Finally, religious ideology was no longer a predictor of commune longevity, once the number of costly requirements was statistically controlled, which suggests that the survival advantage of religious communes was due to the greater costly commitment of their members, rather than other aspects of religious ideology.

In one well-researched laboratory game of trust, participants were randomly assigned to be a proposer (truster) or a responder (trustee). In the first step, the proposer decides how much money to forward to the responder, which gets multiplied. In the second step, the responder decides how much money to send back to the proposer. By transferring money to the responder, the proposer stands to gain, but only if the responder can be trusted to reciprocate. In a variation of this trust experiment, researchers measured individual differences in the religiosity of the proposer and the responder. In addition, in some trials, proposers knew about the level of religiosity of the responder in an anonymous context.

Results indicated that more money was forwarded to responders perceived to be religious, and this was particularly true for religious proposers. Furthermore, religious responders were more likely to reciprocate the proposer ’s offer than less religious responders. They do not show that costly religious behavior elicits more trust and cooperation than less costly behavior under controlled conditions, as required by costly signaling explanations of religion; or that members of religious groups that impose more costly requirements are more trusting and less likely to take advantage of others, particularly ingroup members, as would be expected from cultural group selection accounts.

The size of human settlements since the end of the Pleistocene far exceed the limitations that kin-based and reciprocity-based altruism place on group size. Cultural evolution, driven by between-group competition for resources and habitats, has favored large groups. However, large groups, which until recently lacked institutionalized social-monitoring mechanisms, are vulnerable to collapse because of high rates of freeloading. If unwavering and pervasive belief in moralizing gods buffered against such freeloading, then belief in such gods should be more likely in larger human groups where the threat of freeloading is most acute.

In a quantitative cross-cultural analysis of the 186 societies in the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample, this prediction was confirmed. The larger the group size, the more likely the group culturally sanctioned deities who are directly concerned about human morality. Although most cultures in the world do not promote morally concerned deities, those that do tend to have disproportionately larger populations. As a consequence, the majority of religious adherents in the world worship moralizing gods.

One alternative explanation is that Christian and Muslim missionary activity may have caused both more belief in the moralizing Abrahamic God and may have favored larger group size. Another, is that because large societies are more socially stratified, belief in moralizing gods serves to preserve political and economic in- equality. However, although missionized societies and caste-stratified societies were indeed more likely to endorse a moralizing God, the association between large group size and the prevalence of moralizing Gods remained strong even after statistically controlling for missionary activity and for two indicators of societal inequality, as well as for population density and geographic region. Similarly, controlling for the cultural diffusion of moralizing Gods via Christian and Muslim missionary activity, society size, population size, and societal inequality, moralizing gods are more likely in societies with high water scarcity—where the threat to group survival, and the need to minimize freeloading, is also pronounced. The cross-cultural evidence suggests that moralizing gods are culturally stabilized when freeloading is more prevalent or particularly detrimental to group stability.

Conclusions of the study, Outstanding Questions, and Future Directions

Many religious traditions around the world explicitly encourage the faithful to be unconditionally prosocial; yet, theoretical considerations and empirical evidence indicate that religiously socialized individuals should be, and are, much more discriminating in their prosociality. Although empathy and compassion as social-bonding emotions do exist and may play a role in prosocial acts of religious and nonreligious individuals some of the time, there is little direct evidence to date that such emotions are systematically implicated in religious prosociality. The preponderance of the evidence points to religious prosociality being a bounded phenomenon. Religion’s association with prosociality is most evident when the situation calls for maintaining a favorable social reputation within the ingroup. When thoughts of morally concerned deities are cognitively salient, an objectively anonymous situation becomes nonanonymous and, therefore, reputationally relevant, or alternatively, such thoughts activate prosocial tendencies because of a prior mental association. This could occur when such thoughts are induced experimentally or in naturalistic religious situations, such as when people attend religious services or engage in ritual performance. This explains why the religious situation is more important than the religious disposition in predicting prosocial behavior.

Although religions continue to be powerful facilitators of prosociality in large groups, they are not the only ones. The cultural spread of reliable secular institutions, such as courts, policing authorities, and effective contract-enforcing mechanisms, although historically recent, has changed the course of human prosociality. Consequently, active members of modern secular organizations are at least as likely to report donating to charity as active members of religious ones. Supporting this conclusion, experimentally induced reminders of secular moral authority had as much effect on generous behavior in an economic game as reminders of God, and there are many examples of modern, large, cooperative, and not very religious societies (such as those in Western and Northern Europe), that, nonetheless, retain a great degree of intragroup trust and cooperation.

More research is needed to address the costliness of religious and nonreligious rituals, and few studies have attempted to quantify these costs in relation to prosocial behavior. The finding that religiosity evokes greater trust underscores the need for more experimental and theoretical research, including mathematical modeling, to establish the specific conditions under which costly religious commitment could evolve as a stable individual strategy and whether these models need to take into account intergroup competition. More broadly, the extent to which religion is implicated in human cooperation, and the precise sequence of evolutionary developments in religious prosociality, remain open to lively scientific debate. Further progress on these issues will require concerted collaboration among historians, archaeologists, social scientists, and evolutionary biologists.

In recent years, moral psychology has received a great deal of scientific attention, and although most of the studies reviewed here concern behavioral outcomes, the relation between religious prosociality and moral intuitions and reasoning is ripe for further investigation. More direct research on the possible role of prosocial motivations, such as empathy and compassion, in religious prosociality are needed. Finally, we have seen that religious prosociality is not extended indiscriminately; the 'dark side' of within-group cooperation is between-group competition and conflict. The same mechanisms involved in ingroup altruism may also facilitate outgroup antagonism. This is an area of no small debate, but scientific attention is needed to examine precisely how individuals and groups determine who are the beneficiaries of religious prosociality, and who its victims.

Variations on the Prosocial Argument

A recent workshop on natural (Darwinian) foundations of religious belief and behavior ("Is Religion Adaptive? It's Complicated" Scientific American January 19, 2009) a series of slants on the basis of a Darwinian adaptive basis for religious belief were put forward, several of which are variants of adaptive prosociality.

Political scientist and evolutionary biologist Dominic Johnson presented the idea that omniscient supernatural agents served an adaptive social policing function in the ancestral past, by encouraging individuals in groups to conform to group sanctions out of the fear of divine punishment, thus lessening the chances of social fission. As already noted, this phenomenon would have been biologically adaptive since larger groups meant better chances of survival and reproductive success for individual members.

Anthropologist Richard Sosis summarized his “costly signaling” hypothesis of religious behavior: that people engage in costly religious behaviors - rituals, uncomfortable clothes, financial commitments - to advertise their commitment to the religious in-group. If you’re willing to do things such as cut off your child’s foreskin, pay a regular alms tax of 2.5 percent of your net worth or sit for two hours every Sunday morning on a hard church pew, then your fellow believers will assume that you’re really one of them and can therefore be trusted.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers from Rutgers University, who first developed the idea of reciprocal altruism, discussed the possible role of psychological self-deception in the realm of religion and reviewed the impossible to ignore evidence that religiosity positively effects human health.

Biologist Jeff Schloss considered what these scientific developments in the study of religion will ultimately mean philosophically - “what does it all tell us about the existence of God?”

Jesse Bering the author of the article responded with the central enigma of adaptive religiosity: "What if the data suggest that God is actually just a psychological blemish etched onto the core cognitive substrate of your brain. Would you still believe if you knew God were a byproduct of your evolved mental architecture?

Is Religion Adaptive for Self-Control?

The second study by Michael McCullough (to appear Psychological Bulletin Jan 2009) looks at religiosity as an evolutionary means to facilitate 'self-control'.

The study by University of Miami professor of Psychology Michael McCullough finds that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts, suggesting that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school
achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

McCullough evaluated 8 decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals. The research paper, which summarizes the results of their review of the existing science, will be published in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."

Among conclusions that the research team drew were the following:

• Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
• When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
• Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
• The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.

McCullough's says his review of the research on religion and self-control contributes to a better understanding of "how the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses. By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything."

This of course begs the question as to what forms of social control religions might also apply through costly behaviours, punishments of transgressors and utopian aims connected with absolute beliefs. It is these features of religion that we will examine in the next episode of the Gaia shibboleth.

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