Thursday 21 March 2019

Human Societies Evolved Gods

Complex societies gave birth to big gods - CSH

Locations of the 30 sampled regions on the world map, labelled according to precolonial evidence of moralizing gods.

An international research team has investigated the role of "big gods" in the rise of complex societies and, not surprisingly, have found an evolutionary relationship between the two.

The slightly surprising thing was though that their findings show it was not as previously thought - that "big gods" are the cause of the evolution of complex societies, but are a consequence of them.

Gods, it seems are the product of human cultural evolution.

"Big gods" are defined as moralizing deities who punish ethical transgressions. It has long been accepted that, as human societies grew beyond the primitive tribal groups which would have recognised and managed transgressions of group ethics, maybe through an autocratic tribal chief, they would have benefitted from the idea of a moralizing judgmental god who made and enforced group ethics. This would have produced a more cohesive society able to compete better in the memepool of rival human cultures.

According to the CSH press release:

The complexity of a society can be estimated by social characteristics such as population, territory, and sophistication of government institutions and information systems. Religious data include the presence of beliefs in supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, and the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

This study shows though that complexity preceded these "big gods", presumably because this countered any tendency for more complex social groups from disintegrating or, in an analogy with biological evolution, from speciating.

The team arrived at their conclusion after analysing data from the Seshat: Global History Databank, the most comprehensive, and constantly growing collection of historical and prehistorical data. Currently Seshat contains about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies, spanning 10,000 years of human history. Their findings were published yesterday in Nature. Sadly, the paper is behind a paywall.

Lead author, Harvey Whitehouse pointed out:

In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity... Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs.

Not only can an analysis of a large dataset tell us much more about human history and prehistory, it can show us how cultural ideas such as gods and religions were the result of an evolutionary process within the human memepool, closely analogous to the evolution of species within the biological genepool.

It's a delicious irony that while creationists are trying to persuade people that the Theory of Evolution is a theory in crisis, the Theory of Evolution is explaining how the idea of their notional designer evolved.

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