Recent work in biology, cognitive psychology, and archaeology has renewed evolutionary perspectives on the role of natural selection in the emergence and recurrent forms of religious thought and behavior, i.e., mental representations of supernatural agents, as well as artifacts, ritual practices, moral systems, ethnic markers, and speciﬁc experiences associated with these representations. One perspective, inspired from behavioral ecology, attempts to measure the ﬁtness effects of religious practices. Another set of models, representative of evolutionary psychology, explain religious thought and behavior as (...) the output of cognitive systems (e.g., animacy detection, social cognition, precautionary reasoning) that are not exclusive to the religious domain. In both perpectives, the question remains open, whether religious thought and behavior constitute an adaptation or a by-product of adaptive cognitive function. (shrink)
We are pleased to present the following Review Forum of Harvey Whitehouse’s book, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 204 pages. ISBN 0-19- 823414-7 (cloth); 0-19-823415-5 (paper). We have given the contributors and the book’s author sufficient space to discuss its themes carefully and thus make a significant contribution to the further analysis of religion and ritual generally.
Bering argues that belief in posthumous intentional agency may confer added fitness via the inhibition of opportunistic behavior. This is true only if these agents are interested parties in our moral choices, a feature which does not result from Bering's imaginative constraint hypothesis and extends to supernatural agents other than dead people's souls. A by-product model might handle this better.
In reply to commentary on our target article, we supply further evidence and hypotheses in the description of ritualized behaviors in humans. Reactions to indirect fitness threats probably activate specialized precaution systems rather than a unified form of danger-avoidance or causal reasoning. Impairment of precaution systems may be present in pathologies other than obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), autism in particular. Ritualized behavior is attention-grabbing enough to be culturally transmitted whether or not it is associated with group identity, cohesion, or with any (...) other social aspect of collective ceremonies. (Published Online February 8 2007). (shrink)
Ritualized behavior, intuitively recognizable by its stereotypy, rigidity, repetition, and apparent lack of rational motivation, is found in a variety of life conditions, customs, and everyday practices: in cultural rituals, whether religious or non-religious; in many children's complicated routines; in the pathology of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD); in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle, birthing in particular. Combining evidence from evolutionary anthropology, neuropsychology and neuroimaging, we propose an explanation of ritualized behavior in terms of an evolved Precaution System geared (...) to the detection of and reaction to inferred threats to fitness. This system, distinct from fear-systems geared to respond to manifest danger, includes a repertoire of clues for potential danger as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. In OCD pathology, this system does not supply a negative feedback to the appraisal of potential threats, resulting in doubts about the proper performance of precautions, and repetition of action. Also, anxiety levels focus the attention on low-level gestural units of behavior rather than on the goal-related higher-level units normally used in parsing the action-flow. Normally automatized actions are submitted to cognitive control. This “swamps” working memory, an effect of which is a temporary relief from intrusions but also their long-term strengthening. Normal activation of this Precaution System explains intrusions and ritual behaviors in normal adults. Gradual calibration of the system occurs through childhood rituals. Cultural mimicry of this system's normal input makes cultural rituals attention-grabbing and compelling. A number of empirical predictions follow from this synthetic model. (Published Online February 8 2007) Key Words: childhood ritual; compulsion; event boundaries; evolutionary psychology; obsessive-compulsive disorder; ritual; thought intrusion. (shrink)
Cognitive developmental evidence is sometimes conscripted to support ''naturalized epistemology'' arguments to the effect that a general epistemic stance leads children to build theory-like accounts of underlying properties of kinds. A review of the evidence suggests that what prompts conceptual acquisition is not a general epistemic stance but a series of category-specific intuitive principles that constitute an evolved ''natural metaphysics''. This consists in a system of categories and category-specific inferential processes founded on definite biases in prototype formation. Evidence for this (...) system provides a better understanding of the limited ''plasticity'' of ontological commitments as well as a computationally plausible account of their initial state, avoiding ambiguities about innateness. This may provide a starting point for a ''naturalized epistemology'' that takes into account evolved properties of human conceptual structures. (shrink)
Atran's account of cultural transmission can be further refined by considering constraints from early-developed, domain-specific intuitive ontological understanding. These suggest specific predictions about the cultural survival of “memes,” depending on the way they activate intuitive understanding. There is no general dynamic of cultural inheritance; only complex predictions for domain-specific competencies that cut across cultural domains.
Identifying objects as members of ontological domains activates category-specific processes. There is evidence that these processes include particular ways of “tracking” substances and could do all the “tracking” necessary for concept acquisition. There may be no functional need or evolutionary scenario for a general tracking capacity of the kind described by Millikan.
The study of causal inferences is an essential part of the study of other cultures. It is therefore crucial to describe the cognitive mechanisms whereby subjects are led to find specific causal explanations plausible and "natural." In the anthropological literature, specific causal connections are described as the result produced by applying a general "conception of causation" or some general "theories" to specific events; the essay aims to show that these answers are either trivial or false. The "naturalness" of explanations must (...) be examined in the context of concept acquisition and belief-fixation. On the basis of an ethnographic example, it is possible to show how certain presumptions (e.g., about the use of certain categories as natural kind terms) can be involved in the processes whereby certain explanations are made cognitively salient. (shrink)