The Cultural Evolution of Epistemic Practices

Human Nature 32 (3):622-651 (2021)
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Although a substantial literature in anthropology and comparative religion explores divination across diverse societies and back into history, little research has integrated the older ethnographic and historical work with recent insights on human learning, cultural transmission, and cognitive science. Here we present evidence showing that divination practices are often best viewed as an epistemic technology, and we formally model the scenarios under which individuals may overestimate the efficacy of divination that contribute to its cultural omnipresence and historical persistence. We found that strong prior belief, underreporting of negative evidence, and misinferring belief from behavior can all contribute to biased and inaccurate beliefs about the effectiveness of epistemic technologies. We finally suggest how scientific epistemology, as it emerged in Western societies over the past few centuries, has influenced the importance and cultural centrality of divination practices.



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