Evolving Thoughts

ResearchBlogging.org One of my claims is that religion proper arose along with the settlement in sedentary townships made possible by agriculture. The reason why this is religion, and not, say, the shamanic “religions” of nomadic tribes, in my view, is that in the latter, people are all related closely enough to be sure to whom to offer assistance in hard times with the expectation of mutual support later. The crucial role of religion proper, I think, is to mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the “costly signaling” religion requires (a view of Richard Sosis and colleagues), from those who are more likely to cheat. Agriculture makes possible a society not based on close kinship, which makes religion the solution to that dilemma only after societies of that kind arise.

Sounds good to me. So I am telling my friend Pamela Lyon about this and she says “Oh, well how do you explain this place – Göbekli Tepe?” It’s the earliest dedicated ritual site in the world, around 11.5ky old, well before the evolution (or rather, coevolution) of agriculture. Damn, I say, and wander off muttering darkly about the insistence for evidence by scientists (Pam is a scientist, no matter what she may say).

Now I have the killer rebuttal, and it is interesting for more reasons than reviving Wilkins’ theory of religion…

A paper by Zeder forthcoming in PNAS argues that there is evidence for domestication of a number of animal species – goats, sheep and pigs, much earlier than the traditional dates based on derived morphology. Zeder places this gradual event of the transition from hunter-gatherer (or as we prefer to call it now that we recognise that hunting never played that great a role in ordinary food production, forager) societies to sedentary agrarian societies much earlier than the standard view. He finds direct evidence for the domestication of sheep in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) where Göbekli-Tepe and Nevali-Corbi arose, after around 12,000 ybp, probably completed around 10,200 ybp. As the earliest date for the ritual sites is 11,500 ybp, and the dates given in the article linked to above is around 10kybp based on radio-dating, there is sufficient time for agriculture to arise before religion did. Dates for goats and pigs are even earlier.

Zeder makes a distinction between “managed herds” of these animals, and actual domestication, which is useful, and that very vagueness indicates something I think is vital here: the agricultural revolution was not, strictly speaking, a revolution at all. It probably occurred in these areas over several thousand years. It is a co-evolution. So, too, will the social institutions and behaviors be co-evolutionary. As population sizes rise with the introduction of managed herds, in a semi-nomadic lifestyle as herds are taken to seasonal food sources, interactions between non-kin will rise. Where territories are shared, a way to resolve disputes and increase cooperation is needed. Shared rituals are always how humans do this, no matter whether it is football or sacrifice to the gods (if, indeed, there is a difference). So not only is Göbekli-Tepe not a counterexample, it is a necessary outcome of the gradual rise of what we would now think of as agriculture.

Evolution is a gradual process that occurs at varying degrees of gradualness. Some of this gradualness permits us to mark a more or less definite border, but depending on the scale chosen, there is always something that comes before and goes on after any line we may draw. I would expect religion to evolve as societies exceed kin groupings, and that to occur in various ways in various places. But we must always be careful not to mistake our lines for facts, no matter how well accepted they may be, when we are dealing with history.

Zeder, M.A. (2008). Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0801317105


  1. #1 Brian English
    August 19, 2008

    Evolution huh? I guess it wasn’t natural selection but the awful deaths from diseases that man hadn’t previously been exposed to when domesticating animals that caused the selection of god fearing types?


  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    August 19, 2008


  3. #3 Brian English
    August 19, 2008

    No? Well that’s informative (not sure what the link was for, except maybe to point out that simple explanations aren’t worth much).
    Anyway, I guess I’m just used to evolution having some form of selection process to winnow away the less fit variations.

  4. #4 John S. Wilkins
    August 19, 2008

    Sorry, Brian. I have flu right now (still) so I am not as motivated to be loquacious as usual.

    The process here is evolutionary on various levels. It’s selection for desireable traits in managed herds and resowing of gathered seed. This is a process of unconscious selection on variation amongst the to-be-domestic organisms.

    It’s selection on social variants too. Given that the “fitness peak” of social reconciliation and cohesion when simple genetic cues will not do is set independently as an outcome of agriculture, social institutions will be trialed and those that are more successful will be retained, and an iterative process of refinement this way will occur. Bear in mind that a considerable amount of social evolution, and the social biology that underpins it, has already occurred.

    What the process of agricultural coevolution does is change the payoffs. Now, to get the benefit of these new carbs and fats, you have to cooperate with others who may cheat you at any time. So social institutions, rituals, and beliefs structures are shaped by these selective forces. To the extent this is a selection process (for there is still historical contingency to deal with), there is selection on variants, but they are not, mostly, genetic variants but social ones.

    Once this process is underway, it sets up the fitness landscape for other evolutionary process to occur, like the evolution of lactose tolerance in these new agrarian societies. So the causal selection arrow is bidirectional, from social to biological and back. It may therefore be that we have unconsciously “bred” for religiosity by favoring agrarian practices.

  5. #5 Brian English
    August 19, 2008

    Apologies for stirring you from your sick bed. I was too brain dead to put any cogent explanation together myself. Thanks for your effort.
    I read something recently, perhaps on this site, that when man first began agrarian practices, the life expectancy plummeted. A hunter-gatherer can expect to work several hours a day (given decent conditions) and live a leisurely life. A farmer back in the days of plants with only a few kernels had to work all day perhaps up to 18 hours. Life expectancy was very low, and all that. The benefit of course was that one could have food all year round and have many people in a settled area instead of a small clan that had to wander hither and tither. So, from the perspective of people of the time, agrarian society wasn’t an advance over hunter-gatherer (if they ever stopped to consider). Apparently in that article, the Bible was part of the claim that agrarian was better than hunter-gatherer or something. Anyway, I think also, the domestication of animals must have exposed us to diseases that would have made early animal husbandry a ghastly experience for many who didn’t have immunity.

  6. #6 Antiquated Tory
    August 19, 2008

    Re. an article suggesting that “the Bible was part of the claim that agrarian was better than hunter-gatherer or something.”
    Take another look at the beginning of Genesis. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the condemnation of Man to a life of unending toil and Woman to difficult childbirth?
    Also Cain vs Abel. Abel was the forager, and his sacrifice was more pleasing to the Lord than farmer Cain’s. But Cain kills Abel…
    I’d love to know the extent to which these stories were in turn taken from the much older Sumerian tradition. I do not know enough to even hypothesize on these matters, but I wonder if the origins of these stories go back to the time of the transition from foraging to settled farming.

  7. #7 Ian Tindale
    August 19, 2008

    I’d be interested in finding out how the foraging to agriculture transition tracked with human development of language (perhaps as an abstraction layer necessary in this new context), and in turn, whether religion could be no more than a frequent side-effect of language.

  8. #8 EmmaZunz
    August 19, 2008

    John, what do you think of the Pascal Boyer school of anthropology of religion (they basically think it emerges from cognitive biases and intuitive ways of thinking)?

    Is religion in agricultural society different from “shamanic” religion in any important way, other than the fact that agricultural societies are rich enough to have lots of people sitting around thinking about religion and hence developing theology?

    Eg. “shamanic” religion is often concerned with supernatural causes of (mis)fortune: something we also see in agricultural religions like Christianity (eg. the concept of Providence). Are the agricultural-religious ideas any different in essentials, or just more theological, more thought-out?

  9. #9 Aaron Clausen
    August 19, 2008

    This temple may be still in the stone age, but the mere fact that it seems some effort was put into it suggests that its construction and whatever religious impetus was behind it were driven by people who were not to remain nomadic very much longer.

    The Wikipedia article seems to suggest that, that this sort of monolithic construction was a part of the evolution of post-Ice Age hunter gatherers into sedentary populations. It’s certainly in the right part of the world for the very earliest agricultural societies to have arisen, and I doubt that that is a coincidence.

    But I think we do have to consider that religion is a complex beast, and that while certain aspects of religion probably evolved at different times, that the basic function as a means of placing individuals within their social group, and those social groups within a larger society, probably arose very early on.

    Is it not the case with some extant (or historical) hunter-gatherer groups that there were often sacred places that served both a religious and tribal function, a place where various groups could meet to trade, swap news and the like? Perhaps this is simply a more elaborate variation, a sort of line in the sand between the hunter-gatherers of the late Neolithic and the earliest semi-agricultural societies that were to evolve within a few thousand years in that region.

  10. #10 John S. Wilkins
    August 20, 2008

    I think religion is a natural phenomenon, with Boyer, Dennett and others. I think it arises from the cognitive properties of human beings. In particular I think it arises from our nature as social dominance apes, as I have said before. My slogan is: give a chimp language and agriculture and you’ll get religions.

    As to Aaron’s point, this is the boundary of the neolithic and the agrarian societies. That’s exactly my point. Once population densities rise to the level of not all individuals you meet and must cooperate with are kin, you use things like social or tribal markers to identify those who you cooperate with directly, and those you do not. But to avoid hitchhikers, these markers must be costly, and religion is the most costly ritual of all.

  11. #11 Daryl McCullough
    August 20, 2008

    I have no idea if this is original with him, or is generally accepted, but Jared Diamond in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel” claims that the history of human societies went like this (this is from memory): Originally, humans were organized into very small units (bands) where essentially everybody knew (and was related to) everybody else. At this point, there may have been supernatural beliefs (belief in spirits), but nothing that would really be called on. Morality was pretty simple: if it harmed your band, it was bad, otherwise it’s fine. So killing of strangers was no considered bad. But on the flip side, these bands didn’t go out of their way to wage wars; you could get killed that way!

    Later, with the invention of agriculture it became possible to support much larger units where it was impossible for everyone to know everyone else. Religion arose at the same time for two purposes: First, it was necessary to convince people that it was bad to kill strangers, if those strangers were co-religionists. Second, it was necessary to convince people in some circumstances to give their lives for their god(s). So religion prevented certain killing (within the new larger unit) and enabled certain other killing (wars with other units).

    Religion was the original thing that bound strangers together into a people.

  12. #12 Jud
    August 20, 2008

    But to avoid hitchhikers, these markers must be costly, and religion is the most costly ritual of all.

    Makes sense, though I wonder whether part of the explanation isn’t something even more basic: people seeking causes for the phenomena they saw around them, to try to raise the odds of repeating favorable occurrences (e.g., finding food, successful hunts) and avoiding unfavorable ones (e.g., getting killed by carnivorous animals or rival human groups). Hypothesis-forming would have been (still is) a very profitable activity. Religious rituals, perhaps starting as sympathetic-magic sorts of things, might have apparently paid off often enough through random chance (look – it’s raining after the recent drought!) to propagate over time.

  13. #13 David Marjanovi?
    September 29, 2008

    Also Cain vs Abel. Abel was the forager

    No, the nomadic herder. I think this particular tale is much too young to apply here.

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