Evolving Thoughts

ResearchBlogging.org
Readers know I think religion is post-agricultural, which raises some difficulties if we find evidence of organised religious behaviours before the onset of agriculture. The case in point here being Göbeli Tepe. Now a recent model of the process of cereal domestication has set back the beginnings of agriculture some ten thousand years earlier than the c10kya version, the “rapid onset” model, in favour of a “protracted transition” model.

Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog has a very nice roundup of the issues, and there is a summary at Science Daily. The crucial question resolved by this model is that of phylogenies of genes in domesticated crops. The assumption had been that if crops were monophyletic, that implied a single evolutionary event. Instead Allaby, Fuller and Brown showed that expectation was unnecessary. Via simulations, they showed that monophyly will be achieved even if there were several domestication sources and events, rather than the “Neolithic Package” of standard theory; and also that the process could take several orders of magnitude longer than expected.

This raises a very interesting question about what the role of simulations is in historical sciences. I used the term “expected” above – on what basis did the standard model derive its expectations? From simulations – that is, from calculations based on models. The more elaborate, and it is hoped realistic, models used by Allaby and colleagues, give different expectations. The authors do anchor their expectations with data, particularly of evidence that predomestic gathering of crop grains led to differential planting even before the Older Dryas. But the expectations here remain theoretical – they are as good as the assumptions built into their model. And the advance is that the model is indeed more realistic.

My view of religion is that it requires cross-ethnic and cross-kinship populations of a density that only agriculture can provide, in order to set up the conditions for social class and specialisation of social role that religion is both a solution to and itself requires. I am very pleased that this work supports my prior theoretical presumption, and take it as a kind of confirmation that I am on the right track. But of course, this is defeasible by further investigation.

Thanks to Dr Allaby for a copy of the paper.

R. G. Allaby, D. Q. Fuller, T. A. Brown (2008). From the Cover: The genetic expectations of a protracted model for the origins of domesticated crops Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (37), 13982-13986 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803780105

Comments

  1. #1 Zarquon
    September 28, 2008

    So Shamanism/Ancestor worship/animism aren’t religion in your view?

  2. #2 John S. Wilkins
    September 28, 2008

    No, they aren’t. The rituals and social institutions are (i) inseparable from the rest of the social rituals and institutions, and hence do not deserve special treatment, and (ii) they follow kinship relations, i.e., kin groups. Hence they do not so much define the social order as track it.

    They are, however, precursors to religion; just not religion itself.

  3. #3 Romeo Vitelli
    September 29, 2008

    The problem is that we don’t have enough information to conclude the existence of religion in prehistoric societies. Does the evidence of burial rituals and cave drawings suggest religious rituals? We’ll never know for sure.

  4. #4 Michael Kremer
    September 29, 2008

    Can I ask a simple philosopher’s question? What do you mean by “religion”? I am genuinely interested.

    In particular I don’t understand why “they do not so much define the social order as track it” is any part of an argument that shamanism etc are not forms of religion.

    In other words I don’t understand what the phenomenon *is* that you’re calling “religion” and trying to explain, or what your use of “religion” has to do with such ordinary uses as: “A particular system of faith and worship.” and “Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life.” (from OED).

    So, yes, I’d like an old-fashioned definition of this “religion” that you claim to be post-agricultural.

  5. #5 Alan
    September 29, 2008

    Ignoring the Dreamtime is a very narrow view that won’t win you any friends. Religion is a rationalisation of the evolutionary need for you and your tribe to be special. Here is an entertaining article that touches on the subject, http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html

    Jane Goodall once described as “religious or at least in awe” the behaviour of a troop of chimps as they tooped past a spectacular waterfall, the kind of place many humans would consider “sacred”.

  6. #6 gillt
    September 29, 2008

    Talk to Francis Collins about waterfalls.

  7. #7 Jim Thomerson
    September 29, 2008

    Have you seen the wonderful movie, “The Gods Must be Crazy”? Has a central theme of what I would call the religion of the non agricultural bushmen in the Kalahari.

  8. #8 kate sisco
    September 30, 2008

    Well, not sure if this is on topic sufficiently, but since we have wandered into the !Kung bushmen, the recent book I read by the now-elderly daughter of Thompson (Thomas?) that described her stay with the !Kung while her father and mother were doing an anthropology study. She describes her trip with the women to collect the day’s needs for their tribe; I found it enormously enthralling.

    I did not perceive a God or proto god in their society. The author does describe the necessity of sharing in myriad ways.

  9. #9 Aaron Clausen
    September 30, 2008

    John Wilkins wrote:

    No, they aren’t. The rituals and social institutions are (i) inseparable from the rest of the social rituals and institutions, and hence do not deserve special treatment, and (ii) they follow kinship relations, i.e., kin groups. Hence they do not so much define the social order as track it.

    They are, however, precursors to religion; just not religion itself.

    I’m assuming by this that you define religion as being an organized (if not codified) set of beliefs and rituals, is that the case? Religion is a big word, and what it does and does not apply to can be tricky. Does Shamanism or Totemism meet the mark, or are they examples of precursors?

  10. #10 Jared
    September 30, 2008

    Post-agricultural religion makes sense, actually. In light of every hunter-gatherer culture I’ve read about having only a spiritualistic or shaman-type mythology administered by individuals which actively participate in food acquisition. The anthropomorphic deities tend to come with larger societies which have agriculture to support specialization. My only concern is how this transition might occur and why cross-ethnic relationships would have something to do with this.

  11. #11 Aaron Clausen
    October 3, 2008

    Jared wrote:

    Post-agricultural religion makes sense, actually. In light of every hunter-gatherer culture I’ve read about having only a spiritualistic or shaman-type mythology administered by individuals which actively participate in food acquisition. The anthropomorphic deities tend to come with larger societies which have agriculture to support specialization. My only concern is how this transition might occur and why cross-ethnic relationships would have something to do with this.

    It still feels a little bit like splitting hairs to me. Alright, so prior to full-blown agricultural societies, being a priest was not a specialization in and of itself. I certainly do accept that to likely have been very much a common thing among all pre-agricultural societies.

    The problem I have here is that the word “religion” applies to a lot of different things, and at times is even applied to systems of belief that fall well within the parameters for what you seem to define as pre-religious; animistic and totemic belief systems are often called religions. Maybe that’s just sloppy wording on the parts of anthropologists.

  12. #12 Jim Thomerson
    October 4, 2008

    If, by religion, you mean “organized religion” as we know it today; with priests, various kinds of ministers, formalized rituals, elaborate history and codes of conduct, religious edifices, and accumulation of wealth by the religious institutions, then I think you are right.