Explaining religion 4 - Wolves and gods

The saying that "man is a wolf to man" comes from a saying of Erasmus of Rotterdam, but it is incomplete. The Latin is Homo homini aut deus aut lupus or "Man is either a god or a wolf to man". I'm beginning to wonder if there is a difference between gods and wolves.

Ask yourself this: why did we domesticate wolves instead of cats the way we did? Why don't we have pet tigers? The answer has to do with the social structure of wolves. They have a pack-mentality. Each wolf is subordinate to some other wolf unless it is the alpha male. This instinctual behaviour, typical of the species and its relatives, is something that we can subvert for our own purposes; the dog is treated as if its human family were a pack, and it is the subordinate member of that pack. This is why dogs usually don't tear apart younger members of a family or tribe. If trained properly, it thinks it is the least dominant individual (and if there are more than one, then the dog hierarchy always settles out beneath the humans' status).

Counterinstances abound. I once knew two teenagers from a family whose father had remarried. The family dogs, wire haired terriers, were spoiled as hell. When they did something wrong, all they had to do was cock their heads beguilingly and the family would immediate reward the bad behaviour. Unfortunately the father had a newborn son, and one of the dogs, no doubt thinking that the attention it got put it above the dog in the family pack, challenged it the way dogs do, and killed the baby in its bassinet.

This is in the nature of dogs. But it is also in the nature of humans. Like dogs and wolves we are a social dominance species. We strive, like our cousins the apes and other primates, to attain status competitively. It has an evolutionary reason - those who rise higher in the social dominance hierarchy get better resources, better mates, and are given better treatment when hard times fall. It has been said that dogs also domesticated us, and in point of fact, it looks like there was a coevolutionary mutual adaptation between humans and dogs/wolves.

The dogs we now have are selected by inadvertent breeding (wolves that don't play nice with humans tend not to get bred) to interact with humans and their social relations. Humans, on the other hand, are adapted by ten thousand years of high density populations to live more or less cooperatively. This is the central theme of many a paper on altruism.

What, I hear you ask, does this have to do with gods? Well, here's my conjecture.

Gods are basically higher status humans. Submission to a deity serves to place one in a social dominance hierarchy (within which, like dogs in a human family, we can mutually compete for status). Having a shared alpha male or female means that we are now part of a large-scale pack, and can compete for the resources and mutual aid of that pack. And if wolves and humans are similar in their social organisation, then that effectively means that a god is the alpha wolf, too.

Social dominance psychology in humans is a relatively recent field. Two of the major motivators of this new discipline, which owes much to the work of ethologists like Konrad Lorenz, are James Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, whose text Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression basically defines the field. They identify a number of simultaneous hierarchies that humans tend to resolve for status within, some of them based on class, some on gender, some on economics, and so on.

This is similar to, and in some ways founded on, the famous Whitehall Studies, in which it was observed that higher status members of the British Civil Services had better health, longer lives and more pleasant ones at that, than those lower in the hierarchy, once income and other factors were normalised for. What was even more interesting was that those in the middle were less healthy and satisfied than those at the top or bottm. Social dominance theory explains this - those in the middle are fighting to rise up the status ladder, and also fighting to prevent those below them from taking their place. In effect, they have twice the battle for status.

Now social dominance is, I believe, the crucial coordinating factor of human social organisation, one that has long been left out of the picture by social sciences (although class conflict is a part of the story). And moreover, it is, I believe, the crucial explanation of religious behaviour.

There are, to a first approximation, three hierarchies in a large scale society: one is class, of course. People's status is determined in large part by the position in the class hierarchy into which you are born. It is possible in some (but not all) societies to change one's class by acquisition or performance - military prowess is a major means of rising in class. But what one's original standing is at birth is a major determinant of one's future status.

But there are within-class hierarchies as well, and we might explain gang behaviour as a way of making the best of one's social class, for instance. Moreover, there are ethnic hierarchies. In nearly every society, there are ethnies that are lower in the social scale than others, and those that are higher. The Irish, for example, were regarded as socially inferior to both Scots and the English, and may even still be in British society. And Scots were regarded as less than the English. These ethnic hierarchies closely follow the pattern of invasion and control through the history of the interactions between these ethnies. Consider the Maori in New Zealand and the Australian aborigines. The Maori fought the British to a standstill, and as a result got a treaty, which was then ignored for a long time until recently. But the Maori have a better standing in Kiwi society than the Australians, who were less cohesive and less able to fight than the Maori were, despite some heroic attempts.

Okay, so with all this in place (and I have not even dealt with within-gender and between-gender hierarchies), how does social dominance explain religion?

Suppose you are the first Egyptian king, covering many ethnic groups, and trying to forge the first coherent society in your region. Obviously the king is the alpha male; his deputies control warriors, and through social submission relations, the various cities and villages. Regional governors stand as viceroys ("vicar" literally means "in the place of", and "viceroy" literally means "in the place of the king"). But consider the social problem if the king dies...

Now if we were wolves, it would mean a battle between the beta males, or infrequently females, for the top spot. In fact that would have happened before the alpha male's death, as his strength waned. But we are not canines, we are apes, and moreover, we do not literally battle for status - it has more to do with displays of wealth and power, and allegiances formed for mutual benefit with lower status individuals. So if the king dies, there is a ready-made successor (one hopes) the king's heir.

But how to bolster the king's heir's claims to high status? One way is to use the gods. Either the dead king is now a god (as one of the Roman emperors is ironically said to have noted on his deathbed, "I fear I am becoming a god"), in which case the oversight of the father supports the son, or the son (and dead father) are descendants of other gods. The Japanese Emperors, for instance, are said to be the descendants of the Sun God. It's kind of hard to argue with status like that. Or, if you are a challenger to the throne, claim your own pedigree.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchA recent study has shown that religious belief correlates with social conformity and prosocial behaviour (Sharif and Norenzayan 2007); in short, if god is watching you, or you think god is watching you, you will tend not to defect in social interactions. This will also play into social dominance. If you think the dead king or his ancestors are watching you constantly, you are less likely to defect from alliances with the king's deputies. In short, religion explains how cross-ethnicity and cross-class social structures can arise.

This is in large part why I think that religion begins with sedentary agriculture. Prior to that, the dominance hierarchies are pretty simple - within-tribe, between-tribe and that's it. But as dominance hierarchies become much more complex, and one has to "solve" a simultaneous equation to determine one's status, and who to dominate and who to defer to, religion acts to simplify and support the social relations.

So gods are high status individuals that we pay allegiance to indirectly, by way of those who are themselves subordinate to a god or gods. This acts to maintain social order and simplify the age-old question posed by the Mikado, to whom should we defer?

Defer! Defer!

To the Lord High Executioner!

Incidentally, one of the modern myths is that we have an egalitarian society in the west, in which social status can be overcome by effort. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At present, it is harder to change one's status in America than at any time since the Gilded Age. Less so in Australia, I suspect, but not much less. We elect the political elites from dynasties. Meritocracy rules nowhere outside academe, so far as I can tell, and those who prate about "elitism" fail to realise that by undercutting meritocracy, they are merely bolstering the present oligarchies. But that's for another time...

Shariff, Azim F., and Ara Norenzayan. 2007. God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behavior in an Anonymous Economic Game. Psychological Science 18 (9):803–809.


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Excellent post, with much to think about.

I would, however, disagree with one point. Meritocracy does not even rule in academia. Class and pedigree (not just your doctoral advisor) play a huge role in the status of an academic. Merit plays a larger role in the academy than in other walks of life, but it hardly dominates.

Meritocracy in academia? You've got to be kidding. Perhaps in the hard sciences, but not so much in the social sciences, and virtually absent in the liberal arts.

By conceptdelta (not verified) on 06 Nov 2007 #permalink

In Sharif and Norenzayan's 2007 "God is Watching You" paper they also found that a secular prime was just as effective as a God prime at eliciting pro-social behavior.

Meritocracy is more rife amongst academe than many fields of human endeavor, cynicism notwithstanding. Even when you think someone is a fool, they weren't for at least a short while. Of course, then the Peter Principle kicks in, and they become administrators.

Mitch, that is true, but I'm trying to explain religion as a side effect of other faculties and traits. And there was a weak, and possibly not significant (but who knows how important over evolutionary time?) lead of religious over non-religious priming.

> "Incidentally, one of the modern myths is that we have an egalitarian society in the west, in which social status can be overcome by effort. Nothing could be farther from the truth."

There are varying degrees to which social status can be overcome by effort, and I don't think you've accurately got this one. There are plenty of cases of people becoming prominent businessmen based on effort. I had once read that something like 80% of American CEOs were not born wealthy. While I agree that people tend to stay within their social class, it's not clear that this is due simply to inheriting their social class. For one thing, I think wealthy parents tend to push their kids and they have all the money they need to educate them. Further, kids often follow in their parents footsteps - if the parent is a doctor, the child is much more likely to be a doctor - and, thus, attain the same social status. Your comment "nothing is further from the truth" implies that there is *nothing but* pedigree involved in determining a child's future social class, which seems an extreme position to take. It's also not hard to find anecdotal evidence against that position. (Yes, anecdotal evidence is not great, but it's certainly enough to contradict extreme positions like "Nothing could be farther from the truth [that the West is an egalitarian society]".)

I would also add that American conservatives love the rags-to-riches stories because it undergirds their political position of not helping the poor. If anyone can make it with enough hard work, then they can pretend that the people who "make it" deserve to make it and the people who don't "make it" don't deserve to make it. For them, it's all about a person's drive to succeed - not whether or not we help the underclass. One can see why the rags-to-riches and "American is a meritocracy" would support their political position. On the other hand, to claim social class in America is based entirely on one's lineage is a position that would undergird the Left's political position (for more education, welfare, etc). While I certainly consider myself "Left", I don't take that extreme of a position of claiming America is simply a pedigree society - though, I get the feeling you're quite a bit further Left than I am.

> "At present, it is harder to change one's status in America than at any time since the Gilded Age. Less so in Australia, I suspect, but not much less. We elect the political elites from dynasties."

Who you elect is a different question than whether one can change their social status.

As the saying goes, anecdote is not the singular of data. A study on social mobility in the US some time back showed that class was more constraining than any time in the last century. This, I suspect, goes along with the focus on tax cuts for the rich, leaving the poor and middle class to pay for government.

I said, perhaps too strongly, that nothing could be farther from the truth - but let's examine that. Suppose these studies are right. In any society, no matter how stratified, there are ways to transgress class and other borders. But if nearly everyone who is born, say, middle class or Kshatriya or whatever the identifier of status is, remains in that group, then you have a society in which it is almost impossible to rise in status.

In fact, Western social order over the past fifty years leads me to conclude that in fact the only easy social mobility is downwards. The middle class is disappearing.

Whether this is left or right is irrelevant to the truth of it. Personally I am neither - a simple linear political spectrum is too small to contain all possible viewpoints.

Great ! I think that's the best way to explain religion !

In English, the word GOD is just the character-reversed version of DOG, which probably means that they individually represent one extreme of the hierarchical social structure.

And maybe that suggests ancient people has already known the origin of religion.

Your theory is voided as hunter-gatherer societies all have religions. We have anthropological evidence of religion as far back as 50,000 years ago. That's five times as long as there has been civilization.

...the dog is treated as if its human family were a pack, and it is the subordinate member of that pack. This is why dogs usually don't tear apart younger members of a family or tribe.

Nit-pick: it's not normal for dominant dogs or wolves to kill subordinates, either.

Jonathon, it depends on what you count as religious behaviour, and as I have defined it, religion needs to be broader as a social cohesive force than a single tribe. Otherwise, it's just ritual behaviour acting in various ways. Rituals are arbitrary but always cohesive, as the work of Richard Sosis shows. But is it religion? That is going to depend on one's definition of "religion", and I think that the interesting phenomena are those that work across local bands.

Windy: When dogs challenge each other, there is a fair bit of biting. Human infants are not able to withstand what to a dog would be a minor injury, and as they cannot retreat either, the dog will treat the lack of retreat as a continued challenge, causing it to ramp up the threat behaviour. This is why dogs kill infants and not puppies.

Hi John, just discovered your blog via Pharyngula. Very interesting article.

By Brian English (not verified) on 11 Nov 2007 #permalink

A couple of quibbles over the characterization of the U.S. - meritocracy is still alive and well in some sectors, alas, not in as many as we'd all like. Also, the major change in the 20th century U.S. has been the gradual increase in progressive taxation, welfare, and regulation.

This topic overlaps pretty well with Chris Boehm's 1999 HIERARCHY IN THE FOREST: The Evolution of Egalitarianism. Boehm takes a less deterministic view of the role of dominance amongst some apes including us. Has his thesis held up?

Nice composition. I've long imagined that civilization initiates with the dreams of tribal leaders revealing supernatural guidance. Personally, I find the realization that the road to our liberation from mental slavery began with our ancestors' submission to metal slavery to be, well, liberating.