Fractured Evolutionary Narratives

Yesterday Nature published a study of a ~55,000 year old cranium which shows that anatomically modern humans (“AMH”), presumably migrating out of Africa, were in the Levantine corridor at a time when genetic data indicate humans were interbreeding with Neanderthals. Because Neanderthals were also present in the Levant near this time, the cranium may represent the African group that first encountered Neanderthals, mixed with them, and gave rise to the hybrid ancestral or “modern” populations that later colonized Europe and large parts of Asia. This is a classic example of the right kind of fossil being in the right place at the right time. The presence of this AMH population had been hypothesized, based on genetic and other data, but direct evidence had been lacking until now.

So here we have yet another link, just one of many, in the history of hominin evolution. It’s a great story, but not a simple one. In an editorial accompanying this study, Nature cautions against linear-progressive conclusions:

Where does this fossil fit in? Beware simple answers, and, indeed, simple questions. There is a temptation when discussing human evolution to reconstruct it as a narrative, in which successive species evolved to be more like us, and the more like us they became, the more likely they were to migrate to other parts of the world and replace pre-existing forms.

There are at least four things wrong with this. The first is its rather imperialist framing, in which evolution and replacement can be justified after the fact as a kind of manifest destiny.

The second is that it dismisses any extinct species as inferior and therefore of secondary importance.

The third is that it assumes the existence of an arrow of progress, in which species always evolve towards ourselves, a mistaken view that is too welcoming of spurious conceits such as ‘missing links’, and unwilling to countenance odd side branches such as Homo floresiensis, the peculiar, dwarf hominin (member of the human family) that lived in Indonesia until relatively recent times (see

The fourth, and arguably the most important, is that it misrepresents the extreme fragmentation of the fossil record, something that Charles Darwin recognized, with his usual percipience, as a ‘difficulty’ with his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin was (as usual) selling himself short. That evolution has happened is no longer in doubt: the shared chemistry and structure of all life, from the meanest microbe to the furriest feline, would be testament to that, even had no fossils ever been found.

While I do not agree that the fourth factor is most important (because the hominin fossil record is quite good, with no major gaps or “missing links”), the third factor is worth emphasizing: the story of hominin evolution is not a linear or ineluctable unfolding toward us. There is no arrow of progress in evolution, whether we are talking about hominins or “religion.”

— Cris



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Renaissance Magic & Science

Few things could seem as far apart as magic and science, though if we consider the history of science, we find that the two were intimately twined. This was particularly true during the Renaissance run-up to the classical founding of science in the persons of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727). While we might add Copernicus (1473-1543) and Kepler (1571-1630) to this list of founders, I will set them aside for the moment because their status as astronomer-mathematicians is especially pertinent to my later discussion.

It is of course well known that Newton was anything but a pure scientist, at least in the modernist sense of the word: he was steeped in Christian mysticism and believed he was discovering, or uncovering, God’s lawful work in nature. The Principia was, in Newton’s eyes, far more than a founding document of science: it was a tribute to the divine as manifest in matter and mathematics.

Considered in broader historical context, Newton’s mysticism was hardly novel. The Italian Renaissance was inspired in large part by the idea that the universe was a harmonious whole and the heavens emanated continuous influences over all things on earth. These harmonious influences could, moreover, be divined through number and manipulated by math. Those who concerned themselves with such matters were astronomers, astrologists, mystics, and mathematicians, often bound up in the single person of a Magus. Prominent among such persons were Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), both Renaissance humanists and magi without peer. Bruno is often remembered as a champion of the Copernican model who burned at the stake after being tried for heresy by the Inquisition. As such, he has become a martyr of science.

While there may be some truth to this, the matter is more complex, just as Bruno was complex. If one takes a Catholic view of such matters, there can be no doubt that Bruno was a theological heretic. He did, after all, declare that Jesus was not God but merely an “unusually skillful magician.” Had Bruno made this pronouncement (and others like them) as a skeptic, we might justly consider him an early scientist. It appears, however, that Bruno is better placed as a late magician, a Neoplatonic mystic steeped in Hermeticism, Kabbalah, and Pantheism. Bruno’s deepest desire was to unlock the mysteries of the universe, and find the true religion, in these traditions. The key, he thought, was number. In Bruno we find a near perfect merger of magic, mysticism, and mathematics: the universe as seamless web and harmonious whole.

It is not hard, on one hand, to see how Bruno’s unorthodox views would have upset Catholic authorities and ultimately led to his fatal-fiery demise. It is not hard, on the other hand, to see how these views are consonant with modern cosmology and mathematics. So where to place or how to figure Bruno? This is the question asked and well answered by Frances Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), a book that has been on my reading list for years but which I only recently bagged. Aside from its inherent interest for Bruno aficionados, it is an important work for the history of science. As part of her inquiry into Bruno, Yates asks why it was that scientific methods, particularly mathematical ones, appeared when they did. She is not satisfied with the standard, simplistic narrative in which science straightforwardly triumphs over superstition and religion. Here are some key excerpts which shed light on her answer:

The intense concentration on the complexities of universal harmony, which is one of the most characteristic aspects of Renaissance thought…so forcefully directed attention on number as the key to all nature that it may be said to have prepared the way for genuine mathematical thinking about the universe. As is well known, Kepler still saw his new astronomy in a context of harmonies, and he was well aware that the Pythagorean theory was also implicit in the Hermetic writings, of which he had made a careful study (151).

Copernicus introduces his [heliocentric] discovery to the reader as a kind of act of contemplation of the world as a revelation of God, or as what many philosophers have called the visible god. It is, in short, in the atmosphere of the religion of the world that the Copernican revolution is introduced (153).

Copernicus’ discovery came out with the blessing of Hermes Trismegistus upon its head, with a quotation from that famous work in which Hermes describes the sun-worship of the Egyptians in their magical religion (154-55). Bruno’s use of Copernicanism shows most strikingly how shifting and uncertain were the borders between genuine science and Hermeticism in the Renaissance. [This is] a theme which I believe may be of absolutely basic importance for the history of thought — namely, Renaissance magic as a factor in bringing about fundamental changes in the human outlook (155).

The mighty mathematician [Kepler] who discovered the elliptical orbits of the planets had, in his general outlook, by no means emerged from Renaissance influences. His heliocentricity had a mystical background; his great discovery about the planetary orbits was ecstatically welcomed by him as a confirmation of the music of the spheres; and there are survivals of animism in his theories (440).

Hence, it is now suggested, when “Hermes Trismegistus” and all that he stood for is rediscovered in the Renaissance, the return to the occult this time stimulates the genuine science. The emerging modern science is still clothed in what might be described as the Hermetic atmosphere (450).

Bruno was an out-and-out magician, an “Egyptian” and Hermetist of the deepest dye, for whom the Copernican heliocentricity heralded the return of magical religion…Through a Hermetic interpretation of Copernicus and Lucretius, Bruno arrives at his astonishing vision of an infinite extension of the divine as reflected in nature (451).

Drained of its animism, with the laws of inertia and gravity substituted for the psychic life of nature as the principle of movement, Bruno’s universe would turn into something like the mechanical universe of Isaac Newton, marvellously moving forever under its own laws placed in it by a God who is not a magician but a mechanic and a mathematician (451). It may be illuminating to view the scientific revolution as in two phases, the first phase consisting of an animistic universe operated by magic, the second phase of a mathematical universe operated by mechanics (452).

Yates concludes her book by astutely commenting on the ways in which all this affected Descartes, whose methodological dualism so fatefully separated mechanical or “inert” matter from animist or “spiritual” mind. This powerful legacy remains with us today, despite our alleged modernity and secularity.

I will conclude with two additional observations. First, Yates’ entire theme is proof in favor of Robin Horton’s continuity thesis, by which he argues that the links between traditional religion and modern science are deeper (both historically and structurally) than we frequently suppose. Second, there is irony in the fact that some modern cosmologists, particularly mathematical physicists, occasionally arrive at mystical or “spiritual” positions not so far removed from Bruno’s Hermetic universe. It’s magic, or math, as the case may ultimately be.

— Cris


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Reducing Laboratory Dissonance

As part of my research on extreme ritual practices I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with the theories concerning ‘cognitive dissonance’ pioneered by Leon Festinger back in the 1950s. The basic concept of cognitive dissonance is that when we do or think things which contradict something else that we believe, we experience psychological discomfort and thus become motivated to reduce the dissonance. A classic illustration of these processes was provided in an experiment by Aronson & Mills (1956) in which they varied the ‘severity’ of initiation costs for joining a discussion group.

Aronson & Mills told their young female college student volunteers that they would be joining a discussion group concerning sex and would therefore need to be comfortable with sexual topics. For the control group accepting this was the only requirement but for the experimental conditions they had to demonstrate their comfort with the topic by reading out loud to the experimenters, five words related to sex (mild condition) or twelve obscene words related to sex (extreme condition). Considering this study was conducted in the 1950s this was likely a lot more embarrassing than it would be today. Also, the participants would have been less familiar with psychologist’s shenanigans and hence, more likely to earnestly comply with the instructions. Upon being granted access to the discussion group all participants were treated to a recording of an (intentionally) very dull discussion about animal sexual behavior and then asked to report how interesting they found the group, how much they liked the group and so on. The results showed no difference between the mild and control groups but indicated that those who had performed the extremely embarrassing initiation rated the discussion group as being much more interesting and enjoyable. This counterintuitive finding fits well with the predictions of cognitive dissonance because the participants who endured the severe unpleasant initiation would (in real life) normally only do so for something worthwhile. Consequently, they were the group most motivated to reevaluate their experience and make it more congruent with their expectations.

There have been hundreds of papers on dissonance theory since the 1950s, some criticising it and others testing and refining it. On balance, I would say that the fundamental claims of the theory remain well supported but that they are now surrounded with caveats and qualifications. However, an interesting nugget I found when delving back into this literature was from a transcript of remarks made by Leon Festinger back in the late 80s, in which he reflected on how research on his theory had progressed in the preceding 30 years. This transcript is contained in an Appendix of Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal theory in Social Psychology (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999) and reflects quite an ambivalent and critical opinion on how his work has been interpreted. More interestingly, it also contains a far-sighted plea for the value of ‘real world’ field research, which begins with a nostalgic lament for the loss of ability to create ‘real worlds’ in the lab:

One thing that I think has to be done is for more research on dissonance producing situations and dissonance reduction processes as they occur in the “real world”. I put it “real world” because Elliot is quite correct. In the good old days when you did laboratory experiments, we created a real world in the laboratory. I don’t know how we would have gotten anything through ethic committees.

Festinger then goes on to advocate for the need for experiments to move out of the now overly regulated laboratory environment and to start dealing with the ‘messy and difficult’ real world. Providing a very clear explanation, one that I would fully endorse, about why we need research to be ongoing both in the lab and out in the real world.

One of the things about laboratory experiments is that you can only get out the stuff you put in and any good experimenter who is concerned in testing a hypothesis is going to try and eliminate from the laboratory experiment all the unwanted stuff that generally floats around, and dissonance reducing processes are not the only things that affect man, using man in the generic sense. I think we need to find out about how dissonance processes and dissonance reducing processes interact in the presence of other things that are powerful influences on human behavior and human cognition, and the only way to do that is to do studies in the ‘real world’. They’re messy and difficult. You don’t expect the precision out of those studies that you can get in the laboratory. But out of them will emerge more ideas which we can then bring into the laboratory to clarify and help to broaden and enrich the work.

— C. Kavanagh

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Synaesthetic Mysticism

Over at aeon, Shruti Ravindran discusses the fascinating possibility that we are born synaesthetes and never lose these abilities, though they are significantly altered – at least for most of us – during childhood development. If the research Ravindran summarizes is correct, it means that each of us slots somewhere along the synaesthetic spectrum. At first blush, this seems an extraordinary claim: the cross-modal sensory capacities of synaesthetes – such as smelling colors, hearing odors, or tasting words – is wonderfully exotic to those of us, the majority, who lack such abilities or experiences. But the majority may be more cross-modal than we think or perceive. Consider these two (nonsense) words — maluma and takete — and match or assign them to the following images:

malumataketeIf you are like most people (nearly ninety percent) in the world, you matched maluma with (B) and takete with (A). This apparently innate sound-shape correspondence has been cross-culturally confirmed with more recent experiments and is known as the bouba/kiki effect. After discussing this and other research which suggests we are all synesthetes, Ravindran observes that hypertrophied forms of it may be the “engine of metaphor and art.” To this list, I would add “religion” or experiences that are culturally construed as “mystical” and “spiritual.”

The research on synaesthesia suggests we are diffusely wired at birth. During infancy and early childhood, “learning” largely consists of winnowing that wiring for specific tasks. This pruning occurs along particular pathways which are strengthened so that we can perceive and respond with lightning speed along neurological superhighways. While this is tremendously useful, we pay a price for task specificity: our ability to associate is dampened. Our rhizomatic neural networks — those which enable novel associations and synaesthesia — fall by the wayside like so many side-roads. These may be the roads along which poets, novelists, musicians, and mystics prefer to drive or are better able to travel. For one reason or another, they may have experienced less pruning or narrowing, and thus are able to pursue pathways lost or forgotten by most of us.

As Ravindran aptly observes, this developmental model has a respectable pedigree, having been enthusiastically endorsed by William James:

The psychologist William James conjured a similar picture of the baby’s sensory world in his Principles of Psychology (1890). He wrote (and the excited capitalisations are all his) that ‘any number of impressions, from any number of sensory sources, falling simultaneously on a mind WHICH HAS NOT YET EXPERIENCED THEM SEPARATELY, will fuse into a single undivided object for that mind’. As a consequence, ‘The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion; and to the very end of life, our location of all things in one space is due to the fact that the original extents or bignesses of all the sensations which came to our notice at once, coalesced together into one and the same space.’ If the Jamesian perceptual model held true, if most of us separate out the senses as we mature, could synaesthetes simply be continuing the process of fusion the majority leave behind? In other words, are all babies synaesthetic?

Although Ravindran does not make the connection, it surely is no accident that James was also interested in religious experiences, many mystical varieties of which resemble the perceptual fusion he hypothesizes for infants. While infants may experience this as “blooming, buzzing confusion,” adults who are neurologically less pruned may experience it “spiritually” in a manner similar to what Newberg and D’Aquili call “absolute unitary being.”

It is also interesting to note that this body of research shows an inverse relationship between synaesthesia and autism. Autistics, in other words, fall on the low end of the synaesthesia spectrum and have difficulty making cross-modal connections. Whereas close to ninety percent of people worldwide match the nonsense words maluma/takete and bouba/kiki with the same kinds of shapes (i.e., the first is rounded and second is jagged), for autistics this matching correlation drops to less than fifty percent. Here again we have a connection to religion, and perhaps even to prehistoric cognition, for it seems that many autistics cannot conceive of spirits or gods.

— Cris

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Misogi Water Rituals (Pt 1)

Genealogy of Religion is pleased to announce that Chris Kavanagh has joined the blog as a guest contributor and administrator. Chris comes to the blog with impressive credentials (listed under the “About” tab above) and a history of providing incisive comments to many of my posts over the past year. Chris is currently at Oxford where he is part of an international project, supervised by Professor Harvey Whitehouse, studying both ancient and modern rituals. Over the coming weeks, Chris will introduce his work and we will also be presenting a Q&A about his research. In the future, Chris’s posts will be marked at the end with “C. Kavanagh” and mine will be marked with “Cris.”

Message from Chris Kavanagh: This first post serves as an introduction to a short series about cold water misogi rituals in Japan and some relevant theory which I think helps us to understand the functions and origins of such experiences. This first post largely recounts a personal experience, so I hope you will indulge the personal tone.

Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.

I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week at the Teppozu Inari Shinto Shrine, in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and, finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.

Samekawa Shrine

Samegawa Shrine in Kikonai

The Kikonai misogi is performed in January at Samegawa Shrine (佐女川神社), a relatively small shrine that is picturesquely nestled on the side of a mountain. The misogi itself is quite well-known in Japan due to its extremity, and involves a group of four young men (in their late teens to early 20s) stripping down to a traditional Japanese loincloth (fundoshi), in temperatures of up to -15 degrees, and then being repeatedly splashed with ice-cold water in a ritual performance that lasts about 30 minutes. The performance is then repeated by the same young men, every 2-3 hours, over the course of 2 days and culminates in a procession, where they carry statues of Shinto deities (kami) down from the shrine and into the sea to be ‘cleansed’. Participating in the event as one of the main performers involves a commitment to continue for four consecutive years; a commitment I was repeatedly informed has never been broken since the misogi was first performed at the shrine, over a hundred years ago.

In terms of the actual ritual performance; the men, accompanied by the sounds of rhythmic drumming, march in single file to a small raised stage of straw where they then take turns to kneel while the most senior member of the group splashes them from behind with buckets of ice-cold water. This procedure is repeated for each participant a total of three times, which means that after enduring their splashing, each recipient then needs to stand and wait for the other three to complete their turns (without shivering) before kneeling again to receive the next round of cold water. After an entire session is complete the men then march in single file back to the main shrine hall, located up a steep flight of stairs about 20 meters away (where they will also sleep during the two days of the festival). There they wait and warm up for around 2-3 hours before the drums began again and they file out for their next session.


The main performance. Image provided by Yoshio Wada:

My participation in the misogi at Kikonai was unexpected and was arranged due to a spontaneous offer by a local organiser (and previous participant). Taking part for me involved performing a single 20-30 minute session along with another Japanese researcher I was travelling with and an anthropology undergraduate from a nearby university. I was informed that such impromptu sessions were occasionally performed and that there were even ‘old man challenges’ in which elderly members of the community would sometimes perform sessions late at night. Our particular session took place at around 10pm, after the shrine was deserted by all but a few committed camera men.

Mentally I found the experience quite daunting, as earlier that day, while watching the misogi performers along with the rest of the festival crowd, I had found myself shivering badly despite being bundled up in layers of warm winter clothes. As such, the thought of stripping down to almost nothing in the same environment and being splashed with ice-cold water was not entirely appealing. However, since I had agreed to take part and recognised what a rare opportunity it was (I would be the first foreigner to take part), I did my best to ignore my hesitations and before too long I found myself kneeling semi-naked, amongst the falling snow, on top of the straw stage I had been watching earlier, awaiting the first bucket of water to arrive against my back.

Before leaving the shrine building I had been given some last-minute advice by some locals and previous participants. In particular, I was told to keep my hands folded tightly against my armpits -to prevent excessive heat loss- and to make sure my arms were folded high on my chest -to prevent a heart attack from shock(!). I’m not sure how realistic the second warning was but it certainly succeeded in making me care about the position of my arms. I was also told to breathe slowly and make sure not to visibly shiver as this was not permitted. I remember thinking internally that not shivering would be impossible and wondering how it would look if I had to quit in the middle of the performance but then the drums started and off we went.

Stepping out of the shrine into the winter air was a shock but I remember feeling glad that my feet weren’t as cold as I had imagined and being preoccupied with trying to keep pace with the rest of the group and make sure I didn’t slip and fall down the steep concrete steps. Once on the stage, our feet were splashed with cold water and then in short order, I was invited to kneel down to be the first recipient of the cold water. After some repositioning and further explanations, I found myself staring out at the small crowd in front of the stage, arms folded tightly, while my heart raced and I awaited the first splash to hit my back.

When it eventually came I found that my mind was so preoccupied with attempting to perform the ritual correctly that I largely ignored the sensation, to the extent that I even forgot to shout the necessary response of OSSSU and had to be reminded by the experienced performer who was guiding us through the process. For the subsequent splashing, I responded correctly but still found that my mind was intent on avoiding the shocking sensation of the water and instead was variously flitting between focusing rigidly on the ritual procedure, dredging up memories of painful training sessions in Judo & Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (I think because these are the only other occasions in which I had yelled OSSSU) and manifesting images of my family.

Another point worth mentioning is that when the air temperature is -15, water — even when it is nearly freezing — does not feel as cold as it does when you encounter it at room temperature. The water was physically shocking but relatively speaking it wasn’t so bad; the worst part was actually after the splashing finished and I was required to stand without shivering. This took severe effort and it seemed that as soon as I got my knees under control, my teeth would start chattering. My third and final session of splashing finished with the experienced performer slowly tipping the bucket of water, so a small but constant trickle of water poured onto the crown of my head. This was much worse than the splashing but I still remember feeling a certain sense of sadness that it signalled the end was approaching (although, admittedly it’s much easier to have such thoughts when you already know the end is near).


Me, awaiting the trickle to start…

Back at the shrine, as we sat warming ourselves and getting changed around a stove, I was asked how I had found the experience. After communicating that it was very hard but maybe not as bad as my imagination had made it seem, one of the four performers from that year explained that for them the individual performances were also usually quite bearable but that the real difficulty was dealing with the constant awareness that in a few hours their ordeal would begin again. This struck a chord with me, as I realised that I had constantly been able to remind myself during my experience that it would be over soon and that I just needed to endure for a bit longer. For the main performers this kind of consolation is obviously not available and I could appreciate that this would make things much more mentally, if not physically,  punishing. This might also account for why the newest of the four performers looked quite forlorn in-between performances; this was his first year and he had at least another three years of performances to go.

I remain in awe of the determination and stoic attitude of the main performers, especially when, speaking to them informally after the event ended, they all presented their participation in good humour and claimed that they were not especially hardy individuals but rather had made a commitment and would thus have to see it through. There is some typical Japanese self-deprecation in such statements but, at the same time, I don’t doubt that a sense of obligation to the community of Kikonai is part of what drives these young men to endure such a harsh ritual each year.

What makes this more remarkable, at least to Western audiences, is when one considers that religious devotion was never invoked by any of the performers, even as a small part of their motivation. Religion in Japan is a slippery subject that would need a series of posts to discuss (see here and here for some of my previous attempts) but the fundamental dichotomy is that participation in religious rituals and ceremonies is high, while overt belief or devotion to specific religious beliefs or doctrines is very low (in fact Japan is often ranked as the least religious country by this measure). Indeed, for me the existence of these kind of extreme rituals in the absence of deep religious devotion is part of what makes Japan such an interesting environment to conduct research on rituals.

— C. Kavanagh (to be continued).

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Non-Agentive “Power”

Not long ago I was having an enriching dinner conversation with Stewart Guthrie, former Chair of the Fordham University Anthropology Department and author of Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), a seminal book in modern evolutionary religious studies. Naturally, we were discussing his theory that religion arises from our strong cognitive tendency to anthropomorphize. Because human agents, both real and imagined, are central to this theory, I observed that anthropomorphic agents and agency are not always foundational to thought-action systems that are often characterized as “religious.”

As examples, I pointed to Native American hunter-gatherers whose cosmological conceptions are oriented around the idea that the world is suffused with inchoate “power” and that such power is non-human, incorporeal, and non-intentional. This power, often glossed as a “great mystery,” is never fully understood, grasped, manifest, or controlled. It is a force or energy that flows, permeates all that is, and which constitutes all things. The Lakota know it as wakan, the Crow as maxpe, the Shoshoni as puha, and many Algonkian tribes as manitou. In this post on the kinetic nature of animist worldviews, I discussed it in more detail.

Most of my examples were drawn from nomadic hunter-gatherers, although many Algonkian tribes (especially those east of the Mississippi) were village horticulturalists first and hunters second. While recently reading Preston Holder’s classic, The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians (Landmark Edition) (1970), I came across these passages which bear on the discussion:

The Pawnee and Arikara village bundles were the basis for the control and production and social relations within villages. The bundle itself was a skin envelope enclosing physical symbols which were used as devices for the recall of complex elements of religious ideology and ritual (42).

The continuing life of the village was guaranteed by powers within the bundle, forces derived from a pervasive ocean-of-power investing the universe. The idea is exemplified by the Pawnee term tirawahut, so often translated as “God” or “Heaven.” A close etymological analysis indicates a meaning nearer to “this which expands” or “this expanse.” In this light we can more easily understand the comment offered by the Skiri White Man Chief on being shown the endless expanse of the Atlantic ocean: “It was like God” (43).

Regardless of these interpretations, the idea of an incorporeal power surcharging the universe was present…especially in connection with bundle renewals, where it is often mentioned also as “Luck.” There is abundant reference to the same idea among the Arikaras (43, n.16).

It is often said, in the ethnographic literature, that “primitive” societies had no notion of luck or randomness and that everything was assigned an agentive or “superstitious” cause. Indigenes supposedly had no idea, akin to our own statistical ideas, that things can happen for no particular reason, or for probabilistic reasons that we do not really understand. We call this “good or bad luck” and “chance” — matters of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. As is apparent, these older ethnographic ideas (or prejudices) are incorrect: the Caddoan Pawnee and Arikara had similar ideas.

And speaking of the Pawnee and bundles, this past summer I visited the Pawnee Indian Museum and Historic Village Site in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border. It’s an impressive place, located in the lush Republican River valley, surrounded by gorgeous grasslands and rolling plains. The village site can clearly be seen and portions have been excavated. The large ceremonial structure was so archaeologically impressive that they built a museum right over the excavated floor. It’s one of the more beautiful settings and museums I’ve seen, made even more so by the presence of a sacred Pawnee Village bundle which has never been opened and cannot be photographed. With Pawnee songs being piped in the background, one feels the presence of mystery.


Interior of Pawnee Village Museum — Excavated Floor of Structure surrounded by Exhibits


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Speaking of Spiders & Chickens

Back in October, Nature published a study showing some evidence of group level selection among social tangle-web spiders. If that is in fact what the study demonstrates or strongly suggests, it would be a major finding. To date, arguments about group level selection have been dominated by evolutionary theorists and mathematicians. There is precious little empirical evidence of group level selection operating in nature, though some have argued that “religion” confers competitive advantages on human groups and is therefore an adaptation.

This is David Sloan Wilson’s controversial argument in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (2002). While Sloan Wilson’s theory is mathematically plausible, I have long doubted there was sufficient historical evidence to support it. Aside from the fact that human groups are never strictly bounded nor identity-based as “religious” in the way that the theory requires, I have always been suspicious of its teleologically-biased endorsement by evolutionary theists. It could of course be the case that humans are evolutionary outliers or freaks of nature when it comes to group level selection. Why? Because we alone have language.

This is precisely the argument that Roy Rappaport makes in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology) (1999). While Rappaport’s theory is provocative, he may simply be describing selection for traits, such as proto-language and language, that conferred communicative advantages on individuals who have a long evolutionary history as social or group living primates. This would not be, at least initially (i.e., with the appearance of early Homo) and for a few million years thereafter, an example of group level selection. It could be such an example if some human groups evolved linguistic fluency in isolation and then used this ability to out-compete other groups. This may be what happened ~75,000 years ago with the gradual archaeological appearance of behavorial modernity and subsequent transition to what some call the Upper Paleolithic “revolution” ~50,000 years ago. If this is what happened, then Rappaport’s argument for group level selection involving language — which obviously is not coeval with “religion” — becomes more compelling.

With these theoretical issues and human stakes in mind, let’s get back to the oddly social spiders. I first became aware of them, and the Nature study, while reading this article in Quanta. Aside from an interesting sidebar on what looks like artificial (i.e., human-induced) group level selection in domesticated chickens, the story was hard to follow, if not actually confusing. Upon reading it, I resolved to dissect the actual study at a later time and then present my findings here. The good news is that I have finally read the study and even better news is that someone else has done the same and already written about it.

So without further ado, I encourage interested readers to visit hbd chick for her superb analysis of the study. She is skeptical and rightly so. Why? Because while perusing the methods section of the paper, she found the probable explanation for these otherwise remarkable results: the experimenters selectively bred the spiders in a way which almost assured the outcome. Because of this assortative mating (something that would not occur in nature), we do not need to speculate about the “missing mechanism” that could account for the study results.

The lesson we can learn from hbd chick is always to peruse the methods section, especially when a study is astonishing or controversial. And speaking of chicks, the sidebar in Quanta about group level selection in egg-laying hens whetted my appetite for more. The issue, as might be expected, is not settled and not everyone thinks that domesticated poultry provides an example of group level selection. As is so often the case when it comes to this controversial theory, those arguing in its favor have ignored more parsimonious explanations. In Group Selection for “Goodness”? An Account of Chickens, a Comparison with Plants, and Implications for Humans (pdf), biologist Lonnie Aarssen connects the underlying interspecific dots and asks:

Can “goodness” evolve in humans through group-selection? It can, according to a new book, Evolution For Everyone, which claims support for this possibility from a recent research program involving artificial group-selection in chickens. Data from this study, showing increased egg production across generations, are interpreted as a product of the evolution of good, cooperative behaviour among hens. In this commentary, I propose that there is a more parsimonious and more plausible interpretation for these results involving something much less noble – a system of dominance and subordination, where maximization of egg production across generations resulted from selection that increased the relative frequency of subordinate “crumb-collector” hens that passively tolerate domination by relatively few aggressive “strongpluckers.” Evidence for such dominance/suppression effects in maximizing group productivity is common in vegetation where most coexisting plants are relatively small and highly suppressed by a few larger ones, and where high productivity is interpreted by plant ecologists, not in terms of any group-selection effects, but rather in terms of traditional individual Darwinian natural selection favouring tolerance of resource deprivation, reproductive economy, and complementary resource use strategies.

It just so happens that I rented some egg-laying chickens this past summer and they spent lots of time plucking one another in my overgrown garden, so I am able to confirm anecdotally Aarssen’s rank-ordering observations. All in all, I think he has the better of this argument.


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