Shrouded History

Did we really need another 8,400 words devoted to the Shroud of Turin? Apparently so. Those who wish to see in the shroud scientific evidence of “supernatural imprinting” have been indefatigable in their efforts, and spared no expense, to show it is miraculous – an empirically verified exception to known natural laws. Not surprisingly these efforts have failed, but when faith is at stake, contrary evidence will be endlessly countered. All this countering has led to buckets of ink being spilled, a process not dissimilar to the way in which pigments were applied to the shroud. The shroud, in other words, was painted: not just once, but several times. This is the conclusion reached by Charles Freeman in his 8,400 word essay over at History Today.

What makes this essay particularly interesting, indeed remarkable, is that it appears to be the first in-depth historical inquiry into the shroud. Previous inquiries, at least the reputable ones, have been scientific. This is how Freeman describes the situation:

There is enough uncertainty about the Shroud’s origins to convince some that it is the actual burial shroud of Christ. The mystery is deepened by the claim that no artefact has ever been the subject of so much research. However, when the scope of this research is considered, it is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored. For example, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which examined the Shroud in 1978, when it was still owned by the Savoy family, did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team. No one appears to have investigated the kinds of loom, ancient or medieval, on which a cloth of this size may have been woven. Nor has anyone closely examined the many early depictions and descriptions of the Shroud that illustrate features now lost. 

This seems odd. In an investigation of this or any similar kind, it would make sense to begin with historical sources and subsequently address any remaining questions, or evidentiary gaps, with scientific tests and data. The historical investigation, if solidly sourced, might even settle the issue (at least to the satisfaction of those who contingently accept historical sources as evidence). Even if it did not, the historical investigation would suggest what kinds of scientific tests should be done. In the case of the shroud, however, the methodological order has been reversed.

There are probably two reasons for this. The first is that religionists have long wished to find scientifically acceptable evidence of the supernatural or miracles. The complete absence of such evidence is not only cause for doubt among believers, but is also a source of sustained skepticism and occasional ridicule among non-believers. The second is that science has such enormous cultural prestige that it sometimes causes us to ignore, or at least subordinate, companion disciplines like history. This may account for the rush to test the shroud before historicizing it. Had the order been reversed, the painting hypothesis — suggested by history — could have been specifically tested.


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Stanner on Aboriginal Religion

Between 1959 and 1963, Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner published a classic six-part series of articles on Aboriginal religion. Those articles appeared in the journal Oceania, which also published them as a set in Oceania Monograph 11 (1963). This monograph is hard to find and usually expensive when found. Those with institutional access to journals may be surprised to find, as I just found for CU-Boulder, that they do not have a subscription to Oceania. Thankfully, the Sydney University Press has re-published the articles, along with two introductory essays, in a volume titled On Aboriginal Religion (2014). Even better, the entire volume can be downloaded for free here. In Stanner’s own Introduction to the series, he states the guiding principles:

The history of the study of primitive, in particular, Aboriginal religion suggested that I should observe certain conditions. In the first place, it seemed advisable to concentrate on a region since there have been few really intensive studies of regional cults, and a better perspective on the continent as a whole can be attained only in that way. Secondly, I thought I should take Aboriginal religion as significant in its own right and make it the primary subject of study, rather than study it, as was done so often in the past, mainly to discover the extent to which it expressed or reflected facts and preoccupations of the social order. That is, study it as religion and not as a mirror of something else. It seemed desirable, thirdly, to avoid entanglement with any particular definition or theory of religion and, lastly, to resist any temptation to draw from the single instance any conclusions about all religion. Anyone familiar with the literature on the subject will agree that a good case can be made for such limitations.

This is quite refreshing, given that “Aboriginal religion” (there is, by the way, no such essential or singular thing) has been the tool used by too many scholars to advance their favorite theory of religion. When it comes to Aborigines, Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade have been prime offenders. I first became aware of Stanner’s work while reading Tony Swain’s mind-bending book, A Place for Strangers: Towards a History of Aboriginal Being (1996). If you read only one of Stanner’s essays, the final installment — “Cosmos and Society Made Correlative” — should be the one.


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Evolving Methods

Evolutionary psychologists commonly assert that some trait or propensity identified in lab studies is universal or pan-human and this means the trait or propensity evolved for adaptive reasons in the ancestral past. The problem with most such studies is that the test subjects are highly derived or WEIRD: “white, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” It is exceedingly odd to infer, based on studies of weirdos, that traits or propensities are human universals. This is especially true when it comes to sex preferences, which are notoriously malleable and strongly conditioned by culture.

A recent PNAS study examined allegedly universal or “ancestrally evolved” sex preferences using test subjects from a wide variety of cultures. The findings, unsurprisingly, are significantly at odds with those that dominate headlines here in the West:

It is a popular assumption that certain perceptions—for example, that highly feminine women are attractive, or that masculine men are aggressive—reflect evolutionary processes operating within ancestral human populations. However, observations of these perceptions have mostly come from modern, urban populations. This study presents data on cross-cultural perceptions of facial masculinity and femininity. In contrast to expectations, we find that in less developed environments, typical “Western” perceptions are attenuated or even reversed, suggesting that Western perceptions may be relatively novel.

A large [evolutionary psychology] literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces (masculinity/femininity) reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments. It is difficult to evaluate, however, because most available data come from large-scale, industrialized, urban populations. Here, we report the results for 12 populations with very diverse levels of economic development. Surprisingly, preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments. Similarly, perceptions that masculine males look aggressive increase strongly with development and, specifically, urbanization. These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value.

These findings militate in favor of methodological caution. There is also a large evolutionary psychology literature which asserts that allegedly universal cognitive traits give rise to and sustain “religious” beliefs. Most of these studies are based on tests of weirdos. Until these findings are replicated and confirmed cross-culturally, we should be cautious.


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Magically Speaking

In this Aeon article about “legendary comics author Alan Moore” (whose legend and existence had escaped my notice until now), Moore explains his decision to become, and call himself, a magician:

“The more I think about it, the more absolutist I get,” he says. “I believe exactly that art and magic – specifically writing, but art in general, and magic – are almost completely interchangeable. They share the same terminology, they match up in nearly every respect.”

So why call himself a magician, I wonder, rather than a writer or an artist? He replies that magic is the broader and earlier notion: “It includes all the other things, and it has other connotations as well.” A fair definition of magic, he says, might be “engaging with the phenomena of consciousness. All modern linguists and consciousness theorists seem to agree that we have to have the word for a thing before we can conceptualise it. The first magical act was the act of representation – just saying ‘this means that’.”

Forgive me for burying the lede, but that last sentence neatly sums Durkheim’s argument, in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Swain translation at pp. 237-39), that magical thinking is the evolutionary root of all thinking:

It is true that [magico-religious thought] is disconcerting for us. Yet we must be careful not to depreciate it: howsoever crude it may appear to us, it has been an aid of the greatest importance in the intellectual evolution of humanity. In fact, it is through [magic-religion] that the first explanation of the world has been made possible.

Of course the mental habits it implies prevented men from seeing reality as their senses show it to them; but as the senses show it, [experienced reality] has the grave inconvenience of allowing of no explanation. For to explain is to attach things to each other and to establish relations between them which make them appear to us as functions of each other and as vibrating sympathetically according to an internal law founded in their nature.

The great service that [magic and religion] have rendered to thought is that they have constructed a first representation of what these relations of kinship between things may be. In the circumstances under which it was attempted, the [magico-religious] enterprise could obviously attain only precarious results.

The essential thing was not to leave the mind enslaved to visible appearances, but to teach it to dominate them and [symbolically] to connect what the senses separated; for from the moment when men have an idea that there are internal connections between things, science and philosophy become possible. [Magic] opened up the way for them.

By this reasoning, which Robin Horton calls the Continuity Thesis (i.e., magico-religious thinking is structurally and functionally similar to scientific thinking), we are all talking magicians.


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Dishonor Thy Father

From the metaphorical standpoint of selfish genes and their male human vessels, the worst possible fitness outcome is to invest in another man’s child while mistakenly believing the child carries half your genes. This view, espoused by evolutionary psychologists, receives ironic support from marriage rules and adultery sanctions promulgated by many world religions. But, as I explained in One Flew Over the Cuckold’s Nest and EP & Paternity Paranoia, this view is wrong.

In these posts, I noted that biological paternity is a non-issue for many hunter-gatherers. Among foragers, children are usually raised by large alloparenting groups in which the biological father may or may not play an important role. Thus, the identification and attribution of “father” is fluid, malleable, and often inconsistent with genetic parentage. Despite this variability, there is usually at least one person (or several) who will be identified and addressed as “father.”

It is therefore surprising to learn that an ethnic group in China’s Himalayan region, the Mosuo, take this paternity-plasticity to another level: the Mosuo do not recognize “fathers” and do not even have a word for “father.” This remarkable fact is a product of “walking marriages” which give women the right to have overnight male visitors as they wish. These visits, which obviously may result in biological paternity, do not consequently lead to fatherhood:

Most significantly, when children are born, the father may have little or no responsibility for his offspring (in fact, some children may not even know who their father is). If a father does want to be involved with the upbringing of his children, he will bring gifts to the mother’s family, and state his intention to do so. This gives him a kind of official status within that family, but does not actually make him part of the family. Regardless of whether the father is involved or not, the child will be raised in the mother’s family, and take on her family name.

This does not mean, however, that the men get off scot-free, with no responsibilities for children. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every man will share responsibilities in caring for all children born to women within their own family, be they a sister, niece, aunt, etc. In fact, children will grow up with many “aunts” and “uncles”, as all members of the extended family share in the duties of supporting and raising the children.

Although the Masuo are agrarian, there are strong echoes here of hunter-gatherer practices and flexibility. Though there is no historical data by which to judge the issue, this could be a cultural survival that has been adapted to new ways of life. It seems to be working for the Masuo:

The result – as different as it may be from other systems – is a family structure which is, in fact, extremely stable. Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care. 

So here we have another ethnographic example of a society that contradicts the standard and widely-accepted stories about pair bonding and ritual marriage. Among the Masuo, there is no “marriage” of the kind theoretically envisioned by evolutionary psychologists and doctrinally affirmed by post-Neolithic religions. With all this in mind, a more apt aphorism might be “Honor thy Alloparenting Group.” These groups, variably consisting of genetic and fictive kin, bear little resemblance to the historically derived (i.e., post-Neolithic) ideal of dyadic nuclear families.

Triptych Holy Kinship_Frankfurt, Staedelsches Junstinstitut_1509

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Whitehouse on ERS

It’s not often that I read an article or interview about the evolution of “religion” that does not provoke some dissent — an objecting inner voice saying “that’s not quite right” or “that’s really wrong.” So it was a pleasure to read this recent Nautilus interview with Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, a major figure in cognitive and evolutionary religious studies (“ERS”). Whitehouse hits all the right notes while answering several questions stemming from popular misconceptions of religion. Because his answers are so good, I encourage you to read the interview in full. As points of emphasis, I particularly enjoyed these excerpts:

At some point in human history many societies switched from animistic forms of religion to institutionalized systems that are closer to today’s religions. How do you explain this transition?

The really critical transition is one that occurs in the gradual switch from a foraging, hunting-and-gathering lifestyle to settled agriculture, where you’re domesticating animals and cultivating crops. What happens is a major change in group size and structure. I think religion is really a core feature in that change. What we see in the archeological record is increasing frequency of collective rituals. This changes things psychologically and leads to more doctrinal kinds of religious systems, which are more recognizable when we look at world religions today.

Why did that transformation occur in agricultural societies?

The cooperation required in large settled communities is different from what you need in a small group based on face-to-face ties between people. When you’re facing high-risk encounters with other groups or dangerous animals, what you want in a small group is people so strongly bonded that they really stick together. The rituals that seem best-designed to do that are emotionally intense but not performed all that frequently. But when the group is too large for you to know everyone personally, you need to bind people together through group categories, like an ethnic group or a religious organization. The high frequency rituals in larger religions make you lose sight of your personal self.

You’re suggesting you don’t have to reduce religious experience to belief systems. It’s the experience itself that sweeps you along and binds you to other people.

It’s about both belief and experience. I do think we can kind of separate the two. Imagine having a brain that’s naturally predisposed to believe some things more readily than others, and then over generations, cultural systems develop in ways that essentially play into those predispositions. The point is that our experiences are made meaningful by our implicit beliefs and the two basically work together.

Psychologically, why is God such a powerful idea?

It may be a product of cultural evolution and the shift to much larger and more complex societies. When you use the singular “God,” you’re talking about some kind of high god, which probably means a god that’s omniscient and cares about the morality of our behavior and punishes us when we behave badly. That’s a relatively recent cultural innovation that may have been an adaptation to living in very large societies.

That’s good stuff, but perhaps even better is the humility and methodological prudence on display:

Do you think science can fully explain religion?

I don’t know about fully explain. I’d like to think that science will one day be able to explain why we’re inclined to adopt these different things that we lump together as “religion,” but I don’t think explaining religion is the same as explaining it away. I don’t think science will ever be able to tell us whether or not there’s a god. That will always be a matter of faith. I’m in favor of a humble approach, but I do think that humility should cut both ways. Religious people should be open to the possibility that some of the things they find most mysterious about the meaning of life or the cosmos might actually turn out to be explainable. Of course, science has been pretty successful at turning certain mysteries into soluble problems. But at the same time I think much of human life takes us beyond the scope of scientific explanation and that’s true of religion, too.

And so what does, in summary, explain religion?

Well, ["religion"] is not a monolithic entity for which we could offer an overall explanation. If we define what we’re really interested in—supernatural agents, rituals, afterlife beliefs, creation stories—then we’d find they result from quite different mechanisms and have different evolutionary histories. There just can’t be a magic bullet explanation of “religion” as if it’s one single thing.

The interview contains several more insights (e.g., religion did not evolve to provide meaning or purpose; New Atheists shallowly see religion as a set of propositions about the world; we need more data on the Axial Age) that make it a nice teaching resource. Thanks to the interviewer, Steve Paulson, for providing it.


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Animist Hunting Technology

While reading a recent book announcement from the MIT Press, I was reminded of Robin Ridington’s compelling argument that animism, or animist knowledge, can profitably be seen as a mode of production. The new book examines African hunter-gatherer technology from indigenous perspectives rather than the usual comparative mode, which is to view such technology through western lenses as “simple” or “primitive.” Here is a partial description from the MIT Press release:

In the border region where Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa meet, indigenous hunters have for centuries made and used an impressive array of tools. There is the bow, made from giant raisin trees and called the “vurha” or “uta” in the languages of two ethnic groups in the area, the chiShona and the xiTshangana. Local craftsmen make arrows (“matlhari” or “miseve”), knives (“mukwanga” or “banga”), and axes (“xihloka” or “demo”). Until the advent of colonial rule, villagers also dug pits lined with poison-tipped stakes (“goji” or “hunza”), where animals as big as elephants were captured.

“The hunt was a transient or mobile workspace where work was done on the move,” says Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society. “Boys were schooled in the arts of tracking, shooting, trapping, making weaponry, and using trees as assets for making poisons, medicines, food, and other purposes. The hunt was a professoriate of indigenous knowledge.”

These hunts were also incorporated within a highly spiritualized understanding of forests, animal life, and human behavior, Mavhunga emphasizes. For instance, hunters would never orphan an antelope fawn, and strict local taboos limited elephant hunting to basic needs for meat, skin, and ivory. Chiefs and spirit mediums enforced these rules.

Indeed, the maTshangana calendar is based, in part, on the life cycles of animals: “Mpala,” or November, is when antelopes give birth; “Nkokoni,” or December, is when wildebeest are born and elephants mate. No hunting was allowed during these months.

“Centuries of acquired and received knowledge were available on the annual rates of increase, out of which sustainable yields were calculated,” Mavhunga writes in a new book about technology, society, and nature in southern Africa.

In exploring the hunt as a mobile space for work and education, Mavhunga’s book — Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe, just published by MIT Press — is a call for a historical rethinking about the meaning, prevalence, and application of technological innovation in Africa.

This remark strikes me as particularly apt: “The hunt was a professoriate of indigenous knowledge.” Indeed it was, and not just in Africa. Hunting knowledge, success, and skill required a lifetime of continuous education. The resulting expertise was surely professorial. I have not read Mavhunga’s book so can’t yet endorse it, but readers interested in foragers might want to give it a try. If anyone does, please give us a review.


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