Animism as Altruistic Adaptation

I have a confession to make. I’ve long denigrated claims that what we today call “religion” originated during the Upper Paleolithic because early supernaturalism fostered altruism. When this argument makes an appearance, it’s often in the service of an evolutionary theism which assumes that because God is behind evolution, religion is the designed outcome of a process that logically started with “primitive” animistic beliefs and then progressively evolved toward modern religions.

With this telos in mind, evolutionary theists assume that the things modern religions sometimes do, such as encourage altruism, must have been embryonically present in the ancient animist past. My primary objection to this argument has long been that animist-shamanist “religion” isn’t much concerned with altruism or “morality.” It’s usually more instrumental in its goals and concerned with things such as the hunt, healing, war, and weather.

But I just read something that has changed my mind. I’ve been looking in the wrong place for evidence of altruism in animist-shamanist beliefs and injunctions. There are no direct injunctions — do this or don’t do that — related to altruism. They are to be found at a deeper level, buried in the cosmology and epistemology of the animist worldview. This epiphany came when I encountered what Nurit Bird-David calls “the cosmic economy of sharing” that is embedded in animism. Such constructs are common to hunter-gatherers who have immediate return economic systems, and are likely representative of ideas that humans had for tens of thousands of years before agriculture.

It seems odd that the cosmic economy idea isn’t found in Bird-David’s more recent (1999) and comprehensive re-assessment of animism but in an earlier (1992) article which discusses the historical impact and empirical validity of Marshall Sahlins’ famous essay on the ontological joys of foraging. During the seven years between the two articles, Bird-David seems to have dropped the cosmic economy of sharing idea which I find so illuminating.

In his essay, Sahlins contends that the idea of scarcity is not a fact but instead is an ideological feature of all agricultural, industrial, and modern societies. This idea usually manifests as fear or desire. We either fear not having enough or we desire more, and all of this is predicated on taken-for-granted scarcity. Sahlins exposes scarcity as ideology by contrasting it with foraging societies which aren’t premised on scarcity and don’t take it for granted. Sahlins explains this difference empirically, by arguing that hunter-gatherers abound in resources and thus are “affluent.”

Bird-David isn’t buying Sahlins’ explanation, primarily because it is based on small-sample studies of hunter-gatherers that were in various ways flawed or questionable. When corrected, it appears that foragers work hard and desire more than was supposed. If this is so, then from where does the hunter-gatherer idea of affluence or abundance come? It is undeniably present in foraging societies, even during times of actual scarcity. It comes, Bird-Davis observes, from their cosmological and animist metaphors.

The cosmic economy of sharing is a natural consequence or logical result of animism, which is the attribution of life or vital force to plants, animals, landscapes, and weather. Having animated and constructed the world as being filled with non-human life, foragers can relate and interact with it. They can, in other words, socialize with everything that inhabits their singular cosmos. They do so through a variety of rituals and myths.

If we stopped at this point, and didn’t consider the deeper implications, this would be unremarkable. We could view it as more or less standard Tylorian animism that amounts to so much magical or pre-scientific thinking. But Bird-David doesn’t stop here because this animism is deeply imbricated with the most salient feature of foraging economies: sharing. The closest thing to a formal rule among hunter-gatherers is the sharing injunction. Those who have food and shelter must share food and shelter. In a sharing economy, maintained partly by relational ritual and partly by mythical metaphor, there is welfare and insurance for all.

When the (sharing) cosmos is considered in conjunction with the (sharing) economy, things begin to make sense. Bird-David identifies four features to the cosmic economy of sharing found in foraging societies:

1.  All animated agencies, or what we call “nature,” socialize with individual hunter-gatherers;

2.  The animated agencies, or what we call “nature,” give food and gifts to everyone regardless of prior kinship ties or reciprocal obligations;

3.  The people regard themselves as children and relatives of animated agencies or what we call “nature”; and

4.  People envision their connection to the animated agencies or “nature” as bonds of sharing between relatives.

Given this cosmos, the proper ritual, and rule observance, everything falls into place. People are born of an animated nature which then supplies the stuff of life.  This otherwise inanimate “stuff” has been shared and given as gift by animate nature. The transitive property is then applied to this premise: because animated nature has shared and given to me, so must I share and give to others (who are my actual or fictive relatives).

So there it is. Altruism has been hiding in the cosmological-epistemological bush all along. A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush, but only if the bird has been ritually obtained and mythically shared.

In the cold language of evolutionary biology, the animist way looks and feels fairly adaptive. Among foragers, this code of conduct is known simply as “the Way.” It is neither set off nor demarcated as being supernatural or religious. This is apparently why it took me so long to see it.


Bird‐David, Nurit. (1999). “Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology. Current Anthropology, 40 (S1) DOI: 10.1086/200061

Bird-David, Nurit. (1992). Beyond “The Original Affluent Society”: A Culturalist Reformulation. Current Anthropology, 33 (1), 25-34

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6 thoughts on “Animism as Altruistic Adaptation

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    This looks to play into an idea I have been rolling around for a while but am not sure how to effectively articulate – Our socialization (that of modern humans) hinges upon action scenarios embedded in the shared myths. Theory of Mind (ToM) suggests that we model our personal relations – that is we imagine scenarios of expectations of how we ‘should be’ interacting with others. When an other behaves to a ‘friendly’ expectation, we are comfortable and likely to feel trusting. If they fail to behave to said expectation, we are suspicious and wary.

    I suspect that tribal / religious myths and rituals help establish a common suite of shared expectations and shared action scenarios that allows our ToM function to trust, and build community. This would include common symbols or decorations, common gestures, anecdotes and greetings etc.

  2. Cris Post author

    What you say reminds me a bit of Jesse Bering’s take on things; he argues, of course, that these shared expectations/actions are the result of feeling like you are being watched by spirits. I don’t agree that this occurs very often in animist or tribal settings, but the structure of your idea and his are similar.

  3. Andrew


    Something almost cryptic and very fun about your passage, “Altruism has been hiding in the cosmological-epistemological bush all along. A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush, but only if the bird has been ritually obtained and mythically shared.”

    I really like this post. It seems fitting to me that this code of conduct is dubbed “the Way” and yet not confined or reliant on purely supernatural foundations.

  4. Cris Post author

    Thanks. I really like the post too. I tried drafting it a day earlier and was tremendously frustrated at the end of the day; I had nothing. I then did some additional reading, slept on it, and this post just spilled like water from my typing hands. It was effortless and I was surprised by where it took me. Some might say it was a mystical experience but I’ll just chalk it up to a writer’s high.

    I’ve always been impressed by what Native Americans call “the Way” for its supernatural free foundations, its honesty, and its integrity. I think I’m just beginning to understand it, in some small way, and look forward to exploring the Way in new ways with these new insights.

  5. Cris Post author

    One of my readers wrote to ask about this statement in the post: “[T]he animist way looks and feels fairly adaptive.” He then asked a series of questions (below) that I will answer with italics.

    The value of this statement, it seems to me, depends critically on the possibility of alternatives to animism in early or isolated societies. Can you think of such alternatives? What would they be?I can’t think of any alternatives to animism in pre-agricultural societies. This animism-shamanism is of course wonderfully varied and takes many different forms, but animism is at the heart of things. If we take the ethnohistoric and ethnographic record on hunter-gatherers as a guide to Paleolithic societies, we see that all of them are animist. It seems a pretty sure bet that the earliest forms of supernaturalism, before there were organized religions, were animist.

    Given that children are natural animists and people of all ages readily adopt the intentional stance toward phenomena unfamiliar or unexpected, would you hypothesize that these tendencies are peculiar to modern humans?Yes; I think only humans do this. Without contrary training, people naturally attribute vitality or life force or soul to things (i.e., are natural animists) due to ordinary operations of the brain-mind. I tend to think this is a byproduct of the way our brains have evolved. I outlined the particulars of these cognitive operations in this post.

    Moreover, if a population was under selective pressure for social cohesion before the emergence of language, it would seem to be only natural that it should develop corresponding cultural constructs later. These then are not merely a means of justification of already established modes of behavior, but rather a new factor in shaping and structuring society, since a worldview and collective behavior constitute a whole. Most primates are social and the most social of primates are humans. I have little doubt that hominins have been under selection pressure for increased sociality for millions of years. I agree with the rest of your statement.

    And if altruistic disposition is to be seen as a prerequisite for complex culture itself, the fact that the idea of sharing is deeply embedded in the forager’s mind perhaps does not call for any special explanation. Not all altruism is created equal. The limited altruism seen in other primates and social mammals pales in comparison to what humans do. Thus, I think some sort of additional explanation is needed for this the unique kind of altruism or sharing seen in humans.

  6. J. A. Le Fevre

    I was thinking more along the lines of your post – while I agree with Bering to a degree, I think his explanation too limited. You have mentioned before that people tend to behave to the standards of the communities’ expectations. I am suggesting that the myths and stories told and retold are the foundation of those expectations. Those fantastic and motivational tales of heroes, heroines and villains, seers and fools, set the models to be followed and to be avoided. Without those stories children would no grow with an understanding of right and wrong behavior – their mental models would follow too close to their basic instincts and even the adults would not pre-imagine in their day to day snap decisions the positive or negative consequences. Most decisions are made in a bare instant without conscious consideration – it is the consistent conditioning of the stories around the campfires – the myths and collected real-life experiences that prepare each member for tomorrow’s decisions. Such is how the expectations of ‘right’ behavior are perpetuated through society and through time. Such is the human socialization process.

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