How Not to Find Anthropological Universals

The aptly named Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, has posted an article in First Things claiming that “man” (sorry women) is a religious animal. With a gender correction, the question he poses is: “Are human beings naturally religious?” Setting aside for a moment that the Christian professor at Notre Dame probably has an a priori answer, he begins with this astonishing statement:

By “what pertains to human beings by nature,” I mean what is essential and universal for human beings, at least since the Axial Age beginning circa 800 b.c. and probably since the Neolithic era beginning circa 9500 b.c. I make claims about anthropological universals, which should apply to human beings in all other cultures, not just Christendom or the West.

This simply won’t do.

Let’s start with the fact that if we are searching for human “nature,” we can’t start at the end. This is what Smith does when he concatenates history and begins his story with the Axial Age or perhaps even the Neolithic transition. For anthropologists, the Axial Age is like yesterday and the Neolithic the day before.

Fully modern humans had been roaming the earth for several tens of thousands of years before some settled into the domestic and religious routines of Neolithic or agricultural life. If we are seeking human “nature,” doesn’t it make sense to look for it among those people? Don’t they have “natural” history? Doesn’t that history tell us something fundamental about what humans are (or can alternatively be) absent the powerful social patterning of modern societies?

It’s not surprising that Smith would start his search for anthropological “universals” and human “nature” with the Axial Age. The very (contested) notion of “essences” derives from the Axial strand that began with Plato and culminated in Christianity. There is an apt genealogical basis for Nietzsche’s comment that Christianity is “Platonism for the people.”

There were of course other Axial strands and places in the world where Axial movements had little or no impact. In those places, usually out of the main commercial way and relatively untouched by post-Neolithic modernity, life carried on in ways that resembled the deep past which Smith has chosen to ignore. In these places too we might find something important about the possibilities and idiosyncracies of human “nature.”

With such an inauspicious beginning to his essay, it’s not surprising to find that Smith’s conception of human “nature” is parochial. His view of human “essence” is not a timeless universal but is a situated and timely view from somewhere. That somewhere happens to be Notre Dame, a place where the concerns and prejudices of the post-Enlightenment Christian West are often projected onto the world and others as “universal human nature.” These concerns and prejudices are neither universal nor natural.

While I can agree with Smith that humans naturally generate supernatural ideas, this default is due to ordinary operations of the brain-mind. Humans aren’t, as Smith claims, naturally religious because we need to make truth claims, problem solve, create meaning, or act morally. These needs, which Smith calls strong tendencies, are precisely those which arose after (and in conjunction with) the Neolithic. They are not, therefore, universal in either time or space.

If you are quixotically seeking “anthropological universals,” the first place to look is in the deep or prehistoric past. The next would be in those societies that were relatively untouched by Neolithic modernity and Axial movements. Had Smith done this, he would have found that his supposed universals aren’t universal.

Smith’s error here is a common one which I recently wrote about while gently criticizing Czech moral economist Thomas Sedlacek’s argument that humans are naturally greedy. This is an historically challenged fallacy of the post hoc ergo propter hoc variety:

If we are talking about the human condition since the advent of agriculture, Sedlacek’s story has a great deal of validity. Sedlacek errs, however, in asserting that greed — always wanting more — is an “innate natural phenomenon” that marks the “beginning of our history.” This is a common error whether we are talking about economic history or religious history.

It arises from the illusion that everything essentially began with the Neolithic transition and “civilization.” As this myth goes, there was no history or society for the people who hunted and gathered for tens of thousands of years before settlements and cities. But these people, and some of their descendants who continued foraging until recently, had history. This history suggests that greed — always wanting more — is not an “innate natural phenomenon.”

While there are pan-human tendencies based in common neurobiology, classifying these as “natural” or “universal” or “essential” is an enterprise fraught with agendas and difficulties.

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6 thoughts on “How Not to Find Anthropological Universals

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    While I will accept your challenge to the approach of Smith, I will suggest his conclusion to be reasonably valid.
    While obvious that the nominal behavior of hunter-gather raised individuals (man and woman alike) differs from that of the typical twentieth century office worker or priest (or etc.), what we have demonstrated through history is that individuals can be taken (particularly at a very young age) from either society and integrated into the other. The human, therefore, is universal (to some degree at least). The noted large-scale variations in behavior does not mark differences in humans but in the formative environments. Any appeal or functionality of religion, by inference, would likewise be universal if also culturally mediated.

  2. Cris Post author

    All that your comment demonstrates is that Smith’s supposed “anthropological universals” aren’t universal: they are cultural variations linked to cultural concerns. The reasons he gives for people being “naturally” religious are linked to a particular (post-Neolithic and Axial) cultural formation, arise from that formation, and respond to that formation. They are not, therefore, “universal.”

    I’m not sure how your conclusion differs from mine. I acknowledge there is a pan-human or “universal” human neurobiology which predisposes people to generate supernatural concepts. Whether these concepts become “religion” is largely dependent on cultural patterning. From this, we can’t conclude that people are “naturally religious.”

  3. J. A. LeFevre

    In the theme that a leopard cannot change its spots, a human cannot change its behaviors – just which behavior is emphasized.
    ‘All of the above’ traits are ‘natural’ for the human, but it takes culture to exaggerate one or another specific trait – to make a particular behavior more or less common within the population. One aboriginal culture brings out one suit of traits. Between aboriginal cultures there are many common and some variations. Ditto for urban and industrialized cultures. I think what Smith is seeing is a universal capacity within any (nominal) human to express and find some solace in religious practice. Religion appears to have a ‘natural’ appeal to many if not most humans exposed to it. There is nothing whatsoever ‘natural’ about separating humans from culture. A human without culture cannot survive – they would be absolutely non-viable (absent, that is, extensive and continuous care from an adequately cultured human). Further, all human culture has been invented by humans – it’s a big part of how we compete – an activity common (ie: natural) to all life.

  4. Dominik Lukes

    Frankly, I would go as far as to question the validity of saying that “humans naturally generate supernatural”. I would go along with “humans naturally generate implicit and explicit theories about the world as it is available to them”. Supernatural presupposes an on/off value-based distinction between reasonable and unreasonable. But that only holds if we present extreme cases such as belief in ghosts and direct divine intervention when contrasted with belief in things like basic physics and chemistry. There we can talk about justifiable vs unjustifiable belief and issues of faith and scientific inquiry.

    But that distinction gets blurred very quickly indeed. Geerts work on common sense reinterprets Evans Pritchard’s findings about witchcraft and places it firmly in the “natural” realm. Whereas we don’t have to go very far to find “supernatural” elements in Newtonian physics – such as the invisible force of gravity. Equally, I’m far from convinced that the germ theory of disease and theory of natural selection are the last words on the “naturalness” of their respective subjects (without in the least subscribing to their currently popular “alternatives”).

    And talk of neural underpinnings of pretty much anything remains (to my mind with much of the present company excluded) little more than voodoo.

    Universals and particulars of culture and humanity are continuously constructed. I gave a talk on this many years ago where I raised some of the inevitable paradoxes when searching for universals:

    I don’t agree that “religion” is at all universal. Content of people’s beliefs about the world bear striking similarities across times and cultures as do their way of organizing their profession of these beliefs within their mechanisms of socialization. But that is only at a certain level of magnification. It is hard to compare what goes on in China, India, Middle East and the West, call it religion and be sure we’re talking about a similar enough thing to look for its neural correlates. I wrote about this at some length here:

  5. Cris Post author

    I’m not using “supernatural” in a normative sense, though I have little doubt that the human default is to generate what might be called supernatural concepts. There is a commonsensical approach to these issues which I prefer, even though I’ve spent countless hours in the literature which defines “religion” and takes issue with the concept of “supernatural.” In the end, I side with those who have spent years thinking and writing about these issues and who ultimately decide the issues are in some ways intractable, so we just have to proceed. Ake Hultkrantz was for famous for this, as was Max Weber.

    In writing my book, I’m taking the Hultkrantz approach, using “supernatural” (with some caveats), and then following Weber’s method in which he said we’ll have a much better fix on supernatural/religion if we sketch a history and see what is left standing in the end. By this genealogical process, I use the term “supernaturalisms” to describe the kinds of animist-shamanisms that were characteristic of the Paleolithic and more recent heirs of Paleolithic traditions, and I start using the term “religions” to describe more organized, systematic and institutional stuff we see after the Neolithic.

    I will probably be writing a long post in the near future about the functional aspects of brain-mind that generate, by default and almost universally, supernatural ideas. I say “almost” universally because it takes a special and peculiar kind of training to override these defaults.

    Over the last two years, I’ve written several posts on the very issues you address, a few of which can be found here:

  6. Steve Lawrence

    Suppose a herd of elephants returns to the bones of a (former) matriarch, and continues to return to the spot for months, even years, after the bones are gone. Emotion is expressed and shared. Religious? (Ancestor worship?) All or nearly all human societies have religion, or something close (e.g. Confucianism). Humans of the paleolithic seemed to shaman; close enough. Cave paintings dating quite far back are interpreted as religious, are they not? Whether one focuses on the function (social cohesion; elephants similar?) or emotional release (same), religion seems a human capacity or possibility, if not a universal.

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