Iroquois Religion & Group Level Selection

While browsing at my local bookstore yesterday and looking for a diversionary read, I serendipitously discovered The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (1992) by Daniel Richter. Although I’m only halfway through, it seems to be the book for those interested in a comprehensive history of the Iroquois.

The second chapter, which examines the origins of the Iroquois League, highlights the role of religion in group formation and cohesion. Although I have serious reservations about group level selection (and doubt that it exists), the Iroquois may be the closest thing to an historical example.

During the 1400s, the five tribes (Mohawk, Seneca, Onondoga, Oneida, and Cayugas) that eventually formed the Iroquois League were constantly at war with one another and their neighbors.

Map of Iroquois and Neighboring Tribes

Aside from all its other unpleasantness, the constant cycle of retributive war had devastating demographic effects on the tribes.

Though it is difficult to separate fact from subsequent hagiographic fiction, legend has it that Hiawatha lost several children in the warfare and wandered into the forest, grieving and inconsolable. Literally losing his mind, Hiawatha encountered a supernatural being named Deganawidah, The Great Peacemaker. Hiawatha was given rituals and a message that he carried to the five tribes, which heeded the words and formed “The Great League of Peace and Power.” Although this is often abbreviated to “Iroquois League,” the shortened form obscures the purpose of the confederation: peace between the five tribes and power or war against non-member outsiders.

While the Longhouse and wampum rituals are the most famous of those allegedly given to Hiawatha, perhaps the most important were the mourning and condolence rituals which surrounded warfare and slave-taking. Richter explains:

The connection between war and mourning rested on beliefs about the spiritual power that animated all things. Because an individual’s death diminished the collective power of a lineage, clan, and village, Iroquois families conducted “Requickening” ceremonies in which the deceased’s name, and with it the social role and duties it represented, was transferred to a successor.

Such rites filled vacant positions in lineages and villages both literally and symbolically: they assured survivors that the social function and spiritual potency embodied in the departed’s name had not disappeared and that the community would endure. In Requickenings, people of high status were usually replaced from within the lineage, clan, or village, but at some point lower in the social scale an external source of surrogates inevitably became necessary.

The “external source of surrogates” were nearly always war captives. Such captives were inspected, tested, and either adopted into the tribe or ritualistically killed and actually eaten. In the case of adoption, the physical power of the prisoner was appropriated. In the case of eating, the spiritual power was appropriated (giving “food for spiritual thought” an unsettling meaning).

By all accounts, the Iroquois League was powerful and feared. Although it changed considerably over the centuries through its interactions with European powers and colonizers, the League’s success and durability says something important about the power of shared beliefs.

It would be unwise, however, simply to conclude this is an example of group level selection. As is apparent from the taking and adopting of captives, the Iroquois were neither homogenous nor insular. Under group level selection theory, groups must be distinct and there can be only minimal or no immigration.

Even if we assume this is an example of group level selection, it says nothing about the selective origins and evolution of religion. Group level selectionists (most of whom are evolutionary theists) like to argue that religion is adaptive and was targeted by selection because it makes humans more cooperative, prosocial, and “moral.” Of course it has to be this way because God designed the whole thing.

These theorists simply ignore the several lines of evidence which suggest that humans, as the most social of primates who can actually talk about cooperating, were already this way and didn’t need “religion” for small group success. It is only after the advent of agriculture, when group sizes increase exponentially, that something like religiously driven group level selection might come into play.

The Iroquois were sedentary horticulturalists, not Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Numbering around 25,000 people, they were in need of an ideology or religion which could bind the group. Hunter-gatherers, whose group size ranged from 30-150 for the immediate group and 300-500 for the extended group, had no such need.

Did you like this? Share it:

4 thoughts on “Iroquois Religion & Group Level Selection

  1. J. A. Le Fevre

    On the Peace Path of Hiawatha –

    ‘ . . . the League’s success and durability says something important about the power of shared beliefs.’

    My suspicion is that sharing the rituals is more important than the beliefs. For example, there have been many studies showing that people often hold conflicting beliefs. (I don’t see where beliefs, per se, count for that much)

    ‘Group level selectionists . . . like to argue that religion is adaptive and was targeted by selection because it makes humans more cooperative, prosocial, and “moral.”’
    ‘It is only after the advent of agriculture, when group sizes increase exponentially, that something like religiously . . . might come into play.’
    ‘The Iroquois were sedentary horticulturalists . . .’

    Is your argument that religion may be adaptive (for sedentary horticulturalists or other larger groups), but that it is not ‘group-level selection’ or was not ‘targeted by selection’?

  2. Cris Post author

    On the first point, when I talk about shared “beliefs” I assume that shared “rituals” are a natural consequence or corollary; when not writing formally, I use the terms almost interchangeably.

    On the second point, I have yet to be convinced that biological evolutionary analyses even work in post-Neolithic or agricultural settings. Group level selectionists tend to conflate biological change with cultural change, or they simply assume that selection operates on culture the same way it does organisms. I disagree.

    With this in mind, I don’t think arguments about whether cultural beliefs, institutions, and practices are or are not “adaptive” get us very far, or are even useful.

    But let’s assume, for discussion purposes only, that group level selection operates on agricultural communities. If belief in the supernatural and religion gave such a group fitness advantages, then you could say it was “targeted by selection.” But this doesn’t have much evolutionary force or analytical power, given that supernatural beliefs arose perhaps 50,000 years ago.

    We usually say something is a target of selection because it originated for a particular purpose that was useful or functional (hence it is called an “adaptation”). Belief in the supernatural didn’t become anything like organized religion until 40,000 years after such beliefs originated. Evolution doesn’t foresee future adaptive potentials or what Gould calls exaptations. In other words, supernatural beliefs weren’t targeted for selection 50,000 years ago so that agricultural communities in the distant future could form religions that enable group level selection.

    Bottom line: I think the whole group level selection and “religion as adaptation” line of argument is bunk. This means of course that I don’t agree with those who consider religion to be maladaptive. I just don’t think post-Neolithic religion can be explained using evolutionary heuristics.

  3. J. A. Le Fevre

    While internally consistent, your philosophy breaks down in the bigger picture. It may be neater and cleaner to ‘limit’ evolution to genetics, but that was never the initial intent as genetics were not understood. With our current knowledge of both genetics and culture it is clear that there is a strong interdependency. Stripped of our culture: our fire, tools and weapons, language, housing and clothing, man would go extinct in a generation. Our DNA does not define a viable beast. DNA does not define the evolved man, nor would I argue, any mammal or bird. All are dependant upon training handed down mother/father (caregiver) to child. Whenever the link is broken, that line suffers or is lost. Are our large brains ‘adaptive’? From your paper on the same, you note that fire and cooking was necessary for it to have evolved. The whole current exercise in gene-culture co-evolution addresses this: the motive is to define a viable creature – DNA does not. Selection only functions with viable forms.

  4. Cris Post author

    I agree there is a strong interdependency between biology and culture; this relationship is recognized in evolutionary theory as niche construction. I just don’t think that biological evolutionary theory and methods can be carried over to something as difficult and different as culture or history. I have written about this extensively on the blog.

    When evolutionary methods applicable strictly to biology are applied to non-equivalent or non-identical culture, it is metaphor or analogy. While gene-culture co-evolution stuff generates some nice equations which may or may not accurately describe what is occurring, such equations have almost no predictive power. Why? Because human behavior can’t be described or predicted mathematically within an evolutionary framework.

    Have you ever read any studies done within behavioral or evolutionary ecology? The ones where small-scale societies are analyzed using evolutionary methods and math? Where decisionmaking and action is treated as adaptive datapoints? Whenever I read these, I feel like the authors are studying aliens, and the descriptions/analyses they provide are far removed from the reality of human life. It is hard to think of a more impoverished framework for analyzing human life. Novelists do a much better job of analyzing humanity than do behavioral ecologists.

    While I understand the impulse to unify everything under a meta-theory, we are deceiving ourselves if we think that such a framework exists. Maybe it will one day be discovered, but gene-culture co-evolution isn’t it.

Leave a Reply