Lab Research, Meet Ethnohistory

In labs around the world, researchers interested in the “evolution of religion” or cognitive science of religion are conducting experiments that tell us something about how supernatural beliefs initially may have arisen and subsequently been the target of selection. While we are accumulating lots of interesting data and the results are revealing, these studies will have their greatest impact when they are fitted into a historical timeline.

What we ultimately want to know, in other words, is when it was that various kinds of beliefs (and associated practices) arose. If we know this, we can begin assessing what role those beliefs-practices may or may not have played in the “evolution of religion.” What we need to do is test these ideas with history. We cannot simply assume that post-Neolithic religions are anything like Paleolithic supernaturalism and function in the same way; this is the fallacy of backwards projection.

There are two large bodies of data relevant to this enterprise. The first is the archaeological record and the second is ethnographic. These two are tightly linked. Most interpretations of the archaeological record are guided explicitly or implicitly by our knowledge of hunter-gatherer supernaturalism. We use ethnographic analogies to understand how deliberate burials with grave goods, entoptic symbols in cave paintings or rock art, and carved “Venus” figurines are related to supernatural beliefs and ritual activities.

When it comes to hunter-gatherer ethnography, everyone’s favorite source is the San or Bushmen of southern Africa. One of the last remaining hunter-gatherer groups in the world, they were the subject of extensive research conducted from 1963-1980 by members of Harvard’s Kalahari Project. Major contributions were also made by South African scholars at the University of Witwatersrand, prominently including cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams.

Why so much focus on Bushmen? As one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies that lived in largely traditional ways at least through the 1960s, it was a rare opportunity for professional ethnographers to observe and record. Only one other group, the Hadza of Tanzania (some of whom are still foragers), offered similar opportunities.

While our knowledge of San supernaturalism is valuable, it is but a single sample coming from one area. If we are going to rely on ethnography to make inferences about hunter-gatherers in general, we need larger samples. One source that remains largely untapped is Native American ethnohistory. I was recently reminded of its value while reading two classics of the genre, one old and one recent.

First published in 1935, Robert Lowie’s The Crow Indians is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding Crow beliefs, myths, and rituals. It is a comprehensive ethnohistory that has never gone out of print. The second is John H. Moore’s The Cheyenne, which after it was published in 1999, quickly established itself as the definitive history of this tribe. It too is comprehensive. Both contain discrete chapters on supernaturalism-ritual, and important chapters on kinship and group formation-dissolution.

As things currently stand, many lab based studies into supernatural belief use methods that are perhaps limited post-Neolithic religions of sedentary peoples. This is fine if what we want to study is limited to these recent religions. If we want to get at something deeper in time, our research will need to be designed with Paleolithic supernaturalism distinctly in mind. While neither Crow nor Cheyenne supernaturalism is the equivalent of Paleolithic, it is much closer to the mark than modern religions.

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13 thoughts on “Lab Research, Meet Ethnohistory

  1. Erika Salomon

    Cris, I absolutely agree, and I think the problem is more widespread than just within the study of religion. The desire to test evolutionary hypotheses experimentally with humans is admirable, but it is misguided unless accompanied by anthropological and comparative (e.g., primate) evidence. In fact, I think there is a strong case to be made that the laboratory should not be the first place to look for such evidence.

    That said, I think that there is a benefit to understanding how religion affects behavior within large-scale, sedentary populations for its own sake. This is how an increasing number of the world’s population lives, and science ought to be as much about describing the world as it is as about describing how it came to be that way.

  2. Erika Salomon

    A clarification: I say “evolutionary,” of course, because that is how I was trained; over time, I have come to see that this is not always the correct framework. Nonetheless, I have not yet broken the habit of speech picked up in my training-thus-far.

  3. admin Post author

    Good Morning Erika! I too think there is a benefit, indeed many benefits, to studying the ways in which religiosity (a tricky concept) affects behavior within large-scale, modern, sedentary, and industrial societies. At some point, we might even hope that so many descriptions accumulate that they point toward certain kinds of causal mechanisms.

    Such mechanisms may be rooted in neurobiology and massively patterned by culture. Whether we are ever able to determine which of these mechanisms are biological and which are cultural is a different story. One area of confusion in such studies (and I see this often) stems from the idea that “cultural evolution” is at work.

    A number of group level selection advocates seem to think that biological and cultural evolution are equivalents, and they blithely move from one to the other, as if there is no difference. This conflation of biological evolution with a kind of memetic “cultural evolution” is, I think, a serious error.

    Others, of course, explicitly conflate the two using Dual Inheritance Theory. While DIT sports some really nice math and the equations are beautiful, I doubt whether cultural processes are subject to selection in the same way that genes are. What are your thoughts on DIT?

  4. admin Post author

    I should clarify too: I was just thinking out loud yesterday and not doing a very good job of it. I begin teaching an Anthropology of Religion course on July 5, and was looking at hundreds of articles trying to decide which ones to include. In looking at the lab research articles (of which there are many), I was asking myself how these fit into an evolutionary and historical framework, and which ones we will read for class, and where they fit in the syllabus. This was the context of the post, which I am half tempted to remove because it did not seem to accomplish much, other than this nice exchange!

  5. Erika Salomon

    Ah, don’t remove it! It’s something that needs to be “out there” so to speak. We are, in many ways, in the very early stages of these laboratory studies and, as in all disciplines, there are still many mistakes to be made. Turning a critical eye towards the method and theory is an important part of maturing the field.

  6. J. A. LeFevre

    ‘One area of confusion in such studies (and I see this often) stems from the idea that “cultural evolution” is at work.’


    Your disclaimer is in place for that post, but evolution is about out-competing your rivals in your ‘niche’. Nature has no care how you win, just whether or not you loose. To deny ‘cultural’ as an evolutionary phenomenon is to insist that education has no survival value, and that it cannot ‘develop’ over time.

  7. admin Post author

    Evolution is a biological process and not a cultural one. While I understand the impulse to have a grand unified theory that explains all things human (similar to the quest for a unified theory in physics), I am with Nietzsche when he says: “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Slightly less tongue in check, I don’t buy for a second the notion that the same processes of change govern life/genetics/evolution on the one hand, and cultural history on the other. Memes are not genes.

  8. J. A. LeFevre

    ‘Evolution’ is a model which can be used to describe any process where change is possible and selection is applied. ‘Evolution’ does not define the world, but is a model we use to help our understanding of it. It is a model that fits many phenomenon. Genes and memes included.

  9. admin Post author

    I confine evolution to biology, as do most others. It applies to genotypes and phenotypes. Cultural change is called “history.”

  10. J. A. LeFevre

    Nike claims its shoes ‘evolve’ as do most auto manufacturers. In describing (coining the term) meme, Dawkins was very clear to distinguish genetic from cognitive development. Almost nobody, and surly not Websters is so constrained to limit the use of words. The study of cultures past may be called history, but the progress of culture is often called evolution. You are attempting to redefine words.

  11. admin Post author

    I am not re-defining the biological concept of evolution; I am limiting it to its proper domain: to wit, life forms that use DNA/RNA to encode information, replicate, and which change over time as a result of various modes of selection. I do not consider “change over time” to be the same as “evolution.” This is an expansion of the term/concept of evolution beyond the biological realm, and in my estimation it has little warrant.

    The gene/meme thing is nothing more than an analogy, and it is a bad analogy at that, sort of like the analogy which compares brains to computers. They are not the same. They merely resemble one another in quite limited ways.

    “Cultures” are not organisms, they are not living, they are not discrete entities, they are not bounded, they do not metabolize or respire, they do not ingest or excrete food, they are not born, they do not reproduce, they do not die.

    If others want to use the term “evolution” to describe changes over time that is fine, but they are not talking about a biological process. It is a metaphor and/or an analogy.

    I will take my definition of “evolution” from science, and won’t be upset if you take yours from Webster. I will point out, however, that evolution is not “progressive.” If you have not yet read Stephen Jay Gould’s book “Full House,” you should. Whatever Gould’s faults or errors may have been, this book is not one of them. Really good stuff.

  12. J. A. LeFevre

    You are attempting to restrict ‘evolution’ to mean ‘biological evolution’. Evolution is, all the same, a descriptive expression for many a process. You are taking words out of context and insisting they are being used wrong. Metaphor and analogy are perfectly valid forms of expression, by the way.

  13. admin Post author

    In the sciences, “evolution” describes biological phenomena and processes. If others want to use these concepts as metaphors or analogies for non-biological phenomena and processes, that is fine, but let’s not pretend when they do so that what they are talking about is scientific. Metaphors and analogies are of course perfectly valid forms of expression, perhaps best suited to prose and poetry. I happen to like them both, I just don’t mix them with my evolution.

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