In a recent post on group level selection and the evolution of religion, I observed that if we assume such selection was operating on human groups during the Paleolithic, three factors play a major role in determining which groups come out on top. These three factors are: (1) group size, (2) technology, and (3) language. Any Paleolithic hunter-gatherer group possessing a significant advantage in one or more of these would have a major competitive edge over groups deficient in them. This is true even if the deficient group had the supposed advantage of proto-religion.
Another way of stating this is that if there are two groups competing over resources essential to survival and reproduction (the sine qua non of evolutionary fitness), a group that is larger, has better technology, and/or can fluently converse will win out over groups that are more tightly knit because of shared supernatural beliefs and rituals but which lack these other advantages. An altruistic and cooperative group of 30 beseeching the aid of the animal spirits and willing to die for the group simply will not prevail in warfare against a “secular” group of 150. We can reverse these figures to see how technology and language could impact group competition.
Imagine (on the one hand) a group of 30 Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who lack shared conceptions of the supernatural and do not engage in group rituals. They are not in other words “proto-religious.” This group, however, has developed projectile weapons: bows, arrows, and atlatls (spear throwers). They also have fully developed language abilities, which means they are fully capable of planning and asking “what if” types of questions.
Imagine (on the other hand) a group of 150 Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who share conceptions of the supernatural and engage in group rituals. These rituals render them more cooperative and altruistic. They are in other words “proto-religious.” But this group lacks projectile weaponry; they are using sharpened spear-sticks and hafted points that require close-quarter combat. Moreover, this group does not have fully developed language abilities — their ability to plan and communicate during a group encounter is limited.
Now imagine these two groups encountering one another and warring over resources that enable survival and reproduction. Who wins? There is a better than even chance that the smaller non-supernatural group prevails over the larger supernatural group.
I was reminded of this last night while reading Richard Klein’s monumental book, The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. In Chapter 7 (“Anatomically Modern Humans”), Klein discusses what might explain the all-important Upper Paleolithic transition approximately 50,000 years ago:
The most frequently cited “modern” behavioral markers are art and ornamentation, but new technologies that facilitated hunting and gathering were even more fundamental, for they enhanced human reproduction and survival and they promoted population growth. Most specialists would probably agree that that the subsequent growth propelled modern humans out of Africa and that their augmented ability to reproduce and survive explains the rapidity of their expansion across Eurasia.
While it is possible that more elaborate forms of supernaturalism and ritualism played a role in this transition, such forms do not appear in the archaeological record and must remain speculative. More importantly, other factors — such as advanced technologies — more parsimoniously explain this transition and actually appear in the record. There is no need to invoke “proto-religion” as an explanation for this transition. Proto-religion was not some talisman that magically resulted in group success and population growth.