Proto-Religious Foragers v. Non-Religious Foragers

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.

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3 thoughts on “Proto-Religious Foragers v. Non-Religious Foragers

  1. John

    What factors might give you an advantage in intergroup conflict? Here is an initial list of four independent ones
    1. Group size
    2. Group loyalty eg. a willingness to die for each other
    3. Tactics eg. attack, feign retreat then ambush.
    4. Technology eg. better weapons

    It seems fairly obvious that ‘proto-religion’ can make a real contribution to the first two.

    Then you might throw in
    5. Morale (God is on our side) and
    6. Motive (They are children of Baal. God has told us to destroy them)

    Granted that if ‘they’ have the Maxim gun these (ie 1,2,5,6) might not be enough….

  2. admin Post author

    It is true that proto-religion could impact group size, and in fact it was a major factor impacting group sizes, but group sizes did not begin to increase until the time of the Neolithic Revolution or transition (i.e., when plants and animals were domesticated) approximately 10,000 years ago. Given this fact, we cannot say (as many scholars do) that proto-religion evolved because it increased group size(s). Proto-religion existed long before human group size ever increased.

    On the second factor you list, General George Patton once famously remarked: “Nobody ever won a battle (or war) by dying for his country” (or group). Kidding aside, you don’t need proto-religion to have this kind of willingness — we see it in other primates, and being related to other group members is usually sufficient to induce it. If you are a member of a group that is being attacked, it pays you — as an individual — to cooperate with the group. If the group goes, so too does the individual.

    I agree that proto-religion could have an impact on 5 and 6, but the ethnohistory of hunter-gatherer conflict shows that their “religious” beliefs are fairly unimportant when it comes to conflict — they are all related, through actual or fictive kinship, so this is the major factor.

  3. John

    Thanks for the reply…..and your very impressive site.

    On your points

    1 How do we know about group size before the first settlements?
    And I thought that the first settlements pre-date agriculture. Indeed didn’t Jane Jacobs make a convincing case that agriculture was invented/revolutionised in the first towns.
    And pre-dating these towns dont we find sites like Gobleki Tepe (11500 yrs BP) that certainly look like religion is an organising force.

    There is a lot on your site about fictive kin. Isn’t this what religion provides in spades…..brothers and sisters in the Lord……all children of God the Father/Earth Mother. Doesn’t religion extend kin altruism beyond actual kin?

    2. No you dont need religion for group loyalty.
    Nor do you need feathers to fly. But they come in useful. Nature finds many ways of doing anything.

    On a more general point I tend to see religion like an amplifier or volume control. Take something like fertility. Religion can take the normal range found in cultures (say for the sake of argument an average of 1-4 children per female) and extend it in either direction (down in the case of the Shakers, up in the case of Haredi Jews – see Eric Kaufmann on this). Then cultural selection takes over. So asking whether religion is necessary sort of misses the point…’s an enhancer.

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