Survival of the Supernaturalist

Since it seems to be the season for critiquing evolutionary psychology, some may be interested in a recent Nation article, “Survival of the Sexiest: How Evolutionary Psychology Went Viral,” by Mal Ahern and Moira Weigel. While the focus of this article is evolutionary psychology’s obsession with sex, some of the insights are equally applicable to the evolutionary psychology of religion. With this in mind, let’s consider these excerpts:

Both historians and scientists criticized evolutionary psychologists for making broad claims about what humans desired in a prehistoric past to which we have very little access. Adaptationist narratives rarely qualify as scientific hypotheses, quite simply because they are impossible to prove right or wrong. Evolutionary psychology does draw on empirical data and laboratory studies, and those data are falsifiable. But the adaptationist explanations that evolutionary psychologists offer are not. We can know what today’s college students say they want in a mate, but it’s impossible to know what our Pleistocene ancestors were after by reading our own preferences backward.

In each case, we are presumed to believe in the phenomenon under analysis already. All we require is an explanation, a story that tells us why we are the way we are. Ultimately, the explanation is always the same: evolution—i.e, reproductive advantage. Click on one of these stories and you will find two things: first, the results of a recent psychological study that verifies an observation about a common human behavior; and second, an evolutionary explanation for why that behavior was advantageous for our ancestors. Because their standard operating procedure is to begin from behaviors that they perceive as universal, evolutionary psychologists tend to confirm received wisdom. Many EP studies tautologically assert that widely held social values are…well, widely held.

These observations are especially pertinent to the evolutionary psychology of religion, a field in which researchers begin with what they take to be a universal (such as “religion” or “belief in invisible agents”), perform psychological testing on WEIRD people like university undergraduates, and then spin evolutionary stories about how the psychological propensities identified in the lab would have been adaptive in ancestral evolutionary environments. Some of them dispense with psychological testing altogether and simply scour anthropological records for evidence which confirms the adaptive story they wish to tell about the evolution of religion.

An example of the former is Jesse Bering, who projects his “Imaginary Alice” lab findings back into the Paleolithic past to explain the alleged adaptiveness of invisible agent ideas. An especially notorious example of the latter is Matt Rossano, an evolutionary psychologist-theist who selectively culls anthropological archives for anything and everything that confirms the marvelous unfolding of God’s plan the evolution of religion by “supernatural selection.” When teaching the anthropology of religion, I always have my students read some of Rossano’s articles, which we then use to discuss methods and just-so storytelling. In other words, we read them to learn how not to do science.

None of this is to say, and I do not mean to suggest, that evolutionary psychology is entirely bankrupt or fraudulent. There are methodologically appropriate ways to do evolutionary psychology, and restrained ways in which insights gleaned from evolutionary psychology can assist us in understanding “religion.” The purpose of this post is simply to point out some of the ways in which it should not be used, or ways in which EP findings have been overextended or misapplied.


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16 thoughts on “Survival of the Supernaturalist

  1. Chris Kavanagh

    Just to be clear Cris, are you suggesting that Jesse’s work is a member of the methodologically inappropriate category? And if so would you categorise his general research in this category or just this single paper?

    I fully agree with you in regards the need for caution and for the need to criticise over reaching claims but I am less convinced that experiments on modern participants are useless for inferring potential adaptive psychological tendencies. It isn’t possible to run experiments on the ethnographic record/non-modern participants but it would be genuinely surprising if modern human ancestors, who are anatomically almost identical to us, held completely alien psychological tendencies. On such grounds I wouldn’t defend the Princess Alice experiment, which does rely on a lot of specific cultural schemes, but I would say for instance, that the related research on intuitive dualistic tendencies, provides a strong case for (anatomically modern) human minds having a dualistic tendency. Such claims do require more cross cultural evidence and more triangulating lines of evidence before we could be confident with broader historical claims but it seems like modern relativism to ignore the implications or the fact that evolution has inevitably had the same massive impact on human psychology that it has with other primates. There is occasionally the air of human exceptionalism surrounding critiques of EP.

  2. Gyrus

    Cris, I found Rossano’s Supernatural Selection interesting. I don’t recall any experiments on WEIRD students rallied to “prove” his idea that early religious ideas were adaptive. That said, I would probably concur with you that his arguments aren’t good science – perhaps they’re not even science at all. This is a much deeper question that, as you know, everyone interested in your subject matter here is wrapped up in. There’s actually precious little of importance about early human life that is scientific in the sense of being falsifiable. The study of this area is as much an art – relating to narrative as opposed to argument, and to possibilities as opposed to certainties – as it is a science. Which is precisely what makes it so interesting.

    I guess I see the validity in doing a Wittgenstein and saying, “well, let’s just not talk about this stuff.” But by definition that’s none of us here! Given that, aside from the strict scientific objections to arguments such as Rossano’s, what did you find objectionable in there? I thought his argument that animism, communal healing rites, etc. were adaptive, was reasonable. As with much evolutionary theory, it’s almost tautological (i.e. survival of the fittest means the propagation of offspring by those whose propagate offspring the best). He perhaps lacked a wider discussion of the subtleties of animism – the use of the term “supernatural” is perhaps a giveaway there, since animism recognises little dualism between “natural” and “supernatural”. Other than that – you think animism wasn’t adaptive? That it was adaptive for other reasons?

  3. Cris Post author

    Gyrus, as you probably know, I don’t think that “science” is a definitive domain that provides definitive parameters or answers. I have a fairly large conception of science, and while I think Popperian falsifiability is a useful tool or restraint, it is not the measure of whether something counts as science. But I do think there is something about science, writ large, that distinguishes it from other domains (such as art) and which is its source of strength. This something is methodological, which can be roughly characterized as forming hypotheses, identifying tests, gathering data, and then evaluating the data using various tests and available data. From the start, someone who wishes to be doing science, or who wishes to cloak themselves in the kind of authority that flows from science, should be committed to all the possibilities and open to all conclusions. It’s an open ended inquiry, and the strength of science (or what should be its strength) is the willingness to acknowledge that hypotheses might be wrong, that the tests might not be appropriate or are limited, that the data are equivocal, uncertain, or disputed.

    Science, in short, is about a willingness to continuously affirm and disconfirm, continuously revising as one proceeds and always recognizing that the results are contingent and incomplete. All this means, in the end, that science precludes (or should preclude) a certain kind of storytelling. Narratives in science are always suspect, and when one provides a narrative the purports to be science, or which claims the authority of science, there should be some recognition that the story is always incomplete, uncertain, disputed, and subject to substantial revisions. To the extent that science has authority, whether that be truth-correspondence or cultural, it stems from a commitment to these kinds of methods and a humility about results.

    With all these things in mind, let’s consider what Rossano does (or what I think he does). He begins not with a hypothesis, but with an a priori metaphysical commitment, which appears to be Catholic belief in God. This entails a corresponding belief that evolution is directed or designed by God, and that evolution is progressive. That progress is conceived as biological (culminating in humans), cultural (culminating in western civilization), and religious (culminating in Christianity). With all these commitments and ideas in mind, Rossano selectively scours the archives for confirming data. He then links it all together to fit his a priori narrative, and presents the whole as a scientific story. He doesn’t disclose his commitments, or possible agenda, to readers. For the casual reader, the uninitiated, or those who aren’t anthropologists, his story appears to be scientific and authoritative.

    When it comes to the anthropological data particulars that Rossano selects to support his evolutionary theist story — one in which everything is progressive, adaptive, optimal, and trending towards God believing humans — casual readers would never know that many of those particulars are in serious dispute, there are alternative interpretations, and that he regularly latches onto data and overinterprets it to support his preferred story. It’s the way in which he strings all this disputed data together into a preferred narrative that is suspect. Even when Rossano gets some particular right (which he often does because he’s smart guy and does lots of reading in anthropology), those particulars don’t relate to one another or fit together in the story-telling sequence he crafts. At times it is egregious to the point of being disingenuous. At some point, it becomes a pernicious enterprise — carried out ostensibly in the name of science and with the authority of science — but in the service of Christian metaphysics.

    If Rossano wants to tell these kinds of stories, it’s fine by me. I like stories, myths, art, philosophy, and speculation. But let’s not dress up our wishes, desires, and commitments in the accoutrements of science and then give everyone the impression that the story we are telling is science and carries the authority of science. If he wants to tell these kinds of stories, he should begin by stating: “I’m a Christian and believe that evolution is progressive, and that religious evolution is evidence of God’s plan and design. I also believe that we can search the anthropological record for evidence of this plan or design, and that we can selectively use this evidence or data to tell a story which supports my belief.”

  4. Gyrus

    Thanks for the detailed explanation, Cris. I have to admit, though, I’m fascinated by how far this is from my reading of his book.

    I’m a lay scholar, and certainly lack some of the drilled-in rigours of someone whose been through the post-graduate mill. But I count myself as astute, and certainly pretty sensitive to hidden narratives – especially pro-Christian ones. I went through a period of strong aversion to monotheism (from a pagan/animist perspective rather than an atheist one), and while I’m much more catholic (small “c”) now, I’ve never lost my suspicion of dominant monotheist narratives. And I didn’t get that one bit from Rossano. He seemed to be focused on a pretty non-judgemental take on animism (which I guess could be used as a ‘foot in the door’ for an open-minded monotheist). Since he’d written a paper about possible adaptive benefits of meditation, I assumed he may be a Buddhist (admittedly another axe to grind, but usually less sectarian).

    My anti-Christian period was, ironically, also deeply coloured by a fascination with apocalyptic ideas (kind of post-Chardin with edges of technological singularity) – ideas I now see as transparently a Christian inheritance. For a while now I’ve been deeply critical of ‘progress’ and ideas of cumulative improvement – especially in evolution. Mary Midgley has it right, I think. Anyway, I also don’t recall any of my anti-‘progress’ hackles being raised by Supernatural Selection.

    So, on the general level – did Rossano really manage to disguise his Christian teleology completely from an anti-Christian who thinks the bush a better metaphor for evolution than the tree?! I either need to ramp my critical radar right up, or Rossano’s hidden his biases so well that they’re not actually affecting his writing that much.

    Are there some sources you could point me to critiquing the specifics of Rossano’s argument, aside from the axes he has to grind? Either way, I’ll have to re-read with this in mind.

  5. Gyrus

    I should clarify, when I say “aside from the axes he has to grind”, I mean – I see that Rossano’s beliefs might class him as a scientific stopped clock, but is he telling something like the right time nevertheless? If not, what time is it?

  6. Antonio Chávez S.S.

    Interestingly, Bering is atheist. My blog is entirely in Spanish, but in summary, there is consistent neuroscientific data pointing to the existence of a “module” (or just a neuro hard-wiring, including linked genes) linking the perception of face\watching with emotions and behavior inhibition.

    On the other hand, criticism to Rossano it’s like criticism to Justin Barrett. The alleged “hyperagency device” can also be understood as part of an “evolutionary-theist” agenda, however, I don’t see that this hypothesis is sustented on misinterpreted or selected data. At best, you can criticize Barrett that the term “hyperagency” has not a clear target reference point (i.e. is there “non-hyper” agency, in normal brains, despite autism?), but recent empirical evidence from fMRI shows that actually there is a Theory of Mind hyperactivity in the brains of believers in relation to the brain of the skeptics, and this is an already psychologically known issue.

  7. Connor Wood

    Cris, I normally wouldn’t get involved here, but accusing Rossano of a religious bias without explicit textual or biographical evidence is pretty bad form. If you can cite a place where he says he’s a Christian, then you’re warranted in making your strong claim. But otherwise, you’re making a pretty serious, highly specific accusation – that his entire project is terminally biased toward a particular religious tradition, apparently Catholicism – without any strict evidence. As if stands, you admit that you’re reading between the lines, which means that you may very well be publicly saying things about the personal life of another scholar that are not actually true.

    Note that it does also seem to me that Rossano is more sympathetic to religious claims than many other scholars in the CSR world, but this by no means gives me the warrant to assume I know his particular religious tradition or whether he has specific commitments – particularly given that, as Gyrus points out, his open stance extends to non-Christian traditions. Let the work stand on its own without bringing the author’s personal life into a public venue.

  8. Cris Post author

    Connor, did you follow the link I provided for Rossano? It takes you to a post containing a link (“public confession”) to a Huffington Post article, written by Rossano, which should answer your questions and perhaps alleviate your concerns. Long before reading that article, I had my suspicions based on a “reading between the lines” of Rossano’s work, but that article (and similar ones which can be found elsewhere on the web, though usually tucked away in non-academic forums) clinched it for me.

  9. Cris Post author

    Gyrus, sorry about the delay as I’m swamped right now with other work, so this response will have to stay short. I can’t point you to any critiques on the specifics of Rossano’s argument because when I last checked, there aren’t any academic reviews of his book. This is a curious fact, and it may be telling us something about the nature of his work and how it is perceived within the larger academic community.

    As for the particulars of Rossano’s work, it would take an entire book just to rebut, correct, dispute, or temper his storytelling. There is a sense in which his work reminds me of Julian Jaynes: he has this book, it contains a great deal of disparate information, it is erudite, the sources look good, and the narrative is compelling. Like Jaynes, Rossano has spent a great deal of time in the sources and is able to piece them together in narratively compelling ways. It takes a great deal of time and effort to dispute or correct such work, but if such work is not taken seriously (or is not engaged with) by the larger community, then why bother? Most scholars have their own positive projects which take most of their time, so disputing the many particulars of someone else’s work must be a careful, time-managed decision.

    Now having said all that, I’ll just point out one aspect of Rossano’s narrative — which is key to his whole story — that is almost surely wrong and which is seriously disputed. As he spins the story of human evolution, the Toba eruption ~75,000 years ago nearly wiped out all hominins except for small surviving group in Africa who had the progressive and competitive advantage of proto-religion. This small group then went on the colonize or people the world, due mostly to the fact that they had proto-religion which explains their success.

    This genetic bottleneck theory is an old story, one that came initially from genetics. Those genetic studies were almost immediately disputed and few geneticists tell this story today. In fact, later genetic studies indicate something much different, more complicated, bushy, and deeper in time. There was some archaeological evidence to support this genetic “Out of Africa” story, but that evidence is much disputed and has, over the past 10 years, been swamped by much larger contexts, deeper time records, and bigger geographic spreads. The “direct line” and simplified narrative Rossano tells about all this, with his selective uses of various lines of evidence, makes it seem like all this is known or that it is not disputed. In fact, I can’t think of a single paleoanthropologist who tells a similar story or who would agree with linear, progressive narrative created by Rossano.

    And in telling this story, Rossano flatly ignores alternative explanations for the data he has selected. Even if we assumed, for the sake of argument, that his story was more or less correct, wouldn’t it be more parsimonious to explain the success of this founding group with the acquisition of a faculty like language? Language can explain all the successes and advantages that Rossano attributes to proto-religion. So why does he ignore other explanations? I realize that EP stories often suffer from this methodological myopia, but in Rossano’s case something else may be at work.

    Here’s the blurb for Rossano’s book, which fairly encapsulates his argument: Then, about 70,000 years ago, a global ecological crisis drove humanity to the edge of extinction. It forced the survivors to create new strategies for survival, and religious rituals were foremost among them. Fundamentally, Rossano writes, religion is a way for humans to relate to each other and the world around them–and, in the grim struggles of prehistory, it offered significant survival and reproductive advantages. It emerged as our ancestors’ first health care system, and a critical part of that health care system was social support. Religious groups tended to be far more cohesive, which gave them a competitive advantage over non-religious groups, and enabled them to conquer the globe.

    This is a progressive story if there ever was one, and the many particulars of Rossano’s book line up in accordance with his idea that “religion” (beginning with “proto-primitive” forms and proceeding to “modern” forms) is the key factor in human evolutionary success. It’s all too tidy, linear, and suspect.

    The bottom line here is that I don’t have any problem with people telling whatever stories they want, but underlying assumptions and/or agendas should be disclosed. On this issue, let’s consider Robert Bellah, surely one of the great sociologists of the last century. For all the brilliance of his work, and its value in some limited respects, everyone in the “know” (i.e., Bellah’s friends and the academic community) understood that his work was driven and informed by his Christianity. Those who understood this read and understood his work differently from those who did not. I addressed the whole Bellah issue in this post, and I think that similar kinds of considerations apply to Rossano and his (crypto-Christian?) work.

  10. Gyrus

    Cris, thanks for the response. I totally agree that authors – especially those dealing with science – should be upfront about their personal biases. Not that this applies to Rossano, but I often wonder if science’s general tactic of dealing with personal biases by trying to eradicate them isn’t subtly distorting. Methodological ways of minimising bias are of course essential, but I think the history of science shows clearly that there is always an element of narrative on top of that. When scientists naively believe their meticulous methodology alone shields them from bias-driven narrative, I think this is often a false sense of security.

    Anyway, that’s a wider issue, and subtler than Rossano’s non-disclosure of his beliefs. I’m definitely glad to find out his (as you note, generally well-researched) work is duplicitous in this sense.

    That said – and this is another wider issue with the idea of “progress” – I’m still interested in the extent to which he may be a stopped clock close to the right time. I’m deeply suspicious of progressive narratives, but I have no problem with the idea that communal shamanistic “health care” helps groups survive. Is the issue with this that it’s (1) not falsifiable, (2) rallied as part of a “progress” narrative in aid of modern religion, or (3) just wrong? I suspect your issue with Rossano is partly (1) and partly (2) – and (1) kind of precludes (3).

    For me the prime issue with the progress narrative is the way it supports the denigration and wiping out of non-modern cultures. That’s more to do with attitude than chronology. Christianity arose after animism, and modern science arose after Christianity, but there’s no inherent value advantage to the later over the earlier. The attitude of superiority (Christianity over animism, science over religion) is entangled with the chronological facts, but that tangle can and should be picked apart. I guess secondarily there are more technical evolutionary arguments that get problematic around “progress” – which also probably work in tandem with the attitude entangled with chronology.

    But none of this seems to inherently argue against the basic idea of communal shamanism being useful for group cohesion and survival. I’m just trying to situate this idea in apart from as well as in relation to the intimately related but ultimately separate issue of progress narratives.

    Even if you weren’t swamped with work, I’m guessing answering this wouldn’t be doable in a blog comment 😉 I know you’re constantly dealing with precisely these issues, and look forward to more posts and discussion.

    Regarding other factors, e.g. language as a factor as opposed to “proto-religion”, such either/or thinking seems to be useful for honing arguments in conversation, but I suspect the realities involve combinations of many factors. The interactions between many factors obviously become too complex to model easily – perhaps the main reason, besides the need for academics to propagate their own disciplines, that either/or approaches tend to dominate?

  11. Chris Kavanagh

    “Connor, did you follow the link I provided for Rossano? It takes you to a post containing a link (“public confession”) to a Huffington Post article, written by Rossano, which should answer your questions and perhaps alleviate your concerns. Long before reading that article, I had my suspicions based on a “reading between the lines” of Rossano’s work, but that article (and similar ones which can be found elsewhere on the web, though usually tucked away in non-academic forums) clinched it for me.”

    Cris, I did read that article, and just reread it and I really don’t think it comes off as the ‘confession’ you portray. Throughout Rossano is clear that the evidence marshalled is really only impressive to a believer and would not sway a skeptic. His final point about considering whether the devotion that the supposed resurrection has prompted is enough to count as exceptional evidence, is left unanswered, and for my part the answer is an obvious no. Rossano may believe otherwise but in the article you link to he does not state that but merely advocates for less acrimonious interactions between believers and skeptics.

    I’m not saying your hunch about Rossano isn’t correct, but it does sound like you are jumping the gun by declaring his academic work to be the result of your reading of his theological beliefs. Would it be worth just asking him?

  12. Cris Post author

    Thanks for the comment Chris; it seems that article strikes each of us differently. My impression of it is perhaps different because I had read most of his stuff before reading that article, and (the anthropological merits of his stories aside) I had pegged him as an evolutionary theist: the kind who insists that “religion” is the key adaptation which drove human evolutionary success. The particulars of his work, including his methods (or lack thereof), are always marshaled in favor this progressive, linear, cultural evolutionary story.

    When I read him writing a story, on Easter, asking whether Jesus’ resurrection violates “natural laws,” and then carefully qualifying his analysis and coyly hinting at an equivocal or “supernatural” answer, that’s enough for me. So it was an entire suite of things — his work, methods, conclusion, and this article. I suppose I could ask him but I don’t know him and if, as I and other people suspect, he’s pushing an evolutionary theist EP story, then he should state his position, like many other evolutionary theists (including Justin Barrett, Michael Blume, and Simon Conway Morris) do. At this point, his corpus is such that I feel comfortable stating my position, and if he wants to dispute it or state his, that would be great.

    All this aside, I disagree with Connor’s assertion that a scholar’s work in this area should be judged only on its apparent merits. When we are dealing with religious studies of any kind, but especially evolutionary ones which are ostensibly situated within science, it’s important to know larger contexts and biographical information is relevant. I have pointed out how it was relevant in Bellah’s case, and Robin Horton makes the compelling case that most scholarly work on religion (and especially anthropological-sociological work) should be evaluated in light of either disclosed or non-disclosed biographical information.

    This explains why Horton examines the biography (and either rationalist-atheist or religious commitments) of scholars such as Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim, Evans-Pritchard, Victor Turner, etc. I think Horton is right: a great deal of scholarship in evolutionary religious studies is motivated by either atheist or theist commitments, and much of this scholarship needs to be evaluated in light of those commitments.

  13. Cris Post author

    Gyrus, I’m not sure what else to say about this, other than that my objections are probably a combination of all three factors you listed, though I would express them differently and emphasize different aspects of the three depending on the particular argument under consideration. From a global perspective, the issue for me is using a suspect methodology (i.e., EP coupled with confirmation bias) to tell a definitive story in the service of (what I think) is an evolutionary theist agenda.

    As for communal shamanism, I’m not sure it really adds anything to the concept of groups or cohesion. All these foraging groups are linked by actual and fictive kinship, the latter being enabled by symbolic capacities or language. Nothing more is really needed for intense group cohesion or solidarity.

    As you well know, traditional or classical shamanism is usually embedded in the larger context of animist worldviews. I’m not sure we gain anything by analyzing this individually oriented (i.e., the person of the “shaman”) area of study in terms of group level selection. I think a better approach (or at least a more orthodox one in terms of evolutionary theory in which individuals rather than groups are targeted by selection) can be found in James McClenon’s Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution and the Origin of Religion. Have you read this book?

  14. Chris Kavanagh

    Thanks for the detailed explanation Cris. I’m not familiar with his general body of work and as such I may well be missing how this article looks within that broader context. To be clear though, I wasn’t advocating that you need to confront Rossano, just that if he has such personal theological commitments I would hope that he would readily divulge them if asked, even if just to say he doesn’t believe they influence his research. By stating your position publicly and being clear about your interpretation, I think you’ve already done more than most are willing do when they feel there is a inherent personal bias in a scholar’s research.

    I also agree with you that a scholar’s research, especially one in which fundamental aspects of human history, society and behaviour are examined, is rarely entirely unaffected by their personal beliefs. Anyway, thanks for the clarification.

  15. Gyrus

    Cris, I’ve not read McClenon, but thanks for the tip. Another one for the list!

    I guess I’m less interested in the arguments around evolutionary specifics (i.e. being precise about causal factors), and more interested (at the moment) in precisely the narrative level. I want to foreground our narratives, and admit that they both influence and are influenced by scientific data and theory.

    So if Rossano is a theist with a belief in linear progress, he should indeed state this and say, “This is the story I’ve found at the intersection between my beliefs and the hard evidence we have.” Then the story and the evidence can be freer to speak for themselves.

    On the other hand, atheist positions (indeed, all positions) should also be counted as narrative drivers. Someone who has very limited experience of ecstatic states of consciousness is as biased in their way when assessing evidence about such things as someone who has intense experience of these states.

  16. BCE

    Skeletal eye orbits, eye ball, vision. ….gee that lemon pie *looks good!……. EP….explains mechanism/vehicle …….not minutia…..

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