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Evolutionary Psychology and Proximate Cognitive Explanations of Religious Concepts

Pascal Boyer

What is the origin of religious concepts? How come we can find concepts of supernatural agency more or less the world over, with important recurrent features? This presentation is a ‘progress report’, an account of how these previously intractable questions are now a matter of empirical, indeed experimental inquiry. What brought about this remarkable change is substantial progress in our understanding of how human minds work. This allows a naturalistic account of cultural representations that describes how evolved conceptual dispositions make humans likely to acquire certain concepts more easily than others. The aggregated result of these individual acquisition processes channels cultures along particular paths, with the result that some concepts are both relatively stable within a group and recurrent among different groups.

Cultural transmission, like other forms of human communication, does not consist in a ‘downloading’ of concepts from one mind to another. It requires inferential processes, whereby people attend to cues in other people’s behavior, infer their communicative intentions, build concepts on this basis of what they inferred (Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993; Sperber,1996). As a result, cultural transmission is a process whereby people constantly create variants of other people’s representations. Concepts that are stable in one group and recurrent between groups are concepts that were selected in the transmission process, against a whole variety of variants that were forgotten, discarded and modified.

Obviously, many different factors contribute to stability and recurrence, even if we factor out local conditions. Here I describe two selection factors that result from the way human minds acquire and store information. Both reduce the space of possible cultural concepts to a narrow range of ‘culturally fit’ ones.

A first selection stems from the fact that human minds are equipped with a particular ontology, a set of intuitive expectations about the kinds of things to be found in the world. Among the indefinitely many concepts individuals can imagine and combine, some connect with this ontology in a particular way I describe below. As a result, they stand better chances than other concepts of being successfully transmitted. The outcome of this conceptual selection is a short ‘catalogue’ of supernatural notions, among which religious concepts but also culturally viable folklore, superstition, fiction and fantasy.

A second selection pressure stems from the fact that humans are greatly dependent upon cooperation and information about potential cooperators. This creates specific ‘strategic’ problems. Various cognitive and emotional adaptations help solve these problems. These specialized mechanisms make a small sub-set of our ‘catalogue of the supernatural’ more likely to be associated with representations of group-identity, ritual, morality and social interaction.

These selection pressures are very general. In selective models of culture, one assumes that the aggregation of many individual acquisition processes ‘washes out’ all sorts of local biases. In any group at any time, we will find particular causes that boost the diffusion of one particular version of religious concepts against others. But in the long run, and in the comparison of many different human groups, these local biases cancel each other out. What we find as recurrent features, over time and between groups, are concepts that, all else being equal, tend to resist distortion better than others. Explaining why this is so is what I mean by describing the ‘functional origins’ of religious concepts.

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tomasello, M., Kruger, A. C., & Ratner, H. H. (1993). Cultural Learning.Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16, 495-510.
 

 
 
Pascal Boyer is senior researcher at the Institut des Sciences de l'Homme of the Centre National  de la Recherche Scientifique, Lyon, France. His recent publications (with links to abstracts) include:

 
Personal web pages: http://www.ddl.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr/membres/%7EBoyer/homepage.html
 
 
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Friday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind 
Saturday Program