Friday, January 21, 2011

Religiosity and the origins of civilization

Scenes of daily life from Sumer. The causes of civilization are not to be found in early art, writing, or architecture. These are merely the consequences of a preceding mental revolution.

Humans have gone through three stages of development: hunting/gathering, simple agricultural societies, and complex agricultural societies. The last stage brought us most of what we call “civilization”— state formation, class differentiation, urbanization, writing systems, literate culture, and so on.

What caused this transition from simple to complex agricultural societies? Was it simply the passage of time? Doubtful. Some societies have made this transition sooner than others. Others have never made it.

According to Atkinson and Whitehouse (2011), this debate has shifted away from technological causes and toward social and symbolic ones:

The main drivers of the great transition from small-scale hunter-gatherer societies in the pre-pottery Neolithic to the vast and complex civilizations of East Asia, MesoAmerica and the Fertile Crescent are still much debated […] Doubts have been growing with respect to the explanatory power of technological innovation, and attention has been focused increasingly on changes in social and symbolic worlds.

For the two authors, the change in the mode of subsistence (from hunting/gathering to agriculture) paved the way for a change in the mode of religiosity. It was this second transition that actually made the complexification of society possible. Humans became accustomed to a more systematized and accumulative form of thinking, and it was this new mental space that eventually became translated into a new physical space of buildings, roads, towns, and so forth.

Atkinson and Whitehouse argue that human societies seem to cluster into two modes of religiosity:

1. An “imagistic” mode associated with hunter-gatherers. Religiosity is focused on non-routine events that evoke an intense state of mental arousal (initiation, ordeals, bodily mutilation, etc).

2. A “doctrinal” mode associated with agricultural societies. Religiosity is more routine and is focused on frequently repeated teachings and rituals that generally evoke a less intense state of mental arousal.

Among hunter-gatherers, religiosity is meant to be traumatic. The aim is to create a vivid experience with long-lasting effects, such as an emotional bond that will keep men loyal to each other for hunting or war.

In agricultural societies, religiosity supports tasks that occur more often and more regularly:

Whereas the exploitation of wild resources requires only sporadic group co-operation (e.g., in hunting larger game), the domestication of animals and plants fosters increasingly routinized forms of collaborative labour (e.g., clearing, planting, harvesting and building). In traditional societies, such activities are typically punctuated by rituals.

There is thus selection for a new kind of mental space:

Put simply, the proposed doctrinal mode is seen as favouring high-frequency, low-arousal rituals, allowing large bodies of religious teachings to be stored in semantic memory, reproduced stably and spread efficiently as oral tradition.

[…] The doctrinal mode is based around frequently repeated teachings and rituals. High-frequency ritual performances allow complex networks of ideas to be transmitted and stored in semantic memory and give rise to generic identity markers ascribed to large-scale ‘imagined communities.’

It was this new mental space that made complex societies possible. Thus, the causes of civilization are not to be found in early art, writing, or architecture. These are merely the consequences of a preceding mental revolution. Atkinson and Whitehouse argue that the doctrinal mode of religiosity created a positive feedback loop of increasing cultural complexity:

If the emergence of agriculture drives an overall increase in the frequency of communal rituals, it also indirectly opens up opportunities for other features of the doctrinal mode to appear.

Other features might include organized priesthoods, ways to codify, transmit, and organize religious traditions (such as writing), and methods to enforce group cooperation and resource control.

Atkinson and Whitehouse do not ask why this mental revolution occurred in some agricultural societies and not in others. Tropical horticulturalists, for example, seem to have permanently stalled at the stage of simple societies. One reason may be that year-round agriculture enables women to provide for themselves and their offspring with limited male assistance. When agriculture is largely a female task, it is less likely to generate communal forms of religiosity that structure everyone’s mental space.

In addition, female reproductive autonomy reduces the costs of polygyny and thus increases male-male rivalry for mates. Such rivalry makes it harder to bring the men of a community together into stable communal structures. Yet such structures must be in place before rituals can become fully communalized on a regular basis, this being the first step toward complexification of mental space and, hence, society itself.

Reference

Atkinson, Q.D. & H. Whitehouse. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form : Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally, Evolution & Human Behavior, 32, 50-62.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dude, you are skating on thin ice there.

The raging feminists will come waving their scissors around your reproductive organs!

George said...

Your last paragraph sounded like inner city / lower class lifestyles (proles) who can't escape their own pile of crap lives.

Have their been any studies comparing the lives of the West's lower classes and the ancient tribal order? They sound a lot alike.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

Kiwiguy said...

***
Have their been any studies comparing the lives of the West's lower classes and the ancient tribal order? They sound a lot alike.***

The cad/dad comparison may apply here:

"Harsh Initiation Rites

Males in cad societies often come up with bizarre and harsh initiation rites for young boys, usually boys at the beginning of adolescence. The boys are mistreated and terrified in various ways, for example circumcision of males often accompanies the rites. They may also be subject to beatings, prolonged separation from others, and other kinds of abuse. Anthropologists have remarked on the apparent psychological effect of participation as males enter as fearful and even effeminate boys and emerge as strutting males. Interestingly urban gangs in North America also have nasty initiation rites, often including being beaten."

The 10,000 Year Explosion:Human cultural diversitye

Anonymous said...

Couldn't it simply be that the transition to agriculture occurred because it would allow for larger population sustainability, or other such causes? I realize that religion definitely changed along with agriculture, but how do we speculate that ritual is what allowed for the tradition to largely be spurred? After all, there are monkeys that farm.

Peter Frost said...

Anon, George,

To date, no feminist has ever raged at me. The raging tends to come from older men.

To the extent that we encourage female reproductive autonomy, we also encourage polygyny -- and all of the social evils that go with it. Women end up being tied down by family raising, while men expend much of their energy trying to get laid. Is that a feminist utopia?

Kiwiguy,

Thanks!

Anon,

This post is about the transition from simple agricultural societies to complex ones. The transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture is another story.

Walenty Lisek said...

"To the extent that we encourage female reproductive autonomy, we also encourage polygyny -- and all of the social evils that go with it. Women end up being tied down by family raising, while men expend much of their energy trying to get laid. Is that a feminist utopia?"

Actually yes, it sounds like such a place. With the spread of cad culture in the West women get to enjoy the fruits of riding the alpha male carousel and thus satisfy their hypergamy while husband government picks up the checks for their babies.

Women and feminists don't care about keeping society civil or in one piece as long as they get their babies from the alpha males.

You do read Roissy in DC, right? ;-P

Sister Y said...

This is fascinating.

I can't find the source at the moment, but I have previously heard it posited that doctrinal religion of the type you associate with complex agricultural societies is a technology that allows trade with non-relatives.

The frequent, low-arousal rituals you describe as characteristic do seem to be suited to creating a more diffuse loyalty that would be more useful in a civilization not organized around small related bands.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you said, or quotes:

In addition, female reproductive autonomy reduces the costs of polygyny and thus increases male-male rivalry for mates. Such rivalry makes it harder to bring the men of a community together into stable communal structures. Yet such structures must be in place before rituals can become fully communalized on a regular basis, this being the first step toward complexification of mental space and, hence, society itself.


That paragraph, especially, the bolded piece, seems to suggest that complex modern societies are wholly dependent on co-operation between males.

I am sure that feminists can interpret it the same way I can. Not that I disagree, BTW.

Peter Frost said...

Walenty,

I don't ready Roissy's blog, but I'm familiar with his argument, i.e., female hypergamy + male polygny = wife shortage for beta males.

I don't fully agree with his analysis. Even if we completely eliminated polygyny, there would still be a wife shortage for two reasons:

1. By reducing male mortality, we have managed to extend the sex ratio at birth (107 boys per 100 girls) to the 50+ age bracket.

2. Liberalized divorce laws let more and more older men "raid the cradle."

The result, inevitably, is too few women for too many men. There are now more single men than single women in all reproductive age brackets. In some countries, like Great Britain, the tipping point doesn't come until the late 50s.

Sister Y,

Yes, this is part of a long process that leads to high-trust societies. A crucial, albeit later, step is the monopolization of the use of violence by the State.

Anon,

You're reading me wrong. Men have to be brought into stable communal structures that would necessarily include both sexes.

Anonymous said...

To: Anon. Jan 23.

"After all, there are monkeys that farm."

Bullshit.

Source?

Luke Lea said...

I don't know if you read comments on posts so old as this one, but I have a different theory for what caused the transition from simple hoe agriculature to comlex state societies: the institution of human conquest, a cultural innovation that was in many ways an extension of the idea of animal domestication and which may have been introduced by tribes specializing in animal husbandry. Certainly conquest was an innovation which corresponds with the rise of civilization everywhere around the world. It is also, strangely, a taboo subject in many ways: of course the nobility never had any trouble talking about the "right of conquest" but for the lower classes to talk about it was strictly verboten. Evidence for this is readily available: do a scholarly search on the origins and importance of the institution of conquest and you will find almost nothing.

I once wrote a letter to Jack Goody outlining my theory, using the Adam and Eve myth in its Mesopotamian context as historical evidence. You seem open to entertaining new and even seemingly bizarre ideas (the demon within). I thought you might find this interesting: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://vixra.org/pdf/1101.0027v2.pdf

P.S You may need to consult the derivation and original meaning of the word "allegory" in an etymological dictionary if you don't know it already. Do that first: http://www.westegg.com/etymology/

Contact me by email if you want to follow up. I have some funny stories to tell.