Societies living in harsh environments more likely to believe in moralizing gods, study finds

November 10, 2014
The belief in moral, high gods may be advantageous because it fosters cooperative behavior, especially in harsh environments. Credit: Michael Höefner, Wikimedia Commons

Just as physical adaptations help populations prosper in inhospitable habitats, belief in moralizing, high gods might be similarly advantageous for human cultures in poorer environments. A new study from the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) suggests that societies with less access to food and water are more likely to believe in these types of deities.

"When life is tough or when it's uncertain, people believe in big gods," says Russell Gray, a professor at the University of Auckland and a founding director of the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena, Germany. "Prosocial behavior maybe helps people do well in harsh or unpredictable environments."

Gray and his coauthors found a strong correlation between belief in high gods who enforce a moral code and other societal characteristics. Political complexity—namely a social hierarchy beyond the local community— and the practice of animal husbandry were both strongly associated with a belief in moralizing gods.

The emergence of religion has long been explained as a result of either culture or environmental factors but not both. The new findings imply that complex practices and characteristics thought to be exclusive to humans arise from a medley of ecological, historical, and cultural variables.

"When researchers discuss the forces that shaped human history, there is considerable disagreement as to whether our behavior is primarily determined by culture or by the environment," says primary author Carlos Botero, a researcher at the Initiative for Biological Complexity at North Carolina State University. "We wanted to throw away all preconceived notions regarding these processes and look at all the potential drivers together to see how different aspects of the human experience may have contributed to the behavioral patterns we see today."

This figure illustrates the distribution of societies that believe in moralizing, high gods (blue) and those that do not (red). Light gray shading indicates lower potential for plant growth with the darker areas signifying high potential. Credit: Carlos Botero

The paper, which is now available online, will be published in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science. To study variables associated with the environment, history, and culture, the research team included experts in biology, ecology, linguistics, anthropology, and even religious studies. The senior author, Gray, studies the intersection of psychology and linguistics, while Botero, an evolutionary ecologist, has examined coordinated behaviors in birds.

This study began with a NESCent working group that explored the evolution of human cultures. On a whim, Botero plotted ethnographic data of societies that believe in moralizing, high gods and found that their global distribution is quite similar to a map of cooperative breeding in birds. The parallels between the two suggested that must play a part. Furthermore, recent research has supported a connection between a belief in moralizing gods and group cooperation. However, prior to this study, evidence supporting a relationship between such beliefs and the environment was elusive.

"A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head. I think the challenge is to explain it," Gray says.

"Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal prevalence of religion suggests that there's got to be some adaptive value and by looking at how these things vary ecologically, we get some insight."

Botero, Gray, and their coauthors used historical, social, and ecological data for 583 societies to illustrate the multifaceted relationship between belief in moralizing, high gods and external variables. Whereas previous research relied on rough estimates of ecological conditions, this study used high-resolution global datasets for variables like plant growth, precipitation, and temperature. The team also mined the Ethnographic Atlas— an electronic database of more than a thousand societies from the 20th century— for geographic coordinates and sociological data including the presence of religious beliefs, agriculture, and .

"The goal became not just to look at the ecological variables, but to look at the whole thing. Once we accounted for as many other factors as we could, we wanted to see if we could still detect an environmental effect," Botero says. "The overall picture is that these beliefs are ultimately shaped by a combination of historical, ecological, and social factors."

Botero believes that this study is just the tip of the iceberg in examining human behavior from a cross-disciplinary standpoint. The team plans to further this study by exploring the processes that have influenced the evolution of other including taboos, circumcision, and the modification of natural habitats.

"We are at an unprecedented time in history," Botero says. "Now we're able to harness both data and a combination of multidisciplinary expertise to explore these kinds of questions in an empirical way."

Explore further: Religion makes people helpful and generous -- under certain conditions: UBC researchers

More information: The ecology of religious beliefs, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1408701111

Related Stories

Caveman instincts may explain our belief in gods and ghosts

May 21, 2014

Notions of gods arise in all human societies, from all powerful and all-knowing deities to simple forest spirits. A recent method of examining religious thought and behaviour links their ubiquity and the similarity of our ...

Could biology explain the evolution of religion?

May 28, 2014

For a biologist like me, the interesting questions about religion have always been where did it come from and why did it evolve? I taught evolutionary biology in a Catholic University in the most Catholic country in the world ...

Recommended for you

Ancient Egyptians used metal in wooden ships

August 31, 2016

A piece of wood recovered at a dig near the Great Pyramid of Giza shows for the first time that ancient Egyptians used metal in their boats, archaeologists said Wednesday.

Reconstructing the sixth century plague from a victim

August 30, 2016

Before the infamous Black Death, the first great plague epidemic was the Justinian plague, which, over the course of two centuries, wiped out up to an estimated 50 million (15 percent) of the world's population throughout ...

New species of pterosaur discovered in Patagonia

August 30, 2016

Scientists today announced the discovery of a new species of pterosaur from the Patagonia region of South America. The cranial remains were in an excellent state of preservation and belonged to a new species of pterosaur ...

21 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

vaire
4 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2014
"A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head. I think the challenge is to explain it,"

The moment the word "evolutionist" is used as a scientific term, is the moment when all credibility of this particular "scientist" goes out the window.

kochevnik
2 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2014
The oldest religion was sacred sex. Rulers of Earth still practice sacred sex. The Washington Monument obelisk is strategically placed so that Congress and the White House can face it daily. It represents the giant penis rays of the sun penetrating the Earth vagina, symbolized as the circle around the obelisk. All presidents from Bush Sr. are inaugurated in the West Wing facing the obelisk. The penis rays of Horus or Amen Ra creates life in the Earth, which gives birth to humans. The Washington Monument obelisk is 666 feet tall, which is the sacred number of life and the building block of carbon 6 neutrons, 6 protons, 6 electrons

The Abrahamic religions are state religions created by practitioners of sacred sex to control the masses. They employ mythical representations of Horus and Amen Ra in their literature. Being a true devotee of these state religions is de-facto admission of one's powerlessness and inferior blood lineage
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (8) Nov 11, 2014
Religious morality promoted the survival of society.
Prior to praying 5 times a day, Muslims must wash. And this started in a desert.
Kosher laws promote health.
Prohibiting adultery promotes more stable and healthy societies. STDs, even today have not been cured and had great impact upon past societies. (Read "Big Sky Country").
Why do so many people reject wisdom out of hand?
Even though we have a written language to pass along collective wisdom, too many refuse to follow that advice and must learn the hard way, if they survive.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
The fundamental component of Judaism and Christianity is faith. Throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, God kept asking people to have faith in Him.
God would demonstrate His power, people believed and then the following generations, with not direct, scientific proof of God's power, became skeptical and didn't believe, or have faith, in the previous generation's admonishments.
It happens over and over and over.....even today.
What I find fascinating is why people thousandths of years ago attempted to teach people to have faith.
Of the anti-religious will attack me and completely ignore why faith is important.
There was no religion on the movie "Interstellar", but without faith and love between Murphy and Cooper, the humans on earth would have never been able to escape.
arpotu
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 11, 2014
Religion is a survival tactic of the genome.
zz5555
5 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
"Religious morality promoted the survival of society."

Keep in mind that morality seems to come from societies, and not religion. Religious morality (at least as coming from christianity) would have to be unchanging considering god is viewed as omniscient and omnipotent. Actual morality varies with societies and even religious morality changes over time. So you seem to have that backward: The survival of societies defines what constitutes religious morality.
zz5555
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
"A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head. I think the challenge is to explain it,"

The moment the word "evolutionist" is used as a scientific term, is the moment when all credibility of this particular "scientist" goes out the window.


Well, he seems to accept evolution and refers to himself as an evolutionist, so I don't think he meant it as an insult in the way that creationists do (http://www.mpg.de...ealigned ).
MandoZink
4.6 / 5 (9) Nov 11, 2014
The great Physicist and Nobel recipient Paul Dirac commented during his lifetime on this very topic:

"The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions."

He then followed up with an observation regarding the unnecessary and detrimental continuance of these ancient fabrications in our more advanced and knowledgeable culture:

"I can't for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented."
Vietvet
4.1 / 5 (9) Nov 11, 2014
@MandoZink
My nominee for the best post of the week.
ryggesogn2
2.3 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
Dirac only addresses the physical world.
As a physicist, he can have nothing to say about the rest of human existence.

"

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

Max Planck"

ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented."


These are unproductive questions?
Regardless of any faith in God, Dirac thought questions about injustice and exploitation are not productive?
Dirac must understand the limits of physics.
zz5555
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
"These are unproductive questions?
Regardless of any faith in God, Dirac thought questions about injustice and exploitation are not productive?"

You need to work on your reading comprehension. It's not that he thought that questions about injustice and exploitation weren't productive, he thought that bringing god into such discussions wasn't productive. His comment was that bringing god into such questions didn't contribute to the discussion in any way, which is correct, and just wastes effort that would be better spent on solutions.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
Dirac was pointing out the unreasonableness and futility of thinking you might solve modern civilization's issues by attempting to interpret the unfounded beliefs of a particular primitive culture's highly ambiguous mythology.

As Carlo Rovelli, a physicist from Aix-Marseille University and the Intitut Universitaire de France, appropriately commented in a recent interview:

-- "The problem with Islam and Christianity is that many centuries ago somebody had the idea of writing down beliefs. So now some religious people are stuck with the culture and knowledge of centuries ago. They are fish trapped in a pond of old water." --
Captain Stumpy
4 / 5 (4) Nov 12, 2014
The moment the word "evolutionist" is used as a scientific term, is the moment when all credibility of this particular "scientist" goes out the window.
@vaire
I will have to agree with this
Evolution is not a religion, it is a science, and it should have been either "scientists" or "people who believe in science" ... Not "evolutionist"
there is no faith there, only what has been repeatedly proven by science

I don't think he meant it as an insult in the way that creationists do
@zz5555
i don't think he meant it as a negative, but, IMHO, it makes the assumption by the label that it is based upon a faith, not on science

this is why the religious nuts use it

i know that the suffix "ist" is defined as involved in a particularly field or having a certain interest or belief, but the practical use of "ist" with regard to evolution is, IMHO, derogatory and does not emphasize the science

it just doesn't sit right with me
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 15, 2014
societies with less access to food and water
Religions CAUSE these conditions by forcing pops to grow past the carrying capacity of the regions where they exist. They are all designed to outgrow and overrun their counterparts. The ones that survive are the ones which are best at this.

A vast swath of land from the Sahel to the gobi has been deforested, saltified, desertified. This ruin was caused by only a few thousand years of religious domination. Causing want and misery is only one of the many ways religion perpetuates its rule.
katesisco
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 15, 2014
"Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal prevalence of religion suggests that there's got to be some adaptive value and by looking at how these things vary ecologically, we get some insight."

If it is nearly universal, then would that not imply that there has been nearly universal catastrophe, and does not our history before historical time reveal that ever more clearly?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (7) Nov 15, 2014
"Although some aspects of religion appear maladaptive, the near universal prevalence of religion suggests that there's got to be some adaptive value and by looking at how these things vary ecologically, we get some insight."

If it is nearly universal, then would that not imply that there has been nearly universal catastrophe, and does not our history before historical time reveal that ever more clearly?
Yah. Religion is the catastrophe. There is nothing about religion that doesn't make the human condition WORSE.
ryggesogn2
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 15, 2014
There is nothing about religion that doesn't make the human condition WORSE.

Christians saved Western Civilization.
But Auto is blinded by hate to acknowledge history.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 15, 2014
There is nothing about religion that doesn't make the human condition WORSE.

Christians saved Western Civilization.
But Auto is blinded by hate to acknowledge history.
No, they plunged europe into a dark age. The enlightenment rescued it from 500 years of stagnation, feudalism, and martial law.

Ryggy is too blinded by faith and the epiphany to see reality. You should hate what they've done to you.
ryggesogn2
2.6 / 5 (5) Nov 15, 2014
Yes, blinded by hate.
If not for Christian monks, there would have been no Enlightenment.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.5 / 5 (8) Nov 15, 2014
Yes, blinded by hate.
If not for Christian monks, there would have been no Enlightenment.
If not for xian monks and the syndicate they worked for, that information would not have been kept hidden for perhaps 1000 years. And the church was forced to give it up by the medicis and others who sought an end to oppression during the Renaissance.

You should like them - they were capitalists.

This marked the beginning of the rejection of church influence. The less influence, the more progress.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.