As a followup to my recent MindBlog post on E.O. Wilson's new book, I am passing on this interesting abstract of such a forthcoming article by Norenzayan et al. (Motivated readers can email me if they wish to obtain a PDF of this article.)
We develop a cultural evolutionary theory of the origins of prosocial religions, and apply it to resolve two puzzles in human psychology and cultural history: 1) the rise of large-scale cooperation among strangers in the last twelve millennia, and 2) the spread of prosocial religions during the same period. We argue that these two developments were importantly linked. We explain how a package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted internal harmony, large-scale cooperation, and high fertility, often leading to success in intergroup competition. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, or were copied by less successful groups. This synthesis is grounded in the idea that although religious beliefs and practices originally arose as non-adaptive byproducts of innate cognitive functions, particular cultural variants were then selected for their prosocial effects in a long-term cultural evolutionary process. This framework (1) reconciles key aspects of the adaptationist and byproduct approaches to the origins of religion, (2) explains a variety of empirical observations that have not received adequate attention, and (3) generates novel predictions. Converging lines of evidence drawn from diverse disciplines provide empirical support while at the same time encouraging new research directions and opening up new questions for exploration and debate.
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