At Catalhoyuk, treatment of the deceased was a two stage process. In his somewhat speculative survey of burials at Catalhoyuk, Macqueen observes that the body was exposed for defleshing, and after the bones had been bleached, they were buried (with grave goods) in the floors of homes. Rather than avoid skeletons as do nearly all hunter-gatherers, the farmers and herders of Catalhoyuk desired their proximity, going so far as to live and sleep with them.
While this may seem macabre to some, it makes considerable sense given the altered dynamics of property and power in agricultural communities. As Ian Hodder explains in “Daily Practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk,” these spatial and temporal dynamics are dramatically different from those found in hunting and gathering societies:
The key themes of the Neolithic of the Near East, such as sedentism, aggolomeration, and domestication, as well as more specific themes such as the treatment of the dead and veneration of ancestors, all involve changes in temporality, memory, and relationships with the past.
It is often argued that early forms of power in the Neolithic of the Near East and Europe were linked to delayed return systems, links to ancestors, repetitive practices at monuments to the dead, and the construction of greater temporal depth to activities (as in the construction of lineages).
The Neolithic transition from foraging to agriculture brought with it many changes, including in mortuary practices and mourning rituals. While some have speculatively argued that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers engaged in a form of ancestor worship and that ancestors functioned as supernatural surveillance agents charged with norm enforcement, there is scant evidence of this. Ancestor cults, in other words, are latecomers in the history of supernatural belief and practice.
Archive for the ‘Agents’ Category
In 1993, the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie published his seminal book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. One of Guthrie’s primary points was that humans have an innate tendency to perceive intentional agents in the environment, even when there are no agents. A rustling of leaves, shadows in the forest, movement of clouds, noises over the hill, and many other natural — but non-agentive — occurrences could trigger this perception.
Guthrie hypothesized that these automatic and involuntary perceptions were adaptive in the ancestral evolutionary environment, given that the failure to perceive dangerous agents such as lions, hyenas, and hominids could often be fatal. It was advantageous to overattribute agency because the cost of a false positive (being spooked) was less than that of failing to perceive an actual positive (being killed)….
While there is little doubt that agency detection and attribution plays an important role in supernatural thinking, this brain-based and behaviorally-evident “device” or “module” is not by itself responsible for the nearly universal belief in spirits. In a paper he delivered at an “Origins of Religion” conference in 2006, Anders Lisdorf asked “what is the hyper-active agency detection device” (the “HADD”) and “isn’t it a bit much to ask of one cognitive function to be the origin of religious belief?”
As for this latter question, the answer is yes — it is a bit much to ask of this single function. There are several other aspects of cognitive function (including theory of mind, casual attribution, pattern imposition, and conscious fluctuations), which when combined with HADD, give rise to the belief in spirits. If HADD —by itself—were sufficient to give rise to belief in spirits, then we might expect many animals to believe in non-existent spirits. Most prey animals also over-perceive and over-attribute agency. Because their survival is at stake, they have good reasons for doing so.
Nick Wade’s new book The Faith Instinct comes out next week. I’ve been reading it for review, and it’s excellent. He seems (I’m only 60 pages in) to plant himself firmly in the religion-is-adaptive camp. This puts him in a minority among people who write about the natural history of religion. Most take religion to be an accidental by-product of cognitive processes—hair-trigger “agency detection” modules etc. Nice to see the other point of view (and group selection, too) get an airing.
I’ve got that book on order from amazon, and am quite looking forward to reading it, given the caliber of Wade’s previous writings.
But, religion is (evolutionarily) adaptive? In the sense that the belief that an Imaginary Friend in the Sky is watching you and can reward or punish you for your behaviors, no doubt it will usually result in people treating each other better than they otherwise would. And that would indeed provide a survival advantage for members of the group, and provide a converse out-group of sinners/infidels, which will further bind the in-group community together, in both war and peace. That is, there is indeed probably something to the “group selection” side of that—where the culture establishes firm group boundaries for gene flow and selection for particular traits, with marriage/reproduction happening primarily within the group—especially if it encourages women to be baby machines (cf. Catholicism, Islam). But of course that doesn’t mean that it’s an environment which anyone should be brainwashed into living in, even if, when you’re looking just at the widely-embraced, watered-down versions of “religion,” it can be “adaptive” in the sense of producing more surviving offspring.
None of that negates the by-product view, but it does provide a valid “other half” which has previously been missing from these one-sided analyses.
And yet, those two halves do not make a whole. Not even half a one. Because, what about esoteric spirituality? What about all mainstream religions beginning as Scientology-like cults, generally with a charismatic leader? (Of course, the fact that Jesus probably never even lived, but was still the “charismatic founder” of Christianity, pretty much blows the whole “charismatic founder” necessity out of the water.) What about yogis retiring to the Himalayas to live their lives in silent meditation, producing no offspring? Is that behavior also “adaptive”? If not, how do you get from a maladaptive, isolating cult, to an adaptive, community-cohesioning religion?
‘Cause Yogananda (et. al.) was right about one thing: Exoteric religions are degenerate, popularized, misunderstood (i.e., symbols being taken literally) versions of esoteric, meditative experiences. What he and others like him didn’t understand is that those experiences themselves are a product of human neurology, and get connected with the natural world via sympathetic-magical similarities in patterns—e.g., the migraine scotoma looks like a jagged lightning strike, or (in its closed-circle form) a snake about to swallow its own tail.
(I hadn’t known this before, but migraine auras can also look a lot like the Northern Lights—e.g., the souls of one’s ancestors, dancing around the North Star. ["The Cree people call this phenomenon the 'Dance of the Spirits.'"] There are some other amazing animations here—all of which are glimpses into the “other world.” That is, there are tribes [e.g., the Jivaro, IIRC] which, quite “reasonably,” take these forms and form constants as being the archetypes upon which the physical world is based.)
You can’t explain where exoteric religion comes from without understanding esoteric spirituality, with techniques of content meditation originating as internalized shamanic rituals (e.g., the believed path of souls along the Milky Way to the North Star—the “still point of the turning celestial world,” and “doorway” to the world beyond—being sympatically imitated in the climbing and descent of a pole, which was then internalized as the simply visualized climbing and descent of the spine to a point/bindu in the brain and the escape of consciousness through the brahmarandhra, cf. in kundalini meditation). And neither the by-product viewpoint nor the adaptive one can begin to account for the specific, widespread symbols which form the core of all religions. For that you need neurology and sympathetic-magical thinking. And I’d bet dollars to donuts that the latter, in particular, gets barely a mention in Wade’s book.
Don’t try and tell me that any (esp.) agrarian culture wouldn’t have seen that as an attempt by the spirit of the crescent moon to communicate with the person experiencing the aura.
There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them…. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer’s sweater, believing that “evil” is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers’s cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor’s personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. [This is the type of pattern-finding which underlies sympathetic magic (e.g., voodoo), where the cause resembles the effect.] Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.