Skip to main content

Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion

Abstract

We present a cross-cultural analysis showing that the presence of an active or moral High God in societies varies generally along a continuum from lesser to greater technological complexity and subsistence productivity. Foragers are least likely to have High Gods. Horticulturalists and agriculturalists are more likely. Pastoralists are most likely, though they are less easily positioned along the productivity continuum. We suggest that belief in moral High Gods was fostered by emerging leaders in societies dependent on resources that were difficult to manage and defend without group cooperation. These leaders used the concept of a supernatural moral enforcer to manipulate others into cooperating, which resulted in greater productivity. Reproductive success would accrue most to such leaders, but the average reproductive success of all individuals in the society would also increase with greater productivity. Supernatural enforcement of moral codes maintained social cohesion and allowed for further population growth, giving one society an advantage in competition with others.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

References

  1. Atkinson, Q. D., & Bourrat, P. (2011). Beliefs about God, the afterlife and morality support the role of supernatural policing in human cooperation. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 41–49.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Bentley, G. R., Goldberg, T., & Jasienska, G. (1993). The fertility of agricultural and nonagricultural traditional societies. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 47, 269–281.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Boone, J. L. (1992). Competition, conflict, and the development of social hierarchies. In E. A. Smith & B. Winterhalder (Eds.), Evolutionary ecology and human behavior (pp. 301–337). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Bowles, S., Hertz, T., Bell, A., Beise, J., Clark, G., et al. (2009). Intergenerational wealth transmission and the dynamics of inequality in small-scale societies. Science, 326, 682–688.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Childe, V. G. (1950). The urban revolution. The Town Planning Review, 21, 3–17.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Divale, W. (2007). Pre-coded variables for the standard cross-cultural sample. World Cultures (1–15). New York: York College, CUNY.

  7. Dyson-Hudson, R., & Dyson-Hudson, N. (1980). Nomadic pastoralism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 9, 15–61.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Fuller, J. E., & Grandjean, B. D. (2001). Economy and religion in the Neolithic revolution: material surplus and the proto-religious ethic. Cross-Cultural Research, 35, 370–399.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Hastings, B. M., & Shaffer, B. (2008). Authoritarianism: the role of threat, evolutionary psychology, and the will to power. Theory & Psychology, 18, 423–440.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Henrich, J., Ensminger, J., McElreath, R., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., et al. (2010). Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment. Science, 32, 1480–1484.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Irons, W. (2001). Religion as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment. In R. Nesse (Ed.), Evolution and the capacity for commitment (pp. 292–309). New York: Russell Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Johnson, D. D. P. (2005). God’s punishment and public goods. Human Nature, 16, 410–446.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Johnson, A. W., & Earle, T. (2000). The evolution of human societies: from foraging group to agrarian state (2nd ed.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Marlowe, F. W. (2011). The behavioral ecology of warfare. Keynote presented at the fortieth annual meeting of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research, February, Charleston, SC.

  15. Marlowe, F. W., Berbesque, J. C., Barr, A., Barrett, C., Bolyanatz, A., Cardenas, J. C., et al. (2008). More ‘altruistic’ punishment in larger societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275, 587–590.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Moor, N., Ultee, W., & Need, A. (2009). Analogical reasoning and the content of creation stories: quantitative comparisons of preindustrial societies. Cross-Cultural Research, 43, 91–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Murdock, G. P. (1957). World ethnographic sample. American Anthropologist, 59, 664–687.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas: a summary. Ethnology, 6, 109–236.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Murdock, G. P. (1981). Atlas of world cultures. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Murdock, G. P., & Morrow, D. O. (1970). Subsistence economy and supportive practices: cross-cultural codes—1. Ethnology, 9(3), 302.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Murdock, G. P., & Provost, C. (1973). Measurement of cultural complexity. Ethnology, 12, 379–392.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Murdock, G. P., & White, D. R. (1969). Standard cross-cultural sample. Ethnology, 8, 329–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Murdock, G. P., & White, D. R. (1980). Standard cross-cultural sample. In H. Barry & A. Schlegel (Eds.), Cross-cultural samples and codes (pp. 3–43). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Norenzayan, A., & Shariff, A. F. (2008). The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science, 322, 58–62.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Paige, K. E., & Paige, J. M. (1981). The politics of reproductive ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Peregrine, P. (1996). The birth of the gods revisited: a partial replication of Guy Swanson’s (1960) cross-cultural study of religion. Cross-Cultural Research, 30, 84–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Porter, C. C., & Marlowe, F. W. (2007). How marginal are forager habitats? Journal of Archaeological Science, 34, 59–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Rodrigue, C. M. (1992). Can religion account for early animal domestications? A critical assessment of the cultural geographic argument, based on Near Eastern archaeological data. The Professional Geographer, 44, 417–430.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Roes, F. L. (1995). The size of societies, stratification, and belief in high gods supportive of human morality. Politics and the Life Sciences, 14, 73–77.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 126–135.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Sanderson, S. K., & Roberts, W. W. (2008). The evolutionary forms of the religious life: a cross-cultural, quantitative analysis. American Anthropologist, 110, 454–466.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Simpson, J. H. (1984). High gods and the means of subsistence. Sociological Analysis, 45, 213–222.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Snarey, J. (1996). The natural environment’s impact upon religious ethics: a cross-cultural study. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 85–96.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Sosis, R. (2000). Religion and intragroup cooperation: preliminary results of a comparative analysis of utopian communities. Cross-Cultural Research, 34, 70–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Stark, R. (2001). Gods, rituals, and the moral order. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 619–636.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Swanson, G. E. (1960). The birth of the gods: the origin of primitive belief. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Underhill, R. (1975). Economic and political antecedents of monotheism: a cross-cultural study. The American Journal of Sociology, 80, 841–861.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Worthman, C. M. (2010). The ecology of human development: evolving models for cultural psychology. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41, 546–562.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Dr. Rie Goto, University of Cambridge, for valuable insight into the statistical analyses, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hervey C. Peoples.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

ESM. 1

(DOCX 47.2 kb)

Appendices

Appendix A: Codes and Variable Numbers for the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) (Murdock and White 1980) on the World Cultures CD (Divale 2007)

Dependent Variable

We created our dependent variable High Gods by recoding Murdock’s (1967) “High Gods” variable (v34 in the EA, and v238 in the SCCS) defined following Swanson (1960) as “a spiritual being who is believed to have created all reality and/or to be its ultimate governor, even though his sole act was to create other spirits who, in turn, created or control the natural world” (Murdock 1967:160).

The values of v238 are (1) absent or not reported; (2) present but not active in human affairs); (3) present and active in human affairs, but not supportive of human morality; (4) present, active, and specifically supportive of human morality. We recoded values 3 and 4 into value 3, thus creating an ordinal variable we call High Gods with three values: (1) absent; (2) inactive; (3) active or moral. We did this in order to focus our study on active gods, whether moral or not, and for statistical purposes (the original value 3 had only 13 cases). Our sample includes all 168 societies from the SCCS that are coded for v238.

Independent Variables

Mode of Subsistence was coded as four categories using v1, v3, and v5 Subsistence Economy and Supportive Practices (Murdock and Morrow 1970) and v858 Subsistence Type (D. R. White after Paige and Paige 1981) as follows:

  1. 1.

    Foragers were defined as those whose contribution to the local food supply is <10% agriculture (v3 <4), <10% animal husbandry (v5 <4), and trade accounting for <50% and no more than the contribution of any other single subsistence source (v1 <6). We excluded mounted hunters (v858 = 5).

  2. 2.

    Pastoralists were those using pastoralism and mounted hunting (v858 = 5 [Mounted Hunting] or v858 = 6 [Pastoralism >33%]). We counted mounted hunters as pastoralists so our forager sample would better approximate pre-agriculture.

  3. 3.

    Horticulturalists included v858 = 7–10 [7 = Shifting Cultivation with digging sticks or wooden hoes, 8 = Shifting Cultivation with metal hoes, 9 = Horticultural Gardens or Tree Fruits, 10 = Advanced Horticulture with metal hoes], and foragers who rely on trade for >50% of their subsistence [v1 >4].

  4. 4.

    Intensive Agriculturalists were defined as v858 = 11 [Intensive Agriculture with no plow] or 12 [Intensive Agriculture with plow]) (Porter and Marlowe 2007).

Total Population is v1122 log10 of Total Population (Murdock and White 1969) recoded as (1) = 1–2 (10–999); (2) = 3 (1,000–9,999); (3) = 4 (10,000–99,999); and (4) = 5–8 (100,000–999,999,999). We collapsed the eight ranked population sizes into four ranks for two reasons. First, some of the original ranks had few cases. And second, the four ranks represent reasonable thresholds of social complexity.

Social Stratification is a ranked variable created from v158 Social Stratification (Murdock and Provost 1973) and v270 Class Stratification (Murdock 1967) in order to measure the degree of change in stratification more clearly than either of the individual variables did. The rankings are as follows: (1) Egalitarian (v158 = 1 [Egalitarian]); (2) Wealth Distinctions (v270 = 2 [Wealth Distinctions] or v158 = 2 [Hereditary Slavery]); (3) Social Classes (v158 = 3 [2 Social Classes] or v270 >2 [Castes]).

Related independent variables are Dependence on: Gathering v203; Hunting v204; Fishing v205; Animal Husbandry v206; and Agriculture v207 (Murdock 1967).

Statistical software was PASW Statistics GradPack 17.0 for Windows, SPSS, Inc. 2009.

Appendix B

Table 3 Chi-square tests: Mode of subsistence * High Gods
Table 4 High Gods cross-tabulation

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Peoples, H.C., Marlowe, F.W. Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion. Hum Nat 23, 253–269 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9148-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Religion
  • Evolution
  • Subsistence
  • Foragers
  • Pastoralists
  • Supernatural punishment