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Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion


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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Hervey C. Peoples.

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AppendicesFootnote 1 

Appendix A: Codes and Variable Numbers for the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) (Murdock and White 1980) on the World Cultures CD (Divale 2007) Footnote 1

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

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Peoples, H.C., Marlowe, F.W. Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion. Hum Nat 23, 253–269 (2012).

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