Jared Diamond lecture on the evolution of religion

Here's a fantastic lecture by Jared "Guns, Germs and Steel" Diamond at the USC College Center for Religion and Civic Culture on the "evolution of religion" -- the evolutionary forces that shape religions and cause some to prevail and others to wane.

The Evolution of Religions (via Kottke)

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  1. Jared Diamond is super: also recommended is The Third Chimpanzee and Collapse. He always reminds me that we, whether as westerners, or even as human beings should never, ever get to arrogant about our position in the world.

  2. A summary of what I found most interesting:

    The idea that struck me the most was that religion can dictate community structure and behaviour, and that changes in religion thereby change communities’ behaviours. With variation and selection, you then have evolution of religions/communities.

    Religion in small tribes ( less than ~100 people) is typically an origin myth, with supernatural explanations for powerful/unpredictable natural phenomena (eg rain god, death, birth, sun, food). Religions of small tribes do not need a strict moral code, because members of a tribe could all know each other, and resolve conflicts face-to-face. However, if you met a stranger, they were certainly up to mischief (stealing food from your land, scouting to steal your women, etc). There was therefore no need to engage peacefully with strangers, and you either tried to kill them, or ran away.

    A main hypothesis in ‘Guns, germs and steal’ is that there is strength in numbers. All things being equal, in a competition between two groups, the group with the most people will win. Technologies and behaviours that allow higher populations are therefore beneficial. A very major problem with moving from tribal society to building larger communities is that you have to interact peacefully with strangers. The incorporation of moral codes (eg do not kill) into religions was a mechanism for allowing this peaceful interaction, and therefore communities whose religions obtained moral codes could grow and become more successful than those with “more primitive” religions.

    A problem with introducing a moral code prohibiting eg killing and stealing is that it does not fit with waging war. Communities that are strong, militant and aggressive are generally successful. This problem can be overcome by introducing into religion the concept that killing people who do not belong to your religion is permitted, or is even your duty.

    How is religion evolving today?

    As the body of scientific knowledge and understanding has increased, the role of religion in explaining the world has diminished, except perhaps as a primary cause.

    Most people do not kill or steal in modern society, but not because of religion. Instead, social education, policing and law means they have been taught not to, and are afraid of the consequences of being caught. The role of religion in smoothing social interactions with strangers is therefore not so important.

    While religion seems to be a major reason for war, it was never really the primary cause, but simply an efficient motivator. This is still the case, only we are more aware of the resources we wage war over.

  3. @7 DR80085- If I had to guess, religion’s evolved by no longer calling itself religion.
    Consider how many people would react to, say, an ethnic slur in the same manner that a medieval priest would have reacted to blasphemy. Or how the notion of eating at McDonald’s inspires in some the same revulsion that eating pork would do a devout Muslim or Jew.

  4. Probably all religions wane with time but it helps when they’re viciously suppressed. The all-time champ for that has tended to be the early Christian church which never tolerated other religions in its midst. The early religious practices in Greece, Italy, the British Isles, and just about everywhere else where the early Church had control were wiped out in a brutal fashion. The Church was also vicious in wiping out “heretical” practices, hence the Albigensian and Waldensian crusades.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albigenses_Crusade

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waldensians

  5. “A main hypothesis in ‘Guns, germs and steal’ is that there is strength in numbers.”

    This is the most delightful and accurate typo of the year. FTW

  6. @~#10 Nanuq,

    I’d hardly call the entrenched power base of the medieval Catholics the “early Christian church”.
    Also, their success at holding power was probably less driven by the violent dispatch of heretics and more by the basis of “heretic” itself. When you have centralized control of an official priesthood (the mechanism for information generation and distribution), you tend to stay on message pretty well. When you are willing to co-opt existing celebration and ritual (rather than simple suppression), you can limit the odds of social revolution, as well as guide (at least in name) the meandering natives “back into the fold”.

  7. Interesting. Reminds me how disappointed I am in Richard Dawkins, who, instead of providing a reasoned analysis as we have here, just seems to be throwing an ongoing temper tantrum.

  8. I love the big balls creation myth he leads with. Today, I take my first steps on a spiritual journey toward enlightenment.

  9. I love the big balls creation myth he leads with. Today, I take my first steps on a spiritual journey toward enlightenment.

  10. I love the big balls creation myth he leads with. Today, I take my first steps on a promising spiritual journey toward enlightenment and friendship!

  11. Nanuq, “the early Christian church” and the twelfth century do not overlap, at least not in my mind. The actual early Christian church, the pre-Constantinian, pre-fourth-century church, was itself viciously suppressed, in waves, by emperors who thought anyone refusing to sacrifice would weaken the power of the state. By the time Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (then Constantinople), the state religion of Rome was already well on the way to imploding on its own.

    Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting. In Britain, Christianity was voluntarily adopted by clan leaders, who tended to see God as a more powerful form of magic. Chiefs who converted then reaped the benefits of organization and interconnection that came with the monastic system, which enabled them to expand their influence. Christians and pagans co-existed and commingled in Britain — there were pagan Saxons who visited the shrines of saints, for instance. Conversion was more a process of co-option than of slaughter — pagan temples were reconsecrated, not demolished. (This is true of the barbarian “invasions” of Rome, by the by. The “invasions” were a slow process, conducted largely by sheep.)

    Most historical processes of conversion, whether religious or political, are gradual and not terribly dramatic. The converted people then invent origin myths, about mighty heroes striding forth from their boats to lay waste with their swords, but these tend to be back-formations.

    If you’re interested, I heartily recommend The Rise of Western Christendom by the incomparable Peter Brown (of Princeton). It covers the first thousand years of Christianity, which is when all the really interesting stuff happened.

  12. Nanuq, “the early Christian church” and the twelfth century do not overlap, at least not in my mind. The actual early Christian church, the pre-Constantinian, pre-fourth-century church, was itself viciously suppressed, in waves, by emperors who thought anyone refusing to sacrifice would weaken the power of the state. By the time Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (then Constantinople), the state religion of Rome was already well on the way to imploding on its own.

    Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting. In Britain, Christianity was voluntarily adopted by clan leaders, who tended to see God as a more powerful form of magic. Chiefs who converted then reaped the benefits of organization and interconnection that came with the monastic system, which enabled them to expand their influence. Christians and pagans co-existed and commingled in Britain — there were pagan Saxons who visited the shrines of saints, for instance. Conversion was more a process of co-option than of slaughter — pagan temples were reconsecrated, not demolished. (This is true of the barbarian “invasions” of Rome, by the by. The “invasions” were a slow process, conducted largely by sheep.)

    Most historical processes of conversion, whether religious or political, are gradual and not terribly dramatic. The converted people then invent origin myths, about mighty heroes striding forth from their boats to lay waste with their swords, but these tend to be back-formations.

    If you’re interested, I heartily recommend The Rise of Western Christendom by the incomparable Peter Brown (of Princeton). It covers the first thousand years of Christianity, which is when all the really interesting stuff happened.

  13. Nanuq, “the early Christian church” and the twelfth century do not overlap, at least not in my mind. The actual early Christian church, the pre-Constantinian, pre-fourth-century church, was itself viciously suppressed, in waves, by emperors who thought anyone refusing to sacrifice would weaken the power of the state. By the time Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (then Constantinople), the state religion of Rome was already well on the way to imploding on its own.

    Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting. In Britain, Christianity was voluntarily adopted by clan leaders, who tended to see God as a more powerful form of magic. Chiefs who converted then reaped the benefits of organization and interconnection that came with the monastic system, which enabled them to expand their influence. Christians and pagans co-existed and commingled in Britain — there were pagan Saxons who visited the shrines of saints, for instance. Conversion was more a process of co-option than of slaughter — pagan temples were reconsecrated, not demolished. (This is true of the barbarian “invasions” of Rome, by the by. The “invasions” were a slow process, conducted largely by sheep.)

    Most historical processes of conversion, whether religious or political, are gradual and not terribly dramatic. The converted people then invent origin myths, about mighty heroes striding forth from their boats to lay waste with their swords, but these tend to be back-formations.

    If you’re interested, I heartily recommend The Rise of Western Christendom by the incomparable Peter Brown (of Princeton). It covers the first thousand years of Christianity, which is when all the really interesting stuff happened.

  14. Nanuq, “the early Christian church” and the twelfth century do not overlap, at least not in my mind. The actual early Christian church, the pre-Constantinian, pre-fourth-century church, was itself viciously suppressed, in waves, by emperors who thought anyone refusing to sacrifice would weaken the power of the state. By the time Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (then Constantinople), the state religion of Rome was already well on the way to imploding on its own.

    Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting. In Britain, Christianity was voluntarily adopted by clan leaders, who tended to see God as a more powerful form of magic. Chiefs who converted then reaped the benefits of organization and interconnection that came with the monastic system, which enabled them to expand their influence. Christians and pagans co-existed and commingled in Britain — there were pagan Saxons who visited the shrines of saints, for instance. Conversion was more a process of co-option than of slaughter — pagan temples were reconsecrated, not demolished. (This is true of the barbarian “invasions” of Rome, by the by. The “invasions” were a slow process, conducted largely by sheep.)

    Most historical processes of conversion, whether religious or political, are gradual and not terribly dramatic. The converted people then invent origin myths, about mighty heroes striding forth from their boats to lay waste with their swords, but these tend to be back-formations.

    If you’re interested, I heartily recommend The Rise of Western Christendom by the incomparable Peter Brown (of Princeton). It covers the first thousand years of Christianity, which is when all the really interesting stuff happened.

  15. Nanuq, “the early Christian church” and the twelfth century do not overlap, at least not in my mind. The actual early Christian church, the pre-Constantinian, pre-fourth-century church, was itself viciously suppressed, in waves, by emperors who thought anyone refusing to sacrifice would weaken the power of the state. By the time Constantine moved the capital to Istanbul (then Constantinople), the state religion of Rome was already well on the way to imploding on its own.

    Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting. In Britain, Christianity was voluntarily adopted by clan leaders, who tended to see God as a more powerful form of magic. Chiefs who converted then reaped the benefits of organization and interconnection that came with the monastic system, which enabled them to expand their influence. Christians and pagans co-existed and commingled in Britain — there were pagan Saxons who visited the shrines of saints, for instance. Conversion was more a process of co-option than of slaughter — pagan temples were reconsecrated, not demolished. (This is true of the barbarian “invasions” of Rome, by the by. The “invasions” were a slow process, conducted largely by sheep.)

    Most historical processes of conversion, whether religious or political, are gradual and not terribly dramatic. The converted people then invent origin myths, about mighty heroes striding forth from their boats to lay waste with their swords, but these tend to be back-formations.

    If you’re interested, I heartily recommend The Rise of Western Christendom by the incomparable Peter Brown (of Princeton). It covers the first thousand years of Christianity, which is when all the really interesting stuff happened.

  16. Here’s what I don’t get about all this talk of religion evolving to fill a niche; I can see how religion is serving a purpose for those medium-but-growing tribes, but surely he’s not saying that certain members of the tribe are consciously using religion to mediate their contact with outsiders? If nobody is designing the religion with a wink and a nudge, for a specific purpose, then he must be saying that it evolved in the traditional sense (and not the intelligent design sense). But in that case, I don’t see how there have been anywhere near enough different religions to make a population large enough to evolve.

    Think how many of our prehistoric ancestors had to live and die to give us these wonderful hands and large brains. Surely there haven’t been that many different religions?

    I think it more likely that religion evolved as a way for the cleverest members of the tribe to exert power over a group of people too large to be influenced by tribal politics or family dynamics. (As the bible says: no prophet is honored in his hometown). In every early religion, there’s always a priestly class who have greater influence on the god, and who therefore deserve the respect and obedience of their tribe.

    If you’re some clever chap, but you’re not descended from the Khan, then maybe you use your big brain to get power in the only other way you can; you tell people you’ve figured out how the world was formed, and how to keep it from being destroyed. Then other clever people take your fancy myth as fact, and add their own little twists to gain a bit of power. Poof, religion.

  17. Here’s what I don’t get about all this talk of religion evolving to fill a niche; I can see how religion is serving a purpose for those medium-but-growing tribes, but surely he’s not saying that certain members of the tribe are consciously using religion to mediate their contact with outsiders? If nobody is designing the religion with a wink and a nudge, for a specific purpose, then he must be saying that it evolved in the traditional sense (and not the intelligent design sense). But in that case, I don’t see how there have been anywhere near enough different religions to make a population large enough to evolve.

    Think how many of our prehistoric ancestors had to live and die to give us these wonderful hands and large brains. Surely there haven’t been that many different religions?

    I think it more likely that religion evolved as a way for the cleverest members of the tribe to exert power over a group of people too large to be influenced by tribal politics or family dynamics. (As the bible says: no prophet is honored in his hometown). In every early religion, there’s always a priestly class who have greater influence on the god, and who therefore deserve the respect and obedience of their tribe.

    If you’re some clever chap, but you’re not descended from the Khan, then maybe you use your big brain to get power in the only other way you can; you tell people you’ve figured out how the world was formed, and how to keep it from being destroyed. Then other clever people take your fancy myth as fact, and add their own little twists to gain a bit of power. Poof, religion.

  18. Ooh, I really wanna listen to this, but don’t have 82 minutes to sit in front of the computer watching it… Gotta get in the car and drive to work!

    Anyone happen to have the audio in MP3 format?

  19. I logged in, typed a really long post that took a lot of thought, and submitted it, but got a permissions error. Then I tried to resubmit, but I got a “too many comments from you in a row” error. Dammit, why is this site generating so many errors for so many people? I understand software always has issues, but blog comments? This is a solved problem! You’re not exactly breaking new ground here!

  20. I find his argument of “lost opportunity” disingenuous.

    It’s not so much the society that gains benefits from a religion, it’s the leaders and members of this religion that benefit from it. People heading these religions gain a great advantage and by creating systems to propagate it (while taking up many resources) have huge benefits in both resource and social and political powers within the society. The society may or may not benefit from this, but it is sure enough that the leaders of these religions will get a free meal out of it at the least ( not to mention a city filled with golden treasures ).

    It’s not hard to see how a person with supernatural backing in a primitive society would be able to not only overpower any other influential members and create a system where he can exploit this indefinitely and make sure that other members of his group not only continue to grow but to kill off the competition.

  21. I find his argument of “lost opportunity” disingenuous.

    It’s not so much the society that gains benefits from a religion, it’s the leaders and members of this religion that benefit from it. People heading these religions gain a great advantage and by creating systems to propagate it (while taking up many resources) have huge benefits in both resource and social and political powers within the society. The society may or may not benefit from this, but it is sure enough that the leaders of these religions will get a free meal out of it at the least ( not to mention a city filled with golden treasures ).

    It’s not hard to see how a person with supernatural backing in a primitive society would be able to not only overpower any other influential members and create a system where he can exploit this indefinitely and make sure that other members of his group not only continue to grow but to kill off the competition.

  22. I find his argument of “lost opportunity” disingenuous.

    It’s not so much the society that gains benefits from a religion, it’s the leaders and members of this religion that benefit from it. People heading these religions gain a great advantage and by creating systems to propagate it (while taking up many resources) have huge benefits in both resource and social and political powers within the society. The society may or may not benefit from this, but it is sure enough that the leaders of these religions will get a free meal out of it at the least ( not to mention a city filled with golden treasures ).

    It’s not hard to see how a person with supernatural backing in a primitive society would be able to not only overpower any other influential members and create a system where he can exploit this indefinitely and make sure that other members of his group not only continue to grow but to kill off the competition.

  23. Whatever blows your hair back, as long as you don’t fuckerize those who don’t share your viewpoint.

    I don’t care if you have to strap a platypus to your crotch to see God… just don’t ask to borrow my platypus.

  24. Buddy @11, No doubt!

    And @12, This is more of a do we really need this crap anymore thread.

  25. Ugh. More poorly re-hashed Huntington from Jared Diamond? No thanks, I had enough of that kind of twaddle while grading undergraduate term papers.

  26. Ugh. More poorly re-hashed Huntington from Jared Diamond? No thanks, I had enough of that kind of twaddle while grading undergraduate term papers.

  27. Buddy, this is more of a do we really still need this crap thread, and if yes, why.

    Attending a UU assembly has been interesting, but most of these religions are still stuck in the dark ages. They remind me of the record companies and their evil army the RIAA trying to hold on to the last vestiges of wealth and power, while the world marches into the future without them.

  28. Early adoption of Christianity was also not as brutal as you’re suggesting.

    Oh, I don’t know. Once christianity was accepted by relatively well-to-do traders along the Norwegian coast, they decided that the poor inland farmers would convert to christianity or face death and/or dismemberment. According to Snorre Sturlason, at least.

    But that was pretty much par for the course in 11th century Scandinavia, mind you.

    The king who led the bloody slaughter conversion is now the patron saint of Norway.

  29. Elsmiley: Did you watch the lecture? There are many religions that have no belief whatsoever in any kind of afterlife. So what would a fear of death have to do with that?

    My personal belief is that religion has more to do with our brain’s evolved ability to see agency, even where none exists, from the rustling of the bushes that could be caused by a predator, to the strike of lightning, that could be caused by an angry deity. We humans anthropomorphise everything: the tree is trying to reach the sun, the dung beetle is envious of th beetle with more dung, the river is happy to have reached the sea.

    With a brain so eager to see agency, to see a conscious hand causing events, to see the natural world as having drives and emotions, how could we help but believe in spirits, demons and gods?

  30. I don’t want to draw attention away from his argument, but could anybody identify his accent for me?

    There’s a guy at my school who talks exactly like him and I thought he was just trying to sound intellectual by pronouncing things snobbily.. but now that I’ve heard the same accent again I’m beginning to wonder if it’s regional?

  31. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for the link to stinkyjournalism.

    I’m a big fan of Jared Diamond’s work and so am very disappointed by what appears to be a clear case of poor work.

    Everyone makes mistakes (though this is rather major).

    However, the mistakes you have cited do not discount the thesis he has presented in some of his books (eg. Guns, Germs and Steel) as there has been no (to my knowledge) clear refutation of the arguments he has presented in those instances.

    Further, much of what he states in those books is rather well known by others, but not consolidated.

    All of this said, I am appreciative of you having provided the information.

    I’m yet to listen to his argument about religions (yet to download, strip to MP3 and listen in the car!) and so have no comment to make as of yet.

  32. The Evolution of Religions

    The corrrected link search Youtube “evolution of religion” Jared Diamond.

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