Wednesday, November 12, 2014

the ecology of religious beliefs


pnas |  Here we show that the spatial prevalence of human societies that believe in moralizing high gods can be predicted with a high level of accuracy (91%) from historical, social, and ecological data. Using high-resolution datasets, we systematically estimate the relative effects of resource abundance, ecological risk, cultural diffusion, shared ancestry, and political complexity on the global distribution of beliefs in moralizing high gods. The methods presented in this paper provide a blueprint for how to leverage the increasing wealth of ecological, linguistic, and historical data to understand the forces that have shaped the behavior of our own species. 

Although ecological forces are known to shape the expression of sociality across a broad range of biological taxa, their role in shaping human behavior is currently disputed. Both comparative and experimental evidence indicate that beliefs in moralizing high gods promote cooperation among humans, a behavioral attribute known to correlate with environmental harshness in nonhuman animals. Here we combine fine-grained bioclimatic data with the latest statistical tools from ecology and the social sciences to evaluate the potential effects of environmental forces, language history, and culture on the global distribution of belief in moralizing high gods (n = 583 societies). After simultaneously accounting for potential nonindependence among societies because of shared ancestry and cultural diffusion, we find that these beliefs are more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological duress. In addition, we find that these beliefs are more likely in politically complex societies that recognize rights to movable property. Overall, our multimodel inference approach predicts the global distribution of beliefs in moralizing high gods with an accuracy of 91%, and estimates the relative importance of different potential mechanisms by which this spatial pattern may have arisen. The emerging picture is neither one of pure cultural transmission nor of simple ecological determinism, but rather a complex mixture of social, cultural, and environmental influences. Our methods and findings provide a blueprint for how the increasing wealth of ecological, linguistic, and historical data can be leveraged to understand the forces that have shaped the behavior of our own species.