scilogs Biology of Religion

Is Hans Rosling right? Religion and Fertility between and within Nations

22. May 2012, 21:40

Readers of this blog might have noticed that my main focus of research (and those of colleagues such as Eric Kaufmann) has been the reproductive potential of religiosity. Lots of data and studies have conclusively demonstrated that the religious tend to have - on average - more children than the secular.

Religion & Demography, Enste


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Human, the Social Animal - Well-presented Harvard-Study on the Hadza

29. January 2012, 17:18

Ever wondered why so many people are investing lots of hours into social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Blogs, vying for some more "friends", "followers", comments or clicks?

It's long been assumed that the reason is our evolutionary history. Whether we are studying obtaining food, organizing security, labour or - the feature most distinguishing us from other primates - cooperative child care, our species learned to rely on social cooperation for successful survival and reproduction. In fact, Charles Darwin dubbed "Man" as a "Social Animal" - although he was not yet aware i.e. of the importance of cooperative childcare. Now, a new Harvard-study by Coren Apicella et al. explored social networks among the contemporary hunters and gatherers of the African Hadza - and found them to resemble those we are building in "modern" ways, too.

And as a special feature, the colleagues not only featured the results on print, but also with a well-done video-presentation. Enjoy!

The paper appeared in Nature:

Apicella, C., Marlowe, F., Fowler, H., Christakis, N. (2012): Social networks and cooperation in hunter-gatherers. In: Nature 481/2012, p. 497 - 502 

* (Extended) German blogpost here

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Evolution and our Taste for Apocalyptic Stories about the End of the World

06. January 2012, 22:27

Maybe you have been wondering why so many people are freaking out because of another "end of the world" destined for 2012. After all, there have been numerous respective dates in the past, and it never happened.

But we are, simply put, products of evolution. And as a deeply social species, we have evolved to become addicted to experiencing and sharing captivating narratives. And what could be more fascinating than a story about the very topics of survival and reproduction: About great catastrophes wiping out nearly everyone, with the few survivors then going forth to be fruitful and multiply. It's a classic.

From Floods to the Apocalypse

Therefore, we shouldn't be too surprised to find respective narratives abundant among religious mythologies. There's plenty of popular end-of-the-world-myths available, ranging from the biblical, noachidic flood (which is only a late version of many older flood narratives) to the Norse Ragnarök and the genre-naming Christian apocalypse (greek: revelation). Ironically, the Mayan calendar is not among them - december 21st 2012 is just the non-specified end of a cyclus.

But modern "secular" culture is craving for apocalyptic tales as any human culture did before. The image of a punishing God may be replaced by those of a vengeful nature. Instead of demons and angels, aliens and asteroids are descending from the sky. And those lucky or worthy few that survive are destined to sire children and to turn the eternal circle of life...

Thus, whether you are secular or religious, you may want to "enjoy" the subsequent collection of some apocalypses. I'd be glad if you would share some of the ideas and emotions you experienced while watching.

* German Version of this post with a book review "Faszination Apokalypse" by Thomas Grüter.

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Charles Darwin about the Evolution of Religion

16. December 2011, 21:46

On very rare occassions, scientific writing can be clear and poetic at the same time. As I prepared my lecture about Charles Darwin's evolutionary hypotheses concerning religion for the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) this year, I was amazed by the dense information and sheer beauty of the introduction Darwin gave to the religion subchapter in his "Descent of Man" (1871), page 65.

Let us take a look at those five introductory sentences framing Darwin's evolutionary perspective on "Belief in God - Religion".

"There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea.”

In his opening sentences, Darwin is refuting the idea of an "Urmonotheismus", a primordial monotheism. Instead, he asserts that some "savage" traditions have no concept of higher deities (such as mono-, poly- or henotheism), thereby bringing up his central argument: That contemporary beliefs and religions evolved from very simple beginnings, too.

“The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the af-firmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.”

Proving his sound education in anglican theology (the only university degree Darwin mastered throughout his life), Darwin then explains that evolutionary (that is: empirical) studies of religiosity and religions neither proves nor disproves the existence of (a) God. Instead, these questions are to be discussed in the metaphysical realms of philosophies and theologies. Darwin is adding a curteous nod to (evolutionary) theists, many of whom - i.e. Alfred Russel Wallace - accompanied and supported his scientific mission.

“If, however, we include under the term "religion" the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose.”

If theistic religions evolved from earlier forms, we would need a broad and workable definition. Darwin is offering "the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies" - in contemporary words: supernatural agents (or, even more precisely: superempirical agents). Ancestors, spirits, angels are encompassed by this definition as are sentient mountains and trees, Buddhist bodhisatvas, Jain tirthankaras, Shintoist khami or even Raelian space aliens and, of course, any poly-, heno- or monotheistic deities.

It is an interesting coincidence that, although only a small number of contemporary colleagues are aware of Darwin's own works on the matter, contemporary definitions of supernatural (superempirical) agents became the most successful and prevalent working definitions in interdisciplinary studies of religion.

For that, I am assuming a single reason: Charles Darwin had been right on this topic.

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Missionaries or Parents? How are religions growing?

24. September 2011, 17:57

For the last years, the demographic potentials of religiosity have been my primary focus of research. Repeatedly, people asked me whether proselytizing or high fertility would be more important for the success of a religious tradition.

Religion & Demography, Enste

Now, Christopher P. Scheitle, Jennifer B. Kane and Jennifer van Hook jointly addressed this topic in a compelling study, freshly published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.


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Impressions from the first Vatican Blogger Conference

04. May 2011, 18:46

Rome in the year 2011. After the beatification of a prominent pope, the Vatican is inviting bloggers from around the world to share thoughts and ideas about future dialogue in the World Wide Web. Sounds silly or fantastic? Well, it actually happened. As I happened to be one of the 150 bloggers invited (although being a scientific blogger and German Protestant), I appreciated the chance to visit Rome, to get to know lots of wonderfull bloggers interested in religiosity and religions and to build some more contacts for scientific dialogue.


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Evolution and the Personification of the Universe - Thoughts by Teilhard de Chardin and Ken Wilber

22. April 2011, 14:36

These last years, the field of evolutionary studies of religiosity and religions has thrived due to the impact of a growing number of scientists and projects such as the Explaining Religion network or those dynamic Biology-of-Religion-conferences at Delmenhorst (2007) and Bristol (2010). After my doctorate thesis on religion & brain sciences, I have been happy to concentrate on the empirical study of religious demography - the peculiar fact that the religious tend to have far more children and to pass on their genes more successfully (on average) than their non-religious peers.


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Why Religion is not going to die - The Quiverfull Example of Religious Fertility

06. April 2011, 21:27

These last days, a mathematical study about a purported decline of religious affiliation incited various (online-)debates. It was presented by Daniel Adams, Haley Yaple and Richard Wiener at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas. Although I was asked by a German science-portal to write an article about it and waited some more days, I couldn't find a single English-using writer pointing out the main flaw of their elegant model: Adams, Yaple and Wiener didn't include the well-tested effects of religious demography.


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Attributing Value to Life - About a distinct potential of religiosity

14. February 2011, 21:38

Some years ago, I stumbled upon a lecture by nobel laureate Friedrich August von Hayek (1899 - 1992), which he had held in 1982 at Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg. Therein, the great economist, evolutionary theorist and social philosopher had pondered his lifetime quest, the complex implications of rationality and creativity in evolutionary theory. And suddenly, he had turned to the evolution of religiosity and religions. Although his great lecture was not really understood by most of his fellows, Hayek would later finish his respective thoughts in the very last chapter of his last book ("Religion and the Guardians of Tradition" in "The Fatal Conceit", 1992). I had found a scientific treasure.


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Evolution of Religion in the News - Video Clip

26. January 2011, 20:19

Studies and debates about the Evolution of Religion are spilling from growing parts of the scientific communities into the wider public. 3News from New Zealand even featured a news clip on the topic, including statements by Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University) and Bishop Victoria Matthews (Canterbury, NZ). The news channel even referred to religious-demographic-data from one of my papers! Enjoy! :-)

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