Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality


Nature  530, 327–330 (18 February 2016)

Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality

Benjamin Grant Purzycki,

Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture, University of British Columbia, 1871 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2, Canada

Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Solomon

Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Human Sciences Building, 10 Symonds Street, Auckland 1010, New Zealand

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Kahlaische Strasse 10, D-07745 Jena, Germany

Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, 64 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN, UK

Wadham College, University of Oxford, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PN, UK

Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

Culture, and Development Laboratory, Department of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station #A8000, Austin, Texas 78712-0187, USA

Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, 354 Mansfield Road, Unit 1176, Storrs, Connecticut 06029, USA

Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University, Jens Chr. Skous Vej 4, building 1483, DK-8000, Aarhus, Denmark

LEVYNA, Masaryk University, Brno 60200, Czech Republic

Department of Economics, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Ave, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA


Since the origins of agriculture, the scale of human cooperation and societal complexity has dramatically expanded. This fact challenges standard evolutionary explanations of prosociality because well-studied mechanisms of cooperation based on genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice falter as people increasingly engage in fleeting transactions with genetically unrelated strangers in large anonymous groups. To explain this rapid expansion of prosociality, researchers have proposed several mechanisms.

Here we focus on one key hypothesis: cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers.

We tested this hypothesis using extensive ethnographic interviews and two behavioural games designed to measure impartial rule-following among people (n = 591, observations = 35,400) from eight diverse communities from around the world: (1) inland Tanna, Vanuatu; (2) coastal Tanna, Vanuatu; (3) Yasawa, Fiji; (4) Lovu, Fiji; (5) Pesqueiro, Brazil; (6) Pointe aux Piments, Mauritius; (7) the Tyva Republic (Siberia), Russia; and (8) Hadzaland, Tanzania. Participants reported adherence to a wide array of world religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as notably diverse local traditions, including animism and ancestor worship.

Holding a range of relevant variables constant, the higher participants rated their moralistic gods as punitive and knowledgeable about human thoughts and actions, the more coins they allocated to geographically distant co-religionist strangers relative to both themselves and local co-religionists. Our results support the hypothesis that beliefs in moralistic, punitive and knowing gods increase impartial behaviour towards distant co-religionists, and therefore can contribute to the expansion of prosociality.

Among the other factors that influence the emergence of human ultrasociality and complex societies, the diffusion of explicit beliefs in increasingly moralistic, punitive and knowledgeable gods may have played a crucial role. People may trust in, cooperate with and interact fairly within wider social circles, partly because they believe that knowing gods will punish them if they do not. Additionally, through increased frequency and consistency in belief and behaviour sets, commitments to the same gods coordinate people’s expectations about social interactions. Moreover, the social radius within which people are willing to engage in behaviours that benefit others at a cost to themselves may enlarge as gods’ powers to monitor and punish increase. To account for the emergence of these patterns, some evolutionary approaches to religion have theorized that cultural evolution may have harnessed and exploited aspects of our evolved psychology, such as mentalizing abilities, dualistic tendencies and sensitivity to norm compliance, to gradually assemble configurations of supernatural beliefs that promote greater cooperation and trust within expanding groups, leading to greater success in intergroup competition. Of course, given that cultural evolution can produce self-reinforcing stable patterns of beliefs and practices, these supernatural agent concepts may also have been individually favoured within groups due to mechanisms related to signalling, reputation and punishment. Over time, these deities spread culturally and came to dominate the modern world religions like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Such traditions eventually came to account for a large proportion of the world’s population. Here we directly test one specific hypothesis: conceptions of moralistic and punitive gods that know people’s thoughts and behaviours promote impartiality towards distant co-religionists, and as a result contribute to the expansion of sociality.

These results build on previous findings and have important implications for understanding the evolution of the wide-ranging cooperation found in large-scale societies. Moreover, when people are more inclined to behave impartially towards others, they are more likely to share beliefs and behaviours that foster the development of larger-scale cooperative institutions, trade, markets and alliances with strangers. This helps to partly explain two phenomena: the evolution of large and complex human societies and the religious features of societies with greater social complexity that are heavily populated by such gods. In addition to some forms of religious rituals and non-religious norms and institutions, such as courts, markets and police, the present results point to the role that commitment to knowledgeable, moralistic and punitive gods plays in solidifying the social bonds that create broader imagined communities.

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