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LETTERS TO THE EDITORS

Rite Stuff

To the Editors:

There is a component of the Darwinian explanation of religious ritual that fairly shouts from Richard Sosis's excellent article ("The Adaptive Value of Religious Ritual," March–April), and which he approaches tentatively at the end without naming it: group selection. The hypothetical story is that pre- and early historical human groups developed various internal, "cultural" mechanisms and practices for rewarding behavior beneficial to the group or punishing its absence, and some of these mechanisms conferred survival advantage over other groups. Further, the rewards and punishments meted out by such mechanisms naturally produced selection pressure at the individual level within the group: Individuals with inherent psychological tendencies consonant with group practice would have a survival advantage over group members without such tendencies. (And the effect of selection at the individual level, the gradual preponderation of conforming individuals within the group, would obviously feed back and influence the development of the cultural mechanisms, in particular making the system more robust.) Thus the modern proclivity toward religious commitment may be one of those apparently inadaptive human psychological traits, like the nearly universal willingness of young men to go to war, that are hard-wired in human individuals, as the result of a mere 200,000 years or less of evolution driven by survival differentials among human groups.

Peter Johnson
Auburn University

 

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