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Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought

Pascal Boyer

Basic Books/Harper Collins, New York, 2001, Hardcover, 375 pages, $27.50 list, ISBN: 0465006957. Available from at 30% off the cover price

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

Jim Rossi Note 1

The origins of religion strikes me as a tough nut for science to crack, and Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought does not change my mind. Pascal Boyer makes some fascinating insights about culture and religion, but the book is based on questionable theoretical foundations, and is generally dry, dense and hard to follow.

Contrary to what is suggested by the title, this book is not a rigorous reductionist application of evolutionary biology to religious behavior. Instead, Boyer relies mainly on cognitive psychology, cultural anthropology and philosophical argument--evolutionary explanations are retrofitted where convenient.

Pascal Boyer does make several outstanding points. His explanation of the purpose of religious fundamentalism is chilling and compelling, and his insights on religion and human fears of predation are fascinating. He is at his best when he relies on anthropological evidence like the Fang people's schemes for outsmarting spirits or Nepalese priests who deal with a dead king's spirit:

    "In the old kingdom of Nepal, upon the death of the king a priest would be summoned whose duty it was to sleep in the king's bed, smoke his cigarettes and use his possessions. He could also order his way around the royal household, order any food he liked and expect his orders to be obeyed. However, the royal cooks would contaminate all his food with a paste made from the bones of the deceased king's head. The point of all this was that the priest would (quite literally in this case) incorporate the corpse and absorb all the pollution. Only a high-caste Brahman was considered pure enough to collect that much pollution. After this period of bizarre intimacy with the king's Body Natural, the Brahman was promptly expelled from the kingdom, indeed frog-marched to its borders and often beaten up, probably to make sure he would not stop on his way or consider coming back." (p. 213)

Boyer thoughtfully analyzes the origin and role of religious rituals, and examines the role of religious officials viewed as members of a specialized economic guild.

The book's discussion of fundamentalism, predation, rituals, and guilds in religion are well worth reading. Unfortunately, these grounded but comprehensive ideas, which are made relevant by their real-life examples, do not appear until late in the book. Boyer spends the first two-thirds of Religion Explained in a mind-numbing, endlessly confusing exposition of philosophical ideas and questionable, clumsy psychological theory.

Dawkins' cultural memes provide a major point of departure for his book. Boyer's premise, as well as I could understand it, is that religious ideas have spread as memes--though modified in cultural transmission by various human cognitive inference systems. But like much in the book, the idea is hard to follow:

    "The notion of human culture as a huge set of copy-me programs is very seductive and it is certainly on the right track, but it is only a starting point. Why are some memes better than others? Why is singing Land of Hope and Glory after hearing it once much easier than humming a tune from Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire? What exactly makes moralistic ancestors better for transmission than immoral ghosts? This is not the only problem. A much more difficult one is that if we look a bit more closely at cultural transmission between human beings, what we see does not look at all like replication of identical memes. On the contrary, the process of transmission seems guaranteed to create an extraordinary profusion of baroque variations. This is where the analogy with genes is more hindrance than help. Consider this. You (and I) carry genes that come from a unique source (a meiotic combination of our parents' genes) and we will transmit them unchanged (though combined with a partner's set) to our offspring. In the meantime, nothing happens; however much you may work out at the gym, you will not have more muscular children. But in mental representations the opposite is true. The denizens of our minds have many parents (in those thousands of renditions of Land of Hope and Glory, which one is being replicated when I whistle the tune?) and we constantly modify them." (p.38)

This is a common method of approach in Religion Explained: Boyer leads the reader through a lengthy and complicated explanation, then explains that it is incomplete. He then adds further complicated details, never considering that it may have been a bad idea to base so much on a questionable theory.

Readers who consider the psychological paradigm of "brain-as-computer" to be outdated will not be convinced by Boyer's analysis:

    "Before we accept emotion-oriented scenarios of religion's origins, we should probe their assumptions... Consider a simple emotion like the fear induced by the lurking presence of a predator. In many animals, including humans, this results in dramatic somatic events--most noticeably, a quickened heartbeat and increased perspiration. But other systems are doing complex work. For instance, we have to choose among several behaviors in such situations--freeze or flee or fight--a choice that is made by computation, that is, by mentally going through a variety of aspects of the situation and evaluating the least dangerous option. So fear is not just what we experience about it; it is also a program, in some ways comparable to a computer program. It governs the resources of the brain in a special way, quite different from what happens in other circumstances. Fear increases the sensitivity of some perceptual mechanisms and leads reasoning through complicated sets of possible outcomes... In the case of fear triggered by predators, it seems quite clear that natural selection designed our brains in such a way that they comprise this specific program." (p. 21-22)

Boyer neither mentions Panksepp's profound research on emotions as evolved neural pathways in mammal brains nor does he consider most of the research reviewed in Damasio's outstanding book, Descartes' Error. Both Panksepp and Damasio consider parsimonious models of brain evolution that unify structure and function, i.e., brain and mind. The evolved brain, according to Damasio, is fundamentally different in design, structure and function than a computer.

Instead, Boyer's analysis of the mind reads like a cross between outdated 1970s cognitive psychology and obsolete 19th century Cartesian dualism, utilizing abstract psychological constructs like programs, concepts, templates, and ontological categories:

    "Even though we know nothing about the particular cultural context of these descriptions, we can see how each of them combines a particular ontological category and a special characteristic:

    (31) Thirsty people disappear [PERSON] + special biology, physics
    (32) Cologne spirits [PERSON] + invisible + drinks perfume
    (33) People with flying organ [PERSON] + extra organ
    (34) Counterintelligence wristwatch [TOOL] + detects enemies
    (36) gourmet mountain [NATURAL OBJECT] + digestion
    (37) Guardian river [NATURAL OBJECT] + incest abhorrence
    (38) Guardian forest [NATURAL OBJECT] + likes a good tune

    This, obviously, is a terribly simplified description of people's actual representations. But that is an advantage. Summarizing concepts in this way highlights a very important property of religious concepts. Each of these entries in the mental encyclopedia includes an ontological entry between brackets and a 'tag' for special features of the new entry. These tags added to the default category seem very diverse, but they have one property in common: The information contained by the tags contradicts information provided by the ontological category.

    Since this is a rather important property, allow me to elaborate on the point a bit. When you activate an ontological category, such as ANIMAL, this delivers all sorts of expectations about the object as a member of the ANIMAL category. Now the concepts listed above seem to (i) activate those categories and (ii) produce something that goes against what the categories stipulate... To sum up, religious concepts invariably include information that is counterintuitive relative to the category activated." (p. 64-65)

Readers who prefer rigorous empiricism to abstract reasoning will doubt some of Boyer's fundamental ideas:

    "So it seems sensible that a 'one thing led to many things' scenario is apposite for cultural phenomena... But we can approach the question from another angle. Indeed, we can and should turn the whole 'origin explanation upside down, as it were, and realize the many forms of religion we know are not the outcome of a historical diversification but of a constant reduction... The religious concepts we observe are relatively successful ones selected among many other variants... To explain religion we must explain how human minds, constantly faced with lots of potential 'religious stuff,' constantly reduce it to much less stuff." (p. 32)

This is an interesting idea, but is it true?

Boyer's evolutionary ideas are mainly those of evolutionary psychology, which suffers from the major criticism that it assumes, without evidence, that common psychological constructs are common because they are adaptive. Such "naive adaptationist" reasoning, which has been criticized from different perspectives by, among others, Stephen Jay Gould, Eldar Shafir and Victoria Sork, ignores the complexities of quantitative genetics and the role of contingency in evolution.

I find it astonishing that Boyer does not discuss the origin of religion in the context of transitions in human subsistence. It seems at least plausible, and certainly worth discussing, that religion, as a uniquely human behavior, is tied to one of the early cultural transitions of the human species such as that from scavenging or hunting to gathering, or from hunting and gathering to the beginning of agriculture. Instead, he dismisses the possibility:

    "So we should abandon the search for a historical origin of religion in the sense of a point in time (however long ago) when people created religion where there was none. All scenarios that describe people sitting around and inventing religion are dubious. Even the ones that see religion as slowly emerging out of confused thoughts have this problem. In the following chapters, I will show how religion emerges (has its origins, if you want) in the selection of concepts and the selection of memories. Does this mean that at some point in history people had lots of possible versions of religion and that somehow one of them proved more successful? Not at all. What it means is that at all times and all the time, indefinitely many variants of religious notions were and are created inside individual minds. Not all these variants are equally successful in cultural transmission. What we call a cultural phenomenon is the result of a selection that is taking place all the time and everywhere." (p. 33)

This arguement appears to me to be unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. Moreover it circumvents important scientific questions. For example, did religion emerge as a means to power in a stratified social group born of agriculture? Does faith persist because it is adaptive, fostering perseverance in difficult situations where a human might otherwise give up?

In summary, Religion Explained is a complicated book that rests on questionable theoretical foundations; namely, the circular adaptationism of evolutionary psychology and the brain-similar-to-computer paradigm of cognitive psychology. Boyer draws some intriguing conclusions, but they appear built on a foundation of sand. The origins of religion remain a mystery.


Boyer, Pascal [2001]. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religous Thought. Pascal Boyer/ Basic Books, USA. 375pp.


1 Jim Rossi is a freelance writer, researcher, and naturalist. He can be contacted at

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