Ethology of Religion

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ETHOLOGY OF RELIGION . Human ethology is the biological study of human behavior. It emphasizes the notion that both the behavior of humankind and its physiological basis have evolved phylogenetically and should be studied as an aspect of evolution. Ethology overlaps other disciplines such as sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, human anthropology, and even consciousness studies, which in part employ similar strategies of research.

History of Ethology

The historical roots of ethology can be traced to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) Darwin recognized that the role of instinct is just as important for the survival of the species as the adaptation of morphological structures in the course of their phylogenetic histories. During the following decades, however, the Darwinian approach continued to be disregarded. Instead, a scientific school with roots in psychology dominated the study of animal and human behavior. This behaviorism was based on the premise that psychology should be regarded as the science of behavior, rather than the science of mental life. Proceeding from the assumption that behavior is a product of learning, American behaviorists focused on the study of observable behavior and the ascertainable or contrived circumstances of its occurrence. As a result, behaviorists were successful in all kinds of research with regard to general laws of learning, but failed to take evolutionary approaches into account. Until the 1970s most behaviorists and sociologists were convinced that the behavior of humans and animals was mainly a product of their environment and education.

Within the scientific climate at that time, anthropology and the study of religions developed approaches of cultural relativism that considered human culture as phenomena upon which the biological heritage had no influence. This opinion first came into question when the experienced historian of religions Karl Meuli (18911968) was able to prove that religions as distinct from one another as the religions of ancient Greece, imperial Rome, recent arctic hunter-gatherers, and probably even prehistoric hunters, shared similar ritual customs. This observation was unintelligible from an environmental point of view. In spite of the prevailing paradigm, Meuli concluded that these similar manifestations of sacrificial practices must originate in an innate behavior pattern acquired during human evolution.

From a biological standpoint, the final impulses for the revision of the extremely environmentally oriented approaches came from zoologists like Konrad Lorenz (19031989) and Nikolaas Tinbergen (19071988). During the 1940s and 1950s, Tinbergen and Lorenz focused on the investigation of instinctive behavior in the animal's natural habitat, its meaning seen from an evolutionary point of view, and its physiological and genetic foundation. At the same time they assumed that similar action patterns had been developed to serve as social signals or releasers for appropriate behavior, not only among animal species but among humans as well. As a result, the study of human ethology attempted to apply ethological methods and the evolutionary perspective to psychological, sociological and, finally, even religious phenomena.

During the following decades the German zoologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1928) and others contributed to this new discipline by studying expressive movements with signal functions. These behavior patterns are usually incorporated into more complex behavioral events for which the term ritual was introduced by Julian Huxley (18871975). As for the origin of behavioral patterns, a distinction can be made between phylogenetically evolved, culturally acquired, and individually invented signals. The criteria of homology are applicable to phylogenetically acquired, as well as to culturally acquired, signals. Expressive behavior and ritual behavior both serve the function of communication. As far as religions are concerned, two important remarks have to be taken into account: first, expressive behavior does not necessarily mean that a message is consciously intended; second, originally functional acts can change their function from goal-directed acts into symbolic acts, so that, in the end, even elaborate displays mainly serve the function of social bonding.

Strategies of Interaction

Darwin had already pointed out that a number of facial and bodily expressions are inherent to humankind. Evidence could be derived from studying the expressive behavior of those born blind and deaf, who were deprived of visual and auditory knowledge regarding the facial expressions of their fellow humans and who, nevertheless, exhibited the usual patterns of smiling, laughing, and crying. Besides such ontogenetic studies, cross-cultural documentation of human behavior and primate comparison confirm the assumption that certain human behavior patterns are the result of phylogenetic adaptations.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt's cross-cultural documentation contains many examples of universals in human behavior, which of course only occur in a very generalized form and may vary considerably from culture to culture. The display of the genitals, for example, originates in the sexual behavior of primates, in which erection of the penis expresses not only a willingness for sexual intercourse but also masculine power and vigor. Contrarily, the display of the female breasts is supposed to have an appeasing effect, while the act of raising the arm and showing the palm of one's hand is usually taken as a gesture of defense. All these gestures serve as signals that safely trigger certain responses from the recipient and are universally understood, even if not acted out but manifested in objects of art. The phallic sculpture, therefore, must be understood as a threatening object warding off enemies or evil forces. Phallic figures and signs are frequently used in a religious context to mark tribal territory or serve as a protective guardian of a house or temple. A similar gesture can be observed in patterns of female behavior. The obscene display of the vulva provokes a fear reaction and demonstrates superiority and dominance. At the same time, this threatening gesture of the female is combined with an encouragement for sexual intercourse, having an appeasing effect on the possible aggressor. As a result, the obscene female idols, amulets, and pendants that frequently occur in various cultures and religions can be understood as bearers of might, with the capability of protecting the owner from harm.

Unfortunately, ethological signs and figures are sometimes difficult to decipher or to encode. As human ethology has been able to prove, these behavioral signals are often portrayed in a devious manner. This form of communication media developed its own traditions, and the manner in which an object is portrayed will probably modify during history. Pictures will change into signs after several generations, signs into mere patterns. In human ethology, art history, the history of religions, and related fields of research, scholars have analyzed the historical development of symbols and patterns in pagan art and have achieved remarkable results. For example, Otto König's documentation of the patterns on the boats of Mediterranean fishermen exemplifies the change of the image of the protective "staring eye" from representation into an abstract symbol, and Karl von den Steinen (18551929) was able to explain the meaning of Marquesan tattoos by tracing them back to former portrayals of the skulls of the deceased.

Not only expressive behavior, but also the more complex rituals, serve the function of communication. In ritual, acts are fused into longer sequences that support strategies of social interaction. A functional equivalent of these ritualized sequences of action is language, where verbalized behavior takes the place of expressive gesture.

Ritualized human behavior as observed in greeting rituals and feasts usually displays a certain structure characterized by three successive stages: the opening phase, the phase of interaction, and the phase of parting. Each of these three phases is characterized by a set of verbal and nonverbal behavior patterns that not only correlates with a specific functional aspect of the phase, but also appears in repetition to deliver the same message through different channels and in different forms.

Toward an Ethology (Anthropology) of Religion

Any behavior pattern is adaptive in the sense that it contributes to the reproductive success or to the survival of the individual, the group, or the species. In that sense, as the historian of ancient religions Walter Burkert (1931) points out, well-adapted religious activities promote the success of a culture. He refers explicitly to the results of human ethology when tracing rituals and other activities within the scope of religious behavior to their supposed biological origins. Several basic elements of religious practice and thought, and, in particular, sacrifice, have to be seen as being inherited from the animal world, where they may contribute to the survival of the individual or the group in dangerous situations.

The anthropologist Marvin Harris (19272001) raises the question of whether or not religious behavior should be understood as the result of the adaptation of a culture to its specific ecological niche. For example, Harris describes the Aztec religion, with its focus on human sacrifice and religious cannibalism. Because population growth and the depleted condition of the natural fauna led to a lack of animal foods, it is assumed that the Aztecs pursued a strategy of religious cannibalism to achieve the necessary amount of proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Their religious beliefs, therefore, reflected the importance of a high-protein diet and the lack of natural resources in their habitat. The occurrence of rites of passage, especially seen in male initiation, can also be traced to biological roots. A low-protein diet makes prolonged nursing a necessity. This, however, results in a postpartum sex taboo that leads to polygyny. The resulting mother-child households, together with prolonged nursing, lead to an intensive bonding between mother and child and, finally, to cross-sex identification. Severe male initiation ceremonies that include circumcision or other forms of ritual torture and mind control are then required to break the prepubescent identity in order to allow for later identification with fathers and other males.

A different concern with issues of function and structure shaped the work of the anthropologist Roy Rappaport (19261997). As Rappaport points out, ritual and language have coevolved, with ritual providing a necessary counteraction to language-created problems that may otherwise lead to social disorder and violence. Ritual contains self-referential messages that supply information about the size, density, or strength of the group, and similarly serve the purpose of competition by supplying information about the social status and psychophysical characteristics of the participants. By participating in ritual, in which invariable words and actions recur, men and women assume wider commitmentsthe so-called ultimate sacred postulateswhich are forged at a deeper level of the psyche. Even if these postulates are ideally untestable and have no immediate consequences, they cannot be questioned and hold a key position in the governing hierarchy of ideas. Rituals, therefore, as religion's main components, form the concepts that people consider to be religious, and therefore they have been central in the adaptation of the human species as part of a larger ecological whole.

While Burkert, Rappaport, and Harris mostly refer to the adaptive values of religious behavior and thought, the Indologist Frits Staal focuses on the analysis of ritual and mantra by adopting an ethological approach in order to explain the origin of religion. Far from sharing the common scholarly opinion that ritual is a symbolic representation of what people believe, he emphasizes that rituals have to be understood without reference to their supposed religious background. Staal's careful investigation and documentation of Vedic rituals result in the statement that rituals are pure activity without any meaning or goal, in which only faultless execution in accordance with the rules counts. Staal draws the conclusion that the origins of religion lie deep in inborn behavior patterns. Religions, which do not necessarily have doctrines and beliefs, originate in ritualization as observed in animal behavior. Only later does ritual become religious in the Western and monotheistic sense of the word, when provided with a religious interpretation that includes doctrine and the belief in an afterlife.

For the anthropologist Weston La Barre (19111996) religion is the result of the adaptation of human beings to their ecological niche and is shaped by both biological and cultural evolution. In particular, human biology with neoteny (i.e., the persistence of larval features in adult animals) and the resulting need for domestication leads to psychological responses that establish the basis for the capacity and the propensity for magic and religion in men. Belief in God, therefore, is the result of male-fantasized omnipotence as acquired by being locked into a lifelong phallic paranoid state. When vatic personalities, such as priests and their more primitive counterparts, shamans, speak with the voice of God, it is nothing but an expression of the self, deprived of its psychosexual maturity.

According to La Barre, religion first emerged when an early shaman, as depicted in the Stone Age cave of Les Trois Frères, proclaimed to have magic power over game and, after his death, became the supernatural helper of later shamans and, finally, the master of animals. Shaped by Paleolithic belief, shamans persisted as gods into protohistoric and historic times, where they were transformed to suit the needs of an agricultural society. In discovering the human nature of their gods, the Greeks resecularized their nature deities into mere heroes, while the Hebrews sacralized their patriarchal sheikhs and shamans into a moral and spiritual god, who, due to the influence of Greek crisis cults, developed into the Christian God.

Although ethological approaches to the study of religions have helped to gain insight into the ways multiple cultural systems are related to the biology of the human species, heavy criticism has been heaped upon an approach that is accused of being materialistic and nonhistoricand of working with unnecessary complex and nonverifiable models of social dynamics. The assumed structural parallels of religions with biology, consciousness studies, and linguistics suggest a scientific character that aims at a natural truth underlying conventional scholarly results. As the anthropologist and scholar of religions Benson Saler (1930) points out, the reference to universals existing in all cultures leads to definitions of universal categories that are so vague and abstract they are nearly useless and, furthermore, contradict the archaeological and anthropological records. The stress on universals, therefore, runs the risk of deflecting attention from the characteristics of a given religion that make it a solitary system of conceptions and deeds acquired throughout the course of history. According to the historians Carlo Ginzburg (1939) and Jean-Pierre Vernant (1914), the specific history of a society and its religion shapes the spiritual universe of a people and modifies certain psychological attitudes, which have retroactive effects on religious behavior and thought.

Anthropological approaches stressing the results of ethological research are undoubtedly of great value as starting points for new and interesting inquiries, but in abandoning the historical method such approaches partially miss the goal of ethology. Because the emphasis of ethology has been based on the notion that the behavior of humans and its manifestations in religion have evolved throughout history, ethological inquiry must consider the historical circumstances under which the custom in question developed. To make matters perfectly clear, the theory of evolution has made biology into a historical science. Methodologically speaking, the descriptive techniques used by both ethologists and historians of religions are now fairly sophisticated, and they should be put to use by scholars surveying the religious behavior of closely defined groups. Comparative studies can be a fertile source of ideas and data if they avoid the implication that one group of people is just like another, and instead provide principles whose applicability to the religion under question can be assessed. Finally, the basic scientific issues of ethological research have to be taken into account, as there are questions of causation, ontogeny, function, and evolution (history). It would be desirable to include not only ethological theory and terminology, but also ethological method, especially in small-scale research. Such an approach would surely lead to remarkable results in future research.

See Also

Ecology and Religion; Evolution; Prehistoric Religions; Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology.


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Ina Wunn (2005)