Tag: Religion

Ritual, by Dimitris Xygalatas

Whether weddings, national parades or religious festivals, rituals present a puzzle. We stress their importance, reflecting on these services as some of life’s most cherished moments. And yet, when prompted, most of us can’t explain why we perform them. What explains their persistence, and this apparent contradiction?

In his new book Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living, trailblazing anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas takes us on an electrifying tour of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals. By fusing the latest breakthroughs in science and technology, Xygalatas presents a powerful new perspective on our most sacred ceremonies.

Ancient traditions

A native of Greece, rituals have fascinated Dimitris since his early childhood. Flicking through his first copy of the National Geographic and learning about exotic cultures in faraway places sparked his curiosity, planting the seeds of his career in anthropology.

Ironically, Dimitris started out as a ritual sceptic. “To me, the human obsession with ceremony seemed puzzling”, Dimitris writes. “Why do so many strange traditions persist in the modern age of science, technology and secularisation?”

Dimitris’s worldview was shaken when his father took him to his first football game. “For most of the game my father kept trying to lift me up so that I could watch the action. But that didn’t matter much to me. The most interesting part was what was happening in the terraces”. Forming a sea of black and white shirts, forty thousand football fans created a spectacle Dimitris would never forget. “As soon as the referee blew the first whistle, it was as though a jolt of electricity had run through the stadium . . . It was as though the crowd had become a single entity with a life of its own.”

According to Dimitris, sports events like this mirror some of our most primitive ceremonies. “There is something about high-arousal rituals that seems to thrill groups of individuals and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts.”

Even as the Western world loses its religion, Dimitris argues that rituals remain rampant. “From knocking on word to uttering prayers, and from new year celebrations to presidential inaugurations, ritual permeates every important aspect of our private and public lives.”

Evidently, the human desire to congregate is ancient. From prehistoric hunter-gatherers to the urbanites of the 21st century, people across cultures and throughout history have felt compelled to form large crowds and participate in communal ceremonies.

The oldest known ritual is the funeral, where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of burials taking place over a hundred thousand years ago. However, humans do not hold a monopoly on rituals. Whether it’s the ritualised greetings of chimpanzees, frisky flamingos engaging in elaborate courtship rituals, or elephants trekking vast distances to pay respect to their dead, rituals have been spotted across the animal kingdom. That said, Dimitris stresses the prevalence and extent of our ritualistic practices is uniquely human.

My findings, as well as convergent discoveries from a variety of scientific disciplines, reveal that ritual is rooted deep in our evolutionary history. In fact, it is as ancient as our species itself – and for good reason.

One camp of scientists argue that the gravitational pull of rituals is an evolutionary accident, and that our ritualistic behaviour is the result of misfiring mental systems that detect danger. Although the ‘mental glitch hypothesis’ should be taken seriously, Dimitris argues the weight of evidence is stacked against it. “Evolution is not wasteful”, asserts Dimitris. “Behaviours that are impractical or maladaptive do not tend to stick around forever.”

Social glue

So, what are the functions of rituals then? In essence, Dimitris argues that rituals are cultural gadgets that help solve a raft of recurring challenges we modern humans face. These challenges include: finding a romantic partner, coping with the pain of losing a loved one, and instilling a sense of order in a chaotic world. Perhaps most importantly, rituals help solve the central challenge of getting large groups of fiercely tribal primates to cooperate.

Anthropologists have long explored the functions of traditions, amassing rich descriptions of the world’s most exotic rituals. Despite the groundwork they laid, Dimitris points out that anthropologists rarely put their theories to the test.

Through his ingenious use of biometrics, Dimitris reveals that rituals can now be detected in the human body. That is, by measuring how hard people’s hearts are pumping, and other aspects of their physiology.

Dimitris first experimented with these gadgets in the Spanish village of San Pedro, Manrique. Held on the summer solstice, the ‘festival of San Juan’ floods their small village with visitors, who catch a glimpse of the locals walking bare foot across burning hot coal. Dimitris got the idea when heard people repeatedly say that when they go out onto the stadium, ‘all three thousand people feel like one’. To Dimitris, this sounded like what the eminent sociologist Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence’— a pulse of energy that runs through a large crowd and transforms them into a cohesive unit. Perhaps these biometric sensors can capture this sense of oneness?

Clearly, this firewalking ritual evokes strong emotions—and the intensity of these emotions is felt by everyone. Dimitris and his colleagues’ research revealed an extraordinary level of synchrony among people’s heart rates, both amongst the firewalkers and spectators.

Fire-walking isn’t just a challenge for participants. Spectators also feel the heat. Image credit: Dimtris Xygalatas

Ultimately, extreme rituals like the San Juan firewalk trigger a flood of stress and emotions, which in turn binds people together. “Each individual’s experience is affected and amplified by those of others, like a thousand streams of water merging to form a river that is faster and more powerful than any single stream could ever be.”

The dark side of rituals

Rituals are a source of magic, and like all potions, they can be used for good or ill.

Take degrading initiation rituals, also known as ‘hazing’ in the United States. As the crushing weight of pain and humiliation can only really be appreciated by those who have experienced such an ordeal, hazees quickly become comrades. This helps explain why societies at war perform much more brutal initiations, as these rituals instil cohesion at a time when solidarity is absolutely essential. However, Dimitris suggests if we take these rituals out of context and perform them for no good reason (say, performed at a frat party for shits and giggles), they can be extremely harmful.

That said, there are a range of rituals that seem terrible on the surface, where Dimitris and his research team have scratched to reveal these rituals’ hidden benefits. Exhibit A: the Thaipusam festival. Performed by millions of Tamil Hindus every year, the Thaipusam is one of the world’s oldest religious festival. The most extreme aspect of it is the Kavadi Attam, where devotees are repeatedly punctured with needles whilst carrying heavy shrines in a long procession to their holy temple (are you tempted?).

If you expect undergoing such hell would trash your health, you’re mistaken. Whilst the pilgrim’s wounds healed quickly, Dimitris and his colleagues discovered their mental health was substantially improved through suffering this torment— where those who suffered the most experienced the greatest psychological benefits.

A sceptic would argue that there are other activities that offer similar benefits and carry far less risk. For example, intense exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in treating major depression. However, Dimitris notes the conundrum of getting someone who’s suffering depression to summon the strength to go for a run. “Cultural rituals may help circumvent this problem by exerting external pressure to participate.”

Ritual feasts

Whilst exploring some of the world’s most exotic and extreme rituals, Xygalatas also reflects the more mundane moments in our lives, including the artificial landscape of the modern workplace.

There are sound ethical and legal reasons why you don’t want to subject your teams to extreme rituals (HR would not be pleased to hear of new hires having needles stuck in their backs). And whilst drinking is an easy way to alleviate anxiety in awkward social situations, the appropriateness of alcohol in work settings is increasingly being called into question. However, there are alternatives that are both suitable and effective.

Having lived in Denmark, Dimitris documents what he deems peculiarities of Danish working practices. The Danes apparently work less than virtually all other nations in the world. Whilst this can help us understand why Danes are so happy, they certainly aren’t slackers. To the contrary, Danes are also amongst the most productive workers in the world. How on Earth is this possible?

Whilst numerous factors are probably involved, Dimitris suspects Danish workplace rituals can explain their striking successes. “While at first glance the numerous rituals of the Danish workplace may have seemed odd or wasteful, as soon as I embraced them it became clear to me that they contributed something vital to the efficient, productive and enjoyable work environment.”

Although less time crunching spreadsheets can be perceived as wasting company resources, the Nordics appreciate the social benefits of team activities and communal feasts, and that these benefits more than outweigh the costs. “Eating together is an intimate act, usually reserved for close relatives and friends. Sharing food therefore symbolises community and helps strengthen bonds among colleagues”.

Focusing further afield than efficiency, Dimitris suggests that communal feasts and team activities effectively harness the power of rituals, strengthening social bonds whilst also boosting morale. “What is more, work group rituals make work-related tasks feel more meaningful, which makes for a happier as well as more productive workforce.”

Of course, it’s not as easy to forge strong bonds amongst corporate workers, as does, say, devotees enduring backbreaking toil in a long procession to their holy temple. However, sprinkling the modern workplace with rituals can help the ordinary feel a little bit more meaningful and special.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

Ritual: How Seemingly Senseless Acts Make Life Worth Living is published by Profile Books. Click here to buy a copy.

The Weirdest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich

Here’s an ethical dilemma for you to mull over:

You are riding in a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was driving only 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences.

If you found yourself boxed into this awkward situation, what right would you say your friend has in expecting you to protect him?

If you would refuse to testify and protect your friend, you are probably pretty WEIRD. That is, you most likely grew up in a country which is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (lucky you).

If you’re WEIRD like me, you may be surprised to learn that of the corporate managers across the world who were presented with this ethical dilemma, a sizable proportion outside of Western countries said that they would lie under oath to protect their friend.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, being WEIRD makes you an outlier psychologically among the world’s diverse inhabitants of humans.

Compared to the rest of humanity, we Westerners are highly individualistic, self-centred, control oriented, and analytical. We tend to focus on ourselves— our unique characteristics, our achievements and our ambitions— rather than on our relationships with our family and friends.

Despite our rugged individualism and benign levels of narcissism, we WEIRDos tend to treat people fairly, and are unusually trusting of strangers. Similarly, we think nepotism and cronyism is wrong, and we forgo numerous opportunities to further our friend’s and family’s interests.

This raises the million-dollar question: how did we Westerners become so peculiar?

The Weirdest People in the World

In his new book The Weirdest People in the World, American anthropologist Joseph Henrich not only explores the psychology of ‘WEIRD’ people, but also excavates the origins of the modern world (a tall order, I know).

Joseph Henrich is Professor and Chair of Harvard University’s department of Evolutionary Biology, and is a champion of interdisciplinary science (Henrich initially trained as an aerospace engineer, and has held professorships in psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology). Henrich’s first popular science book, The Secret of Our Success, was an instant classic in the social sciences, where he convincingly made the case that culture is now the dominant force driving human evolution.

Ten years ago, Joe and his colleagues Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan penned a scientific paper with the same title of his new book. Their paper served as reality check for psychologists (ironic indeed), where Henrich and his colleagues lamented the lack of diversity among psychological studies. To elaborate, they criticised psychologists for making sweeping generalisations about human psychology, when their research actually narrowly focused on a thin slice of humanity— WEIRD people (more specifically, WEIRD university students). Having trawled through the literature, they discovered that over 96% of participants in psychological experiments were WEIRD.

Although this publication made waves across the world of behavioural science, Henrich admits that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with their paper. “I’ve always found it unsatisfying, because it doesn’t explain anything. How can we account for all this psychological variation?”. In the aftermath of their publication, explaining the existence of these broad psychological differences monopolised Henrich’s thinking.

Joseph Henrich demonstrates proper posture at Harvard Museum’s Evolution gallery (Image credit: Kris Snibbe)

So, what does explain Westerners’ unique psychological profile? The surprising conclusion that Henrich and his collaborators have reached is that these psychological differences can be traced back to the Catholic Church.

The Holy Scriptures

In The Weirdest People in the World, Henrich argues that around 1,500 years ago, the medieval Catholic Church (the branch of Christianity that would become the Western Church) began promoting a particular set of prohibitions and prescriptions about marriage and the family, which inadvertently altered people’s psychology.

It’s well known that outlawing polygyny— a form of polygamy where a man has multiple wives— helps keep the worst aspects of our nature at bay (monogamy insures against armies of incels inciting violent uprisings). However, counterintuitively, Henrich argues one of the most impactful of the Church’s prohibitions was the banning of cousin marriage. Why was this practice so impactful? Because the banning of cousin marriage (along with the Church’s overzealous imposition of incest-taboos more generally) effectively dissolved the densely interconnected clans and kindreds that roamed Western Europe. Consequently, these clans were shredded into small and independent nuclear families.

Why would the nuclear family structure fundamentally alter our psychology? Henrich’s central claim is that the Catholic Church’s ‘Marriage and Family Plan’ effectively dismantled tribes and clans in Western Europe, which relied heavily on arranged marriages to cement political ties (think of the prolonged political wrangling that takes place in the make-believe world of Game of Thrones— let alone all the incest). These social arrangements forced people to venture outside of their closed-knit communities to find their lovers to be, rather than fulfilling their obligations and duties to their extended families (which were largely assigned at birth). This incentivised people to build their own social circles and to cultivate traits that other people would find valuable and attractive, as they had to compete in the market of affection.

The impact of these practices on Westerners’ lives cannot be overstated. Henrich spells out what this meant for day-to-day living:

In most WEIRD societies, you can’t marry your stepson, take multiple spouses, or arrange the marriage of your teenage daughter to your business partner. Similarly, you could tell your son that he must move into your house after he gets married, but he and his wife may have other ideas when you have little leverage. You are compelled by custom in law to build relationships by other means and to depend on impersonal markets, governments, and other formal institutions (e.g. to provide safety nets for injuries, disasters, and unemployment).

Henrich argues that these curbs enforced by the Catholic Church got the ball of individualism rolling, which subsequently sparked a chain of large-scale societal changes— sprouting the seeds of impartial institutions such as guilds, universities and businesses. By the high Middle Ages, catalysed by the Catholic Church’s social cauldron, Henrich argues that these newly formed WEIRD ways of thinking and feeling propelled novel forms of government, whilst also accelerating innovation and the emergence of science. These self-reinforcing forces thus fuelled the rise of capitalism and liberal democracy.

If Henrich’s thesis is correct, then the Catholic Church ironically created the fertile conditions necessary for the scientific Enlightenment. However, Henrich stresses that the rise of Western societies over the last 500 years was not inevitable, nor that anyone would necessarily have predicted it beforehand. To put it bluntly, the idea that a bunch of barbarians in Europe would later amass great wealth and expand across all corners of the globe would have been inconceivable.  

As stated by Henrich:

If a team of alien anthropologists had surveyed humanity from orbit in 1000 CE, or even 1200 CE, they would never have guessed that European populations would dominate the globe during the second half of the Millennium. Instead, they would probably have bet on China or the Islamic world.

Henrich continues:

What these aliens would have missed from their orbital perch was the quiet fermentation of a new psychology during the Middle Ages in some European communities. This evolving proto-WEIRD psychology gradually laid the groundwork for the rise of impersonal markets, urbanisation, constitutional governments, democratic politics, individualistic religions, scientific societies, and relentless innovation. In short, these psychological shifts fertilise the soil for the seeds of the modern world.

The Weirdest People in the World is peppered with evidence of the lingering effects of Catholicism and Protestantism on Western minds. For example, Henrich shows that when a country received their first ‘dose’ of the Catholic Church’s family plan predicts how much their inhabitants currently respect tradition, trust strangers, and how ‘tight’ they are culturally. Remarkably, when countries were first exposed to the Western Church also predicts their rates of voluntary blood donations, and also the amount of unpaid parking tickets that UN Diplomats clock up during their time in New York City.

A busy map, detailing Church exposure and ‘kinship intensity’ across the world (Schulz et al, 2019)

One knee jerk criticism of Henrich’s theory is that the prevalence of Catholicism varies across the Western world, and also within Western countries. However, this is actually one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in favour of his thesis. For example, Henrich points out that provinces in Italy which have the lowest rates of cousin marriage (which serves as a proxy for Catholicism) donate much more blood on a voluntary basis.

The prevalence of first cousin marriage across 93 Italian provinces, and the frequency of blood donations (Henrich, 2020)

Henrich stacks several layers of evidence to make his arguments watertight, ruling out alternative explanations for the impact of the Western Church on people’s sense of trust, fairness and ‘impersonal prosociality’ (Henrich controls for factors including wealth, ecology, climate, and geography). Evidently, Henrich knows he’s going to be dragged into a fight— and he has covered all bases accordingly.

Rewriting history

With the passing of time, it’s inevitable that scholars will poke holes in Henrich’s writings (appreciating the inter-disciplinary nature of Henrich’s research). For example, evolutionary anthropologist William Buckner has questioned Henrich’s portrayal of polygyny in traditional societies, raising doubts regarding how much ‘choice’ women really have in such arrangements.

One scathing review of The Weirdest People in the World implied that Henrich has trivialised the scale of suffering inflicted by colonialism. However, this criticism doesn’t seem fair. Henrich clearly acknowledges the “very real and pervasive horrors of slavery, racism, plunder and genocide”. Rather, henrich explores the trajectories cultural evolution has taken and its enduring impact on our psychology, long after such horrors took place.

Personally, I’m still trying to wrap my head around how Stoicism fits into Henrich’s grand narrative. What do I mean? Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics which flourished in Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Stoics’ meditations on impartial justice and rational thinking strikes me as pretty WEIRD (from a modern interpretation of the philosophy at least). Yet, Stoicism actually predates Christianity by at least 300 years.

These points aside, I’m confident the critiques that’ll continue to come Henrich’s way will resemble minor quibbles, rather than challenges that threaten to tear down the walls of the theoretical edifice.

In summary, The Weirdest People in the World is dazzling in its breadth, along with its broad sweeping implications. When I reviewed Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success, I described it as a “a tour-de-force and a significant advancement of social science”. I’d confidently state that Henrich has once again raised the bar; this book is a landmark in social thought.

By chasing the ghosts of the medieval Catholic Church, Henrich has essentially rewritten the story of modern history. Indeed, Henrich illuminates the value of approaching history from a cultural-evolutionary perspective, and builds on recent efforts to make history a more quantitative and scientific discipline. To quote Henrich; “The cultural evolution of psychology is the dark matter that flows behind the scenes throughout history.”

Similarly, The Weirdest People in the World may well transform the field of psychology. Henrich and his colleagues began their intellectual journey by raising concerns about the overreliance on Western university students in psychology studies, and their efforts continue to influence the field. However, another lasting impact of Henrich’s contributions may be for psychology to be transformed into a historical science.  

Henrich’s research reveals the counterintuitive impacts of cultural practices enacted hundreds of years ago on our psychology (and even on our physiology). These are timeframes which psychologists rarely consider, and the field will probably be forced to dig a little deeper into history in light of these findings.

Globalisation and its discontents

Henrich’s theorising has clear implications for organisations whose ambitions span continents, including the inherent challenges of managing cultural differences. However, Henrich’s historical insights seem most relevant to aiding international development and efforts to curb corruption.

Henrich’s cultural-evolutionary perspective on modern history helps us understand how countries like Japan and China have managed to adapt rather quickly to a globalised world, whilst others including Iran and Iraq have struggled greatly (as large parts of the Islamic world still have intensive forms of kinship).

Evolutionary psychologists are fond of describing modern ailments as evolutionary mismatches (that is, heritable traits that were selected for in our ancestral past, which are now misaligned with the demands of the modern world). However, Henrich has identified a new strain of evolutionary mismatches: mismatched in our cultural-evolutionary psychology. In other words, a mismatch between societies’ culturally acquired customs and know-how, and the here-and-now.

What does this mean? To be frank, we can’t assume institutions that work in the Western world can just be lifted and dropped elsewhere— especially in regions where kinship ties remain strong. As stated by Henrich; “Modern formal institutions are now to a degree available “off the shelf”, though their performance depends on the cultural psychology of the populace.”

Protesters burn property in front of the US embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, 2019)

The following passage hammers the point home:

Many policy analysts can’t recognise these misfits because they implicitly assume psychological unity, or they figure that people’s psychology will shift to accommodate the new formal institutions. But, unless people’s kin-based institutions and religions are rewired from the grassroots, populations get stuck between “lower level” institutions like clans or segmentary lineages, pushing them in one set of psychological directions, and “higher level” institutions like democratic governments or impersonal organizations, pulling them in others: Am I loyal to my kinfolk over everything, or do I follow impersonal rules about impartial justice? Do I hire my brother-in-law or the best person for the job?

Henrich continues:

This approach helps us understand why ‘development’ (i.e. the adoption of WEIRD institutions) has been slower and more agonising in some parts of the world than in others… Rising participation in these impersonal institutions often means that the webs of social relationships, which had once ensconced, bound, and protected people, gradually dissolve under the acid of urbanisation, global markets, secular safety nets, and individualistic notions of success and security. Besides economic dislocation, people face the loss of meaning they derive from being a nexus in a broad network of relational connections that stretch back in time to their ancestors and ahead to their descendants.

Instead of pretending these cultural differences don’t exist, Henrich implores policy wonks to cater their strategies depending on community’s norms and practices. If social engineers are serious about improving the human condition, they must work with, or work around, such cultural-evolutionary mismatches. Just as importantly, Henrich invites social planners to consider how their interventions might alter people’s psychology centuries down the road.

The fathers who banned cousin marriage could not have fathomed the reverberations their actions would have across space and time. With a dizzying array of social changes, technological breakthroughs and environmental problems engulfing humanity in the 21st century, there will inevitably be profound and enduring changes seared into our collective psyches over the coming decades and centuries.

On the one hand, trying to predict the psychological impacts of these awesome forces would be wise, however fallible our forecasting is. On the other hand, Henrich illustrates the inherently unpredictable nature of cultural evolution– and the weird places it can take us to.

Written by Max Beilby for Darwinian Business.

The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous is published by Allen Lane (£30). Click here to buy a copy.