The Divine Rise of Ultra-Sociality

(April 20th, 2016) Is sociality written in our genes? A game of dice suggests that all it needs for humans to cooperate is an all-seeing, moral and punitive god.

The altruistic cooperation in social insects, such as ants, is the consequence of each individual being sterile and tightly genetically related to one another. Humans, in contrast, are mostly fertile and their genetic ties dilute outside immediate families. Nevertheless, according to biologists, we are an ultra-social species. This phenomenon, on which we build our lives, defies any standard genetics-based mechanism.

Human cooperation, expressed as the complexity of our societies and commerce, has skyrocketed since the invention of agriculture. Imagine a merchant on the Silk Road, travelling thousands of miles through the Gobi Desert, just to do business in a small village with people he’ll probably meet only once in his life. What kind of Darwinian mechanism could ensure that the parties trust each other?

Well, if we cannot use genetics or evolution to fix this issue, we need to invoke gods. We specifically need an all-knowing, moral and punitive god, who sanctions violators of the rules and rewards good worshipping. Let’s invent the almighty Koraalie, an all-knowing, beautiful deity, who resides in Mount Shasta, judging the deeds of her worshippers from her throne of puppies. The merchant in the Gobi Desert, a devote Koraalian, will not cheat while doing business with strangers. He knows Kooralie sees all and will bring pest and poverty to his family if he deceives customers. For some scientists out there, such a mindset could be the pillar of our ultra-sociality.

This moralistic punitive god theory, however, needs some quantifiable evidence. To test it, we need to measure, to which extent individuals cheat strangers when they know their gods are watching them. The behavioural experiment could be a modification of the random allocation game. In this exercise, the subjects play in private with a fair die with three sides of one colour and three of another colour. There are also two cups and 30 coins. The rules of the game are simple. The believer chooses one cup and rolls the die. If one colour comes up, the believer wins the coin and puts it into the cup he has selected. If the other colour shows up, the coin goes into the second cup, which will be given to a stranger from another religion.

There’s a 50% chance of either colour showing up, so in the end, there should be roughly 15 coins in each cup. Any significant deviation from this average will indicate that the believer cheated and tried to put as many coins as possible into his cup. In order to make this experiment representative, we should select a diverse array of human societies with a wide range of religious beliefs. For instance, we could go to gorgeous places like Vanuatu, Fiji, Brazil, Mauritius, the Tyva Republic (Siberia) and Tanzania. A huge sample will be needed to run some statistics, as much as 591 individuals and at least 35,400 observations.

Sadly, we’ll never go to all those nice places to interview hundreds of individuals about their beliefs. Benjamin Purzycki et al. were already there and revealed the results of their random allocation experiments in a recent Nature article. Their answer was really clear: people, who believe in punitive moralistic gods, cheated less. According to the authors, “conceptions of moralistic and punitive gods that know people’s thoughts and behaviors promote impartiality towards distant co-religionists, and as a result contribute to the expansion of sociality”. The trust between our merchant from the Gobi Desert and his customers can even be enforced if they are both Koraalians.

This theory seems to work nicely for ancient civilisations, however, now we have created places like London, Berlin or Paris. What common belief ensures that individuals from different genetic and religious backgrounds produce such super-ultra-social structures?


Picture: Lohr

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