The Cultural Evolution of Religion in the Pacific




Religion presents an explanatory challenge to evolutionary theorists because it is prevalent despite the substantial costs it involves. These costs include the epistemic costs of ascribing agency to inanimate phenomena, the resource costs of sacrifices and offerings, and the opportunity costs of time spent engaged in worship. Despite these costs, humans’ capacity for religion has persisted into the present day and the vast majority of the world’s population is affiliated with a religion.

Numerous evolutionary explanations of how supernatural beliefs and practices could have arisen and persisted have been proposed. One family of explanations suggest that many features of religion simply arose as by-products of other human cognitive capacities, such as our tendencies to seek out causal explanations of important world events and to over-attribute agency.

Another family of explanations suggest that religions have evolved to serve social functions, such as helping to establish and maintain cohesive social groups. These functionalist accounts argue that at least some features of religion outweigh their costs.

In order to test evolutionary theories of religion I have led the construction of the Pulotu cross-cultural database of Pacific religion. This database is built from historic ethnographic source materials, and contains variable on the religious and social systems of early Austronesian speaking societies. The term “Austronesian” refers to one of the largest language families in the world.

Thanks to the sophisticated sailing technologies and celestial navigation abilities of Austronesian speaking peoples, their languages are spoken as far north as Taiwan, and as far south as Aotearoa (New Zealand). The cultural systems of Austronesian peoples have been described as providing a natural laboratory for testing theories about cultural evolution due to the range of ecological environments they settled in and the diversity of religious and social systems that evolved.

One of the features of the Pulotu database is that societies can be matched up to an established language-based family tree. This enables the use of phylogenetic comparative methods which can be used to account for the common ancestry of societies and infer how cultural traits change over time.


Research Outputs

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Bulbulia, J., Gray, R.D., & Atkinson, Q.D. (2018). Christianity spread faster in small politically structured societies. Nature Human Behaviour.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature, 532(7598), 228-231.

Watts, J., Greenhill, S., Atkinson, Q., Currie, T., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biology, 282(1804), 20142.

Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Greenhill, S.J., Gomes-Ng, S., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2015). Pulotu: Database of Austronesian Supernatural Beliefs and Practices. PLoS ONE, 10(9), e0136783.


External Links

The Pulotu Database of Pacific Religion

Dr Oliver Sheehan, University of Auckland

Prof Russell Gray, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Prof Joseph Bulbulia, University of Auckland

Prof Quentin Atkinson, University of Auckland

Dr Simon Greenhill, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History