Frontiers in Psychology | 2019
By Reverence, Not Fear: Prestige, Religion, and Autonomic Regulation in the Evolution of Cooperation
Recent evolutionary theories of religions emphasize their function as mechanisms for increasing prosociality. In particular, they claim that fear of supernatural punishment can be adaptive when it can compensate for humans’ inability to monitor behavior and mete out punishment in large groups, as well when it can inhibit individuals’ impulses for defection. Nonetheless, while fear of punishment may inhibit some anti-social behaviors like cheating, it is unlikely to motivate other prosocial behaviors, like helping. This is because human physiology has evolved separate neurological systems with differential behavioral correlates either for (1) processing fear and responding to threats or (2) facilitating social interactions in environments which are deemed safe. Almost all vertebrates possess autonomic pathways for processing threats and fear, which result in “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” responses and so likely mediate interactions in dominance hierarchies. Mammals, however, possess an additional, phylogenetically newer, pathway dedicated to suppressing such defensive responses in the service of promoting social affiliation or engagement. Here, we argue that this mammalian physiology supports an alternative hierarchical system unique to humans: prestige. In contrast to dominance, which involves aversion, fear and shame, prestige hierarchies are characterized by physical proximity and eye-contact, as well as emotions like admiration and respect for leaders. Prestige also directs the flow of cultural information between individuals and has been argued to have evolved in order to help individuals acquire high quality information. Here, we argue that not only does the mammalian autonomic pathway support prestige hierarchies, but that coupled with prestige biased social learning, it opens up a means for prestigious figures, including deities, to support the spread of prosocial behaviors. Thus, in addition to theories that emphasizes religious fear as a motivating factor in the evolution of prosocial religions, we suggest that reverence – which includes awe and respect for, deference to, admiration of, and a desire to please a deity or supernatural agent – is likely just as important. In support of this, we identify cases of religions that appear to be defined predominantly by prestige dynamics, and not fear of supernatural punishment.