Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Religion-Governance Inter-evolution: Social Justice as a Major Religious Evolutionary Transition

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Does the new wave of quasi-legally enforced social justice "woke-ism"represent a major evolutionary transition in religion and governance?

After going over some previous major evolutionary transitions, I'll suggest that it is certainly possible. Our current Great Moral Awakening, may reflect something much bigger than another turn on our normal 50 year socio-political instability cycle.


Researchers like Ara Norezayan have published plausible evidence about the co-evolution of religion and societal governance via long-term pacing and leading cycles. Religion comes up with a cultural innovation facilitated by the landscape changes produced by governance. Religion's resultant landscape changes then prime things for governance innovations and evolutions. The two iterate.

Change occurs culturally, but is primed, fertilized and stabilized due to gene-cultural trait selection.  Thus, processes aren't purely cultural. Rather, genetic factors (which likely facilitate or stabilize certain cultural traits) are important, ne essential.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is via domestication processes. Domestication is a gene-cultural process. People, like other animals, are clearly domesticable. You just need a selection process. War and differential fitness (via most any selection process) work quite well here. Multi-level selection theory, while not required, helps endogenize this process with respect to human groups / social structures.


Toblecki Temple
Peter Turchin
The archeological record from Toblecki temple suggests a significant social change somewhere around 10,000 years ago. This is generally interpreted as a religious gathering that suppressed conflict to enable beyond-tribal level gatherings. Religious studies folk generally interpret this as a signal for the move away from implicit religion, which is non-separable from tribal culture, to explicit religion, which is distinguishable from tribal culture. In effect, this reflects an inflection point where religion became a distinguishable performance or constrainable set of beliefs or practices.

According to Norezayan and others, this also reflects a change-point where chiefdom sized governance strategies were finally able to fully emerge.

You see the initiation of another major evolutionary transition point during the emergence of god-king governance. Typically chiefdoms temporarily aligned together during times of existential crises via distinct religious and war/political leaders. Separation of powers weakened the risks of authoritarian usurpation. As Norezayan says, sometime the religious leader or war leader was killed (or you had one person doing both roles for whatever reason) and the mantle of both roles fell on one. Then it is reasonable to assume that sometimes an attempt would have been made to stabilize that power and large group control. But, with a small population, it is hard to provide sufficient protection for the usurper. Round the clock bodyguards manned by kin relations are likely insufficiently numerous to stave off assassination. However, as society size increases, king-guard size may prove sufficient. The organizational requirements for an effective coup are sized large enough to be politically detectable.

Egypt (among other states) revealed one solution, god-king ideology. However, while this solution slightly extended the time frame before assassination, a religious-governance solution seemed to be what really stabilized things.

A moral solution which normed leaders to give back to the people solved stability issues. For instance, if a god-king could save enough grain to get through the area's periodic droughts, then the state was well situated to survive over an extended period of time.

I tend to think of religion as providing the moral force (and believable-enough promises) necessary to prevent catastrophic leader gaming of resource extraction for vainglorious rather than pro-social ends. Thus the god-king transition is an example of a governance transition which appropriated religious landscape resources/innovations.

Universalizing Religion
I usually cite Cyrus the Great (~500BCE) as one of the first examples of state-level religious pluralism facilitation. Religious pluralism was a governance intervention that facilitated various gene-cultural landscape changes out of which universalizing religion was eventually able to emerge.

Universalizing religions can be seen as a major (cultural) evolutionary transition. The firm belief that a given set of ideologies and ideological based practices were universally useful for different cultures, without having to totally reform said cultures, was a major innovation. Not only were religion and culture largely separable (to a degree at least), religion was a unifying force. A landscape was produced in which elevated levels of proselytization addressed some governance goals. Religion and governance intertwined.

I've skipped over the evolutionary transition to mono-theism. I don't think its importance should be minimized. But, I just don't think I need to say much about it. I'd probably class it as a moderate rather than a major transition. Plus, inferences in how it may have affected governance is much more conjectural than other phase changes.

In terms of western religious tradition, the emergence of Protestantism in the era of Luther represents what I'd call a moderate or perhaps even minor evolutionary transition. Transition was from a centralized, highly hierarchical religion, to a less centralized, less hierarchical religion. Great Religious Awakening cycles further decentralization.

Our latest Great Religious Awakening, characterized by "social justice", reflects not just another decentralization shuffling, but, likely, a full religious evolutionary transition.


Religion has been traditionally associated with supernaturalism. Moral Big Brothers reflect an ability to

  • punish immoral behaviour, even if not caught in the present,
  • adjudicate what is and isn't moral behaviour,
  • reward good behaviour.
  • see into people's minds to judge intent,
  • etc.
Scott Atran in "In God's We Trust" lays out an exceptionally strong exposition of the evolutionary utility of these and other religiously associated behaviours.

The rise of atheism and its likely minimal immediate effects of social cohesion capital suggest many people now have gene-cultural traits different from the past. I doubt 200 years ago an atheistic society would have survived. Whether or not this would have been because of intra-group collapse or inter-group competition is interesting but tangential.  Strong supernaturalism is now, increasingly superfluous to adaptive group formation and stabilization, provided it is compensated by other adaptive group factors (however, no formal work has been done on this that I know of - so consider such speculation common sense)

Sects of social justice are well-considered behaviourally similar to religion*. James Lindsay's newest work adds to this body of work. The major differences between social justice quasi-religion and traditional religion is the minimization or elimination of supernaturalism. When you look at other moral-groups which are also adaptive (from an evolutionary sense) you tend to find the following factors minimized or eliminated, and the following factors kept:**
  • Big Brothers
  • Supernaturalism (minimized or eliminated)
  • strong norm enforcement
  • steep in-group out group-gradients (moderated)
  • sacred values (moderated)
  • clean hands / purity (minimized or eliminated)
  • ritual
  • counter-intuitions / quasi-factuals (minimized)
  • costly commitments (moderated)

Social justice hits many religious factors. Major differences are

  • supernaturalism
  • radical decentralization which nonetheless re-invents identity-based groupings.
James Lindsay takes the position that these differences reflect the idea that the phenomenon of religion has been re-invented in a modern secular paradigm without any appeal to or connection to religion. I largely agree. However, I think gene-cultural reasoning suggests what we might actually be seeing is another pacing-and-leading between religion and governance facilitated by gene-culture landscape changes produced by religion and governance. In effect, "social justice" is built on a series of cultural innovations that make it seem like it is a complete re-invention. Why? Because it is ridiculous to think "social justice" was picking and choosing religious modules to replace and supplant. Solutions may certainly have been influenced by ingrained gene-culture wells (aka darwin machines or cognitive dispositions). But the formation of the social justice dynamical solution space was clean. Thus influences are probably;
  • gene-cultural,
  • spear head "phylogenetics"
  • and implicit, not overt.

It is the lack of continuity with past religion that I think marks radical social justice activist sects as a likely major evolutionary transition in religion. The way it intertwines with governance means it is very likely to produce some major, long lasting effects. This isn't just a one-off blip like the Roman-Orthodox split, or the slow rise of Mormonism as a new world religion. This is BIG. This interacts with governance in some very new and some potentially very disturbing ways (or very productive ways - depending upon your ideology).

One thing to remember is that new religious movements have a very poor track record at long-term survivability. How many religions were formed during the Great Religious Awakening of the 1820's-1840's? How many of those are around today?

Just because radical social justice activist groups have a pretty good potential to grow, expand and change the governance and religion landscape, does not mean that it will.

Social justice is starting to experience severe blow back in areas like free speech, open borders, ever expanding positive-styled human rights. As Steve Bannon is found of saying, the push back against globalist agendas is happening on both the "left" and the "right". From the left via economic nationalism. And, on the right via ethno / cultural or patriotic nationalism. Pervasive retrenchment away from globalism and back to strong nationalism may cripple social-justice-as-religion growth.

Chances are, it won't. But one never knows.

Similarly, social-justice-as-religion may simply de-virulize.  There are lots of different sects  of social justice. Puritanism, functional Ludditists, evangelicals (strong proselytizers), millennial-esque utopians, authoritarian governance strains, etc). It is not certain what competition between these groups may produce.

But, no matter what, things are interesting!

* some extra reference on behaviour and dynamical approaches to religious definition

** these factors come out of Scott Atran's "In Gods we Trust" excellent evolutionary psychology work. Arran doesn't explicitly make this list, but they're pretty easy to gather and categorize, even without a close reading.

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