Pascal Boyer


Selected Articles

Below, links to most of my recent articles.

Karabegovic M, Wang L, Boyer P & Mercier H (2024) Epistemic gratitude and the provision of information, Evolution & Human Behavior XX-xxx,

Click here for draft version.

Human society rests on communicated information, much of which is shared without an expectation of reward. We suggest that, like other forms of prosociality, this type of information provision is fueled by gratitude. To reflect the fact that information differs in some ways from other goods, we call this form of gratitude epistemic gratitude. In a first experiment (all preregisterered, with US participants), we show that participants are more grateful for information that provides more benefits, at a greater cost to the sender, that was sent intentionally, and gratuitously. Experiment 2 shows that information shared with a large audience generates less gratitude in individual audience members. Experiment 3 shows that information that can be further passed on to others elicits more gratitude. In the supplementary materials, we also report a series of inconclusive experiments testing whether gratitude increases when an initially doubted piece of information is confirmed, and whether participants think others communicate in a way that maximizes gratitude in the audience. In conclusion, we speculate on the consequences of epistemic gratitude—in particular, which type of information is more likely to elicit epistemic gratitude—for diverse cultural phenomena, from personalization in marketing to rumor diffusion.

Boyer P, Chantland E & Safra L(2024) Victims of misfortune may not "deserve" help: A possible factor in victim devaluation, Evolution & Human Behavior XX-xxx.

Click here for draft version.

Why do people blame, devalue or derogate the victims of misfortune? The literature suggests general factors like a belief in a just world or a desire to distance oneself from misfortune, but the empirical results are often unclear. Here we suggest another potential factor in victim-devaluation in particular. Attitudes to victims should be seen in the context of human cooperation, as victims can be a source of costs for others and, therefore, may constitute poor potential cooperation partners. If that is the case, devaluation should be associated with a reluctance to offer help to victims. As predicted, across six pre-registered studies, we found that participants’ reluctance to donate their own money (their bonus for participation), or allocate other people’s money to a victim predicted the devaluation of the victim’s character. Both devaluation and willingness to help were influenced by manipulating the victim’s apparent competence, and the victim’s concern for other people’s possible costs, two crucial dimensions of cooperative potential. These results are consistent with the overall hypothesis that people’s intuitions about a victim’s cooperation potential are relevant to victim-devaluation.

Karabegovic M, Blatt T, Boyer P & Mercier H (2024) Intuitive credit attribution and the priority rule, Philosophical Psychology.

Click here for draft version.

When a good idea is discovered, who gets credit for it? This is an important question in science, the arts, law, and everyday life. We suggest that people have intuitions about credit ownership that depend on three factors: (i) whether the idea suggests the discoverer is competent; (ii) whether the discovery elicits gratitude toward the discoverer; (iii) who the first individual to come up with the idea is. We test these intuitions in three vignette experiments with UK participants, in the context of priority disputes in science. In conclusion, we suggest that intuitions of credit ownership help explain the popularity and endurance of the priority rule in science, by which all the credit of a discovery is supposed to go to the first discoverer universal and ubiquitous in human societies.

André JB, Baumard N, Boyer P (2023) Cultural evolution from the producers' standpoint, Evolutionary human sciences.

Click here for draft version.

Standard approaches to cultural evolution focus on the recipients or consumers. This does not take into account the fitness costs incurred in producing the behaviours or artefacts that become cultural, i.e. widespread in a social group. We argue that cultural evolution models should focus on these fitness costs and benefits of cultural production, particularly in the domain of ‘symbolic’ culture. In this approach, cultural products can be considered as a part of the extended phenotype of producers, which can affect the fitness of recipients in a positive way (through cooperation) but also in a detrimental way (through manipulation and exploitation). Taking the producers’ perspective may help explain the specific features of many kinds of cultural products.

Boyer P (2023)  Ownership psychology as a cognitive adaptation: A minimalist model, forthcoming, Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Click here for draft version.

Ownership is universal and ubiquitous in human societies, yet the psychology underpinning ownership intuitions is generally not described in a coherent and computationally tractable manner. Ownership intuitions are commonly assumed to derive from culturally transmitted social norms, or from a mentally represented implicit theory. While the social norms account is entirely ad hoc, the mental theory requires prior assumptions about possession and ownership that must be explained. Here I propose such an explanation, arguing that the intuitions result from the interaction of two cognitive systems. One of these handles competitive interactions for the possession of resources observed in many species including humans. The other handles mutually beneficial cooperation between agents, as observed in communal sharing, collective action and trade. Together, these systems attend to specific cues in the environment, and produce definite intuitions such as “this is hers”, “that is mine”. This model provides an explanation for ownership intuitions, not just in straightforward cases of property, but also in disputed ownership (squatters, indigenous rights), historical changes (abolition of slavery), as well as apparently marginal cases, such as the questions, whether people own their seats on the bus, or their places in a queue, and how people understand “cultural appropriation” and slavery. In contrast to some previous theories, the model is empirically testable and free of ad hoc stipulations.

Boyer P (2021)  Why we blame victims, accuse witches, invent taboos and invoke spirits: A model of strategic responses to misfortune, forthcoming, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2021.

Click here for draft version.

Explanations of misfortune are the object of much cultural discourse in most human societies. Recurrent themes include the intervention of superhuman agents (gods, ancestors, etc.), witchcraft, karma, and the violation of specific rules or “taboos”. In modern large-scale societies, people often respond by blaming the victims of, e.g., accidents and assault. These responses may seem both disparate and puzzling, in the sense that the proposed accounts of untoward events provide no valuable information about their causes or the best way to prevent them. However, these responses make sense if we see them in an evolutionary context, where accidents, assault and illness were common occurrences, the only palliative being social support to victims. This would create a context in which all members of a group may be a) required to offer support, b) willing to offer such support to maintain a reputation as cooperators, and c) desirous to limit that support because of its cost. In this context, recurrent explanations of misfortune would constitute strategic attempts to create and broadcast a specific description of the situation that concentrates responsibility and potential costs on a few individuals. This strategic model accounts for otherwise puzzling features of explanations based on mystical harm (ancestors, witchcraft, etc.), as well as the tendency to denigrate victims, and offers new predictions about those cultural phenomena.

Boyer P (2021) Mass-movements and coalitional psychology: Mobilization requires neither tribalism nor gullibility, in Roediger R & Wertsch JV (Eds) forthcoming, National Memories: Constructing Identities in Populist Times, Oxford University Press.

Click here for proofs.

Our common views about mass movements, notably in the case of populist or nationalistic extremism, are based on the assumptions, a) that “tribalism” is a strong urge or instinct and b) that propaganda from demagogic leaders is sufficient to lead large masses of people to adopt irrational (and generally damaging) beliefs. Empirical evidence from psychology, anthropology and history shows that both assumptions are misguided. People build groups and movements, not under the pressure of a tribal urge to belong, but as a result of cognitive capacities for alliance-building, rooted in human evolutionary history. Similarly, human minds are equipped with epistemic vigilance systems, that guard them against low value information. Taking these psychological facts into account makes it possible to address the question, Why isn’t everyone a populist? and to examine how populism and nationalism may be predictable responses to people’s experience with different types of social environments. In particular, the frequency and salience of zero-sum as opposed to positive-sum social interactions are a crucial factor in making anti-elite and anti-foreigner ideologies attractive and compelling.

Boyer P (2021) Deriving Features of Religions in the Wild: How Communication and Threat-Detection May Predict Spirits, Gods, Witches, and Shamans, Human Nature XX(X): xxx-xxx.

Click here for proofs.

Religions “in the wild” are the varied set of religious activities that occurred before the emergence of organized religions with doctrines, or that persist at the margins of those organized traditions. These religious activities mostly focus on misfortune; on how to remedy specific cases of illness, accidents, failures; and on how to prevent them. I present a general model to account for the cross-cultural recurrence of these particular themes. The model is based on (independently established) features of human psychology—namely, (a) epistemic vigilance, the set of systems whereby we evaluate the quality of information and of sources of information, and (b) threatdetection psychology, the set of evolved systems geared at detecting potential danger in the environment. Given these two sets of systems, the dynamics of communication will favor particular types of messages about misfortune. This makes it possible to predict recurrent features of religious systems, such as the focus on nonphysical agents, the focus on particular cases rather than general aspects of misfortune, and the emergence of specialists. The model could illuminate not just why such representations are culturally successful, but also why people are motivated to formulate them in the first place.

Mercier, H, Boyer P (2020) Truth-making institutions: From divination, ordeals and oaths to judicial torture and rules of evidence, Evolution and Human Behavior XX(X): xxx-xxx.
DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2020.11.04

Click here for proofs.

In many human societies, truth-making institutions are considered necessary to establish an officially valid or “received” description of some specific situation. These range from divination, oaths, and ordeals to judicial torture or trial by jury. In many cases, these institutions may seem odd or paradoxical, e.g., why would an ordeal reveal a defendant’s guilt or innocence? Here we propose to address the questions, why those institutions are considered the source of accepted truth, and why they have recurrent features in many different cultures. Our model is based on two well-documented set of evolved cognitive mechanisms. One is epistemic vigilance, the set of cognitive processes that help us evaluate the quality of communicated information we receive. We show how our epistemic intuitions account for otherwise puzzling aspects of divination, oaths, and ordeals. The other set of mechanisms consists in human capacities for coalition building and the recruitment of social support, which explains how truth-making institutions can be strategically used by individuals to influence mutual knowledge for their own interests. Taken together, these mechanisms explain the kinds of institutions found in small-scale societies (oaths, ordeals, divination), as well as the emergence of different institutions (laws of evidence, judicial torture, trial by jury) in large-scale and modern societies.

Boyer P (2020) Morality, Valuation and Coalitional Psychology: Commentary on Workman, Yoder & Decety, AJOB Neuroscience 11(4): 287-289. DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2020.1830884

Click here for proofs.

Neuroimaging data from the Workman et al. study suggest the "myside" bias that makes some political violence acceptable or even desirable, does not necessarily come from a suspension of intuitive morality, but from a perception of the costs and benefits that could be accrued from political violence. I propose to compare these results to predictions of an evolutionary model of coalitional dispositions. Belonging to an alliance that is stronger than others should evoke the prospect of higher benefits from collective action, which is consistent with the result, that moral valuations as such, underpinned by such circuitry as dlPFC, shows little difference between congruent (my side) and incongruent (the others) violence, while there is a clear difference in activation of dmPFC circuitry involved in the estimation of cost/benefits.

Boyer P, Liénard P (2020) Ingredients of "rituals" and their cognitive underpinnings, Philosophical Trans. of the Royal Society XX: xxx-xxx.

Click here for proofs.

Ritual is not a proper scientific object, as the term is used to denote disparate forms of behavior, on the basis of a faint family resemblance. Indeed, a variety of distinct cognitive mechanisms are engaged, in various combinations, in the diverse interactions called “rituals” – and each of these mechanisms deserves study, in terms of its evolutionary underpinnings and cultural consequences. We identify four such mechanisms that each appear in some “rituals”, namely 1) the normative scripting of actions; 2) the use of interactions to signal coalitional identity, affiliation, cohesiveness; 3) magical claims based on intuitive expectations of contagion; 4) ritualized behavior based on a specific handling of the flow of behavior. We describe the cognitive and evolutionary background to each of these potential components of “rituals”, and their effects on cultural transmission.

Boyer P (2019) Why Divination? Evolved psychology and strategic interaction in the production of truth, Current Anthropology XX: xx-xx.

Click here for proofs.

Divination is found in most human societies but there is little systematic research to explain [1] why it is persuasive, or [2] why divination is required for important collective decisions in many small-scale societies. Common features of human communication and cooperation may help address both questions. A highly recurrent feature of divination is “ostensive detachment”, a demonstration that the diviners are not the authors of the statements they utter. As a consequence, people spontaneously interpret divination as less likely than other statements to be influenced by anyone’s intentions or interests. This is enough to give divination an epistemic advantage, compared with other sources of information, answering question [1]. This advantage is all the more important in situations where a diagnosis will create differential costs and benefits, e.g., determining who is responsible for someone’s misfortune in a small-scale community. Divinatory statements provide a version of the situation that most participants are motivated to agree with, as it provides a focal point for efficient coordination, at a minimal cost for almost all participants, which would answer question [2].

Boyer P (2019) Informal Religious Activity Outside Hegemonic Religions: Wild Traditions and their Relevance to Evolutionary Models, Religion, Brain & Behavior XX: xx-xx.

Click here for proofs.

Evolutionary approaches to religious representations must be grounded in a precise description of the forms of religious activity that occurred before state societies and doctrinal religious organizations. These informal religious activities or “wild traditions” consist in services provided by individual specialists, with no formal training or organization, who generally specialize in palliating or preventing misfortune. The anthropological and historical record show a) that such traditions are present in almost all documented human societies, b) that they have important common features, and c) that they re-appear despite the political dominance of doctrinal organizations. The form of religious activity that humans spontaneously create, or re-create in the face of political suppression, comprises no stable doctrine, faith or community of believers. Taking these facts into account brings should contribute important corrections to current models of the evolutionary underpinnings of religious thought and behavior, in particular by taking into account the great importance of political coercion and the minor role of doctrines in the spread of religious concepts and practices ices.

Boyer P (2018) Uncertainties of religious belief, in Petersen AK et al. (Eds), Evolution, Cognition and the History of Religion, Leiden: Brill.

One important contribution of the cognitive science of religion has been a focus on the psychological processes that contribute to the transmission of religious representations. But on the way there, we may have neglected another aspect of religious thought and behavior, that is arguably more central for practitioners, and that is belief itself, and the various mental states that we denote by that term. But there are interesting and difficult questions to solve here, they require that we pay attention to the relevant scientific literature, and they may even illuminate some important aspects of religious behavior.

Boyer P, Petersen MB (2018) Folk-economic beliefs: An Evolutionary Cognitive Model, forthcoming, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 41.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

The domain of “folk-economics” consists in explicit beliefs about the economy held by laypeople, untrained in economics, about such topics as e.g., the causes of the wealth of nations, the benefits or drawbacks of markets and international trade, the effects of regulation, the origins of inequality, the connection between work and wages, the economic consequences of immigration, or the possible causes of unemployment. These beliefs are crucial in forming people’s political beliefs, and in shaping their reception of different policies. [...] We propose that the cultural success of particular beliefs about the economy is predictable if we consider the influence of specialized, largely automatic inference systems that evolved as adaptations to ancestral human small-scale sociality. These systems, for which there is independent evidence, include free-rider detection, fairness-based partner-choice, ownership intuitions, coalitional psy chology, and more. Information about modern mass-market conditions activates these specific inference-systems, resulting in particular intuitions, e.g., that impersonal transactions are dangerous or that international trade is a zero-sum game. These intuitions in turn make specific policy proposals more likely than others to become intuitively compelling, and as a consequence exert a crucial influence on political choices.

Blaine T, Boyer P (2017) Origins of sinister rumors: A preference for threat-related material in the supply and demand of information Evolution and Human Behavior 39(1): 67-75.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Many rumors convey information about potential danger, even when these dangers are very unlikely. In four studies, we examine whether micro-processes of cultural transmission explain the spread of threat-related information. Three studies using transmission chain protocols suggest a) that there is indeed a preference for the de- liberate transmission of threat-related information over other material, b) that it is not caused by a general negativity or emotionality bias, and c) that it is not eliminated when threats are presented as very unlikely. A forced-choice study on similar material shows the same preference when participants have to select information to acquire rather than transmit. So the cultural success of threat-related material may be explained by transmission biases, rooted in evolved threat-detection and error-management systems, that affect both supply and demand of information.

van Leeuwen F, Firat R, Miton H, Boyer P (2016) Perception of Gay Men as Defectors and Commitment to Group Defense Predict Aggressive Homophobia Evolutionary Psychology vol. 14 no. 3.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Homophobia encompasses a variety of attitudes and behaviors with distinct causal paths. We focus on aggressive homophobia, a propensity to feel anger and express aggression toward gay men. We investigated the conjecture that homosexual males might be seen, in recent Western cultures, as defectors from collective group defense. We predicted that consistent with a functional motive to punish and deter free riding, the perception of gay men as defectors would motivate aggression toward gay men. We also predicted that individuals with greater commitment to group defense might show more aggressive homophobia (as these individuals have more to lose from the defection than individuals who are not committed to group defense). Study 1 showed that aggressive homophobia correlated positively with the tendency to implicitly associate gay men with defection from group defense. Study 2 showed that a tendency to punish homosexual males for a theft correlated positively with commitment to group defense. The findings suggest that coalitional psychology might contribute to explaining the existence and quality of certain kinds of social stigma.

Boyer P, Baumard N (2016) The diversity of religious systems across history. An Evolutionary cognitive approach in Shackelford TK & Liddle JR (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Religion.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

The mental representations and behaviors we commonly call “religious”—everyday supernatural imagination, tribal cults, archaic religions, modern world religions—are amenable to explanation both in terms of computational, information-processing systems and in terms of adaptations that emerged during human evolution. These two research programs, focused on proximate and ultimate aspects of cultural representations respectively, have been particularly fruitful in the last 30 years. Early developments in cognitive approaches ushered in a whole new field in the study of religion. More recently, evolutionary psychology has provided new tools for explaining the emergence and transmission of religious ideas. This chapter aims to show how this cognitive and evolutionary approach can provide a better understanding of the historical diversity of religious systems.

Boyer P, Firat R, van Leeuwen F (2015) Safety, Threat and Stress in Intergroup Relations. A Coalitional Index model Perspectives in Psychological Science 10(4): 434-450.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Contact between people from different groups triggers specific individual- and group-level responses, ranging from attitudes and emotions to welfare and health outcomes. Standard social psychological perspectives do not yet provide an integrated, causal model of these phenomena. As an alternative, we describe a coalitional perspective. Human psychology includes evolved cognitive systems designed to garner support from other individuals, organize and maintain alliances, and measure potential support from group members. Relations between alliances are strongly influenced by threat detection mechanisms, which are sensitive to cues that express one’s own group will provide less support or that other groups are dangerous. Repeated perceptions of such threat-cues can lead to chronic stress. The model provides a parsimonious explanation for many individual-level effects of intergroup relations and group-level disparities in health and well-being. This perspective suggests new research directions aimed at understanding the psychological processes involved in intergroup relations.

Firat R, Boyer P (2015) Coalitional affiliation as a missing link between ethnic polarization and well-being: an empirical test from the European Social Survey, Social Science Research 53: 148-161.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Many studies converge in suggesting (a) that ethnic and racial minorities fare worse than host populations in reported well-being and objective measures of health and (b) that ethnic/racial diversity has a negative impact on various measures of social trust and well-being, including in the host or majority population. However, there is much uncertainty about the processes that connect diversity variables with personal outcomes. In this paper, we are particularly interested in different levels of coalitional affiliation, which refers to people’s social allegiances that guide their expectations of social support, in-group strength and cohesion. We operationalize coalitional affiliation as the extent to which people rely on a homogeneous social network, and we measure it with indicators of friendships across ethnic boundaries and frequency of contact with friends. Using multi-level models and data from the European Social Survey (Round 1, 2002-2003) for 19 countries, we demonstrate that coalitional affiliation provides an empirically reliable, as well as theoretically coherent, explanation for various effects of ethnic/racial diversity.

Boyer P, Parren N (2015) Threat-related information suggests competence: A possible factor in the spread of rumors, PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128421. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.012842

Click here for open access [pdf].

Information about potential danger is a central component of many rumors, urban legends, ritual prescriptions, religious prohibitions and witchcraft crazes. We investigate a potential factor in the cultural success of such material, namely that a source of threat-related information may be intuitively judged as more competent than a source that does not convey such information. In five studies, we asked participants to judge which of two sources of information, only one of which conveyed threat-related information, was more knowledgeable. Results suggest that mention of potential danger makes a source appear more competent than others, that the effect is not due to a general negativity bias, and that it concerns competence rather than a more generally positive evaluation of the source.

Baumard N, Hyafil A, Morris I, Boyer P (2015) Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions, Current Biology 25: 1-6.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Between roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE three distinct regions, the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ganges Valley, saw the emergence of highly similar religious traditions with an unprecedented emphasis on self-discipline and asceticism, and “other-worldly”, often moralizing, doctrines, including Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism, Daoism, Second Temple Judaism, and Stoicism, with later offshoots such as Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam. This cultural convergence, often called the “Axial Age”, presents a puzzle: Why this emergence at the same time of distinct moralizing religions with highly similar features in different civilizations? Quantitative history evidence demonstrates an exceptional uptake in energy capture (a proxy for general prosperity) just before the “Axial Age” in these three regions. Statistical modeling confirms that economic development, not political complexity or population size, accounts for the timing of the Axial Age.

Boyer P (2015) How Natural Selection Shapes Conceptual Structure: Human Intuitions and Concepts of Ownership, in S Laurence & E Margolis (Eds.), The Conceptual Mind. New Directions in the Study of Concepts, Cambridge, MA; The MIT Press, pp. 185-200.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

How do we map the inventory of human concepts? Here I propose that a precise description of selective pressures on species-specific cognitive systems is the best source of empirical hypotheses about conceptual repertoires, and I illustrate this in the case of ownership concepts. The example of ownership illustrates how a highly specific selective context can predict and explain equally specific aspects of human concepts. Oownership as a conceptual domain is part of our responses to the adaptive challenge of reaching a measure of coordination that optimizes the extraction of resources.This account also suggests more general though tentative lessons, to do with what general computational properties, if any, should be expected from concepts; whether categorization is crucial to concept structure; and what role concepts play in linguistic reference.

Boyer P (2013) Why 'Belief' is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back Hau, Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 349-57.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

A consequence of our common evolved psychology is that most people, at most times, in most situations will not consider their gods real, in the sense of having a definite intuition of their presence. As Tanya Lurhmann's When God Talks Back (Luhrmann 2012) demonstrates, it requires considerable work to achieve an intuitive grasp of something—the actual presence of a god—that is reflectively accepted as certainly true. Tanya Luhrmann’s detailed monograph addresses the question, why belief, far from being a simple matter of receiving and accepting information, requires complex cognitive processes, some of which can be illuminated by meticulous ethnographic investigation.

Boyer P (2013) Explaining religious concepts. Lévi- Strauss the brilliant and problematic ancestor, in D Xygalatas & L McCorkle (Eds.) Mental Culture,  Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion, Durham, UK: Acumen, pp. 164-75.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Claude Lévi-Strauss went further than most in renewing our understanding of universal constraints on human cultures. Surprisingly, his findings and models have had very little influence on contemporary accounts of religion. This is because he was a proponent and an eminent practitioner the “science mode” in anthropology. Also, Lévi-Strauss clearly had no trust in the notion of “religion”. He did not believe that the term denotes any coherent set of phenomena. He was, I will argue, quite right about that, but this of course did limit the appeal of his models for scholars of religion, many of whom do believe that there is such a domain as “religion”. Finally, Lévi-Strauss did not relate his hypotheses on cultural phenomena to any precise cognitive models of psychological processes, for the perfectly good reason that the latter did not exist at the time he put forward the basic tenets of structural anthropology. As a result, most structural models lack the psychological precision required to account for actual religious concepts and behaviours.

Baumard N & Boyer P (2013) Explaining moral religions Trends in Cognitive Science 17(6): 272-280.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

Moralizing religions, unlike religions with morally indifferent gods or spirits, appeared only recently in some (but not all) large-scale human societies. A crucial feature of these new religions was their emphasis on proportionality (between deeds and supernatural rewards, between sins and penance, and in the formulation of the Golden Rule, according to which one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself). Recent models of evolved dispositions for fairness in cooperation suggest that proportionality-based morality is highly intuitive to human beings. This may explain the cultural success of moralizing movements, secular or religious, based on proportionality.

Baumard N & Boyer P (2013) Religious beliefs as reflective elaborations on intuitions: A modified dual-process model Current Directions in Psychological Science 22(4): 295-300.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Religious beliefs apparently challenge our view of human cognition as evolved system that provides reliable information about environments. We propose that properties of religious beliefs are best understood in terms of a dual-processing model, in which a variety of evolved domain-specific systems provide stable intuitions, while other systems produce explicit, often deliberate comments on those intuitions. This perspective accounts for the fact that religious beliefs are apparently diverse but thematically similar, and that they are immune to refutation and more attractive to imaginative individuals.

Boyer P & Petersen, MB (2012) Studying institutions in the context of natural selection: limits or opportunities? Journal of Institutional Economics.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

In this comment, we respond to comments raised by Eastwood (2010) in response to our article on the role of evolutionary psychology in understanding institutions (Boyer and Petersen, 2011). We discuss how evolutionary psychological models account for cultural variation and change in institutions, how sociological institutionalism and evolutionary models can inform each other, how evolutionary psychological models illuminate the role of power in institutional design and the possibility of a ‘general theory’ of institutionsons.

Boyer P, Lienard P, Xu J (2011) Cultural Differences in Investing in Others and in the Future: Why Measuring Trust Is Not Enough, PLoS One, 7(7) e40750.

Click here for article [pdf].

Standard measures of generalized trust in others are often taken to provide reliable indicators of economic attitudes in different countries. Here we compared three highly distinct groups, in Kenya, China and the US, in terms of more specific attitudes, [a] people’s willingness to invest in the future, [b] their willingness to invest in others, and [c] their trust in institutions. Results suggest that these measures capture deep differences in economic attitudes that are not detected by standard measures of generalized trust .

Kwan, D, Craver, C, Green, L, Myerson, J, Boyer, P & Rosenbaum, SR (2011) Future Decision-Making Without Episodic Mental Time Travel Hippocampus 22(6): 1215-9.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Deficits in episodic memory are associated with deficits in the ability to imagine future experiences (i.e., mental time travel). We show that K.C., a person with episodic amnesia and an inability to imagine future experiences, nonetheless systematically discounts the value of future rewards, and his discounting is within the range of controls in terms of both rate and consistency. Because K.C. is neither able to imagine personal uses for the rewards nor provide a rationale for selecting larger future rewards over smaller current rewards, this study demonstrates a dissociation between imagining and making decisions involving the future. Thus, although those capable of mental time travel may use it in making decisions about future rewards, these results demonstrate that it is not required for such decisions.

Boyer, P & Petersen, MB (2011) The Naturalness of (many) social institutions Journal of Institutional Economics 8(1): 1–25.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

Most standard social science accounts only offer limited accounts of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems, intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become “natural”, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What is required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.

Boyer, P (2011) From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes Of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology in Slingerland E & Collard M (Eds.), Creating Consilience, New York: Oxford UP.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Why is most cultural anthropology largely irrelevant? The voice of that particular field in broader academic discussions is almost inaudible; its scholars are no longer among the recognizable and important public intellectuals of the day; and its contribution to public debates is close to non-existent. My diagnosis is that this is a largely self-inflected condition.What is a stake is that a certain intellectual style has stymied the creative energy and social import of cultural anthropology. The traditional concerns of cultural anthropology are currently being given a new lease of life and often a much more lively public relevance by evolutionary biologists and economists – suggesting that there may be such a field as the “science of culture” or at least some incipient moves towards such an integrated discipline.

Boyer, P (2010) Intuitive Expectations & The Detection of Mental Disorder: A Cognitive Background To Folk-Psychiatries, Philosophical Psychology 24(1): 95-118.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

How do people detect mental dysfunction? What is the influence of cultural models of dysfunction on this detection process? The detection process as such is not usually researched as it falls between the domains of cross-cultural psychiatry (focusing on the dysfunction itself) and anthropological ethno-psychiatry (focusing on cultural models of sanity and madness). Here we provide a general model for this “missing link” between behavior and cultural models, grounded in empirical evidence for intuitive psychology. Normal adult minds entertain specific intuitive expectations about mental function and behavior, and by implication they infer that specific kinds of behavior are the result of underlying dysfunction. This suggests that there is a “catalogue” of possible behaviors that trigger that intuition, hence a limited catalogue of possible symptoms that feed into culturally specific folk-understandings of mental disorder. It also suggests that some mental dysfunctions, as they do not clearly violate principles of intuitive psychology, are ‘invisible’ to folk-understandings. This perspective allows us to understand the cultural stability and spread of particular views of madness. It also suggests why certain types of mental disorder are “invisible” to folk-understandings.

Boyer, P & Bergstrom, B (2010) Threat-Detection in Child Development: An Evolutionary Perspective, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 35(4): 1034-41.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Evidence for developmental aspects of fear-targets and anxiety suggests a complex but stable pattern whereby specific kinds of fears emerge at different periods of development. This developmental schedule seems appropriate to dangers encountered repeteadly during human evolution. Also consistent with evolutionary perspective, the threat-detection systems are domain-specific, comprising different kinds of cues to do with predation, intraspecific violence, contamination-contagion and status loss. Proper evolutionary models may also be relevant to outstanding issues in the domain, notably the connections between typical development and pathology.

Keren H, Boyer P, Mort J & Eilam D (2010) Pragmatic and idiosyncratic acts in human everyday routines: The counterpart of compulsive rituals Behavioural Brain Research 212:90-95.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Our daily activities are comprised of motor routines, which are behavioral templates with specific goals, typically performed in an automatic fixed manner and without much conscious attention. Such routines can seem to resemble pathologic rituals that dominate the motor behavior of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autistic patients. This resemblance raises the question of what differentiates and what is common in normal and pathologic motor behavior. [...] In this study we applied ethological tools to analyze six motor routines performed by 60 adult human volunteers. We found that longer normal everyday routines included more repetitions, but not more types of acts, and that in each routine, most acts were performed either by all individuals (pragmatic acts) or by only one individual (idiosyncratic components). Thus, normal routines consist in a relatively rigid part that is shared by all individuals that perform the routine, and a flexible part that varies among individuals. [...] Altogether, the present study supports the view that everyday normal routines and pathologic rituals are opposite processes, although they both comprise rigid motor behavioral sequences.

Boyer P, (2010) Why Evolved Cognition Matters To Understanding Cultural Variation Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 35(3-4):377-87.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Geoffrey Lloyd's Cognitive variations: Reflections on the unity and diversity of the human mind seems to perpetuate a misleading description of the state of the role of cognition in culture.  As a correction to that picture, it may be important to stress that evolution does not usually result in innate cognitive structures, that more learning requires more, not less, genetically specific structure, that most cognitive processes are not accessible to conscious inspection and therefore also to ethnographic investigation. It may also be of help to emphasize differences between two kinds of mental events, intuitive and reflective, that are sometimes confused in anthropological discussions of cognition and culture. I suggest that a more accurate description may help dispel various misunderstandings, about the connections between evolution and cognition, between evolved cognition and cultural representations, and about the need or value of certain kinds of anthropological relativism.

Boyer, P (2009) What are memories for? Functions of recall in cognition and culture,
in Boyer P & Wertsch JV (Eds), Memory in Mind and Culture, Camnridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-28.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

What is memory for? Th e easy and spontaneous answer is that “memory is for storing information about the past,” “memory helps us preserve past events,” and variations on that theme. But what is the point of that ? Why should any organism have that kind of a capacity? What good is it? Surprisingly, this is not a topic that has received much attention from specialists of memory. Memories and fantasies make us feel, right now, all the consequences of our actions, by way of emotional rewards. So imagination and memories may well be functionally adaptive – not because they liberate us from down-to-earth, here-and-now cognition but, on the contrary, because they constrain our planning and decision making in efficient ways.

Boyer, P (2009) Cognitive predispositions and cultural transmission
in Boyer P & Wertsch JV (Eds), Memory in Mind and Culture, Camnridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 288-319.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

To what extent does cultural transmission require memory? If we understand “memory” in the ordinary sense of information about past situations that we can access and consider explicitly, the answer is that cultural transmission does not actually require much of that kind of memory. Once we understand memory, as psychologists do, as including processes beyond conscious inspection (Roediger, 1990), then memory really is the crux of cultural transmission. In the pages that follow, I will justify these statements on the basis of a few examples of cultural domains where the work of memory(in the wider sense) has been extensively studied.

Boyer, P (2009) Extending the range of adaptive misbelief: Memory “distortions” as functional features
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(6): 513-4.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

A large amount of research in cognitive psychology is focused on memory distortions, understood as deviations from various (largely implicit) standards. Many alleged distortions actually suggest a highly functional system that balances the cost of acquiring new information with the benefit of relevant, contextually appropriate decision-making. In this sense many memories may be examples of functionally adaptive misbelief [as described in the target article by Ryan McKay & Daniel Dennett]

Boyer, P (2008) Religion: Bound to Believe? Nature vol 455: 1038-39.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Is religion a product of our evolution? In the past ten years, the evolutionary and cognitive study of religion has begun to mature. It puts forward new hypotheses and testable predictions. It asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful. Findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology promise to change our view of religion.

Boyer, P & Lienard, P (2008) Ritual Behavior in Obsessive and Normal Individuals. Moderating Anxiety and Reorganizing the Flow of Behavior Current Dirctions in Psychological Science 17(4): 291-4.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Ritualized behavior is characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it is also observed in other, nonclinical contexts such as children’s routines and cultural ceremonies. Such behaviors are best understood with reference to a set of human vigilance–precaution systems in charge of monitoring potential danger and motivating the organism towards appropriate precautions. Ritualized behavior focuses attention on low-level representations of actions, probably leading to some measure of intrusion suppression. Cultural rituals too may be understood in this framework.

Boyer, P & Bergstrom, B (2008) Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion
Annual Review of Anthropology 37:111-130.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Recent work in biology, cognitive psychology, and archaeology has renewed evolutionary perspectives on the role of natural selection in the emergence and recurrent forms of religious thought and behavior, i.e., mental representations of supernatural agents, as well as artifacts, ritual practices, moral systems, ethnic markers, and specific experiences associated with these representations. One perspective, inspired from behavioral ecology, attempts to measure the fitness effects of religious practices. Another set of models, representative of evolutionary psychology, explain religious thought and behavior as the output of cognitive systems (e.g., animacy detection, social cognition, precautionary reasoning) that are not exclusive to the religious domain. In both perspectives, the question remains open, whether religious thought and behavior constitute an adaptation or a by-product of adaptive cognitive function.

Boyer, P (2008) Evolutionary Economics of Mental Time-Travel?
Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(6):219-223.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

What is the function of our capacity for ‘mental time-travel’? Evolutionary considerations suggest that vivid memory and imaginative foresight may be crucial cognitive devices for human decision-making. Our emotional engagement with past or future events gives them great motivational force, which may counter a natural tendency towards time-discounting and impulsive, opportunistic behaviour. In this view, while simple episodic memory provides us with a store of relevant, case-based information to guide decisions, mental-time-travel nudges us towards more restrained choices, which in the long term are advantageous, especially so given the human dependence on cooperation and coordination.

Boyer, P (2007) Specialised Inference Engines As Precursors Of Creative Imagination?
in Ilona Roth (Ed.), Imaginative Minds, London, British Academy, pp 239-258
Click here for proofs [pdf].

We usually consider imagination in terms of its high-end, creative products like literature, religion and the arts. To understand the evolution of  imaginative capacities in humans, it makes more sense to focus on humble imaginations that are generally automatic and largely unconscious, and help us produce representations of, e.g. what people will say next, that people exist when out of sight, or what aspects of our environment are potentially dangerous. These examples suggest that there may not be one faculty of imagination but many specialised "what if" inferential systems in human minds.

Boyer, P (2006) Ten Problems In Search Of A Research Program: Towards Integrated Naturalistic Explanations of Human Culture Unpublished and probably unpublishable programme for an empirically based behavioral science.
Click here for pdf.

Unpublished and unpublishable concise statement of ten different problems for which a behavioural science should (and may soon be able to) provide coherent, empirically grounded explanations. These problems were chosen for their social importance as well as their theoretical interest, as demonstrations of the need to integrate psychological, economic and evolutionary factors in explanatory models. For each question, I mention pointers to incipient or possible research programmes. The questions are the following:  What are the natural limits to family arrangements? Do we have an intuitive understanding of large societies? Why are despised social categories essentialised? Why gender differences in politics? What logic drives ethnic vio-lence? How are moral concepts acquired? What drives people’s economic intui-tions? Are there cultural differences in low-level cognition? What explains individ-ual religious attitudes? Why religious fundamentalism and extremism? The general aim is to propose a new approach to issues of human culture, not through an ab-stract discussion of paradigms and traditions, but through specific examples of possible empirical research.

Boyer, P, & Lienard, P (2006) Why Ritualized Behavior? Precaution Systems and Action-Parsing in Developmental, Pathological and Cultural Rituals Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 1-56.
Click here for pdf of proofs.

Stereotypic, rigidly scripted behavior is found in cultural rituals, in children's routines, in  obsessive-compulsive disorder, in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle. We propose an explanation in terms of an evolved Precaution System geared to the detection of and reaction to inferred threats to fitness, distinct from systems for manifest danger. The Precaution system includes a repertoire of potential hazards as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. Impairment in the system's feedback accounts for OCD rituals. Gradual calibration of this system occurs through childhood routines. Mimicry of this system's natural input makes cultural rituals salient and compelling.

Lienard, P & Boyer, P (2006) Whence Collective Ritual? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior, American Anthropologist 108: 814-827.
Click here for pdf of draft version.

Ritualized behavior is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion, and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation, and social hazard. We proposed elsewhere a neurocognitive model of ritualized behavior in human development and pathology, as based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats. We show how certain features of collective rituals—by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures—probably activate this neurocognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behavior as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.

Bergstrom B, Moehlmann B, and Boyer P (2006) Extending the testimony problem: Evaluating the truth, scope and source of cultural information. Child Development, 77(3): 531-538. Click here for draft pdf.

Back to HomePage

Children's learning-  in the domains of science and religion specifically, but in many other cultural domains as well - relies extensively on testimony and other forms of culturally transmitted information. The cognitive processes that enable such learning must also administrate the evaluation, qualification, and storage of that information, while guarding against the dangers of false or misleading information. Currently, the development of these appraisal processes is not clearly understood. Recent work, reviewed here, has begun to address three important dimensions of the problem: how children and adults evaluate truth in communication, how they gauge the inferential potential of information, and how they encode and evaluate its source.

Boyer, P & Barrett, HC (2006) Causal Inferences: Evolutionary Domains and Neural Systems
Invited contribution to an  Web-conference on Causation (Anne Reboul & Gloria Origgi, Editors).

We consider two apparently distinct questions: [1] What are the neural correlates of causal inference? And [2] How do we distinguish between different domains of causal inferences? To understand the varieties of causal thinking in human minds, we need to bring together behavioral and developmental data on the one hand and information from both neuro-psychology and neuro-imaging on the other. Once this evidence is replaced in an evolutionary framework, it becomes easier to understand the functional divisions between neural systems. We discuss these questions in the context, first, of high-level conceptual differences between living-things and artifacts, and then of low-level causal perception.

Boyer, P & Barrett, HC (2005). Evolved Intuitive Ontology:
Integrating Neural, Behavioral and Developmental Aspects of Domain-Specificity
in David Buss (Ed.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology,  New York: Wiley.

Link to pdf file      (for printing)

Recent research has begun to suggest that human expertise about the natural and social environment, including what is often called 'semantic knowledge', is best construed as consisting of different domains of competence. Each of these corresponds to recurrent evolutionary problems, is organised along specific principles, is the outcome of a specific developmental pathway and is based on specific neural structures. What we call a 'human evolved intuitive ontology' comprises a catalogue of broad domains of information, different sets of principles applied to these different domains as well as different learning rules to acquire more information about those objects. Neuro-imaging and cognitive neuroscience are now adding to the picture of a federation of evolved competencies that has grown out of laboratory work with children and adults.

Boyer, P (2004) Why Is Religion Natural? Skeptical  Inquirer Magazine, March 2004.
Link to Skeptical Inquirer archive.

Is religious belief a mere leap into irrationality as many skeptics assume? Psychology suggests that there may be more to belief than the suspension of reason. Religious beliefs and practices are found in all human groups and go back to the very beginnings of human culture. What makes religion so 'natural'? Here I want to discuss one particular view of religion, popular among skeptics, that I call the 'sleep of reason' interpretation. According to this view, people have religious beliefs because they fail to reason properly. If only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. I think this view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense ordinary thinking, where there isn't one; because it suggests that belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence, which is generally not the case; because it implies that religious concepts could be eliminated by mere argument, which is implausible; and most importantly because it obscures the real reasons why religion is so extraordinarily widespread in human cultures.

Boyer, P (2003) Science, Erudition and Relevant Connections
Journal of Cognition and Culture
3(4): 344-358. Link to pdf version

How does the community of anthropologists actually decide that a person could be considered an anthropologist, or decide that their publications count as contributions to anthropology? It seems that the opposition between “scientific” and “non-scientiŽfic” modes, or perhaps “humanities” vs. “science”, are too simple, and that there are three clearly distinct ideal types here. I call three modes science, erudition and relevant-connections respectively. In what follows I will try briefly to describe these three modes before returning to the speciŽfic case of science in anthropology.

Blakemore, S-J, Boyer, P , Pachot-Clouard, M], Meltzoff, A et al. (2003).
The detection of contingency and animacy in the human brain
Cerebral Cortex
13 : 837-844. Link to pdf version

Back to HomePage

The ability to detect contingency is fundamental for understanding the world and other people around us. We used simplified stimuli to investigate brain regions involved in detection of mechanical and intentional contingencies. Using a factorial design we manipulated the 'animacy' and 'contingency' of stimulus movement, and the subject's attention to the contingencies. The perception of mechanical contingency between shapes whose movement was inanimate engaged the middle temporal gyrus and intraparietal sulcus. The detection of intentional contingency between shapes whose movement was animate activated superior parietal networks. These activations were unaffected by attention to contingency. Additional regions, the middle and inferior frontal gyrus, superior temporal sulcus and anterior cingulate, became activated by the animate-contingent stimuli when subjects specifically attended to the contingent nature of stimuli. Our results help to clarify neural networks previously associated with 'theory of mind' and agency-detection.

Boyer, P (2003) Religious Thought and Behaviour As By-products of Brain Function.
Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol. 7No. 3March2003 ,119 -124.
Link to pdf archive.

Religious concepts activate various functionally distinct mental systems, present also in non-religious contexts, and 'tweak' the usual inferences of these systems. They deal with detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune. Each of these activates distinct neural resources or families of networks. What makes notions of supernatural agency intuitively plausible? This article reviews evidence suggesting that it is the joint, coordinated activation of these diverse systems, a supposition that opens up the prospect of a cognitive neuroscience of religious beliefs.

Blakemore, S J; Fonlupt, P; Pachot-Clouard, M; Darmon, C; Boyer, P; Meltzoff, A N et al.
How the brain perceives causality: an event-related fMRI study, Neuroreport: For Rapid Communication of Neuro-science Research, 12(17), 3741-3746.

Detection of the causal relationships between events is fundamental for understanding the world around us. We report an event-related fMRI study designed to investigate how the human brain processes the perception of mechanical causality. Subjects were presented with mechanically causal events (in which a ball collides with and causes movement of another ball) and non-causal events (in which no contact is made between the balls). There was a significantly higher level of activation of V5/MT/MST bilaterally, the superior temporal sulcus bilaterally and the left intraparietal sulcus to causal relative to non-causal events. Directing attention to the causal nature of the stimuli had no significant effect on the neural processing of the causal events. These results support theories of causality suggesting that the perception of elementary mechanical causality events is automatically processed by the visual system. [Journal Article; In English; England]

Boyer, P., Bedoin, N. & Honore, S.
Relative contributions from kind- and domain-concepts to inferences concerning unfamiliar exemplars.
Cognitive Development
15:457 -479.  Link to pdf version

Abstract: Two inferential routes allow children to produce expectations about new instances of ontological categories like 'animal' and 'artefact'. One is to generalise information from a 'look-up table' of familiar kind-concepts. The other one is to use independent expectations at the level of ontological do-mains. Our experiment pits these two sources of information against each other, using a sentence-judgement task associating proper-ties with images of familiar and unfamiliar artefacts and animals. A look-up strategy would lead children to reject them and an independent expectation strategy to accept them. In both domains we find a difference in reaction to strange properties associated with familiar vs. unfamiliar items, which shows that even young children do use independent domain-level information. We also found a U-shaped curve in propensity to use such abstract information. Also, animal categories are the object of much more definite domain-level expectations, which supports the notion that the animal domain is more causally integrated than the artefact domain.

Boyer, P, & Ramble, C, (2001).
Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations
Cognitive Science 25:535-564.
Click here for pdf.

Back to HomePage

Abstract: Presents results of free-recall experiments conducted in France, Gabon and Nepal, to test predictions of a cognitive model of religious concepts. The world over, these concepts include violations of conceptual expectations at the level of domain knowledge (e.g. about 'animal' or 'artifact' or 'person') rather than at the basic level. In five studies we used narratives to test the hypothesis that domain-level violations are recalled better than other conceptual associations. These studies used material constructed in the same way as religious concepts, but not used in religions familiar to the subjects. Experiments 1 and2 confirmed a distinctiveness effect for such material. Experiment 3 shows that recall also depends on the possibility to generate inferences from violations of domain expectations. Replications in Gabon (Exp. 4) and Nepal (Exp. 5) showed that recall for domain-level violations is better than for violations of basic-level expectations. Overall sensitivity to violations is similar in different cultures and produces similar recall effects, despite differences in commitment to religious belief, in the range of local religious concepts or in their mode of transmission. However, differences between Gabon and Nepal results suggest that familiarity with some types of domain-level violations may paradoxically make other types more salient. These results suggest that recall effects may account for the recurrent features found in religious concepts from different cultures.

Boyer, P (2000).
Natural Epistemology or Evolved Metaphysics? Developmental Evidence for Early-Developed, Intuitive, Category-Specific, Incomplete, and Stubborn Metaphysical Presumptions
, Philosophical Psychology, 13:277 -297.
Link to pdf version

Abstract: Cognitive developmental evidence is sometimes conscripted to sup-port "naturalized epistemology" arguments to the effect that a general epistemic stance leads children to build theory-like accounts of underlying properties of kinds. A review of the evidence sug-gests that what prompts conceptual acquisition is not a general epis-temic stance but a se-ries of category-specific intuitive principles that constitute an evolved 'natural metaphysics'. This consists in a system of categories and category-specific inferential processes founded on definite biases in prototype formation. Evidence for this system provides a better understanding of the limited 'plasticity' of ontological commitments as well as a computationally plausible account of their initial state, avoiding ambiguities about innateness. This may provide a starting point for a 'naturalized epistemology' that takes into account evolved properties of human conceptual structures.

Boyer, Pascal, (2000).
Functional Origins of Religious Concepts:
Conceptual and Strategic Selection in Evolved Minds
[Malinowski Lecture 1999]
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,6 :195 -214.

Link to pdf archive

Abstract: Culturally successful religious concepts are the outcome of selective processes that make some concepts more likely than others to be easily ac-quired, stored and transmitted. Among the constructs of human imagination, some connect to intuitive ontological principles in such a way that they constitute a small catalogue of culturally successful supernatural concepts. Experimental and anthropological evidence confirm the salience and trans-mission potential of this catalogue. Among these supernatural concepts, cog-nitive capacities for social interaction introduce a further selection. As a re-sult, some concepts of supernatural agents are connected to morality, group-identity, ritual and emotion. These typical 'religious' supernatural agents are tacitly presumed to have access to information that is crucial to social interac-tion, an assumption that boosts their spread in human groups.

Boyer, P. (2000)
Evolution of the modern mind and the origins of culture: religious concepts as a limiting case
, in Carruthers, P. & Chamberlain, A. (Eds.), Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp93 -112.

Abstract: The human cultural explosion is often explained in terms of "liberating events", of a newly acquired flexibility in mental representations. This chapter considers a domain where such flexibility should be maximal, that of religious representations, and shows that actual cultural transmission in in fact constrained by evolved properties of ontological categories and principles. More generally, this suggests that the "cultural mind" typical of recent human evolution is not so much an "unconstrained" mind as a mind equipped with a host of complex specialised capacities that make certain kinds of mental representations likely to succeed in cultural transmission.

Boyer, P. & Walker, S.J. (2000).
Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Input in the Acquisition of Religious Concepts, in Rosengren, K., Johnson, C. & Harris, P. (Eds.), Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific and Religious Thinking in Children, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.130 -156.

Back to HomePage

Abstract: Do children have religious beliefs, and in what ways are they different from adult ones? Clearly, the question is of interest to anthropologists who need to understand how religious representations are acquired and therefore how cultural assumptions are transmitted from generation to generation. It is also important for developmental psychology. What children grasp of religious concepts and beliefs may illuminate how they build complex conceptual structures on the basis of limited input. Surprisingly, studies of the development of religious concepts are still few and far between. They are not really satisfactory either, for two reasons. One is that such studies often apply to developmental phenomena views of adult religious concepts that have no sound cognit`ive basis. Another reason is that such studies generally ignore a wealth of anthropological material concerning the diversity as well as recurrent features of religious concepts. This is why the first part of this chapter deals with religious representations in adults, introducing a cognitive framework based on anthropological evidence. We then argue that this framework makes it possible to evaluate the relevance of recent developmental evidence to an understanding of religious concepts, and to specify in what ways children's religious concepts differ from the adult version.

Back to HomePage

powered by ohio website design company
Provided by ohio web design company.