What is the role of ritual in the evolution of social complexity?

Using databases developed in collaboration with social scientists, evolutionary theorists, historians, and archaeologists, we’re testing a raft of hypotheses about the role of ritual in the evolution of increasingly large-scale and complex societies. Through this work, funded by large grants from the ESRC, the European Commission, JTF, and the Tricoastal Foundation, we’re developing a new way of quantifying patterns in the human past that will provide a storehouse of information for future scientific research.

KEY ARTICLES:

 
Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük (PDF) - Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study

Modes of Religiosity at Çatalhöyük (PDF)

- Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study

A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution (PDF) - Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

A Historical Database of Sociocultural Evolution (PDF)

- Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

FUNDING SUPPORT:

2016–2021: European Research Council (€2.5 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: RitualModes: Divergent modes of ritual, social cohesion, prosociality, and conflict.

2011–2017: Economic and Social Research Council (£3.2 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Ritual, Community, and Conflict.

2015–2018: European Commission H2020 (€4 million). Principal Investigator: Rob Brennan. Co-Investigators: Jim Davies, Harvey Whitehouse, Sebastian Hellemann, Andreas Koller, Christian Dirschl, and Arkadiusz Marciniak. Title: ALIGNED: Quality-centric Software and Data Engineering.

2014–2017: John Templeton Foundation ($924,002). Principal Investigator: Peter Turchin. Co-Investigators: Thomas Currie, Harvey Whitehouse, Peter Peregrine, Kevin Feeney, and Douglas White. Title: Axial-Age Religions and the Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism.

 

Why do we have religion?

Religion is not a natural kind but a loose collection of quite distinct patterns of thinking and behavior supported by somewhat discrete psychological systems. Building on work begun with funding from the European Commission, our current research ‘fractionates’ religion into different components and seeks to explain their cultural persistence and spread in terms of both proximate and ultimate causes.

KEY ARTICLES:

 
Wrath of God: Religious Primes and Punishment - Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Wrath of God: Religious Primes and Punishment

- Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Rethinking Proximate Causation and Development in Religious Evolution (PDF) - Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (Strungmann Forum Reports)

Rethinking Proximate Causation and Development in Religious Evolution (PDF)

- Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion (Strungmann Forum Reports)

FUNDING SUPPORT:

2017–2020: Templeton World Charity Foundation (£1.5 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. The Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Religion and Morality

2007–2010: European Commission NEST Pathfinder Grant (€2 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Explaining Religion

 

Why die for a group?

The human propensity to sacrifice one’s life for genetic strangers has puzzled scientists since Darwin. With support from the ESRC and the John Fell Fund, we’re beginning to solve that puzzle.

KEY ARTICLES:

 

Funding Support 

2016–2021: European Research Council (€2.5 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: RitualModes: Divergent modes of ritual, social cohesion, prosociality, and conflict.

2011 – 2016: Economic and Social Research Council (£3.2 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Ritual, Community, and Conflict.

2014–2015: John Fell OUP Research Fund (£59,188). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Identifying the Intra-Group Causes of Inter-Group Conflict: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework and Research Centre.

 

 

How do children acquire the rituals of the communities around them?

Rituals are learned socially through the mechanism of imitation. Although most research on imitation in early childhood has examined the acquisition of technical and instrumental knowledge, imitation is equally necessary to acquire the social norms and practices of cultural communities. With funding from a large ESRC grant, we’re exploring the development of the ‘ritual stance’ in young children.

 

KEY ARTICLES:

FUNDING SUPPORT:

2011–2016: Economic and Social Research Council (£3.2 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Ritual, Community, and Conflict.

2009–2011: McDonnell Foundation Research Grant ($24,500) and John Fell Fund Grant (£7,500). Co-Investigators: Harvey Whitehouse and Cristine Legare. Title: The Development of Teleological and Causal Reasoning About Ritualized Action.

 

 

What is morality and where does it come from?

Evolutionary theory suggests that human morality is the product of a range of domain-specific cognitive mechanisms designed by natural selection to solve problems of cooperation such as kin altruism, mutualism, reciprocity, and conflict resolution. Thanks to Fell funding, The Oxford Morals Project is testing this theory of morality by means of large-scale cross-cultural surveys of moral values.

 
Religion and Morality (PDF) - Psychological Bulletin

Religion and Morality (PDF)

- Psychological Bulletin

 

Funding Support:

2017–2020: Templeton World Charity Foundation (£1.5 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. The Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Religion and Morality

2012–2015: John Fell OUP Research Fund (£68,047). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Mapping the Moral Domains: The Development of a New Scale for Cross-Cultural Research.

 

How do rituals bind groups together?

For centuries, scholars have realized that rituals produce social glue, promoting cooperation and trust within groups and pitting them against outsiders. Large grants from the ESRC and JTF are helping us unravel the mechanisms by which rituals accomplish these effects.

KEY Articles:

 

Funding Support

2016–2021: European Research Council (€2.5 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: RitualModes: Divergent modes of ritual, social cohesion, prosociality, and conflict.

2011 – 2017: Economic and Social Research Council (£3.2 million). Principal Investigator: Harvey Whitehouse. Title: Ritual, Community, and Conflict.

2012–2015: John Templeton Foundation (£1 million). Principal Investigators: Harvey Whitehouse, David Sloan Wilson, and Jon Lanman. Title: Religion’s Impact on Human Life: Integrating Proximate and Ultimate Perspectives.

 

What should theory in the social sciences look like?

Despite an ambitious start in the 19th century, most social sciences have struggled to make progress because of a lack of consensus on what the science should look like and even basic questions such as what constitutes a ‘theory.’ Every so often I pause to reflect on what went wrong and what we can do about it.

 
Immortality, Creation, and Regulation: Updating Durkheim’s Theory of the Sacred - Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion

Immortality, Creation, and Regulation: Updating Durkheim’s Theory of the Sacred

- Mental Culture: Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion

Whence and Whither Social Anthropology? (PDF) - Annales de la Fondation Fyssen Hors Serie – 30e Anniversaire

Whence and Whither Social Anthropology? (PDF)

- Annales de la Fondation Fyssen Hors Serie – 30e Anniversaire


Policy applications

Understanding social glue and how it is produced has potentially profound implications for preventing and ameliorating intergroup violence. But social glue can also be used positively to solve collective actions problems, especially in the wake of destructive conflicts. Under the leadership of Lord John Alderdice, who helped to bring about the peace process in Northern Ireland, we have established a Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC) at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, which also forms part of a recently established interdisciplinary network of research studying war and peace at the University of Oxford

 
Three Wishes for the World (with comment) [PDF] - Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

Three Wishes for the World (with comment) [PDF]

- Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History

 

Funding Support

The Oxford Martin SchoolPrincipal Investigators: Harvey Whitehouse, Dominic Johnson, David Macdonald. Title: Natural Governance