Social evolution: The ritual animal : Nature News & Comment

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Members of large, stable groups such as religions, tribes and nations typically reinforce their commitment with routine rituals such as Buddhist prayers in Thailand.

By July 2011, when Brian McQuinn made the 18-hour boat trip from Malta to the Libyan port of Misrata, the bloody uprising against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had already been under way for five months.
 

“The whole city was under siege, with Gaddafi forces on all sides,” recalls Canadian-born McQuinn. He was no stranger to such situations, having spent the previous decade working for peace-building organizations in countries including Rwanda and Bosnia. But this time, as a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Oxford, UK, he was taking the risk for the sake of research. His plan was to make contact with rebel groups and travel with them as they fought, studying how they used ritual to create solidarity and loyalty amid constant violence.

It worked: McQuinn stayed with the rebels for seven months, compiling a strikingly close and personal case study of how rituals evolved through combat and eventual victory. And his work was just one part of a much bigger project: a £3.2-million (US$5-million) investigation into ritual, community and conflict, which is funded until 2016 by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and headed by McQuinn's supervisor, Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.
 

Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man's penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.

To explore these possibilities, and to tease apart how this social glue works, Whitehouse's project will combine fieldwork such as McQuinn's with archaeological digs and laboratory studies around the world, from Vancouver, Canada, to the island archipelago of Vanuatu in the south Pacific Ocean. “This is the most wide-ranging scientific project on rituals attempted to date,” says Scott Atran, director of anthropological research at the CNRS, the French national research organization, in Paris, and an adviser to the project.

Human rites

A major aim of the investigation is to test Whitehouse's theory that rituals come in two broad types, which have different effects on group bonding. Routine actions such as prayers at church, mosque or synagogue, or the daily pledge of allegiance recited in many US elementary schools, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the 'doctrinal mode'. He argues that these rituals, which are easily transmitted to children and strangers, are well suited to forging religions, tribes, cities and nations — broad-based communities that do not depend on face-to-face contact.

Rare, traumatic activities such as beating, scarring or self-mutilation, by contrast, are rituals operating in what Whitehouse calls the 'imagistic mode'. “Traumatic rituals create strong bonds among those who experience them together,” he says, which makes them especially suited to creating small, intensely committed groups such as cults, military platoons or terrorist cells. “With the imagistic mode, we never find groups of the same kind of scale, uniformity, centralization or hierarchical structure that typifies the doctrinal mode,” he says.

Written By: Dan Jones
continue to source article at nature.com

7 COMMENTS

  1. As an example of how rituals can cause values and preferences to become sacralized, Atran points to his studies showing that, in the United States, people who attend church more frequently are more likely to consider the right to bear arms a sacred value.

    An interesting aspect of the study. Church attendance and feeling a right to bear arms are probably not causally related but are sacred values with a ritualistic common ancestor, where sacred values are defined as

    absolute and non-negotiable beliefs that cannot be traded against material benefits such as money“.

    I suspect that the relative success of the Australian government’s gun buy-back scheme following the Port Arthur massacre could not be repeated in America, where gun ownership is far more sacred even among people who don’t attend church regularly.

    • In reply to #2 by Macropus:

      As an example of how rituals can cause values and preferences to become sacralized, Atran points to his studies showing that, in the United States, people who attend church more frequently are more likely to consider the right to bear arms a sacred value.

      An interesting aspect of the study. Church…

      I think what you say about the ownership of personal weapons in America is very interesting; could it be a habit born of insecurity? A self harming habit.

      Indeed, could the same be said of religion itself?

      After all, we are the only inhabitants of this Planet who know that we are going to eventually die; in other words we’re capable of thinking sub specie aeternitatis, and even observing the Universe in which we live, which could on the one hand be considered a blessing but on the other a curse which has led us to fantasize and slaughter one another in the tens of millions.

      Oh dear; I think I need a cup of tea!

      • In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

        In reply to #2 by Macropus:

        As an example of how rituals can cause values and preferences to become sacralized, Atran points to his studies showing that, in the United States, people who attend church more frequently are more likely to consider the right to bear arms a sacred value.

        An interesting…

        I think you may have something here, (and I’m far too mature to comment that bearing arms might be more of a self arming habit). A great many of the bad things that happen in life seem to be caused by fear, embarrassment or love, however not so many from dunking a hob nob in a cup of tea and just catching it with a good slurp just before it collapses. We should choose our rituals carefully.

      • In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

        >

        I think what you say about the ownership of personal weapons in America is very interesting; could it be a habit born of insecurity? A self harming habit.

        I have been wondering about this for some time too. if you as an average white middle class american which country has the greatest military and the greatest police force I’m sure they wouldn’t think too long before answering yet admit these are not good enough to make them feel secure. ultimately the need for arms to protect oneself is an admission of lack of faith in the authorities paid to protect them.

        could this mistrust in secular authority be a by-product of religion? laws can be changed and resources can be redirected but dogma doesn’t change. in the US the right wing have long since given up on rational debate when appealing to ingrained prejudice guarantees votes (one reason they should stop denying the increase in non-theism)

  2. What kind of ritual…personal, group, religious ?
    Ritual is a way to express identity… among different types of people..the trouble with ritual is…. it doesn’t evolve at the same pace as other cultural realities, so rituals tend to be old and sometimes now meaningless – especially religious ones…but new ones are always evolving and more global rituals are happening with digital connectedness, where before they were quite regionally different…

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