Laporte, Catharina (2013-12). The Evolution of Variability in Magic, Divination and Religion: A Multi-level Selection Analysis. Doctoral Dissertation. Thesis uri icon


  • Religious behavior varies greatly both with-in cultures and cross-culturally. Throughout history, scientific scholars of religion have debated the definition, function, or lack of function for religious behavior. The question remains: why doesn't one set of beliefs suit everybody and every culture? Using mixed methods, the theoretical logic of Multi-Level Selection hypothesis (MLS) which has foundations in neo-evolutionary theory, and data collected during nearly two years of field work in Macae Brazil, this study asserts that religious variability exists because of the historic and dynamic relationship between the individual, the family, the (religious) group and other groups. By re-representing a nuanced version of Elman Service's sociopolitical typologies together with theorized categories of religion proposed by J.G. Frazer, Anthony C. Wallace and Max Weber, in a multi-level nested hierarchy, I argue that variability in religious behavior sustains because it provides adaptive advantages and solutions to group living on multiple levels. These adaptive strategies may be more important or less important depending on the time, place, individual or group. MLS potentially serves to unify the various functional theories of religion and can be used to analyze why some religions, at different points in history, may attract and retain more adherents by reacting to the environment and providing a dynamic balance between what the individual needs and what the group needs. Primarily I test, and find support for the hypothesis that magical behaviors are pursuits primarily undertaken to achieve personal or kin related needs. In this data set, 78% of magical behaviors target individuals or their immediate kin. Data analysis also highlights various adaptive strategies that the group may have evolved to maintain group membership and cohesion. These include the use of stereotypes and specific norms that control or suppress how individuals within the group communicate their needs: a concept referred to as 'privatizing the public'. In these 'privatized' spaces, 93% of magical behaviors target the individual or their immediate kin. For example, confessing ones perceived sins or using magic to help cure a loved one are often behaviors performed with little or no audience or listeners. Furthermore the data illustrate that because of conflicts between the levels within the nested hierarchy, both the individual and the group may reevaluate their stance on what behaviors they adopt or accept. Analysis of the data also illustrates how magical behaviors provide powerful signals within and without the religious group. Specifically I provide a concrete cultural example of the 'Green Beard' affect by documenting how Catholic religious symbolism was purposefully adopted by Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners. Furthermore the data illustrate how some religious groups have hijacked the individual's propensity for magical thinking and use these behaviors as creditability enhancing and inferentially potent displays which in turn create content or confirmation biases for the practices. Finally this study hypothesizes how, using the logic of MLS together with data collected on the Afro-Brazilian religious offering, the ultimate benefit of costly signaling may extend beyond the individual, their immediate family or social group. Costly signals, made anonymously, may provide a strategic advantage that enables the group to thrive and compete against other social groups.

publication date

  • December 2013