Manvir Singh, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse
Human societies reliably develop “cultural super-attractors”, or complex practices and beliefs that exhibit striking similarities. In this talk, I will present research on the nature and origins of three religious super-attractors: shamanism, religious self-denial, and beliefs in supernatural punishment. These cultural practices appeared in the vast majority of human societies, predated doctrinal religions, and persist even when doctrinal religious authorities try to quash them. Drawing variously on cultural evolutionary theory, cross-cultural comparative projects, and studies conducted among the Mentawai people of Indonesia, I will characterize these practices, present hypotheses for why they recur, and test those hypotheses against anthropological data. The findings of these projects suggest that religious super-attractors develop as people selectively retain cultural practices evaluated as best satisfying subjective goals.