Monday, June 21, 2010

Matt J. Rossano's "Supernatural Selection"

Matt Rossano is head of the Psychology Department at Southeastern Louisiana University and the author of Evolutionary Psychology: The Science of Human Behavior and Evolution.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Supernatural Selection is a pretty good page (one of many in the book, I hope). In it, I describe how the game of “peek-a-boo” provides a nice example of an early mother-infant social ritual. The predictability inherent in ritual allows the infant to engage with mother without becoming overly aroused and emotionally defensive:
Under most circumstances, suddenly pushing one’s face into an infant’s and saying “boo” is likely to send the infant into a screaming fit. Within the context of peek-a-boo, however, it is a thrillingly anticipated behavior, understood as playfully arousing, not threatening. The predictability of the game constructively regulates defensive emotions, allowing the social interaction to proceed without spinning out of control.
Social rituals such as this provide the foundation for the infant’s entry into the human social community and it is the infant’s (and later the child’s) effective participation in that community this is essential to becoming a fully human person. This is just one piece of a much larger argument about the critical role ritual played in human evolution.

Ponder this question for a moment: What occurred over the course of our evolutionary history that changed us from hairy apes, not to different from chimpanzees, into human beings? It is a question that has perplexed paleoanthropologists since Darwin’s time. Its difficulty is compounded by the fact that the first Homo sapiens were nearly identical to other hominids such as Neanderthals or Homo erectus in terms of tools, hunting practices, diet etc. But I think there is plenty of solid evidence to suggest that our ancestors were doing something that other hominids were not – they were engaging in social rituals. Thus, what we see going on in human development is simply a reflection of what went on over the course of human evolution. As human social groups became increasingly complex, social rituals – such as adolescent initiations, shamanistic healing ceremonies, and ritualized dancing and chanting around camp fires – became ever-more demanding both behaviorally and mentally. There are also very good reasons to suspect that the most demanding and effective of these rituals had supernatural elements incorporated into them. Page 99 is an excellent entry point into a fundamental thesis of Supernatural Selection – religious ritual made us human.
Learn more about Supernatural Selection at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue