2005 May 26 Thursday
Infanticide And The Affordability Of Religious Taboos

Back on April 14, 2005 Razib at the Gene Expresson blog wrote a post arguing that opposition to infanticide couldn't have caused a shift to Roman Catholic Christianity via natural selection because the conversion happened too rapidly for natural selection to play a substantial role.

But there is another layer to this issue, there is often a difference between ideology and practice. Unlike the pagan Gauls the Roman Catholic French of the 18th century opposed infanticide on principle. But in reality the mortality rates were in excess of 90% before the age of five for many of the "foundling" orphanages where parents who could not or would not raise their infants abdicated their responsibility. Though de jure there was no infanticide, the reality is that the morality rate for these foundlings was so high that the reproductive difference attributable solely to the abolishment of infanticide might have been minimal. Additionally, many individuals married extremely late or remained unmarried.

My point is that all the contentions above are "true" to some extent. Fisher's genetical logic is clear. The pro-natalist ideology of early Christianity and Islam in contrast to the more ambivalent attitude of the pagans is also textually attributed. Scholars who study the rates of pre-modern adoption and abandonment also find that the de facto difference between cultures that exist in the same environment3 but espouse different ideologies is far less than one would gather from the official textual sources which address the point specifically.

Think about the last sentence in that excerpt. Here's my approximate guess: Coexisting believers in rival religions will have lives more similar to each other than their religious texts would lead you to expect if they are very poor. But as their living standards rise they will be able to afford to more accurately live according to their doctrinal beliefs and hence forgotten practices for each religion will be dusted off and increasingly obeyed.

For example, Razib's post discusses infanticide. I've read the late John Boswell's The Kindness of Strangers about child abandonment in Europe from the Middle Ages into the 19th century (and I forget the exact time range he covered, but something along that order). The book surprises because he reported child abandonment rates on the order of 20% to 30% in early 19th century France (if memory serves). Well, necessity is a mother. But once living standards rose due to the industrial revolution religious prohibitions against infanticide were translated into law and enforcement of the law. Once necessity ceased to make child abandonment a necessity for most people anyone who still engaged in the practice faced increasingly stiff sanctions.

Similarly, oil rich Saudi Arabia has enough money to afford the construction of facilities that separate men from women. My guess is that the separation of men and women was less thorough back before the modern oil era because people had to work in various capacities just to survive and could not afford to devote as much time and resources to getting work done in ways that separated men and women.

Of course, when industrialization causes a falling away from religious belief then the same rising living standards that make enforcement of more religious rules more affordable also reduce the percentage of the population that believe in the religious rules in the first place. But absent the decline in religious belief I would expect rising living standards to, in effect, fund stricter adherence to religious taboos and customs.

Also, I've also previously argued (not sure where, maybe on GNXP's blog comments) that the influence of religious texts on the nature of how religions are actually practiced has become greater due to falling costs of printing, wider spread literacy, and the rise of electronic means of communication. Therefore differences between written texts and common beliefs about religions found hundreds of years ago do not prove that today any particular religion's practice can diverge as far from the rules in written texts as was possible when reading of those texts was rarer.

To put this in a nutshell: As compared to the distant past people today can more easily afford both to learn and to carry out "correct" religious practices. That does not mean that people will always engage in religious practices that are closer to all the instructions found in original base texts of assorted religions. Some rules may seem a smaller sacrifice to obey and so people will obey them. Other rules which demand sacrifices that cut too heavily against the grain of human desire will have complex rationalizations built up around them explaining why one does not always have to obey them. But many rules will be obeyed when doing so becomes more affordable. The taboo against infanticide provides a good example for this.

Update: On the subject of how much the base texts of a religion determine religious belief also see Razib's post Islam: essential and nominal. On a related note also see his post Ayaan Hirsi Ali interviewed.

Another point of my own: How a religion is interpreted is also a function of the cognitive abilities and the conceptual toolbox of the interpreter. A dummy is going to tend to reach conclusions about the meaning of various passages in a text based on what that dummy can even imagine. If you could poll, say, 1000 IQ 80 adherents to Islam and 1000 IQ 100 adherents and 1000 IQ 120 adherents and ask them all a long list of questions about their religion you'd get substantial differences between the 3 groups. The smarter folks are going to build a more complicated model, consider more factors, notice more patterns and meanings (whether real or imagined) in the texts of the religion. The same would happen if one repeated the same polling with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians for that matter.

A society with a single unified church will produce a different dominant interpretation than will a society which has a religion split up into a set of sects where people with different levels of status and intellectual ability join different sects.

One final point: In a less developed society back before industrialization where the bulk of the population was illiterate and worked from dawn to dusk those workers literally had no time to study religious matters. Under those circumstances the elites dominated formulation of religious doctrines. If those elites were smarter on average (and they probably were even a thousand years ago) then a religion's character was determined more by smarter elites than by dumber masses. Industrialization, by producing more time for study for the masses effectively shifted the center of religious interpretation toward the masses and away from the elites.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 May 26 03:51 PM  Culture Compared


Comments
Stephen said at May 26, 2005 6:26 PM:

Afghanistan (taliban era) comes to mind as an example of an extremely poor country that nevertheless adopted personally inconvenient religious rituals.

I wonder what proportion of nominal believers are being counted as fundamentalist merely because they are forced to adopt the outward trappings of fundamentalist rituals for social reasons (ie irrespective of actual religious belief)? I'm thinking of the religious militia that wander the streets of Kabul (and Tehran) looking for opportunities to harass non-fundies, thereby causing the nominal believers to adopt rituals in order to be a smaller target. Or in a more US-centric example, people who feel forced to adopt fundy practices in order to achieve public position, a job in a fundy dominated firm or merely social interaction in a fundy dominated town.

I suppose my hypothesis is that the broad adoption of inconvenient rituals isn't so much due to personal belief or economic choice, but rather its a cost that often be borne to be able to be part of a society. If that hypothesis is largely correct (not saying it is), then the next question would be - what percentage of society needs to be either fundamentalist or pretend-fundamentalist, in order for them to be able to force adherence to their particular brand of fundy dogma?

On reflection, I'd expand the definition of 'fundamentalist' to include any political belief system in addition to the realm of religious belief. Nazism comes to mind. And at a stretch, Communism.

Invisible Scientist said at May 27, 2005 2:04 AM:


Randall Parker wrote:
"One final point: In a less developed society back before industrialization where the bulk of the population was illiterate and worked from dawn to dusk those workers literally had no time to study religious matters. Under those circumstances the elites dominated formulation of religious doctrines. If those elites were smarter on average (and they probably were even a thousand years ago) then a religion's character was determined more by smarter elites than by dumber masses. Industrialization, by producing more time for study for the masses effectively shifted the center of religious interpretation toward the masses and away from the elites."
-------------------------------------------------------------------

During the Middle Ages and the Horrific Inquisition times in Europe, religion and academic studies, were exclusively in the hands of the "elite". The "elite" happily wrote the interpretation of the religion to conform to the needs of the aristocracy, and these needs were the acquisition power and acquisition of even more power, absolute power, by using every possible kind of torture and murder imaginable at that time. So much for the inteligent interpretation of religion. I do NOT think that the uneducated "masses" were interested in inventing such a dogmatic view of religion in Europe, since the latter was basically hypocrisy for power. In fact, the "elite" made it illegal for the peasants to own copies of the bible so that they could totally monopolize religion and enslaev the masses.

Stephen said at May 27, 2005 3:59 AM:

Then there was all that bother about the bibles and services being in latin rather than the local language.

crush41 said at May 27, 2005 8:59 AM:

Therefore differences between written texts and common beliefs about religions found hundreds of years ago do not prove that today any particular religion's practice can diverge as far from the rules in written texts as was possible when reading of those texts was rarer.
----------------

The Protestant Reformation demonstrates well: Catholics like Erasmus interjecting a seminal form of humanism in Handbook of the Christian Solider and questioning ideas without scriptural evidence (purgatory, etc) to Luther's emphasis on the "word alone" to Bunyan's very personal reading of scripture in an almost mystical way that put the organized church on the backburner. The Church basically lost the monopoly on scriptural interpretation, even though they tried to hold on to it in the Council of Trent and the brutality Invisible Scientist speaks of.

Steve Sailer said at May 27, 2005 1:36 PM:

Was the child abandonment notoriously practiced by Rousseau and others mostly limited to urban areas, whereas peasants needed more young farm hands?

Steve Sailer said at May 27, 2005 1:38 PM:

Also, the ancient Greeks had a contraceptive herb, apparently picked into extinction, that kept their populations down.

Nigel said at May 27, 2005 8:01 PM:


This thesis requires not a blog post but a whole book!

I wonder if the upswing in religious conflict in places like Lebanon, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia that has occured *after* sustained economic growth is proof of this. BEfore the wise stewardship of the Lebanese economy by the Maronite Christians that benefited the country as a whole it might have been much harder to adhere to the tenets of the various reglions.

Randall Parker said at May 28, 2005 11:20 AM:

Steve,

I read Boswell's The Kindess Of Strangers probably 15 or 20 years ago and so I can't vouch for my memory. But my impression reading it was that the practice was very widespread.

Also, your peasant farmers didn't see 2 or 3 year olds as assets. In a bad harvest year they had to choose between feeding the 2 or 3 year old and feeding the 7 or 10 year old who could actually work in the field, hunt, and tend flocks.

Nigel,

What you say sounds plausible to me. I'd expect a delay between the time taboos start to become affordable and the time when long ignored taboos start getting enforced. The size of the delay would depend on all sorts of factors. Fear of foreigners, advances in communication, and presence of a charismatic leader are just a few of the factors which I'd expect to influence whether taboo enforcement became stricter once it became more affordable.

Nigel said at May 30, 2005 8:08 PM:

The jist of this post has been on the actual feasibility of complying with the letter of scriptures in terms of being able to afford non-essentials and having the capability of disseminating information (press, etc.), but my hunch is that the hierarchy of needs element of it is as least as important.

I was in Durham, UK, not too long ago, and there were fliers put up around town by some group against elevator music, that it devalues real music, is not pleasant to the ears, does not actually increase sales revenue. People can only care about things like this in a place like contemprary UK where their *real* needs are already being met. I doubt if the Zimbabwe that Randall describes has anti-elevator music lobbying groups. Anti-gay marriage fervour in the US is similar.

Similarly, besides the issues of *literally* being about to afford single-sex dining rooms and to be able to eat exclusively kosher food--or to avoid beef in an India where one must eat whatever is available to hand--or being able to afford *viable* orphanages---many of these issues or pseudo-issues can only be dwelt upon psychologically after a certain amount of material comfort has been reached.

jaimito said at May 31, 2005 12:50 AM:

I can find examples for and against your thesis. Beduin (Saudi Arab) society traditionally isolated fertile females much before separate facilities could be built. You can see it in Jordanian and south Israeli beduin encampments, which are the same tribes but much poorer than their Saudi cousins. "Honor killings" - brothers killing an unruly sister - happens even today (this week a girl was killed because she was found in a Beer Sheba shopping mall) but they were the norm in former times.

Regarding the refinements in the practice of religion that can be achieved thanks to modern technology, the Haredi ("Godfearing") Jews are a good example. Making fire is forbidden on Saturday, so they put automatic computerized clocks that operate the electric system. Water was always kosher (ritually pure) in the past, till they discovered that through the microscope small animals can be seen swimming in stale water - now this water is unfit to be drinken with milky products. (Milk and meat are not mixed in the same meal).


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