series event

The evolution of supernatural beliefs

Sarah Peacey, University College London (UCL)

Supernatural beliefs are prevalent in many societies, but their adaptive functions are debated. Here, we test hypotheses relating to two supernatural belief systems:

1. Fear of punishment from moralising high gods has been proposed as a mechanism that enhances cooperation between unrelated individuals in large-scale societies. Reputation has also been proposed as a mechanism for cooperation. Experiments examined whether donations to religious and secular organisations were more motivated by 1) reputational concerns in a ‘public’ condition or 2) fear of supernatural punishment in a ‘private’ condition. This took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, using a ‘dice-in-cup’ methodology. The experiments were conducted in secular and religious locations. No significant differences were found between donations in the two conditions, or between donations in secular and religious locations. Possible reasons for this outcome, including the use of the ‘dice-in-cup’ methodology will be discussed. 


2. Belief in witchcraft, or the idea that certain individuals harm others through supernatural means, is widespread in human societies, and can have serious consequences for those accused. As diverse kinship structures produce different forms of conflict and competition within societies, they may lead to differing levels of belief in witchcraft (a possible mechanism for damaging the reputation of competitors). This study investigated whether various societal traits co-evolve with witchcraft beliefs in Bantu societies from sub-Saharan Africa. The hypotheses include: 1) Societies with patrilineal descent (through the male line) and patrilocal residence (with the husband’s family)  lead to higher levels of competition among unrelated females for reproductive resources, and potentially higher levels of belief in witchcraft and accusations than other forms of descent and post-marital residence. 2) As witchcraft is often associated with envy and competition, societies with greater inequality in wealth will have higher levels of witchcraft belief. These were tested used phylogenetic comparative methods. However, there was no evidence that witchcraft beliefs co-evolve with societal traits. They may evolve independently of them, but it is possible that traits influence evolution of the ‘witchcraft phenotype’ in societies.


Sarah is a PhD student in the Anthropology Department at University College London, supervised by Ruth Mace and Nichola Raihani. Her project tests hypotheses relating to the role of reputation and supernatural beliefs as mechanisms for cooperation. It uses cultural phylogenetics and other quantitative methods to analyse reputational punishment, in the form of witchcraft accusations, among Bantu tribes in Africa. It investigates the evolution and ecology of such beliefs. She has also undertaken fieldwork in Northern Ireland, using economic games to examine how reputation, religious belief and cooperation interact.


Please take note that this seminar will NOT be livestreamed/recorded.


Free. First come, first served.