Does God still demand “costly signaling?”

by Brian on March 26, 2021

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture

How is a male peacock strutting his plumage like a devoutly religious person praying? Both are engaged in what scientists studying evolution call “costly signaling.” 

Can understanding the origins of this phenomena help lead us out of the crisis between religious and secular in Israel that Covid-19 has exacerbated? 

Costly signaling is when you put out into the world a hard-to-fake signal which serves as a reliable cue of something you’re trying to demonstrate to your peer group.

The male peacock’s plumage is a sexual display. It’s effective because only the healthiest peacocks can maintain a plumage that is so costly to other aspects of a peacock’s life – it can’t fly fast or run away in a hurry; the feathers make it more visible to predators. 

As a result, if you’re not the strongest of peacocks and you try to flaunt such plumage anyway, you stand a good chance of getting eaten. The message to female peahens is that any peacock with all those gaudy feathers must be good to mate with.

The peacock, of course, is oblivious to the evolutionary basis behind his bravura. He isn’t thinking, “let me grow beautiful feathers because that will send a costly signal to any peahens out there.” 

The same process happens with religion, whether that’s wearing a headscarf in Islam, following the vows of chastity in Catholicism or, in Judaism, strictly observing halacha (Jewish Law). 

To one’s co-religionists, these costly behaviors indicate you are a true believer. If you weren’t, why would you go through the super costly – and irreversible – practice of circumcision, the ultimate hard-to-fake signal?

But, like the peacock and his plumage, religious rituals evolved over thousands of years of trial and error, resulting in religion’s case in a system that ensured the smooth functioning of complex societies.

For most of the history of the human species, explains University of British Columbia professor of psychology Azim Shariff, we lived in small groups, usually no more than 150 people. That’s the limit of how many people we can really know well, Shariff said in an interview for an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain

In a compact group, Shariff notes, if you steal someone’s dinner, you’ll be found out pretty quickly. There’s no way to disappear into the crowd.

But with the advent of the agricultural revolution, people started to live in larger groups. Anonymous strangers in these newfangled communities could cheat with impunity.

That’s when the idea of an omniscient God (or gods) began to sprout up. If God could see all and punish you when your actions weren’t in line with the group’s interests, you’d be more likely to cooperate.

The concept of an all-powerful, often angry God as supernatural policeman eventually morphed into the codification of countless religious laws. However, the original meaning got lost along the way. A modern person of faith doesn’t relate to his or her practices as something that culturally evolved from the needs of an orderly community. Rather, when religious leaders insist that marriage must be between two people of the same creed and sexual orientation, it’s because “that’s what God said.” 

If we consider religion as something that evolved for reasons other than pure piety, though, what happens when religious precepts come in conflict with the needs of the individual – or the overall health of society? 

Does God still demand costly signaling in the modern age? Are we mere peacocks or are we reasoning human beings?

This is, sadly, no longer just a rhetorical point. 

During the Covid-19 crisis, some religious groups adopted an extreme form of costly signaling. Demonstrating fidelity to the group meant refusing to stop communal activities of any kind. 

The deadly consequence: people have been forced to sacrifice their lives for the “good” of the group.

Yet that’s the exact opposite of what religion evolved to do in the first place – to create thriving, living cultures.

If, on the other hand, we embrace the evolutionary history of costly signaling and can separate that from the strict laws that define religions today, there may be space for flexibility when it comes to devotional behavior in general and when confronting a once-in-a-century global pandemic in particular.

Looking honestly at the origins of religion could allow us to chill out on some of the thorniest issues regarding synagogue and state. 

Such a worldview doesn’t mean jettisoning religious tradition – on the contrary, observance still brings great meaning to its adherents. Singing together, for example, can sync up the heartbeats of participants, promoting group cohesion. 

Even the religious institutions we think we understand from the past may not be quite what they seem. 

We know, for example, that the Judaism of the First and Second Temple periods was nothing like the rabbinic Judaism of today. But the discovery by Tel Aviv University researchers of remnants of cannabis on a 2,700-year-old altar unearthed at Tel Arad, suggests that the purpose of ancient religious rituals was not only about adherence to halacha but the enhancement of spirit – quite literally – by providing supplicants a sanctioned way to get stoned. 

It’s a shocking supposition but one that can provide hope for crafting future religious practices more in tune with the times. 

If we can accept that costly signaling was religion’s driving evolutionary force rather than fervent faith, then perhaps we can swap such spiritual signaling for a more inclusive and joyful message, one that doesn’t get twisted into a death-defying, anti-science cult.

Religion should get us high – whether psychedelics are used or not. 

Some food for thought as you pass the charoset this Passover eve.

I first wrote about the evolution of God and halacha for The Jerusalem Post.

Peacock image by Irina Blok

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