Tuesday 16 February 2016

Mighty, vengeful, all-knowing God engenders altruism, study finds

I enjoyed making up that headline, but the actual title of the Nature letter is almost as Turneresque: “Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality”

Purzycki et al. Nature 10.1038/nature 16980

They don’t write papers like that any more, but Purzycki et al. have returned to the tradition of gesamtkunstwerk. They propose to answer a question which, I must say, hasn’t bothered me much: why are people nice to strangers? I thought the answer was because, on average, most strangers were nice enough to be nice to, and in fleeting transactions why not be civil, reserving rudeness for those one knows best?

Purzycki and colleagues have searched out some tribes, presumably pure specimens of something, for analysis and participation in an altruism game. Stick with me while I explain as best I can what they have done. They begin thus:


Of course, pro-sociality could still be explained by genetic relatedness, reciprocity and partner choice (and probably accounts for much of human social behaviour). In addition to those core factors, people could have established a superficial modus vivendi with crowds of strangers. The behaviours which get favoured by selection often have wider consequences than the original problems they were intended to solve.

However, the authors feel that further explanations are necessary:


Of course, true altruism is being nice to strangers even if they don’t share your religion, so the “co-religionist” criterion is something of a let down, and suggests that relatedness of the belief sort is still important.

The subjects were recruited in the following interesting and out of the way places:


Why? Why not go to the suburbs, where most people live? They are just as genetically old as anyone else. Was it tacked on to another field study?

The authors found 591 subjects, and 60 observations made of each person.

Understanding the results is not easy. Ideally, results should be visible at a glance, with the supportive detail easily to hand. In this case the results are a pain to find. The authors need to consider simple-minded readers like myself. What’s my problem? I don’t know at a glance why there are two columns with the same name of  “local co-religionist game” and another two columns of “self game”. The explanations earlier give me a clue but I lost the will to keep cracking the code. Life is short, even for altruists.


Let me direct you to the tables and figures I felt were leading me somewhere.


The final result is that I do not know what the final result is. I think it means that if subjects believe that their god is punitive and all-knowing, then they give about 20% more to others.

They then draw the same findings.


This is an ambitious and interesting paper, which I would have preferred to have had presented in a simplified format. For example, drawing up a total score for “charitable giving to strangers”. I would have understood that, and been willing to forgo some of the game details in order to grasp the main implications. I think they have probably identified something, but lack the will to find out more.

Disclaimer: I wouldn’t have commented on this paper, but distinguised people (genetically unrelated) send it to me in the hope it would lighten up my day, and I thought it rude to ignore them. I did not check on their religion, but believe them to be fellow worshippers at the temple of Truth.


  1. "Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism": hm. Still, let's not forget Gibbon on the topic.

    “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”

    I pass this wisdom on as an act of altruism.

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  3. "Mighty, vengeful, all-knowing God engenders altruism, study finds". Except towards Canaanites, obviously.

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