Pascal Boyer

Selected Articles

Abstracts of some articles and links to pdf archives


Boyer P, Firat R, van Leeuwen F (2015) Safety, Threat and Stress in Intergroup Relations. A Coalitional Index model Perspectives in Psychological Science xx: xxx-xxx.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Contact between people from different groups triggers specific individual- and group-level responses, ranging from attitudes and emotions to welfare and health outcomes. Standard social psychological perspectives do not yet provide an integrated, causal model of these phenomena. As an alternative, we describe a coalitional perspective. Human psychology includes evolved cognitive systems designed to garner support from other individuals, organize and maintain alliances, and measure potential support from group members. Relations between alliances are strongly influenced by threat detection mechanisms, which are sensitive to cues that express one’s own group will provide less support or that other groups are dangerous. Repeated perceptions of such threat-cues can lead to chronic stress. The model provides a parsimonious explanation for many individual-level effects of intergroup relations and group-level disparities in health and well-being. This perspective suggests new research directions aimed at understanding the psychological processes involved in intergroup relations.

Boyer P, Parren N (2015) Threat-related information suggests competence: A possible factor in the spread of rumors, PLoS ONE xx: xxx-xxx.

Click here for draft version [pdf].

Information about potential danger is a central component of many rumors, urban legends, ritual prescriptions, religious prohibitions and witchcraft crazes. We investigate a potential factor in the cultural success of such material, namely that a source of threat-related information may be intuitively judged as more competent than a source that does not convey such information. In five studies, we asked participants to judge which of two sources of information, only one of which conveyed threat-related information, was more knowledgeable. Results suggest that mention of potential danger makes a source appear more competent than others, that the effect is not due to a general negativity bias, and that it concerns competence rather than a more generally positive evaluation of the source.

Baumard N, Hyafil A, Morris I, Boyer P (2015) Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions, Current Biology 25: 1-6.

Click here for draft [pdf].

Between roughly 500 BCE and 300 BCE three distinct regions, the Yangtze and Yellow River Valleys, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Ganges Valley, saw the emergence of highly similar religious traditions with an unprecedented emphasis on self-discipline and asceticism, and “other-worldly”, often moralizing, doctrines, including Buddhism, Jainism, Brahmanism, Daoism, Second Temple Judaism, and Stoicism, with later offshoots such as Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam. This cultural convergence, often called the “Axial Age”, presents a puzzle: Why this emergence at the same time of distinct moralizing religions with highly similar features in different civilizations? Quantitative history evidence demonstrates an exceptional uptake in energy capture (a proxy for general prosperity) just before the “Axial Age” in these three regions. Statistical modeling confirms that economic development, not political complexity or population size, accounts for the timing of the Axial Age.

Boyer P (2015) How Natural Selection Shapes Conceptual Structure: Human Intuitions and Concepts of Ownership, in S Laurence & E Margolis (Eds.), The Conceptual Mind. New Directions in the Study of Concepts, Cambridge, MA; The MIT Press, pp. 185-200.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

How do we map the inventory of human concepts? Here I propose that a precise description of selective pressures on species-specific cognitive systems is the best source of empirical hypotheses about conceptual repertoires, and I illustrate this in the case of ownership concepts. The example of ownership illustrates how a highly specific selective context can predict and explain equally specific aspects of human concepts. Oownership as a conceptual domain is part of our responses to the adaptive challenge of reaching a measure of coordination that optimizes the extraction of resources.This account also suggests more general though tentative lessons, to do with what general computational properties, if any, should be expected from concepts; whether categorization is crucial to concept structure; and what role concepts play in linguistic reference.

Boyer P (2013) Why 'Belief' is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back Hau, Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3(3): 349-57.

Click here for proofs [pdf].

A consequence of our common evolved psychology is that most people, at most times, in most situations will not consider their gods real, in the sense of having a definite intuition of their presence. As Tanya Lurhmann's When God Talks Back (Luhrmann 2012) demonstrates, it requires considerable work to  achieve an intuitive grasp of something—the actual presence of a god—that is reflectively accepted as certainly true. Tanya Luhrmann’s detailed monograph addresses the question, why belief, far from being a simple matter of receiving and accepting information, requires complex cognitive processes, some of which can be illuminated by meticulous ethnographic investigation.

Boyer P (2013) Explaining religious concepts. Lévi- Strauss the brilliant and problematic ancestor, in D Xygalatas & L McCorkle (Eds.) Mental Culture,  Classical Social Theory and the Cognitive Science of Religion, Durham, UK: Acumen, pp. 164-75. Click here for proofs [pdf].

Claude Lévi-Strauss went further than most in renewing our understanding of universal constraints on human cultures. Surprisingly, his findings and models have had very little influence on contemporary accounts of religion. This is because he was a proponent and an eminent practitioner the “science mode” in anthropology. Also, Lévi- Strauss clearly had no trust in the notion of “religion”. He did not believe that the term denotes any coherent set of phenomena. He was, I will argue, quite right about that, but this of course did limit the appeal of his models for scholars of religion, many of whom do believe that there is such a domain as “religion”. Finally, Lévi- Strauss did not relate his hypotheses on cultural phenomena to any precise cognitive models of psychological processes, for the perfectly good reason that the latter did not exist at the time he put forward the basic tenets of structural anthropology. As a result, most structural models lack the psychological precision required to account for actual religious concepts and behaviours.

Baumard N & Boyer P (2013) Explaining moral religions Trends in Cognitive Science.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

Moralizing religions, unlike religions with morally indifferent gods or spirits, appeared only recently in some (but not all) large-scale human societies. A crucial feature of these new religions was their emphasis on proportionality (between deeds and supernatural rewards, between sins and penance, and in the formulation of the Golden Rule, according to which one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself). Recent models of evolved dispositions for fairness in cooperation suggest that proportionality-based morality is highly intuitive to human beings. This may explain the cultural success of moralizing movements, secular or religious, based on proportionality.

Baumard N & Boyer P (2013) Religious beliefs as reflective elaborations on intuitions: A modified dual-process model Current Directions in Psychological Science. Click here for proofs [pdf].

Religious beliefs apparently challenge our view of human cognition as evolved system that provides reliable information about environments. We propose that properties of religious beliefs are best understood in terms of a dual-processing model, in which a variety of evolved domain-specific systems provide stable intuitions, while other systems produce explicit, often deliberate comments on those intuitions. This perspective accounts for the fact that religious beliefs are apparently diverse but thematically similar, and that they are immune to refutation and more attractive to imaginative individuals.

Boyer P & Petersen, MB (2012) Studying institutions in the context of natural selection: limits or opportunities? [forthcoming] Journal of Institutional Economics. Click here for proofs [pdf].

In this comment, we respond to comments raised by Eastwood (2010) in response to our article on the role of evolutionary psychology in understanding institutions (Boyer and Petersen, 2011). We discuss how evolutionary psychological models account for cultural variation and change in institutions, how sociological institutionalism and evolutionary models can inform each other, how evolutionary psychological models illuminate the role of power in institutional design and the possibility of a ‘general theory’ of institutionsons.

Boyer P, Lienard P, Xu J (2011) Cultural Differences in Investing in Others and in the Future: Why Measuring Trust Is Not Enough, PLoS One, 7(7) e40750.
Click here for article [pdf].

Stan dard measures of generalized trust in others are often taken to provide reliable indicators of economic attitudes in different countries. Here we compared three highly distinct groups, in Kenya, China and the US, in terms of more specific attitudes, [a] people’s willingness to invest in the future, [b] their willingness to invest in others, and [c] their trust in institutions. Results suggest that these measures capture deep differences in economic attitudes that are not detected by standard measures of generalized trust .

Kwan, D, Craver, C, Green, L, Myerson, J, Boyer, P & Rosenbaum, SR (2011) Future Decision-Making Without Episodic Mental Time Travel [forthcoming] Hippocampus.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Deficits in episodic memory are associated with deficits in the ability to imagine future experiences (i.e., mental time travel). We show that K.C., a person with episodic amnesia and an inability to imagine future experiences, nonetheless systematically discounts the value of future rewards, and his discounting is within the range of controls in terms of both rate and consistency. Because K.C. is neither able to imagine personal uses for the rewards nor provide a rationale for selecting larger future rewards over smaller current rewards, this study demonstrates a dissociation between imagining and making decisions involving the future. Thus, although those capable of mental time travel may use it in making decisions about future rewards, these results demonstrate that it is not required for such decisions.

Boyer, P & Petersen, MB (2011) The Naturalness of (many) social institutions Journal of Institutional Economics 8(1): 1–25.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

Most standard social science accounts only offer limited accounts of institutional design, i.e. why institutions have common features observed in many different human groups. Here we suggest that these features are best explained as the outcome of evolved human cognition, in such domains as mating, moral judgment and social exchange. As empirical illustrations, we show how this evolved psychology makes marriage systems, legal norms and commons management systems, intuitively obvious and compelling, thereby ensuring their occurrence and cultural stability. We extend this to propose under what conditions institutions can become “natural”, compelling and legitimate, and outline probable paths for institutional change given human cognitive dispositions. Explaining institutions in terms of these exogenous factors also suggests that a general theory of institutions as such is neither necessary nor in fact possible. What is required are domain-specific accounts of institutional design in different domains of evolved cognition.

Boyer, P (2011) From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes Of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology [forthcoming, in] Slingerland E & Collard M (Eds.), Creating Consilience, New York: Oxford UP.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Why is most cultural anthropology largely irrelevant? The voice of that particular field in broader academic discussions is almost inaudible; its scholars are no longer among the recognizable and important public intellectuals of the day; and its contribution to public debates is close to non-existent. My diagnosis is that this is a largely self-inflected condition.What is a stake is that a certain intellectual style has stymied the creative energy and social import of cultural anthropology. The traditional concerns of cultural anthropology are currently being given a new lease of life and often a much more lively public relevance by evolutionary biologists and economists – suggesting that there may be such a field as the “science of culture” or at least some incipient moves towards such an integrated discipline.

Boyer, P (2010) Intuitive Expectations & The Detection of Mental Disorder: A Cognitive Background To Folk-Psychiatries
[forthcoming] Philosophical Psychology.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

How do people detect mental dysfunction? What is the influence of cultural models of dysfunction on this detection process? The detection process as such is not usually researched as it falls between the domains of cross-cultural psychiatry (focusing on the dysfunction itself) and anthropological ethno-psychiatry (focusing on cultural models of sanity and madness). Here we provide a general model for this “missing link” between behavior and cultural models, grounded in empirical evidence for intuitive psychology. Normal adult minds entertain specific intuitive expectations about mental function and behavior, and by implication they infer that specific kinds of behavior are the result of underlying dysfunction. This suggests that there is a “catalogue” of possible behaviors that trigger that intuition, hence a limited catalogue of possible symptoms that feed into culturally specific folk-understandings of mental disorder. It also suggests that some mental dysfunctions, as they do not clearly violate principles of intuitive psychology, are ‘invisible’ to folk-understandings. This perspective allows us to understand the cultural stability and spread of particular views of madness. It also suggests why certain types of mental disorder are “invisible” to folk-understandings.

Boyer, P & Bergstrom, B (2010) Threat-Detection in Child Development: An Evolutionary Perspective
[forthcoming] Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Evidence for developmental aspects of fear-targets and anxiety suggests a complex but stable pattern whereby specific kinds of fears emerge at different periods of development. This developmental schedule seems appropriate to dangers encountered repeteadly during human evolution. Also consistent with evolutionary perspective, the threat-detection systems are domain-specific, comprising different kinds of cues to do with predation, intraspecific violence, contamination-contagion and status loss. Proper evolutionary models may also be relevant to outstanding issues in the domain, notably the connections between typical development and pathology.

Keren H, Boyer P, Mort J & Eilam D (2010) Pragmatic and idiosyncratic acts in human everyday routines: The counterpart of compulsive rituals Behavioural Brain Research 212:90-95.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Our daily activities are comprised of motor routines, which are behavioral templates with specific goals, typically performed in an automatic fixed manner and without much conscious attention. Such routines can seem to resemble pathologic rituals that dominate the motor behavior of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and autistic patients. This resemblance raises the question of what differentiates and what is common in normal and pathologic motor behavior. [...] In this study we applied ethological tools to analyze six motor routines performed by 60 adult human volunteers. We found that longer normal everyday routines included more repetitions, but not more types of acts, and that in each routine, most acts were performed either by all individuals (pragmatic acts) or by only one individual (idiosyncratic components). Thus, normal routines consist in a relatively rigid part that is shared by all individuals that perform the routine, and a flexible part that varies among individuals. [...] Altogether, the present study supports the view that everyday normal routines and pathologic rituals are opposite processes, although they both comprise rigid motor behavioral sequences.

Boyer P, (2010) Why Evolved Cognition Matters To Understanding Cultural Variation Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 35(3-4):377-87.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Geoffrey Lloyd's Cognitive variations: Reflections on the unity and diversity of the human mind seems to perpetuate a misleading description of the state of the role of cognition in culture.  As a correction to that picture, it may be important to stress that evolution does not usually result in innate cognitive structures, that more learning requires more, not less, genetically specific structure, that most cognitive processes are not accessible to conscious inspection and therefore also to ethnographic investigation. It may also be of help to emphasize differences between two kinds of mental events, intuitive and reflective, that are sometimes confused in anthropological discussions of cognition and culture. I suggest that a more accurate description may help dispel various misunderstandings, about the connections between evolution and cognition, between evolved cognition and cultural representations, and about the need or value of certain kinds of anthropological relativism.u

Boyer, P (2009) What are memories for? Functions of recall in cognition and culture,
in Boyer P & Wertsch JV (Eds), Memory in Mind and Culture, Camnridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 3-28.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

What is memory for? Th e easy and spontaneous answer is that “memory is for storing information about the past,” “memory helps us preserve
past events,” and variations on that theme. But what is the point of that ? Why should any organism have that kind of a capacity? What good is it? Surprisingly, this is not a topic that has received much attention from specialists of memory.
Memories and fantasies make us feel, right now, all the consequences of our actions, by way of emotional rewards. So imagination and memories may well be functionally adaptive – not because they liberate us from down-to-earth, here-and-now cognition but, on the contrary, because they constrain our planning and decision making in efficient ways.

Boyer, P (2009) Cognitive predispositions and cultural transmission
in Boyer P & Wertsch JV (Eds), Memory in Mind and Culture, Camnridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 288-319.
Click here for proofs [pdf].

To what extent does cultural transmission require memory? If we understand “memory” in the ordinary sense of information about past situations that we can access and consider explicitly, the answer is that cultural transmission does not actually require much of that kind of memory. Once we understand memory, as psychologists do, as including processes beyond conscious inspection (Roediger, 1990), then memory really is the crux of cultural transmission. In the pages that follow, I will justify these statements on the basis of a few examples of cultural domains where the work of memory(in the wider sense) has been extensively studied.

Boyer, P (2009) Extending the range of adaptive misbelief: Memory “distortions” as functional features
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(6): 513-4.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

A large amount of research in cognitive psychology is focused on memory distortions, understood as deviations from various (largely implicit) standards. Many alleged distortions actually suggest a highly functional system that balances the cost of acquiring new information with the benefit of relevant, contextually appropriate decision-making. In this sense many memories may be examples of functionally adaptive misbelief [as described in the target article by Ryan McKay & Daniel Dennett]

Boyer, P (2008) Religion: Bound to Believe? Nature vol 455: 1038-39.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Is religion a product of our evolution? In the past ten years, the evolutionary and cognitive study of religion has begun to mature. It puts forward new hypotheses and testable predictions. It asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful. Findings from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology and archaeology promise to change our view of religion.

Boyer, P & Lienard, P (2008) Ritual Behavior in Obsessive and Normal Individuals. Moderating Anxiety and Reorganizing the Flow of Behavior Current Dirctions in Psychological Science 17(4): 291-4.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Ritualized behavior is characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but it is also observed in other, nonclinical contexts such as children’s routines and cultural ceremonies. Such behaviors are best understood with reference to a set of human vigilance–precaution systems in charge of monitoring potential danger and motivating the organism towards appropriate precautions. Ritualized behavior focuses attention on low-level representations of actions, probably leading to some measure of intrusion suppression. Cultural rituals too may be understood in this framework.

Boyer, P & Bergstrom, B (2008) Evolutionary Perspectives on Religion
Annual Review of Anthropology 37:111-130.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

Recent work in biology, cognitive psychology, and archaeology has renewed evolutionary perspectives on the role of natural selection in the emergence and recurrent forms of religious thought and behavior, i.e., mental representations of supernatural agents, as well as artifacts, ritual practices, moral systems, ethnic markers, and specific experiences associated with these representations. One perspective, inspired from behavioral ecology, attempts to measure the fitness effects of religious practices. Another set of models, representative of evolutionary psychology, explain religious thought and behavior as the output of cognitive systems (e.g., animacy detection, social cognition, precautionary reasoning) that are not exclusive to the religious domain. In both perspectives, the question remains open, whether religious thought and behavior constitute an adaptation or a by-product of adaptive cognitive function.

Boyer, P (2008) Evolutionary Economics of Mental Time-Travel?
Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(6):219-223.
Click here for draft version [pdf].

What is the function of our capacity for ‘mental time-travel’? Evolutionary considerations suggest that vivid memory and imaginative foresight may be crucial cognitive devices for human decision-making. Our emotional engagement with past or future events gives them great motivational force, which may counter a natural tendency towards time-discounting and impulsive, opportunistic behaviour. In this view, while simple episodic memory provides us with a store of relevant, case-based information to guide decisions, mental-time-travel nudges us towards more restrained choices, which in the long term are advantageous, especially so given the human dependence on cooperation and coordination.

Boyer, P (2007) Specialised Inference Engines As Precursors Of Creative Imagination?
in Ilona Roth (Ed.), Imaginative Minds, London, British Academy, pp 239-258
Click here for proofs [pdf].

We usually consider imagination in terms of its high-end, creative products like literature, religion and the arts. To understand the evolution of  imaginative capacities in humans, it makes more sense to focus on humble imaginations that are generally automatic and largely unconscious, and help us produce representations of, e.g. what people will say next, that people exist when out of sight, or what aspects of our environment are potentially dangerous. These examples suggest that there may not be one faculty of imagination but many specialised "what if" inferential systems in human minds.

Boyer, P (2006) Ten Problems In Search Of A Research Program: Towards Integrated Naturalistic Explanations of Human Culture Unpublished and probably unpublishable programme for an empirically based behavioral science.
Click here for pdf.

This is a concise statement of ten different problems for which a behavioural science should (and may soon be able to) provide coherent, empirically grounded explanations. These problems were chosen for their social importance as well as their theoretical interest, as demonstrations of the need to integrate psychological, economic and evolutionary factors in explanatory models. For each question, I mention pointers to incipient or possible research programmes. The questions are the following:  What are the natural limits to family arrangements? Do we have an intuitive understanding of large societies? Why are despised social categories essentialised? Why gender differences in politics? What logic drives ethnic vio-lence? How are moral concepts acquired? What drives people’s economic intui-tions? Are there cultural differences in low-level cognition? What explains individ-ual religious attitudes? Why religious fundamentalism and extremism? The general aim is to propose a new approach to issues of human culture, not through an ab-stract discussion of paradigms and traditions, but through specific examples of possible empirical research.

Boyer, P, & Lienard, P (2006) Why Ritualized Behavior? Precaution Systems and Action-Parsing in Developmental, Pathological and Cultural Rituals Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29: 1-56.
Click here for pdf of proofs.

Stereotypic, rigidly scripted behavior is found in cultural rituals, in children's routines, in  obsessive-compulsive disorder, in normal adults around certain stages of the life-cycle. We propose an explanation in terms of an evolved Precaution System geared to the detection of and reaction to inferred threats to fitness, distinct from systems for manifest danger. The Precaution system includes a repertoire of potential hazards as well as a repertoire of species-typical precautions. Impairment in the system's feedback accounts for OCD rituals. Gradual calibration of this system occurs through childhood routines. Mimicry of this system's natural input makes cultural rituals salient and compelling.

Lienard, P & Boyer, P (2006) Whence Collective Ritual? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior, American Anthropologist 108: 814-827.
Click here for pdf of draft version.

Ritualized behavior is a specific way of organizing the flow of action, characterized by stereotypy, rigidity in performance, a feeling of compulsion, and specific themes, in particular the potential danger from contamination, predation, and social hazard. We proposed elsewhere a neurocognitive model of ritualized behavior in human development and pathology, as based on the activation of a specific hazard-precaution system specialized in the detection of and response to potential threats. We show how certain features of collective rituals—by conveying information about potential danger and presenting appropriate reaction as a sequence of rigidly described precautionary measures—probably activate this neurocognitive system. This makes some collective ritual sequences highly attention-demanding and intuitively compelling and contributes to their transmission from place to place or generation to generation. The recurrence of ritualized behavior as a central feature of collective ceremonies may be explained as a consequence of this bias in selective transmission.

Bergstrom B, Moehlmann B, and Boyer P (2006) Extending the testimony problem: Evaluating the truth, scope and source of cultural information. Child Development, 77(3): 531-538. Click here for draft pdf.

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Children's learning-  in the domains of science and religion specifically, but in many other cultural domains as well - relies extensively on testimony and other forms of culturally transmitted information. The cognitive processes that enable such learning must also administrate the evaluation, qualification, and storage of that information, while guarding against the dangers of false or misleading information. Currently, the development of these appraisal processes is not clearly understood. Recent work, reviewed here, has begun to address three important dimensions of the problem: how children and adults evaluate truth in communication, how they gauge the inferential potential of information, and how they encode and evaluate its source.

Boyer, P & Barrett, HC (2006) Causal Inferences: Evolutionary Domains and Neural Systems
Invited contribution to an  Web-conference on Causation (Anne Reboul & Gloria Origgi, Editors).

We consider two apparently distinct questions: [1] What are the neural correlates of causal inference? And [2] How do we distinguish between different domains of causal inferences? To understand the varieties of causal thinking in human minds, we need to bring together behavioral and developmental data on the one hand and information from both neuro-psychology and neuro-imaging on the other. Once this evidence is replaced in an evolutionary framework, it becomes easier to understand the functional divisions between neural systems. We discuss these questions in the context, first, of high-level conceptual differences between living-things and artifacts, and then of low-level causal perception.

Boyer, P & Barrett, HC (2005). Evolved Intuitive Ontology:
Integrating Neural, Behavioral and Developmental Aspects of Domain-Specificity
in David Buss (Ed.), Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology,  New York: Wiley.
Link to html version (for browsing)
Link to pdf file      (for printing)

Recent research has begun to suggest that human expertise about the natural and social environment, including what is often called 'semantic knowledge', is best construed as consisting of different domains of competence. Each of these corresponds to recurrent evolutionary problems, is organised along specific principles, is the outcome of a specific developmental pathway and is based on specific neural structures. What we call a 'human evolved intuitive ontology' comprises a catalogue of broad domains of information, different sets of principles applied to these different domains as well as different learning rules to acquire more information about those objects. Neuro-imaging and cognitive neuroscience are now adding to the picture of a federation of evolved competencies that has grown out of laboratory work with children and adults.

Boyer, P (2004) Why Is Religion Natural? Skeptical  Inquirer Magazine, March 2004.
Link to Skeptical Inquirer archive.

Is religious belief a mere leap into irrationality as many skeptics assume? Psychology suggests that there may be more to belief than the suspension of reason. Religious beliefs and practices are found in all human groups and go back to the very beginnings of human culture. What makes religion so 'natural'? Here I want to discuss one particular view of religion, popular among skeptics, that I call the 'sleep of reason' interpretation. According to this view, people have religious beliefs because they fail to reason properly. If only they grounded their reasoning in sound logic or rational order, they would not have supernatural beliefs, including superstitions and religion. I think this view is misguided, for several reasons; because it assumes a dramatic difference between religious and commonsense ordinary thinking, where there isn't one; because it suggests that belief is a matter of deliberate weighing of evidence, which is generally not the case; because it implies that religious concepts could be eliminated by mere argument, which is implausible; and most importantly because it obscures the real reasons why religion is so extraordinarily widespread in human cultures.

Boyer, P (2003) Science, Erudition and Relevant Connections
Journal of Cognition and Culture
3(4): 344-358. Link to pdf version

How does the community of anthropologists actually decide that a person could be considered an anthropologist, or decide that their publications count as contributions to anthropology? It seems that the opposition between “scientiŽfic” and “non-scientiŽfic” modes, or perhaps “humanities” vs. “science”, are too simple, and that there are three clearly distinct ideal types here. I call three modes science, erudition and relevant-connections respectively. In what follows I will try brie�fly to describe these three modes before returning to the speciŽfic case of science in anthropology.

Blakemore, S-J, Boyer, P , Pachot-Clouard, M], Meltzoff, A et al. (2003).
The detection of contingency and animacy in the human brain
Cerebral Cortex
13 : 837-844. Link to pdf version

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The ability to detect contingency is fundamental for understanding the world and other people around us. We used simplified stimuli to investigate brain regions involved in detection of mechanical and intentional contingencies. Using a factorial design we manipulated the 'animacy' and 'contingency' of stimulus movement, and the subject's attention to the contingencies. The perception of mechanical contingency between shapes whose movement was inanimate engaged the middle temporal gyrus and intraparietal sulcus. The detection of intentional contingency between shapes whose movement was animate activated superior parietal networks. These activations were unaffected by attention to contingency. Additional regions, the middle and inferior frontal gyrus, superior temporal sulcus and anterior cingulate, became activated by the animate-contingent stimuli when subjects specifically attended to the contingent nature of stimuli. Our results help to clarify neural networks previously associated with 'theory of mind' and agency-detection.

Boyer, P (2003) Religious Thought and Behaviour As By-products of Brain Function.
Trends in Cognitive Sciences Vol. 7No. 3March2003 ,119 -124.
Link to pdf archive.

Religious concepts activate various functionally distinct mental systems, present also in non-religious contexts, and 'tweak' the usual inferences of these systems. They deal with detection and representation of animacy and agency, social exchange, moral intuitions, precaution against natural hazards and understanding of misfortune. Each of these activates distinct neural resources or families of networks. What makes notions of supernatural agency intuitively plausible? This article reviews evidence suggesting that it is the joint, coordinated activation of these diverse systems, a supposition that opens up the prospect of a cognitive neuroscience of religious beliefs.

Blakemore, S J; Fonlupt, P; Pachot-Clouard, M; Darmon, C; Boyer, P; Meltzoff, A N et al.
How the brain perceives causality: an event-related fMRI study, Neuroreport: For Rapid Communication of Neuro-science Research, 12(17), 3741-3746.

{Medline abstract} Detection of the causal relationships between events is fundamental for understanding the world around us. We report an event-related fMRI study designed to investigate how the human brain processes the perception of mechanical causality. Subjects were presented with mechanically causal events (in which a ball collides with and causes movement of another ball) and non-causal events (in which no contact is made between the balls). There was a significantly higher level of activation of V5/MT/MST bilaterally, the superior temporal sulcus bilaterally and the left intraparietal sulcus to causal relative to non-causal events. Directing attention to the causal nature of the stimuli had no significant effect on the neural processing of the causal events. These results support theories of causality suggesting that the perception of elementary mechanical causality events is automatically processed by the visual system. [Journal Article; In English; England]

Boyer, P., Bedoin, N. & Honore, S.
Relative contributions from kind- and domain-concepts to inferences concerning unfamiliar exemplars.
Cognitive Development
15:457 -479.  Link to pdf version

Abstract: Two inferential routes allow children to produce expectations about new instances of ontological categories like 'animal' and 'artefact'. One is to generalise information from a 'look-up table' of familiar kind-concepts. The other one is to use independent expectations at the level of ontological do-mains. Our experiment pits these two sources of information against each other, using a sentence-judgement task associating proper-ties with images of familiar and unfamiliar artefacts and animals. A look-up strategy would lead children to reject them and an independent expectation strategy to accept them. In both domains we find a difference in reaction to strange properties associated with familiar vs. unfamiliar items, which shows that even young children do use independent domain-level information. We also found a U-shaped curve in propensity to use such abstract information. Also, animal categories are the object of much more definite domain-level expectations, which supports the notion that the animal domain is more causally integrated than the artefact domain.

Boyer, P, & Ramble, C, (2001).
Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-cultural Evidence for Recall of Counter-Intuitive Representations
Cognitive Science 25:535-564.
Click here for pdf.

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Abstract: Presents results of free-recall experiments conducted in France, Gabon and Nepal, to test predictions of a cognitive model of religious concepts. The world over, these concepts include violations of conceptual expectations at the level of domain knowledge (e.g. about 'animal' or 'artifact' or 'person') rather than at the basic level. In five studies we used narratives to test the hypothesis that domain-level violations are recalled better than other conceptual associations. These studies used material constructed in the same way as religious concepts, but not used in religions familiar to the subjects. Experiments 1 and2 confirmed a distinctiveness effect for such material. Experiment 3 shows that recall also depends on the possibility to generate inferences from violations of domain expectations. Replications in Gabon (Exp. 4) and Nepal (Exp. 5) showed that recall for domain-level violations is better than for violations of basic-level expectations. Overall sensitivity to violations is similar in different cultures and produces similar recall effects, despite differences in commitment to religious belief, in the range of local religious concepts or in their mode of transmission. However, differences between Gabon and Nepal results suggest that familiarity with some types of domain-level violations may paradoxically make other types more salient. These results suggest that recall effects may account for the recurrent features found in religious concepts from different cultures.

Boyer, P (2000).
Natural Epistemology or Evolved Metaphysics? Developmental Evidence for Early-Developed, Intuitive, Category-Specific, Incomplete, and Stubborn Metaphysical Presumptions
, Philosophical Psychology, 13:277 -297.
Link to pdf version

Abstract: Cognitive developmental evidence is sometimes conscripted to sup-port "naturalized epistemology" arguments to the effect that a general epistemic stance leads children to build theory-like accounts of underlying properties of kinds. A review of the evidence sug-gests that what prompts conceptual acquisition is not a general epis-temic stance but a se-ries of category-specific intuitive principles that constitute an evolved 'natural metaphysics'. This consists in a system of categories and category-specific inferential processes founded on definite biases in prototype formation. Evidence for this system provides a better understanding of the limited 'plasticity' of ontological commitments as well as a computationally plausible account of their initial state, avoiding ambiguities about innateness. This may provide a starting point for a 'naturalized epistemology' that takes into account evolved properties of human conceptual structures.

Boyer, Pascal, (2000).
Functional Origins of Religious Concepts:
Conceptual and Strategic Selection in Evolved Minds
[Malinowski Lecture 1999]
Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute,6 :195 -214. Link to pdf archive.

Abstract:  Culturally successful religious concepts are the outcome of selective processes that make some concepts more likely than others to be easily ac-quired, stored and transmitted. Among the constructs of human imagination, some connect to intuitive ontological principles in such a way that they constitute a small catalogue of culturally successful supernatural concepts. Experimental and anthropological evidence confirm the salience and trans-mission potential of this catalogue. Among these supernatural concepts, cog-nitive capacities for social interaction introduce a further selection. As a re-sult, some concepts of supernatural agents are connected to morality, group-identity, ritual and emotion. These typical 'religious' supernatural agents are tacitly presumed to have access to information that is crucial to social interac-tion, an assumption that boosts their spread in human groups.

Boyer, P. (2000)
Evolution of the modern mind and the origins of culture: religious concepts as a limiting case
, in Carruthers, P. & Chamberlain, A. (Eds.), Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language and Meta-Cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp93 -112.

Abstract: The human cultural explosion is often explained in terms of "liberating events", of a newly acquired flexibility in mental representations. This chapter considers a domain where such flexibility should be maximal, that of religious representations, and shows that actual cultural transmission in in fact constrained by evolved properties of ontological categories and principles. More generally, this suggests that the "cultural mind" typical of recent human evolution is not so much an "unconstrained" mind as a mind equipped with a host of complex specialised capacities that make certain kinds of mental representations likely to succeed in cultural transmission.

Boyer, P. & Walker, S.J. (2000).
Intuitive Ontology and Cultural Input in the Acquisition of Religious Concepts, in Rosengren, K., Johnson, C. & Harris, P. (Eds.), Imagining the Impossible: Magical, Scientific and Religious Thinking in Children, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.130 -156.

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Abstract: Do children have religious beliefs, and in what ways are they different from adult ones? Clearly, the question is of interest to anthropologists who need to understand how religious representations are acquired and therefore how cultural assumptions are transmitted from generation to generation. It is also important for developmental psychology. What children grasp of religious concepts and beliefs may illuminate how they build complex conceptual structures on the basis of limited input. Surprisingly, studies of the development of religious concepts are still few and far between. They are not really satisfactory either, for two reasons. One is that such studies often apply to developmental phenomena views of adult religious concepts that have no sound cognit`ive basis. Another reason is that such studies generally ignore a wealth of anthropological material concerning the diversity as well as recurrent features of religious concepts. This is why the first part of this chapter deals with religious representations in adults, introducing a cognitive framework based on anthropological evidence. We then argue that this framework makes it possible to evaluate the relevance of recent developmental evidence to an understanding of religious concepts, and to specify in what ways children's religious concepts differ from the adult version.

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