Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 218–249 | Cite as

The Recognition Signal Hypothesis for the Adaptive Evolution of Religion

A Phylogenetic Test with Christian Denominations
  • Luke J. Matthews


Recent research on the evolution of religion has focused on whether religion is an unselected by-product of evolutionary processes or if it is instead an adaptation by natural selection. Adaptive hypotheses for religion include direct fitness benefits from improved health and indirect fitness benefits mediated by costly signals and/or cultural group selection. Herein, I propose that religious denominations achieve indirect fitness gains for members through the use of ecologically arbitrary beliefs, rituals, and moral rules that function as recognition markers of cultural inheritance analogous to kin and species recognition of genetic inheritance in biology. This recognition signal hypotheses could act in concert with either costly signaling or cultural group selection to produce evolutionarily altruistic behaviors within denominations. Using a cultural phylogenetic analysis, I show that a large set of religious behaviors among extant Christian denominations supports the prediction of the recognition signal hypothesis that characters change more frequently near historical schisms. By incorporating demographic data into the model, I show that more-distinctive denominations, as measured through dissimilar characteristics, appear to be protected from intrusion by nonmembers in mixed-denomination households, and that they may be experiencing greater biological growth of their populations even in the present day.


Cognitive science of religion Cultural phylogeny Cultural transmission Christianity Cooperation 



I would like to thank Larry Skillin (Bemidji State University) for his encouragement of the project and his assistance in the initial development of characters and character states. Richard Warren (Air Force Research Laboratory) also provided helpful guidance in the initial character development. Many thanks go to Andrew Goldberg and Alan Chiu for their work scoring character states of denominations. I thank Brian and Elizabeth Shaw for their advice on Presbyterian character states, and similarly Jeffery Edmonds for his advice on the states of Baptists. Matthew Dougherty (Harvard Divinity School) provided invaluable critiques of the final character states. Jamie Tehrani (Durham University) and the lab groups of Charles Nunn and Richard Wrangham (Harvard University) all provided helpful feedback on the analyses. Matthew Dougherty, Charles Nunn, Jamie Tehrani, and three anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by New York University and Harvard University.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Activate Networks, Inc.NewtonUSA

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