Execution, Violent Punishment and Selection for Religiousness in Medieval England

Abstract

Frost and Harpending, Evolutionary Psychology, 13 (2015), have argued that the increasing use of capital punishment across the Middle Ages in Europe altered the genotype, helping to create a less violent and generally more law-abiding population. Developing this insight, we hypothesise that the same system of violent punishments would also have helped to genotypically create a more religious society by indirectly selecting for religiousness, through the execution of men who had not yet sired any offspring. We estimate the selection differential for religiousness based on genetic correlation data for conceivably related traits, and compare that to the actual increase in religiosity across the Middle Ages. We further explore other mechanisms by which religiousness was being selected for in Medieval England, and conclude that executions most likely contributed substantially to the increase in religiosity, but that other selection pressures also played a role.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As an aside, the same would be true, to a lesser extent, of corporal punishment, which was widely practiced in the Middle Ages with great severity, from childhood onwards (Bowen 1975, Willemsen 2008, p.183, Orme 2006, p.146), sometimes continued to the point of bleeding (McCoy and Keen 2013, p.5). Corporal punishment could also directly select in favour of high GFP, to the extent that the better-behaved would be less likely to experience it. Any trauma to the body would cause it to direct resources away from pathogen resistance, elevating the possibility of death. Moreover, if the miscreant were wounded then—mindful of the pre-modern era’s lack of cleanliness—an infection could result and this could lead to death. Certainly, there were reported cases from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of children dying as a result of school corporal punishment and it may have contributed to mortality at English boarding schools (see Gibson 1978). Of course, whether the effects of this use of severe corporal punishment were sufficient to alter the gene, pool remains to be seen.

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Dutton, E., Madison, G. Execution, Violent Punishment and Selection for Religiousness in Medieval England. Evolutionary Psychological Science 4, 83–89 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-017-0115-7

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Keywords

  • Religion
  • Selection
  • Execution
  • Medieval