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Evolution of Religion

Since at least Ancient Greece scholars have attempted to provide naturalistic explanations of religion - Xenophanes famously quipped that “horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses.” Yet only recently has an explicitly evolutionary framework been applied to the study of religion.

The Pulotu database of Austronesian religious belief and practice.

Evolutionary Religious Studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand how and why humans evolved the capacity for religion. In the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution we collect comparative cross-cultural data on historical and current religions. Using this data and computational cross-cultural methods we test theories about the co-evolution of religion, society and environment. We have recently built the Pulotu database of Austronesian religious belief and practice, and published research on the evolution of big gods, supernatural punishment, and human sacrifice.

Project Members

Recent and Forthcoming Publications


  • (In Prep.) Social Structures, demography, and the spread of Christianity in the Pacific.

Recent Publications:

  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2016). Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies. Nature.
  • Watts, J., Greenhill, S., Atkinson, Q., Currie, T., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R. (2015). Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Biology.
  • Watts, J., Sheehan, O., Greenhill, S.J., Gomes-Ng, S., Atkinson, Q.D., Bulbulia, J., & Gray, R.D. (2015). Pulotu: Database of Austronesian Supernatural Beliefs and Practices. PLoS ONE.
  • Botero,C., Gardner, B., Kirby, K.R., Bulbulia, J., Gavin, M.C., & Gray, R.D. (2014). The ecology of religious beliefs. PNAS.

For more information, please contact Joseph Watts.