A Formal Model for the Cultural Evolutionary Dynamics of Counterintuitive Cultural Messages


  • Carles Salazar University of Lleida




communication, cultural evolution, cultural transmission, formal models, religion, religious education


In this article I present a formal model for the cultural evolution of counterintuitive cultural messages, specifically, religious ideas. This model tries to account for the reproduction of counterintuitive religious ideas by introducing a new parameter: the means of cultural communication by which those ideas are transmitted. Means of cultural communication can be classified alongside a continuum that goes from the cognitively optimal to the cognitively costly. Very simple intuitive messages may replicate weakly if they are transmitted through cognitively costly means of communication, and conversely, highly counterintuitive messages will reproduce without difficulty if they are transmitted through cognitively optimal means of communication. The formal model I propose in this study is based on a new version of the model put forward by Joseph Henrich to account for the Tasmanian case of cultural loss.

Author Biography

Carles Salazar, University of Lleida

Carles Salazar is professor of Anthropology at the University of Lleida. He gained his PhD degree at the University of Cambridge, and has carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Ireland and Catalonia. His ethnographic fieldwork has been focused on different aspects of Irish society and culture: cooperative institutions, religious beliefs, family organization and history of sexual morality. He has also done research on the history of anthropology, on new family forms in Barcelona and on the cultural understanding of biomedicine and genetics in an infertility clinic of Barcelona. He participated in the project funded by the European commission: “Public understanding of genetics: a cross-cultural and ethnographic study of the new genetics and social identity” QLG7-CT-2001-01668 (2001- 2004), in which he was responsible for the workpackage ‘Kinship and Genetics’. His theoretical and research interests are religion, cooperation, kinship theory, symbolism, and the evolutionary and cognitive approach to religion and kinship. He is currently directing a research project on forms of religiosity in three Catholic European countries. His latest publications include Anthropology and Sexual Morality. A Theoretical Investigation (2006) and European Kinship in the Age of Biotechnology, co-edited with Jeanette Edwards (2009).


Acerbi, A., J. Kendal, and J.J. Tehrani. 2017. ‘Cultural Complexity and Demography: The Case of Folktales’, Evolution and Human Behavior 38.4: 474-80. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2017.03.005.

Barrett, J.L., and M.A. Nyhof. 2001. ‘Spreading Non-Natural Concepts’, Journal of Cognition and Culture 1: 69-100. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156853701300063589.

Bentley, R.A., and M.J. O’Brien. 2011. ‘The Selectivity of Social Learning and the Tempo of Cultural Evolution’, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 9.2: 125-41. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1556/JEP.9.2011.18.1.

Boyer, P. 1994. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained (New York: Basic Books).

Boyer, P., and C. Ramble. 2001. ‘Cognitive Templates for Religious Concepts: Cross-Cultural Evidence for Recall of Counterintuitive Representations’, Cognitive Science 25: 535-64. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog2504_2.

Collard, M., A. Ruttle, B. Buchanan, and M.J. O’Brien. 2013. ‘Population Size and Cultural Evolution in Nonindustrial Food-Producing Societies’, PLoS One 8.9: e72628. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0072628.

Henrich, J. 2004. ‘Demography and Cultural Evolution: How Adaptive Cultural Processes Can Produce Maladaptive Losses—The Tasmanian Case’, American Antiquity 69.2: 197-214. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/4128416.

Henrich, J. 2009. ‘The Evolution of Costly Displays’, Evolution and Human Behavior 30: 244-60. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005.

Kobayashi, Y., and K. Aoki. 2012. ‘Innovativeness, Population Size and Cumulative Cultural Evolution’, Theoretical Population Biology 82: 38-47. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tpb.2012.04.001.

Lanman, J.A., and M.D. Buhrmester. 2017. ‘Religious Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Exposure to Credibility-Enhancing Displays Predicts Theism’, Religion, Brain and Behavior 7.1: 3-16. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2015.1117011.

Morgan, D. 2012. The Embodied Eye (Berkeley: University of California Press). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520272224.001.0001.

Powell, A., S. Shennan, and M.G. Thomas. 2009. ‘Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior’, Science 324: 1298-301. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1170165.

Purzycki, B.G., and A.K. Willard. 2016. ‘MCI Theory: A Critical Discussion’, Religion, Brain and Behavior 6.3: 207-48. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2015.1024915.

Read, D. 2006. ‘Tasmanian Knowledge and Skill: Maladaptive Imitation or Adequate Technology?’, American Antiquity 71.1: 164-84. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/40035327.

Salazar, C. 2014. ‘Understanding Belief: Some Qualitative Evidence’, Journal of Empi­rical Theology 27.2: 199-213. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15709256-12341300.

Salazar, C. 2018. ‘Believing Minds: Steps to an Ecology of Religious Ideas’, in U. Riegel, E.M. Leven, and D. Fleming (eds.), Religious Experience and Experiencing Religion in Religious Education (Münster: Waxmann): 23-42.

Sosis, R. 2003. ‘Why Aren’t We All Hutterites? Costly Signalling Theory and Religious Behavior’, Human Nature 14.2: 91-127. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-003-1000-6.

Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Vaesen, K. 2012. ‘Cumulative Cultural Evolution and Demography’, PLoS One 7.7: e40989. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0040989.

Vaesen. K., M. Collard, R. Cosgrove, and W. Roebroeks. 2016. ‘Population Size Does Not Explain Past Changes in Cultural Complexity’, PNAS 113.16: E2241-E2247. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1520288113.

Whitehouse, H. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press).

Willard, A.K., J. Henrich, and A. Norenzayan. 2016. ‘Memory and Belief in the Transmission of Counterintuitive Content’, Human Nature 27: 221-43. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9259-6.

Wilson, D., and D. Sperber. 2012. Meaning and Relevance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139028370.



How to Cite

Salazar, C. (2020). A Formal Model for the Cultural Evolutionary Dynamics of Counterintuitive Cultural Messages. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 14(2), 204–225. https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.39579