The Glue that Binds



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There are certain things I miss about my first scientific love, ecology. Mostly it is being able to travel to neat places, like the Yellowstone or the Kruger National Park in South Africa, to commune with neat animals there.


Bison in the Yellowstone National Park (photo by the author)

But on the whole I don’t regret divorcing ecology and becoming a social scientist. One of the perks of my new discipline is that I get to appreciate the “hidden side of things” much more.

To give an example, every other year or so, my university requires me to don funny clothes and participate in the graduation ceremony (naturally, these commencements happen every year, but we the faculty take turns attending them). Every time I am strong-armed by my department head into going to the graduation, I am reminded of how when I was a school kid in the Soviet Moscow, we were required to add our bodies to the welcoming crowds that supposedly spontaneously flocked to greet visiting dignitaries who traveled from the official airport of Vnukovo to the Kremlin (my school was close to the travel route, Lenin Avenue, which is why we were particularly prone to be called to do our duty). I remember that one of those dignitaries was Richard Nixon (in 1972, I think).


Lenin Avenue (image from

Actually, there was some refreshing honesty about these functions under the Soviet regime – everybody called participation in them as “voluntary-coerced” (seriously!). And the only cost was time, whereas when I attend UConn commencement, not only do I have to wear ridiculous and uncomfortable clothing, I even have to pay for it out of my own pocket.

Last time I participated in the commencement, however, it was an incredibly interesting experience. The proceedings were exactly the same, but in the interval since the previous graduation I met Harvey Whitehouse (who is, incidentally a big cheese in UK anthropology – as the Wikipedia describes him, “Professor Whitehouse holds a Statutory Chair in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and is a Professorial Fellow of Magdalen College”). Harvey’s passion is understanding human rituals, and he infected me with his fascination with this puzzling feature of human sociality (we also got a big research grant to study the role of rituals in the rise of complex human societies, so I had additional, weighty, reasons to be thinking about this topic).

In any case, as I was going through the last graduation ceremony at UConn, I started to apply Harvey’s theories to the experience, and it suddenly began making an awful kind of sense! Graduation is clearly a ritual. But what is ritual, in general terms?

The Wikipedia gives the following definition: “A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value.” Fine as it goes, but I like the definition given by Harvey and his colleague Quentin Atkinson better. They defined a ritual as “any conventional action sequence performed by two or more individuals where the physical–causal function of the act is underspecified or opaque.”

This definition is pretty opaque in its own right (the joys of scientific prose!), but it can be put in much simpler words. A ritual is something that takes place at two levels. There are surface reasons why people do it, but much more important is the deeper, concealed layer, “the hidden side of things” to which I referred in the beginning of the post.

Consider a ritual such as Mardi Gras, in which I participated on numerous occasions when I lived in Louisiana. It’s a lot of fun – parades, music, dancing, feasting, drinking to excess, and (reportedly) wild sex!

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in New Orleans (image from

In the anthropologist jargon, this is a “euphoric” ritual. Such rituals are extremely common in human societies, they could even be a universal feature (well, there are exceptions, such as Jean Calvin’s Geneva, but they don’t last long). The reason people take part in such euphoric rituals is because it’s fun. But there is also a much more important – hidden – reason, about which the participants don’t have any inklings. Such rituals make people feel connected to each other. They provide a quintessential psychological glue that binds a community together, and makes it much more capable of collective action. And, naturally, communities that are socially cohesive will be much more likely to survive in the competition against other, less cohesive groups.

This logic of cultural group selection is even clearer when we consider the opposite kind of ritual, which Harvey and other anthropologists call ‘dysphoric’, involving painful, frightening, disgusting, or humiliating features. It’s easy enough to understand why people flock to a Mardi Gras celebration, but why is hazing in the military or fraternities so prevalent and difficult to eradicate? Why do initiates agree to undergo painful, degrading, and even life-risking ordeals?


Masonic initiation ritual

It turns out that the answer, when we look not for a proximate, surface explanation, but for an ultimate, deep and evolutionary one, is the same. Shared experience in dysphoric rituals results in incredibly strong ties binding the group into one cohesive whole. This is why the military puts recruits through the boot camps. Unit cohesion and willingness to sacrifice one’s life for buddies makes for an army that will fight effectively and defeat its less cohesive opponents.

This means that rituals are not simply actions performed for their ‘symbolic value.’ Rather, rituals are psychological devices for building up social cohesion. On the surface, a ritual could be fun, or alternatively, an harrowing ordeal, but at the deeper level they all serve the same function – making groups more internally cohesive so they can more effectively compete against other groups.

It was an amusing exercise to see how this theory gets implemented in the UConn commencement. The graduation ceremony has some euphoric and (mainly) dysphoric elements, both very mild, naturally enough. The (very mildly) euphoric part was the procession – it’s quite remarkable how we humans enjoy moving synchronously with others (more on this in a wonderful book by William McNeill, Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History).


UConn Commencement

The dysphoric parts were sitting on uncomfortable chairs and having to endure the platitudes uttered by the commencement speaker. The humiliation part was parading in medieval attire and, especially, wearing the utterly ridiculous mortar hat. (I noted that our university president was particularly embarrassed about the hat thing – and his was the beret-type, which is more comfortable than the mortar board. Nevertheless, he took it off and hid it under the podium as soon as he got the opportunity to do so).


UConn President Austin in a funny hat (source)


UConn President Austin sans hat (source)

I am not saying that this particular ritual was a very effective way to build cohesion on the part of faculty, or the university as a whole. People who imposed it on us were as clueless about the hidden side of things as the participants of last year’s graduation – they simply copied it from other universities, who got it from medieval colleges when cohesion was really important for survival. So this raises an interesting possibility that rituals may start as devices important for cultural group selection, but later lose their evolutionary function and persist in a kind of cultural inertia. Whatever the conclusion, the anthropological theory of rituals allows us to look at why we do things from a new perspective.

Incidentally, human rituals, and our research on their role in the rise of complex societies, have recently become quite a hot topic. See, for example, a recent Nature article and Harvey’s piece in the Aeon magazine.

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Karl Frost

I’m really fascinated by Whitehouse’s theory of doctrinal mode vs imagistic mode religion and their associated ritual forms. ‘very easy to really this to Barth’s ideas of initatory and guru forms of religious knowledge economy, as well as your own theories of empire formation.

I am studying ritual at UC Davis. Very quickly, I was confronted with the problems of definition of the term ‘ritual’ as I was researching ‘theory of ritual’. Where i personally have come to with the issue is to think of ‘ritual’ as a kind of folk category. It is a box in which we lump all sorts of interesting behaviors whose purpose is not materially obvious to ourselves, the anthrolpologists doing the studying. As such, I don’t think there is much hope for some sort of general theory of ‘ritual’ per se. If we attempt to do so, we find some researchers finding a functional role for ritual in the formation and stability of groups at different scales (Atkinson & Whitehouse, 2011)(Barth, 1990)(McNeill, 1995)(Sosis & Bressler, 2003), others pointing out how they destabilize large hierarchical structures (Ehrenriech, 2007), others showing how they store locally specific ecological knowledge (Lansing & Kremer, 1993)(Rappaport, 1967), others finding ritual to cause cognitive dysfunction(Legare & Souza, 2012), on and on. They are all perhaps correct, but this is arguably because they have drawn different objects out of the conceptual box we call ‘ritual’ and extrapolated to the whole box. I think that this is a fine first step, to explore what some of the interesting objects are in this box, but then we have to get more specific, and this, I feel, is when it gets more interesting. For example, as Atkinson and Whitehouse get more specific about euphoric/dysphoric activities, frequency, arousal level, they find evidence for different socially important phenomena. The same as McNeil or Kirschner and Tomacello(Kirschner & Tomasello, 2010) name synchronized rhythmic activity specifically rather than ritual generally, they find a specific psychological effect of increased prosociality (likely in-group limited), entirely unrelated to the social or psychological effects of drawing a card from a deck and reflecting on one’s life in relationship to its imagery (tarot). We find both activities in the folk category of ‘ritual’, but there isn’t much more that unifieses them except the common perception of their mysterious purpose from the perspective of a cultural outsider.

A perhaps more fundamental problem with trying to find a theory of ‘ritual’ using this definition of ‘obscurity of function’ as one’s definition is that the behavior of interest may not only be one amongst many disparate objects in our conceptual box, but it also might not be confined to the box. For example, McNeil points out that some of the synchronized rhythmic activities that people engage in have no clear economic purpose to the outsider (and thus tend to be called ‘rituals’), but others, having the same psychological effect, are parts of functional economic activity, like Japanese fishermen rhythmically pulling in a net. One might say that there is a layering of the obvious and the obscure with the fishermen, however the fishermen are likely quite aware of the social effects of their activities and one could also point to other groups who use synchronized activities with no sense of ‘obscurity of purpose’, but very intentionally use the activity to bond groups… military drill, Native American powwow or potlatch dances, and allegiance-forming dance events in Papua New Guinea are a few quick examples. ‘ritual’ is best seen as a conceptual grab bag in which we can find specific behaviors like high arousal dysphoric activities or synchronized rhythmic activities to study and about which to create theories. A general theory of ritual is bound to either fail or not be usefully specific in its predictions. A theory of high arousal dysphoric activities has more promise.

Atkinson, Q. D., & Whitehouse, H. (2011). The cultural morphospace of ritual form: Examining modes of religiosity cross-culturally. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(1), 50–62.
Barth, F. (1990). The Guru and the Conjurer : Transactions in Knowledge and the Shaping of Culture in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. Man, New Series, 25(4), 640–653.
Ehrenriech, B. (2007). Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Metropolitan Books.
Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 354–364. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004
Lansing, J. S., & Kremer, J. N. (1993). Emergent Properties of Balinese Water Temple Networks: Coadaptation on a Rugged Fitness Landscape. American Anthropologist, 95(1), 97–114.
Legare, C. H., & Souza, A. L. (2012). Evaluating ritual efficacy. Cognition.
McNeill, W. H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history (p. 258). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ Pr.
Rappaport, R. A. (1967). Ritual Regulation of Environmental Relations among a New Guinea People. Ethnology, 1, 17–30.
Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. R. (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity : A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion. Cross-Cultural Research, 37, 211–239.


I agree that this is a fascinating area of study, and it’s great to see people like Harvey tackling it from a scientific point of view. But I do have two little bones of contention…

(i) Obviously your space in this blog post is limited, but you give the impression that you are using precisely the same explanation (group cohesion) for both euphoric and dysphoric rituals. This won’t fly, because if they are both good for the same thing, wouldn’t it be much more pleasant only to engage in euphoric rituals? Note that this is not just a problem from a proximate point of view (which would not be so worrying) because any dysphoric ritual worth its salt has got to incur potential fitness costs – people die as a result of hazing activity with depressing regularity. So why aren’t they selected against relative to euphoric rituals? I agree that group cohesion is probably responsible for both, but this is a hoary old explanation and doesn’t go far enough: the really interesting question is, what are the social conditions that make dysphoric rituals necessary in some contexts but not others? (Hopefully Harvey’s team is looking for the answer to this as we ‘speak’!)

(ii) I really dislike this operationalization of ritual in terms of “causal opacity”. At first I thought that this was just too broad, but on reflection I think it is quite wrong. One problem is that there are many rituals that are “performative” in Austin’s (1962) sense. They have important and very clear causal effects, but on a social level rather than what we might call a technical/functional level. For example, in the USA, if some kind of marriage ritual does not take place, then two people are not married. This has real causal consequences. (People who see ritual in terms of causal opacity may be thinking more of a ‘ceremonial marker’ type of ritual, like your commencement ceremony: if it had to be cancelled due to bad weather, the university year would still commence. Yet this is not the prototype of a ritual: it is what people sometimes refer to as an ’empty’ or ‘meaningless’ ritual.) And the problem is even broader than this, because lots of everyday social actions may have performative aspects that are implicit, rather than being explicit as with the marriage ritual. For example, if I make a remark about the weather to an English acquaintance of mine, it may be easily understood by both of us that what I am actually trying to do is to demonstrate my friendliness and move our acquaintanceship to a slightly closer level (Fox, 2005). I think a lot of rituals may work a bit like that: it may be generally understood, by those who are not devout, that their ‘real’ point is to generate group cohesion (so the causal effects are not in fact completely opaque). On the other hand, for those who are devout, then assuming the ritual is sanctified by some deity, carrying out the ritual may be seen – in a real sense – as carrying on a conversation with the divine. So in my opinion this idea of causal opacity is both ethnocentric (it assumes atheism) and ignorant of decades of anthropological theory which have analyzed ritual as a form of communication (see especially the work of Victor Turner, e.g. 1972 – and note that this article was published in Science; such a shame that mainstream anthropological theory became so anti-scientific!)

Apart from these little criticisms, just wanted to say that I find your blog unfailingly interesting, and I do hope that you return to the topic of ritual in a future post.


Oops, forgot my references:

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Fox, K. (2005). Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Turner, V. W. (1972). Symbols in African ritual. Science, 179, 1100-05.


Gordan, I of course agree with you on the problems of “opacity” as a definition. It is opaque from the perspective of what Henrich et al call WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010), people who are psychologically shaped by a culturally novel mythology of radical individualism which makes opaque the social psychology behind intentional group bonding rituals, which to others is obvious from both internal experience and observed patterns of behavior.

Re euphoric vs dysphoric rituals, see the Atkinson and Whitehouse reference I cited. Indeed they find that euphoric rituals do not follow the same patterns of association with frequency, arousal level, and polity size that dysphoric rituals follow. They find in examining the HRAF that low frequency high arousal dysphoric rituals (associated with imagistic rituals or what Barth would call initiatory ritual) are much higher in prevalence in small scale societies, where low arousal high frequency dysphoric rituals (doctrinal mode or, in Barth’s terms, guru-mode) are more associated with larger scale societies. Euphoric rituals were not found to follow this pattern. This seems in line with Ehrenriech’s observations of ecstatic dance practices as eroding the dominance of the central church authorities in the history of medieval Christianity… less bonding rituals than reconciliation or detraumatizing rituals, thus potentially eroding lines of dominance. For a modern example, look to Mali, the suppression of music and dance by the salafists and the current explosion of music dance with liberation. Euphoric rituals seem to have a different social psychological function in relationship to groups, possibly characterized by a different relationship to arousal and frequency level than dysphoric rituals.

Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? The Behavioral and brain sciences, 33(2-3), 61–83; discussion 83–135. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X


Thanks Karl, that is very helpful. By the way, I am generally in agreement with the main thrust of your argument in your first comment – I just hadn’t read it when I made my own comment.
However, I am not convinced that ritual is only a grab bag for practices that seem weird to WEIRD researchers, although I agree that it is often used that way. Because it is easy to find examples of ritual in our own lives once we reflect on what we are doing a bit. The category is a very general one, it’s true, but I think it might be possible to reach a scientific definition in terms of symbolic/communicative action aimed at marking some kind of change in social circumstances – which can be a very big change or a very little one.


… This definition would have the advantage of not being unique to humans. There could be a biological basis for certain kinds of ritual, for example greeting-rituals with strangers (this is what I was getting at with my example of discussing the weather). Dogs tend to perform a very specific sequence of actions when meeting other dogs (reciprocal sniffing of mouth, anus and genitals) accompanied by a specific posture (very stiff, with wagging tail). It seems natural (at least to me) to describe this as a “ritual”. My dog even gets ‘angry’ if other dogs do not perform the ritual correctly!

So I would tend to see the phylogenesis of ritual in terms of the symbolic elaboration of various kinds of communicative action that mark biologically important, socially mediated transitions: greeting conspecifics, allogrooming, food-sharing, etc. This is a bit different from the focus on high-arousal euphoric and dysphoric rituals, which are interesting but relatively rare. I am actually more interested in the everyday kind of ritual. But, I look forward to many interesting conversations on the subject in the years ahead 🙂

Peter Turchin

Thank you, Gordon and Karl, for your thoughtful comments. I am on my way to New Hampshire for a family reunion, so I will respond substantively after I come back. But a quick response to Gordon right away. Rituals can build cohesion at different social scales, which sometimes work against each other, and sometimes together. So very intense dysphoric rituals, like initiation rites, build cohesion in small-scale groups, while low-intensity (but more frequent) ‘doctrinal’ rituals create less intense ties but which span much larger communities (e.g., all Christians). Sometimes the two work together, for example, the cult of Mithra very popular among the Roman soldiers both built cohesion at the level of military units and was beneficial for the Empire as a whole. Sometimes they work against each other, as in Karl’s example of medieval Christianity and ecstatic danse practices.


Ritual and the associated traditions are only the outward physical expression.
In the blog Turchin commented “A ritual is something that takes place at two levels. There are surface reasons why people do it, but much more important is the deeper, concealed layer”.
I am reminded of science fiction from 30 years ago (in science fiction many different societies and their communication problems have been imagined). The relevant quote went something like this:
“Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. All societies use them. Wise societies try to understand the problems before attempting to change the traditions” (and the associated rituals).
Hence the concealed layer is more important than the visible physical part (the rituals).
Rituals tell us there is a set of solutions that have persisted long term. We have to try and dig out the underlying meme (or limited set of memes).
I used to think of a meme as a flashy idea that goes viral. In the internet an idea generated today, hundreds of thousands of “views” in days, maybe millions in a week or two, but gone and forgotten in 10 or 20 weeks.
Who remembers the piece on this site about irrigation institutions (?Elinor Ostrom and others), showing that local home grown institutions are more effective and efficient than externally imposed (big government) ones? That post generated some interesting subsequent comments about social and community group size. With luck some associated scientific papers will manage to keep the meme alive.
I realise now some memes last thousands of years.
The easy one to see is expressed in the cultural survival vehicles of modern “Nation States” as the Safe Food Preparation Laws. This meme has been around probably from before written language. It is present in the Judaism cultural survival vehicle (kosher), and in Islam (Hallal).
There are almost certainly other memes that have been around as long.
The term “cultural survival vehicle” comes from “Wired for Culture”, M Pagel 2012 (not the serious misquote produced by Turchin when on the road and promptly adopted by others who apparently had not read the book).
From a mathematical perspective, I would define a “cultural survival vehicle” as a self-maintaining set of memes. This set is neither fixed nor exclusive, in that some memes in the set die out, some are modifed with time and some are shared between several “cultural survival vehicles”.
The problem for rituals (and traditions) is to work out the limited set memes in the “concealed layer” and their relation to other memes in the associated “cultural survival vehicles”.
Sorry about being so verbose, that is a rather long post for me.

Peter Turchin

1. When did I misquote “cultural survival vehicle”, and what did I actually say?

2. I generally dislike the term ‘meme’ because it has so much extraneous baggage. In particular, is an institution a meme? What you seem to be trying to do is to extend this concept to cover all kinds of cultural traits, including ones that change very slowly, such as rituals. This is fine with me as long as we are clear about the terms. Terminology should be defined, not argued about.

3. On your broader point, one implication of what I was saying is that, indeed, you don’t want to mess with an institution, e.g., abolish it, just because it doesn’t make sense to you. It may be serving a very important function that is not apparent to you, or even to participants.

I am reminded of a wonderful anecdote about good intentions and smokeless chula that Carl Coon relates here:

This implies a deeply conservative message – things should be changed only when there is a compelling reason to do so.I think Edmund Burke was the one who formulated this idea very clearly. Other popular wisdom sayings come to mind: “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”

Evolutionary thinking is, however, encompasses both conservatism and change, because cultural evolution is both inertial and dynamic.


In response to a Mark Pagel Post on the 7th of Oct you wrote:
“I don’t have Mark’s book at hand, because I am traveling, so I can’t reproduce his exact wording, but he several times writes about groups as collective survival vehicles. That’s group selection!” When you did not have the book with you I did not think it worth commenting. Unfortunately David Sloan Wilson on the 22nd Oct repeated this without having seen the heading of chapter 2 of “Wired for Culture” – “Ultra-sociality and the Cultural Survival Vehicle”.
As far as I could see, Pagel took pains not to connect the “cultural survival vehicles” with individuals or groups. In this sense a cultural survival vehicle can:
grow – both in the sense of develope stronger “memes” (and ?institutions – although I would treat an institution as fixed in time and formalised version of how to apply the underlying “memes”), and to include more individuals or “groups”,
spread as in take over or dominate other cultural survival vehicles, (or when a chiefdom, nation state or empire wins a war replace other cultural survival vehicles),
change (as the “memes” evolve amend the institution or constitution? and traditions/rituals),
age as in have the traditions and rituals lose connection with their “memes”,
and die,
without necessarily wiping out individuals or “groups”.

As you can see I do believe things change.
Although in the past this has mostly involved revolution, civil war or war.
Unlike David Sloan Wilson I would treat fitness and survival of genes, individuals and even survival of “groups” as orthogonal to the survival of culture (as an evolutionary contest between cultural survival vehicles).
Some cultural survival vehicles last thousands of years, but some don’t last very long.
In terms of a nation state, although this is really too simplistic, the democratic German cultural survival vehicle was replaced by the nazi cultural survival vehicle which after a (big) war, again returned to democratic German cultural survival vehicle (albeit with a few differences).
Similar might be said of the French revolution and the Cromwell period in Britain. The outcomes of all of these was probably eventually beneficial for social evolution.
If social evolution is measurable in multi-dimensional space, culture is the principal component.
Maybe some of the coming databases will let us try a multi-dimensional plot.
Unfortunately ritual in your terms above has too much “concealed layer” that as yet we don’t know how to define. However I do recall an earlier post on the changes in ritual through the rise and decline of “a civilisation” and more research may point to what we need to measure.


While i am not familiar with the details of the term ‘cultural survival vehicle’, it is certainly true that the success of all cultural innovations is not necessarily due to cultural group selection. For example, the widespread success of the cultural variant of “belief in non-material agents” is mostly explainable through straightforward biased transmission(Guthrie, 1993). However. the success of the mutation of this cultural variant into “a belief in moralistic high gods” is pretty clearly an example of cultural group selection(Roes & Raymond, 2003).

As an aside, i also have a distaste for the term ‘meme’ due partially to the baggage of poor scholarship associated with the term but, more importantly, because there is a body of work that approaches the subject in a more sophisticated way that predates it, that uses alternate terminology, like ‘cultural variant’. When Dawkins loosely popped out the concept in the mid 70s, he didn’t bother doing his homework to see if others had been exploring these ideas. Consequently, many of those enamored of this term, as well as Dawkins himself, failed to connect with this developing literature in cultural evolution. D T Campbell’s work can really be seen as the springboard (Campbell, 1965)(Campbell, 1960), and it was then put into rigorous mathematical form by the mid 80s (Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1973)(Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981)(Boyd & Richerson, 1985), birthing a small industry of research using models, experiments, historical analysis, and field research. Of course the some of the basic concepts (like diffusion of cultural innovation, and ecological constraints on the spread of innovation) can be seen as far back to Boas(Boas, 1887). This is basically to say that the line of research that came out of the popular excitement around the word ‘meme’, in addition to being plagued with problems of publication with lack of peer review and resulting lack of consistent coherence within and between articles(Edmonds, 2005) has consistently ignored this more consistent and older body of research. Following traditional scientific etiquette one would use the terminology of the earlier researchers, unless there was a fundamental theoretical difference that one meant to emphasize. The only novelty of the term ‘meme’ is the assertion of discrete nature of cultural variance, which is of course, the most wrong thing about it. At the least, this is rude, and the worst blind hubris. When someone uses the word ‘meme’, it is a cue to me that they have not done a lot of what I consider to be important background research into cultural evolution.

Boas, F. (1887). The study of geography. Race, Language, and Culture (1940). New York: Macmillan.
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind Variation and Selective Retention in Creative Thought as in Other Knowledge Processes. The Psychology Review, 67, 380–400.
Campbell, D. T. (1965). Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution. In H. Barringer, G. Blanksten, & R. Mack (Eds.), Social Change in Developing Areas, a Reinterpretation of Evolutionary Theory (pp. 19–45).
Cavalli-Sforza, l. L., & Feldman, M. W. (1973). Models for Cultural Inheritance. I. Group mean and within group variation. Theoretical Population Biology, 4, 42–55.
Cavalli-Sforza, l. L., & Feldman, M. W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: a Quantitative Approach. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Edmonds, B. (2005). The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results. Jounal of Memetics, 9.
Guthrie, S. G. (1993). Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods, 24, 126–135.


Re: “When Dawkins loosely popped out the concept in the mid 70s, he didn’t bother doing his homework to see if others had been exploring these ideas.”

Er, Dawkins (1976) cites Karl Popper, L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, F. T. Cloak, and J. M. Cullen. Dawkins came up with a more comprehensive and comprehensible theory of cultural evolution than anyone else managed for a decade or so. Having connotations of discreteness is not a legitimate criticism of memes. As is well known among engineers, all information can be represented arbitrarily closely by discrete, digital signals.

As for the term “meme”, that is what made it into the dictionary. On the internet, meme outnumbers “cultural variant” by over 16,000 to 1. Alas, your comments seem like sour grapes.

Peter Turchin

@John: OK, guilty as charged. However, I still don’t like these memes and cultural survival machines that are disembodied from real people and human groups. They tend to be treated as a kind of undifferentiated agar growth medium on which the real dynamics take place. Within the framework of multilevel cultural selection we do not need to abstract away from humans and human groups.


Classically, memetics is a theory of cultural evolution with close ties to symbiology. In it, memes are the genes of cultural symbionts – akin to parasites, gut bacteria, clown fish, etc. So: there’s a mixture of both dependence and independence – as in most symbiotic relationships.

One thing that this means is that concepts like “memetic takeover” have come from meme enthusiasts. By contrast, academia has tended to model memes as an attribute of the human hosts. Academics gave us the “culture on a leash” idea. Today, some academics still picture culture as being subservient to genes. Basically academia has been sluggish to accept symbiology, in both organic and cultural evolution. However, symbiology is essential to understanding cultural evolution. Rather contrary to Boyd and Richerson (1985), who wrote:

“This does not mean that cultures have mysterious lives of their own that cause them to evolve independently of the individuals of which they are composed.”

…memes really do have lives of their own, outside of their human hosts. They burn in incinerators, rot with the garbage and echo into the deeps. Part of their lifecycle takes place outside of their human hosts. Symbiology is the best framework for modeling this – as Cloak and Dawkins correctly foresaw. Memetics abstracts memes from their human hosts by the correct amount. One of the flaws of cultural evolution within academia is that it has been slow to follow suit.

Peter Turchin

@Karl: I couldn’t put it better. You encapsulate many of the problems I have with the concept of the meme.

Tim Tyler

Re: “I generally dislike the term ‘meme’ because it has so much extraneous baggage. In particular, is an institution a meme?”

I’d say: “no” and would describe most institutions as being mixtures of genes, individually-learned ideas, memes – and their respective products.


On Euphoric vs. Dysphoric, I don’t believe your graduation ceremony had even a remotely dysphoric aspect, or were you joking 🙂 ?

To me it seems that Euphoric ritual occurs when society is under marginal to no threat and is celebrating something (American Mardi Gras), while Dysphoric ritual is performed mainly by societies under stress and in remembrance/anticipation of violence (Shi’a Tatbir).

Peter Turchin

Well, it was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but boredom is considered a dysphoric element. There are a number of initiation rituals that use boredom in such a way, for example, vigils. Which reminds me, the initiation of a knight in medieval England involved such dysphoric elements as taking a bath (which was often the only time in their lives when they did it) and overnight vigil in church.

“Celebrating something” is the surface reason. But performing such a euphoric ritual in large crowds also has a strong effect on building up social cohesion.


The Lenin Avenue picture is from the early 1960-s, not 1970-s. It shows people flocking to greet the First Man in Space, Yury Gagarin. I am told, it was one of the rare occasions when people gathered on their own, rather than ‘voluntarily-coerced’ 🙂

Peter Turchin

True – I must confess I couldn’t find a picture of Nixon’s arrival in Moscow. But it looks just like what I remember when I grew up in that part of Moscow.

Peter Turchin

Thank you all for your comments. One issue was raised, to which I don’t have a good answer. If both dysphoric and euphoric rituals build up social cohesion, why do we need dysphoric rituals? I am afraid we will have to wait for Harvey Whitehouse’s article on rituals, which he promised to do for the Social Evolution Forum.

Meanwhile, I can offer a few thoughts. One thing about a dysphoric ritual that makes it especially valuable is that it can also serve as ‘CRED’ (credibility enhancing display). In other words, willingness to undergo painful, humiliating, or risky ritual signals to other members of the group a high degree of commitment. Whereas wildly euphoric rituals only induce shared psychological feeling of belonging.

I am not sure this is right; in fact, one of the reasons I write these blogs is to throw out ideas that may be half-baked. Which is why I appreciated so much all the comments you all wrote.

Karl Frost

It seems reasonable to think that euphoric and dysphoric experiences will be engaging different kinds of evolved psychological dispositions. I think that over the coming years, we will find that there are quite a lot of distinct mechanisms of ritual function. Thus, my comments about a theory of ritual function being less likely than multiple theories of specific activities. In my own experimental work, for example, i am exploring the hypotheses that synchronized rhythmic activity facilitates altruism, but only parochially, while calming rituals (like certain forms of meditation or prayer) will actually decrease in-group favoritism and increase altruism universally, not just parochially. The experiments so far have supported the latter claim (currently working on writing up an article for publication). I hope in the spring to be able to investigate the effects of both synchronized and non-synchronized rhythmic activity, both euphoric rituals. I’ll let you know what happens.

Rob Thomson

Thanks for the reflections. I’ve approached this from a slightly different angle, that of rituals being a medium for communication of non-discursive messages. I think this is something that is often ignored in the dialogue:

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