Stucky K & Gardner A (in press) Kin selection favours religious traditions: ancestor worship as a cultural descendant-leaving strategy Religion, Brain & Behavior doi: 10.1080/2153599X.2023.2215854
Recent years have seen renewed interest in the role of religious systems as drivers of the evolution of cooperation in human societies. One suggestion is that a cultural tradition of ancestor worship might have evolved as a “descendant-leaving strategy” of ancestors by encouraging increased altruism particularly between distant kin. Specifically, Coe and others have suggested a mechanism of cultural transmission exploiting social learning biases, whereby ancestors have been able to establish parental manipulation of kin recognition and perceived relatedness as a traditional behavior, leading to increased altruism among co-descendants and thereby maximizing the ancestor’s long-term inclusive fitness. Here, we develop a demographically explicit model in order to quantify the resulting increase in altruism and concomitant “ancestor-descendant conflict”, and to determine the evolutionary feasibility of religiously motivated cultural norms that promote altruism among co-descendants. Our analysis reveals that such norms could indeed drive an overall increase in altruism with potential for ancestor-descendant conflict, particularly in low-dispersal settings. Moreover, we find that natural selection can favor traditions encouraging increased altruism towards co-descendants under a range of conditions, with the inclusive-fitness costs of enacting an inappropriately high level of altruism being offset by inclusive-fitness benefits derived from the cultural tradition facilitating kin recognition.